August 20, 2020

The Witch of Wind

by How to Save a Planet

For decades, coal fueled the town of Somerset, MA. But when the coal plant went bust -- taking with it millions in tax dollars -- the town struggled. That’s when a local politician, the self-proclaimed Queen of Coal, learned that an unexpected industry could revive the economy. Today on the show how Somerset, MA went from a town of coal to a launching point for the burgeoning offshore wind industry.


Want to help speed the transition away from coal? Check out the Beyond Coal Campaign.

Want to nerd out on wind policy and how to jumpstart this industry? Check out the policy memo, polling and graphics by Urban Ocean Lab, Data for Progress, and Evergreen Collaborative.

Send us an email to howtosaveaplanet@spotify.com.

Find us on Twitter and Instagram @how2saveaplanet.

How to Save a Planet is a Spotify Original Podcast and Gimlet Production. It’s hosted by Alex Blumberg and Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson.

Our reporters and producers are Kendra Pierre-Louis, Rachel Waldholz and Anna Ladd. Our senior producer is Lauren Silverman. Our editor is Caitlin Kenney. Sound design, mixing and original music by Emma Munger. Additional music by Bobby Lord, Catherine Anderson, and Billy Libby. Our fact checker this episode is James Gaines.

Special thanks to Holly McNamara, Blythe Terrell and Devon Taylor.

Where to Listen

Transcript

ALEX BLUMBERG: Can you hear us? 


AYANA ELIZABETH JOHNSON: Yep I can hear you.


ALEX: There we go.


AYANA: Let's make a podcast. 


ALEX: Yeah. Okay, let's do it. Are you ready? Episode number one. 


AYANA: Oh my gosh…


ALEX: This is How to Save a Planet.

 

[THEME MUSIC] The podcast where … What do we do?


AYANA: the podcast where we answer the question, what are the key things we, humanity, need to do about climate change?


ALEX: And how do we make those things happen? I'm Alex Blumberg. 


AYANA: I'm Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and this is How To Save A Planet. 


[THEME MUSIC UP]


AYANA: Oooh theme music!


[THEME AND OUT]


ALEX: You could argue, Ayana, that one of the most basic things that we as humans need to do to help slow climate change is figure out a different way of making electricity.

 

[MUSIC IN]


AYANA: The electricity that powers our homes and businesses, our computers and air conditioners – just about all of that is generated by power plants. And historically, those power plants have overwhelmingly used used fossil fuels. Right now, around a quarter of all US greenhouse gas emissions comes from burning fossil fuels to make electricity. 


ALEX: A quarter of greenhouse gases is from making electricity. So really, we have to stop burning fossil fuels to make electricity. And there’s one fossil fuel in particular that we should eliminate first: coal.  


AYANA: Burning coal creates way more greenhouse gasses than other fossil fuels, and it's dirtier in general. It produces lots of other pollutants which cause smog and are linked to all sorts of illnesses like asthma and cancer, and it leaves behind this really toxic ash and pollutes the water. It’s a total mess.


[MUSIC OUT]


ALEX: So coal, one of the worst fossil fuels we can burn — 


AYANA: Bad for our health, bad for the Earth.


ALEX: And today we're going to tell the story of a place that got rid of coal. A place where coal used to reign supreme, until they decided to blow everything up, and start over. 


AYANA: And when we say blow everything up, we literally mean they blew it up. 


[clip plays]


ALEX: Have you seen this video?


AYANA: I have not seen this video. I’ve heard about this video


ALEX: So this is a video of these two massive towers that were part of a big coal plant that are being imploded. 


ALEX: All right, so here it goes


[explosion]


AYANA: WHOA! [Ayana laughing] They just blew out the bottom, and they're just collapsing straight down and like pulverized. They just kneecapped these cooling towers.


ALEX: And those cooling towers that got kneecapped, those are part of the Brayton Point Power Plant, which was demolished in April of 2019 in the town of Somerset, Massachusetts. There was another smaller coal plant in town that was also shut down. And together these coal plants powered a huge chunk of the state.


AYANA: And for decades, blowing up those towers, shutting down those plants, is something the town of Somerset would never have considered. It would have seemed insane.


 PATRICIA HADDAD: Everybody loved them.  


ALEX: This is Patricia Haddad. She grew up in Somerset, her mom is from Somerset. And today on the show, we’re going to hear the story of why Pat Hadad and the people in Somerset decided to blow up this thing that almost everyone had loved. 


