The power of leadership
On May 25, 1961, President John Kennedy, before a special joint session of Congress, announced the dramatic and ambitious goal of sending an American to the moon before the end of the decade. That speech remains one of the great historical examples of the use of the Presidential bully pulpit.
Kennedy felt great pressure at the time to overtake the Soviet Union in the “space race,” and seized the opportunity to capitalize on excitement over the first American space flight of Alan Shepard a few weeks before.
The speech was a leap of faith. At the time, there was no clear technological path to accomplishing this ambitious goal.
But his leadership brought with it a single-minded governmental dedication to achieve it. NASA projects Mercury, Gemini and Apollo were designed to execute on Kennedy’s vision, and on July 20, 1969, just eight years after Kennedy’s speech, Neil Armstrong stepped off the ladder of a lunar module, declaring, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”
The effort it took for Armstrong to descend that ladder ranks with the building of the Panama Canal in peacetime and the Manhattan Project during World War II as the greatest mobilizations of resources for a single project in US history.
Hawaii: Applying the man on the moon principle to energy transformation
The ability of governmental leadership to establish a vision and mobilize resources to carry it out remains a powerful way to achieve important but elusive goals.
This is how it needs to be with the critical goal of transitioning our energy base from fossil fuels to renewables. It is something we must do quickly to curb carbon emissions and prevent climate change. Yet the kind of government resolve required to negotiate the transition from traditional energy sources to modern ones typically gets derailed by conflicts between old industries and new ones.
That’s why it is so exciting to see what the state of Hawaii is accomplishing. Led by the vision of Governor David Ige, the state in May passed House Bill 623, which mandates that Hawaii’s power grids must deliver 100 percent renewable electricity by the end of 2045, just 30 years away.
This week Ige upped the ante by declaring that his administration will not use LNG (liquefied natural gas) to replace the state’s petroleum-fueled electricity plants, but will instead shift entirely to renewables. What’s more important, he was able to make the decision based on the economic argument that LNG will be a more expensive fuel over time, given the plummeting prices of renewables. With that decision, the state can invest in the transition to green energy instead of putting money into retooling electric plants to run on gas.
Like the vision of a man on the moon, Governor Ige’s vision is a leap of faith, driven by a combination of economic, social, and environmental factors:
- Historically, the state has developed a strong reliance on imported diesel fuel, which means that Hawaiians pay about three times the mainland rates for power.
- Hawaii has abundant renewable energy resources, including wind, solar, geothermal, hydro, and ocean power.
- The state will be among the first to feel the devastating impacts of global warming. Most of Hawaii’s economic development has occurred near the water, and projections show that Waikiki, the largest economic driver in the state, will be submerged within a century.
Says Peter Crouch, a power grid simulation expert and Dean of Engineering at the University of Hawaii, “Today I don’t know if we can do it, but without a goal, Hawaii will never get real and grapple with the issues that it needs to in order to get this done.”
Montana: Man on the moon leadership needed
I’m not going to argue that Montana should be where Hawaii is. All you have to do is step outside your front door on December 25 to know that it’s not Mele Kalikimaka. Hawaii is uniquely positioned to be a first mover on energy. In Montana, fossil fuel extraction has been an essential element of the economy for over a century, and a transition plan as abrupt as Hawaii’s may be too jarring.
But while Montana’s institutions of government are doing everything they can to protect the fossil fuel industry — establishing unnecessary tax holidays, promoting coal exports, protecting the rights of oil companies against Montana citizens — where is the leader who is setting a man on the moon vision?
What we hear from Montana’s leaders are platitudes regarding “all of the above” energy policies without specific plans for the necessary transition of the state’s energy economy.
- Governor Steve Bullock: ““It’s pretty safe to say it will be an all-of-the-above strategy and making sure that we’re doing it in a way that’s as predictable as possible for energy, but also as responsible as possible for what we enjoy about Montana.”
- Steve Daines: “Coal, oil and natural gas will continue holding a critical role in powering the world for the foreseeable future. Rather than dismissing this reality, the United States should be on the cutting edge of technological advances in energy development and leading the way in promoting the use of clean, affordable American energy.”
- Jon Tester:”We need to take effective action on this nation’s energy crisis right way. Specifically, we need to drill more in places where it makes sense like the Bakken Field, crack down on speculators driving up the price of oil and invest now in alternative energy and conservation for the long haul.”
That’s not visionary leadership.
We need a vision that explains to Montanans how the state will make the required transition from coal, oil and gas to renewables over time. We need a leader who will put a stake in the ground saying what Montana will look like in 20, 30, or 50 years.
That means ruffling feathers. That means offending Big Oil and Big Coal. That means having a grown up conversation within the state about the future of energy.
If that doesn’t happen, where will Montana be in 30 years when Hawaii’s entire power grid is run by renewables? Will we still be propping up dying industries while the state’s economy lags behind?
Where is Montana’s man on the moon leader?