Tough Choices As Club Promotes New Energy Future
by Tom Valtin
The case for promoting smart energy could not be stronger. Global warming, war and instability in many of the world’s oil-producing regions, continuing efforts by the Bush administration to fast-track our public lands for oil and gas drilling… the list goes on.
But that doesn’t mean it’s not a big deal for the Sierra Club, which has focused primarily on protecting wildlands (for more than a century) and fighting pollution (for more than 40 years), to make energy its top priority.
The Club isn’t just opposing projects we don’t like; promoting smart energy solutions will require us to actively endorse energy projects we support—projects like the Utah Legislative Energy Task Force, which is pushing solar, wind, and efficiency in hopes of establishing a state renewable portfolio standard. And California’s Solar Roofs Initiative, which would provide subsidies for homes and businesses to install enough rooftop solar energy systems to generate 3,000 megawatts of electricity—enough to serve more than two million homes and eliminate the need for six modern power plants.
On the local level, the Club is supporting projects like converting taxi and bus fleets to hybrid technology in Boston, and the installation of wind turbines by Waverly Light & Power on land leased from farmers in Waverly, Iowa. Other projects we’ve promoted include the solar array on the roof of San Francisco’s Moscone Convention Center—the largest municipally owned solar generation facility in the country.
The Club’s volunteer leadership spoke loud and clear at last year’s Sierra Summit, overwhelmingly recommending Smart Energy Solutions as a top priority over the next five to ten years. “The Sierra Club faces a moment of moral challenge,” says Executive Director Carl Pope. “In embracing smart energy solutions for America as our single greatest challenge, we have recognized that in order to protect the places we care about, we must lead our country into a new energy future.”
This will involve hard and urgent choices. It’s easy to support energy efficiency, hybrid cars, and appropriately sited wind and solar projects. But what about liquefied natural gas? It’s not the cleanest energy source, but it’s still a lot better than dirty coal. And what do we mean by “appropriately sited” wind turbines? National parks are obviously not good sites, but all wind turbines have some adverse environmental impacts. And we may like the efficient use of natural gas to generate electricity and heat our homes in the abstract—but what about in our neighborhood?
“The Sierra Club is not only a voice,” Pope maintains. “It is also a force. When we apply this force, we must do so responsibly. The energy system we are working to shape is a dynamic one. When we block a power plant, demand for electricity does not go down. It is more likely another power plant will be built somewhere else—perhaps a cleaner plant in a better location, but just as conceivably a worse plant in a community less able to defend itself. A liquified natural gas (LNG) plant off the U.S. coast that morphs into an LNG plant in Mexico is not a victory.”
In late March a survey was sent to Sierra Club chapters and groups and a cross-section of Club leaders, asking them to rank the available energy choices from the perspective of what they’d like to see deployed or phased out in their state or region—not someone else’s back yard—over the next 25 years. The choices ran the gamut from wind and solar to new nuclear and coal-fired power plants.
“Any realistic strategy for supplying the country’s energy needs is going to include some compromises,” says Conservation Director Bruce Hamilton. “We’re not going to be able to supply all of our future energy needs by energy conservation alone. Purists who hope that enough people are going to give up their cars to solve the problem will be disappointed. We need to take a hard look at the availability and economic feasibility of the energy sources we’re promoting.”
Once in, the survey results will be circulated to chapters for comment and the board of directors will offer a resolution at its May meeting establishing a new umbrella policy for the Club. “We need to be on an accelerated schedule to bring our energy program up to speed,” Hamilton says. “It’s vital now that the Sierra Club have a single, national position.”
Hamilton likens the Club’s new Conservation Initiatives—Smart Energy Solutions, America’s Wild Legacy, and Safe and Healthy Communities—to a 3-legged stool. “But the legs aren’t equal. Energy is where the heaviest lifting needs to take place, especially with the Bush administration pushing so aggressively to open up more public lands to drilling.” The initiatives shouldn’t be viewed as isolated campaigns, he stresses, but as overlapping efforts that buttress one another. For example, keeping the Arctic Refuge and the nation’s coastlines free from drilling is part of the energy campaign, as is mercury contamination.
This isn’t the first time the Club has taken on new priorities. For its first 75 years, the organization’s focus was almost entirely on wildlands and forest protection. But in 1970 Club leaders determined that cleaning up air and water pollution should be a key component of the Club’s agenda as well. “This wasn’t part of our original mission, either,” Hamilton says, “but over the past 36 years we have a strong record of accomplishment and leadership cleaning up pollution.”
The Club’s relationship with energy issues has been more episodic. A sizable amount of money and effort has been focused on fuel efficiency, an important first step toward stopping global warming. But there hasn’t been a nationally coordinated Sierra Club energy strategy, and global warming has been a second-tier issue because energy has never been a board-selected priority campaign. “Now,” says Hamilton, “for the first time, we will fully engage our members on energy.”
This means making tough choices. Even promoting a relatively cheap, clean energy source like wind has its challenges. More than one chapter has found itself split over where to site wind farms, and some Club members are deeply concerned about birds being killed by windmills. But the choice “isn’t just between wind turbines or no wind turbines,” Hamilton asserts. “It’s also between wind turbines and more coal-fired power plants.” If the Club isn’t out there advocating for a specific energy agenda, he believes, the default choices will continue to be new cheap coal, lots more oil and gas drilling, and probably a lot more nuclear.
“Most of us live in communities deeply habituated to having the costs of our energy consumption fall on others,” says Pope. “Few of us live in places that produce and refine as much oil as they burn; the coal that yields our electricity comes from far-off Appalachia or Wyoming; the uranium miners whose lungs paid for nuclear power live in New Mexico or Australia. If every neighborhood in America paid the full costs of its energy use, most would be less attractive and healthy places to live.”
“The energy issue is in everyone’s backyard and is everyone’s responsibility,” Hamilton avers. “The way we have to solve this is neighborhood by neighborhood, community by community, state by state. This is a big opportunity to act on our old slogan—think globally, act locally. There’s a role for all Club members in this campaign.”
To learn more, go to sierraclub.org/globalwarming/cleanenergy.
top photo by Jennifer Nance; wind farm photo by John Byrne Barry
Up to Top