[MUSIC IN]


And we’ll hear what blowing up that coal plant can tell all of us about moving to a world where we no longer burn fossil fuels to make our electricity. That’s all coming up on our show today.  


[MUSIC OUT]


BREAK


ALEX: Pat Haddad, the woman who we just heard from, saying that everyone in Somerset loved the Brayton Point Coal Plant, she said the reason for that love was simple. That plant and it’s smaller cousin, they represented one thing: money. The tax revenue from those plants was the town’s meal ticket. 


HADDAD: For 20 years, you saw this very small town have all the facilities that a big city had. Full time fire, police, excellent schools. We were the envy of every little town around and the envy of the city. 


ALEX: Because of all those amenities that you guys had. 


HADDAD: All the amenities and the tax revenue. 


AYANA: So even though the laundry was dusted with coal ash and some people really worried about asthma rates… For lots of people in town, including Pat, this was something they felt they had to accept.


ALEX: In fact, when Pat grew up, and got a job in politics, and eventually became a state representative, she gave herself a nickname, the Queen of Coal. 


[MUSIC IN]


AYANA: But the reign of coal shall not last forever. 


ALEX: And one of the first people who was aware that coal’s reign was about to come to an end was this guy: 


TED WHEELER: My name is Ted Wheeler, and I started at Brayton Point in 1982 or so around there. 


ALEX: Ted wheeler was a mechanic at Brayton Point. He fixed all the machinery — the pumps, the valves, the pulverizers, coal feeders. Pretty much every piece of machinery in that plant he could take apart and put back together. 


WHEELER: You know we provided 20% of the electricity to Massachusetts


[MUSIC CHANGE]


WHEELER: I used to conduct tours of school kids in Massachusetts, and I’d ask them, “Who made their breakfast with coal today?” And everybody would all say, “Ewww not me, not me.” You know, but in fact they all had because they used electricity. It was coal. It was converted to electricity. It went to their house. They didn’t have to see the coal, but it was still used.


WHEELER: We thought we were the heartbeat of New England, and I still believe that today that we were.


[MUSIC UP AND OUT]


ALEX: But everything was about to change for Ted and the people who worked at the plant with him because of a new development that was happening across the country: fracking 


AYANA: The fracking boom — 


ALEX: It was HUGE


AYANA: Right. In the mid-2000’s, technologies emerged that allowed us to drill super deep through the rock, and access these reserves of natural gas that we hadn’t been able to get at before in a way that made economic sense. This was happening across the US, in places like Texas and Pennsylvania and the Dakotas. 


ALEX: There were big environmental costs— pollution of drinking water, earthquakes… but fracked gas was cheap… cheaper even, than coal. 


WHEELER: Along comes fracking, and natural gas goes to 2 dollars a million BTU... 


AYANA: Wow. 


ALEX: So literally half of what coal costs? 


WHEELER: Yeah, and couple that with the natural gas plants are almost twice as efficient, and they have a smaller footprint, less employees, no coal ash, and things like that to deal with. So when gas went to half the price, twice the efficiency, it was almost overnight we were out of the game. 


ALEX: Ted, how did that show up for you? Like what did you see? 


WHEELER: Well, we’d come in and they’d say, “Hey, unit three we took it down to minimum load last night,” which was unheard of. And then they’d come in, “Hey, they took...unit 1 and 2s off the schedule for the weekend.” And then, “Hey, we’re not gonna run 1 and 2 this week.” 


ALEX: As time passed, more and more units, more and more sections of the Brayton Point Power Plant sat idle. In 2011, rumors started to swirl that the plant would be closed down.


AYANA: And these rumors reached the Queen of Coal herself, Rep. Pat Haddad. 


HADDAD: It became very obvious that the demise of coal was right around the corner. And I started to warn my town, “You really really have to look at this, and you have to have a plan.” And interestingly the response was they’re too big to fail. 


[MUSIC IN]


It was mostly disbelief that this could ever happen. 


ALEX: But it did happen. In June of 2017, the Brayton Point Power Plant officially closed its doors. The single biggest industry and the single biggest taxpayer in Somerset was gone. 


ALEX: And how are you feeling at this point? What’s your view on all this?


HADDAD: Completely panicked. Completely panicked. 


AYANA: What was your biggest fear about what would happen to Somerset without the coal plants?  


HADDAD: It’s happening. It’s happening. We’ve had five years of a decrease in taxes, and so the plant that was paying 16 million dollars five years ago is paying less than a million now. So, when you say what was I thinking? I was truly truly panicked. Oh, it was just the worst. It was the worst. 


