Three simple questions
With Earth Day around the corner, a couple RN&R staffers sat down with two environmental activists
Murphy's Law is almost standard operating procedure in the world of journalism. Stories are more journeys than maps, and our original plan was to have a roundtable discussion with activists who represented a lot of different facets of the environmental movement. But, when you get right down to it, the biggest issue facing the planet today is global warming, and its symptoms and cures both have their foundation in the same question: What kind of energy are we using?
When Sage Leehey and I sat down with Bob Tregilus and David Gibson, we had a notion of a wider range of ideas to discuss, but if human beings could solve this one issue of our addiction to fossil fuels,all of the other weighty topics of “environmentalism” become a lot easier to fix.
Locals are probably familiar with Tregilus. He first hit the public eye in 2000 as the chairman of the Washoe County Libertarian Party. He says he's recovering from economic libertarianism, but he's still a civil libertarian. Around 2005, he got interested in electric-drive transportation, starting the Electric Auto Association of Northern Nevada, and trying to promote good policies in the Legislature. He went from there to an interest in alternative methods of putting energy on the grid, moving from centralized utility-provided power to a decentralized, small source (like cars, small arrays and homes) renewable energy grid, more in line with Germany's feed-in tariff. He's cohost of a radio show, This Week in Energy, at www.thisweekinenergy.tv.
David Gibson is originally from Maine. He studied civil and environmental engineering, beginning his career in large-scale construction, before moving to the nonprofit sector. He moved here in August 2009, and he now works for Envirolution, a nonprofit that focuses on sustainability and energy-efficiency education. “We primarily work at the middle school and high school level, but we're developing elementary school curriculum right now. We have a summer program we're starting to recruit for right now, called Three Spheres Leadership Academy.” For more information, check out envirolution.org.
We only meant to ask three questions, but—as might be expected from two such impassioned individuals—we had a 20-minute conversation before we got down to brass tacks. These first two paragraphs were outside the three-question interview, but are illustrative. All responses are abridged for space.
Gibson: The only reason natural gas is cheap right now is because hydraulic fracturing is exempt from the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Clean Drinking Water Act. They’re polluting our groundwater big time, and they’re causing cancer and all this stuff in remote areas in like 20 different states. They’re causing all kinds of horrible impacts, but they’re exempt from the laws, and they can’t be regulated by the EPA. But if there is either a climate change legislation or if they remove the rider that passed under Dick Cheney, the price of natural gas is going to skyrocket.
Tregilus: A lot of it came from an [Securities and Exchange Commission] ruling that they made back in 2009 which allowed them, because of the way they report this to their shareholders, to essentially create this huge investment bubble so they could develop the fracking technology. It’s like $3 a therm at the wellhead right now for traditional methods of collecting natural gas, but actually the cost at the fracking wells is more like $8. At some point, that’s going to collapse.
What should the media be talking about?
Gibson: I think one of the big things the media is lacking is promotion of all the positive things that are happening in Reno. Last summer, during our Three Sphere’s Leadership Academy, we had eight high school students who had never heard of the food co-op, that had never heard of the Reno Bike Project, didn’t know that the Peppermill had a geothermal plant. I presented to the [University of Nevada, Reno] renewable energy minor [class]—half of them didn’t know that the Peppermill has a geothermal plant that provides all its heat and hot water. The media needs to cover all the positive things that are happening here. There are so many people that are depressed by the economy. We need to totally flip our image and focus on the renewable energy, the geothermal, the solar. Sunvelope Solar has the most cutting edge solar hot water technology anywhere in the world, and they manufacture right here in Sparks. There are amazing things happening. Green Nevada has eight partner nonprofits that are all focused on sustainability education in different ways. People don’t even know what’s going on. There’s a whole lack of education in media. … Especially with the internet, you talk to a lot of middle and high school students, and they don’t read the local newspaper or watch the news. The internet is not local.
