Let’s Upcycle Everything

Blog Post by William McDonough in Huffington Post

April 2, 2013

In his recent State of the Union address, President Barack Obama gave energy independence a leading role in “the next great chapter of the American story.” He talked about renewable energy and jobs, new technologies and the clean energy market, noting that “much of our newfound energy is drawn from lands and waters that we, the public, own together.”

So… drill, baby, drill? Maybe not. I suggest we take our heads out of the tar sands and look up to see the sun. We don’t own it, but it provides us all with great, endless value. So, too, the wind. These free, renewable sources of “energy currency” are perfect partners to what we own together. Let’s look at public lands and energy in a new way. Let’s imagine using public lands to restore the vitality of the American economy and the health of the environment, right now, and on into a bright, instead of murky future.

What if we reimagined the potential of the land around our railroad tracks or federal highways, already secure as public rights‐of‐way, as host to renewable power systems? I like to call this “upcycling Amtrak.” Upcycling the quality of our designs (seeking continuous improvement instead of simply recycling obsolete ideas and destructive technology) renews twentieth century industry with twenty‐first century innovation.

The available area is significant — Amtrak alone has more than 14,000 miles of rights of way — and this real estate, bathed in sunshine and wind, is already industrially zoned territory. Both railways, and highways too, typically have fences; these vertical surfaces are perfect hosts for solar collectors. Because of mass production, such collectors are now cost-effective at this scale.

(Just ask Walmart, the country’s largest user of solar collectors, which is committed to becoming 100 percent renewably powered.) Let’s go to that scale with velocity.

Ambitious? Yes. There will surely be numerous technical matters to address. But all the technology needed to build renewable power systems and smart grids on public rights-of-way already exists or is in the works; it simply needs to be applied to a coherently designed system. It’s terrestrial technology, not rocket science.

The job creation in communities all over the country, tackling their part of the program, could not come at a better time. There would be thousands of jobs installing and maintaining the renewable energy network, but also a host of ancillary businesses.

Just like the Eisenhower initiative to make our people safe from remote tyranny by building the federal highway system so we could quickly mobilize if attacked, let’s dream of the jobs and benefits of doing it again — using the same rights of way! These linear rail and road systems could, in short order, become the primary contributor to the U.S. power requirements in a distributed fashion. Imagine solar collectors on the rights‐of‐way along the roads and tracks all across the nation, which are perfectly positioned for transmission and maintenance using existing infrastructure.

Think about what this could help us avoid. Eminent domain — taking private lands — for pipelines from Canada to Texas? Do we really want to do that? We don’t need more eminent domain.

We already have the real estate in the public domain.

Why not upcycle the business model of the railroads, too? The railroads could profit from multi-megawatts of power instead of being subsidized by well over a billion tax dollars per year. Add other renewables where appropriate and feasible, like wind in the Great Plains, providing our farms with a new cash crop. Soon, life becomes commercially productive without the need for subsidies. Society benefits from jobs, mobility, clean energy, and an upgraded electric grid with optimized distribution. We would be sending a signal that everywhere we go, the world is getting better. Every mile we travel becomes a story about the chance to optimize public land for public benefit.

Ideas like these will help us honor our foundational dreams and create a country independent from all forms of remote tyranny. The founders of our nation worried about the tyranny of a remote government that did not honor local needs and aspirations. For us, today, the threat is the tyranny of reliance on foreign sources of energy, but also, importantly, the tyranny of carbon in the atmosphere and carbon in the oceans — even if it comes from domestic sources.

So, indeed, let’s move toward energy independence and let’s celebrate our public lands. Let’s look around, then take the time to think big and to remember the American Dream. We achieved our mission to the moon. Let’s look home from that lofty perch and re‐imagine our mission on Earth — that is what we need to do here. Together, we can upcycle everything. The world will be better for our positive visions and actions.