Sierra Club Home Page   Environmental Update  
chapter button
Explore, enjoy and protect the planet
Click here to visit the Member Center.         
Take Action
Get Outdoors
Join or Give
Inside Sierra Club
Press Room
Politics & Issues
Sierra Magazine
Sierra Club Books
Apparel and Other Merchandise
Contact Us

Join the Sierra ClubWhy become a member?

Planet Main
In This Section
How to Stop the Bush Administration? Start Talking.
Going Beyond Green
  Partnerships Program Builds Bridges
Victories to Savor
Is Your Relationship In Trouble?
The Energy Plan That Could Be
  (If only they’d allow some environmentalists to help write the rules.)
How to Protect National Forests When Your President Won’t
Family Planning Yields Results In Ecuador
2003 Year in Review Calendar
One-Minute Activist
PDF version of the planet
Search for an Article
Free Subscription
Back Issues

The Planet
The Energy Plan That Could Be

(If only they’d allow some environmentalists to help write the rules.)

By Brian Vanneman

In late November, the Senate narrowly voted down the Bush administration’s 2003 Energy Bill. The pork-stuffed legislation came in with a $37 billion price tag—the coal industry alone would have collected $4.5 billion in tax credits and "clean" coal research investments, and the oil, gas, ethanol, and nuclear industries were similarly favored.

The cost of the bill was so monstrous that we couldn’t help but wonder: Couldn’t we find a better use for that money? The Planet asked energy experts which projects they would favor to move the country toward a reliable energy future without sacrificing our air, water, health, national security, and wildlands.

We anticipated suggestions like: "A $5 billion fund to build enough wind turbines to halve our imports of Middle-Eastern oil." But what we heard instead was people like Jim Caldwell of the American Wind Energy Association telling us, for example, that, "All we really want is a level playing field." In other words, either subsidize all sources of energy, or don't subsidize any.

Just as surprising was the assertion by many on the Sierra Club’s Energy and Global Warming Committee that the best way to use billions in federal funds would be to first concentrate on smart technologies that can drastically reduce our energy consumption, and then invest in new sources of energy like wind turbines and solar panels. Increasing auto fuel economy is the single biggest step in curbing global warming—but stopping environmental destruction caused by electricity use starts with conservation.

Most of us are aware of the emphasis the environmental community places on energy conservation. We tend to put on a sweater before cranking up the heat, or put in compact fluorescent bulbs in place of old incandescents. But what’s less widely known is that government can, through well thought-out conservation policies, encourage smart energy use and chop kilowatt use in homes, businesses, and schools. Fred Heutte of the Club’s energy committee passionately believes that with such policies, a little human energy can create energy use reductions in the range of 10 to 20 percent nationwide—a return not likely to be matched by any amount of power-plant building.

Vice President Dick Cheney, leader of the administration’s 2001 Energy Task Force, dismissed conservation as a "personal virtue." But robust conservation and efficiency measures managed by the federal government—and states like Oregon, Vermont, California, and New York—flatly contradict that view and show that conservation can be a public benefit.

The Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star program is one such measure. Energy efficiency saves the U.S. economy an estimated $150 billion each year, and Energy Star plays an important part. Many of the energy-saving products and features we take for granted, like LED traffic lights and low standby energy use for personal computers, were introduced to the market by Energy Star. The program partners with 1,600 construction companies around the country to build energy-efficient homes. And it helps to educate factory owners nationwide about energy saving and cost-cutting electric motors. Yet while President Bush publicly praises the Energy Star program, his administration moved to cut its funding by 30 percent.

Diana Enright, of Oregon’s Department of Energy, offered evidence of efficiency’s efficacy for small businesses. "In Portland," she says, "Hot Lips Pizza was awarded a tax credit for installing a high-efficiency oven and pan-washer. In Corvallis, dentist Greg Soriano bought bikes for his two employees. They drove their cars 255 fewer days per year and saved 178 gallons of gas. Soriano was awarded more than $100 as a tax credit."

The state’s DOE is also working to propel large energy consumers toward greater efficiency. Through a partnership with corporations and schools, companies that lower their energy consumption are awarded a tax credit, which they can then pass on to schools. After nixing wasteful processes at its headquarters, Nike passed on $1 million for energy-efficiency projects at 100 Oregon schools. One recipient, Principal Tim France of Powers High School, says his energy bill has been reduced by 60 percent. "And due to new lighting," he adds, "the illumination has also improved. Our small town really appreciates the help."

