Examining Green Technologies with U.S. Congressman Paul Tonko

September 22, 2014

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome to another edition of Green is Good, and we’re so honored to have today Congressman Paul Tonko. It’s the first time we’ve ever had a U.S. Congressman on Green is Good. Welcome today to our show, Green is Good, Congressman Tonko. PAUL TONKO: Thank you, John. It’s great to join you and your listeners and to speak to a very important topic, and to know that the dialogue is being shared on an international scale. So, good for you, and thank you for promoting sustainability and what our very thoughtful response is in policy format, so I’m flattered to join you and your listeners. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Well, it’s an honor to have you on today. Before we get talking about these important issues, Congressman, can you please share a little bit about your journey and history before becoming a member of the U.S. Congress? PAUL TONKO: Well, it’s interesting. I’m trained as an engineer. I have a degree from Clarkson University in Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, and I enjoyed that engineering work, but in the midst of that, I decided to run for office at my county government level simply because of the strength that I felt that the government plays in good policy outcomes that grow jobs and address our quality of life. I always had a keyed interest in politics, and I thought, “Well, get it out of your system and while you’re working as an engineer, run for office in a part-time position,” which was my service at the county legislative end. I was inspired by that. I saw where you needed to go to the state government in Albany, New York. I represent a district in Upstate New York, in the capital region of New York, and I figured to get some things done, it became very clear that you had to partner with state or federal government to really make the changes that were warranted. There, I got to interact with state legislators and said, “Wow, this is incredible how you can impact policy that will effect change in people’s lives, that will outlive you.” And so I got the bus, so to speak, and decided to run for State Assembly, and eventually I won a seat. In 1983, I entered the New York State Assembly, and served there for just shy of 25 years, my last 15 of which were as Energy Chair. I left the legislative body to serve in Governor Spitzer’s administration as the President and CEO of NYSERDA, which is the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, and did everything from manage the funds for a renewable portfolio, push innovation, develop public-private partnerships, where NYSERDA as a public entity was partnered with the private sector sources, and we had that government infusion to bring about innovation and alternative technologies and the like. Then, while I was serving as President and CEO of NYSERDA, a seat in Congress looked doable, and after a long thought — I looked through every lens that I could. I have always made my decisions in this work environment to figure out where I could do the most good, and the good that needed to be done, I believe, was in establishing a comprehensive energy plan for the country. So, that spoke most forcefully to me. I ran for a seat in 2008, and now I’m serving in my third term in the House of Representatives, and have now been placed on Energy and Commerce as a Committee assignment, which really put a nice working plan together that utilizes my strength and speaks to the strength and the needs of the capital region of New York, which is one of the hottest beds of job growth in the green collar sector. That investment has proven itself very valuable. Also, with that assignment, I’m also Co-Chair of SEEC in the House of Representatives, which is a Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition. As co-Chair with Gerry Connolly of Virginia and my colleague from New York from Long Island, Steve Israel, we’re able to bring in guests, foster dialogue that establishes public policy initiatives, and hopefully grow our greenness in energy policy and jobs and kindness to the environment in the process. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wow. You deserve those leadership positions right now because you have all this great history, so you can really implement all the things you’ve learned and all the things you’ve done for all these years on a very, very high-platform level now, which is great for this country and great for the environment and this world, so we’re so thankful. PAUL TONKO: Yeah, well, I thank you, John, for your kind comments. I will tell you too that serving in the State Legislature in New York and dealing with the energy issues, I was there, I was Energy Chair while we transitioned into a deregulated environment, which was done through an administrative fiat, rather than through the legislative branch. So, our goal was to publicly inform people and hold forums. If you’re going to bypass the legislature, let’s at least get the message out to the general public. Also, with the environment in New York, you have some of the highest rates in the continental United States, and you have some of the lowest. You have different energy needs, so it was a good trading ground with great diversity in terms of how people created their energy supplies, how they utilized them, and what their rate structure looked like, so it was a good learning tank. