Published: March 2009
Mark Udall, United States Senator

Colorado Senator Mark Udall is committed to renewable energy but also, he observes to Michelle Nijhius, to a role for nuclear power.

You've called for a Manhattan Project–scale commitment to renewable energy. What would that commitment look like?

I would start with the federal government, which should lead with its own behavior—we're the biggest fuel purchaser and the biggest landowner in the country. We should also set more aggressive nationwide goals for fuel-efficient vehicles and for buildings that use less energy, and support additional research on renewable energy.

I'd like to see a national renewable electricity standard—a requirement for utilities to increase their use of wind, solar, and other renewables—because that would help create markets for renew­able technologies. The government can also use tax-credit incentives and other measures to increase opportunities for the private sector to profit from innovation. The government is not going to produce liquid fuels through solar cells or make biodiesel from algae, but we can certainly set the stage for those breakthroughs.

The other area where the federal government really has to step up is transmission: The wind that blows in the upper Midwest and the Great Plains can be harvested to create electricity, but right now our transmission lines are either outmoded or not adequate to move that electricity from where it's produced to where it's needed. The government has to work with the states, local landowners, and utility companies to overcome the political barriers and put transmission corridors in place.

Who—or what—are the biggest obsta­cles to expanding renewable energy use in the United States?

When it comes to electricity, the greatest resistance is in the Southeast, where there are big utilities that think that since there isn't as much sun or wind in their region, they'll be disadvantaged by a national renewable electricity standard. But those of us who think a national standard makes sense point out that part of the country has significant biomass—forest and agricultural products, and agricultural waste—that could be used to produce renewable electricity. In Florida—ironically, the Sunshine State—there has been some resistance, but the governor has acknowledged that a national standard would be an important step. And Florida Power & Light is one of the biggest renewable-energy investors in the country. So I'm confident there's a way forward for all parts of the country, including the Southeast.

Your proposed energy plan supports not only incentives for renewable energy but also an expanded role for nuclear power. As an advocate of renewables, why back investments in nuclear?

I believe climate change is real—and I believe we have to act to protect the cli­mate as fast as we possibly can. When people tell me that they'd like to get to a carbon-free world without nuclear power, I tell them that I would, too. How­ever, I don't think we can get from here to there as quickly as we need to solely with renewables, because we still have to clear some big technical and political hurdles. Therefore, nuclear has to be part of the overall approach. I do think it has to compete fairly with all the other energy technologies—renewables, oil and gas, coal, and energy conservation—with­out artificial advantages or disadvantages. Let's see what the market shakes out.

Can energy-policy reform move fast enough to head off the worst effects of climate change?

I think the clock is running, and we can't dither much longer. We have to take the oil shocks of this past year, the instability in the world—which in many cases is tied to oil-producing countries—and the obvious effects of climate change as calls to action. The good news is that there's a great nexus between energy security, job creation, and climate change that I think sets the stage for us to act quickly on energy policy.

You're an outdoorsman and had a long career with Outward Bound. What lessons from the wilderness have you put into practice in Congress?

I've learned from being in the woods that titles don't mean much and that actions speak a lot louder than words—even in Congress. I always look for the people who want to act—people who want to run the river or climb the mountain—even if they're not members of my political party.

The other thing I've learned in the wilderness is that Mother Nature always bats last. In the end, if you don't work together, you can count on Mother Nature knocking you around.

Interview by Michelle Nijhuis