Today's guest is Phil Bredesen, Former Governor of Tennessee. Governor Phil Bredesen served as the governor of Tennessee from 2003 to 2011 and the mayor of Nashville from 1991 to 1999. He's also the founding chairman of Silicon Ranch, the U.S. solar platform for Shell and one of the largest independent solar power producers in the country. More recently, he's also Co-Founder of Clearloop, which offers short-term agreements that enable companies to compensate for their carbon emissions impact by paying to fund new solar panels in the communities with the dirtiest electric grids. This is a fascinating discussion because I haven't come across many people who have made the transition from entrepreneurship to politics back to entrepreneurship. But Governor Bredesen has danced back and forth in both of these areas quite successfully over a long illustrious career. We also have a great discussion about climate change, its impact, the best path forward and what levers we've got to solve it. And which ones governor Bredesen is most excited about. Enjoy the show! You can find me on twitter @jjacobs22 or @mcjpod and email at email@example.com, where I encourage you to share your feedback on episodes and suggestions for future topics or guests.
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Hello everyone. This is Jason Jacobs and Welcome to My Climate Journey. This show follows my journey to interview a wide range of guests to better understand and make sense of the formidable problem of climate change and try to figure out how people like you and I can help.
Today's guest is Governor Phil Bredesen, who was the governor of Tennessee from 2003 to 2011 and the mayor of Nashville from 1991 to 1999. He's also the founding chairman of Silicon Ranch, the U.S. solar platform for Shell and one of the largest independent solar power producers in the country. More recently, he's also co-founder of Clearloop, which offers short term agreements that enable companies to compensate for their carbon emissions impact by paying to fund new solar panels in the communities with the dirtiest electric grids.
This is a fascinating discussion because I haven't come across many people who have made the transition from entrepreneurship to politics back to entrepreneurship. But Governor Bredesen has danced back and forth in both of these areas quite successfully over a long illustrious career. We also have a great discussion about climate change, its impact, the best path forwards and what levers we've got to solve it. And which one's governor Bredesen is most excited about.
Governor Bredesen, welcome to the show.
Phil Bredesen: Thank you very much.
Jason Jacobs: It is such an honor to have you on here. And there's so many things that we could...I almost feel like we could do different episodes for different phases of your career, since they're so relevant to this problem of climate change, that we're trying to figure out how to address.
Phil Bredesen: I've had a lot of different hats on over the years and I may be a good example of a "jack of many trades and master of none." I don't, I don't know, but the subject of climate change has really come to interest me. And I think it's just an existential challenge to us. And I'm not all that enthusiastic about what I see as the responses to it in this country.
So that was kind of the rationale for getting more deeply involved.
Jason Jacobs: Very similar to me, although I didn't happen to be the governor of a big state before starting My Climate Journey. I was just the founder of a little fitness app company, but I also, there's a lot more fun things I could be doing, candidly, but there's not more fulfilling things I could be doing.
And I just can't think of a more pressing problem because it's a longterm problem. Not everyone has the luxury to focus on longterm problems. And because I do, I was just having a tough time focusing on anything else.
Phil Bredesen: One of the things that our country has always been good at it, and really is part of the secret of our success is just the enormous number of just individual people at various times, over the years, over the decades, centuries, step forward to try to do something about a problem that they see existing in the country. It's something that I think is very uniquely American and I think it's badly needed in this climate issue right now.
Jason Jacobs: Well, there's so many different ways we could dive into this discussion, but maybe the best way to start is I'd be really interested to know, given that you've now started multiple companies in clean energy after being in public service for many years.
But where did that interest in clean energy come from? When did it get started? And what was the trigger to initially turn you on to this area?
Phil Bredesen: I grew up in a rural area actually in upstate New York. And I was always interested in conservation and those kinds of things. And during the time that I was governor, one of the big initiatives we had was acquiring land, maybe several hundred thousand acres of it eventually just to preserve it for future generations.
And so on during the time that I was in office, there was starting to be a lot of focus on renewable energy. This would have been in the aughts and Tennessee is not a state in which there being any universal feeling, that climate change was a problem. But I went out to people and just said, look, I don't care whether you believe in climate change or not. Some people do. It is going to create a lot of jobs and opportunities and let's do them in Tennessee. And we did it quite successfully. We haven't got a couple of multibillion dollar investments in the solar space, upstream stuff, manufacturer of the Silicon precursors.
And when I got out of office, I learned a lot about the field and thought it really was something I would like to kind of--the way you're describing your own path and things--that really is something I'd like to spend some time now on doing. I started a company called Silicon Ranch, which has become a pretty good size solar developer and owner across the country. We're now up there north of a couple of gigawatts and Shell Oil bought a minority interest in the company a couple of years ago. And we're their solar development platform. In working on this, I really came to see that solar had a lot of uses beyond just replacing and providing renewable energy to someone who wanted to have that.
That actually, it was a pretty effective way, a very effective way of just reducing carbon emissions in general. And the whole idea of this Clearloop, which is the company which I've started here just about a year ago with two partners, was to sort of say, okay, let's think about solar, not just in terms of renewable energy, but as a way of offsetting carbon emissions, building new solar projects in the United States that offsetting sometimes gets bad rap, but there are people want companies to reduce their emissions rather than offset them.
But you know, there's lots of places in the economy where that's not practical. Think about airline flights and airline fuel, I mean there is no reasonable alternative for that. But, a lot of airlines are very interested in minimizing the damage and so offsetting, it can work. And as I got involved in it, it just seemed to me we were as country just manipulating around the edges of things.
And I've always believed, you know, if you want to make real change happen, you've got to go for the big stuff. And in the case of carbon emissions, greenhouse gas emissions, there's a lot of areas, but there's two great big ones that are sitting right out there. And one of them is electrical generation.
It's 27, 28% of the emissions in this country today. The other is really transportation on the sense of small vehicles, so small trucks and car transportation, and that these were really very rich areas for making serious progress in reducing the greenhouse gas emissions in the country that I thought were not being pursued.