AYANA: Listening to Pat Haddad, it was the first time I really thought about what it would be like to be an elected official of a region that’s really reliant on coal power as your source of tax revenue, that’s funding all of your town’s services. It’s a huge deal. 


ALEX: And how do you replace that? Once the coal plant goes away, It’s not like there’s like another massive that’s sort of industry ready to take its place… 


AYANA: Or is there? 


ALEX: Oooh… Well… it just so happened that Pat Haddad, in her panic, she’s talking to everyone about this. And she happens to visit this other city not too far away from Somerset. New Bedford. 


AYANA: And New Bedford had been through what Somerset was going through. A bunch of it’s key industries were contracting, and it was looking for new sources of revenue….maybe a way to take advantage of their port infrastructure. 


ALEX: And The folks in New Bedford had been looking around, talking to different people…and there were these industry leaders they introduced to Pat Hadadd to who she found very intriguing. 


HADDAD: These people were from Denmark, Germany, England, and these people had a much better story...offshore wind. 


[MUSIC OUT]


AYANA: Offshore wind.


ALEX: Ding Ding Ding


AYANA: This is where offshore wind enters the story of Pat Haddad and Somerset. 


ALEX: When she’s talking about offshore wind, she’s talking about big commercial offshore wind farms, which are essentially these big windmills in the ocean, typically several miles offshore. 


AYANA: And offshore the winds are stronger, they’re steadier, so these farms can generate more power than onshore wind facilities. And because so many big cities are located on the coasts – especially in the Northeast – offshore wind has the potential to power huge swaths of the most populated parts of the country. So when it comes to climate solutions, wind is something environmentalists have been championing as one of the most powerful and cleanest forms of energy that we could be using. 


ALEX: But offshore wind typically hasn’t been something that’s championed by fossil-fuel nicknamed state legislators like Pat Haddad when they’re trying to fill a gigantic tax revenue hole in their municipal budgets. So how did it happen this time? 


[MUSIC IN]


After the break, we’re going to learn how one of the greenest technologies out there turned into something the queen of coal would love. 


[MUSIC OUT]


BREAK


ALEX: You made it through half an episode Ayana…how’s it feel?


AYANA: I’m feeling super hosty.


ALEX: This is your first welcome back from the break!


AYANA: Welcome back from the break. 


ALEX: Oooh. It’s like you’ve been doing it your whole life.


AYANA: How was your break?… Should I do a radio voice? No?   


ALEX: Yeah, no no that was good. That was good.


AYANA: Okay, that’s enough… In the second half of our first episode, we’re going to be spending a lot of time with this guy:  


JEFF GRYBOWSKI: My name is Jeff Grybowski. For about a decade I was involved in developing offshore wind projects in the United States.


ALEX: So you are the guy who got the first offshore wind farm set up in the US? 


GRYBOWSKI: Yeah, well I led the team that did that for sure. 


ALEX: Jeff Grybowski is the former CEO of a company called Deepwater Wind, an offshore wind company. And I’ll just say, Ayana, I think that without Jeff Grybowski, Pat Haddad – the Queen of Coal who we met in the first half – might never have given wind a second look. Without Jeff there might not have been a domestic offshore wind industry for her to even look at. 


AYANA: Which is maybe a little bit strange, because before 2008, the idea of offshore wind had almost never entered his mind.  


GRYBOWSKI: [Grybowski laughs] It honestly was not a topic I had ever really thought much about to be perfectly honest with you. I wasn’t an energy industry guy. I was a regulatory lawyer, a corporate lawyer doing the kinds of things that corporate lawyers do, when one day I received a cold call from a company that was looking to put offshore wind turbines off the coast of Rhode Island.


ALEX: And because Jeff specialized in complicated business deals, he told the people on the phone basically… 


AYANA: Are you nuts? They’ll never let you do that. 


GRYBOWSKI: I was rattling off all the names of all the agencies that you'd have to go to get approval and then thinking about all the people who would be opposed and thinking about all the politicians who would get involved. And it just seemed like this incredibly complicated undertaking that had like a really, really low probability. And all I could see were problems. 


ALEX: Right, which is probably why they were calling you.


[laughing]


GRYBOWSKI: That’s exactly why they were calling me because they wanted to know how do we get this done.


ALEX: You see the people who were calling Jeff were not the first people to try and set up an offshore wind farm in the United States. Many people had tried, and many had failed. 


[MUSIC IN]


And one project in particular had become a cautionary tale for the entire industry: the Cape Wind Project. 


