Thinking Past the Moment

An interview with Sierra Club renewable energy expert Carl Zichella

  • Carl Zichella at home, with Lefty.

    Courtesy Carl Zichella
  • Paul Lachine

If there's anyone at the center of the spat over society's need for -- and the potential environmental impacts of -- large-scale renewable energy projects, it's Carl Zichella. As director of Western Renewable Programs for the Sierra Club, Zichella has worked on California's Renewable Energy Transmission Initiative (RETI) and the Western Governors' Association's Renewable Energy Zone process, meeting with energy companies, environmentalists, government officials, utilities and other stakeholders to identify both the most and the least appropriate places for large projects and electrical transmission lines. Zichella, who grew up in the Bronx and northern New Jersey, has logged 22 years with the Sierra Club, mostly as a field director, working on clean air, energy issues and land conservation. The biggest issue environmentalists face now is climate change, he says, and that means some compromises on development. "It's not enough to say no to things anymore," he recently told the New York Times. "We have to say yes to the right thing." Zichella recently explored what exactly that means by e-mail with High Country News assistant editor Sarah Gilman.

High Country News Tell us a bit about how and why you got involved in conservation. Was there a particular landscape that inspired you?

Carl Zichella My first inspiration was the forests of upstate New York. My grandfather, stepfather and his brothers built a cabin in the Catskills where they took us kids every year to get us out of the city. I can't overstate how absolutely amazing that experience was. But seeing the big wildernesses of the West changed everything for me. I eventually found my spiritual home in the redwoods of Northern California, where I began my work on conservation issues in the late 1970s. 

HCN How has your work at the Sierra Club changed lately, and why?

Zichella Global warming threatens to undo all the progress we have ever made in land and wildlife conservation. In 2005, the Sierra Club made (climate change) the organization's top priority. There are two steps we need to focus on to seriously reduce U.S. carbon emissions: reversing our reliance on coal, and transforming the way we power our economy to renewable energy. The renewable energy part is tricky and nuanced. We have to bring renewables up to scale, we need to do it quickly, and we have difficult choices to make if we are to do it in an environmentally responsible way. … We need to work with people we are not used to working with and do things we have not done before.

HCN Experts say we need to cut greenhouse gas emissions by around 80 percent by 2050. Yet the Department of Energy says world energy consumption will increase by 44 percent over the next 20 years. That's some difficult math. What are the top things that society needs to do to help change this climate catastrophe equation?

Zichella We need to do many things, and we need to do them simultaneously. World energy consumption has to be slowed, and energy efficiency and conservation are the cornerstone of any successful strategy. We have to substitute renewable fuels for fossil fuels in the building and electricity sectors. We need to revamp the transportation sector top to bottom and emphasize more efficient individual transportation and mass transit. We also have to look at the way we design our communities. Solar panels installed on sprawl housing development, for example, only make a disastrous land-use decision somewhat less terrible. I don't subscribe to the idea that some things "need to go first." All these things work synergistically to help us make the progress we need in the decade-to-decades time frame that will make a difference. 

HCN What are the biggest challenges you and other stakeholders involved in RETI and the Western Governors' Association process have encountered with regards to finding the best places to put large renewable energy projects?

Zichella Some of the toughest work involves helping other stakeholders understand environmental goals and values and to have environmentalists be willing to understand those of the others. Another major hurdle is data. Sometimes gaps appear in unexpected ways. We think we know what we mean when we say "degraded land," for example. But it is infrequently mapped and poorly defined by governmental agencies. Information about wildlife corridors is sketchy at best, and the states do not handle wildlife data in congruent ways. I am glad that there has been strong consensus among stakeholders to place protected areas off limits, such as designated roadless areas. But what about important wildlife or plant habitat that is not in a protected area? Identifying the places we absolutely must avoid has been very difficult.

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