So the whole idea of Clearloop was to say, look, let's have something which is easy for companies to access, which isn't, you know, buying some land with trees on it in some third world country, but is investing in jobs and tax base and so on right here at home, and really does the job of reducing carbon emissions.
Jason Jacobs: So if I'm hearing right, it sounds like it was the business opportunity and job creation mechanism of the clean energy transition that initially drew you in. Did I hear that correctly?
Phil Bredesen: Yeah, I think when I was the governor and I'm obviously responsible for a lot of things one of them is trying to make sure there are good jobs in the state.
We're a state which has been transitioning over the last half-a-century from a very agrarian rural state into now places like a Nashville, that have very sophisticated industries, and to the extent to which we could recruit things in those areas I wanted to do so. And solar seemed to be an up-and-coming thing and it turned out to be very successful, but I had an underlying interesting conservation in general and the environment in general. And I just came to see how much potential solar had to really have a meaningful effect on what was going out with greenhouse gas emissions. And it wasn't just messing around with the little stuff, putting pool covers on something or something. It was really getting right to the heart of where these emissions were coming from and that we needed to do something about it.
Jason Jacobs: I think that's interesting because I mean, I've definitely come at it more from the place of, we have a carbon problem and oh wait, wait a minute, if we're going to address it, we can't address it at the expense... like when the coal miner jobs go away, for example, what do we do? We need to make sure that new jobs get created and that people get retrained and things like that.
But it's from a place of, if we don't address climate change, a lot of our other problems are going to be amplified. But it's interesting that you came at it from a jobs and business standpoint, because that's actually encouraging because a lot of the people that I feel like are resisting are maybe resisting because they feel like the jobs and business side of it look worse with the clean energy transition than what we have today. And maybe that's not the case.
Phil Bredesen: I think that the jobs certainly are there. I do not think that all of us who are interested in climate change have done a particularly good job of selling the idea to a broader group of people. I think it's sometimes comes across to me as a whole bunch of people who live in big cities who are secure and have good incomes are telling a bunch of other people, what do they need to do in terms of their gas prices and so on to affect this. A lot of people who couldn't care less, what a gallon of gas cost telling a bunch of people for whom that's an important component of their life, what it is that they need to do to fix this problem.
I think we have to completely change that dialogue around it. If we're going to generate the kind of grassroots support for some of these actions, that's going to take, I think, to actually make meaningful change happen. And that's very much what I'm trying to do.
Jason Jacobs: So, when you had that epiphany or awareness or whatever you want to call it...so you're in office and you start to understand that, okay, there's the electricity production and there's transportation. And these are two big sectors and that there can be both economic opportunities there, and there can also be business opportunities there, that will also create a bunch of jobs, and by the way, we have all this land, how did you end up going from that moment to landing on building a solar developer as your entry point into the category?
Phil Bredesen: I think it was a case of I really believe, first of all, that the private sector is in this country what really is driving these attempts to deal with climate change now. I've always believed--I'm a Democrat, but also a businessman--I've always believed that where government does best is not when it steps in and tries to do something directly, but where it tries to create the conditions that encourage other people to do it. And in trying to create the conditions for example, that solar development could happen and so on. And so it just seemed like a way for me to leverage the private sector, leverage the access to capital in the private sector.
We were not asking somebody to give me a bunch of tax money to do it with and began to actually make something happen. This thing I said earlier about just like forget about all the little stuff in the gingerbread or the nibbling around the edges. We've got a big problem. Let's just go after the jugular here.
I mean, let's find out where the big emissions are coming from. Where's the low hanging fruit to deal with it. And the answer, when you look at it realistically, is overwhelmingly the electrical grid is the first place to go.
Jason Jacobs: And did I read that you came from an entrepreneurship background and actually sold the company before you went into politics? Many years ago?
Phil Bredesen: Oh yeah. I had started out as an entrepreneur in the healthcare field and started a company back in 1980 and sold it. That was when I ran for office. I'd seen a lot of people who had built up a company and sold it and got themselves some independence financially and then proceeded to spend the rest of their lives just kind of reprising the same thing over and over again. And I figured I had the thirty most productive years of my life in front of me I'd try something new. So I ran for mayor of Nashville and lost and came back again later and won and then became governor and really enjoyed that. It's expanded my life in a lot of ways and drove my interest in a lot of new directions.
Jason Jacobs: Yeah, it's funny. It seems like being a successful entrepreneur is a natural path into politics, but being successful in politics isn't necessarily a natural path into entrepreneurship. Do you agree with that?
Phil Bredesen: I mean, it's well put. I mean, I think having an entrepreneurial spirit is kind of important to running for office.
That's kind of what it is. You take some risks and put yourself out there and you're a founder of something, as you would recognize. But for the record of people who've been in politics then doing in business, it's not all that good. And I think a lot of it is that they just depend on way too much on sort of relationships or insider deals and this kind of stuff.
But having been there first and the entrepreneurial field and then into politics, I think gave me a natural way to kind of get back into entrepreneurship, but do it in the right kind of way.
Jason Jacobs: And how much do they overlap with like Silicon Ranch, for example. So was that actually started while you were still in office?
Phil Bredesen: No, I mean, I really couldn't do that. I started with two other people. One of them left. He was in my cabinet. He left about three months early and actually incorporated the company, but I had nothing to do with it nor any investment in it or anything like that. I was completely out of office and clear of that. That would have been inappropriate.
Jason Jacobs: And how long was Silicon Ranch going before Clearloop got started?
Phil Bredesen: Well, Silicon Ranch got started in 2011 and Clearloop got started really early 2019 so eight years. Again, Silicon Ranch was growing and we've become a pretty substantial company now. Working with it and just learning a lot about solar and just the realities of how you make it work and so on. I just came to see it as something with a lot more potential than I think a lot of NGOs are looking at it now, which is providing clean energy to companies who want to have a hundred percent of their energy green or something. That really is something that should be pushed much more as simply a carbon as simply a straight carbon offset, because it's so easy to do.
