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Denis Hayes on Being Green


Anyone who has taken some time on Earth Day to contemplate the planet has my next guest to thank. Danis Hayes was the first national coordinator for Earth Day back in 1970, and if I might insert a personal note, Earth Day back in 1970 was also the anniversary of my first science story I ever did. So this is very interesting, and I'm very happy to have as my guest today Denis Hayes, who is, and as I say, he's head of the Solar Energy Research Institute under President Jimmy Carter.

He headed that up. He was an early promoter of solar energy. He also taught engineering at Stanford. And today he's head of the Bullitt Foundation, which has built one of the greenest buildings in the country, a building that uses solar panels right here in cloudy Seattle. Thank you for taking time to be with us today.

DENIS HAYES: Well, it's - I'm delighted to be here, Ira.

FLATOW: Are you looking back, how many years it has been since 1970, it's almost too many years, I don't want to thank about it. Do you think Earth Day was a success? Has it been a success all these years on the anniversaries? Or do you think it has fallen short of what you expected it to inspire?

HAYES: Well, we had extraordinary, in those days we would have said revolutionary, hopes for it. But in terms of our expectations, I think it really transcended them. We had hoped that it would be something that was in the best of all world, comparable to the mobilization against the war or the Vietnam moratorium or something like that, whereas in fact it was half a - maybe seven or eight times as large as the largest of the anti-war demonstrations.

And then of course a week later, as you well know, since you were around then, President Nixon invaded Cambodia and had the greatest anti-war backlash that the country has perhaps ever seen, so dwarfing Earth Day for a period, in people's memories.

FLATOW: Where did the idea of Earth Day come from?

HAYES: It came from Senator Gaylord Nelson, a senator out of Wisconsin who had been a lifelong champion of conservation issues and environmental values. And he'd seen how teach-ins on college campuses had helped to launch the civil rights movement and the anti-war movements and thought that something comparable to that might get the environment on the front burner in the way that it hadn't been.

FLATOW: If you'd like to ask Denis Hayes a question, our microphones are right here in the audience, available for you. Let's talk about your - the time at Solar Energy Research Institute. The name was later changed to the National Renewable Energy Lab. Was that in Golden, Colorado, in the early days, if I recall?

HAYES: And it still is in Golden, Colorado.

FLATOW: It's still there.

HAYES: Ira, it seems to me, though, if I could interrupt for just 10 seconds, I got off on a tangent, and it was a wrong one. You were asking about the success, and I was simply talking about the 20 million people. The success of Earth Day was that it created the context within which a bunch of legislation - the Clear Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, Superfund, the Environmental Education Act - a set of things that were inconceivable in 1969, became unstoppable in the next three or four years.

FLATOW: Was it surprising that it came under Republican, supposedly conservative, President Richard Nixon? Our EPA was created under President Nixon.

HAYES: Richard Nixon deserves full credit for the EPA. He really wanted to become a player, and a few other Republicans that he saw as challengers, like John Lindsay, who were becoming players on the environment, and he did the EPA. I don't think he gets much credit for anything else. In fact he vetoed the Clean Water Act, and we had to override him in the Congress.

FLATOW: And so looking over those years, President Carter, very famous for trying to kick start renewable energy, creating the Solar Energy Research Institute, but that did not last. Those ideas did not last past his administration, did they?

HAYES: No. About six months into the Reagan administration, they came to SERI, and they reduced our $130 million budget by a little more than $100 million. They called it a trim. They fired all of our consultants, that was about 1,500 people, including three who went on to win Nobel Prizes later, and about a third of the staff. It was probably the most painful afternoon of my life.

FLATOW: Do you consider that the time that energy became polarized, politically polarized? Was that the key event - or around that time?

HAYES: I think so. I've always been completely mystified by what was going on. Why would somebody - and in fact when Ronald Reagan had been a radio commentator, whoever wrote those scripts for him had him saying very nice things about the conservativeness of decentralized distributed energy, where you could control your own power.

But it certainly was a profoundly important step into making this a partisan issue, where it had enjoyed widespread bipartisan support before that.

FLATOW: And I recall being at the ceremonies when President Carter put the solar panels up on the White House. And then President Reagan took them down. Is that - was that a real statement, or was it something out of convenience, or they were - people will tell you they were rusty, they were leaking, whatever. You don't buy that.

HAYES: Well, President Reagan didn't confide in me what his motivations were. And they're not terribly important, what the motivations were. If there was a leak someplace, you can always repair it and replace it. I think it was clearly a symbolic statement, and my hunch is that - in my mind I see Ed Meese walking into the president's office and saying, you know, Mr. President, we've only got so many dollars, we've got to make some choices.

Do you want to go with Ed Teller's energy source or Jane Fonda's energy source? And make a decision sort of on that.

