"The Job of the Rest of Us..."

03/27/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Carl Pope Former executive director and chairman, Sierra Club

" to show that this can all work." That's how former President Bill Clinton summed up the biggest challenge facing green-energy advocates who are not in the federal government at the National Clean Energy Project Forum here in Washington, D.C. today. Clinton's point was that the U.S. is rapidly moving past the ideological stage of the debate about a green energy future -- the question now is how fast we can get it done in the real, as opposed to the abstract, policy world.

Evidence that things are changing very rapidly was evident all over the Newseum where we met this morning. The cast included: a former president (Bill Clinton); a former vice-president (and some would say elected president) Al Gore; the Senate majority leader and the speaker of the House; two Cabinet members; several Congressional committee chairs, two Nobel Prize winners (OK, double-counting, since one was Al Gore and the other was Energy Secretary Steve Chu); the most prominent labor leaders in the country; a major oil entrepreneur (Boone Pickens); the head of Wal-Mart; a former White House chief of staff; business executives; environmentalists (me, Bobby Kennedy, Van Jones); and regulators, both state and federal.

And what hot-button issue assembled this high-powered crew for four-and-a-half hours? Improving, modernizing, and strengthening "the grid," a topic that the moderator, U.N. Foundation president and former senator Tim Wirth, characterized as being mainly calculated to put people to sleep.

The official reason for the meeting was the release of a set of recommendations for how to solve the problem that everyone agrees we need a better grid but that no one wants to have it in their backyard or to pay for it. The recommendations, which a wide array of stakeholders had to agree on, struck a careful balance. But what was truly remarkable was that so many of the stakeholders felt that putting this solution into effect was important enough for them to devote a morning to symbolically inking the deal.

It's important and wonderful that a broad spectrum of Americans were able to agree conceptually on how to get green energy to market. But Clinton's point is important. It's even more important that an equally broad spectrum of folks sit down in their communities and make sure that we build the right facilities, in the right place, and on the right schedule -- by understanding that a green grid needs to be not only more robust but also more carefully sited and designed.

We're not there -- not even close. For example, in Southern California it's proving very difficult for Southern California Edison and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to find a way to share the obvious transmission right-of-way for solar power from the California desert -- Interstate 10, which already has Edison transmission on its median strip. And because the Bureau of Land Management sets its royalty rates below those of the prevailing private market, solar and wind entrepreneurs have a perverse incentive to locate their facilities in the most pristine natural settings instead of in already developed (but often privately owned) locations.

The popular metaphor of the day is that we need an energy-delivery equivalent to the Interstate Highway System. Unfortunately, the current reality is that energy transmission is being handled in a way that's more akin to the railroad rush of the 19th century. The Interstate System was publicly planned and publicly accountable; it was seen a common resource. The railroads were privately planned and unaccountable -- and were seen as an opportunity for windfall profits. We can't let the smart grid fall prey to a 21st-century version of 19th-century robber baron capitalism -- and it easily could.