Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is no stranger to controversy. The environmental lawyer and president of the Waterkeeper Alliance served jail time in 2001 for trespassing after joining a protest at a U.S. Navy training facility in Puerto Rico, and wrote an article in Rolling Stone claiming the 2004 U.S. presidential election might have been “stolen” as eligible voters were prevented from casting ballots. But at the Solar Power International conference in Anaheim, Calif., on Wednesday, Kennedy called his support of greentech “the most subversive thing I’ve ever done.”
He underlined the power of the coal and oil lobbies in Washington and urged solar and other renewable-energy advocates to start showing their strength on Capitol Hill. The most important thing people can do is get involved in the government, he said. “It’s much more important to change your politician than it is to change your lightbulb,” he said to laughter from the audience. “We need to show our muscle and get tough, aggressive people on Capitol Hill, flying around in solar-power Lear jets or whatever it is. We need to be demanding, ‘Hey, we are patriotic, we are saving this country…and we need to fight these enemies.’ If a foreign enemy poisoned 600,000 children every year, we’d consider that an act of war. We shouldn’t put up with this, and we can’t put up with this.”
The costs of oil and coal far exceed their price, with taxpayers absorbing many of the hidden costs of these resources, he said, citing as examples the special roadways for coal trucks, as well as health costs, including mercury contamination of fish and people (including 640,000 children born each year who have been exposed to dangerous levels of mercury) and asthma attacks that cost 1 million workdays per year. Kennedy called upon the government to reduce the “tsunami” of subsidies going to these sources and to force oil and coal companies to pay the true costs of bringing their products to the market. “You show me a polluter, I’ll show you a subsidy,” he said. “I’ll show you a fat cat that is using the free market to escape the costs [and to get the public to pay them].”
Once a coal plant is built, the costs are just beginning, but with a solar plant, once it’s built, the electricity is free, he said. He compared the current stimulus plan with former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, saying that instead of seeing stranded assets — planes, tanks and bombs for the war — we’re building things today that will ensure prosperity for generations. “When we get done, we build a system that gives us free energy forever,” he said. “Just think what that does. In a few years, companies can come and access the biggest [permanent] tax break in the world.”
Protecting the environment is not about just protecting the fish and the birds, but about preserving important assets for future generations and about choosing long-term wealth over “a few years of instantaneous prosperity,” he said. “We’re going to democratize the energy system in this country and take it away from the incumbents over the next 10 years,” he said, calling it a choice between cheap fuel from hell and wholesome fuel from heaven. “There is a bright future ahead, and it comes from the sun.”
That said, the industry faces big challenges to shift public policy, improve transmission — and access to transmission — and figure out what public land can be appropriately used for large centralized solar projects, he said. Concentrating solar-thermal projects have very specific needs, and only a few pieces of land are suitable, but these projects are key for solar to gain a more significant piece of the U.S. energy portfolio. Rooftop PV can’t do it alone, he said. “We need a real analysis of the land to figure out which land should be preserved, because it is critical for wildlife, and what land should be used for solar thermal, and those places should be…put aside right now.”
Kennedy also urged the renewable-energy industry to make natural gas companies their friends. While many natural-gas companies still see themselves as more aligned with oil and coal than with renewables, some — such as Chesapeake Energy and T. Boone Pickens’ company, Mesa Power — have begun to realize they are environmentalists, Kennedy said.
He acknowledged the environmental impacts of fracking natural-gas wells, but called natural gas a “natural ally” for renewable energy because it’s the cleanest of the fossil fuels and it’s needed to balance out variable sources of power, such as solar and wind, until a better storage solution is developed. According to Kennedy, overturning “insane” rules in all 50 states that require utilities to dispatch coal plants before natural gas plants — which now cause gas-fired power plants to sit idle 62 percent of the time while coal plants are working 99 percent of the time — would reduce national carbon emissions by 25 percent without having to build a single new plant.
Photo courtesy of Solar Power International