In January, RenewEconomy had the opportunity to do an exclusive interview with Robert F. Kennedy Jr – son of the late Senator Robert F. Kennedy, veteran environmental activist, lawyer, and renewable energy advocate.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr is head of the Riverkeepers (which has 17 groups in Australia), is the senior counsel for the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and is an appointee as director of Australian renewable energy group CBD Energy, currently in the process of merging with Westinghouse Solar. As a partner in VantagePoint, he has been involved in green technology investments for more than a decade, including as an investor in electric car manufacturer Tesla and the 2.7GW solar PV power plant in the Mojave Desert.
You can read our report on the interview here. Bobby Kennedy is typically robust, and touches on his environmental summit with JFK (his uncle), the disparity in subsidies, the desperation of the fossil fuel industries to burn their “unburnable carbon”, how solar and other renewables can help “democratise” both politics and the energy industry, and his own renewable investments.
Here is an edited transcript.
RE: How did you first get involved in environmental activism?
Robert F. Kennedy Jr: I was interested in it from when I was little. When I was eight years old, I wrote my uncle (John F Kennedy), who was in the White House. I wanted to talk to him about pollution and he invited me into the Oval Office. I spent part of the morning with him – I brought him a salamander as a present, which actually died, and we spent a lot of the meeting talking about the salamander’s health, with him saying it doesn’t look well, and me insisting he was just sleeping. I told him then I wanted to write a book about pollution, and he sent me to Stewart Udall (then Secretary of Interior), and (conservationist) Rachel Carson. I interviewed them both and took a tape recorder. But I didn’t get around to writing the book until I was 29 years old. I have also been kayaking since the same age, training and racing homing pigeons from when I was seven, and training hawks, which I continue to do.
So, I have been involved in the outdoors and always seen pollution as a theft of the commons. It’s always a subsidy, always somebody stealing part of the commons to enrich themselves by disposing of their waste into the public waterways and the public air. I believe in free market capitalism, and I believe in democracy, and pollution is an affront to both of those things. It’s inconsistent with free markets because pollution itself is a subsidy, an externality – it’s a way that corporations can eliminate the cost by putting it on to the public. In a true free market a company has to pay for the cost of bringing a product to market and that includes the cost of cleaning up after itself.
RE: But so much of the push back against environmental legislation is that it interferes with the free market.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr: I think the opposite is true. First of all, the incumbents are the most heavily subsidised industries in the world. Coal is by far the most heavily subsidised industry, and oil, and if you look at their externalities, if you force them to pay for mercury discharges, for acidification, for acid rain, for ozone particulates, which in the US alone kills 60,000 a year – 20 times the number of people killed in the World Trade Centre – to say nothing of carbon, which is threatening the globe. The (IEA) recently identified that the global subsidies, the direct subsidies from governments to the fossil fuel industry, stood at more than $585 billion a year, whereas the subsidies to renewables are a less than $80 billion.
Why should the oil industry, the most profitable industry in the history of the planet, be getting half a trillion in subsidies a year? A country may want to support an immature industry, some nascent industry they are trying to grow, or for some other national security regions, or cultural reasons, to support, to give subsidies to maybe small farmers, as we did in our country – to grow the auto industry, the steel industry. When they first started we used them to build railroads, canals, but at some point those subsidies stopped.
But the rules by which energy is regulated were written to favour the most poisonous, destructive and addictive fuels from hell, rather than cheap, clean, green, safe, abundant and patriotic fuels from heaven. We need to reverse that dynamic, it’s in our national interest to do so – of Australia and the US. It’s in the global interest of humanity to do so.
RE: But that is a very hard thing to do, because the incumbent industry that will protect itself and seems to have political support, particularly in the Conservative camp.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr: That is the problem. I always say wherever you see large-scale pollution, you will also see the subversion of democracy, you will see the compromise of public officials, the capture of the agencies they are supposed to protect, they become sock puppets of the industries they are supposed to regulate. You see that in the political system, the kowtowing of the politicians who become indentured servants in the US and in Canada. The industry is the biggest contributor to political parties, they are able to raise an argument that they are somehow necessary to national security, and economic security, but the opposite is true.
RE: David Crane (CEO of NRG, the large US generation company) and you wrote a letter to the editor about the democratisation of energy, and the desire to put a solar panel on every rooftop. What is democratisation of energy and why is it important?
