The President Needs a Plan Sustainable Growth Specialist Dr. Robert Freilich Outlines a Real U.S. Energy Policy

Trial lawyer Dr. Robert Freilich, who has tried over 160 cases and argued several before the Supreme Court, is focused on land—how to best use it, sustain it and maximize its resources—and has developed land-use planning systems for more than 250 cities, counties and states, from San Diego to Boston. His 1999 book From Sprawl to Smart Growth (American Bar Association) is being re-released this year as From Sprawl to Sustainable Growth, and it is a study of moving from energy-wasting outskirt housing developments to renewable energy systems and efficient urban live-work environments. What’s all this got to do with the election? Freilich proposes a new model for the incoming president—beginning with a real national energy policy.

E Magazine: What is the federal government’s role in setting a new energy course?

Robert Freilich: We’re probably one of the only technologically advanced countries in the world that doesn’t have a national energy policy. The first thing we need from the federal government is a cohesive, rational, integrated policy. The government really needs to say “we’re going to concentrate our resources into this,” and that’s going to build millions of jobs in infrastructure and in these new technologies. Right now, the world can produce $6 trillion a year in energy. That’s about 10% of the world’s economic output, but it’s going to double by 2050 to $12 trillion a year. Compare that to the Internet. Information technology is in the mere millions.

E: How important are the renewable energy tax credits that are set to expire this December?

RF: Wind energy is our most important source of energy. So people are calling for the government to understand that if they put a tax on the consumption of oil and gas and coal and use that for the subsidies of renewable energy, the growth is going to be astonishing. We need to have a valuable, intelligent tax credit mechanism from the federal government. We need to understand what infrastructure needs to be improved for wind energy, which is probably going to result in about 30% of all energy in the United States by 2030. We need to switch to better grids, like the DC grids that Europe has, because the AC grids can’t carry electricity for long distances. We basically need to take advantage of deserts and these huge open areas with wind resources. We probably have the best wind resources in the world.

E: Do you think with a new president, we”ll see major renewable energy legislation passed?

RF: I believe no matter which president is elected, that it”ll be better than what we have.

But gimmicks aren’t going to do. They’re [John McCain’s campaign] announcing this $300 million lottery prize to people who come up with a new car battery. It’s probably going to take us a couple billion dollars a year, at least, to invest in battery technology before we can reach that kind of level.

E: In terms of renewable energy, what has the most potential to have an immediate impact?

RF: Wind is where it’s going to be for the next 30 years at least in terms of the major resource for energy. The real gain that we can make in solar is at the local level. Let’s say you’re in Arizona, and your electrical bill is about $300 a month in order to air condition, because you’ve got this extreme heat, and $400 during the critical months. If you put a solar panel on your roof, you”ll reduce your electrical bills to about $80 a month. And that’s an enormous savings. But why should the developer lay out $28,000 [to install the solar panel] up front? He sells the house, and the consumer gets the benefit of the reduction in energy costs.

What I’ve been working on now in California is talking to utility companies about making a loan of the $28,000 to the developer as a grant. The developer puts the system in, the utility puts the surcharge on electricity for 30 years that will cost about $50 a month, so the consumer will end up paying about $100 or $130 a month instead of $300 to $400. Once we get the solar in there, it produces about 90% of all the energy needs of that household. It’s extraordinary.

E: How can the government speed up renewable energy use?

RF: The federal government has to mandate that utilities generate 15 to 20% of their energy by renewables by 2020, and if they do that, then utilities are going to be searching dramatically for ways to get people into solar so that they can reduce that percentage.

E: What can be done about diminishing water resources?

RF: We have this enormous drought throughout the Southeast and the Southwest, and most of the rainwater in this region is simply running into the sea. You know, you get silver, gold and platinum ratings for building homes with better design and locations. But one of the major point systems that you can get is in rainwater capture. We put one in Monterey county, an entire subdivision of about 5,000 homes. You have swales on the sides of roads capturing the water, and it runs down and is treated and recycled over and over again.