AYANA: I actually remember this! The Cape Wind Project was first announced in 2001, and after I graduated from college I was living in Woods Hole on Cape Cod. I was actually working on ocean policy for the first time, and it was super exciting to think about this project. And there was a lot of fanfare around it. 


NEWS ANCHOR: Sarah, a big decision by the Secretary of Interior. It looks like a thumbs up to the Cape Wind Project… how do you feel about that?


SARA: I think Cape Wind Project is a very good idea. It’s a renewable resource, and our planet just needs more of that… 


AYANA: The project was hailed as a big step forward in renewable energy for the entire region – one of the most liberal and progressive areas of the country. But very quickly, opposition to the project started to form: 


NEWS ANCHOR: Mr. Moriarty, we just heard that Secretary of the Interior Salazar has greenlighted the Cape Wind Project. What are your thoughts? 


MORIARTY: Well, it's unfortunate but not surprising. The lawsuits will be coming in. They’ll be starting tomorrow, and it’s going to be an awful long time before we see any wind turbines in Nantucket Sound. It’s just the beginning. We haven’t even begun to start fighting on Cape Cod. I guarantee you this is just the beginning! 


[MUSIC OUT]


ALEX: Mr. Moriarty – the guy you just heard claiming the fight had just begun over wind turbines – he was right. Over the next decade and a half, opposition mounted. There were the usual suspects like fossil fuel interests. 


AYANA: There was also opposition from other places. From some fishermen who were worried about access to their preferring fishing areas and some Native American tribes who were concerned about impacts on culturally important places. 


ALEX: And opposition from many wealthy landowners, who were worried that the windmills would sully their view, including wealthy liberals who claimed to be in favor of renewable energy: 


NEWS ANCHOR: High profile residents like Senator Ted Kennedy have criticized the proposed site, believing it would obstruct their views. 


AYANA: It makes me so angry to hear that. 


ALEX: Ted! Et tu Ted Kennedy?


AYANA: Ted Kennedy we needed you!!! Eventually, the project died. Proponents spent over 16 years and 100 million dollars trying to get it built, only to have it FAIL. 


ALEX: But if anything, the spectacular quagmire that was the Cape Wind Project, made Jeff want to say yes to the people on the phone back in 2008 – the ones who called asking for his help building a different offshore wind project. 


AYANA: He seems like he’s a bit of a masochist for complicated regulatory problems. 


ALEX: Definitely, it was really fascinating talking to him. The thing that would be my nightmare, he loved. And so he got to work, with the lessons of Cape Wind in the front of his mind. 


[MUSIC IN]


He made a list of every single agency – local, state and federal – that could possibly say no to his new project, got meetings with all of them, and several years into it, things were moving forward. 


AYANA: And then something came up that almost derailed the entire project.  


GRYBOWSKI: And that was probably the moment where I thought “Oh no, we’re in trouble.”


AYANA: This was five years into the project already. Jeff was at a meeting with a local Town Council, in a small community on the Rhode Island coast, and one of the items on the agenda was something Jeff thought he had already solved. Where to land the cable that would bring in electricity from the wind farm. He didn’t see any reason the town would oppose it, but they did.


JG: We were getting ready to build the thing the next year. We were really deep in the project. 


ALEX: And how much had you spent already? 


Grybowski: Oh, it was in the tens of millions for sure. 


ALEX: And was that a thing where you thought I don’t know if this might scuttle the project? 


GRYBOWSKI: Absolutely, yeah. I have – the beach where we were not allowed to land that cable – I have a photograph of that beach on my wall. And I had it in my office because I never wanted to forget how close we were to losing the project. I learned a lot of lessons in that in that particular failure.  


ALEX: The most important lesson being, people are fucking [bleeped] insane about beaches!!!  


AYANA: I didn’t see that coming!


ALEX: Building the project, permitting the projects, lining up the constituencies, dealing with all the bureaucracies, all the government bureaucracies – state, local, and federal – that it turned out was the easy part. 


GRYBOWSKI: The hard part is saying to the people in the Hamptons, “It’s really a good thing for you and for society that this transmission cable be landed here on this beach. I know it’s a beach that you love, and you’re worried about having a transmission cable on your beach, but that is still this huge hurdle to get over.”


ALEX: And just to be clear, what are we talking about here? Are we talking about a gigantic cable that comes up like a beached whale on to the beach, and people have to sunbathe around it? What are we talking about? 

 

GRYBOWSKI No, no, no. Yeah, no, I'm glad you asked that. 


