Offering Hope for the Planet: Q&A with Environmental Defense Fund President

12/14/10 by Kathy Chaffin

Almost three years since the release of "Earth: The Sequel -- The Race to Reinvent Energy and Stop Global Warming," coauthor and longtime Environmental Defense Fund President Fred Krupp said he remains hopeful that there is still time to save the planet. Entrepreneurs are creating products and processes that accomplish everything from improving the efficiency of solar cells to lessening auto emissions.

Krupp, who wrote the book with EDF staff member and former journalist Miriam Horn, pointed out, however, that his definition of hope is "a verb with its sleeves rolled up."

"I'm hopeful in that I and so many people around the world are working on it ...." he said. "What gives me hope is that, despite the United States' failure to pass climate legislation this year, other countries are moving ahead to pioneer technologies and new agreements to reduce pollution."

In November, for example, Krupp said the governors of California, Acre, Brazil and Chiapas, Mexico agreed to "a system that will give companies the ability to comply with California's climate change law by reducing the emissions from the rain forest."

And this month, he said the World Bank will announce a $30 million program to help China and other developing nations create emissions trading systems in their countries. "So I think the world is clearly moving ahead," Krupp said, "and I think ultimately, the United States will, too.

"Just put simply, I think the opportunity here for U.S. companies to compete in these markets is just too big for us to pass it up." Krupp and Horn will speak at Catawba College on Thursday, Jan. 20. Scheduled for 6 p.m. in Keppel Auditorium in the Robertson College Community Center, the program is hosted by the Center for the Environment. Though free and open to the public, registration is required.

"Earth: The Sequel" highlights innovators and risk-takers who "are pushing technology to the limit to find the newest, cleanest and most abundant ways to power the planet."

Krupp has headed the Environmental Defense Fund for 26 years. Under his leadership, the small advocacy nonprofit with a budget of $3 million has grown into a worldwide leader in the environmental movement with 350 full-time staff members and a membership exceeding 500,000.

He is widely recognized as the foremost champion of harnessing market forces for environmental ends, such as the market-based acid rain reduction plan in the 1990 Clean Air Act that The Economist hailed as "the greatest green success story of the past decade."

Krupp broke new ground by engaging American companies such as McDonald's, FedEx and DuPont to lessen their impact on the environment. He also helped launch the U.S. Climate Action Partnership with Fortune 500 members such as Alcoa, GE and DuPont calling for strict limits on global warming pollution.

Krupp talked recently with Kathy Chaffin of the Center for the Environment. This is an edited transcript of that conversation:

Q: Of the entrepreneurs and companies highlighted in the book, which one – or two – has made the greatest progress?

A: "Most of the young start-ups I wrote about are thriving, but I recently visited one of the most successful and saw Conrad Burke, the CEO of Innovalight. I had time to visit him in his Silicon Valley headquarters. ...

"Conrad and Innovalight have signed contracts to sell their (nano silicon) ink to be printed on top of conventional solar cells to three of the biggest solar cell manufacturers in the world. All three of them happen to be in China.

"That is a very big contract that will be making these solar cells more efficient. Conrad himself was recently named the (2010) Ernst & Young's Emerging Entrepreneur of the Year.

"I guess a second one would be eSolar, which is contracted to build close to four gigawatts of solar thermal power plants in the Southwest United States and China and India and Spain ... and also in South Africa. So that would be a second one that has been hugely successful."

 Q: If you were to write a sequel to "Earth: The Sequel," what entrepreneurs and companies that have surfaced since the first book would you include?

A: "I've recently met with a company focused on carbon capture that is developing a system for removing carbon dioxide from the air using low-temperature waste heat from solar farms. Making this work at reasonable cost will be a challenge, but I am pleased to see companies trying to meet that challenge.

"A lot of companies you might not expect have dived into energy innovation. Intel, for instance, is working on something called 'inference sensing' that will allow them to sniff out how much electricity various appliances in your home or building are using -- without the need for advanced meters or any other hardwired technology.

"They're also developing 'cyber-physical' control systems capable of, for example, sensing the number of people in a room and the laptops they're running to adjust thermostats dynamically in response to the heat those bodies and computers are generating."

Q: In your opinion, what green technology appears to be the most promising?

A: "Since the book, solar power and other technologies have really plummeted in price. So the new focus is on the smart network that will enable us to pour huge amounts into these intermittent renewable power sources without destabilizing the grid and also to smart-charge electric vehicles and other storage devices with cheap carbon-free electricity.

"We are working on smart-grid demonstration projects in several cities around the United States, including Charlotte, N.C., with companies like Cisco and Oracle, Google and GE, which see it as the future of their businesses. The one I would highlight to you in which (coauthor) Miriam (Horn) and I plan to spend some time on when we are at the college is the smart grid. The way I see it is what the Internet did for telecommunications and media, the smart grid will do to break open energy markets to creative entrepreneurs.

"In Charlotte, for instance, I think it can reduce energy use in the downtown buildings by 20 percent in five years, which if you wanted a number ... over 200,000 tons of greenhouse gases could be reduced by 2016. It's a technology that we really did not spend time on in the book, but has emerged since then."

