Clean Energy Dreams

A tale of two friends who set out, long before Obama, to transform society with green energy and jobs

photo ILLUSTRATION BY david jayne

It was December 11, 1997, and I was standing next to Ed Smeloff in a giant room in Kyoto, Japan, as hundreds of people from dozens of nations jumped to their feet and began applauding wildly. It was one of those transcendent moments that remain etched in one’s memory, as it was announced that the Kyoto Accord on climate change had been reached. It seemed possible, at that moment, to believe that humanity could be saved from the crisis of which its scientists warned. My friend Ed, former board president of SMUD, was grinning wildly, and so was I. We applauded, shouted, rejoiced and high-fived each other.

I would never have guessed that it would all be downhill from there, that most of the world’s nations would proceed to increase their greenhouse-gas emissions rather than reduce them to 1990 levels by 2010, as called for in the agreement. In the United States (which failed to even ratify the treaty), emissions are 15 percent higher today than in 1990. I would never have guessed at that moment, in other words, that humanity would have progressed even further today toward destroying civilization as we know it for our offspring.

I would also have been surprised to today find my friend Ed working in the private sector on the cutting-edge of humanity’s one hope for saving itself: a clean-energy revolution as powerful as the Industrial Revolution and information revolution, capable of producing giant new waves of jobs and economic growth while reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. As a project developer for SunPower, America’s second-largest solar company based in San Jose, Ed is developing some of the nation’s largest solar photovoltaic projects and has already installed dozens of arrays in Sacramento that power homes and commercial buildings.

Ed and I first met in 1981 in the Gregory Bateson building, a renewable-powered state office building in Sacramento. Ed was then a health-care program manager, I was then-Gov. Jerry Brown’s director of research. We were introduced by Ralph Brave, a close friend to each of us and later, before his death, an editor at SN&R. I took an immediate liking to Ed, struck by his cheerful, positive, upbeat energy. And I remember being impressed by his plans to run for the SMUD board in 1981. He had no money, but he possessed a deep belief in renewables, largely inspired by legendary energy guru Amory Lovins’ writings on the need for a “soft path” alternative to dangerous nuclear energy and Mideast oil.

Ed also had been inspired by Tom Hayden’s Campaign for Economic Democracy, which encouraged grassroots activists to run for local office around the state. Ralph had been particularly impressed by Ed’s desire to run for office: “He’s the real thing, Fred!” he said breathlessly, “He’s smart, really believes in renewables, wants to do good, is honest and doesn’t bullshit.” I watched with admiration as Ed then persevered, won election to the SMUD board in 1986, led the successful 1989 campaign to close down the Rancho Seco nuclear-power plant and made SMUD the nation’s leading solar utility—public or private—until he left the board in 1997.

In the 30 years since then, Ed and I have worked both on parallel tracks and together, our interests diverging and converging. Perhaps most gratifying has been seeing our original work on the need for “green jobs,” which Ed helped create at SMUD and about which I wrote extensively, become the conventional wisdom with the election of President Barack Obama.

As I look back on the three decades, I marvel at how renewable energy has gone from being a fringe issue to an economic necessity if America is to contribute to saving human civilization, avoid becoming a second-rate economic power and remain a cohesive society.

Road to find out

Long before I met Ed, I had discovered the secret U.S. bombing of Laos in 1969 by interviewing the civilian survivors of U.S. executive branch mass murder from the air. I devoted the next six years to trying to end it. Perhaps as a response to the horror of this human devastation, however, I found myself in 1975 wanting to work on positive solutions when the war ended. I did not wish to spend the rest of my life simply opposing mass murderers called “presidents” or “secretaries of state.” I wanted to work to see decent, humane people hold public office and solve problems rather than destroy lives. So I worked on Hayden’s 1976 campaign to win a seat in the U.S. Senate, and then became director of the California Public Policy Center, a nonprofit that worked closely with CED.

Friends Fred Branfman, left, and Ed Smeloff, right, have been in the trenches for decades fighting for a green awakening in America. Their work to promote renewable energy and “green jobs” has gone from fringe issue then to conventional wisdom today.

photos courtesy OF Fred Branfman

We began by opposing nuclear power, natural-gas deregulation and a dangerous liquefied natural gas plant in Santa Barbara. But I soon found myself asking what we should be for, not against. I was even more disturbed by the “jobs vs. environment” debates at the time, with labor unions opposing environmentalists. We were trying to become a majority movement, and yet two of our major allies were warring with each another.

