Q. Given there’s no prospect of a comprehensive climate/energy bill for two, four, who knows how many years, what should climate and energy folks be doing? Where should their energies and attentions be focused?
A. There are a lot of things that the federal government can do without going through Congress. Those are the lessons Bush and Cheney taught us. The Supreme Court has given the EPA the authority to put a price on carbon. We ought to be doing that. The administration also ought to be putting a cost on mercury from coal plants. They should altogether ban mountaintop-removal mining. They should try to force the carbon industry to internalize their costs the same way that they internalize their profits.
Then the administration needs to help construct a national grid system that functions as a marketplace for renewable power. We need a marketplace that turns every American into an energy entrepreneur and every home into a power plant, that powers our country on what Franklin Roosevelt called “America’s industrial genius.” We need a national program like Eisenhower launched in the 1950s and 60s to reconstruct our highway system and have it reach every community in the country.
Right now we have a marketplace for energy in this country that is rigged by rules that were written by the incumbents to favor the dirtiest, filthiest, most poisonous, most destructive, most addictive fuels from hell, rather than the cheap, clean, green, abundant, and wholesome fuels from heaven. We need a marketplace that does what a market is supposed to do: reward good behavior, which is efficiency, and punish bad behavior, which is inefficiency and waste. If solar and wind and geothermal are allowed to compete, they will blow the competition out of the water — all they need is the infrastructure, which is the national marketplace that will allow them to sell that energy.
We have the technology. The problem is, we have a grid system that can’t carry these new currents about. Once that grid system is constructed, once we have rational rules that complement the public interest, you’re going to see a cascading transformation of the energy system in this country. We’ll see the same thing happening here that happened in Germany, where 85 percent of the farmers have solar panels on their roofs. In this country, farmland increases in value from about $400 an acre if you’re growing corn to about $3,000 an acre if you’re growing corn and harvesting wind from the same field. It’s good for everybody.
Not only that, it democratizes our energy system. If you have an economic system that’s owned by a few tycoons, the political system is also going to be a plutocracy. But if you have an energy system owned by hundreds of millions of Americans, it’s not only resilient, it’s not only more efficient, it also democratizes our society and keeps us out of foreign wars. If we can make this energy here, we don’t have to go to Saudi Arabia and genuflect to the sheiks — who despise democracy and are hated by their own people — and get in periodic wars that cost trillions of dollars. That three-quarters of a trillion dollars a year we’re now sending out of the country to pay for our oil addiction, if you just spent a fraction of that building a national grid in this country, we could be off of foreign oil overnight.