Greenxchange: Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster Answers: 'What Public Policies Best Incent Renewable Energy?'

Mayor Foste

Before being elected mayor of the city of Long Beach, California, Bob Foster worked with the California Energy Commission, Southern California Edison, and served as the chief of staff for the California State Senate’s Energy Committee. Now, with jurisdiction over one of the nation’s largest port complexes, Mayor Foster is one of the public figures most responsible for shaping California’s environmental policies. With this expertise in mind, VerdeXchange News presents the following speech delivered by Mayor Foster at the recent GreenXchange Global Marketplace Conference, from a panel entitled “Who’s Got it Right? What Public Policies Best Incent Renewable Energy” that also features an introduction from Bob Hertzberg, Chairman of G24i.


 Bob Hertzberg: Seven years ago, when Bob Foster was president of Southern California Edison and I was California’s Assembly Speaker, we both were challenged by the California energy crisis. Today, we again are dealing with the issue of energy, this time in the context of global climate change and sustainability, and both of us wearing different hats. Bob Foster has left the private sector and joined the public sector as mayor of the city of Long Beach; I gave left public office and am chairing the board of a solar company, G24i, based in Cardiff, Wales.

“What public policies best incent renewable energy?” is the topic of Bob Foster’s remarks. He is well prepared to comment. Bob Foster is a fellow who has been in the trenches. He began his career at the Energy Commission and has worked with the Legislature. He knows the nuances of energy policy and has watched it evolve over the years. He really is a thoughtful public leader. If you’ve been to Long Beach lately, you’ve seen the impact that he has accomplished.

Bob Foster: I don’t just want to talk about what local government is doing, which is a laundry list that we could run through pretty quickly. There’s a role at every level of government—federal, state, and local—to try to deal with our energy problems.

David Abel asked me, what are the kinds of signals I want from the federal government to be able to help me at the local level? I think there are two things. First of all, I want them to stay out of the way of doing good work. That, quite frankly, often happens, and I’ll get back to that in a moment when it comes to the port. Secondly, I want them to look at the kinds of policies and the resources necessary to solve our petroleum problem. We can’t continue to spend our national treasure and the lives of our young people to be able to secure our appetite for petroleum. It just needs to change, and it needs to change rapidly.

Earlier, Governor Bill Richardson talked about a “Manhattan Project” on energy. When you talk about things like that—and I think it’s a great idea—people always say, “It’s going to be too expensive; let the market do it; the market will bring all these voices together to be able to solve this problem.” And I’m a market-oriented person. I think, in many ways, the market can do an awful lot. Just witness what’s happened with the rise of gasoline prices in terms of demand for gasoline. It does have an effect. There are elasticities here.

But there are places in the marketplace where that doesn’t quite happen. Let me just give you an example. Years ago, when I first started out my career, I was working in the California State Senate as chief of staff on the Energy Committee. This was in the early ‘70s, eons ago. We put together a package for energy efficiency before the embargo happened in 1973. We put together a package of legislation for building standards for residential buildings, commercial buildings, and appliances. We heard over and over again, “You can’t do this; it’s going to increase the cost of the home; it’s going to increase the cost of the commercial building; let the market do it.” And what you really find is that there are places where the buyer and the builder are so separated that there really aren’t the kind of market signals you want. Those laws passed, and we now, since 1974 onward, have had all residential buildings and all commercial buildings under building standards for insulation, for glazing, for the heating and cooling systems. Had we not done that, had we said it was too expensive, think of all the structures that last for 50, 60, 70, 80 years that would be out there consuming energy at twice or three times what they’re doing today. So those market forces sometimes work, and sometimes they’re blunted. You have to recognize those situations.

When I was at Edison, we had the great fortune of having a guy named Bill Gould as chairman in the early ‘80s, who, before anybody else in the electric industry, wanted to move towards renewables. He happened to be a Long Beach citizen, actually. Bill Gould set a policy for the SCE company to have ten percent of its portfolio in renewable energy. There was no requirement. It was ground-breaking. He did it because he thought it was the right thing to do. Our company started down that path when I was with them, and we certainly improved on his work.

