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Bob Keefe on the Campbell Conversations

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Program transcript:

Grant Reeher: Welcome to the Campbell Conversations, I'm Grant Reeher. My guest today is Bob Keefe. He's a former journalist and currently the executive director of E2, an organization of business leaders who advocate for clean energy. He's also the author of a new book titled, "Clean Economy Now: Stories from the Frontlines of an American Business Revolution". Mr. Keefe, welcome to the program.

Bob Keefe: Oh, Grant, it's great to be with you. Thank you so much.

GR: Well, we appreciate you making the time. So, let me just start with a real basic question about your organization. Just tell our listeners a bit about E2, you know, how it got started, what it does.

BK: Absolutely. So we are a national organization of more than 10,000 business leaders who work or do business in just about every state and just about every sector of the economy. And we advocate for policies that are good for both the economy and the environment. And we've had some great ones recently Grant, that I think we're going to talk about.

GR: That's great. Yeah, I would like to do that. Before we get into that, let me just also ask informationally, where does the organization get its funding? Is it from the member industries or of specific companies?

BK: Well, that's right. Our members are business people, not businesses. And they (leave it to) our organization to let us do our work.

GR: All right, okay, good. So, yeah, let's get into some of those examples. So, you know, your book relates a lot of really good stories that are out there about businesses and entrepreneurs doing creative things to transition to a cleaner economy. But if you had to pick like one or two of the best stories, maybe, maybe there's one in New York State to that you could talk about. But just to give us an idea of what you're excited about.

BK: Well, what I'm most excited about, Grant, is both the volume of the projects that are coming out of the ground are in the works in America now and where they're going. My organization, E2, has been tracking major clean energy projects announced since the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act 21 months ago. What we know now is that there are more than 300 major projects all around the country. We're talking about electric vehicle factories, battery plants in Upstate New York, for instance. Hydrogen plants being built by companies that are based in New York, solar panel factories, wind turbine factories. When in the world have we had more than 300 major factories and other projects coming out of the ground in America? I call it an economic revolution. We've had more than $120 billion worth of private sector investment. That's not government loans or grants, that's companies investing in America. And we've had more than a hundred thousand jobs announced because of these projects already and we're just getting started. If, if if we don't go backward and these policies are at threat right now, at risk, and hopefully we won't go the wrong way.

GR: Yeah, I wanted to get into some of that a little bit later, the policies and the political aspect of this. You mentioned Upstate New York. Can you say a little bit more about one or two of the projects that are there?

BK: Sure. Well, for instance, in Massena, a company called Air Products is investing $500 million to build a, what's called a green hydrogen plant that's going to produce hydrogen. Now, hydrogen is new for us, it's not new in the world. It's used in a lot of applications, but it's new in the clean energy space. But hydrogen has been called, for instance, the Swiss army knife of clean energy because it can be used in so many places. I was just in Cleveland, literally yesterday, meeting with the head of a steel manufacturing plant there outside of Cleveland that is converting away from coal fired furnaces to electric furnaces that can someday, that are also equipped to burn natural gas, but also equipped to burn hydrogen. And they are banking a lot of their future on being able to use this clean fuel to produce steel. Hydrogen also can be used to fly airplanes we know, and used in heavy trucking and things like that. So that's an example of a company doing good things. There's another company called Viridi Parente that's building a big factory up in Buffalo that's building lithium ion batteries. Toyota is investing in lithium ion batteries there outside of Rochester, General Motors is as well. Overall, we've tracked since the IRA, Grant, we've tracked a dozen projects in New York, $785 billion worth of investments. 3,000 jobs just in the state of New York. And again, this is just in the past 21 months.

GR: Yeah, that's quite impressive. So I wanted to ask you a little bit later about these social and political challenges, but let me ask you first, what are the biggest technical and economic challenges to transitioning away from fossil fuels?

BK: Well, you know, I spent, before I do what I do now Grant, I spent about 20 years as a journalist, and a lot of that time I spent as a technology journalist. So I covered the introduction of the iPod and the iPhone and the rise and fall of the Internet and the rise again of the Internet and all of this. And frankly, I've given up on guessing where technology's going to take us. But once you have the market signals to business, which is what we now have, businesses can figure this stuff out. And we're going to hydrogen as an example. Nobody thought about using hydrogen as a fuel 10, 20 years ago, but we're on the cusp of that. Nobody thought we'd be driving electric cars by now, but we are. The good news is the technology is here now, the technology has caught up with the problem. The policy has caught up with the problem, the human will has caught up with the problem. We all know we need to do something about climate change and making there a little cleaner and the water a little cleaner. The hope is, again, that we don't go backward on this stuff just when we're getting started.

