Change the Game: How a New Energy Alliance for Natural Gas and Digital Power Can Save the Environment and the Economy

09/22/2011 03:24 pm ET | Updated Nov 22, 2011

Twenty-five years ago, after suffering the humiliating defeat of a major environmental bill, my allies and I gathered to consider next steps.

Angry and more determined than ever to win, my peers set forth a new strategy of "more": more citizen action, more pressure on corporate enemies, and more calls and letters to legislators.

Instead of engaging in what sounded like a grassroots arms race, I proposed a different approach: change the game. Reach out to strategic opponents, with a new idea that would meet their needs and ours. Their power, combined with ours, would win the day.

My colleagues were certain it would never work. Our opponents were evil, after all. Their interests were fundamentally opposed to ours. They could never be trusted. But they allowed me to try. Reaching out to them, and being rebuffed or betrayed, would teach me a lesson.

Months later, I won over a huge ally, then others. In less than two years, our cause went from being unwinnable, to triumphant. We won the votes of Democrats and Republicans, and our once-demonized measure was was signed into law.

More important, the law was better--for the economy, jobs, and the environment. Engaging our opponents enabled us to get the job done while saving money and jobs too.

A quarter century later, the environmental movement has been knocked on its heels, stunned by the Solyndra solar energy bankruptcy, setbacks to the Clean Air Act, the defeat of Cap-and-Trade, the potential loss of Democratic Party control of both houses of Congress, and more.

To many environmentalists, this is a devastating blow. It doesn't need to be. A new strategy could lead to unexpected victories. We can prove how environmental policy, done right, can drive sustainable low-carbon economic growth, reduce net spending and taxes, and create real economic value and real green jobs.

Getting there will require that we look, with open eyes, at two sources of energy which together can outperform today's agenda, both politically and environmentally: Natural Gas and Digital Energy.

Natural Gas is supported by many environmentalists, as a way to drive down coal use in electricity generation. But they don't want to institutionalize any fossil fuel. Yes, gas can be a bridge fuel -- but a bridge to what?

Digital Energy is the natural complement to natural gas. It is cheaper than coal or gas, better for the environment than solar and wind, and drives innovation and sustainable growth across the economy.

Natural Gas is a Bridge -- It Takes Us Half the Way

In his recent Midwest campaign swing, President Obama pointed to "the vital role rural America plays in ensuring the growth of our economy, the affordability of our food, the independence of our energy supply, and the strength of our communities."

The proof was right beneath his feet. America has immense natural gas resources that can help wean us from coal and imported oil, and deliver affordable, lower-carbon energy to families and businesses, and well-paying jobs to workers.

Fracking is a legitimate concern, but a solvable one. We can develop smart safeguards for hydraulic fracturing. Work with the best-performing natural gas leaders to define rules we can both support. Regulate it -- don't ban it.

Environmentalists may resist advancing yet another fossil fuel, instead of focusing all-out on renewables. But consider a more effective strategy: promote Digital Energy and natural gas together.

Digital Power Takes Us Across the Divide

Digital Energy is the energy freed up by information and communications technology. It isn't just incremental energy efficiency - the kind most environmentalists and businesses think of. It is potentially transformative, as my colleague Tachi Kiuchi and I hint at in our book, What We Learned in the Rainforest -- Business Lessons from Nature.

Digital is the cheapest energy of all. Studies suggest that it can replace fossil fuels at a rate of 3 percent a year, possibly more. At that pace, it would drive down carbon intensity 75 percent by 2060. Combine that with a switch from coal to natural gas in electricity, and we could approach the drop in total carbon emissions scientists believe necessary in the U.S. -- and we would have the support of the high tech and natural gas communities in doing it.

Some environmentalists will resist that -- the idea of finding common ground with fossil fuel and high tech companies is just too head-warping. But that's the point: this alliance breaks through misconceptions that artificially block mutual progress. It forces us to challenge key assumptions -- like we have to stop using all fossil fuels right now, and replace them with renewables, no matter the cost.