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Yeah. Hey, you know, Congressman, there are so many interesting and important issues for us to cover today, and unfortunately we have limited time, but I do want to get to some. So, just to start off, in terms of utilities now – our listeners and everyone out there want to be green, it seems like, and want to learn more, but it’s all very personal. They want to save money, but also do right by the environment. So, let’s talk a little bit about utilities and their efforts to promote energy efficiency, the consumers of the world out there, and their effort to want to save money for their household and stuff, precious resources. How does that interrelate, and where are we going in terms of utilities’ goals and consumers’ goals, and how do they merge and we make a better future for ourselves? PAUL TONKO: Right. Well, you know, it’s an interesting era of transition, and that transitioning is driven by change. Sometimes it’s a very difficult approach to promote change; people resist it, including the utilities structure. I don’t say that in a condemning way; it’s just that traditions get established, and people have a routine that has been worked out, and, let’s face it, people are in that business to at least maintain their financial structure. What we need to do, I believe, is to address in very sound format the tariff and rate design of how energy consumers are affected and impacted. Some of the low-hanging fruit, as it’s called, has been dealt with in energy efficiency formats by utilities, but there are grand things that we can do that will require policy changes that take us into greater use of renewables, greater use of energy alternatives, and that allow us to also transition the workforce. The transformation that’s coming needs to work hand-in-hand with the workforce. You don’t want to put people out of work, but if training and retraining are essential as we move into this nuance of change in utility environment, then let’s do it. There’s no denying that the interconnectedness now for energy consumers, where we’re wheeling electrons from region to region, from a monopoly region. The monopoly region now has grown even beyond region-to-region; it’s state-to-state, if not nation-to-nation. Like in New York, we can import energy supplies from Hydro Quebec or from Canadian sources, and so all of that needs to be reflected in tariff and rate-making so that you’re not functioning off of antiquated statute, laws that were established decades ago, but rather upgrading and updating so that it reflects the nuances of today. If you’re going to have large wind farms or solar farms that are commercial-sized, that needs to be reflected in rate-making, and there has to be a transitioning that incorporates our thinking on energy policy and consumer impact with that of economic vitality and environment. A lot of times, these discussions are done in a vacuum. It’s important for us to look at the globalness of it all. What are the policy formats impacted in general, from energy to environment to economic development to education and training and retraining of the workforce? So, it has to be done in a broad sense, and it has to express the nuances of the day. If we’re going to grow more intensity for our renewable supplies, let’s do it in context with the utilities, and let’s do it in context with rate-making and design formats that are amended to reflect the world of today. JOHN SHEGERIAN: How do we get people to both, like you say, legacy industries and also just consumers at large, to think — going back to what you said — legacy industry, old paradigm, is a barrel of oil. How do we make energy efficiency, as you have said before, our new fuel of choice? How do we get everyone thinking that way, but allow the utilities to continue to make a profit — that’s what they’re in business for — but allow us all to take advantage of all these great new technologies such as the Nest technology? Of course, we have no advertising on this show, so we’re not promoting any one in particular, but I’m just using that as an example for consumer awareness with regards to energy savings in homes and all sorts of great things like that. How do you see that happening, and how is the evolution? If you were in charge today of America as a whole, and you could wave your hand and since you’ve had broad experiences in terms of energy efficiency, this isn’t your first day up to bat, how do you make this now start happening? It seems like climate change is evolving and the velocity is moving faster than ever, maybe even faster than scientists had predicted 10 years ago. What do we do to effectuate this change now, and not upset the whole apple cart? PAUL TONKO: Well, certainly, we come to grips with a sense of urgency because many would suggest that we have already lost a major opportunity here. The carbon emission, the methane emission issue that challenges all of us, needs to be addressed with a sense of urgency. You also are transitioning utilities into a different sort of role, where they facilitate energy services, where they move into this arena where they’re providing choices for consumers, where they can manage their rates by hour of use. If you’re requiring your energy supply in peak load timeframes, that has to be reflected. So, there’s metering that can be done, there’s management of services by the utility, and, let’s face it, they’re getting into a new business. They’re going to show people how they can best manage those supplies, how they can be efficient. There need to be incentives in that. There needs to be a financial structure that reflects that, so there’s soundness in the utility format and the utility structure, and at the same time benefits and savings, environmentally and financially, for society, for consumers. I think there’s a way to do that, but it has to be somewhat statutorily guided, and it also has to be done with sound discussion at the table, where all perspectives are sharing in the dialogue, and where we acknowledge that status quo simply doesn’t cut it. JOHN SHEGERIAN: For our listeners who just joined us, we’re honored to have with us today U.S. Congressman Paul Tonko. To learn more about Congressman Paul Tonko, please go to tonko.house.gov. Congressman, you are a member of our esteemed