[laughing]


The cable itself was about six inches in diameter.


AYANA: [Ayana laughs] No! This is what all the fuss is about!?

 

ALEX: On top of the beach or it's under the beach?


GRYBOWSKI: It's buried about 20 feet under the part of the beach where you'd be laying on your towel. 

 

AYANA: Oh my God. So this is not an eyesore. This is not going to, like, get in the way of your beach towel. You're not even going to know it’s there.


GRYBOWSKI: And this is not a new technology. Right? Guess what? We've got cables under beaches all over the place right now. 


ALEX: But to be clear that the number one barrier to clean, powerful energy for the entire eastern seaboard is people freaking out about a cable that's six inches wide that will be buried under a beach that they will never see and never feel.


GRYBOWSKI: That's my top worry.

 

ALEX: Oh, my God.


ALEX: We don't deserve to be saved. We really don't.

 

GRYBOWSKI: The good news is that the things that you might think are really hard, we can do. Like the engineering. We can build the turbines offshore. They're really big, and they work, and they're really efficient, and they produce a lot of power. But the one thing that engineers usually can’t figure out is how to change the human heart. 


[laughing]


AYANA: They don’t teach that in grad school, I can tell you that.


GRYBOWSKI: Exactly, the hard part about this business is not, you know, do I use a left wing nut or a right wing nut.


AYANA: Do we need to send engineers to charm school? Is that the answer?


[laughing]


AYANA: All engineers must go to charm school, and then we’ll have offshore winds.


ALEX: It’s not how to use the left wing nuts or the right wing nuts. You have to teach them how to talk to the left wing nuts.


[laughing]


AYANA: Charm all of the wingnuts.


ALEX: All the wingnuts.


ALEX: So Jeff eventually found another beach in Rhode Island, got the job done, and in 2016, four years behind their original schedule, the project was complete. The first, commercial offshore wind project in the entire United States. 


AYANA: And it made Jeff unique. He was the one person in the states who’d actually gotten one of these things built. 


ALEX: Which is how Jeff Grybowski crossing paths with Pat Haddad, the Queen of Coal, from Somerset. Remember, she’d been meeting with all sorts of industry leaders, trying to figure out what to replace the Brayton Point Coal Plant with, what could make up for all those lost jobs and revenue. Jeff was one of the people that she met with. He was at that point now a CEO of a major offshore wind company, and Jeff told her, essentially, if you’re looking for an industry to replace the coal plant, you should look at offshore wind.  


GRYBOWSKI: We have something that could help replace at least some of those jobs and some of that tax base. This southern coast area of Massachusetts from Brayton Point over to New Bedford has a lot of great resources for the offshore wind industry. And so we began making the pitch about how offshore wind could help create some of the jobs that they’ve lost over the decades. And that was a pitch that really resonated, particularly because we’re an ocean-based business and they’re a coastal community with a history of going to the ocean. 


ALEX: Pat Haddad, the lawmaker from Massachusetts, nicknamed the Queen of Coal, she found the arguments Jeff and other people in the business were making really compelling. 


AYANA: Pat Haddad decided that offshore wind was worth looking into and taking seriously. She ended up writing a bill mandating that Massachusetts utilities purchase a big chunk of their electricity – enough to power over a million homes – specifically from offshore wind. 


HADDAD: What the bill did was bring 2,000 megawatts of offshore wind, it also had a provision for making sure that storage was also part of the solution. 


ALEX: So all of this, you’re going through all of this to sort of plug this one hole, which is sort of like there’s a gigantic revenue hole that comes in your hometown from the loss of this coal plant, but there’s lots of ways to plug a revenue hole, and you chose wind energy as sort of your preferred solution to do that. And it strikes me as you’re talking is that what really this is is a bet on a certain version of the future. That like there will be a day when there’s lots of wind farms, and they all need maintenance, and they all need parts and componentry, and they need a...


AYANA: And a place to plug in… 


ALEX: And a place to plug in, and they need factories supplying them, and your bet is that like that place will be Somerset and New Bedford and Fall River and some of these other towns. 


HADDAD: Exactly


ALEX: Talk to me about what that looks like. What’s the bigger picture behind what you’re doing? 


HADDAD: My vision is that all along, the east coast of Massachusetts, people are taking advantage, and companies in the supply chain are taking advantage of actually coming to Massachusetts, setting up shop, and being able to use the work force from three – at least three other states so that would be Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Connecticut.


ALEX: Pat was so committed to this new vision that she actually changed her nickname. She didn't want to be the Queen of Coal any longer.


