Jun 30, 2006 (From the CalCars-News archive)
NY Times columnist Thomas Friedman, author of The World is Flat and other books, periodically presents documentaries (previously on the Times-Discovery cable channel, now on Discovery. This most recent one, "Addicted to Oil," premiered as an 80-minute film at the Silverdocs Film Festival; then it aired on cable June 24. (We described it at http://www.calcars.org/calcars-news/440.html. Plug-in hybrids, including appearances by Felix Kramer of CalCars and Greg Hanssen of EnergyCS, show up for five minutes around 20 minutes into the program. Because the entire program was very compelling, including riveting sections with Bill McDonough toward the end, we've produced a transcript of the full program -- thanks to the dedicated efforts of Greg Wiley.
You can see our small clip of the segment on PHEVs at http://www.calcars.org/audio-video/ATOclip-24june06.html.
Addicted to Oil, Thomas L Friedman reporting, hour-long version broadcast on Discover Cable Network June 24, 2006
Thomas Friedman (Narrator): No doubt about it. America is addicted to oil. We've had shortages and price spikes before, but this is definitely not your parent's energy crisis.
Today, kicking the habit is an urgent necessity. Urgent, because we are funding both sides in the War on Terrorism. The US military with our tax dollars, and supporters of Islamic militants through our gasoline purchases.
[woman on video]: Every major national security problem has roots in oil. Terrorists see that oil is our achilles heel.
TF: Getting off oil is also urgent because our consumption of gasoline is warming out planet.
[Man on video]: We are changing the climate faster than anything we have seen in the last million years.
NARR: And it is urgent because Asia and Europe, much more than the United States, are heavily investing in green technologies, one of the biggest growth industries for the 21st Century.
[Man on video] There's a million jobs hanging in the balance. Chinese manufactures intend to eat Detroit for lunch.
TF narrating (NARR): While there's no 12 step program for kicking our oil addiction, there is a lot we can do right now, today, to get the oil monkey off our backs.
Intro for Friedman: New York Times foreign affairs columnist, author of The World is Flat and 3 time winner of the Pulitzer prize, Thomas L Friedman explores what is at stake and what is the cure for America's addiction to oil.
NARR: I came to the annual auto show in Detroit because at the heart of the energy crisis is our glutinous consumption of gasoline. 97% of transportation in America is dependent on oil. The 230,000 vehicles on US roads today burn more than 55% of the oil we consume. And they emit almost one third of all greenhouse gases we put in the air every year.
Of course all cars are not created equal. GM's Hummer gets only about 10 miles per gallon. I asked General Motors CEO Rick Wagner why they still make Hummers when all they do is drive from gas station to gas station.
GM CEO Rick Wagoner: We build what the market wants. We try to forecast what the market is going to want but we have not been successful, and I suspect we never will be, is building a car and telling people, "you buy this car".
NARR: The largest Hummer was recently discontinued because of sagging sales but the other models are still on the market.
Gas prices being what they are, people are buying more hybrids. Sales of hybrids increased more than 141% from 2004 to 2005. A hybrid car has an electric motor that provides additional power to the gasoline engine greatly reducing the amount of gas burned. The electric motor is connected to a battery which recharges when you slow down or put on the breaks.
A car that normally gets 25 miles to the gallon of gas could get 40 to 50 with much less pollution. All the American car companies are now jumping on board. Like with GM's new Saturn hybrid.
Elizabeth Lowery (VP, Environment & Energy General Motors): It's estimated to get 27, 32 on the highway, which we are very proud of.
NARR: But the Japanese are way ahead. Both Ford and GM are closing factories and laying off thousands of workers while Toyota had its best year ever in part because of increasing sales of its hybrids.
Across the floor Ford is unveiling its super chief, a supposedly eco friendly pickup truck.
NARR: How many miles to the gallon does it get?
Ford spokesperson: This vehicle when you're running gas will get 12 miles to the gallon.
NARR: Gee, a whopping 12 miles to the gallon. No wonder the Japanese are so far ahead.
Downstairs were the cars of the future. Most of which seemed pretty far fetched. I thought, well, at this rate it might be a while before we get off oil.
For those of us who remember the oil crisis of the 1970's there's an unmistakable sense of deja vu. Back then the price of gasoline skyrocketed and it led to a burst of innovation in alternative energy and fuel efficiency. In fact from 1977 to 1985 our oil imports from the Person Gulf fell 87%. And our total consumption dropped 17%. We did so well it caused an oil glut and OPEC oil ministers had a ready response.