GR: I’m Grant Reeher, you're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. And my guest is Bob Keefe, and we've been discussing his new book titled "Clean Economy Now: Stories from the Frontlines of an American Business Revolution". So, then, what I'm gathering from what I'm hearing so far is the challenge is really, are political and social. And so tell me what your take is and what your senses of that challenge and where we are.

BK: That's right. Well, first of all, the fact is there shouldn't be anything partisan or political about any of this. There shouldn't be anything that's political or partisan about creating jobs, driving economic growth, making America more competitive. And when you look at where these projects are going, Grant, as we did at my organization, of those 300 major clean energy projects that have been announced so far, 60% of them are in Republican congressional districts. 70% of all of the jobs that have been announced are in Republican congressional districts. 85% of all the money being invested by these companies is in Republican congressional districts. Not a single Republican passed or voted for the law that's making this happen. And we've already had 30 attempts in the U.S. House, including as recently as a couple of days ago or yesterday, really with the farm bill the House has tried to rollback or repeal parts of the policy driving all of this growth. Now, we all know there's a presidential election coming up, I'm not going to get into electoral politics, but we certainly know where both candidates stand on things like clean energy, on electric vehicles, on offshore wind, onshore wind, on climate change. So that uncertainty over their election is frankly already starting to cast a pall over this progress that we're just now beginning to see.

GR: Yeah, you know, you mentioned that 85% figure, 85% of the investment in Republican congressional districts. And I hope this doesn't sound too cynical, but what popped into my head when you said that was the idea of, well, maybe that suits the Republicans just fine because they can speak to their base and raising concerns about the transition and speaking in favor of fossil fuels to some degree, but then they get the benefits anyway of the transition because all this stuff is happening in their districts. I mean, that's kind of a politically sweet spot to be in, in a way.

BK: Well there's, yes. And folks start to look at this a little differently when, they view electric vehicles a little differently when they're building them in their backyards.

GR: Yeah.

BK: They view solar panels a little differently when it's creating thousands and thousands of jobs. I was recently as part of the book, I went down to Dalton, Georgia. I don't know if you ever been to Dalton but Dalton is a little town, It used to be the carpet capital of the world. If you wanted to have a job in Dalton, you had to work in carpet. Well, right now, a company called Qcells is building one of the biggest solar panel factories in the Western Hemisphere in Dalton, Georgia, creating 4000 jobs in that state. It happens to be in the district of Marjorie Taylor Greene, one of the most conservative, maybe not conservative, but one of the biggest flame throwers in the Republican Party right now.

GR: Yeah, I was going to say flamboyant but… (laughter) Well, you know, I wanted to ask you this bigger picture question about the role of government, taking politics out of it for a minute, but the role of government and the transition to clean energy, because you do talk a lot about that in the book. And it's not new for government to be critically involved in the emergence and the promotion and establishment of new technologies when they come along. I mean, the government subsidized the transcontinental railroads, for instance, they wouldn't have been built without them. So what's your vision of how you see government being involved in this instance with this transition?

BK: Well, Grant, my organization again, E2 got its start 25 years ago in California when California was considering what then were the first ever tailpipe emissions standards for vehicles in the world, the so-called California Clean Car standards. And our founders at the time were businesspeople, they saw what was happening in Sacramento, they saw the auto industry coming into Sacramento, the oil and gas industry coming into Sacramento and saying, oh, you crazy Californians, pass this law and it's going to kill our companies, we're not going to make cars in America anymore, California is going to go to hell and catch on fire and float in the Pacific, and it's going to be the end of the world. Well, our founders stood up and said, you know what? We don't know that much about making cars, we don't know that much about making petroleum, what we do know about is innovation. And what the right market signals from government, from government policies, we can, maybe these, again, 25 years ago, maybe those Prius thingies, these hybrid cars will be more commonplace and who knows, maybe even electric cars someday. And by the way, it's not a bad idea to clean up the air in California. So our founders saw that with the right market signal from government policy, we can drive innovation, we can change the world. And that's what's happening now. We have federal policies, finally, finally, finally, we decided to do something about climate change in this country. And it's creating what I believe is the biggest economic revolution we've seen in generations.

GR: So it's clear from what you're saying that, you know, the businesses have gotten the cues and they're able to make money at this and they see it's the future. So they're going to do the innovation. It may be tough to answer this but if you could imagine that government were not involved, it sounds like the transition would still happen, but it would take longer. Is that fair to say? And my question to you is, how much longer? I mean, do you have any idea?