Robert F. Kennedy Jr: From a reliability standpoint – it’s much more resilient. It’s easier for a terrorist to blow up a single power plant, or a coal burning power plant but it’s really hard to blow up a million houses with solar panels on their roof. It is a more resilient source of energy because it is diverse.
It also tends to democratise – the political system tends to reflect the organisation of the financial systems it governs. So if you have a financial system that is controlled by a few large players, you’re going to tend to see the political systems will devolve into plutocracy, away from democracy. But if you have an economic system in which there are millions of participants, the political system will reflect that.
In the case of coal and oil, we see in our country the Koch brothers, the largest privately controlled oil company in the world, contribute something like $200 million to the recent election campaigns – they didn’t do that because they love the US of A, they did that because they believed that capturing and making indentured servants of our political representatives would make them wealthier.
Thomas Jefferson, who was the iconic figure in American democracy, he warned against large aggregations of wealth. He said that was inconsistent with democracy. He opposed industrialisation, because he thought it would create concentrations of wealth and power that would be inconsistent with democracy. And he wanted to spread out the economic wealth, to give American a vested interest in the economic system, so we would all have a vested interest in democracy.
RE: So you see parallels of that with the energy industry?
Robert F. Kennedy Jr: Right now the energy industry is controlled by a handful of global players, global multinationals. They control the oil fields and the coal fields. If, instead, we said we are not going to have a system like that, but we are going to be powered by the sun, or the wind, it is hard for a single corporation to control that. It is in the hands of everyone.
RE: It is interesting that David Crane shares those view, wouldn’t he benefit from the status quo?
Robert F. Kennedy Jr: David Crane is energy agnostic. As a CEO in the service of shareholders, he’s agnostic as to where he gets his energy. NRG controls nuclear plants, coal plants, a lot of gas, as well as wind and solar. What he has said is that the price of solar has come down so far that it is cheaper than even gas – in the US we have $2 gas – so if he has $100 million to spend, in at least 20 states the best investment he would make is in solar, because it is the cheapest way of providing electrons to his clients.
RE: You work with Vantagepoint, which has invested in BrightSource and Tesla – both disruptive energy technologies. When will the tide turn for clean energy investments, because it’s been a brave person to put their money there?
Robert F. Kennedy Jr: Governments have got to get it right. A lot of people have hopes in Australia for Prime Minister Gillard – that she will give us the kind of dependability that we need. One of the problems with wind and solar is that we need market certainty, like any business in the nursery stage that has relatively small margins. If you going to have a business plan, you need reliability.
In the US we have some of the same problems that you have in Australia, but much worse. We have renewable energy credits, but we don’t get certainty with them. The incumbents know they can’t publicly come out against wind and solar, because that’s unpopular, but they can undermine wind and solar by undermining business reliability. What we really need is long-term faith in some of these government programs. And the incumbents have their subsidies, we are just trying to level the playing field.
If we could get rid of all subsidies, I would do it in a second. If the subsidies for the incumbents disappeared, we would drown them in a marketplace with a level playing field. They have the advantage of incumbency, the advantage of political control, and they are able to regulate the political system, to continue to externalise their cost and get huge subsidies from the government. Even in Australia, which has much a better program than the United States, it’s unclear whether your renewable energy standards will stay in place. Our industry, like any industry, needs certainty.
RE: You have accepted the offer of a board seat with CBD Energy/Westinghouse Solar. What is the attraction?
Robert F. Kennedy Jr: I’ve been associated with Westinghouse for a while. I think the merger makes sense because of the synergies. Westinghouse has got an inventory of technology and patents that will make solar installation safer and quicker to install, and make it more efficient and more reliable. Westinghouse will profit from the diversity that CBD has. Having a much larger customer base, synergistic diversification across geographic lines is the place that renewable energy industry has to go if it is to survive. We are seeing global consolidation in both the solar and the wind industry – companies that can bridge national borders and can share technology and diversify themselves will come out of this current ferment.
RE: It is, though, a very tough industry.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr: If you look at the automobile industry in the US – in early 20th Century there were hundreds of hundreds of companies making automobiles. Within a few years they would consolidate, eventually into the big four. You will see a lot of same consolidation with wind and solar – particularly with globalisation, as we face austerity budgets throughout Europe. It’s the companies that are able to diversify and consolidate that are the ones that will survive.
RE: Won’t we then face the same problems we have now, of an industry dominated by a few companies, just a different group of companies?
