Gathering Puts Energy Into Improving Power Grid

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An all-star cast of politicians, business people and activists sat down Monday in Washington, D.C., to discuss how to transform the nation's energy supply from dirty to clean. The consensus was that it will take a much better system for distributing electricity coast to coast. Participants agreed there are plenty of challenges to doing that.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Power breakfasts help fuel politics in the nation's capital, and one yesterday had even more wattage than usual. Those gathered to talk about the nation's energy future included Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Nancy Pelosi and the oil man T. Boone Pickens. Also taking part were the secretaries of energy and the interior.

After breakfast, the group of luminaries spilled out into a conference room to deliver a message. NPR's Richard Harris was there.

RICHARD HARRIS: If you ask this hand-picked cast of characters what America needs to rid itself of foreign-oil dependence to save the planet from global warming, and to stimulate the economy with green jobs, the answer is two words: smart grid. Former Colorado senator and emcee Tim Wirth said that means beef up all those power lines crisscrossing the country so they can carry clean energy.

Mr. TIM WIRTH (Former Democratic Senator, Colorado): This has a lot of politics intertwined in it, but we have a constituency on the outside that looks at this issue as, as I would call it, one of the most anesthetizing issues there is.

HARRIS: Wirth, who heads the United Nations Foundation, actually kept the anesthesia to a minimum. Part of that was the fascinating company, like industrialist T. Boone Pickens, who was seated between former Vice President Al Gore and Energy Secretary Steven Chu.

Mr. T. BOONE PICKENS (Oil and gas executive): I hope that there is a camera here and has me between the two Nobel leaders.

(Soundbite of laughter)

It would be very, very exciting if my mother was still alive.

HARRIS: Nobel peace laureate on one side, physics laureate on the other, and across the table sat Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, who said clean renewables are the way to go, but…

Speaker of the House NANCY PELOSI (Democrat, California): Renewable energy will mean nothing if there's not a grid to transmit it.

HARRIS: Ah, there's the rub. Everyone agreed that we need to string new, overhead transmission wires to carry power from windmills and solar energy installations in one part of the country across hundreds or thousands of miles to the places where it's needed. But former New York Governor George Pataki said, talk about unpopular ideas.

Former Governor GEORGE PATAKI (Republican, New York): After 12 years as governor, there are a lot of contentious issues. But you try to run a wire through somebody's community, and that becomes as contentious as you can possibly have.

HARRIS: One way to break this logjam is to take the decision-making away from states and local governments, and give it to the federal government. Yeah, right, says Fred Butler, who is the public utilities commissioner in New Jersey and head of a national group of utility commissioners.

Mr. FRED BUTLER (Commissioner, Board of Public Utilities, New Jersey): I have my own little congress of 230-some-odd utility commissioners, and it's very difficult to get consensus from them. And the consensus has been, for the last number of years, that we are opposed to federal takeover of the citing of responsibility.

HARRIS: They're willing to share that job with the feds, he said, but not give it up entirely. Too bad, said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. He's planning to introduce legislation this week that would disregard whatever Mr. Fred Butler from New Jersey has in mind.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada, Senate Majority Leader): He represents 253 state regulators. Whatever we pass at the federal level trumps all that. Ok?

HARRIS: Period. End of comment. And, of course, what conversation would be complete without Al Gore to remind us that the oil-price roller coaster has made it hard to plan an environmentally sound energy future.

Vice President AL GORE: This roller coaster's headed for a crash.

HARRIS: Mixed metaphor aside, the question now is simply whether there's a will outside this star-studded conference room to step up to the challenge.

Richard Harris, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: It's NPR News.

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