When I left Edison, we had just about 20 percent of our portfolio in renewable energy. That’s solar, wind, biomass, and geothermal. Now there are requirements and regulation in the state law that require that, by 2017, to be able to have 20 percent, and those are going to increase even larger. But Edison wound up with the most renewable energy of any utility in the country, really starting out as a policy by someone who had the vision to know that that was the right thing to do. It was expensive—far more expensive at the time than buying conventional fuels. But I guess that’s what it takes. It does take people with some vision, someone who’s willing to say that it’s the right thing to do and both the economics and the politics are going to have to line up behind it.

At the local level, you find similar things. I’ve had a variety of experiences in my career: working in the public sector, I have my own business, I’ve run a large company, and now I’m the mayor of the fifth-largest city in California, which has a tremendous amount of environmental issues. We’re doing our part in terms of putting alternative fuel vehicles on the road and with LEED-certified buildings. We’re requiring proven planning on the part of our city and from our private developers.

But we have one large facility in Long Beach that dwarfs everything in terms of its environmental impact, and that’s the Port of Long Beach. The Port of Long Beach and the Port of Los Angeles combined are the largest ports in the United States. Forty-three to 44 percent of the goods that are imported into the United States come through those ports, and they are, if they are taken as a stationary source, the largest source of air pollution in Southern California. In truth, if you talk about signals from the federal government, these are federal assets. We cannot call them anything else. They are federal assets, and in truth, federal government has abdicated its responsibility with these assets.

And I’m not just talking about money. We all know that every local government is looking for dollars to do things that they find necessary. This is just about policy. We’re taking it upon ourselves, the two ports and the two cities, to clean up those ports, to electrify them, and to make sure that the handling equipment is clean. It’s either going to be electric or some other clean, alternative fuel. We’re going to change the trucking industry to have alternative fuel trucks and clean diesel trucks. The ports are going to adopt this on their own...

It is the right thing to do. You cannot just simply adopt a Clean Air Action Plan—fabulous plan, a great road map—you have to have the resources to implement it. That’s where the rubber meets the road.
What happens is, immediately, the various economic interests that have issues (legitimate issues in some cases) with the fee on containers to produce this, are already going to the federal government, places like the Federal Maritime Commission, to stop this action. I’ve said this many times to anyone who will listen: if you’re going to do that, then the things that people need out of the ports—the infrastructure improvements for the economic engine that is the port—are simply not going to happen. We’re either going to get this done together, clean up this port and make an example for the world, or they’re not going to grow. It’s just that simple. The sooner everyone involved in these issues, including the federal government, gets that message, the better off we are.

Quite frankly, my first job as mayor of Long Beach is to protect the health and safety of my citizens. In my city, families that live along the trade corridors have two to three times the statewide average of asthma cases. That’s not an accident. I’ve said it many times: we are not going to allow kids in Long Beach to contract asthma so someone in Kansas can get a cheaper television set. Those days are over.

I’ll close with this. This is an issue, particularly around preserving our future, around assuring our future, and getting away from petroleum, which the governor talked about and I’ll line up behind that anywhere I can. My first choice is, let’s save the energy, let’s save the barrel of oil, let’s save the kilowatt hour. Start there.

But secondly, let’s get smart about this. If we have interests fighting against interests, nothing is going to happen here. This is something that, if we all embraced the idea that we have to grow and we have to grow green, we could be an example for the rest of the country. We could show the world, in fact, how to do this right. I’m going to make this plea to any of you who are involved in port activity, either on the shipping side or the trucking side or the union side: if we understand that we have to link arms, we’re going to be able to get the money to be able to fix the ports. We’ll be able to grow, we’ll be able to have a great economic engine, and we’ll have a port that’s markedly cleaner than it is today, even with the growth.

So, the signals I need from the federal government: I need you to take your responsibility seriously, I need you to stay out of the way of organizations and entities that are doing good things for the right reason, and I need you to provide the resources when and where you can to be able to help that effort. •••