Alexis Madrigal on Powering the Dream (Podcast)

TreeHugger: Explain that a little bit more. What do you mean by that larger system?

Alexis Madrigal: Well let's just take solar power for example. What we need there is we need better intelligence around the entire grid so that we know exactly what's happening and what that means.

So you've got all these distributor generation sources. You need information flowing from them to the utilities so that the utilities don't accidentally say, "Oh, we don't have enough power coming," or, "We have too much power coming," and they change things on the grid. You need changes to the way that the grid operates, you need changes to the policies that regulate how much the people who are generating their own solar electricity get paid.

So for a long time those people couldn't connect into the grid, even though it made a lot of sense for them to be able to do that. And those were big fights in the early history of solar electricity, just to be able to have solar panels on your roof and be able to plug them into the grid.

If we're really thinking broadly here about a solar powered society, you would also need a way to electrify cars in a lot of ways, and you'd need ways of shaping the demand around cars, which means you need to change a lot of things around the actual substations at the neighborhood level, at the state level, at the national level.

We need new transmission lines. There are so many different pieces, and that doesn't even account for stuff like better ways of installing solar panels on roofs, so they cost less money, so they're lighter.

I can keep going, but I'll give you one more example. Real estate developers need to get on board to build in solar at the beginning of projects so that people don't have to do it on their own. Also, innovative leasing programs are ways of reducing the initial cost of solar. All of these things are attacking different small pieces of the same problem. When we say we should use more renewable energy, really what we mean is like 25 things.

TH: How do you think the American public perceives environmentalism today?

Madrigal: Yeah. Part of the problem here is that environmentalism has actually been incredibly successful in dealing with the problems that were most apparent to people. There's been great work done by a guy named Adam Rome-an environmentalist historian and long-time editor of The Journal of Environmental History-about the origins of the U.S. environmental movement.

I think a lot of ecologists like to point to Rachel Carson and Paul Ehrlich, elite thinkers around ecosystems. But really, a lot of his work had to do with local touch points for people. We were suburbanizing the country, so people were moving out to the edges of rural areas and then watching those rural areas be destroyed. And they were actual big problems with air quality, with water quality.

So the landmark legislation has passed in the early 70s and signed by Richard Nixon around the Clean Air and Water Act, Endangered Species Act, etc. Those things eliminated a lot of the obvious environmental problems that were current in the U.S. and it made things a lot more subtle.

It's a little bit like racism, like when you get rid of Jim Crow laws it's not as if racism goes away, but it takes away the obvious moral problems that everyone can see and agree on.

That's a little bit what's happened with environmentalism. The success of the environmental movement has made what been done sort of invisible, because now we all just assume that when you turn on the tap water there's not all kinds of chemicals in it. But you couldn't always assume that unless there were environmental regulations.

That's a big part of the problem; the success of the movement has made it seem less relevant, even though it's not.

The other thing is (and this is a larger movement and may be a way out of that problem), that type of environmentalism that I was just describing is actually very human centered. If you think about it, it's about people's drinking water, it's about your mom-or really more like our grandparents-looking at their kids and being like, "Is my kid going to be OK?" It's about protecting the environment for humans.

I get a lot of flack from the more wildnernessy side of the environmental movement for advocating this, but I think really the rhetorical focus has to be on people, and making things good for people. It's not that the wilderness stuff isn't important, it's not that conservation isn't important, but I just think that it reaches its political potential really quickly.

And if you want to build a movement that's ready to tackle climate change, which is really the challenge for our generation of environmentalists, telling the story of polar bears gets you only X number of people. When really you need five-X those number of people to care in order to actually change the energy system, which is what needs to happen.

This is obviously a huge issue and it's hard to give it the central treatment that I'd like to, but the basics of my position here is that focusing on people is the way forward for environmentalism, and that there are really good examples of this working in the past.

TH: The last chapter of "Powering the Dream" is called "Re-humanizing Environmentalism" and you write about this ongoing story of tortoises and solar farms way out in the desert. What's the lesson to be learned from this tale?

Madrigal: The big debate in the Mojave Desert is that there is an endangered species called the desert tortoise, which is a wonder of nature. Desert tortoises happen to like these broad flat valleys in the Mojave Desert.

Unfortunately, those same broad flat valleys are also ideal for massive solar thermal farms. So some people say don't put the farms in. We'll just do it all with de-centralized photovoltaic technology on buildings and cities.

But other people say, "Hey look, there's been 900 total megawatts of photovoltaics ever installed in the United States, and just one of these installations could provide 375 megawatts of installed solar at a lower cost."

So the real debate is what do you do about these tortoises? How do you compare the loss of habitat (and in fact, the loss of some fairly small, but still significant, number of desert tortoises) with the desire to scale up and deploy clean technology?

That debate is right at the heart of what I think needs to change about the environmental movement. And the lesson is that our environmental movement has been set up around stopping things from getting built. It's been set up around preventing trees from being cut down, from preventing coal plants from being put in, preventing coal mines from operating, etc.

And that worked as long as you didn't have to build new stuff. But now, we're not just containing our energy system, but replacing it with low carbon sources, so it requires a different kind of movement. It requires a movement that's sharpened by the needs of having to create new technologies.

And ultimately that's a huge opportunity because that green technology is a way to assume the mantle of progress, which is really a popular narrative in the United States, one that environmentalism has oftentimes been played in opposition to.

If we want to build new technologies-and we do-we're going to end up with a more pragmatic environmental movement that's a little bit bigger, that has less distaste for capitalism, and that maybe even wants to co-opt its profit-making motivations to some higher purposes.

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