The Coast News Group
Robert Hemphill, former U.S. Energy Department official and utility industry executive, speaks at Vista Library. Photo by Steve Horn

Former U.S. Energy Department Official discusses climate change at library

A former U.S. Department of Energy official and utility industry executive told a crowd gathered at the Vista Library on Jan. 10 that he believes it’s not all doom and gloom when it comes to climate science.

Speaking at a panel convened by the North County Climate Change Alliance, Robert Hemphill gave a presentation titled “Renewable Energy: Good Trends and Terrible Ideas.” The best trends, Hemphill said, revolved around bull markets for solar and wind energy. He said the bad news is that billions of dollars still subsidize the legacy oil, gas, coal and nuclear industries.

Further, he said that in some cases, policymakers have rolled out renewable energy in a foolhardy fashion, using rooftop solar regulatory mandates as a case in point.

“People who want solar have been putting it on their rooftops,” said Hemphill, who was a senior policy adviser for the energy department as well as executive vice president and chief of staff to the CEO for the publicly traded utility sector company AES. “There are 100,000-plus solar installations in San Diego. So, maybe we can let the market do something about this, otherwise it’s going to be a very troublesome and bureaucratic mess.”

He also said that rooftop solar is about three times as expensive as placing solar panels on the ground, concluding that he favors solar from the market in the cheapest form possible.

Another false panacea to climate change, said Hemphill, is natural gas.

Touted by some as the cleanest of fossil fuels, Hemphill pointed to ever-increasing amounts of methane leakage throughout the supply chain as a trend worth watching. Methane is the chemical name for natural gas, while also a heat-trapping greenhouse gas with more potent global warming potential than carbon dioxide during its first 20 years in the atmosphere.

In an interview after the event, Hemphill said that he believes far more in public money should go toward the manufacture and sales of electric vehicles. He also expressed cautious praise for various cities within San Diego County adopting a Climate Action Plan.

“The push for climate action plans in each jurisdiction is a good idea,” Hemphill said. “(But) including plan components like ’25 percent (of people) commuting by bicycle’ is lunacy and will never be achieved, no matter how many times the Sierra Club sues cities and counties.”

Hemphill also provideda nightmare scenario for climate change impacts in the years ahead, if the scientific phenomenon goes unaddressed.

“The ocean’s heat is what gives energy and strength to hurricanes, and why the most destructive ones for the U.S. are born in the Caribbean, a warm ocean that also fathers the Gulf stream,” Hemphill said. “As the oceans, including the Pacific, get warmer, the hurricanes will get more powerful and more frequent. A ‘Puerto Rico’ strength hurricane would devastate San Diego, because none of our buildings or transportation or power infrastructure were built for 155 mph winds. Our building codes are far less stringent than those on the East Coast, and the result of a Category 5 storm here would be catastrophic.”

The North County Climate Change Action holds monthly lectures at the Vista Library. One volunteer for the group, who also organizes for Sunrise Movement’s San Diego branch, said he believes the lectures are among North County Climate Change Action’s most important activities.

“Each month we get more educated about either the science of climate crisis, about how we can help effect change, or both,” Karl Aldinger, who lives in Fallbrook, said. “It’s an excellent way to get keyed into the climate movement in San Diego and find people who can help you get involved.”

Aldinger said that he will speak at the next North County Climate Change Alliance meeting on Feb. 14, at which he will discuss the burgeoning Sunrise Movement.