" Significant savings on energy means more money for teachers and school supplies," affirms Fred Heutte of the Club’s energy committee. According to the Alliance to Save Energy, schools pay more for energy than for textbooks and computers combined. Oregon’s new High Performance Schools Program offers $50,000 grants to school districts that are planning to build new facilities using the highest level of energy and resource efficiency. That’s a powerful incentive to embrace energy efficiency while lowering operating costs.

The Energy Trust of Oregon, which Huette helped to found, gathers $45 million from electrical rate-payers throughout the state, then reinvests the money in programs that encourage efficiency and renewable energy development. "Part of its goal," he says, "is to save 300 megawatts of electricity by 2012, which will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and delay or avoid the need to construct new fossil fuel plants." (One megawatt is enough to power 600 average American homes.)

Energy efficiency also puts money back into communities, while increasing energy production often disperses funds to remote utilities. "Efficiency stimulates local labor," contends Heutte. "You have people installing insulation around town, not in an oil platform offshore."

A million bucks here, a kilowatt there—it might sound like small potatoes compared to the Bush administration's $5.5 billion proposal for "clean" coal technologies or the 1.7 million gallons of oil we import from the Persian Gulf every day. But programs like those run by Oregon's Department of Energy and Energy Trust could be expanded to work on a national level, in which all school districts are encouraged to build efficient classrooms, and all small businesses are offered tax credits for conservation measures.

Obviously, we can’t meet all our energy needs by maximizing energy efficiency—we will need to build new power sources. When we do, we should turn increasingly to wind, solar, and other types of renewable energy, not fossil fuels and nuclear power plants. Federal energy policy can take the lead and encourage non-polluting energy sources in numerous ways. The most effective and immediate would be establishing a Renewable Portfolio Standard, which would set a percentage of the country's energy use that must come from renewables.

Again, the states are leading the way. California has mandated that 20 percent of its energy must come from renewables by 2017. Twelve other states, including New York, Minnesota, Texas, and Nevada, have set their own standards. The Bush Energy Bill, however, was silent on the issue.

In 1980, the wind and solar industries were barely sustainable business propositions that survived due to the convictions of a dedicated few. Today, they have the momentum to compete with fossil fuels as reliable and inexpensive energy sources, and renewable portfolio standards can ensure that they keep driving forward. The cost of generating power from a wind turbine has fallen dramatically-from nearly 40 cents per kilowatt hour two decades ago to as low as 3.5 cents today. Some of the Midwestern states that currently use the highest percentage of coal also have the greatest wind potential due to their vast stretches of blustery plains. According to a 2003 Union of Concerned Scientists report, Minnesota could produce 20 times its annual energy usage from wind alone.

Christopher Childs, air toxics co-chair for the Club’s North Star Chapter, has seen good things come from the renewable standards adopted in Minnesota. In 1994, when the state first directed Xcel energy to produce a portion of its power from renewables, wind power there was virtually nonexistent. Today, more than 470 turbines rise from the farmland southwest of Minneapolis, providing enough power for 100,000 homes and prompting Childs to dub his state "the Saudi Arabia of wind." It hasn’t been easy, he admits, for citizens to cajole the utility and legislature into setting standards for renewable production. But with the smoke stack of a coal-fired power plant visible from his living room window, he’s constantly reminded it’s a worthwhile job.

Solar energy’s future is also bright. It's not yet as economical as wind power, but because it’s so easy to install an array of rooftop panels that power lights and air conditioners below, organizations from the U.S. Postal Service to Lowe’s home improvement centers have recently made major commitments to solar. And solar has quietly proven its utility-scale viability based on the success of installations like SEGS in the California's Mojave Desert, which provides power for approximately 240,000 homes serviced by Southern California Edison. For the past 15 years, SEGS has basked in the sun, and pumped out power, with very little maintenance or pollution. And by all accounts, the technology is getting cheaper.

When Congress reconvenes in the new year, energy lobbyists will be back at their doorsteps, pushing them to exhume 2003’s Energy Bill and give it another run. "But President Bush's energy plan won’t work," caution’s Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope. "We can’t drill, dig, or destroy our way out of our energy problems. That’s why we’re pushing for an honest policy that promotes energy efficiency and renewable energy."

Contact the author at

Up to Top