Around this time, I heard of a remarkable project in Ventura: An engineer named Jim Piper had developed and installed a solar water-heating system in an apartment complex. I saw the site heating people’s homes, and learned from Piper firsthand of the many jobs involved in constructing, installing and maintaining the system, which led to a sudden epiphany: “Wait a moment!” I thought, “This project clearly demonstrates that there is no contradiction between jobs and the environment! This is happening in practice. Before my very eyes!”

We generated national publicity for Piper’s project and published a 1979 study, “Jobs From the Sun,” which explained how more than 3 million jobs could be created by solarizing California. The study attracted significant attention. I remember how a young congressman offered me a ride back to my hotel after I held a congressional briefing on our study. I was struck by his beat-up Volkswagen, enthusiasm for solar energy and low-key demeanor. Al Gore was a good listener.

Working with future Energy Commissioner John Geesman, the CPPC then devised a comprehensive strategy, the SolarCal initiative, to make this vision a reality. It included more than a dozen proposals—to promote small business solar manufacturers, solar research and development, conservation, and establish local SolarCal councils throughout the state. The initiative eventually became law. One of this period’s high points was briefing then-Gov. Jerry Brown on “Jobs From the Sun,” which played a major role in a new and sudden twist in my life.

A few months later, I was shooting baskets by myself at the Los Angeles Athletic Club when a voice from the running track above suddenly called down: “Hey, Fred, mind if I shoot some baskets with you?” I was amazed to look up and see the governor of California. We shot some baskets together, and I thought nothing of it until some weeks later, the manager of his 1980 presidential campaign asked me to serve as the campaign’s director of research. I later learned that my name had come up for the job because Brown’s memory about the “Jobs From the Sun” briefing had been jogged by our basketball session. I have often wondered how different my life might have been had I not chosen to shoot some hoops at that particular hour on that particular day.

I took the job, worked four months on the campaign, and then took a Cabinet-level position as Brown’s research director in Sacramento. Once in the governor’s office, I found my policy interests moving in a new and unexpected direction: toward Silicon Valley.

Widespread use of the Internet was still a distant dream at that point, and the focus was on how semiconductors and microprocessors were transforming office work, industrial processes and creating a new “personal computer” revolution. I carried around a sewing machine-sized Osborne and then Kaypro for my personal use. “Laptop” computers did not yet exist. I still remember my excitement when I received one of the first Apple-1 PCs, donated by Steve Jobs to the governor’s office.

Coming off the campaign trail my initial motivation was, frankly, largely political. Since polls showed Democrats ranked higher on social and environmental issues, Republicans on economic ones, Democrats clearly needed to demonstrate greater mastery of the economy to win and govern successfully in coming years.

This was particularly true for Brown, who was known for courageously warning that America had entered an “era of limits.” Although he has since been proven a prophet and his insights the conventional wisdom, he was the leading U.S. politician warning of resource limitations in 1980, and often attacked as threatening jobs and economic growth.

Branfman can be seen here briefing then-Gov. Jerry Brown (right) on the “Jobs From the Sun” study he authored in 1979 for the California Public Policy Center. The report explained how millions of jobs could be created by solarizing California.

PHOTO Courtesy of fred branfman

I suddenly became aware of the pivotal role played worldwide by companies named Intel, National Semiconductor and Advanced Micro located in Silicon Valley, just a few hours drive from Sacramento. One day, a light bulb went on: “If information not resources is the new key to economic growth, then promoting the ‘information revolution’ can produce jobs and economic growth in an ‘era of limits!’”

My initial attempts to encourage the governor to promote high technology met ferocious opposition from Brown’s secretary of business and transportation, who argued that its CEOs were Republican, would not contribute to Brown’s campaign and that the governor would thus be wasting his time with them. However, Brown understood the importance of what was happening in Silicon Valley and agreed on the economic and social importance of supporting it.

My office then devised the governor’s 1981 high-tech and 1982 “Investment in People” State of the State initiatives. I was particularly impressed by my conversations with such Silicon Valley business leaders as the legendary semiconductor inventor and Intel co-founder Robert Noyce. We also established the California Commission on Industrial Innovation, whose members included Steve Jobs and Hewlett-Packard’s David Packard, and whose final report I authored.

I was most struck by these business leaders’ belief that America needed a national strategy to respond to our competitors’ ability to mobilize low-cost capital so as to target our key high-tech industries—for the sake of the entire economy and not just their own companies. Some may have believed they were just looking for handouts from government. But I felt they were clearly America’s most successful business leaders, running companies that were on the forefront of technological innovation, and that we would ignore their sincere warnings at our peril.