I mean, the economics are there. The technology is there to go a long way. You still need battery storage to take it to the ultimate end but, you know, the nice thing about it is, I mean, it is early possible with electrical, really, to completely decarbonize the grid and the lifetime of people who were now grown ups. And that's not true of any other sector in the economy. And it's a big one.
Jason Jacobs: And in terms of the Silicon Ranch offering and business model and forgive my newbie questions, but I'm not that deep in solar project development, but what's an example of the type of project like you would bring to market. And out of that two gigawatts, what types of customers do you serve?
Phil Bredesen: The customers are all over the map. And the typical projects are what I call medium scale solar probably 20 to 100 megawatt facilities. Customers range from groups of cooperatives in Georgia. We have a bunch of projects down there. We have some big companies, Facebook, for example. And around the board, they're all what I would call corporate customers in the sense of they're not governments, I guess, with the exception of TVA as a customer, which is a federal agency, but really operates like a private utility in a lot of ways.
But those are the kinds of customers. They are people who want to do something about it. They don't want to just buy reqs on the open market that doesn't do anything for anybody. They want to cause some solar to creative costs from carbon to not go into the atmosphere and have the willingness that's important to sell...enter into these longer term agreements we had 15 or 20 year purchase agreements, so-called PPAs. And they have the credit rating to do that. A part of the idea of fundamental part of the idea behind Clearloop though, was to say, look, those companies that Facebook wants to do that. If Nike wants to do that, that's great.
But that's a relatively small proportion of all the companies out there who could be recruited into this fight. They need ways of doing it, that don't require these longterm commitments and so on. That's what Clearloop is about. Maybe you can deal with us in July. And if you decide to stop dealing on July 30th, the carbon offset that you've arranged for in July, we'll go on and we'll track through and will happen.
So it's a very different set of commitments or financial equipments on the part of a company to become involved. And I think that's going to turn out to be one of the most important aspects of it.
Jason Jacobs: So if I'm a Facebook or a Nike or a TVA, or some of these other companies or agencies that you mentioned, what are the criteria that make me a good candidate for this type of offering?
And then what is the decision point. Is this a bleeding heart decision or is this a business decision?
Phil Bredesen: I think with different companies it's different kinds of things. I mean, I think every company probably has a host of motivations. There's certainly a lot of them are very well-meaning. They like to do something in the fight toward climate change.
I think they're often also interested in reputational issues. They survey customers who worked in what they're doing about these kinds of things that they see not doing something is a risk with investors and with NGOs they care about and with their customers, so it is a host of things. The whole rationale for this Clearloop, which is a little different, I mean, different approach than the one that I'm focused on right now is to say, the universe of companies want to do some of these things is so much greater than the few big companies who can sign multimillion dollar longterm contracts that we need to get some way to get to them and give them a tool to use if they want to be part of this fight.
And I think we've designed a really good and really kind of creative and innovative one that no one else is doing. And I think it's going to make a difference.
Jason Jacobs: And I absolutely want to talk about the Clearloop model. I think before we do, I don't mean to press on it. I just want to make sure I understand what we're coming from so that when we talk about Clearloop, I can understand and listeners can understand the difference between the two.
So with Silicon Ranch, if I'm a Nike or a Facebook or whoever, and I want to, I bite off this big solar project is it a replacement for electricity that I'm generating or that I'm procuring from elsewhere? Or is it a net new?
Phil Bredesen: Yes, you basically would say, I want to use this electricity. Our first series of projects was with a group of cooperatives in Georgia.
They simply had customers who wanted to buy renewable power. What they would enter into is a longterm contract. Typically they might, I don't remember what they were in those specific cases, but they might be 20 or 25 years to agree to purchase the power that we would produce out of a solar array of a certain size.
And they just put that into their mix of generation and give it to customers who that's, what they were interested in. So it's a major transaction that they're making very longterm commitments that involve a lot of money from our perspective. We can only do that, because we have to finance these things.
We can only do that with somebody who has a good credit rating and so on. So what it means is for someone like that, or like a Facebook, it's a really good way to be a real player, not just buying recs or something, but be a real player and do something about climate change. But for every one of those, I mean, there gotta be 500 companies that are not in a position to do that.
And that's really what Clearloop was all about; what are we going to do about them?
Jason Jacobs: And so in the case where they decide they want to do something about it, it's essentially like untethering from the grid and doing DIY almost like their own dark fiber network in the world of telecom?
Phil Bredesen: No, they would almost certainly continue to be connected to the grid because obviously solar is an intermittent source.
So, what they would like to do is when it's available to do, I think the first project we did of any size and it wasn't all that large was with Volkswagen and new assembly plant they built down in Chattanooga in Southeast Tennessee. And there, the solar is during the day when the sun is shining, it's a significant fraction of the energy consumption of the company.
But obviously lots of other times on a cloudy winter day or at night and so on, it's not there. In some cases where we do that, the solar actually can over generate during the sunniest times of the day, the knees, which case flows back into the grid. But any practical, big company cannot untethered themselves completely from the grad.
The whole thing needs to be interactive and the solar is used when it's available. Thereby decreases degeneration from other sources and the carbon footprint of that. But when it's not the grid is still available.
Jason Jacobs: And what are the elements that Silicon Ranch is providing and are there other types of partners that are required and what are the elements that the Facebook or the Nike or the end client does themselves?
Like, is there an ongoing maintenance component or management component, for example?
Phil Bredesen: At Silicon Ranch, what we do is to build and own...we purchased the land, we go out and finance and then build the solar array and hook it in in the appropriate way. It could be directly into the grid is how it goes; some cases, it could be a tighter connection to the company, kind of an on premises solar, and then we're responsible for maintaining it and replacing bad panels and dusting it off once a year and all those kinds of things. Over the course of the life of the contract, which is say is typically 20, 25 years. The purchasing company, besides buying the power really doesn't have any responsibility beyond that, I mean, they've contracted to buy power from us and it's our job to produce that power and to maintain the equipment that produces it.
Jason Jacobs: But it's dedicated for them. It's not like it's shared power,
Phil Bredesen: It's dedicated for them.