William Mcdonough (Founder, McDounough & Partners Environmental Design): In the 70's Sheik Yamani speaking for OPEC in London said "We will drop the price of oil, destroy those investments on Wall Street, and then put the price of oil back. Which is exactly what they have done every single decade.
NARR: So what's different this time? A lot. Islamic terrorism has changed the geopolitical equation, and petro-dollars are now funding networks of Islamic militants.
People of all political stripes are beginning to recognize just how toxic this dependence on oil is for American foreign policy and it's spawning new political alliances with some very strange bed fellows.
The Set America Free Coalition is dedicated to getting the US off foreign oil. The group ranges from dyed in the wool environmentalists to a former head of the CIA. From Republican and Democratic lawmakers to leaders of the evangelical movement.
It's true Christian Evangelicals have joined forces with their traditional nemeses the liberals and Democrats on this issue.
TF: How in the world did you people find each other?
Gary Bauer (President, American Values): We're all aware that there are evil people feverishly working on ways to kill us. We are dependant on our energy resources to people that worship death and have drawn a bulls eye on our backs.
Deron Lovaas (Natural Resources Defense Council): We face immediate threats in terms of security and the environment. We need to do something now. Inefficiency and alternatives to oil are no longer a luxury. It's a necessity to make this shift.
NARR: The coalition has lobbied Congress for a bi-partisan bill that will reduce our dependence on oil and encourage super fuel efficient vehicles. The rational for the legislation is hard to dispute.
Ann Korin (Chairman, Set America Free Coalition): Where does the money come from for Iran to develop weapons of mass destruction? It's not from adding microchips.
Where did the Pakistani's get the money to buy nuclear weapon technology from the Chinese? We're at war with an ideology and that ideology is radical Islam and we can't win the war against radical Islam as long as we are funding the other side of the war.
In World War II we bombed the supply chains and in this war we are not doing that. We are in fact doing just the opposite. Not only are we not cutting off their supply chains we are sending more money in their direction.
James Woolsey (Former C.I.A. Director): We're being even stupider than what Lennon described when he said the capitalists will sell us the rope with which we hang them. We're doing much worse than that. We're funding the rope for the hanging of ourselves. And as far as I'm concerned it's just nuts.
NARR: The Set America Free Coalition is trying to redefine what a realistic American energy policy should be. The old realism, endlessly repeated by politicians beholden to big oil was that it's naïve to think alternatives to oil can make a difference.
Dick Cheney (Vice President): For now we must take the facts as they are and the reality is that fossil fuels supply virtually 100% of our transportation needs. For years down the road this will continue to be true.
NARR: But that is so wrong. A classic example of pre-911 thinking. The new realism is that we can't afford not to think about alternatives to fossil fuels. In the absence of a forward thinking energy policy some Americans have taken it upon themselves to help our nation of gasoholics kick the habit.
NARR: Beyond the problem of our gasoline purchases enriching people who want to harm America, lies another issue which makes this energy crisis different from anything we have faced before. It's the threat that global warming poses to the planet and our way of life.
So I visited the national center for atmospheric research overlooking Boulder Colorado to find out what the US Government's top scientists have to say about climate change.
Bill Collins (National Center for Atmospheric Research): One of our missions here is to really try and communicate our scientific findings with the public.
NARR: Bill Collins the center's chairman for global climate modeling is the lead author of what's widely considered to be the most comprehensive study of climate change to date. He took me to the center's Inner Sanctum, the visualization lab where super computers create models of global warming.
BC: So Tom, this is our simulation of how the temperature has changed from the middle of the 19th century basically the beginning of industrialization and each frame is one year and the colors go warmer and warmer because the planet is heating up. The blue areas are indicating that the planet is cooler. These are more or less disappearing from our simulation. When we get into the late 1990's we have 5 of the warmest years in historical record. Now we're getting to the future and you'll start to see colors in the orange and red range. We know that's due to man kinds burning of fossil fuel. There's no longer any reasonable doubt in the scientific community.
TF: So what would happen?
BC: Well, for example you begin irreversibly melting Greenland. All the ice in Greenland is equivalent to more than 25 feet globally of sea level rise.
TF: What would that do to New York City?
