Denis Hayes On Being Green

17:43 minutes

Since his days as head of the Solar Energy Research Institute under President Jimmy Carter, Denis Hayes has been pushing to add more renewable energy sources to the country’s energy portfolio. Hayes discusses the current U.S. market for renewables such as solar and wind, and gives his take on where he sees America’s energy future headed.

Segment Guests

Denis Hayes

Denis Hayes is president and CEO of the Bullitt Foundation; former director of the Solar Energy Research Institute (now NREL, National Renewable Energy Laboratory); and national coordinator of the first “Earth Day.” He is based in Seattle, Washington.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: Anyone who has taken some time on Earth Day to contemplate the planet has my next guest to thank. Denis Hayes was the first National Coordinator for Earth Day back in 1970. And if I might insert a personal note, Earth Day back in 1970 was also the anniversary of my first science story I ever did.

So this is very interesting. And I’m very happy to have as my guest today Denis Hayes, who is, and as I say, he’s head of the Solar Energy Research Institute under President Jimmy Carter. He headed that up. He was an early promoter of solar energy.

He also taught engineering at Stanford. And today, he’s head of the Bullitt Foundation, which has built one of the greenest buildings in the country, a building that uses solar panels right here in cloudy Seattle. Thank you for taking time to be with us today.

DENIS HAYES: Well, I’m delighted to be here, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Looking back, how many years it has been since 1970– it’s almost too many years, I don’t want to think about. Do you think Earth Day was a success? Has it been a success all these years and the anniversaries? Or do you think it has fallen short of what you expected it to inspire?

DENIS HAYES: Well, we had extraordinary, in those days, we would have said revolutionary hopes for it. But in terms of our expectations, I think it really transcended them. We had hoped that it would be something that was, in the best of all worlds, comparable to the mobilization against the war, or the Vietnam moratorium, or something like that, whereas, in fact, it was half, maybe seven or eight times as large as the largest of the anti-war demonstrations.

And then, of course, a week later, as you well know, since you were around then, President Nixon invaded Cambodia and had the greatest anti-war backlash that the country has perhaps ever seen, dwarfing Earth Day for a period in people’s memories.

IRA FLATOW: Where did the idea for Earth Day come from?

DENIS HAYES: It came from Senator Gaylord Nelson, Senator out of Wisconsin, who had been a lifelong champion of conservation issues. And environmental values. And he’d seen how teach-ins on college campuses had helped to launch the Civil Rights Movement and the anti-war movements, and thought that something comparable to that might get the environment on the front burner, in the way that it hadn’t been.

IRA FLATOW: If you’d like to ask Denis Hayes a question, our microphones are right here in the audience, available for you. Let’s talk about your time at Solar Energy Research Institute. The name was later changed to the National Renewable Energy Lab. Was that in Golden, Colorado, in the early days, if I recall?

DENIS HAYES: And it is in Golden, Colorado.

IRA FLATOW: It’s still there.

DENIS HAYES: Ira, it seems to me, though, if I could interrupt for 10 seconds, I got off on a tangent, and it was wrong. When you were asking about the success, and I was simply talking about the 20 million people. The success of Earth Day was that it created the context within which a bunch of legislation– the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, Superfund, the Environmental Education Act, a set of things that were inconceivable in 1969, became unstoppable in the next three or four years.

IRA FLATOW: Was it surprising that it came under Republican, supposedly conservative President Richard Nixon? The EPA was created under President Nixon.

DENIS HAYES: Richard Nixon deserves full credit for the EPA. He really wanted to become a player. And a few other Republicans that he saw as challengers, like John Lindsay, who were becoming players on the environment. And he did the EPA. I don’t think he gets much credit for anything else. In fact, he vetoed the Clean Water Act, and we had to override him in the Congress.

IRA FLATOW: And so looking over those years, President Carter, were very famous for trying to kick start renewable energy, creating the solar energy Research Institute. But that did not last. Those ideas did not last past his administration, did they?