Jason Jacobs: Okay. Thank you for that. So coming back around to Clearloop. So you were delivering these big projects for these big clients that have good credit ratings and big budgets and big appetites and longtime horizons.
And so what was the epiphany as you were doing that, that led to the Clearloop beginnings?
Phil Bredesen: I think the epiphany was that the world is full of companies that either can't or won't make those kinds of longterm commitments who don't have the credit ratings to do it. By way of example, I think about here in Tennessee, they're one part of the state down close to the Alabama border.
There is some companies that do a lot of brown paper bags and corrugated cardboard, and that kind of stuff. A lot of pine trees in that part of the world. And I don't know if anybody down there has talked much about climate change over the years, but they're starting to get pressure from the people they're supplying to have to say, what are you doing about this?
You've got a big company. That's the scope three stuff that companies talk about that they need to begin doing something about. I mean, this gives us a way of going to a company that would not have the credit rating. Certainly wouldn't have any interest of signing a 20 year contract and giving them a way to actually do something about it.
I think even more important to them. It gives you a way of doing something about it. This is not just paying some money that goes off into the ether, or goes off to a landowner in Bolivia or something. It's paying money, which is generating jobs in the United States. It's using manufactured products out of the United States; it's generating tax base in the United States.
They, typically, go into rural areas where those things are very much appreciated. It gives us the ability. All green energy is not equal. If you're generating green energy in a place where the grid is already quite clean, it doesn't do that much. If you're generating green energy in a place where the grid is quite dirty, where there's a heavy reliance on coal, for example. If you're making a much larger difference. Give us the ability to put these things in those places where they really make the most difference. Eastern Kentucky, for example, or something like that.
Jason Jacobs: So the types of projects that Clearloop is making possible, are they the same types of projects that Silicon Ranch develop?
Phil Bredesen: I think they're very different kind of project. I mean, we're still in the ranches doing is addressing the needs of companies who want renewable electricity to power their operations in the jargon what's so-called scope two kinds of things. What Clearloop is trying to do is address what I think is a much larger market.
Which is companies who might want to tie it to an individual product, for example. I don't know, if I were a coffee chain, I might want to be able to say that our coffee cups are carbon neutral, those paper cups that you get when you go out there are carbon neutral. You can figure out for those cups, what the footprint is as a quarter of a pound for one of those paper cups.
And then you can give us a certain, very small amount of money as a tiny fraction of the cost of the cup, which when we aggregate them together will allow us to build solar, which will over its life then replace the carbon, which is used. I think of it like a "carbon mortgage." There's lots of things that go on in our economy that are hard to reduce right now.
A paper cup is a good example. There are some improvements you can make, but you still got to cut down trees and you've got to transport a log somewhere and you've got to make paper and all those things take heat and power and you can't make that go away. So what you say it is, okay, I need to borrow a quarter of a pound of carbon from the atmosphere right now.
But I'm going to put in place right now, also something which will repay that carbon, over the course of its life. It's another way of looking at how some of these companies can extend beyond just renewable energy usage and really offset the carbon footprints that they can't otherwise deal with in a sensible way.
I mean, the world is full of examples of...think about any airline is burning jet fuel. There's no alternative to doing that. And there won't be for a long time, but if they're willing to help, fine. Have them just do some stuff which creates jobs in the U.S., creates tax base here and says, basically, we're borrowing some now, but we're paying it back.
I think it's a little better way to go about this carbon reduction. I think it's innovative. When you talk about that, you think about buying a house for somebody. The way it works now with most of these passive ways of doing renewable energy or offsets are basically like you have to save up all your money and put cash down for the house.
What we're trying to do is say, no, what we can do is you can give us a little down payment, but then over time we will repair that carbon back again. And I don't need to tell you that there's a lot more houses being built. Because you can get a mortgage than there would be if everybody had saved the money up and put it in the first place.
So I look at it as a way of just opening up the ability to be a player in this thing, and an economically practical way to a lot of people and a lot of companies who would not be able to participate otherwise.
Jason Jacobs: And I know there's a number of different ways for companies to offset their emissions today.
So when you looked at that landscape, what was broken about it, what was missing? What's differentiated about Clearloop relative to the other options that exist?
Phil Bredesen: I think the big other option is the so-called natural solutions or somebody buys trees and say in some third-world country, the problem with those is that first of all they're very hard to measure.
I mean, a big company, a fortune 1000 company or something, that's a public company. I mean, they don't want to be caught out on misleading the public or somebody about what they're doing. And there's example, after example of these forests that were supposed to be there being, not being there, the likelihood of these things, staying in place for a meaningful length of time, meaning you know a century or two before the problem we have gets low. When there's political upheavals, there's fires right now, down in South America, you've got farmers burning down parts of the rainforest to be able to plant things. They're not supposed to do it, but they do it. So what we're saying is rather than paying some landowners for something that's a little ephemeral and again, trees are good; I'm not saying it's bad, but a lot of these companies, I think the idea of something which is much firmer it's right here in this country, it creates jobs in this country has had a great tax base in the country. You can measure; I mean, there's a meter, you know exactly how much carbon you have offset as a result of doing that.
I think that's proving to me it's getting people's attention. I think it's an interesting alternative. I don't think anybody will stop doing some of the other stuff, but I sure think they like this as a different kind of alternative.
Jason Jacobs: Well, I'm still learning about offsets, but one of the things I've learned is that there is kind of... I call it conventional wisdom. Maybe it's just the loud critics, but there's I think some skepticism about offsets for two primary reasons that I've heard and maybe you've heard others, but one is quality. As you mentioned. And a lack of transparency around what is actually happening and verification and things like that. And the other is actually that it makes people think that they don't have to change anything as far as like, I mean, a weird analogy is like, if I have panic attacks, then I shouldn't bother to try to sleep more or stay hydrated or meditate or exercise or manage my stress or do anything else. I should just take this little pill and let it do everything. And therefore it gives me permission to not change anything else. And I think people worry that offsets aren't going to get it's all the way there, but that are going to make people think that they don't have to think about this problem anymore.
