Time flies when you are having fun: a year in review from an energy advocate

Guest Blog | August 5, 2009 | Climate Change, Energy Efficiency, Energy Policy, Utilities

It’s been a whirlwind of a year since I accepted the position as SACE’s  Tennessee Valley Energy Policy Associate here in Knoxville.  So much has happened, both good and bad, that it was difficult to keep up.  All in all, however, I’m pleased to report that we’ve taken some significant steps towards achieving the clean-energy future we need to save our environment and provide a strong economy for our future.  I’m also pleased to report that I haven’t lost my marbles (I think).

Democrat, republican, green or independent?  It doesn’t matter.  By now, most of us agree that we need to meet this nation’s energy challenges head on.  I had high hopes for President Obama’s campaign pledge to make energy issues a priority and he was quick to deliver.  The Recovery Act is bringing much needed funding for energy efficiency and renewable energy programs, accelerating research and development efforts and providing opportunities for the creation of clean-energy jobs.  The jury is still out on whether these ambitious efforts will be implemented successfully, but it’s part of my job to do what must done to ensure these funds are used to reduce energy demand, create jobs, and provide the markets for renewable energy resources.  It’s already on my to-do list for year two.

There is is also an earnest debate raging in Congress over how to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and begin to address the climate crisis.  This could be the issue of our lifetime (I’m 34 years old) because climate change truly threatens our way of life.  Rising sea levels and increasing temperatures are scary thoughts, especially when you live in the Southeast where even a modest rise in sea level spells disaster and the region’s amazing biodiversity is threatened by even a few-degree rise in temperature.

Will Congress be able to come to agreement (or at least consensus) on how to reduce our contributions to global warming?  I don’t know.  But I do know the claims that the Southeast has little renewable energy potential and that the proposed cap-and-trade provisions will unfairly disadvantage southeastern states are bogus.  Yes, the Southeast is heavily dependent on fossil fuels for it’s power generation, but contrary to what many southern utilities may claim, reducing energy demand can happen, the sun does shine, the wind blows and biomass grows in the Southeast.

The state of Tennessee has also begun to take clean-energy seriously.  When I first got to Tennessee, the Governor’s Task Force on Energy Policy was in full swing, meeting on a regular basis to figure out how to make Tennessee a leader in clean-energy.  Well, I’ll admit we’re still a long way from leading the pack, but the Tennessee Clean Energy Future Act will save Tennessee residents money, create clean-energy jobs, reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, and increase the reliability of our energy supply.  From the statewide residential building codes to the state government’s lead-by-example initiative, this bill has the potential to, as Governor Bredesen put it, “be the cornerstone of all future energy policy for the state of Tennessee.”  It’s a big first step.

Here in Knoxville (my new home town), we got more going on than just roller derby.  (Go Hard Knox Roller Girls!)  The Knoxville Solar America Cities team, including SACE’s own Tennessee Director of Renewables, Gil Melear Hough, has done a great job of promoting solar energy.   There’s been a dramatic increase in interest in solar energy and energy efficiency, and a growing community of clean-energy professionals are installing solar systems, doing energy retrofits and building more energy efficient buildings.  And they’re hiring local people to do it.  The new jobs and financial benefits that these companies provide will help our city get past these tough economic times and build a strong foundation for future economic growth.

There’s more to come too.  If the city’s Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant is approved by the Department of Energy, we can expect a suite of clean-energy opportunities for Knoxvilleans.  Also, the Knoxville-Knox County Community Action Committee is ramping up to weatherize more low-income housing than ever before.  Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the cities efforts at downtown redevelopment and improving public transit.  As a former Portlander (another city with a vibrant downtown) and public transportation enthusiast (yes, enthusiast) I’m excited to be part of Knoxville’s emergence as great little city.

TVA, on the other hand, has been a bit of a thorn in my side.  The coal-ash spill at TVA’s Kingston coal plant was a horrible and preventable tragedy.  It reminded us all of the dangers of coal-fired electricity generation.  If there is a silver lining to this event, it was, first, that no one was killed and, second, that it brought the coal-ash issue and TVA management into the national spotlight.  I am hopeful that this increased scrutiny will lead to some positive changes within TVA and with our nation’s management of coal ash.  Increased transparency, a greater level of oversight, and a renewed commitment to responsible energy generation are all things that I will be fighting for to ensure this doesn’t happen again.

In other areas, we’ve been able to poke and prod TVA into some hesitant steps towards taking energy efficiency and renewable energy seriously.  They are currently rolling out new energy efficiency programs for residents, businesses and industry that will reduce energy demand and shift energy usage to off-peak hours.  While TVA’s initial efforts are not as aggressive as they need to be, there has, at least, been a renewed engagement by TVA in looking at ways of changing consumers’ behavior and approaching energy issues with solutions other than building expensive new generation facilities.

TVA has also initiated a new resource planning process that will occur over the coming 18 months.  We are cautiously optimistic that this process will finally result in the evaluation of energy efficiency and renewable energy resources on an equal footing with traditional generation resources such as fossil fuels and nuclear.  As it becomes more and more evident that energy efficiency and renewable energy can meet future energy demand cheaper, cleaner and more quickly than traditional resources, TVA is beginning to taking these resources seriously.  The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy will be participating in the Stakeholder Review Group that will provide input into the planning process and we will continue to advocate for a transparent and objective evaluation of TVA’s resource options.

This is an exciting time to be working in an energy-related field.  In all, much has been accomplished in the past year with respect to developing clean and renewable sources of energy in the Tennessee Valley, but, alas, my to-do list hasn’t gotten any shorter.  As I begin my second year with SACE, I will be working to make sure that Recovery Act dollars are spent wisely, that the Tennessee Clean Energy Future Act is implemented successfully, and that TVA begins the process of transforming itself into a national leader in energy efficiency and renewable energy.  Will it be fun?  Sometimes.  Is it important?  Absolutely.  Will I lose my marbles?  Stay tuned.

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