The Great Turning: Those Who Turn & Those Who Fight

“A mounting perfect economic storm is fast approaching. A convergence of climate change, peak oil, and the financial instability inherent in an unbalanced global trading system will bring an unraveling of the corporate-led global economy and a dramatic restructuring of every aspect of modern life.” The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community

David Korten, author of “The Great Turning,” asks, “By what name will future generations know our time?” He believes we have the power to choose.

Denver B100 chooses to sell ASTM-certified biodiesel produced in Colorado from waste vegetable oil. Last Wednesday, I staffed its shop, pumping B100 into VW Jetta TDIs, an old Mercedes and a beastly big Ford truck. (After filling my bio-bus with 100 percent B100, I drove it the mountains to escape the oppressive city heat—which is making a tidy profit for the electric utility, Xcel Energy.) Denver B100 seeks funding for credit card-automated biodiesel pumps to be dispersed in the Denver metro area. It’s a small proposal, in keeping with Korten’s “earth community,” and worthy of funding.

Ski industry giant Vail Resorts chooses to offset its electricity use with renewable energy credits purchased through Renewable Choice Energy of Colorado, putting the ski resort at the number two spot—behind Whole Foods—in corporate purchases of green tags, as measured in megawatt hours. I met Quayle Hodek, Renewable Choice Energy’s CEO, at a DOE Green Power Marketing conference in 2002. A youthful Hodek, sporting a ponytail and speaking before a large room of mostly suits, displayed charts of consumer marketing data gathered by his door-to-door sales staff (to some sniggering in the audience that his company would never survive with such labor-intensive sales practices). I commented to a competing green tag marketer that Xcel Energy had met its match in the local premium green electricity market. I still believe that. Hodek does not hail from Wall Street or an east-coast Ivy or a west-coast Valley but from the heartland. His talk is straightforward; he still sports a ponytail and a warm smile. His business started small. Now it sells green tags to Whole Foods and Vail Resorts.

Colorado’s Office of Energy Management and Conservation chooses to invest the $500K it receives in federal funds in dozens of new ethanol fuel pumps. One day, I hope Colorado’s energy office can spread this money among smaller projects, like that of Denver B100.

These are entities who can turn. Entities that like big projects with big returns and fewer perceived risks will have a hard time turning away from empire. Empire stalwarts, they will resist “the great turning” like rusted bolts. This is precisely what empires do best, in one form or another; they fight.

Take Colorado’s Intermountain Rural Electric Association (IREA)—which aligned in 2004 with Xcel Energy and coal companies to oppose Colorado’s renewable energy portfolio standard (RPS). Prior to the vote on the RPS, IREA distributed misinformation about wind power through its bill inserts. The RPS passed. Following a curiously worded vote to members, IREA opted out of the requirement to comply with the RPS. Recently, we discovered, the IREA raised $150,000 to hire a global-warming critic.

I met the general manager of IREA, Stan Lewandowski, one Friday evening not long ago outside a movie theatre in Denver. He was in line to see “An Inconvenient Truth.” I was collecting signatures to oppose Xcel Energy’s proposed Comanche 3 pulverized coal-fired plant. Asked if he wanted to sign, he replied, nicely, “no, because I’m part owner of the plant.” Humorously, he said that he had needed a drink before seeing the movie and before talking with us. It was a casual, pleasant conversation. (His tennies were grass-stained from lawn-mowing. I overlooked that it was IREA’s lobbyist in Texas who in 2004 threatened legal action for my writing something quite similar to what I am writing now.) We spoke of the pros and cons of clean energy…that fossil fuel prices are going up and the price of wind is competitive, if not outright cheaper, in Colorado. He said his primary responsibility was to provide reliable electricity. He has also said that keeping rates low is a priority. When I asked about the coop’s investment in demand-side management (DSM or energy efficiency programs), he said it did commercial energy audits but, “I won’t pay rebates.” After the movie, in a lengthier conversation with a fellow signature gatherer, he admitted that the coop does very little in the area of DSM.

In opposing Xcel Energy’s ratepayer-financed coal-fired plant – and favoring clean energy and a financing scheme that puts financial risk on shareholders where it belongs and not on ratepayers – I felt obliged to read Jeff Goodell’s “Big Coal.”

I opened the book to Chapter 3 (“Dogholes”) in which Goodell describes GE’s attempts to make coal sexy through advertising, “an important goal for GE, which is a major supplier of high-tech turbines and other power plant technologies. The ad featured glamorous, scantily clad models (male and female) with chiseled pecs and perky breasts, shoveling coal in a dark mine – actually, a sound stage outfitted to look like a mine – while “Sixteen Tons,” Merle Travis’s great folk song about hard labor and corporate exploitation, played on the soundtrack. Near the end of the ad, a voice-over announced, ‘Now, thanks to emissions-reducing technologies from GE, harnessing the power of coal is looking more beautiful every day.’

“It was a bold ad, and one that suggested how well GE understands a basic truth about coal: Americans love cheap power, but not if we have to pay for it with the kind of human misery and suffering that went out of style in the nineteenth century. However, if the point of GE’s ad was to clean up the image of coal mining to shore up support for ‘clean’ coal, it backfired. ‘The commercial is sure to disgust and anger anyone who grew up in a mining community,’ one viewer wrote in a letter to the Chicago Sun-Times a few days after the ad was broadcast. ‘Even if coal processing gets cleaner, that coal will still need to be mined,’ wrote ad critic Seth Stevenson on Slate, an influential online magazine. ‘And unless I’m mistaken, there will be actual coal miners doing that. Now: Guess who still gets black lung? Guess who still gets killed when mines collapse? It isn’t sexy supermodels.’”

My ex project-financed a co-gen plant for US Generating; it was built in a rural backwoods of Pennsylvania. Whenever we drove past the co-gen plant off of I-95 in Baltimore, which was fairly often in our travels between Maryland and New England, he would point out the plant to me, and I would comment that power plants should be constructed in the center of our daily worlds, just like this one, so people would make the connection between energy consumption and lifestyle. He disagreed, saying they should be shoved away, out of sight. But he was very happy to point out to me all of the solar panels we would pass, perched like crows. Funny that.

Other goings on…
I’ve spied two Smart Cars in north Denver in the last week. The two-seater is available through Mountain View Motors in Loveland, Colorado. The price tag smarts: $27,000 for 40 mpg. Youch.

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