In inviting Robert F. Kennedy Jr to become a director of its board, Australian renewable energy minnow CBD Energy has not only acquired a famous family name, it has also brought in one of the most committed environmental campaigners in the world, with a no-holds-barred approach to combating the immensely powerful fossil fuel industry, fighting pollution and promoting wind and solar.
In an exclusive interview with RenewEconomy in January – click here for the full transcript – Kennedy says the global energy system has been corrupted by the absolute power of immensely wealthy oil and coal companies, and the main hope to combat this is by “democratising” the energy industry through individual production, such as rooftop solar.
“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,” he told RenewEconomy. “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. We’re on a trajectory to a place where we are creating a planet that is a science fiction nightmare.”
Kennedy says the wealth and dominance built up by the fossil fuel industry over the past few decades, supported by huge and continuing subsidies, has not only corrupted the energy system, but the political one too.
“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.”
Now, he says, technology and costs of renewables – solar PV, in particular – has moved to the point where this stranglehold can be relaxed, or even released. This is part of the reason why Kennedy recently joined with David Crane, the CEO of US generation giant NRG, to push for the installation of rooftop solar in every household in the country.
In a joint opinion piece published in December in the New York Times, Kennedy and Crane said solar PV would “significantly reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and our dependence on the grid.”
It was written in the context of outages caused by Hurricane Sandy, but it also highlighted the fact that investor-owned utilities had “little economic interest in promoting a technology that empowers customers to generate their own power,” even though solar panels had dropped in price by 80 per cent in the past five years and could provide electricity at a cost at or below the current retail cost of grid power in 20 states.
It was a powerful statement, made even more so by the combination of an avowed green activist (some would say radically so) and Crane, the head of one of the biggest generators in the country, who has said previously that rooftop solar has the power to revolutionise the energy industry, and seems intent on supporting it.
Kennedy, however, says that the fossil fuel industry is determined to exploit its reserves, even though it is clear that this would push the planet well beyond the tipping point on climate change.
“I believe in free market capitalism, and I believe in democracy, and pollution is an affront to both of those things,” Kennedy told RenewEconomy. “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.”
He is an advocate of carbon pricing and of consistent policies for renewables. He says he respects the work of Prime Minister Julia Gillard in introducing a carbon price, although he notes that the future of renewable energy policies in Australia is still up in the air.
“If the subsidies for the incumbents disappeared, we would drown them in a market place 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 costs 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.”
However, he likens the oil and coal industries’ determination to exploit their “unburnable carbon” – in the face of overwhelming science – to a criminal activity.
“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 assumption that all of those reserves are going to get burned. If they do that the planet will heat by 11c (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 globe for their own greed. It is not radical stuff that I am talking about, it is proven science. It’s math. That is what we are fighting, that is what we are up against.”
It is sometimes written that 59-year-old Kennedy – one of 11 children of the famous Senator – became involved in activism after being forced in his 20s to do community service after being busted for carrying a small amount of heroin. He joined the Riverkeeper association, now known as the WaterKeeper Alliance, which is focused on protecting waterways (he is an avid white-water kayaker) and which has more than a dozen offshoots in Australia.
Kennedy says his environmental streak actually goes back much further than that and tells how, as an eight year-old, he wrote to his uncle, the then US President John F. Kennedy, about the importance of environmental action. He was invited into the Oval Office, but the discussions seem to have focused mostly on the health of a salamander he had brought as a present, “with him saying it doesn’t look well, and me insisting he was just sleeping.” It was actually dead.
So why has such a formidable and renowned figure agreed to accept a position as director of CBD Energy, a small, struggling Australian renewable energy company that few would have heard of, which is now trying to effect a measure with another small struggling US solar company, Westinghouse, whose name would be well-known?
“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.”
He says there will be an inevitable global consolidation in both the solar and the wind industry – just as there was in the auto industry – “companies that can bridge national borders and can share technology, and diversify themselves will come out of this current ferment.”