In today’s overheated political environment, it’s easy to get caught up in the blame game, especially on environmental issues. But when you’re serious about solving big problems, focusing on the future is a hundred times more important than looking back and finger-pointing. At least that’s how Tim Toben sees things.
For those unfamiliar with Toben, he’s a green entrepreneur living on Chapel Hill, with a lot on his plate. Chosen by Governor Perdue to lead the North Carolina Energy Policy Council, Toben puts his money and his energy where his values are, and thank goodness for that. If there ever was a time when smart, committed people are needed in the environmental policy arena, this is it.
I had the chance to catch up with Toben last week to get his thoughts about how things are going.
BlueNC: What’s your state of mind these days – in the broadest sense – about the environmental issues you’re most concerned about?
Toben: What’s front-and-center for me today is climate change. And I have to say, I’m optimistic about the possibilities ahead, especially with the Obama and Perdue administrations. Let’s face it, the years between 2000 and 2008 were bleak for anyone concerned about the future of the planet. At the national level, environmentalists were operating on the fringes of an administration that wasn’t even willing to look at the science, let alone act. Things are different now.
President Obama put into position several committed leaders who understand climate change – Lisa Jackson at the EPA, Secretary Chu, and Secretary Salazar. These people value science are very focused on making progress. The same thing is happening here in North Carolina. Governor Perdue signed House Bill 1481, updating the Energy Policy Act of 1975. That legislation consolidated responsibility for energy in North Carolina into the Department of Commerce under the new Assistant Secretary for Commerce for Energy, John Morrison. The legislative leaders on this issue were Pricey Harrison and Angela Bryant in the House and Josh Stein in the Senate. They worked with folks in the Governor’s office to make this happen.
BlueNC: What is the new Energy Policy Council supposed to be doing?
Toben: We are tasked with writing recommendations for public policy that will enable North Carolina to shift to a new energy paradigm. For decades, our energy policy has focused on two things – low cost and reliability – and the policy worked. That’s what coal-based energy is all about. Now we’re working to add another dimension to the mix – low carbon – which changes the game entirely.
BlueNC: Can you have all three? Low carbon, low cost, and high reliability?
Toben: We really don’t have a choice. Many of our citizens are under significant economic pressure and we have to be sensitive to their cost concerns. But we also know that we’ll soon be facing new regulatory requirements – possibly the Waxman targets - which represent very ambitious goals.
Waxman would put a cap on emissions of planet-warming greenhouse gases, and would require high-emitting industries to reduce their output to specific targets between now and the middle of the century. This is the “cap” part of the “cap-and-trade” program. The bill covers 85 percent of the overall economy, including electricity producers, oil refineries, natural gas suppliers, and energy-intensive industries like iron, steel, cement, and paper manufacturers. Emission cuts would start in 2012, and the cap-and-trade program would be completely phased in by 2016. The goal would be to reduce emissions by more than 80% by 2050.
BlueNC: Given the lack of tangible progress in Copenhagen, how on earth is that going to happen?
Toben: Hold on a minute. This isn’t about Copenhagen, or even Washington. This is about you and me – right here and right now. For all the complaining progressives do about power companies and government inaction, the fact of the matter is, it’s largely within our power to make changes today that would have a huge impact on our collective carbon footprints. In my work on the Council, I’ve found that the utilities are both receptive and committed to doing their part. They just want to know what rules they’re playing by. But people like you and me? We can’t sit around waiting for public policy to shift. We need a grassroots movement to change how we think and how we behave when it comes to energy.
North Carolina homes are filled with devices and gadgets that are continuously and needlessly sucking down energy from coal – phone chargers, computers, coffee pots, flat-screen televisions, cable boxes, laptops, and more. These account for 20% of the power we use. By simply unplugging these devices, we'd save millions of kilowatt hours and leave more coal in the ground.
But that’s just the beginning of a shift we need toward efficiency. We all need to weatherize our homes. This is a huge undertaking for us all – not just the utilities. Progress Energy and Duke Energy are genuinely committed to a comprehensive solution. They’re going to do their part – and we have to do ours.
BlueNC: They’re going to do their part? Kicking and screaming?
Toben: I hate to burst your bubble, but the utilities are not the bad guys in this deal. If you want to find someone to point fingers at, look in the mirror. Power companies did what they were asked to do starting in the 60s – they built low-cost reliable coal generation. And the truth is, we've all grown dependent on cheap electricity. But like cheap toys from China, that electricity isn’t safe. It produces mercury, greenhouse gases and particulates.
We continue to consume that cheap power, but have chipped away to make it less bad, blaming the utilities along the way. But now we’re at a point where it is no longer cheap – and it’s still bad. Bottom line? We must shift away from coal.
BlueNC: Easier said than done.
Toben: Gas is a good transition fuel, because it produces 50% less carbon and you don't have to blow up mountains and destroy communities to get to it. But it’s not the ultimate answer. The ultimate answer will come from three directions: Low-carbon energy supply, low-carbon transportation solutions, and a huge commitment to energy efficiency.
BlueNC: You say utilities are on board with this?
Toben: As I mentioned earlier, they just want to know the rules. They understand that some version of climate legislation will likely pass, and that low carbon targets that are going to be imposed.
BlueNC: Do they share your view of climate change?
Toben: I think we’re all slowly ending up on the same page. The truth is, there is a larger scientific consensus about climate change than there is about the linkage of smoking and lung cancer. The data are in and the conclusion is clear: our industrialized society – all of us – are responsible.
BlueNC: What can we do in North Carolina?
Toben: We’re in an interesting place. Here in the southeast we are the region that’s most dependent on coal. That means we have the longest distance to go as a region, which is why we’ve resisted any sort of carbon legislation. But in North Carolina, we have already taken two giant steps that other states in the region haven’t. We passed clean smokestacks and renewable energy legislation. These actions put us in a good position to attract green investment, green companies and green jobs.
BlueNC: What’s the timetable for your work on the Energy Policy Council?
Toben: We’ll be bringing policy recommendations to Governor in April. Over the summer, we’ll have input into a piece of legislation that will mostly likely come to the legislature next year.
BlueNC: How receptive will they be?
Toben: The elections this fall will be huge. If we don’t have right people in office – both in Raleigh and in Washington – it could be disastrous for the environment.
BlueNC: And Perdue is onboard?
Toben: She is. She’s serious about the issue and is doing the right things. We’re already seeing action with the NC Green Fund. That fund was a million dollars in 2009 and will grow to $5 million in 2010. It’s working.
BlueNC: But it’s not her top priority.
Toben: Governor Perdue has a laser focus right now on the economy and jobs. That supersedes everything else.
BlueNC: So on one hand she’s working to go green, but on the other we’re seeing incentives for companies like Titan Cement, a known mercury polluter.
Toben: As I said, the Governor is focused on jobs – and she’s making concessions many environmentalists don’t like. That said, we have to always go back and remember what she and Obama inherited. It’s as though they were standing by the side of the river, being asked to swim across that river with twenty pound weights tied to both hands and both feet. We won’t get everything we want, not in this economy. So we need to do the most with what’s available.
BlueNC: How can progressives help?
Toben: Push, push, and push again. Push legislators at every turn to sets goals and be aggressive in pursuit of the green economy. They’ll waver, so we have to keep the pressure on. Push candidates to be clear about where they stand on climate change. Work for the good guys. We can be first in the southeast in many ways. We have huge wind resource off the coast – well beyond the view shed – that could make a significant contribution to our generation capacity.
But most important of all, push for efficiency. We can reduce demand by 20% just through energy efficiency. That’s something progressives should be focused on right now.
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