Tregilus: The next time you do your Best Of, you ought to look at Patagonia because it’s a “benefit corporation;” give them big points for that. David Bobzien actually has a bill in the Legislature to create the legal framework to create these benefit corporations. It’s kind of a hybrid between nonprofit and for-profit corporations where they have this triple bottom line that they’re not only responsible to their shareholders but also to their employees and the environment, and B-Corp[oration], that’s their oversight. That’s a big deal. We’ll never, ever pass some kind of constitutional amendment that says corporations are not people, but this is a way to actually change for a new type of business for the 21st century, so they’re responsible to the communities that allowed their creation because public corporations are supposed to be public corporations.
The media should be talking about Energiewende. There’s your German word for the day—the energy transition. There’s a big effort underway to get this idea adopted into the American psyche so that we can actually change the electric grid so that it’s more democratized. Right now, and this is what NV Energy is up to at the Legislature, trying to lock themselves in, because they like being the monopoly, and they don’t want anybody else playing in their sandbox, which is why they opposed my bill for the feed-in tariff, which was about allowing everybody to participate equally and meaningfully in energy production. Renewable energy resources are ubiquitous, they’re everywhere. It calls for a decentralized approach. It’s counterproductive building these giant solar strip mines in the desert. Solar should be on rooftops, it should be on industrial buildings, everywhere you can have them, we should have panels capturing that energy and putting it into the electrical grid instead of soaking it up on the asphalt and reflecting it back into the atmosphere. And this is what they’re doing in most parts of the world, except the United States.
A lot of those big solar strip mines down in our southern deserts are owned by Chinese companies. A bunch of people come in to build the things, great, they’re these migrant worker types, and they’re gone. Then all the money, because the company is foreign-owned, all the money leaves the state. If you build all these smaller projects, on everybody’s house and over parking lots and everything, you’re keeping the local economy going, lots of little contractors who live here.
What can Nevada and Nevadans do to be at the forefront of these changes? How do we take financial advantage of disasters like climate change?
Gibson: Nevada is perfectly positioned for this. We have more renewable resources than almost any other state. With our population distribution being kind of focused around Reno and Las Vegas, it makes it very easy for us to transition to the distributed generation. It really doesn’t make sense to have power generation 100 miles outside of the city from a huge natural gas plant when we can have solar panels on every house. The first step is for outreach and awareness and education because we need to have everyone aware that Nevada can provide all its energy from renewable resources. Nevada actually receives enough sunlight every year that—using existing solar technology—we could power the entire United States. Granted, the transmission doesn’t make sense, but that’s how much sunlight we receive, and essentially, we’re letting it go to waste by having asphalt rooftops instead of solar on every roof. The second step of the plan is energy efficiency. Right now, the average home in the U.S. wastes a third to half of the energy that goes into it. Between inefficient light bulbs, inefficient appliances, shower heads that use two-and-a-half gallons of water a minute rather than one-and-a-half gallons of water, really basic stuff and then air sealing and insulating homes—the average home has one complete air exchange with the outside every hour. So every hour in the wintertime, you have to reheat the entire volume of your house. If you air seal and insulate your house, you’re keeping all that heat in. It doesn’t matter what your source of heating is if you’re keeping the heat in the house. I think statewide, and I’ve seen studies to support this, across all buildings, we could cut our energy usage by at least a third and probably closer to 50 percent if we get really aggressive with it. Once we reduce our usage, you can put enough solar on your rooftop to provide all the power for your house.
The big thing is to empower every individual to make their home more efficient, or their business more efficient, there are a lot of rebates and incentives available or low-cost financing. We don’t need a billion dollars from the federal government. We don’t need a huge state bailout to do this. It’s something that every homeowner and every business owner can do. I think it’s really important not to be waiting for the governor to take action but if instead if we do it from the grassroots, we can do it on our own.
Tregilus: Nevadans or Northern Nevadans? Municipalize our utility. Create a muni. If you use Boulder, Colorado, as an example, a couple years ago, they threw Xcel Energy out of their area because Xcel Energy was making all these promises of renewable energy and smart grids and so forth, and they were all failures, and they built a big coal plant, and people in Boulder, which is a bedroom community for federal government employees, they got pissed off at Xcel, and they threw them out, forming their own municipal utility. And of course, this is all being driven by green-minded people because munies can be just as bad as investor-owned utilities, in that they’re only interested in costs of energy delivered, so they buy the cheapest energy they can find, which is from the oldest, dirtiest coal plants on the planet.