Robert F. Kennedy Jr: It’s a different kind of industry than coal or oil. You are going to see a lot of large-scale solar and large-scale wind, but it is not susceptible to the kind of unique control that oil and gas are. Rockefeller owned 80 per cent of the world’s (oil resources) at one point – you won’t be able to do that now because people will be able to source solar on their own roofs. Everybody has access to it. Not everyone has an oil well in their backyard and not everyone has a coal field in their backyard. It is, fundamentally, a more democratic industry.
RE: But what about the costs?
Robert F. Kennedy Jr: You are going to see the kind of technology growth curves that you saw in the computer industry. Not so much in wind, because wind relies more on big infrastructure, lots of steel and poured concrete – those will have stable costs but they are just are not going to drop so much. But solar panels are much more akin to computer chips: the more we make, the cheaper they will get. The more technological innovation, the more they will integrate with the industry. And costs will drop further. Those are drops that we see now. But those drops will continue, we will be seeing drops of over 30 per cent. Even if the Chinese slow down production, you will see that continue.
RE: Are you optimistic about the world’s environmental outcomes?
Robert F. Kennedy Jr: I think anyone who is a realist will say that the planet… we’re on a trajectory to creating a planet that is a science fiction nightmare. I would urge you to read Bill McKibben’s article in Rolling Stone on the arithmetic behind global warming. It’s one of the best articles ever done. It simplifies it. One of the principal points he makes is that two degrees is what all scientists agree is the maximum we can endure for a world that is roughly recognizsable. And that in order to stay in 2°C, the maximum carbon we can add to atmosphere is 500 gigatonnes of CO2. However, the oil industry and coal industry have on their books proven reserves five times that amount – the value of those companies that has already been paid for by investors, that has been traded, borrowed on and mortgaged, etc, is based on the assumption that all of those reserves are going to get burned. If they do that the planet will heat by 11°(F) which will make most of it uninhabitable. If you look at it that way, it’s hard to imagine them as anything other than criminal enterprises willing to destroy the globe for their own greed. It is not radical stuff that I am talking about, it is proven science. It’s math. That’s what we are fighting, that’s what we are up against.
RE: OK, so how do we get there?
Robert F. Kennedy Jr: I believe we have the technology, if we can rationalise our free market economy, so that we have truly free market capitalism, where everyone is forced to internalise their costs. The market place decides what the cheapest form of energy is. Then we can quickly eliminate coal and oil, because they are so much more expensive than any other fuel. We only have the illusion that they are cheap because they have garnered, through their political clout, so many subsidies.
RE: Is it best to use mechanisms like a carbon price, or other means?
Robert F. Kennedy Jr: We need to price carbon. Australian does have a carbon tax which we do not have in the US. And we also have to give incentive for good behaviour by utilities. Utilities make money by burning oil and gas, and as much as possible to create electrons from that, so the CEO from that utility has to make a decision every morning about whether he going to serve the interests of his shareholders or serve the interests of humanity and civilisation. We shouldn’t be be putting CEOs in that position. We should be able to say to them, we are going to design free market rules that allow you to make money by doing good things, rather than forcing you to make money by doing bad things. We did that in California, and there the utilities are make money by installing renewables, and being energy efficient. As a result of that, Californians use half they energy than other Americans use. They use 6,000kWh per year, the rest of America average about 13,000kWh. You can rationalise the system by helping people make money by doing good things, rather than making money doing bad things.
RE: So how is this going to end up?
Robert F. Kennedy Jr: In the next decade there will be an epic battle for survival for humanity against the forces of ignorance and greed. It’s going to be Armageddon, represented by the oil industry on one side, versus the renewable industry on the other. And people are going to have to choose sides – including politically. They will have to choose side because oil and coal, they will not be able to survive – they are not going to be able to burn their proven reserves. If they do, then we are all dead. And they are quite willing to burn it. We’re all going to be part of that battle. We are going to watch governments being buffeted by the whims of money and greed on one side, and idealism and hope on the other.
RE: One last thing that I forgot to ask before, do you have solar at your home?
Robert F. Kennedy Jr: My home is a power plant – it produces more energy than it uses – virtually every day of the year. I have a geothermal system, and I have two state-of-the-art solar systems. We get a lot of sunlight in New York (state), not as much as in Australia, but two out of three days it is sunny. There is a book about it – The Kennedy Green House. It was designed by my late wife, who was green architect.
RE: Mr Kennedy, thanks very much for your time today.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr: It’s been a pleasure.