The first example you gave, which is this sort of "mushy" if I can describe it that way, I think it's a very real criticism of a lot of the ones that are out there now, which are primarily these and these are called natural solutions. To the second one though, somebody you're not being realistic. I mean, first of all, there's a lot of stuff that goes on in the economy there is not an alternative right now for. I gave the example earlier I mentioned jet fuel. We burn a lot of jet fuel. There's not an alternative out there. There's no electric airplanes. We are a long way from biofuels. And even if we were there, there's a very inefficient way to convert the sun's energy into something else.
Phil Bredesen: You think about other things, industrial processes. I mean, half of the carbon out of the industrial sector comes from concrete and steel. There's not an alternative to that. And maybe you're going to keep making concrete. And it just, you go on and on with these various kinds of things. Big ships, I mean, they're going to burn the fuel oil. They're not, they're not going to be electric. Even where you have conversion to electricity, that just shows up again, a part of that shows up in the electric sector. I mean, I've got a Tesla and I figured out if I drive it a thousand miles, I save about 800 pounds of carbon. I also spend about 400 on the electricity that I used to charge it up again with.
So even as you go to electrify the vehicle fleet, you're moving some of that, roughly half plus or minus over into the electrical sector as well. So I just say the electrical sector, I mean, it's just, it's a low hanging fruit it's right there. It's enormous. It's the easiest place to go. If you're concerned about sort of the macro economics of it, why spend a hundred dollars to reduce a ton of carbon over here and something when you can spend over here five or $8 to reduce a ton of carbon. If your interest is really in reducing atmospheric emissions of carbon and not in sort of pushing forward some philosophical point of view is how we ought to live our lives. Then you ought to go for the low hanging fruit; you ought to be reducing it where you get the biggest bang for the buck.
Jason Jacobs: So I think the two things that I've heard there are one is, I mean, the clear thing we could do is just like stop burning fossil fuels, but it sounds like if we did that, it would make changes to our lifestyles that you don't feel we should be meddling with. And the other piece is that for example, there might not be an alternative to fully electrify a plane today, for example, but certainly we could fly less and mandate that more conferences are virtual or provide better tools for virtual work or do things to try to cut down on the amount of miles that we do need to travel as a, or fly as a society.
Where do those things fit in? Like, should we just assume that our lifestyle stays exactly the same going forward?
Phil Bredesen: No, I think that we should try to reduce our travel. I think if there's anything good to come out of this pandemic, it's going to be people getting a lot more familiar with virtual kinds of meetings and so on.
We ought to try to reduce it and the like, but people are not going to stop traveling. I mean, people are going to take vacations and they're going to leave to go places on business and so on. And when they do, it's going to generate a carbon footprint. There's not an alternative there. So my area one would be like, where you can reasonably reduce the carbon footprint or something, either through improvements in your process or by reducing your usage or something and the like you ought to do it.
That's the first line of defense. But the notion that you can entirely do what you need to do by pushing down on all those I think is just silly. It just doesn't pass any reasonableness test of how the world works. Production of beef is a big impactor on greenhouse gas emissions. It's methane. It's not carbon dioxide, but it's a big one.
And yeah, I'm all in favor. We ought, probably reduce the amount of red meat that we eat for a variety of reasons, amount of beef, but it's not going to go away. I mean, it's going to continue to be a significant dietary item in this country and in a lot of other countries of the world. What do you do about that?
Do you just wring your hands and wish that people would be more holy or do you find some alternatives? I keep going back, if you really want to reduce greenhouse gas, as opposed to pontificate on lifestyle and everything else, you ought to go for the low hanging fruit and the electrical grid and some of this transportation stuff just absolutely sticks out, when you start looking at where the emissions actually come from.
Jason Jacobs: So does that mean that you believe that our consumptive lifestyle and heralding GDP growth at all costs and like, without even asking leading questions like that, is our current lifestyle as a society sustainable?
Phil Bredesen: I think we're going to have to learn to use resources a lot better in terms of everything from recycling to lower carbon footprints for stuff that we do and so on. And I think we are in some ways, moving in that direction. I mean, actually the carbon footprint residential households have been going down for the last decade and a half, but I don't think you're realistically going to ask people to go back to an 18th century way of living. Everyone's not going to grow with their own carrots and beets in their backyard and so on. Just recognize that these changes in society they take a long time that lots of people would not agree with them. There's a lot of ways in which we can improve our lifestyle and cars are getting more efficient.
And I think people are getting smarter. A lot of people get smarter about what they eat and what the impact of it is. And certainly there's a lot of recycling going on and so on, but those changes don't even come remotely close to having the impact on the carbon footprint of a modern economy like ours, that we need to do something about climate change.
I keep coming back to, okay, the big problem is climate change. What are you going to do about that? And what are the most practical places given the realities of the world? And the reality of the politics and everything else. What are the things you can do that actually have the most impact on the that and can help to mitigate the future effects of this?
I think too many people, who were interested in this subject are getting caught up in the sort of low peripheral things. And not focusing on the fact that you've got to cut down the amount of carbon going into the atmosphere and there's easy ways of doing it and hard ways to do it. And one of the easy ways to do and fixing the electrical grid.
And one of the hard ways of doing it is to get every American to change their notion of what the good life is. And let's fix this climate change problem and do it effectively.
Jason Jacobs: So I know it will be hard and that people resist, but I think what I'm hearing from you, and I just want to make sure I'm hearing correctly is that you believe that we can get there and fully decarbonize without making those changes to how we live?
Phil Bredesen: No. I think that there's a lot of work that has to be done to do that. And when you say about changes in how we live, I'm not sure what extent you're talking about them. I think people are going to continue to travel. They're going to continue to drive cars. I think more will be electric.
Jason Jacobs: Oh, I know they'll continue to, but what I'm asking is can we get there if they continue to?