My own concerns about the issue soon moved far beyond politics. If they were right, after all, it would be the poor and working people I most cared about who would be the most threatened. I devoting myself to promoting the kind of coordinated economic strategy Noyce and others urged as assiduously as I had once sought to end the war. I spent the 1980s doing so not only with Brown, but later writing the Strategic Investment initiative, the key plank for Sen. Gary Hart’s presidential campaign (until Donna Rice came into my life), and “Investment Economics” and “Industry-led Strategy” while at Rebuild America, a D.C. nonprofit that I founded and directed.

Pick up the pace

During the 1980s, I followed Ed’s career with great interest and admiration. After winning election to the SMUD board in 1987, he showed real courage in leading the fight to close down Rancho Seco in 1989, including enduring a campaign of vilification and threats of violence. These included not only threatening phone calls, but damage to his equally brave wife Diana’s automobile and someone killing his son’s beloved cat. At one point, he even needed police protection for a few days, though he refused to wear a bulletproof vest and accept other recommended security measures which he regarded as over the top.

After the Rancho Seco closure, he led in building SMUD’s renewable-energy portfolio and implementation of a combination of free energy audits and loans for conservation, electric-vehicle promotion, tree planting, solar, wind and cogeneration project development, which made SMUD the nation’s leading renewable-energy utility.

While Ed was succeeding in his work, however, I felt I was failing in mine.

Although Rebuild America published impressive reports endorsed by our advisers, garnered substantial media and was adequately funded, it became clear that Noyce and other farsighted Silicon Valley business leaders were the exception. Most of America’s top CEOs, economists and politicians were too ideologically blinkered, shortsighted and self-interested to mount the kind of coordinated public- and private-sector efforts necessary to keep U.S. industry competitive—at that time with the Japanese, later the Chinese.

Ed Smeloff spoke at the recent dedication of a 10-megawatt solar power plant at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The plant—one of Smeloff’s first projects for SunPower—is the third large-scale solar project in a state which many predict will surpass California in installed solar photovoltaics in the next three years.

PHOTO courtesy of ed smeloff

Macroeconomists like Larry Summers sneered at the very idea of developing “micro” policies to keep our leading industries competitive, repeatedly maintaining in academic papers and congressional testimony that only deficit reduction was needed. (It is beyond ironic that Summers is now managing the greatest deficit expansion in history, largely caused by our lack of industrial competitiveness.) Most business leaders cared only about next quarter’s bottom line. Most conservatives blindly opposed anything involving government intervention; most liberals opposed anything that involved helping the private sector.

The final straw occurred for me in 1990 when, working with the American Electronics Association, we convinced U.S. Commerce Secretary Robert Mosbacher to endorse our proposal for an “industry-led strategy,” and he was then forced to repudiate it by George H.W. Bush’s Chief of Staff John Sununu, Bush’s Office of Management and Budget Chairman Richard Darman and Council on Economic Advisers head Michael Boskin. Although we published a highly publicized white paper, “How Messrs. Sununu, Darman and Boskin Are Jeopardizing America’s Future,” it was clear to me that the game was up. It was not only the incredible fact that the U.S. presidency had itself become a major obstacle to American competitiveness, but that no other segment of American society was stepping up to the plate. I concluded that the U.S. economy, sooner or later, was doomed to long-term decline. (My only surprise when the 2008 crash occurred was that the 1990s Internet and 2000s housing bubbles had managed to delay the inevitable for so long.)

It was at that point that I quit politics overnight and embarked on a spiritual and psychological journey (see “Journey to truth,” originally published in SN&R on May 15, 1997). While breaking through my denial of my own eventual death was the precipitating factor, my inability to see a way to halt America’s decline played a key role in my decision to leave it all behind.

After some seven years of meditation and spiritual inquiry, several factors led me back into Ed’s life, and he into mine.

For generations to come

One of the most powerful experiences of my life occurred in 1983. Lying in bed one night, I suddenly found myself imagining my last night on Earth and valuing not past accomplishments but any contribution I would then make to those who would follow me. This experience led some years later to the following conclusion to a proposed speech on the Strategic Investment Initiative requested by Sen. Hart:

“In the end we enter a realm beyond economics, a realm in which we realize that all that ultimately matters is how we will be remembered generations from now, by people whose faces we will never see and whose voices we will never hear, but who alone will bear testimony that what we did in this time and this place mattered.”

As my subsequent years of meditation wore away my social conditioning, I increasingly experienced myself as part of a great chain of being stretching back into the unfathomable past and forward into the mysterious future, a deep gratitude for what had been bequeathed me and a profound desire to pass it on to those who will follow us. This realization constituted the first factor that led me back into the world of Ed Smeloff.

