Ever since the White House declared energy independence a matter of national security, some unlikely evangelists in the Bush administration have been belting out the clean energy gospel. Case in point: Last week, Gale Norton presided over the first national renewable energy summit in history, co-hosted by the Departments of Interior and Energy.

Gale Norton.

With its cathedral ceilings and filigreed moldings, the conference room in the Interior building seemed, at first, like an unusually stately setting for such an event. After all, the renewable energy revolution has generally been regarded — not least by the two federal agencies throwing the event — as flower-power fringe.

But a sea change was in the air. For starters, the summit boasted standing-room only. The audience lined the walls, spilled out of the French doors, and even doubled up on the extra folding chairs. Senators, uniformed military officers, countless administrators from the DOE and DOI, and executives from Enron, BP Solar, and Seimens, among others, assembled before a stage-mounted conference table and a giant billboard sporting the slogan, “Expand Renewable Energy For National Security.”

I have followed the renewable energy movement from Dumptruck, Oregon, to Beeswax, Idaho. I’ve talked to long-haired, off-the-grid gurus and San Francisco solar energy sultans. So scanning the double-starched audience, I got the distinct feeling that renewable energy was finally breaking free from the hippie homestead. And what with the national security propaganda sharing space with wall-mounted charts showing plunging prices for wind and solar power, I couldn’t help but believe that an unprecedented convergence of forces — political crisis, technological advancement, economic feasibility — was finally thrusting renewable energy into the mainstream.

Defense Mechanism

Like her boss, Gale Norton is infamous for fumbling her words; perhaps so we could catch her in the act, she had her preamble typed up and distributed on printed flyers. From her master-of-ceremonies position at the center of the conference table, Norton clutched a printed flyer close to her nose and read aloud her opening statement: “For those who love history, it was in this very room that the Joint Chiefs of Staff mapped the strategies that won World War II. So this room is exactly the right place to map plans to improve national security through increased energy security.”

Capturing the sun’s rays in the name of
national security.

Photo: NREL.

From the get-go, Norton made it unapologetically obvious that renewable energy is relevant to the Bush administration not because it spares our environment, but because it abets our war effort. “Our mission is simple and noble,” Norton continued. “We must explore ways to better capture the sun’s light, the sky’s winds, the land’s bounty, and the earth’s heat to provide energy security for America’s families.”

Flushed and beaming from this poetic flourish, Norton called to the stage her “energy security ‘joint chiefs of staff,’ the generals who will be developing our plans for energy security.” A motley bunch culled from various federal agencies, the energy chiefs exuded a kind of utopian spirit I haven’t encountered since following the Grateful Dead. Jim Connaughton, the balding, bespectacled chair of President Bush’s Council on Environmental Quality, was the first to spring to the stand.

“I just want to remind everybody that this is a really exciting subject. We should all remember that this is truly exciting!” he shouted, punching the air with his fists. “A new era of productive harmony between industry and natural resources is dawning. The president himself said recently, ‘I hope that some day these renewables will be the dominant source of energy in America.’”

Soon Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Reps. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.) took their turns at the pulpit, trading jokes that their states would outpace the others as the Saudi Arabias of wind and solar development. The group hug got weirder still when the Department of Defense joined in. “I commend you Madam Secretary,” said DOD Undersecretary Ray DuBois, who served with Rumsfeld in the Nixon administration. “We at Defense will do anything we can to aggressively pursue the pursuit of renewable energy sources on military lands.” Beat that for a sentence you weren’t expecting to hear in your lifetime. DuBois went on to explain that DOD uses 25 million acres of public U.S. land for combat training and weapons testing and evaluation, and is developing plans for solar, wind, and geothermal projects at military bases nationwide.

A Skunk at the Garden Party

With all the eager-beaver, sunshine-and-roses commentary coming from the administrators, it was hard to remember that the purpose of the summit was to determine how the Bush administration can work with the private sector to develop renewable energy projects on public lands. It was even harder to remember how tuned-out the administration and its predecessor have been to renewables to date. Despite the abundance of open land in this country suitable for alternative power generation — Nevada’s salt flats, Arizona’s deserts, the Dakota plains, not to mention endless acres of roof-tops, strip malls, and landfills — only 2 percent of the entire U.S. energy supply comes from renewables (not counting hydro), and only a fraction of that supply is generated on public lands.

But the potential for the development of renewables in the U.S. is staggering. According to Jack Stone at the DOE’s National Renewable Energy Lab, the entire U.S. electricity load could be generated by a swath of solar panels covering just 100 square miles. According to NREL’s Wind Resource Atlas, good wind areas, which cover 6 percent of the country, have the potential to supply more than one and a half times the nation’s electricity load. One of the primary reasons we’re not making headway on these fronts is that the Department of Interior makes it very difficult for private companies to get permits for renewable energy projects on public lands.

“You’ll have to forgive me for being the skunk at the garden party,” snapped Jonathan Weisgall, vice president of Mid American Energy Holdings Company and president of Geothermal Energy Association, at the beginning of the first panel, “but the horror stories are out there.” Weisgall went on to describe a number of companies that have waited between 10 and 20 years to get their lease applications approved — and in some cases rejected. “Look at your manpower resources, Madam Secretary,” he demanded. “You need to expedite. Ask yourself how many people you have working on oil, gas, coal lease applications. And how many people do you have working on renewables?” Norton remained silent, with good reason: While the Department of Interior employs several thousand people to manage oil, gas, and coal leasing, it employs just a few dozen to manage leases for renewable energy (again, not counting hydro).