DENIS HAYES: No. About six months into the Reagan administration, they came to SERI, and they reduced our $130 million budget by a little more than $100 million. They called it a trim. They fired all of our consultants. That was about 1,500 people, including three who went on to win Nobel prizes later, and about a third of the staff. It was probably the most painful afternoon of my life.

IRA FLATOW: Do you consider that the time that energy became polarized, politically polarized? Was that the key event, or around that time?

DENIS HAYES: I think so. I’ve always been completely mystified by what was going on. Why would somebody– and in fact, when Ronald Reagan had been a radio commentator, whoever wrote those scripts for him had him saying very nice things about the conservativeness of decentralized distributed energy, where you could control your own power. But it certainly was a profoundly important step into making this a partisan issue, where it enjoyed widespread bipartisan support before that.

IRA FLATOW: And I recall being at the ceremonies when President Carter put the solar panels up on the White House. And then President Reagan took them down. Was that a real statement, or was it something out of convenience? Or, people will tell you they were rusted. They were leaking. Whatever, you don’t buy that?

DENIS HAYES: Well, President Reagan didn’t confide in me what his motivations were. And there are terribly important what the motivations were. If there was a leak someplace, you can always repair it and replace it. I think it was clearly a symbolic statement.

And my hunch is that in my mind, I see Ed Meese walking into the president’s office and saying, you know, Mr. President, we’ve only got so many dollars. We’ve got to make some choices. Do you want to go with Ed Teller’s energy source or Jane Fonda’s energy source? Made a decision sort of on that.

IRA FLATOW: Ed Teller, nuclear energy– and he did not want– he wanted his new morning in America not to be something that was seen to be as what? What did he fear that symbol would show us?

DENIS HAYES: I have really no clue. I mean, what we did was, we moved away from being the world’s foremost leader– I mean, still today, all of the commercially available solar photovoltaic technologies that are manufactured and marketed in the world were pioneered in the United States, most of them with taxpayers’ dollars. At the time that I left SERI, it employed more PhDs, got more patents, spent more money than the rest of the world combined.

We literally walked away from that. Leadership shifted to Japan, and then to Germany, now to China. And it was just breathtakingly stupid. We abandoned a source that produced no greenhouse gases, no acid rain, no radioactive waste, no bomb grade materials, had no moving parts, operated at ambient temperatures, were inherently distributed. And we walked away from it.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. We’re going to take a break and come back. And talk more with Denis Hayes, president and CEO of the Bullitt Foundation. We’ll talk about the Bullitt Foundation and its building. He’s also the National Coordinator of the first Earth Day. Please, step up to the microphones. I’m sure you have– this is your opportunity to talk to Denis Hayes and to be part of our conversation. We’ll be right back after this short break. So stay with us.

We’re talking with Denis Hayes, who is President and CEO of the Bullitt Foundation. He was National Coordinator for the first Earth Day Denis let’s talk about the Bullitt Center it runs on solar energy here in cloudy Seattle how does that– how did you pull that off

DENIS HAYES: Well we did it by one covering as big a surface area as we could in the building with photovoltaics by choosing the most efficient ones that are available today commercially in the world and by driving the consumption inside the building with investments in efficiency down to a small fraction of what it typically is. Compared to the average office building that exists in Seattle, we use 17% as much energy. If we had constructed this with the same efficiency as a typical office building, we’d have to cover the whole block with solar panels. we

IRA FLATOW: Wow. Have other people learned from your experience here in Seattle?

DENIS HAYES: We think so. And beyond Seattle, this is all part of the Living Building Challenge. It’s something that says that your building has to generate as much energy on site as it uses. And to be the first six story building in the United States that runs on the sunbeams that falls in its roof in Seattle is something of a challenge. But it does communicate strongly to the rest of the country that if you can do it here, you can do it anyplace.