AYANA: She wanted to be the witch of wind. 


[MUSIC IN]


ALEX: The witch of wind. And she said there were a couple of reasons for this pretty dramatic title change. Mostly she believed wind could give her what coal used to: jobs and tax revenue for the community.


AYANA: But there’s one reason Pat Haddad did NOT give for changing her nickname. Wind is way better for the climate. It’s renewable energy


ALEX: She didn’t really mention that part to us. In fact every time it came up it was something that we brought it up.


AYANA: And Jeff Grybowski, one of the guys who sold her on wind energy in the first place, says that’s pretty common.  


GRYBOWSKI: If I don't have to talk about climate change, I usually don’t because I find it to be a polarizing issue with some of the folks who I have to convince, frankly. 


ALEX: It’s so interesting that like one of the biggest and most impactful things that we can do and the energy generating side of things in the whole climate change fight, you know we’re gonna make that argument without mentioning climate change a lot of the times. You know [Alex laughs] it’s pretty crazy. 


[MUSIC OUT]


GRYBOWSKI: Yeah, here’s the great thing about something like offshore wind. And it’s not unique to offshore wind. Other clean technologies share these attributes. There are a lot of good reasons to support it. It may be that offshore wind can produce a lot of jobs, and it may be that offshore wind can produce really cheap competitive power, and it may be that, you know, the U.S. needs to be a technological innovator. We can’t let the rest of the world innovate energy technology. We’ve gotta do it as well. As a developer, I don't need you to agree with every reason. If you’re okay with one of them and you can support the project and be for this technology, awesome! That’s a win. 


ALEX: And it's these reasons that have nothing to do with saving the planet that are helping get other people in Somerset on board with Pat Haddad and her wind plan. People like this guy


WHEELER: It’s very exciting to me. 


ALEX: This is Ted Wheeler. Remember the mechanic who worked at the Brayton Point Coal Plant in Somerset.


AYANA: Yeah, he told us he used to be sort of skeptical about the term green jobs. But like Pat Haddad, he’s become a convert. He’s imagining all those windmills off the coast of his state, and he’s thinking that someone’s gonna have to take care of those things. 


WHEELER: You know, if you think these windmills...things are going to happen to them. They need supplies, they need people to go out and work on them. You know, they need the cables to be tended. If there’s guys out there, they need food. They need everything.


ALEX: Wow.


WHEELER: Boats to go out there, helicopters...


[MUSIC IN]


WHEELER: They’re saying in Europe, like here we have whale watchers, they have boats to travel out to see the windmills, things like that. There’s all kinds of jobs. 


AYANA: [Ayana laughs] Like the Statue of Liberty but it’s clean energy… tourist attraction


ALEX: There’s gonna be guys like you out of one of those windmills talking to school kids on a boat being like “Did you have the wind for breakfast this morning?”


[laughs]


WHEELER: That’s exactly right. 

  

ALEX: And there’s one argument for wind that particularly appeals to Ted, and that is, it provides an opportunity to be in on the ground floor as this exciting industry takes root in America. 


WHEELER: You know, I worked in the coal plant. That's why I wish I was here, you know, when they were designing all this stuff. And now, you know, if you pay attention, you’re out here while they're designing the wind stuff. You know, and it's really exciting. And if you think from the beginning of mankind, we always use fire for everything: for light, for heat, for cooking. Now, with the wind, there's no fuel, no fire. Think about that for a minute. That's rather profound. 


[MUSIC DISSOLVES OUT]


ALEX: It is profound. And for me, when he said that to us, my mind went to this trip I took a long time ago. Have you ever been inside of an actual power plant, Ayana? 


AYANA: No, have you?


ALEX: I have because I was a science teacher, and I took my students one time inside a nuclear power plant. Like, I think one of the parents worked at the plant or something. 


AYANA: That’s a cool field trip


ALEX: Yeah, it was really cool, and it was like way cooler for me than it was for them. 


AYANA: Sounds right.

 

ALEX: And like you think of power plants and electricity as like these super complicated technological feats, and they are. But the actual principle at the heart of them is super simple. Like electricity generation is literally just a bunch of wires spinning in a circle inside a magnetic field. That's all it is. That's what's making all of our electricity. And what they do in power plants is they just have to make the wires spin, and usually they do that by lighting big hot fires and making water boil. That’s literally...they're gigantic tea kettles. 


AYANA: When you put it that way, it sounds ridiculous and totally inefficient.