Phil Bredesen: The answer is it's difficult if they continue to do all those kinds of things, unless you've got some other strategy to fix that. But look, nobody knows exactly what changes are possible in the future. What new technologies might come along to affect our ability to do any of these kinds of things. I just look at it and say, look, there's a problem. We know there's a problem. There are some ways of taking steps to beginning to ameliorate that problem now, so let's do it. And while we're taking those steps, we'll learn more about the problem and what things we have to do and what other kinds of alternatives there are. But sitting back and arguing about what are the best ways or the possible ways of doing it and not taking any action. I think it was a stupid response at this point and people ought to stop doing it.
Jason Jacobs: So we were talking about offsets and we're talking about solar development, but if we put aside any of the things that you're working on, and we just take a step back and look at the overall problem, what's the smart way of doing it?
What should we be doing to get there? What are the highest impact things where we should be leaning in?
Phil Bredesen: I think that if you want to start taking an atmospheric greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere, if you just look at where they come from and we can talk about it, if you want, I would say electrification of the vehicle fleet and changing the electrical grid to decarbonize it to move to renewables and to nuclear are the two things that dwarf everything else. And they're two things, both of which we know how to begin doing. We don't have all the answers yet. We don't have the right kind of battery storage yet on the electrification thing.
I think there's still a lot of technology that needs to be developed to make our electrical automobiles more practical for a lot of different kinds of uses. But, I mean, those two things I just mentioned are half of all of the emissions in this country. And anything else you can talk about, like beef or something, it's like 1% and very hard to move. Those are half. So let's do something about it.
Jason Jacobs: So two questions. Do we need a price on carbon? And the second question is, should we have a price on carbon?
Phil Bredesen: The answer is, first of all, I don't think we're going to get it. I guess one of the effects of that haven't been in a political office for 16 years is you get a little sense of the political realities of the thing.
I don't think we're going to get it in a meaningful way in this country anytime soon for a host of reasons. I have to say I'm a little skeptical about what any acceptable price, how much it would actually drive changed behavior and change the investment policies. I've got an open mind on it but I'm at least a little skeptical.
I mean, when you talk about the price on carbon applied to gasoline, gasoline prices, you know, in the past couple of years have gone up and down dramatically more than that price would affect them. So it's not totally clear to me how much of a driver that it is in terms of that. But again, I've got an open mind on that, but I think I'm more useful thing to do in the short term. I think government action is needed. And this is a problem that cuts across so many different kinds of lives. But government action can be a lot more than either a straight subsidy of something or things like a carbon tax or a cap and trade program. For example, I think you can dramatically accelerate things like electrification of the grid by cutting through some of the sort of mishmash of regulations we have about the way electrical utilities and regulators and so on that make it very difficult. Every state is different and there's a lot of just legal and bureaucratic impediments to the deployment of solar and wind and other renewables that certainly could be swept away.
I think there are research in areas, things like batteries, technology and so on that the government could and should fund as a proper part of the national investment in science and technology that we have an effect on that. And I think there's a lot of things that you can do. I'm just somebody that thinks that, when you got a problem, you don't sit and stew on it forever, or try to think about impractical things, how you make them happen. You take a step forward and make some change and learn from it. And then take another step forward and so on. I think in transportation and electricity, electrical grid you've got some great room to take some real steps forward in terms of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. And maybe they won't by themselves, get us to one and a half or two degrees or something that we're searching for, but they certainly will help ameliorate some of the effects that climate change is going to have and we ought to be doing that.
Jason Jacobs: But two of the things I think I just heard you mention that are things that we should be focused on that could be more impactful. One is carbon removal and one is nuclear, correct?
Phil Bredesen: Sure.
Jason Jacobs: Okay. Can either of those be cost competitive ever without a price on carbon?
Phil Bredesen: Yes on renewables. So, I mean, they're getting down to the point now where they are very competitive with any kind of new construction and Silicon Ranch. I mean, we're signing contracts at $25 and $30, depending on the location. I mean, $25 or $30 a megawatt hour. That's what it costs to do anything else. Batteries, knock that back up again, but in the same way, the solar has come down dramatically over a decade.
I hope with some research and development and some volume that batteries will come down and make that more practical. Nuclear is a different problem. And I don't think you can realistically decarbonize the grid without some reliance on nuclear. And it is a, basically, carbon free technology. I mean, not in the construction, obviously, but in the operation.
Jason Jacobs: Is it more politically palatable than a price on carbon? Nuclear?
Phil Bredesen: I don't know that, but I know for sure that works. And I don't know whether the price on carbon works.
Jason Jacobs: I guess this comes back around and kind of dovetails to what some of the stuff you were doing before you were in the solar world. And what is the role of government in helping us address the problem of climate change?
Phil Bredesen: I think that what we've seen is that it's going to be very difficult for government to do it sort of by fiat. I mean, I really do believe the price on carbon is a difficult call. Even things like renewable portfolio standards. We've been going backwards on that. I mean, Ohio is got rid of theirs. Oregon, which is hardly a conservative state, has tried a couple of times to pass them in the last few years and failed both times through public referendum.
So I think that that action, his premiums will be difficult. And if it's done, without some common understanding of the public of the need to do it, I think it just gets reversed. I mean, it'll be like the Paris Accords. You sign them with one administration and get out under the next administration. You just can't force things like that down people's throats quite so much. But I do think it has a role to play and that it can help by subsidizing certain things it wants to encourage, subsidize the purchase of electric cars up to a level, as you know, there's an investment tax credit, which is going away, but it still exists on solar construction.
I think it has a huge role to play in technology and research. And I think it has a huge role to play simply in the leadership of explaining sensibly to people why this is important. I mentioned earlier, I think all of us who were interested in this had just not done a good job of explaining the rationale for it in ways that are meaningful to someone who is not immersed in the subject. I think of people who are the climate deniers as you were, it's really two entirely different groups of people. I mean, there's one group for whom it's there professional economic profession to do it. Obviously, petroleum companies and politicians for whom it's the way they raise money and get votes and so on. It's also just much larger group with just kind of ordinary people out there who have a lot of things they're thinking about in the world and their families and so on and are trying to figure out what's the right thing to do. And for whom it's very easy to say, well, this is all very confusing, but I know I don't want gas to go up 50 cents.