A second factor occurred in 1996 after I flew from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco and ran into futurist and author Jeremy Rifkin. He talked the whole flight about a phenomenon I had barely heard of until then, something called “global warming.” I was consulting for HotWired magazine in San Francisco at that time and, fascinated by what I had learned from Rifkin, proposed to that magazine that I would moderate the first online debate ever held on the subject.

As a result of the debate, I awoke to the truth that climate change was the pre-eminent issue of our time. I also realized that whatever problems global warming posed to our generation paled beside the devastation it will wreak on those who follow us. It seemed obvious that mobilizing the public to avert global warming required reaching the part of people that deeply cares about living on through the genes and fond memories of their offspring and descendants, and that far more people care about their grandchildren than preserving nature.

Last October, President Barack Obama dedicated a 25-megawatt solar project that Smeloff was responsible for developing in DeSoto County in central Florida. It is the largest photovoltaic project in the United States to date.

photo courtesy of Ed Smeloff

Some time after the debate, I met with Ed, who had announced that he would be leaving SMUD to take a position as executive director of the Pace Law School Energy Project outside New York City. After making SMUD a leader in renewable-energy development, he decided he wanted to get involved in state and national policy work to promote renewables. At Pace beginning in June 1997, he would work with officials in New York and New Jersey to promote renewable energy. He and his boss—former Congressman Richard Ottinger—agreed that reaching people on the need to protect future generations was key to averting climate change, and we established the “Protecting Future Generations” initiative, which I soon was directing, under the aegis of Ed’s project.

The experience was the single most disappointing of my professional life. Although we authored a “Moral Call on Global Warming and Future Generations” signed by Jimmy Carter, Andrew Young, Elie Wiesel and the leaders of many of America’s major religions, we could not get support for these ideas from within the environmental community. We made a trip to Kyoto, Japan, to witness the first attempt by the nations of the world to do something about the climate crisis. But the accord did not have the weight it was intended to, especially since the United States failed to ratify it. Ed and I met with many of the major environmental funders, leaders and organizations to seek support for “Protecting Future Generations,” but none was forthcoming (although funders continued to support the Pace project’s other work).

Legal experts told us it was fruitless to seek legal action on behalf of future generations. We were unable to find senators or House members willing to set up caucuses or otherwise act on behalf of future generations. Although several public officials’ offices participated in a major meeting we held at Pace to develop a proposal for “Public Advocates for Future Generations,” few showed subsequent enthusiasm for implementing it. In the end, we had to close down “Protecting Future Generations” for lack of financial or political support.

I finally understood the deeper reasons for our lack of support only later, when I led a workshop on global warming at a large environmental and spiritual conference in Northern California. An environmental leader attended the workshop but, instead of participating in a planned meditation about our connection to our ancestors and descendants, immediately began attacking the workshop’s very premise. “Don’t you understand that human beings are the problem?” he said angrily. “We are the only species threatening all of the others! If I had a choice between us dying off or bacteria, I would choose us—at least then all the other species could live!” He said environmental leaders, many of whom were close personal friends, felt similarly.

As I thought about this interaction, I noticed that all the photos at this conference were of nature or animals. There were no people! The major speakers, workshops, books and videos all dealt with nature or spiritual, not human, concerns. It hit me that all great movements spring from deeply held emotional and moral beliefs, and that environmentalists seemed most animated by a reverence for nature not human life. It was an admirable motivation, and had led to its many magnificent achievements. But it was clearly not strong enough to reach enough people deeply enough so as to avert catastrophic climate change.

On the deepest level, my disappointment was not so much with environmentalists as with realizing the difficulty of creating a change in social attitudes as massive and dramatic as the new threat posed by the human climate crisis. A massive public-education campaign was clearly needed to help people link their children’s well-being to saving the biosphere. But I could not find any constituency willing to invest in such a campaign.

The clean-energy race

The one bright light during this period was working regularly with Ed who, as director of the Pace Project, continued to spend most of his time advocating renewable energy. I was based in Washington, D.C., and stayed with him on frequent occasions when working out of the Pace office in New York. He was always sincere, upbeat, cheerful, persistent and, above all, positive, looking for the best in each person and situation he encountered.

He also enjoyed significant success as his staff intervened in regulatory matters before the New Jersey and New York public utility commissions; provided technical assistance and guidance to public and private organizations promoting energy efficiency, renewable energy and the first wind energy project in New York; and developed a Power Scorecard to assist in consumers in selecting energy service providers.

Reflecting now on these 30 years of work, I am struck by how quickly our economic rivals can develop new competitiveness strategies while it takes America decades just to make a cutting-edge idea the conventional wisdom. Although we published “Jobs From the Sun” in 1979, for example, it was only with President Obama recently taking office that the idea of “green jobs” went mainstream. And even now conservatives block economic growth by the shortsighted charge that clean energy, which is our major economic hope, will hurt the economy.