Every member of the geothermal panel echoed Weisgall’s sentiments, as did nearly every member of the wind, solar, and biomass panels. The key to streamlining the agency’s expensive, protracted permitting process, most panel members argued, is staffing. “Wind energy is clearly not a priority for federal agencies. Both Bureau of Land Mangement and Fish and Wildlife Service are really understaffed. There are only two people that I know of who have taken the time to get some knowledge or awareness of wind energy,” said Mike Azeka, senior vice president of project planning and permitting at SeaWest Windpower Corp.

Part of the reason that renewables permits aren’t a priority
for the DOI, of course, is that billions of dollars in royalties are generated annually from fossil fuel prospecting on public lands, whereas no royalties whatsoever can, as of yet, be collected on renewable generation such as solar and wind. Another problem panel members cited is that none of the federal royalties from renewable energy projects on Native American reservations are shared with local tribes, so the tribes have been understandably reluctant to cooperate with companies that want to develop on their land.

As the criticisms rolled in, Norton nodded, smiled, scribbled a few notes, and hardly uttered a peep. “I’m here to listen,” she kept reminding the audience, which eventually seemed to be her way of saying, “I have no idea what you’re talking about, or how to fix this problem, or whether I even believe it’s a problem in the first place.” At a press briefing, reporters challenged her on the administration’s refusal to mandate that a certain percentage of the nation’s power supply come from renewable resources. (Some advocates have suggested 8 percent by the year 2010.) “It’s important that we have [national energy security] as our primary goal,” Norton told a reporter from the Houston Chronicle. “We don’t want to artificially shut off one avenue of achieving that security in the name of meeting some kind of fixed formula.”

Well, would she commit to boosting the number of DOI staffers on renewable energy projects in order to streamline the permitting process? Not quite. In fact, the day before the conference, Norton sent a memo to Interior employees announcing her plans to downsize the DOI by transferring more than 3,500 government jobs to private contractors. As the rather depressing testimonies from the private sector wore on, the conference room began to empty out. The summit, which began with a patriotic bang, seemed to be going out with the whimper of a feckless publicity stunt. To make matters worse, Norton herself took leave for an hour (during the biomass panel, which was admittedly a snore), saying she’d been called to the White House for a meeting. By the time she got back, nearly half the room was empty.

And Now for Something Completely Different

Just when things were in danger of fizzling out altogether, Norton introduced Randy Udall for a final catch-all panel entitled “Environmental, Utilities, and Hydropower Discussion.” Udall directs the Community Office of Resource Efficiency in Aspen, Colo., and was, not surprisingly, the only environmental NGO representative among all the speakers. In her introduction, Norton wondered aloud whether Randy was related to Rep. Mark Udall (D-Colo.).

“I’m his brother, Madam Secretary. We’re everywhere. There’s a saying in Colorado that Udalls are so numerous you can’t piss without hitting one of them,” Udall quipped, with the obvious and immediately successful aim of blasting through the torpor that hung over the room.

Udall did not pause to let the crowd’s laughter explode into a roar. “The energy flows into our spectacular civilization are impossible for most people to grasp,” he declaimed. A barrage of statistics ensued. “We are 4 percent of the world’s people and we use 25 percent of the world’s oil. … U.S. has already depleted over two-thirds of our known oil reserves. … Of the 4.6 million wells worldwide, 3.4 million have been drilled in this country. … On average, each American consumes the equivalent of 90 pounds of coal per person per day, which translates into eight gallons of gasoline, or a dumpster of natural gas per day, per person.”

As Udall rattled off his statistics, a flurry of slides flashed up on the screen with charts and giant warning signs: GONE! 80 PERCENT OF TEXAS OIL HAS BEEN USED. IT’S DOWNHILL FROM HERE! A chart showing U.S. natural gas production, which peaked in 1973, read: ALL THIS GAS IS GONE. HISTORY!

Interspersed among the statistics were photographs, including one of a hunter aiming his double-barrel rifle at his delicately extended foot. “The president’s energy plan passed in the House,” deadpanned Udall, “but it ran into trouble in the Senate. Next!”

The point of Udall’s performance was simple: This administration is drilling, digging, sucking, and burning every iota of natural resources known to humanity. Policy makers are trying to pull off a short-term, short-sighted energy plan by throwing brittle, meatless bones — this conference among them — to environmentalists and the public. Moreover, it is clear that the Bush administration sees only the short-term relevance of renewable energy to national security, not its long-term potential to mitigate grave environmental concerns.

By the end of his agitprop, Udall was red in the face, hunched over on the conference table, propped up on his fists, looking Norton dead in the eye. “We don’t need niceties!” his anguished expression seemed to exhort. “We need a sense of urgency!”

“Thank you for keeping us all awake, Mr.Udall,” Norton quietly replied. “It’s always helpful to have a little bit of humor.”