My solution would be to municipalize, create a feed-in tariff so that it’s community-owned, and everybody is participating, and this would create a huge local economy. NV Energy, on the flip side of that, is heading toward this huge brick wall at 100,000 miles per hour—because this is happening. This is actually changing where generation is moving away from utilities and being put in the hands of the people. And utilities are just taking up the delivery and the smart grid stuff. In Germany, for instance, this has already occurred. We’re heading toward this disaster. If we don’t force NV Energy to [a] 21st century of energy production and delivery model, we’re heading toward this disaster like the landline telephone companies or the media companies. Newspapers are collapsing right and left because they didn’t adapt. Kodak Film didn’t adapt to all this new technology.
Distributed renewable energy, whether they like it or not, is coming. The cost of solar has come down so far thanks to the feed-in tariff, not thanks to anything we’ve done in the United States, so it brought the cost of this technology down. Right now is a really good time to put solar on your house, you’re not going to see solar as cheap as it is right this second, not for probably the next five or six years. As we have more and more electric cars on the road, these batteries are going to get repurposed into static storage applications because you know, in a vehicle, it’s a very demanding application on the battery. But once the battery has maybe 70 percent of its capacity left, it’s easy, you can stick it in your garage. You take a Nissan Leaf battery with 24 kilowatt-hour storage capacity and say now it’s got maybe 17 kilowatt hours, you put it in your garage, it’s a couple, three days of storage for your house. So you’re going to be calling up your utility saying, “I don’t need your line anymore.”
Is it too late to save the planet? Have we gone so far that we'll never recover from the damage we've done to the environment and the planet's system?
Gibson: I like to stay positive. On the one hand, I see corporations doing damage exponentially faster than I see it being fixed. On the other hand, students at the high school level and the college level—they get it. A lot of them see that things are just horribly awry right now. I really see social changes happening that are going to drive really positive feedback loops. I think that, particularly when you look at carbon storage in the form of growing trees and growing food in your yard, and stuff like that, and at the same time, people being able to take action at the individual level, I really think that there’s potential to turn things around pretty quickly.
The big thing is breaking away from these huge corporations that are making profit at the expense of the planet, and instead focusing on local. You’re not going to buy from someone local if you can see the waste pipe that they have into the Truckee River. But if they’re doing that in Kalamazoo, Michigan, you don’t see the impacts of that. Or if it’s in Nigeria or China or somewhere else, you don’t see the impacts. So focusing on local businesses and supporting local production of goods and local food and local energy, if we can localize our economy, we can really turn things around. But we need to act very quickly.
I was just looking at the RTC plan through 2035 which calls for expanding roads and the new southeast connector spending $5 billion on new roads and almost nothing on public transit. We need to figure out how to reverse that. For the cost of the Southeast Connector, which will cut right through the UNR farm in order to get people from Fernley to South Meadows 10 minutes faster, for the cost of that one project, we could build a light rail from Stead to Carson City. That’s based on the numbers I got from the RTC planner. Apparently, that was from a vote in 2008, the public approved widening and expanding roads and not the public transit. I feel we really need to go back to a public vote because five years ago, the economy was very, very different. People didn’t realize this recession was going to be a long drawn-out depression, and so we need to focus on sustainable transportation.
Tregilus: The problem is our state constitution. We use our state constitution for all the wrong things, and our gas tax has to be used for either new road construction or road repair. It can’t be used for urban design or putting streets on diets.
Have we gone too far? Human beings are resilient, and the Earth and the environment are resilient. I don’t think we’ve gone too far yet. I see a lot of hope in things like David works on, like Envirolution and working with the kids. I think the youth are a lot smarter than a lot of us older folks give them credit for. They’re paying attention to all these things. They can get this information instantly through the internet and being socially connected. And they’re acting on it. We can recover. The biggest roadblock is actually our politicians, which reflects on the populace, because we’re the ones who elect them. But we have a lot of positive things in the pipeline. Benefit corporations, I think, is a huge one.