FLATOW: Ed Teller, nuclear energy. And he did not want - he wanted his new morning in America not to be something that was seen to be as what? What did he fear that symbol would show us?

HAYES: I have really no clue. I mean, what we did was we moved away from being the world's foremost leader. I mean still today, all of the commercially available solar, photovoltaic technologies that are manufactured and marketed in the world, were pioneered in the United States, most of them with taxpayers' dollars.

At the time that I left SERI, it employed more Ph.D.s, got more patents, spent more money than the rest of the world combined. We literally walked away from that. leadership shifted to Japan and then to Germany and now to China, and it was just breathtakingly stupid. We abandoned a source that produced no greenhouse gases, no acid rain, no radioactive waste no bomb-grade materials, had no moving parts, operated at ambient temperatures, were inherently distributed, and we walked away from it.

FLATOW: Wow. We're going to take a break and come back and talk more with Denis Hayes, president and CEO of the Bullitt Foundation. We'll talk about the Bullitt Foundation and it's building. He's also the national coordinator of the first Earth Day. Please step up to the microphones. I'm sure you have - this is your opportunity to talk to Denis Hayes and be part of our conversation. We'll be right back after this short break. So stay with us.


FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.


FLATOW: We're talking with Denis Hayes, who is president and CEO of the Bullitt Foundation. He was national coordinator for the first Earth Day. Denis, let's talk about the Bullitt Center. It runs on solar energy here in cloudy Seattle. How does that - how did you pull that off?

HAYES: Well, we did it by: one, covering as big a surface area as we could in the building with photovoltaics; by choosing the most efficient that are available today commercially in the world; and by driving the consumption inside the building with investments in efficiency down to a small fraction of what it typically is.

Compared to the average building that exists in Seattle, we use 17 percent as much energy. If we had constructed this with the same efficiency as a typical office building, we'd have to cover the whole block with solar panels.

FLATOW: Wow. Have other people learned from your experience here in Seattle?

HAYES: We think so, and beyond Seattle, this is all part of the Living Building Challenge. It's something that says that your building has to generate as much energy on site as it uses, and to be the first six-story building in the United States that runs on the sunbeams that falls on its roof in Seattle is something of a challenge.

But it does communicate strongly to the rest of the country that if you can do it here, you can do it anyplace. And then similarly we - under the Living Building Challenge, have to get all of our water from the rain that falls on our roof, and that's just to flush the toilets, but for potable drinking water, for showers, for everything.

We have to avoid about 360 toxic and mutagenic and endocrine-disrupting chemicals that are common in the building space. All of the materials in the building, and there's like 1,400 components, have to come from specific radiuses from the building site. It's a really tough set of challenges, and we're very proud to have done it.

FLATOW: If you want to do it, you can do it, is the message here.

HAYES: And I suppose to be perfectly frank, we also have to say that compared to other class A office space in Seattle, we paid a premium. It costs 23 percent more to generate all your own energy, all of your own water, do all of that stuff on-site. But if you looked at the investments that society has to make to provide those services to other buildings, I think we actually come out ahead.

And I think because this was the first building, it was particularly expensive. The second, third, fourth, 100th will be substantially cheaper.

FLATOW: Who are your environmental heroes? Who's around now, who's doing work on behalf of the environment that you admire or maybe someone from the past even.

HAYES: Well, there are a great many people. I mean, in the context of this interview, I would particularly point out Cathleen Rogers and the staff of the Earth Day Network, who have taken that idea and kept it alive now in more than 180 countries around the world. It's typically the first introduction that school kids have to environmental values and issues and environmental education in general, as these events that are literally now every April held everywhere.

If you look at things historically, there have been some amazing champions. I suppose that I might choose Teddy Roosevelt, and it's in part because of his strong progressive views with regard to wilderness areas, but it's also because of his Republican quasi-populist skepticism about a whole series of industrial activities that were not much being questioned then by any politicians.

FLATOW: Yeah, trust busters. Let me go to the audience, right up here, yes.

THEA BRUCE: Hi, I'm Thea Bruce(ph), and I'd like to know if there is, since you were very successful with your building, is there a template now that many developers could use to make it economically viable for them to produce a building like yours for Seattle?

HAYES: Perfect question. And yes, there is effectively a template. We will publish on our website all of our materials and all of the specific suppliers of those things that we have, windows that were simply not available in the United States to meet our needs. We imported the technology from Germany and got a local manufacturer, Goldfinch Brothers, to make the windows. All of that stuff is there for Seattle and probably for the Pacific Northwest, from Portland up through Vancouver.

One of the things about building in a way that's environmental sound is to be aware of your surroundings. You build a very different building if you're in Phoenix than if you're in Anchorage than if you're in Atlanta. But I think we've got a terrific template for Seattle, and I think the Living Building Challenge is an appropriate challenge in each of those areas.

