Alternative energy can save planet

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, January 19, 2011

By Kathy Chaffin
Center for the Environment
Coauthors Miriam Horn and Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, dedicated their book, “Earth: The Sequel — The Race to Reinvent Energy and Stop Global Warming,” to her daughter, his three sons and “everyone else’s children as well.”
Horn, a staff member at the Environmental Defense Fund, said it was after the birth of her 11-year-old daughter, Francesca, that she made the decision to return to the environmental field in an advocacy role.
“I had been worrying about the planet for all the more sort of obvious reasons,” she said. “I didn’t actually know very much about climate change, but I knew that resources were being depleted and that air quality was an issue, and I wanted to ensure that my daughter had not only a safe planet but also access to the same kind of wild places that I have always loved.”
Horn and Krupp will speak Thursday at Keppel Auditorium in the Robertson College Community Center at Catawba College. The event is hosted by the Center for the Environment.
Growing up in California, Horn discovered a passion for nature at a young age. Her best friend’s father was the naturalist for the Oakland Museum, and he introduced them to the magic of biology.
“I just have always been awestruck by the amazing adaptations that various creatures have achieved to live on earth,” she said, “and the beauty of nature.”
After earning a degree in forestry from Harvard University, Horn worked for the U.S. Forest Service in natural resource management before “zigzagging into the life of a writer.” She wrote for numerous publications, including Vanity Fair, The New York Times and The New Republic.
While a senior editor at U.S. News and World Report, she was a finalist for a National Magazine Award.
After taking a few years off when Francesca was born, Horn went back to school at Columbia University to study environmental science. Afterward, she went to work as a writer for the Environmental Defense Fund.
“When Fred (Krupp) had this idea for the book, he approached me to see if I would be willing to collaborate on it,” she said. “I did, and it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.”
Released in March 2008, “Earth: The Sequel” delivers a message of hope that alternative energy sources can not only save the planet but the economy as well by opening up new industries and jobs.
After writing about the entrepreneurs and young start-up companies pushing technology to the limit to find the newest, cleanest and most abundant ways to power the planet, Horn said she and Krupp became aware that all these new technologies would need a platform to operate on “that is as open and robust and flexible as the Internet.”
The Environmental Defense Fund is focusing on the development of smart grids around the country, and Horn is working full time with energy projects in Austin, Texas, Chicago and Charlotte. “We are engaging with both state regulators and federal regulators to try to get the rules in places as these smart grids are being built to be sure they fulfill all these environmental goals,” she said.
In Austin, for example, she spent a year brainstorming with residents, the City Council, utility providers, university and corporate partners and many others to decide what kind of future they wanted to create.
“What we saw was a community where the energy consumer becomes a very different creature,” she said. “It’s much like YouTube. It used to be if you wanted to watch a television show, there were a few big organizations that projected them and we sort of sat there and received them.”
But in today’s world, Horn said everyone can generate content and share it with each other. “The same thing’s going to happen with energy where each one of us is, as the former general manager of Austin Energy likes to use the word, a ‘prosumer,’ ” she said. “You’re not just a consumer.
“You’re also a producer of energy and of energy services, so that your house will likely have some sort of energy-generation system. Maybe you’ll have solar on your roof and you’ll have a plug-in car and you’ll have smart appliances that will be talking to each other.”
Appliances will be programmed, for example, to run when there’s solar energy being generated by the roof. “And if your solar panels are producing more energy than you need right then, they’ll know to put it into your car battery to charge your car,” she said. “And if you hit a moment when you need a little more electricity than your solar panels are producing, you’ll pull some of that back out of your car battery.
“And you’ll be able to make money because you’ll be selling when there are peak prices on the grid. The utility will be willing to pay you money to sell them some of your solar energy.”
People who live in a community system such as an apartment building might have a cooperative share in a community solar farm, she said. “Or if you live in a part of the country that doesn’t have a good solar resource, you might tap into a different kind of resource like wind or hydro or you might just really make full use of your ability to manage demand and shrink your footprint so it will be a really different world.”
Horn said life could be similar to the futuristic utopia portrayed in the Hanna-Barbera cartoon series, “The Jetsons.” The cartoon — which aired prime time from 1962-63 and again in 1985-87 — featured a family that traveled in aero cars and had robots programmed to do household chores.
While working on “Earth: The Sequel” with Krupp, Horn said she had the opportunity to meet entrepreneurs and visit labs where “the excitement of invention is under way.”
“When the Internet was invented, nobody anticipated Amazon or Facebook or YouTube,” she said, “but once that platform was there, all 300 million imaginations in the United States were set loose and you saw these incredible things invented. The same thing will be possible in energy.”
At a recent conference hosted by GE in Atlanta, for example, Horn said she had an opportunity to spend time with an Intel employee who is working with sensing technologies to literally “sniff out” energy hogs in a home or building and identify areas “where you’re basically pouring money down a hole.”
Despite the United States Congress’ failure to pass energy and climate legislation, she remains optimistic about the nation’s future.
“When you see companies like GE investing billions of dollars and Cisco saying the smart grid is going to be a thousand times bigger than the Internet,” Horn said, “you think if these global companies are making these commitments, we’re going to get it solved. It’s going to be OK.”
Horn said Duke Energy, which services much of the area around the Center for the Environment, is one of the leaders in thinking about smart technologies and how to offer utility customers choices they’ve never had.
“Soon people are going to have a lot more options,” she said, “on how they can start to manage their own energy use and reduce their bills by doing that but also to really reduce their impact on the planet.”
When Horn thinks about the future for Francesca, Alex, Zach and Jackson Krupp and “everyone else’s children as well,” she sees the United States creating its own energy sources without having to depend on imports from hostile countries.
“I guess from my perspective, I want people to catch some of that excitement that we really can live in a better world and a safer world that’s much healthier,” she said. “It’s not about avoiding doom; it’s about creating something much more fantastic.”
Register to hear Horn and Krupp speak in Keppel Auditorium in the Robertson College Community Center at or call the Center at 704-637-4727. Though the program is free and open to the public, registration is required.