Q: What is the latest on biofuels or other solutions to lessening emissions causing air pollution?

A: "One of the greatest benefits of the smart grid is that it allows us to smooth out our demand for power avoiding the need to build and run these peaking plants. We could avoid having to build 1,500 such peaking plants, according to FERC, which stands for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. So that's important because it's those peaking plants that cover the demand in the dead of summer when it's so hot and there's so much demand for electricity to run our air conditioners.

"If we can avoid having to build those peaking plants, we could avoid a lot of air pollution because those plants tend to be inefficient and dirty and located near urban cities where they do the most damage to public health.

"But beyond that, you mentioned biofuels. I serve the Secretary of the Navy as an adviser to him on his advisory panel on these subjects. They are working to green our Armed Forces, and in that capacity, I've had the opportunity to meet companies like Solezyne. It uses algae to convert sugar to fuel and recently won an award in California. The name of the award is kind of interesting; it's called the 'Breathe Award.' It recently won this Breathe Award from California for reducing the emissions from cars.

"Now the Navy's focus, of course, is on national security. They want to reduce our dangerous dependence on foreign oil imports, and they also recognize climate change as a threat to national security. But this same technology that Solezyne is working on both reduces air pollution and helps with those national security concerns as well."

 Q: Is the government/Congress doing all it can to help solve global warming? What are the greatest obstacles in the political arena?

A: "I'd have to say the U.S. is lagging behind much of the world both in terms of investments in these new technologies and also in creating the policies that can spur financial private investments in these clean energy technologies that there's going to be growing demand for all over the world.

"This last year, we had a big setback when the United States Senate didn't pass energy and climate legislation, but you know, setbacks are part and parcel with making progress. You ask about the obstacles: I would say passing energy and climate legislation has always been a difficult thing, but it's not impossible and in the next few years, we're going to redouble our efforts to depolarize the debate and lay the groundwork for bipartisan legislation based on the fact that both of our parties have common goals of energy independence, new jobs and clean air for all Americans.

"That is our focus, and if I had to just pick one thing to say is the greatest obstacle, it would be how polarized this issue has become. I don't think we're going to decarbonize America until we depolarize the issue."

Q: If you were asked to give a "State of the Earth" address, what would you say?

A: “I'd say that there's a new and quickly growing divide between countries which are moving to clean up climate change pollution and modernize their energy infrastructures and those which are not.

"Unfortunately, the United States is on the wrong side of that divide right now, and if we stay there, we will cede the $2-trillion global energy market to the rest of the world and remain dependent on others for our energy whether it's importing oil or importing solar cells. And that will also jeopardize the only habitat that we have."

 Q: What do you believe is the most important role of the Environmental Defense Fund in reinventing energy and educating the public on what must be done to save the planet?

A: "EDF's energy and corporate partnerships programs are doing lots of work to advance energy efficiency, which is the cheapest way to get big carbon savings quickly. Our climate core interns -- MBA students from schools like Duke and UVA that we train and embed in big companies -- do a cost-benefit analysis of efficiency investments.

"We were at 47 leading companies this year, including eBay, McDonald's and Target. They identified $350,000 million in potential cost savings and 400,000 tons of annual greenhouse gas reductions.

"We now have a core of students doing similar work in historic black colleges and mega-churches in the Southeast building new constituencies for clean and efficient energy. Other projects we have include working with banks and real estate developers to find innovative financing for energy-efficiency investments in big commercial buildings to build in safety protocols for fracking natural gas (a process that creates fractures in rocks to increase the output of a well) to protect water supplies in communities, working to get the rules right to develop a smart gird in a way that delivers significant carbon reductions.

"And one of the ways that the smart grid will do that will be by letting customers see and mange their energy usage, their energy bills and their carbon footprints.”

Q: What can/must individuals do to help?

A: "Just one thing. I would say call their congressman and senators and tell them it's time for the United States to put partisan politics aside and begin investing in a clean, safe energy future for our country."

Q: Based on the current state of the planet, how do you see life in the future being different from the life we now know?

A: "I think we can have a safe future and a better future if we make the investments necessary to stabilize the climate and ensure that the United States remains competitive in the clean energy economy and create a lot of good new jobs.

"EDF is building demonstrations of that future in places like Austin, Texas. Folks there in what we call our 'Pecan Street Project' will be able to make their own clean power, sell it back to the grid or use it to charge their cars. They'll be able to program their appliances to talk to each other and to the grid and run only when they have access to electricity that is cheap and clean.

"Then they'll be able to sell megawatts – the energy they don't use – back to their utility when the price is right.

"I see a world that is made up of locally made energy, local jobs, customer choice and control of clean air and water and reduced greenhouse gases, but it's a future we have to consciously choose and build."

Register to hear Krupp and Horn at or call the Center at 704-637-4727.


The Center for the Environment at Catawba College was founded in 1996 to provide education and outreach centered on prevalent environmental challenges and to foster community-oriented sustainable solutions that can serve as a model for programs throughout the country.


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