Friends for decades, Smeloff and Branfman have spent their lifetimes working on parallel paths toward a renewable energy, “green jobs” future. Both agree it is likely this will continue until the day they die.

Photo courtesy of Fred Branfman

I also marvel at how America lost its manufacturing base in the 1980s for the same reasons it is lagging in the clean-energy race today. Just as America outpaced Great Britain a century ago, a China, Japan and Europe developing coordinated strategies and committing significant financial resources to them, will likely outstrip America today. These nations act on the belief that they are in an economic war. Americans mainly war with themselves—right vs. left, Democrats vs. Republicans, environmentalists vs. business.

Thomas Friedman’s important book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded, for example, makes an irrefutable case that the single most important step to securing America’s economic future is to make renewables cost-competitive by raising the price of fossil fuels—cushioning the cost to consumers through rebates and greater fuel-efficiency. Doing so is simple, as many other countries have already demonstrated. But despite the fact that many European countries pay as much as $8 a gallon for gas and still enjoy higher gross national product growth than the United States, opportunistic politicians and myopic fossil-fuel interests here have blocked this critical step.

I have thus reluctantly concluded that our work of the past 30 years to keep America economically and environmentally strong has largely failed, and that—without a dramatic turnaround—the country faces a dismal future.

Looking forward

Of one thing I am sure. If America does pull out of its present spiral of decline, if it somehow unites behind policies that produce new clean-energy industries generating millions of new jobs and new waves of economic growth, this will largely occur because of people like my friend Ed Smeloff.

As Ed explains it: “In my view, the clean-energy economic revolution is the most important force in changing the way future generations will live not only in America but on the planet. I also believe that climate change is the most important long-term challenge to human civilization.

“What motivates my work today is to see how fast we can bring large-scale solar into reality. I am convinced that electric utilities can be a driving force for bringing solar into the marketplace. The most important thing that American policymakers would do is to enact a carbon tax. In the interim, states like California will drive renewable-energy policy through mechanisms like renewable portfolio standard. I would like to see America lead the clean-energy revolution and think that it is likely we will on an innovative basis just as we have with Silicon Valley and the information technology revolution.”

Ed is making good on his vision with projects like the bid he just won for a 200-megawatt project with Southern California Edison. SunPower competed head to head with Chinese, Japanese and European solar companies for a contract to place solar photovoltaic arrays on commercial warehouse rooftops that will feed solar-generated electricity into the Inland Empire grid, and provide electricity to its homes, offices and factories. SunPower won because its arrays were easier to install and offered superior design, such as securing the photovoltaic arrays on the roofs without having to drill into them. It was a triumph of American ingenuity at its best.

There is also reason for optimism if America passes a carbon tax or embraces other proposals to make renewables competitive with fossil fuels. There are many thousands of Ed Smeloffs out there, a younger generation that increasingly understands that its very survival will depend on “going green,” and far, far greater public support for a green America than when we began 30 years ago. The fact that there simply is no other way to grow America’s economy may eventually wake up enough Americans to give the Smeloffs of this world the support they need to save the country and solve the human climate crisis.

As I reflect on the past and look toward the future, I marvel at how the confluence of events unprecedented in human history—a changing climate about which past generations never even had to think, and an American economy facing competitors it has until now taken for granted—brought Ed and I together and set us on parallel paths that will likely continue until we die. I hope my friend’s optimistic predictions about the leading role our nation can play prove true, particularly given how much I dread China’s authoritarian leadership becoming the world’s leading economic power. And I hope even more that his optimism that humanity can mount a clean-energy revolution to save its civilization from extinction proves warranted.

But I know this above all: It is one thing to fail, a very different thing to fail to try.

I am tormented by the thought that the experiences I most value in this life will be denied to the future generations who will live at our mercy, and who—if they live at all—will surely curse us for our selfishness, stupidity and greed. Whatever our many faults, I feel deeply that somewhere, somehow, the love, generosity and beauty of which humans are capable is precious, and that their loss would be a tragedy beyond imagining. But I derive some small level of personal satisfaction from my own minuscule efforts, as well as the far greater and more important work of all the Ed Smeloffs of the world to preserve human civilization.

Ernest Becker ends his magnificent work, The Denial of Death, with these words:

“Who knows what form the forward momentum of life will take in the time ahead or what use it will make of our anguished searching. The most that any one of us can seem to do is to fashion something—an object or ourselves—and drop it into the confusion, make an offering of it, so to speak, to the life force.”

I suppose he is correct.