U.S. Congress, and listen. We have to keep positive about where we are as a great country and things of that such. What are the odds, in your mind, of the U.S. Congress coming together for the greater good and tackling the issue of climate change in the next five years? PAUL TONKO: Well, the next five years are tough to predict because where the meter goes on political philosophy is anybody’s guess. Right now, where I sit on Energy and Commerce, I don’t see the aggressiveness of moving forward with that sense of urgency of which I spoke. There’s also a number of people who simply deny; they defy this whole science and concept of global warming and climate change. They’re in denial. As I’ve said, you can bury your head in the sand. When water washes the sand away, you’ll discover that the time had been passed where you should have done something. Burying your head in the sand is not going to be the answer. Somehow we need to convince people, where 97% of the science community agrees that there’s a man-made contribution to the carbon emission issue, and that is not just life going on without man-made impact to the negative. We need to turn around our negative behavior, and we have to wean ourselves off of fossil fuel dependency, and we have to build these concepts that are interacting with the environment in a benign fashion, and enabling us also to embrace research and innovation where you get into new formats that are a much stronger response to clean air and environmental-friendly outcomes. I think that can be done. I’m truly a believer that we can do that. You know what? When you do that, John, you’re also creating jobs while you’re cleaning up the environment, and you’re providing today’s choices to energy consumers. That’s a great win-win scenario that ought not be rejected, ought to be underpinned with soundness of discussion so that we get to the policy formats that we need. But if you’re going to come to the table in denial and vigorously dig in your heels on that denial with recalcitrance, we’re going to get nowhere. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Right. Move from the congressional legislative branch to the executive branch. The White House has their Climate Action Plan. How do you think that will impact the United States and where we’re going? PAUL TONKO: Well, I think it impacts our system here in Washington. There are those that bemoan the fact that we’re doing this through an administrative fiat. Well, if you don’t like that, do your job. Come to the table and discuss, converse, so that we can get things done. When we bypass our responsibilities, we can’t have it both ways and complain about an executive order taking hold. There is that sense of urgency of which we’ve spoken, and the Congress needs to act. If they don’t, the President will take initiative, and I really do believe, as a force in the global community, as we do this, we will get partners. We will get allies for carbon emission reduction at the table. You’ll begin to see an international response that will put the pieces of the puzzle together that will eventually have us worldwide a community engaged in carbon emission reduction. Someone has to start this, and I believe that our resources are best used when we can create jobs and clean the environment at the same time, and create a new day for environmental purposes. JOHN SHEGERIAN: We’re down to the last two minutes or so, Congressman. Talk a little bit about your feelings about solar, wind and hydro technologies, and how they’re evolving as alternative solutions to the barrel, and where we’re going to be going in the years coming up with regards to those technologies. PAUL TONKO: Well, you know, I introduced a thought, a concept, in legislative format, that said we should end the subsidies to our oil-based industry, our fossil-based partners, and transition those funds, make them fungible for the renewable and alternative technology innovation agenda. That was responded to by the industry saying to remove those subsidies would be un-American. Well, you know, I got a chuckle with that. It’s not un-American; it’s the right thing to do. So, there are many people who now support creating a more level playing field for our renewable partners. We have subsidized oil through the centuries. It is our fuel of choice in many ways, going back a century ago, and now we have learned lessons. Not, again, condemning, pointing a finger of blame at anyone. Look, we can build an industry here, and we’ve seen that it’s working. When you put research into this, you get even greater opportunity. I think what really is the lynchpin here, John, what will really be the tipping point, is getting that storage possibility, the battery, as that key lynchpin in the equation. Once you can take the incremental nature of renewables and provide predictability and stability for utilities and a ripple effect into the stability for consumers, then you got there. Now you’ve got that criticism that some would make, “Well, it’s not reliable if it’s not sunny or if it’s a calm day and not windy,” that is all placed aside once you come up with battery development. So, we need to put a prime focus on research and development of advanced battery technology, and then we will go forward and provide tax incentives, tax credits, investment tax credits, that speak to the soundness of that industry. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Well, thank you again for coming on today, Congressman Paul Tonko. It’s been an honor to have you on. For our listeners out there that want to learn more about the great work Congressman Tonko is doing, please go to tonko.house.gov. Thank you, Congressman Tonko, for being a sustainability champion and inspiring public servant. PAUL TONKO: My pleasure to join you. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You are truly living proof that green is good.