Power Q&A: S. David Freeman

The former head of the Tennessee Valley Authority and author of Winning Our Energy Independence explains why corn-based ethanol is “almost a fraud” and what should happen to Los Angeles warehouses.

Mother Jones: You’ve been talking about renewable energy for more than 30 years. What do you think it will take to really put these ideas back on the agenda for a lot of Americans?

S. David Freeman: I’m cautiously optimistic that we are going to get an administration in Washington that will recognize that this is a life-or-death issue for this civilization. And it’s an opportunity for America to exercise some leadership in something besides blowing people up. Oil is our foreign policy. We’ve got to change that. And then there are these religious zealots who favor nuclear power, which already failed. How can we morally build more plants and create waste that we don’t know what to do with? Halfway measures don’t measure up to the size of the problem. Let’s outlaw new coal-fired plants and new nuclear plants and let’s order Detroit to make plug-in hybrids and treat this as a life-or-death issue, which is what it is.

MJ: What would you want to see the next president do in his or her first 100 days to get some of these ideas moving?

SDF: I think they should send a bill up to the Congress to invest somewhere between $50 and $100 billion in renewable energy technology. The technology is there; it needs to be deployed. Part of that money should build several large solar-thermal plants to show the world that solar power is an alternative to coal. And let’s pass some laws that say to Detroit, “You have to make an increasing number of plug-in hybrids every year until 10 years from now all the vehicles are plug-in hybrids.” And then we’re using our solar electricity to run our cars. The day we start seriously going down this road, the world changes. Saudi Arabia starts getting worried about selling its oil rather than us being worried about getting it. And we don’t debate about ANWR, because nobody in his right mind is going to destroy what’s left up there if we really don’t need the oil. The whole debate changes once we start going down the renewable road in earnest. Now it still will take 25, 30 years to phase out the existing coal-fired plants and have an all-renewable world. But I’m not a member of the Sierra Club. I’m a utility executive that ran major utilities, and I can tell you there is no reason why the electric-power industry can’t be all renewable.

MJ: You obviously think that government should play a huge role here. What role you do think the market should play in all of this?

SDF: Well, the market has brought us where we are. Look, before Christmas everybody went gaga over some lead in the paint for kids’ toys. Well, they should have gone gaga. But we are being poisoned on a daily basis by the burning of fossil fuels at lung level in the city streets, and we just seem to be paralyzed. The marketplace is not going to get it done because the price of energy doesn’t include its major cost, which the consumer pays—the health bill from the asthma and lung disease and the tax bill from protecting our oil interests overseas. Think about it this way: If we added the cost of our involvement in the Middle East, then solar power is the cheapest thing. The problem is that the marketplace doesn’t internalize the externalities. In other words, the things that really count in this world are not counted.

MJ: As someone who has worked in the utility industry, have you spent a lot of time thinking about the proposals to build a so-called smart grid?

SDF: Oh, yes. Transmission is an orphan in the utility business. The utilities are concerned about power plants and their distribution system. We have a pretty good grid in the country, but we’re not putting the resources into developing a truly smart grid for the country. There is a lot about this subject that requires something equivalent to a Manhattan Program.

MJ: Do you see solar as the most promising renewable energy source?

SDF: Yeah, because it’s by far the largest. There is more solar energy that comes to earth free of charge than we could ever need. You can’t look at a city like Los Angeles and all the warehouses and flat roofs without realizing that there is a huge solar potential there. The huge solar complexes in the desert can provide us with all the energy we need in the future. Solar can be converted to hydrogen, and then the hydrogen is piped all over the country. That comes second, though. First the plug-in hybrids will knock the hell out of our gasoline consumption if we just start making them and using them. And that’s something Detroit knows how to make.

MJ: Which renewable energy source do you see as being the most overhyped?

SDF: Ethanol. Corn-based ethanol is almost a fraud. It’s highly subsidized; they actually use coal to make the stuff. It’s embarrassing, and the net energy is very little, and the worst thing about it is it’s jacking up the price of food. What kind of people are we to take food off the table and put it in the gas tank?

MJ: Do you have any favorite energy-saving tips?

SDF: The bottom of the pile in this whole energy equation is this one simple question: How much is enough for middle- and upper-income Americans? We’ve all been sinners here, but the truth of the matter is just because you have a Prius and you drive it all the time instead of taking a short walk to the grocery store, you’re using a hell of a lot more gasoline than somebody with a Hummer that just drives it on Sunday. And also, people forget the amount of energy it takes to make a new car. I take some pride in having a 2001 Honda Civic, and I’m not buying a new car. I went through the last year without buying any new clothing. We are setting an example for six billion people on earth. Think for just a second—if six billion people have the lifestyle of Americans, do you think the planet and life on this planet for human beings is going to last? It just boggles your mind, the destruction of the ecosystem that will take place if that much stuff is dug up, manufactured, and thrown away.

MJ: Have you been following the Democratic presidential candidates’ energy policies?

SDF: I think all of their energy policies require a bit more thought. I think they are all on the right track, but some of the phrases that I find to be essentially misleading are phrases like “clean coal” or “safe nuclear power.” There is no such thing. I have great hope that Senator Obama, who seems to have the ability to galvanize public opinion behind big ideas, will make this energy issue a central part. Although I know that Bill and Hillary Clinton know this issue quite well, they’re just not [approaching] it with quite the sense of urgency and breadth that I would. But then, I’m not running.


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