 

ALEX: It's crazy. When I was inside this, like, power plant, I was like, “We're doing all this technology. We're taking all this risk. We're like splitting atoms basically, just so we can make it hot enough to boil water to turn into steam to spin wires.”  


AYANA: That’s so nuts


ALEX: And that is what Ted is saying. What's profound is that with wind, you can skip the fire. You don't need to make a fire to spin the wires. You can just use the wind. 

 

[MUSIC IN]


AYANA: And the crazy thing is the wind can actually make a ton of power. The turbines work super well now, and there's so much wind blowing, especially off the Northeast coast of the U.S. In fact, scientists have calculated that there is enough potential energy to power not only all of Massachusetts, but also New York and Virginia and North Carolina just from offshore wind. No coal or boiling water necessary.


[MUSIC OUT]


ALEX: Okay, so we have all this potential for renewable power, and we have this community in Somerset that’s shut down it’s coal plant and is trying to take advantage of that potential. But that’s just one town in the United States. There are hundreds of coal fired power plants all over the country. What’s happening to them? To find out, we’re going to spend the last few minutes of our episode, with Mary Anne Hitt. She’s at the Sierra Club, and she's been leading the Beyond Coal Campaign there for about a decade now, and she says that coal plants all over the country are going the way of Brayton Point. 


MARY ANNE HITT: There were 530 coal plants in this country a decade ago, and 300 of those have now been retired or announced to retire. 


[MUSIC IN]


AYANA: That's amazing. Three hundred.  


HITT: We were getting half of our electricity from coal a decade ago, and now it's a quarter of our electricity.


AYANA: And actually since we spoke with her, another 17 coal plants have been retired! And now we’re down from a quarter of our energy produced by coal to a fifth. 


ALEX: A lot of the coal plants that shut down over the last decade have been replaced by the energy source that doomed Brayton Point: natural gas from fracking. But recently more and more, towns and communities are making the choice that Somerset did, to replace their coal plants with renewable energy like offshore wind or solar. And that’s because of one OTHER argument for renewable energy. Renewable has gotten really CHEAP largely because the technology’s gotten better. Renewable energy is now as cheap or cheaper than any other energy source out there. And this drop in the price of renewable energy – both wind and solar – is a HUGE deal. And it has TOTALLY changed what seems possible. 


Even for Long time activists used to duking it out with fossil fuel energy executives like Mary Anne Hitt.


HITT: It is really a huge reason to be hopeful. When you look at the amount of change that’s happened in the last decade when renewable energy was more expensive than coal, imagine what we could do in the next decade. I just think there's so much more possible than we can even imagine. 


ALEX: I think in this climate conversation, there is a sense of… in transitioning to a climate future that we can actually live on the Earth in a low or no carbon energy future, that involves sacrifice. 


[MUSIC OUT]


There is like this sort of like we have to change our life. We have to go back to simpler times. We have to make our own clothes and recycle all the time. And like, don't, you know, we can't have any fun. 


AYANA: Recycling is actually not that hard. 


ALEX: Whatever. I just like...speak for yourself


AYANA: Of all the things to worry about. Making my own clothes very hard. 


ALEX: It's hard for me to read the numbers on the bottom of the plastic. You're going to get there. You have to take off your glasses. Sometimes your hands are dirty. Anyway. 


[laughter]


But there's this idea that like it's going to take this huge collective sacrifice, and we're going we're gonna get there and we're gonna feel virtuous, but we're gonna live in a world that's like more expensive and like worse and all this sort of stuff. But that way of thinking about it is just not true? 


AYANA: Can you paint us a picture of what it looks like if we get this right? 


HITT: So, your electricity will stay on. It will stay affordable. So you won't notice that. But what you will notice is cleaner air, cleaner water, being able to see farther, being able to breathe more easily if you're a person with asthma or other health problems, and I also think the other thing we would see is a change in our politics. If you don't have the coal and the fracked gas industry with a grip on our electricity supply anymore, the kind of policies that we need – whether it's a price on carbon or stronger regulations – those become a lot more possible when you don't have this fossil fuel industry with a death grip on our electric grid that it has today. 


ALEX: So Mary Anne, in light of all that, I wanna ask you a question that we ask almost everybody that comes on the show...how screwed are we? 


HITT: You know, I'm married to a biologist, and whenever I get too grandiose, he reminds me there is a lot that's been set in motion that we can't undo.