BK: It would take too much longer is what I would say. And look, the proof is in the pudding. Again, 300 major projects around America, a $120 billion in private sector investment. That would not have happened, Grant, without the policies that were passed in Washington 21 months ago or 2 years ago. And that's again the Inflation Reduction Act, but it's also the bipartisan infrastructure bill and it's the CHIPS and Science Act, which invest in semiconductors that are key to a clean energy transition, generally. But here's the thing, it would take too long from a climate perspective for one thing, because remember, the reason we're doing all this stuff is to create and give us the tools we need to reduce our emissions in this country by 40% to 50% and meet our climate goal, the world's climate goals to keep to keep on track with that. But the other thing is, if we didn't do this, guess what? We would be beholden to other countries in the clean energy transition that is sweeping the world. Right now 90% of solar panels are built by China or other countries. Right now 80% of our batteries are built in one form or another by China. We couldn't even compete in this market before, but today, guess what? We have more than 40 battery factories coming out of the ground, including right there in Upstate New York. We have more than 35 solar panel factories being built in America right now because of these policies. So we're going to finally be able to compete in what is expected to be a $23 trillion global market for this stuff. That's amazing.

GR: You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher and I'm talking with Bob Keefe is the executive director of an organization called E2. And we're discussing his new book titled "Clean Economy Now: Stories from the Frontlines of an American Business Revolution". So, Bob, I was glad to see this in your book, you've got a chapter on equity in clean energy. And it does often seem like, you know, when you think about solar panels, you've mentioned those a few times or electric cars, they're almost things that almost seem like luxury items for those who are better off. I mean, you don't normally see solar panels on the roofs of cheap houses, a higher end Tesla costs more than most people make in a year. So how is clean energy related to concerns about equity and socioeconomic inequality?

BK: Well, for starters, you're exactly right, Grant. Look, not only are the majority of purchasers of things like electric vehicles or solar panels affluent white folks, the majority of people who work in clean energy right now are predominantly white men. African-Americans make up something like 16% of the overall U.S. workforce, they make up about 6% of clean energy. Women make up almost 50% of the U.S. workforce, they make up less than 20% I think in in clean energy. The policies that were passed in Washington try to address this in a few ways. First of all, there's something called the Justice 40 program, which means that 40% of all of the government's investments in clean energy projects are going to go into underserved communities and communities of color, for instance. There's also something called Community Benefits programs, which means that any time one of these companies goes into a region, they've got to work really closely with the community to develop that project and address community needs. That's something that's new in government expansion. We didn't have that when the railroads were going through, we didn't have that when the Interstate Highway Program was happening, we didn't have it when the moonshot was happening for that matter. And then finally, there's something called the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund which just got released, I think. It essentially sets aside billions of dollars to help bring some of these clean energy advantages to low income communities and communities of color, but also help the entrepreneurs in those communities get engaged and get up and running with clean energy companies to support those communities themselves. This is a new way of doing economic development in America, and hopefully it's going to finally address some of those issues of inequity.

GR: I wanted to ask you a couple of questions now that I hear when I hear the pushback on some of the evangelists like yourself, you know, talking about the benefits of clean energy, and one is regarding electric cars and other things that have these lithium batteries. For example, I have an electric lawnmower with a battery. I love it, by the way, it's lighter than my gas mower, it's quieter, it's my favorite gadget. But you do hear concerns about what we do with all these spent batteries because, you know, they have a lifespan and they pose certain environmental risks and they contain some pretty dangerous compounds of materials. So, you know, what's your response to that concern?

BK: Well, my first response is, yes, we need to pay absolute attention to that. And if only we would have paid that much attention to when it came to burning oil and gas and coal and the impacts of that as well. But, you know, a couple of things about lithium ion or batteries in general. First of all, as part of the book I went down to a lithium mine and processing operation that's being built in North Carolina. And one of the things that I learned is that not only are they extracting lithium from what was an abandoned mine down there, or they plan on it, you can actually reuse about 98% of what's in a typical lithium ion battery today. And so a lot of these battery manufacturing plants, including some of those in New York I think, are also setting up operations to essentially recycle all of the goods in batteries so you can use it over and over and over again. There's another way you can do this, which is reusing these batteries. So that battery in your lawnmower or the battery in my electric car, when it's spent, I might not be able to go , you know, 200 miles on it anymore, but there's still enough good stuff in that battery to maybe let it go ten miles a day. So we have an E2 member, for instance, in Michigan who takes old Prius batteries and basically reuses them. He puts them in forklifts and forklifts on a factory floor. You can imagine they go all day long, but they don't go more than ten miles. So you can reuse that battery in that way. The last step is that because of the innovation that's being spurred because of these policies, we're starting to see so many new types of batteries and energy storage that, again, from my technology reporter days, I'm not even going to guess what it looks like. But finally, the innovation is moving in this and that's going to be good stuff.

