Sometimes great opportunities just fall into your lap, and when they do it's important to recognize them for what they are and seize the opportunity. Earlier this week, Bill Gupton, the director of the local Sierra Club, called and asked if I would like 15 minutes with the group's new executive director, Michael Brune. Knowing this may be a once-in-a-lifetime shot to sit down with the head of one of our nation's oldest and largest environmental organizations, I jumped at the chance.
Brune took on the challenge of leading the Sierra Club in March of this year, after working with Greenpeace and the Rainforest Action Network and writing the book Coming Clean: Breaking America's Addiction to Oil and Coal.
He's currently touring the country, visiting with local Sierra Club groups and members. Yesterday, on the six-month anniversary of the Gulf Oil Spill, he spoke at Central Piedmont Community College about his plans for the organization's future.
But, before that, this is what he and I talked about:
First of all, he's very proud of the Sierra Club and of other environmental organizations for their work. While some people may look at the world's environmental issues and feel defeated, environmentalists often look at them and feel energized by the opportunities they present. For example: Since 2001, nearly 200 new coal plants were supposed to be built in our country. But, thanks to the work of environmentalists, 138 of them will not be built. This is huge, of course, since burning coal for fuel is an old, pollution-heavy way to keep the lights on. "That [defeating the proposed plants] is probably the biggest environmental victory of our generation," says Brune.
He realizes, however, the real challenge is to help people understand that environmental issues and human rights issues are often one and the same. Everyone wants clean air, water and safe environments for their families to live, work and play in, but many don't know how to advocate for such things. The trick, Brune explains, is to help people understand they're not powerless and that their actions like choosing to use less electricity or recycle can lead to lasting change.
"The question is: What will we base our 21st century economy on?" he asks. One way or another, we are going to be investing hundreds of millions of dollars in energy infrastructure in the near future. So, we must ask ourselves: Do we want to invest in old technology or new technology? In our effort to decide, we have to determine what the cleanest, cheapest, safest and quickest way to produce electricity is, and invest in those technologies. When you look at it like that, it's clear to Brune that solar and wind energy are the ways to go. But, we also have to help energy workers retain their jobs through training and make sure power companies are able to generate plenty of electricity and keep their books in the black.
It's important to realize that coal plants have a 30-40 year life expectancy, and that 60 percent of our country's coal plants are already more than 40 years old. In fact, Duke Energy's Riverbend plant the one with the two unlined, high-hazard coal ash ponds that drain into our drinking water reservoir will turn 81 years old on Oct. 29. The company says they plan to close it by 2015.
That plant helped Charlotte become the city, and Duke Energy to become the company, it is today. Looking back to the Industrial Revolution, Brune points out that the way America became a super power was through our ability to use coal and oil faster and better than any other country. Now, he says the opportunity to exploit new technologies that will create jobs, boost corporate profits, produce more than enough electricity for the masses and make our country globally competitive "is enormous."
But before we can face the future, we have to face what he calls "legacy" issues. That means regulating coal ash and mines, closing old, inefficient power plants, retrofitting aging plants with newer technologies, cleaning up oil and coal ash spills, and working to prevent future disasters.
When asked why, if there's so much opportunity to profit from green energy technology, power companies continually push back against regulators and diversifying their energy-producing fleets, Brune says, "They're on the wrong side of history. There's no reason to continue to invest in dirty energy, like coal and oil, when we know it represents the past, not the future."
He says the way to be successful, and to encourage companies to adopt green energy technologies, is to partner with them and help them understand that they can be profitable, create jobs and help to foster a healthy environment at the same time.
After our brief interview, Brune spoke to an audience of about 25 at CPCC's Center for Sustainability where he talked about his hopes for the organization's future. You can read more about him, his past and his family here.
He ended his talk with a quote from Mohandas Gandhi that summed up his vision: The difference between what we do and what we are capable of doing would suffice to solve most of the world's problems.
Right now, our country and our city are faced with a great opportunity to become global leaders in renewable, sustainable energy production that will allow us to solve some of our world's environmental woes. Will we seize it? Only time will tell.