[MUSIC IN]


And I think what an incredible time to be alive. What an incredible opportunity and a gift that we have to be the generation of people that turns the corner and that window before it's too late. And that is why I don't feel that we're totally screwed. Because we still have a chance to make a livable world for our kids. And in 20 years, it might be too late, but it's not too late today. I would bet you anything that we will have moved beyond coal in this country by 2030. And if we do the best work we can, we will be well on our way towards a power grid that is fueled by hundred percent clean energy. It doesn't require that we invent vast new things. It doesn't require that we overhaul our system of government that is within our grasp with the tools that we have right now. We can do that. 


ALEX: In other words, this transition away from coal to renewable energy is certainly going to happen. The only question is how fast. 


[MUSIC OUT]


AYANA: The vision that Pat Haddad and Ted Wheeler see, of thousands of offshore turbines powering a significant portion of the country, creating lots of jobs, it's still just a dream. 


ALEX: There is a renewable energy company that’s planning to build a big facility on the site of the old Brayton Point Coal Plant. Essentially, this facility is where all those offshore wind farms farms in Pat Haddad’s vision would send their electricity to plug into the grid. But the problem is none of that electricity exists yet because none of the wind farms to make it exist yet either. There are proposals out there, but they’re still waiting to get through the permitting process. 


[MUSIC IN]


AYANA: The fact is there are still lots of barriers to offshore wind in the U.S. Fossil fuel interests, outdated policy, basic inertia. Even though Americans are excited about this industry. According to polling from the think tank Data for Progress, 66% of Republicans and 72% of Democrats support offshore wind. 


ALEX: And the more those people demand this transition, the easier it becomes for politicians and folks in power to make it happen quickly.  


AYANA: And so you might be sitting there thinking, “But what can I do?” Well, we got you. Our plan is to end every episode of How to Save a Planet with sharing an opportunity for you, Earthlings, to be a part of the big picture changes we need. 


[MUSIC OUT]


ALEX: Opportunities to take action that will actually be meaningful. So for today’s episode, we checked in with some of the folks we talked to in the episode to gather ideas for how people could get involved if they want to.


[CREDIT MUSIC IN]

 

AYANA: So we asked Mary Anne Hitt – from the Sierra Club – how you might be able to help speed the transition away from coal, and she suggested that the Beyond Coal campaign could put you to work. You can check out opportunities to get involved if you're curious at sc.org/coaltowind.  


ALEX: And if you’re curious about how to accelerate the transition to offshore wind, we asked Jeff Grybowski what you should do, and he said the best way to do it is just keep an eye out for local projects in your area, and when there are meetings, go to them because he says mostly the people who show up are the people who are trying to fight it for one reason or another. And so if you show up in support it really helps. But, Ayana, you also have some resources folks might want to check out about wind. 


AYANA: Yeah, so when I’m not hanging out with our podcast crew, as founder of Urban Ocean Lab, I collaborate on nerdy policy memos. And we just teamed up with two think tanks, Data for Progress and Evergreen Action, to publish a short policy memo on offshore wind energy and how we might ramp that up more quickly. It’s got maps about where it’s windiest, and where companies are applying for permits to build more wind farms. So if you want to check that out and nerd out about wind energy, you can head to urbandoceanlab.org/offshorewind 


ALEX: I think they got all that. Right? They were probably taking notes. 


AYANA: I hope so.


ALEX: Don’t worry. If you didn’t get all the details, we will put all of that in our show notes. If you look down at your smartphone right now you’ll see show notes. All this information is available there.


AYANA: And we’ll be sharing on social media too. Our handle is @how2saveaplanet on twitter and instagram. 


ALEX: And if you actually do go to any of these meetings or somehow get involved, we would love to hear your stories. 


AYANA: Yes, please. 


ALEX: Send us an email. Please do. Send us an email at howtosaveaplanet@spotify.com and tell us how it went. What you learned.


[CREDITS MUSIC UP]


AYANA: How to Save a Planet is a Spotify original podcast and a Gimlet production. It’s hosted by me, Ayana Elizabeth Johnson. 


ALEX: And me, Alex Blumberg


AYANA: Our reporters and producers are Kendra Pierre-Louis, Rachel Waldholz and Anna Ladd. Our senior producer is Lauren Silverman. Our editor is Caitlin Kenney.


ALEX: Sound design, mixing and original music by Emma Munger. Additional music by Bobby Lord, Catherine Anderson, and Billy Libby.


AYANA: Our fact checker this episode is James Gaines.


ALEX: Special thanks to Holly McNamara, Blythe Terrell and Devon Taylor. 


AYANA: And thanks to you for listening. We’ll see you next week!


[CREDIT MUSIC OUT]