Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Sierra Club director says U.S. energy future "totally up for grabs"

Posted By on Tue, Dec 4, 2012 at 11:19 AM

Mary Anne Hitt with the Sierra Club
  • Mary Anne Hitt with the Sierra Club
For years, environmentalists have boasted about how clean sources of energy like wind and solar would be the future of how we keep ourselves powered in the U.S. Critics have scoffed at the idea saying even though it's nice to have cleaner fuels, there simply aren't enough to cover our needs.

But Mary Anne Hitt from the Sierra Club said that's starting to change.

"I think the exciting thing that's happening right now is that America's energy future is totally up for grabs, and wind and solar are being installed at record levels. They're just blowing through the predictions," Hitt said.

As the director of the organization's Beyond Coal Campaign, Hitt has an interest in seeing clean energy replace aging coal power plants that move off the grid, which she said is happening now.

"I think we have 50,000 megawatts of wind now installed in this country ... that's like 50 plus coal plants worth of wind power around the country, and the more we install, the faster prices are going down. So I think we're really at a tipping point at scale and being competitive," she said.

Hitt said the country is getting approximately four to five percent of its energy needs supplied by wind and solar, but estimates that in states like Iowa and South Dakota, it's more like 20 percent.

"Politicians are really pushing wind power because it has been a big economic boon," she said.

Natural gas and shale gas are the biggest game changers when it comes to new energy supplies in America. Often they are extracted through the controversial technique of fracking, which comes with serious environmental concerns. Hitt said the Sierra Club hasn't come out with a moratorium against the technique, but fracking is creating "huge problems" for its members, as well as for the climate

The Sierra Club created the Beyond Coal Campaign after George W. Bush and Dick Cheney were elected more than a decade ago, as they were both big proponents of coal energy.

"Ten years later, we've had a lot of success," she said, adding that 174 coal power plants were closed down in that time. Concurrently, about a dozen have been built since then. "We're still fighting quite a few," she admitted.

"It's also forced some hard decisions about existing coal plants because they're not going to be replaced with more coal. Then they either have to be retrofitted, which is very costly, or retired and replaced with clean energy. So we now have shifted our focus to retiring existing power coal plants," she said.

She said Florida has some coal plants that the Sierra Club thinks are due for retirement, with the best known being the plant in Crystal River.

Hitt was in town on Monday to celebrate the grand opening of the Sierra Club's new state headquarters, touted as St. Petersburg's first self-sustaining, net zero building, located at the corner of 20th Street and Central Avenue.

She said seeing people from all political strips at the grand opening — such as St. Pete Mayor Bill Foster, City Councilman Karl Nurse, and a variety of local small business owners — was an example of how clean energy brings people together.

"Because it's the right thing to do," she said.

Hitt said she believes that any governor or state legislator can lead on working for cleaner energy.

"It's not a partisan issue," she said, though she knows it is one in many quarters of the country to this day.

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