FLATOW: You mentioned all of the technologies that were made in the USA but are no longer made in the USA. What do you see as the future? Is there any way to bring - can we leapfrog a technology, bring something newer back or bring any of the current technologies back?

HAYES: I think this is all a matter of choice and policy, sure. I mean, there are a lot of ways that you can leapfrog, particularly in the solar field, by moving into nanotechnologies for example. The theoretical efficiency of solar cells is now very substantially - I mean hell, forget the theoretical efficiency. The real efficiency of solar cells is higher than the theoretical efficiency back when I was at SERI just because of new materials approaches.

FLATOW: No kidding.

HAYES: The - and as you move increasingly into robotics, the fact that Ph.D.s in some other countries are prepared to work for less than high school graduates in the United States will also become less and less an issue. But it's a question of having the supportive policies.

If you've got something that creates a genuine market for these things, then somebody's going to go out and exploit it.

FLATOW: Now there has been a flood of solar panels on the market, and the prices have dropped. But there have been recent reports that the solar panels are really substandard, and they're falling apart before they were expected to. What do you do about that?

HAYES: Well, we shouldn't be talking about solar panels generically. There are small Chinese manufacturers who have made substandard panels, have sold them some people believe for less than the cost of manufacturing them, and they have given it a bad name in a few circles.

If you're buying from a responsible manufacturer, SunPower, who we bought it from, which is an American company, or any of the Chinese companies or German companies that have good reputations and track records of at least 10 years and good, enforceable warranties. You'll get a good product.

FLATOW: Do you think there is a race between solar and wind, one has to win out over the other?

HAYES: No, they both have important advantages in different circumstances. With solar it's inherently modular, and the efficiency simply depends upon the solar intensity. With wind, and this gets a little geeky, but for your program I think that's doable for...

FLATOW: We love geeky stuff.


HAYES: The power you get from wind goes up with the cube of air speed. So if it's twice as fast, you get eight times as much power, and it goes up with the square of turbine size. So if it's twice as big a turbine, you get four times as much power. So wind makes sense in places where there's a lot of wind and you can put up big turbines, don't make any sense in cities. That's where solar takes over.

FLATOW: Do you ever wonder where we would be today - I'm sure you do - if Jimmy Carter's policies and procedures and funding had carried through for the last 30-or-so years?

HAYES: Well, I have a fairly clear idea, it may not be right since it was a hypothetical future, but we developed a rather thorough set of policies that were designed to bring America to getting more than 20 percent of its energy from renewable resources by the year 2000. Had that happened, we would have had such efficiencies of scale that - and efficiencies of mass production that the costs would have, by 2000, been lower than they are today, and I think the market would have been incredible, and it would have been a huge global export market for the United States.

My sense, and this gets a little bit green, but I really think that photovoltaics in a human culture can play the role that photosynthesis plays in nature, where literally everything that is available can be covered with something that captures sunlight and converts it into something that is very useful for the purposes of the organisms that either produce it or eat it.

FLATOW: Do you take any solace in knowing that we now have a generation of youngsters who have grown up in an era of solar panels? They never knew that they weren't around. And maybe it becomes a way of life and they accept more a greener future in - for the next generation or so?

HAYES: I think that's happening, and it's happening not just here but in a great many places and I think ultimately everywhere. The world is seeing a massive wave of migration to cities. And in the United States, where we have a constitutional right as Americans to live anyplace that we want to, and big parts of the country are now becoming desiccated as a consequence of climate change, and people are moving to specific cities, I think that solar is going to be the way that those things increasingly get powered either for all of their energy, some cases, or for a very large part of that because of the happy coincidence between the time that the sun shines and the time that we like to be awake and doing things.

FLATOW: So you're not pessimistic in a certain sense? You have a certain optimism about the future?

HAYES: I'm enormously optimistic if we can put the right policies in place. I mean, Seattle has been really good on this. We announced something just yesterday called The Seattle Plan, which is a way to make it in the interests of utilities, of building owners, of all of the rate payers of the utility and of energy investors. So it's a win-win-win-win kind of policy, no losers in it at all, to go into buildings and get increases of efficiency of 35 to 50 percent with a 20-year contract to buy megawatt hours by the utility.

FLATOW: Negawatt.

HAYES: Negawatt with an N. And to the extent that this pilot, which we're doing at the Bullitt Center, is successful and it spreads throughout Seattle City Light and then into other utilities - you know, buildings use more than three quarters of all the electricity in the United States. If we can reduce that over time by half, that's just a stunning kind of solution, and that's one policy.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Denis Hayes, thank you for taking time to be with us today, and good luck to you.

HAYES: Ira, it's been a pleasure.

FLATOW: Denis Hayes is president and CEO of the Bullitt Foundation and one of the first organizers of the first Earth Day. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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