And then similarly, we, under the Living Building Challenge, have to get all of our water from the rain that falls on our roof. And not just to flush the toilets, but for potable drinking water, for showers, for everything. We have to avoid about 360 toxic and mutagenic and endocrine disrupting chemicals that are common in the building space. All of the materials in the building– and there’s like 4,500 components– have to come from specific radiuses from the building site.

It’s a really tough set of challenges. And we’re very proud to have done it.

IRA FLATOW: If you want to do it, you can do it is the message here.

DENIS HAYES: And I suppose, to be perfectly frank, we also have to say that compared to other class A office space in Seattle, we paid a premium. It costs 23% more to generate all your own energy, all of your own water, do all of that stuff on site.

But if you looked at the investments that society has to make to provide those services to other buildings, I think we actually come out ahead. And I think because this is the first building, it was particularly expensive. The second, third, fourth, 100th will be substantially cheaper.

IRA FLATOW: Who are your environmental heroes? Who’s around now? Who’s doing work on behalf of the environment that you admire, or maybe someone from the past, even?

DENIS HAYES: Well, there are a great many people. I mean, in the context of this interview, I would particularly point out Kathleen Rogers and the staff of the Earth Day Network, who’ve taken that idea and kept it alive now in more than 180 countries around the world. It’s typically the first introduction that school kids have to environmental values and issues, and environmental education, in general, is these events that are literally now, every April, held everywhere.

If you look at things historically, there have been some amazing champions. I suppose that I might choose Teddy Roosevelt. And it’s in part because of his strong progressive views, with regard to wilderness areas. But it’s also because of his Republican, quasi-populist skepticism about a whole series of industrial activities that were not much being questioned than by any politicians.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Trustbusters.


IRA FLATOW: Let me go to the audience, right up here. Yes?

AUDIENCE: Hi, I’m Thea Bruce. And I’d like to know if there is, since you were very successful with your building– is there a template now that many developers could use to make it economically viable for them to produce a building like yours for [INAUDIBLE]?

DENIS HAYES: Perfect question. And yes, there is effectively a template. We’ll publish on our website all of the materials and all of the specific suppliers of those things that we have. Windows that were simply not available in the United States to meet our needs, we imported the technology from Germany, and got a local manufacturer, Goldfinch Brothers, who make the windows.

All of that stuff is there for Seattle, and probably for the Pacific Northwest, from Portland up through Vancouver. One of the things about building in a way that’s environmentally sound is to be aware of your surroundings. You build a very different building if you’re in Phoenix, than if you’re in Anchorage, than if you’re in Atlanta. But I think we’ve got a terrific template for Seattle. And I think the Living Building Challenge is an appropriate challenge in each of those areas.

IRA FLATOW: You mentioned all of the technologies that were made in the USA but are no longer made in the USA. What do you see as the future? Is there any way to bring– can we leapfrog a technology, bring something newer back, or bring any of the current technologies back?

DENIS HAYES: I think this is all a matter of choice and policy. Sure, I mean, there are a lot of ways that you can leapfrog, particularly in the solar field, by moving into nanotechnologies, for example. The theoretical efficiency of solar cells is now very substantially higher. I mean, hell, forget the theoretical efficiency. The real efficiency of solar cells is higher than the theoretical efficiency back when I was at SERI, just–

IRA FLATOW: No kidding.

DENIS HAYES: New materials and approaches. And as you move increasingly into robotics, the fact that PhDs in some other countries are prepared to work for less than high school graduates in the United States will also become less and less an issue. But it’s a question of having the support of policies. If you’ve got something that creates a genuine market for these things, then somebody is going to go out and exploit it.

IRA FLATOW: Now, there has been a flood of solar panels on the market, and the prices have dropped. But there have been recent reports that the solar panels are really substandard, and they’re falling apart before they were expected to. What do you do about that?

