Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Talks Alternative Energy, Solar Power

How could the United States — and the Hudson Valley — benefit from alternate forms of energy, like solar power?

In June, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. (son of Bobby Kennedy and a Senior Attorney with the National Resources Defense Fund) spoke at the Commonwealth Club of California as part of its Climate One program. I was lucky enough to catch most of the broadcast on WAMC while driving home last week. Kennedy’s articulate, no-holds-barred dissection of America’s dysfunctional energy policies and practices — and what we could do to fix it — was so engaging, I had to pull over so I could take notes (and to gesticulate wildly and yell in agreement without fear of head-on collision).

It wasn’t just his matter-of-fact treatment of our politics that got me so excited: As a parent who stresses about her child’s future many, many times a day, I appreciate hope. Kennedy wasn’t just bashing the system; he was offering constructive, solution-oriented ideas to make America energy-independent, which, according to him, would restore wealth to the nation as well as help us do our part to slow down climate change (other perks include free energy forever and one less reason to go to war). “We are at the tipping point,” he said. “Sit back and watch the cascade.”

Here are some of my favorite points from his lecture. I strongly encourage you to listen to it in its entirety here.

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  • According to a recent report in Scientific American, if a 75-by-75-mile solar field was installed in the barren desert of the American Southwest, it could power the entire country (at current consumption levels) indefinitely.
  • North Dakota is the windiest place at sea level in the world. Everyone from T. Boone Pickens (the legendary Texas oil mogul) to Warren Buffett wants to build wind turbines in North Dakota. The farmers do, too — a cornfield worth $800 is worth $3,000 with a turbine. The only problem is that, with the country’s current “stupid” power grid, the energy generated by the turbines would never make it out of state. President Obama recently began publicizing plans for a smart grid.
  • Any country that has transitioned to energy independence has immediately seen its national wealth increase. In the late ’70s, Iceland went from being the poorest country in Europe to the fourth richest country in the world, just by becoming energy independent. This year Brazil will displace France as the fourth wealthiest country on the planet — they are energy independent.
  • An adequate smart grid would cost around 250 billion dollars, which is equal to four months of the Iraq war.
  • Solar-thermal power plants, like the brand new Ivanpah in California’s Mojave Desert, are not only far cheaper to build than coal, oil, or nuclear plants, they also take less than half the time (three as opposed to 10 years) and, once completed, promise free, clean energy forever.
  • “In order to save our environment, we must first save our democracy.” Kennedy is an advocate for a true free market economy, where the marketplace rewards “good behavior” (efficiency and sustainability) not the dirty, destructive, immoral behavior of the “energy incumbents” coal, oil, and gas. Kennedy pointedly addresses the overwhelming corporate control at play in American politics, and suggests that, until that power is tempered, all the green technology in the world won’t do anything.

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