That idea isn't sustainable, environmentally or politically. But it still has appeal. So here is a key strategic bonus for rethinking it: most natural gas producers support a revenue-neutral price on carbon, because it would help internalize coal costs and shift the electricity sector away from old coal plants to gas. So do most high tech companies -- it would drive innovation, and open new markets for digital technologies. This is an alliance we would be foolish to decline -- good for the economy, health, and planet.

Digital Energy comes in two forms: the incremental efficiency gains from technologies like the Smart Grid and the wholesale leaps from disruptive technologies, which creatively destroy the energy-intensive practices of the industrial age. Broadband gives a hint of the potential of what we call the "Infosphere" in our book. Near-term breakthroughs in communication could make business air travel "virtually" obsolete. Virtual offices, meetings, conferences, and trainings are already growing at double-digit rates. Broadband also enables the Smart Grid and takes energy efficiency from a bit player to the largest source of energy. But those are the visible tip of the iceberg.

And for those who seek a major growth in renewables, this path delivers. As the economy grows more energy efficient, renewables grow more attractive. We converge on cost effectiveness from both directions: the costs of renewables go down, while the price differential becomes less meaningful. Who cares if solar is a bit more expensive, if it's so productive that the margin is trivial?

It takes courage to question politically correct assumptions in any movement, and even more to propose alliances with the devil. Martyrs are content to suffer defeat; comfortable heaven will reward their piety. But truly dedicated activists always keep their eyes open for higher-level truths.

Some want major new subsidies for renewables. Others want to further exploit the earth's subsidy, and "drill baby drill" our way to energy sufficiency. Neither path will work. Green subsidies won't protect the planet. Drilling subsidies won't drive innovation and lasting economic growth. Saving the environment costs less, not more, if we do it right.

As externalities are internalized, the free market increasingly becomes an ally. The economy can be like a healthy ecosystem: let it be, and it creates extraordinary value. Dam it and pave it and block it, and its capacity to create value is damaged.

The biggest barrier to this strategy is also its biggest asset: conservatives and liberals, corporations and activists, can both support it. That is because thoughtful people within both movements share one core fundamental. They both revere the same system -- the system of feedback-and-adaptation that creates all value, and sustains all life.

Thoughtful conservatives and business leaders see it in its economic form. They look at the free market economy -- its extraordinary capacity to harness human freedom to produce, innovate and create value. They know that, when you plug it up and seek to control it excessively, you can destroy this sacred capacity.

Thoughtful liberals and environmentalists see its ecological form. They look at a natural forest and a free-flowing river -- their extraordinary capacity to harness limited energy and resources, and create an ever-widening array of life and value. They know that, when you dam it and pave it and control it excessively, you can destroy its extraordinary life-giving capacity.

These two movements often worship at the same altar. They see two sides of the same system. But they don't know it, so they trade off one for the other. It's time to bring together those with open minds on both sides.

Twenty-five years ago, my peers and I adopted a new strategy: change the game. Reach out to strategic opponents, with a new idea that would meet their needs and ours. Their power, combined with ours, won the day. We earned the votes of Democrats and Republicans, and helped save the environment, money and jobs too.

We can succumb to our simplistic worldviews, refuse to consort with the devil, and sacrifice both the environment and economy. Or we can bring together the two halves of the sustainability movement.

Natural gas can cut carbon emissions from electricity as much as half. Digital energy can drive them toward zero, and open a gateway to renewables. Taking this path won't be easy -- the rhetoric is pointed, the distrust is deep, and fear and anger are real. Little could be more difficult, except failing to do so.

Note: Bill Shireman is President of Future 500, an independent non-profit that builds alliances between corporations and activist groups to advance four objectives: CLIMATE, WATER, RECYCLING, and HUMAN RIGHTS in the developing world. We are funded about one-third each by foundation, corporate, and government parters.