DENIS HAYES: Well, we want one we shouldn’t be talking about solar panels generically. There are small Chinese manufacturers who’ve made substandard panels, have sold them, some people believe, for less than the cost of manufacturing them. And they have given a bad name in a few circles. If you’re buying from a responsible manufacturer, like Sunpower, who we bought it from, which is an American company, or any of the Chinese companies or German companies that have good reputations and track records of at least 10 years and got enforceable warranties, you’ll get a good product.

IRA FLATOW: Do you think there is a race between solar and wind, that one has to win out over the other?

DENIS HAYES: No, they both have important advantages in different circumstances. With solar, it’s inherently modular. And the efficiency simply depends upon the solar intensity. With wind, and this gets a little geeky. But for your program, I think that’s–

IRA FLATOW: We love geeky stuff.

DENIS HAYES: The power you get from wind goes up with the cube of air speed. So if it’s twice as fast, you get eight times as much power. And it goes up with the square of turbine size. So if it’s twice as big a turbine, you get four times as much power. So wind makes sense in places where there’s a lot of wind and you can put a big turbines. Don’t make any sense in cities. That’s where solar takes over.

IRA FLATOW: Do you ever wonder where we would be today– I’m sure you do– if Jimmy Carter’s policies and procedures and funding had carried through for the last 30 or so years?

DENIS HAYES: Well, I have a fairly clear idea. I may not be right, since it was a hypothetical future. But we developed a rather thorough set of policies that were designed to bring America to getting more than 20% of its energy from renewable resources by the year 2000. Had that happened, we would have had such efficiencies of scale that and efficiencies of mass production that the costs would have, by 2000, been lower than they are today. And I think the market would have been incredible. And it would have been a huge global export market for the United States.

My sense– and this gets a little bit green. But I really think that photovoltaics in a human culture can play the role that photosynthesis plays in nature, where literally everything that is available can be covered with something that captures sunlight and converts it into something that is very useful for the purposes of the organisms that either produce it or eat it.

IRA FLATOW: Do you take any solace in knowing that we now have a generation of youngsters who have grown up in an era of solar panels? They never knew that there weren’t around. And maybe it becomes a way of life, and they accept more a greener future for the next generation.

DENIS HAYES: I think that’s happening. And it’s happening not just here, but a great many places, and I think ultimately everywhere. The world is seeing a massive wave of migration to cities. And in the United States, where we have a constitutional right as Americans to live anyplace that we want to, and big parts of the country are now becoming desiccated as a consequence of climate change, people are moving to specific cities.

I think that solar is going to be the way that those things increasingly get powered, either for all of their energy, in some cases, or for a very large part of it, because of the happy coincidence between the time that the sun shines and the time that we like to be awake and doing things.

IRA FLATOW: So you’re not pessimistic, in a certain sense. You have a certain optimism about the future.

DENIS HAYES: I’m enormously optimistic, if we can put the right policies in place. I mean, Seattle has been really good on this. We announced something just yesterday called The Seattle Plan, which is a way to make it in the interests of utilities, of building owners, of all of the ratepayers of the utility, and of energy investors– so it’s a win-win-win win kind of policy, no losers in it at all– to go into buildings and get increases of efficiency of 35% to 50%, with a 20 year contract to buy negawatt hours by the utility.

IRA FLATOW: Negawatt?

DENIS HAYES: Negawatt, with an n. And to the extent that this pilot, which we’re doing at the Bullitt Center, is successful, and it spreads throughout Seattle City Light, and then into other utilities, buildings use more than 3/4 of all the electricity in the United States. If we can reduce that over time by half, that’s just a stunning kind of solution. And that’s one policy.

IRA FLATOW: Denis Hayes, Thank you for taking time to be with us today, and good luck to you.

DENIS HAYES: Ira, it’s been a pleasure.

IRA FLATOW: Denis Hayes is President and CEO of the Bullitt Foundation and one of the first organizers of the first Earth Day.

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