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Reversing Churchill's Blunder

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"Churchill's blunder" is how Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, Jr. characterizes our dependence and addiction to oil, tracing it back to Winston Churchill's decision before the First World War to convert the British navy to petroleum, thereby making Britain dependent on foreign sources of fuel such as Iran. Huntsman made the analogy at the National Clean Energy Summit in Las Vegas convened by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and the Center for American Progress at the University of Nevada.

The overarching message from the Summit was one of boldness and a palpable excitement that we have not one but many pathways to reverse Churchill's mistake and build a clean energy future. T. Boone Pickens laid out how we can get 20 percent of our electricity from wind and cut our dependence on oil by a third; New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg laid out his Plan NY and his commitment that New York won't just shift to renewables from other places, it also will create them right there in the city. Ed Mazria of Architecture 2030 combined elements from his earlier proposals with those from Pickens and others and raised the bar still further, while Federal Energy Regulatory Commissioner Jon Wellinghoff offered a brand new set of incentives to make clean energy happen even faster.

It's getting hard to follow the proposals without a scorecard, so here's my summary of the big ideas I heard brought to the table:

  1. Repower America. Think Al Gore (100 percent renewable electricity in ten years) and T. Boone Pickens. Use renewables to completely displace fossil fuels from electricity generation and to build a national grid (one of the Bloomberg's major themes) to get power from the places where it can be cleanly produced to the places where it is needed.
  2. Refuel America. Combine Vinod Khosla and his investments in cellulosic ethanol; Aubrey McClendon of Chesapeake Energy, who is revolutionizing the American natural gas supply picture; and Elon Musk of Tesla motors. Use lower-carbon liquid fuels (particularly compressed natural gas) in our vehicles as a transition while we wait and see which technology wins the race: all-electric vehicles, plug-in hybrids, or cellulosic-ethanol-powered internal combustion engines.
  3. Rebuild America. Cross Ed Mazria, Leo Gerard of the United Steelworkers, and Van Jones of Green for All. Eliminate carbon emissions from new buildings by 2030 and double or triple the rate at which we retrofit existing building stock (and, when we perform those retrofits, cut energy usage a half, or even more). Double employment in the building sector, ending the unemployment crisis in our cities, and create millions of new jobs manufacturing green building technologies such as high performance windows here in the US. By 2050, when we've slashed our greenhouse emissions by 80 percent, none of us will be paying a utility bill, because buildings will be energy self-sufficient.

There are all technically feasible, all affordable, all American, and all green. Don't choose among these pathways to success -- we can't afford not to go after all of them. If one slows down, it won't hurt us if the other two are hurtling along.

So what stands in the way? Big oil and big coal.

What's their secret weapon? The politics of the trivial.

While bipartisan voices as diverse as Jon Huntsman and Van Jones, T. Boone Pickens and Harry Reid were laying out big ideas for a bright American future at the Clean Energy Summit, America's mainstream media were allowing the issue of how many dry holes we should drill off the Atlantic Coast to dominate the political dialogue. That's exactly where Big Carbon wants the focus, and it's exactly where anyone who's serious knows that the American future cannot lie.

And what about Churchill? He at least had a big idea that broke boldly with the past (even if we've clung to it for far too long). We need the same kind of leadership today.

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