And so I guess I'll push it back and think about it the next year. Or I'll join people are saying we're moving too far, too fast. I think we've got to do a better job of explaining to people the rationale for it and finding ways that they can benefit out of this set of changes and not as if it would be a cost to supply it to them.
Jason Jacobs: Is climate change an existential crisis?
Phil Bredesen: Yes.
Jason Jacobs: What do you think about the World War II mobilization analogy?
Phil Bredesen: As in, we should do a Manhattan Project for climate change? I don't think it applies. I mean climate change is not an engineering problem. Manhattan Project was an engineering problem. I mean, the mobilization of the country was a political and economic set of issues.
I don't think climate change as being in the same thing. I mean there's no invention out there or something that you can see a way through engineering and careful design and so on to get a solution to it. It's just a different kind of problem. It's a little bit like people get all caught up in that like, you know, we're gonna have a Manhattan Project for cancer and we're gonna have a Manhattan Project for climate change and stuff.
I just think those are not problems that are amenable to that kind of a solution.
Jason Jacobs: What about the Green New Deal?
Phil Bredesen: I think the Green New Deal is quite impractical on several levels. I think it sort of incorporates way too many ancillary kinds of issues, everything from living wage and other kinds of things. I admire and certainly appreciate the thought behind it and the desire to make some progress on this approach. But I don't think that's the way to do it. I don't think it's a practical, realistic solution.
Jason Jacobs: I have one kind of closing thought that I'd love to get your reaction to. And then I have a couple of questions I kind of ask every guest to close out the shows. So I think how I'm feeling right now is I really admire that you don't want to get caught up in pontification and academic exercises about impractical things.
And you want to just pick up a shovel and start digging and do stuff. And you don't just say that you've been doing it. So for that that's very much aligned with what I believe and what I'd like to see more of. So I think on that part, we're really well aligned. My concern or something I guess I would just want to unpack a little bit in closing are kind of, that's still nagging at me a little bit is that what I've heard from you is, well, this thing is not practical. That thing is not practical. People aren't going to do this; people aren't going to do that. And what I worry about is that all those things that let's say you're right about all those things, which I don't disagree with. That we're not nearly on the path that we need to be in, that things were going to get really bad.
And so while it might be uncomfortable and people might not be willing and that we can't just work with what we've gotten doing, incremental things, we need to find a way to move faster and take bold action. And that incremental is not going to get us there. So I guess, what do you think about what I just said?
Phil Bredesen: I think you're absolutely correct in that we are not on a good path. I mean when you look at what the goals are that expressed to things like the Paris Accord and so on, we're not even close to being able to achieve those kinds of things. What I'm talking about is, I mean, I don't think you're characterizing it right when you talk about incremental. I mean, I believe in picking up a shovel and doing things. But what I'm proposing, I'm saying to you is I don't think it's incremental at all. I mean, I think what's incremental is saying, well, we got to eat fewer hamburgers and we need to burn off methane gas.
I'm sitting here saying, look, you're staring at, in transportation and car and truck transportation, you're staring at half of all the emissions. We are not beginning to do as much as we could do in either of those areas where the technology is largely there, the economics, everything is there.
Stop messing around and do something that's real and meaningful, and large by having a strategy to go after these things and make those reductions. I think it's just the opposite. I don't think it's incremental at all. I think you're saying stop messing around and go for the big guns here.
Jason Jacobs: I actually agree with all of that. I think the big piece that I struggle with is the lifestyle piece. Not necessarily, because I think using plastic straws is going to make a difference or switching to veggie burgers. It's not that it doesn't help, but it's just that, like, we need a lot more to your point, but I worry that everything is intertwined.
And if we like your point about people are still going to take vacations and they're still going to eat their hamburgers, and they're still going to fly for business travel. And like, I actually think all that stuff is wrapped up in the change that we need to make and that we need to change everything, including lifestyle, and that we can't do these other big things without it.
Phil Bredesen: I think you're right in that we certainly need to make some lifestyle changes. I think in some ways people already started doing that. I mean, in my lifetime, I don't know. I mean, recycling is a relatively new thing. It's a very big thing right now. We're making some of these kinds of changes. And I think we need to continue on doing it.
I think though, that if you have this clear and present danger of what's going to happen to the world and we don't do something about greenhouse gas emissions, and you're ignoring big things you can do while you talk about the need for people to change their lifestyles which is, I think you would have to admit, an extremely difficult thing to do.
And as you know, as churches and governments and everything else have discovered over the years, I think you're not facing up to the real problem we have with climate change. And you need to stop worrying about peripheral stuff and go for something big in this to make a difference.
Jason Jacobs: I came into this year and a half ago, very much skeptical of the difference that a consumer can make.
And if you asked me to stop flying, I would say, what difference does it make if I fly or not? Because these flights are going to keep running, whether I'm on them or not. But if you look at this pandemic, how long did it take of everyone staying home before the airlines started slashing their flights by 80% and doing crazy things like that.
And now I don't want the message to be that the economy needs to shut down and people need to starve and die in order for us to get a handle on this problem. Obviously, it can't be that, but the point is more, that collective action really matters. Not as an individual, but if we do things in mass, it can actually exert a lot more pressure.
I mean, you must know that from your years in the political sphere.
Phil Bredesen: Well, I mean, I guess the question I ask is what is it that you would like people to do to change their lifestyle?
Jason Jacobs: So that's easy. So for me, there's kind of an on-off switch. It's like red pill, blue pill. And once you've taken the red pill and you believe that this is an existential threat and that we have to solve it, and that things are going to get bad if we don't. And that this is a train wreck happening in slow motion. And that if we don't do something about it, which is going to be really hard, then it's going to be really bad. I'm going to make all our other problems worse. That's kind of the red pill. And if you, I don't believe that then it's easy for you to just kind of focus on other things as you said.
