Monday, January 16, 2012

Leading the Transition to Sustainable Energy

The start of 2012 finds considerable steam building in the Arkansas sustainasphere for real progress in energy-related sustainability initiatives – whether identified as “clean energy,” “renewable energy,” “advanced energy,” or something else. This is the year in which we will be both reflecting on the failures of the 2011 Arkansas legislature to take comprehensive and significant action regarding sustainability and in which we will begin laying the groundwork for more meaningful legislative action in 2013. The emergence of the Arkansas Advanced Energy Association is but one signal that sustainable energy is an area that will get attention when Arkansas lawmakers convene.

On December 26, 2011, published a thoughtful guest commentary by Glen Hooks, “Clean Energy: Nothing to Fear.” Mr. Hooks’ commentary, reprinted with permission in its entirety below, is an example of one of the many voices that will be heard in the discussion of the future of sustainable energy in Arkansas. I present it here because, if nothing else, Mr. Hooks makes at least one valuable point that is often lost in the rhetoric of heated political discussion: Embracing sustainable energy will not lead to the immediate demise of fossil-fuel based energy. Proponents of one or the other often cast the debate in “all or nothing” terms that ignore the possible coexistence of, say, coal-fired power plants and biomass fuels cogeneration plants. The fact is, as Mr. Hooks points out, that there will be a transition period. And it will be significant, likely measured not in years but in decades. For Arkansans, the timing could not be better, for, given the right forethought and planning, we have the opportunity to shape and profit from the transition and to emerge a leader. Here is the commentary:

In the Dec. 12 issue of Arkansas Business, state Sen. Jonathan Dismang provided commentary about our nation's energy policy. Dismang hit the predictable checklist used by the anti-environmental crowd: ridiculing government investment in clean energy, laughing at fears about global warming and throwing out accusations of political cronyism. Yet, after peeling away the derision, the only thing that he seems to support is the same energy policy we've had for two centuries: drilling for fossil fuels and burning them, no matter the damage.

For far too long, our nation's energy policy has relied on polluting, destructive fossil fuels like coal to generate most of our electricity. We now know that coal poses a direct threat to the health of our citizens and our environment. Ask the citizens of Appalachia, whose lives and livelihoods have been destroyed by mountaintop coal mining and polluted water. Ask American children across the country who live near coal-fired power plants and suffer much higher rates of asthma than other children. Ask the fisherman who can't eat fish from his local stream in Arkansas because of high levels of mercury spewed out by coal-fired power plants. Ask the residents of Tennessee, Oklahoma and Michigan, who have suffered the devastating ills directly attributable to faulty facilities that fail to contain coal ash.

These heavily polluting industries are also heavily subsidized by the government and have been for decades. Dismang mentioned two renewable energy companies that received subsidies but didn't mention that those investments are dwarfed by the subsidies given to the coal and oil industries.

I absolutely support our government investing in solid research and development of clean energy technology. Other countries, most notably Germany, have made incredible strides in renewable energy for their citizenry. Why shouldn't we?

Frankly, we can do better than drilling and burning. It's far past time for our nation to get serious about an energy plan that moves us away from dirty coal and toward a clean, renewable energy future. This cannot be done overnight, but we must change our nation's energy mix.

I'm happy to report that the clean energy transformation has already begun. During the last six years, 161 proposed coal-fired power plant projects have been canceled, including the Plum Point II plant scheduled for Osceola. In just the last two years, more than 30,000 megawatts of coal power - more than 10 percent of the existing fleet - have been scheduled for retirement. This means cleaner air, cleaner water and healthier Americans.

Importantly, transitioning our country toward a cleaner energy future also means thousands of good-paying construction and manufacturing jobs.

All around the world - and in the United States - we're seeing significant and major steps forward in renewable energy. Solar power is on the rise in places like San Antonio, which is closing its coal-fired power plant and building 400 megawatts of solar energy. Thousands of megawatts of wind power are being built in neighboring Oklahoma and Texas, and wind power is becoming less expensive every day. Even Arkansas boasts large companies that produce windmill blades and turbines and employ hundreds of Arkansans. I'm sure that Dismang and all of us are glad those companies are here providing paychecks to families.

Getting our nation off coal and fossil fuels will not be an easy task. It's going to require a transition period. Here at the Sierra Club, we're working on a 20-year plan in which our nation stops building major polluters like coal-fired power plants, relies upon safely and responsibly drilled natural gas as a transition fuel during the next several years, and invests in improving our renewable energy technology to the highest, most productive level possible. That's the kind of national energy policy we need.

Americans, by nature, are problem-solvers. That same incredible, American-led innovation that has put men on the moon now produces fantastic, non-polluting energy.

I believe that our country can do much better than simply drilling and burning. We can produce clean energy, put hundreds of thousands of Americans to work and become a world leader. All it takes is a strong will to do so and the ability to step away from the dirty energy sources of the past.
(Department of Biography: Glen Hooks is a senior campaign representative and regional director for the Sierra Club's “Beyond Coal Campaign.” He is also a lifelong Arkansan and an Adjunct Professor at Pulaski Technical College. Mr. Hooks graciously granted me permission to republish his commentary in this blog, and he can be reached at

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