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  April 2001 Features:
Clash Over Arctic
Power Play
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The Planet
Power Play

by Jenny Coyle


All about Energy:
from coal and nuclear to solar power and fuel cells.

They don't swap earthquake stories in California anymore. Now the talk on the street is about how to survive the rolling blackouts and skyrocketing energy bills.

And while the Golden State is the epicenter of the current energy-shortage shake-up, the entire nation is bracing for the aftershocks.

sustainable energyThe question is, what will be made of the California experience? Will America relax air-quality standards, drill in pristine places like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and hastily build more dirty coal-fired power plants? Or will the nation finally put more emphasis on energy efficiency and renewable-energy sources, and replace older, polluting power plants with cleaner, new-generation technology?

"California is being used as an excuse for all sorts of bad stuff," said Carl Zichella, regional staff director in the Sierra Club's Sacramento office. "Drilling the Arctic Refuge isn't about solving a problem. It's about giving certain oil companies a temporary bump in their revenues. Instead of caving in to that way of thinking, we've got to convince the state's decision-makers to proceed intelligently and set an example for the rest of the country."

Now that would be a switch. California's experiment in deregulation has been such a disaster that other states considering similar provisions are sitting at attention. (Or refraining from introducing deregulation bills altogether, as is the case in Mississippi, where Sierra Club lobbyist Louie Miller said the issue - alive and well last session - now appears to be "double-D dead.")

The debate rages on about exactly what went wrong and who's to blame. The way Zichella explained it is that industrial power users pushed the state to deregulate the energy market in an effort to lower costs. The utilities, to pay off debts stemming from money-losing investments, made a series of mistakes that intensified the flaws of the deregulation plan. "The result has shifted the costs and risks of the new energy market onto the public, even though industrial users stand to gain the lion's share of any benefits," he said.

All that aside, some decision-makers want to blame environmentalists for the shortage. But Julia Bott, chair of Sierra Club California, isn't hearing that from the public. "In the line at the supermarket, people aren't saying that environmentalists are bad and that we really need to drill in the Arctic. They're wondering why that huge electric billboard along the freeway in Silicon Valley stays on all night."

One thing is for sure: California's energy problems - and solutions - should serve as a beacon for the rest of the country. In all but one state, Rhode Island, the per capita energy use is higher than California's. In a broad sense, the long-term fix for the state is the fix for the country. And it doesn't smell like oil.

The Sierra Club has assembled a team of experts, staff members from the east and west and volunteers who've worked on this issue for years to come up with a plan. Members include people like physicist Rich Ferguson, chair of Sierra Club California's Energy Committee, whose day job is research director at the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technology. His wife, Glynnis Jones, also works in the field of energy efficiency.

"We eat and drink this stuff," said Ferguson.

What the Club recommends is a three-pronged approach to a national energy policy: improving energy efficiency, increasing the use of renewable energy sources and replacing dirty power plants with new, cleaner technology.

"We can very easily cut the demand for energy, which will help us meet energy needs and give us time to plan for the future," said Dan Becker, director of the Club's Global Warming and Energy Program in Washington, D.C. "Energy efficiency can happen incredibly fast. In the time it takes to change an incandescent light bulb with a compact fluorescent bulb, you can start saving three-quarters of the energy needed to light the room."

Other steps include insulating the water heater and setting it at 120 degrees, replacing old appliances with more efficient models, and weatherizing homes with more insulation, better caulking and double-paned windows. Government programs exist to assist low-income households with such improvements.

On a broader scale, activists can demand that their city, county and state offices get more energy efficient. Private businesses can get more streamlined, too. In fact, Becker said, some companies like Honeywell and Johnson Control have found a way to make money by helping other businesses get efficient. Honeywell, for instance, does the remodeling work to maximize the energy efficiency of another company's building and then charges that company only the difference in its energy bills for a certain number of years. "After that time passes, the savings are passed on to the company that hired Honeywell," said Becker. "It's a win, win, win situation."

Then there's the real big picture: raising average fuel-economy standards to 40 miles per gallon for cars and SUVs and other light trucks. This move would save far more oil than we'd get from the Arctic Refuge and also slash global-warming pollution.

Another prong in the Club's approach to a national energy plan is to replace older, dirty power plants with new operations that use state of the art technology that simultaneously maximizes efficiency and minimizes pollution. Though the Club is often painted as opposing new power plants, that's not the case when new-technology natural gas plants go on line and replace dirtier ones. Natural gas is still a fossil fuel, but it's cleaner than oil and coal.

Finally, a longer-term solution will be increasing reliance on non-fossil, sustainable energy sources like solar, wind, geothermal and small hydroelectric.

For example, during the '90s, wind became the world's fastest-growing renewable energy resource, expanding at average annual rates ranging from 22 to 30 percent.

"North Dakota is the Saudi Arabia of wind energy," said Becker. "In North Dakota now it's actually cheaper to generate electricity from a new wind plant than a new gas plant."

And that's just one non-fossil fuel source of energy.

"Including renewables in the energy-supply mix is a good way to build in stability," said Zichella in California. "That way the public isn't beholden to the whims of the fossil-fuel industries. Plus, renewables are simply less polluting."

The Sierra Club will be pushing its energy package at all levels to educate the public, pressure policymakers to act responsibly and with foresight and hold accountable those who don't. (See Sierra Club Energy Education Ads.)

All this debate about energy, said Ferguson, is a good thing.

"When Gov. Gray Davis called for California consumers to cut energy use by 10 percent, it seemed to pass the laugh test," he said. "Now governors in other western states seem to be making the same call. Nobody's calling it a hair-brained wacko idea to cut the load on the system."

Take Action

Alaska Sen. Frank Murkowski (R) has introduced S. 388, the National Security Energy Act of 2001, which includes a provision to drill the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The bill contains no conservation measures, but does provide tax breaks for refinery construction. Ask your senators to oppose this bill, along with any provisions in President Bush's budget to drill the Arctic.

Ask your senators and representative to support two bills that would designate the entire Arctic Refuge a wilderness area (only half of the refuge currently enjoys that level of protection). The bills are S. 411, introduced by Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), and H.R. 770, introduced by Reps. Ed Markey (D-Mass) and Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.). Write U.S. Senate, Washington, DC 20510; U.S. House of Representatives, Washington, DC 20515.

For more information

Learn more about energy and the truth about California's energy shortage.

Clean and Green to Dark and Dirty - And What's in Between
Read about various types of energy from coal and oil to fuel cells and natural gas.

Photo courtesy Warren Gretz, NOE/NREL

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