But once you believe that, then if you see your employer not stepping up, you're going to exert pressure on that employer, or it's going to affect if you're graduating college, for example, where you're going to work. When you show up at the polls, if that candidate is not putting climate as a top issue, then that's not your candidate.
When it comes to purchasing decisions. If it's a brand that isn't taking this stuff seriously and is just doing some greenwashing, or lip-service or not talking about it at all, you're not going to buy from that brand. It kind of, once you've taken the red pill, it pervades. And actually as a human once you've taken it, it makes no difference if you're a college student or a governor or the CEO of a major corporation or a flight attendant or whoever, once you've taken the red pill, it infects you and we just need more people to get infected.
Phil Bredesen: That may not be the best analogy right now.
Jason Jacobs: Good point.
Phil Bredesen: I hope you're right. And I hope that there's enough true believers out there. It's just, I hate to put all my eggs in that basket. I mean, the airlines experience... most of the airlines now offer you can buy a carbon offset for a few bucks or something when you buy ticket. The take up on that is nothing. It's a percent or something.
They're experiments in Europe with people going to the gas pump and having the ability for small amounts of money to opt to offset the the carbon of the gas they're pumping into the car. Take up is nothing. I mean, in the Netherlands, which has to be the most environmentally conscious country on the face of the earth.
I mean, they're getting like 2% with that kind of stuff. So I just, I'm saying, I think that that universal epiphany may be far off in the future. I don't say you shouldn't keep trying to achieve it. You shouldn't keep sort of like proselytizing it. But in the meantime, I'd like to do some things to reduce the carbon going into the atmosphere that come from other places.
Jason Jacobs: But, the problem that I've got is that each thing that can really move the needle, oh, it's too hard so that's never going to happen. And then if we keep saying that we're going to get boxed into a corner where we just drink a bottle... anyways, we can go around in circles. But, I don't have the answer, but I think it is fascinating to talk it through, especially with someone who comes at it from a very different lens and perspective, especially one as accomplished as yours.
Phil Bredesen: You're kind. I enjoyed the conversation.
Jason Jacobs: Well. two final questions. One is just, if you had a hundred billion dollars and you could put it towards anything to accelerate the clean energy transition, where would you put that money and how would you allocate it?
Phil Bredesen: 100 billion wouldn't go too far in that. First of all, I put a bunch of it into research. I think there are some very practical things that can be done to move the ball forward on it there. I probably would put it into some further subsidies of trying to get people to change their behavior on things like electric cars and energy and so on. I think it really would be a case of a, just a matter of going back to say, I want a real look at the low hanging fruit here as to where we can get the most bang for the buck and keep a little bit of an eye on the future by putting some money into some research there.
But I think a combination of research and maybe some kinds of subsidies for the changes. I might consider again, a hundred billion doesn't do the job, but I mean, I might consider doing something to help utilities and power companies convert away from coal. I mean, one of the problems that they have is that there's these enormous sunk costs and the generating facilities that they have is they can't just sort of walk away from maybe some help in that regard would help ease the transition for them as well without driving all electricity costs through the roof.
Jason Jacobs: And last question is just a bunch of people listening to this show are people that have taken the red pill maybe even recently, and are really trying to figure out how to have the biggest impact on this problem. And don't necessarily know where to start. Maybe they're like me a year and a half ago. Not that I'm having some big impact now, but like me today as well.
So I guess, speak to me, speak to that category of people for a moment. What advice you have for them?
Phil Bredesen: I'd say two things. I mean one serious and one, a little more whimsical. But the serious thing I think is, I think you can tell from my conversation, I think this discussion about climate change and how do we mitigate it is gotten kind of stuck. I think it really is begging for some new thinking and some new solutions and some new approaches to it. And that's what Clearloop is trying to do. Obviously, I believe in that. So I'd say to people, if you really believe in that, as opposed to just pounding on 10 year old ideas or 20 year how to do this, put your minds to work and help us think of some fresh and new ways we might go about doing this. I mean, what are some realistic ways of getting some more people to take the red pill and what are some realistic ways of doing those things? And then second of all, I say to them just more whimsically well keep your eye on what we're doing with Clearloop, because we're going to offer an awful lot of people I think a way to make some meaningful impact by summing up all the little decisions they make and all the little coffee cups they buy and airplane trips they make and rolls of toilet paper now and so on. And if we've learned one thing from what's happened with the internet and apps and so on is that we in political fundraising is that there's a lot of power in all those little $1 purchases out there.
When you start aggregating them together over an economy the size of ours. What Clearloop is trying to do is put them to work to try to fight climate change.
Jason Jacobs: Anything, I didn't ask you that I should have or any parting words for listeners beyond what you just said?
Phil Bredesen: No, it was a good discussion. I do want to tell you, I don't want to sound sycophantic or anything.
I really admire what you're doing. I mean, you're somebody who obviously has got the ability to do a lot of different things, and you've got a lot of choices out there in the world and that are open to you and willingness to settle down and really try to work in this way on this. I really admire.
There's a lot of wonderful people. I don't mean really well, meaning people who were involved in this whole issue of climate change and that's I think the good news. I mean, that's what it's going to take to finally make some progress and beat this problem.
Jason Jacobs: Well, I feel the same about you. You have more options than me and swing a bigger bat than I do. And you too are choosing to work in this area.
Phil Bredesen: Good. Well, we're brothers comrades in arms here then.
Jason Jacobs: Well, Governor Bredesen, I really enjoyed this discussion and thank you so much for coming on the show.
Phil Bredesen: Alright, thanks a lot. Good talking to you.
Jason Jacobs: Hey everyone, Jason here. Thanks again for joining me on My Climate Journey. If you'd like to learn more about the journey you can visit us at MyClimateJourney.co. Note that's ".co" not ".com; someday we'll get the .com but right now ".co". You can also find me on Twitter @jjacobs22 where I would encourage you to share your feedback on the episode or suggestions for future guests you'd like to hear. And before I let you go, if you enjoyed the show, please share an episode with a friend or consider leaving and review on iTunes. The lawyers made me say that. Thank you.