GR: If you're just joining us, you're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher and my guest is Bob Keefe. We've been discussing his new book, which is titled, “Clean Economy Now: Stories from the Front Lines of an American Business Revolution”. Another sort of pushback I wanted to put to you is, it is obvious though that even though we're in this massive transition, that fossil fuels are still going to be part of our daily lives and our economy for a fairly long time. And I do think one gets the impression sometimes listening to the advocates for green energy that they don't take that, they don't sort of acknowledge that fully. And I think that sometimes that makes them sound in a way that opens them up to criticism from the other side. I just want to get your thoughts about that.

BK: Well, look, change takes a long time. We know that in every part of society and in every part of the economy. That said, look at when the mobile phone was introduced. That wasn't that long ago, Grant., and I don't know anybody left that still has a wired phone in their house. I know there are a few people that are that do, but not a lot. Look at something like digital music, right? I remember as a technology reporter covering Steve Jobs one day when he walked out and he held up a little square thing and said, someday you're going to have a hundred songs in your pocket in this iPod, right? And then later it was, someday on this cell phone, you'll be able to take pictures and you'll store all your music on it. That wasn't that long ago, look how fast that technology moved along. That's the type of pace of technology that we're seeing now in the clean energy field. No, it's not going to make fossil fuels obsolete tomorrow, maybe not even next year or then the next decade. But it's moving at such a rate that fossil fuels look like they're headed the way of the CD and the cassette tape.

GR: Well, I hope the CDs stay around longer because I still love my CD’s.

BK: I think there's still going to be people that still love their gas powered cars, right? But just like with your lawnmower, I haven't talked to anybody I know of that has an electric car that says, man, I wish I could go back to a gas car and go fill it up at 80 bucks every week.

GR: Yeah. Well, this may seem like a dumb question to someone like you, and it's I have to just kind of warn you, this is kind of a special interest, I guess, of mine. But I can remember when natural gas used to be seen in positive terms. I'm that old by environmental, you know, natural gas is this great thing…

BK: You and me both.

GR: Now, of course, natural gas is the devil. In New York. You can't get a new house with a gas stove, there are certain carve outs, but that's basically the situation So just for someone who doesn't understand this stuff as much as you do, explain to me why natural gas is still really bad.

BK: Well, natural gas is still a fossil fuel and it produces energy by burning it up. And when you burn it up, it produces emissions and those emissions heat our planet and that heating of our planet causes bigger hurricanes and more wildfires and droughts and flooding and all of the things that are really impacting our economy to the tune of $100 billion every single year now. Natural gas was long seen as a bridge fuel, right? To get us from coal to electricity, really. That bridge is getting shorter and shorter now because the technology has finally, finally, finally caught up. You know, today's Tesla is not the EV1, which was the General Motors early attempt at an electric vehicle. The solar panels that we're seeing utilities deploy almost, and by the way, utilities are switching away from natural gas as well, not necessarily because they just want to do the right thing for the environment, but the fact is, solar and wind is the cheapest power available. It's cheaper than coal, it's cheaper than natural gas in most cases. And you can deploy a lot of solar and wind a lot quicker than you can build a new natural gas plant or a nuclear plant by far, that sort of thing. So it's speed to market with clean energy and it's the pricing.

GR: We've only got about a minute left, but I want to squeeze one last question in for you. Any time you have big changes like the ones that we've been talking about, there are tipping points along the way for society. And these are points when the resistance and the inertia sort of decisively break in favor of a new system. Where are we, do you think, in terms of those tipping points, is the tipping point behind us, or do you see sort of a moment in the near future where it's really going to accelerate?

BK: So, I think when it comes to clean energy, we are at a tipping point already. Again, when you look at all of the new power sources that have been deployed by utilities in the past year, something like 95% of that has been solar or wind or batteries. It's not gas anymore, it's certainly not coal anymore. Nuclear is way too expensive and it takes way too long. So we've already seen that tipping point. Electric vehicles, we've got a ways to go, but we're just getting started. Again, when you look at the fact that every single automaker is shifting to electric vehicles, that's a sign of where things are going. Now, do we still need more charging? Absolutely. But the good news is we've also got a bunch of companies investing and putting new charging out there. So that's coming. We're not there yet with EV’s.

GR: Well, it's an exciting time. And there are a lot of exciting stories in your book. That was Bob Keefe and again, his new book is titled, "Clean Economy Now: Stories from the Frontlines of an American Business Revolution". Bob, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me.

BK: Thank you, I really appreciate it.

GR: You've been listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media, conversations in the public interest.

 

Grant Reeher is Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also creator, host and program director of “The Campbell Conversations” on WRVO, a weekly regional public affairs program featuring extended in-depth interviews with regional and national writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals.