Former head of NREL says Silicon Valley can lead the way in renewables

In a recent interview with Renewable Energy Magazine, Denis Hayes, the first head of the US Solar Energy Research Institute (now known as the National Renewable Energy Laboratory) spoke about the challenges faced in bringing public and political opinion round to ramping up renewable energy use as part of the fight against climate change.
Former head of NREL says Silicon Valley can lead the way in renewables

Denis Hayes, who was also the coordinator for the first Earth Day in 1970 and is now President of the Bullitt Foundation, believes the US renewable energy sector has been playing catch up since Ronald Reagan was elected to power.

“To put it more simply, I’d say yes, the pivotal point was the election of Ronald Reagan, and frankly that came as a surprise to virtually all of us, because when Reagan was a radio commentator immediately before being elected president, he had two or three programs during which he expressed robust enthusiasm for renewable energy – particularly distributed technologies that returned power to community and individuals and left them less dependent on the state and large, faceless corporations. But once elected president, well, let me put it this way: I don’t know who wrote his radio scripts, but they certainly didn’t write his policies,” comments Hayes.

“If we can begin to have spokespeople who are quite confident in the way that they express themselves, humble in their demeanour – not being people who become a[s bombastic as] Rush Limbaugh – but who speak with what Mark Twain once characterized as ‘the calm confidence of a Christian holding four aces’… I think if we can pull that together…we still might have a chance,” says Denis Hayes during January’s interview with our US correspondent, Dan McCue.

Hayes goes on: “I’d say that there is still 50 percent of the US population that is still sort of still up for grabs, people who are never going to be reading the articles in Science and Nature or the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, but who are willing to listen -- particularly after we see mounting evidence month after month after month of new weather extremes being visited upon us.”

The former head of the NREL spoke to Dan McCue just after a new Congress came to power in the United States about the concerns of advocates for climate change legislation who predict the new Congress will not be as enthusiastic about improving the US’s policy on carbon emissions reductions. “It would be pretty difficult to view federal policy on anything that effects carbon emissions optimistically, given the articulated views of the leadership and the rank and file of the party now in control of the US House of Representatives,” says Hayes, although he remains more optimistic about the future for renewable energy.

“There is some scepticism in some quarters. There are those who think that this is somehow “liberal” energy or something; but at the same time the renewable energy sector is pretty strongly imbued with the entrepreneurial spirit, it’s involved in decreasing our reliance on fragile imported sources of oil, it’s achieved a high degree of support from many of the US military services, perhaps, most emphatically, the US Navy,” he explains, adding that “It also plays a potentially important role with the advent of electric vehicles. So I mean, there’s a whole bunch of rationales that with the right packaging and the right spokespeople could perhaps be persuasive across the political spectrum.”

Hayes remains positive about the future of renewable in the US, citing the fact that Obama’s administration is “at least not antagonistic” toward renewables and has appointed a Secretary of Energy [Steven Chu] “who has a solid scientific background unlike, essentially, every one of his predecessors, and who’s prepared to be broadly supportive”.

“There was an awful lot of money that flowed into [renewable energy] as part of the economic stimulus program in the US, this is not so much a policy choice as a desire to distribute a whole bunch of purchasing power and some of it went into this field. Had that been spent over four years or had they been given six months to prepare, I think it could have been spent more wisely, but nonetheless it was a big boost,” says Hayes.

“Second, we now see the military coming into the renewable energy sector pretty strongly and particularly the US Navy, Army and Marines,” he adds. “And then the final thing, that has nothing to do with government but it’s really important, is that Silicon Valley has awakened to these things… think that is a segment of the American economy that has historically been on the edgiest part of our global competitiveness and to the extent that they get engaged in renewable energy, it has to be a plus, a huge plus.”

To read the full interview, click here:

Interview with Denis Hayes, President of the Bullitt Foundation

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