Local versus National Solutions to the Energy Crisis: NYC’s Renewable Energy Policy

bloombergh 6 Local versus National Solutions to the Energy Crisis: NYC’s Renewable Energy PolicyLast week Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed that New York City engage in a serious effort to develop alternative energy sources, and in return for his trouble he faced skepticism and even ridicule from a cynical media. Cartoons were drawn with King Kong trying to swat a windmill off the top of the Empire State Building. Still, even the tabloids could not dismiss the idea entirely. Bloomberg commands respect, and $4 a gallon gasoline has everyone looking for alternatives.

New York City has been built by people who dreamed large and were able to project into the future. Imagine the city without Central, Van Cortland or Prospect Parks. Could downtown have been possible without a subway system? How crazy was it to get the city’s water from a hundred miles upstate? Many of the city’s great institutions from the Public Library to my own university have benefited from forward looking leadership. With PlanNYC 2030 and this latest proposal on alternative energy, the Mayor must be given enormous credit for adding his voice to the chorus of visionaries that built this place.

The Mayor invited proposals from private organizations to develop wind, solar and water current energy projects. New York City has lots of buildings, water front and land that could be used for pilot projects—some of which could succeed and generate meaningful amounts of electricity. Bloomberg is taking the opportunity to place renewable energy on the political agenda. In contrast, our federal officials are reading polls that show that 70% of the public wants to drill for oil in fragile environments and everyone starts looking for photo ops on oil rigs.

Other than “drill, drill, and drill”, Senator McCain’s new favorite solution to the energy crisis is to build more nuclear power plants and build them fast. I do not share the deep fear that some have of nuclear technology, and accept the argument that plants can be made as safe as other technology we use every day. However, my argument against nuclear is that it is complicated to manage, centralized, capital intensive, produces waste we cannot detoxify and impossible to site given the U.S. federal political system. I think it’s a technology we should skip, and instead develop something that is more practical and waste free. As Mayor Bloomberg indicates, direct solar, wind, river currents and tides are all available in this coastal city.

The size and influence of the federal government dwarfs all other American institutions and so we look to Washington for leadership and the impact that only the feds can achieve. Unfortunately, the last two decades have seen little but gridlock out of the District of Columbia. Neither Bush I, Clinton, nor Bush II were able to do much to come to grips with our critical issues. The current President Bush’s initiatives were nearly all misguided. For that reason we’ve looked to state and local governments for creativity and solutions. Maybe that’s the right place to focus our attention anyway. The public policy problems we face these days require lots of learning to solve. How do we improve High School graduation rates? End homelessness? End hunger? Ensure housing? Develop carbon free energy? Maintain clean water? Maybe these problems are best solved at the community and local level- where it’s easier to see and learn from our mistakes. The scale of the federal government is seductive, but maybe we should only turn to Washington when we’ve already figured out what needs to be done.

On the other hand, it’s probably a bad idea to give up on the federal government. It’s true that when you compare Mike Bloomberg to George Bush you want to focus your attention on City Hall rather than the White House.  Still, if we look back, just like New York City, this has nation has long been a creative and forward looking force in the world. It built an agricultural science that fed the world, developed a transcontinental railroad, landed men on the moon, created world-leading basic and health sciences, defeated totalitarianism, cleaned its air and water and built a working class into the middle class. Not bad for one country. It’s just that lately we don’t seem capable of accomplishing much of anything. This is a critical moment for the United States. We surely need better quality leadership in our national government, but we are fortunate to have a political structure that allows state and local governments to build creative programs without the approval of Washington. Mike Bloomberg has once again provided creative, forward looking leadership. He deserves our support and our gratitude. He has mine.