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Don't Give Up: Sierra Club Leader on How We Can Win the Fight for Clean Energy

The Sierra Club's Michael Brune talks about how we can transition to clean energy, and how his million-member organization plans to flex its muscle.

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The growth area where we haven't done our job yet on the coal campaign is that we have to get better as an organization and a movement advocating for the solutions that we want to see. We have to be as sophisticated, as powerful, as creative in helping to fill the market share for clean energy. That is increasingly becoming important -- it's one thing to stop a new plant from being built but when you're arguing for a new plant to be shut down you have to make a plausible case for how you can keep the lights on.

So, the Sierra Club and the entire environmental movement needs to put more resources toward this -- change our budgets and add more staff and volunteers toward the task. To address that at the Club we've just combined our coal and clean energy campaigns so that they are one now, so each campaigner has a mandate for how many megawatts of old dirty power they have to help ensure is retired on a yearly basis, and how many megawatts of clean energy they need to help to get established.

TL: Where are you seeing the most growth in terms of getting renewable energy?

MB: The two areas of real growth are desert Southwest solar facilities, and we are seeing a lot of progress, but not a lot of megawatts yet, for offshore wind on the eastern shore. We are really interested in scaling up offshore wind in the Great Lakes, sited appropriately. What we need to clearly put more attention towards and create grassroots campaigns to support is more distributed generation.

For us, we're really interested in the upper Midwest where states like Wisconsin or Michigan have a lot of old dirty coal plants. The region gets a majority of their power from coal -- 60 percent or more. They have a large manufacturing base, a lot of skilled workers who are out of work, when you are talking about off-shore wind, it has got to be locally sourced, it's not economical to be shipping it from China, so there is a great opportunity to shut down coal plants in the same region and open manufacturing facilities and then site wind farms nearby. There is a set of holistic regional solutions there that can make big progress. We are going to create a new political dynamic when we do that where the clean energy concept isn't just a theoretical concept -- real people, real families will have jobs, and their lives will be impacted by the solutions we're promoting.

TL: One of the great things that I saw come out of the defeat of Prop 23 in California is that people got the connection between the economy and the environment -- that environmental regulations can create jobs and are stimulating, not hurting the state's economy, but it seems we haven't seen that elsewhere in the country as much.

MB: I left San Francisco on Election Day to go to DC, and the reason for that is that the story we have in California is pretty important in the sense that we have the third highest unemployment in the country. Voters in California took a stand for clean energy not in spite of the economic downturn but because of the economic downtown. They are seeing investments in clean energy as a core strategy to engineer an economic recovery.

DH: How does the Sierra Club fit in with the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Nature Conservancy and those other big groups? Are you all relatively compatible? Are there leadership gatherings and cooperation?