BC: You'd need a really high dike around New York City. This will have a major impact on coastal areas around the United States. Other nations will be completely inundated.
TF: Bill if you had a chance to convey one message about what you've learned here on the basis of hard science what would it be?
BC: The message would be that we're running an uncontrolled experiment on the only home that we have.
TF: With the urgency growing, and a lack of sustained action from both Washington and the automobile industry, individual Americans have been doing something about our oil addiction all by themselves.
In the basement of a small building on the outskirts of Aspen, Colorado is a group called FiberForge, founded by the environmentalist and physicist Amory Lovins. They are making ultra light car bodies that out of carbon fiber.
Jon Fox-Rubin (President, CEO FiberForge): These are the carbon fibers, these are 48,000 strands.
Amory Lovins (CEO, Rocky Mountain Institute): My team published a book called Winning the Oil End Game describing how to eliminate US oil use by the 2040's, led by business for profit while revitalizing the economy and improving our national security. The basic recipe is pretty simple. First you triple the efficiency of cars trucks and planes. If we make our vehicles ultra light with such materials we take out half the weight we save half the fuel and when you combine that with hybrids then you get tripled efficiency.
TF: What about the safety issue?
AL: The car gets safer because these materials can absorb up to 12 times the crash energy per pound of steel. You could run it into a wall at 35 miles per hour and still be protected from serious injury.
TF: All the major car companies have expressed interest in ultra light car bodies. The folks at FiberForge say we could see these on the road in the next five or six years.
TF: Amory took me to his home at the Rocky Mountain Institute to show me another key element in how to get America off oil, it's Ethanol. A fuel made from plants.
AL: Once we've saved half the oil by making our vehicles ultra light we can get the other half from advanced bio fuels like ethanol made from this switchgrass. This is like a five or six foot high prairie grass that's perennial, it comes up by itself every year. It doesn't need any irrigation, doesn't need any pesticide. This is not corn. In the United States they make corn into ethanol. This is woody, weedy stuff.
TF: This has more energy in it than corn?
AL: Oh yes, and a much better net energy yield, less capital investment, twice the crop yield. It just sits there and grows and you harvest it with hay making equipment. Then you send it to the ethanol plant.
TF: In fact Brazil gets almost half of its motor fuel from ethanol made from sugar. And it could import it to the United States. But Washington has imposed a 100% tariff in order to protect American farmers who make more costly ethanol from corn.
AL: And because of that tariff Brazil is going to ship that stuff to China and Japan instead of us.
TF: So that's great, so Brazil is the Saudi Arabia of our hemisphere. It's got an energy source that it grows quite natural. And we're preventing it from coming into the United States?
AL: Well, a 100% duty is a pretty good deterrent.
TF: What is our duty on crude oil?
TF: Well that makes a lot of sense.
NARR: In the backwaters of Southern California is another small band of engineers who are working on a car that could change the way the world drives. Inside this little garage in Monrovia, CA they're converting already fuel efficient hybrids into plug-ins. They replace the original factory installed battery with a set of much larger batteries that are charged by plugging into a regular electric outlet. This allows the plug-in to go the same distance as a regular hybrid on only half the amount of gas.
Greg Hanson is an engineer with the small company that is doing conversions.
Greg Hanson (V.P. Engineering, Energy CS): I'm an engineer and I'm a geek and very fascinated by the technologies that are involved in the future of transportation but I'm also concerned about America's place in a world with less and less fossil fuel. It's not just about cleaner air. It's about what happens to our United States economy when we're paying $8 a gallon for gasoline and we're at war with China over some scrap of land in the Middle East trying to get it.
NARR: Felix Kramer is the founder of CalCars.org a virtual think tank devoted to the plug-in hybrid.
TF: So Felix, what exactly is the big benefit from this plug-in?
Felix Kramer (Founder CalCars.org): Well the fact is the average American commuter drives maybe 20 to 25 miles per day. If you have a battery that can get you all electric for that entire time, every night you go home and you plug in your car and you leave the next morning with a full tank of electricity. You don't ever have to go to the gas station.
NARR: I asked Felix where this idea came from
FK: I got one of the first Prius' and there was this little black button that had nothing written on it. So many of us Prius owners were online and the people who were from Europe and Japan responded that on our car it says EV which means Electric Vehicle. It turned out that this button gave a very brief, less than a mile, electric only range to the car. So the gasoline engine didn't come on. So we set up on online discussion group, explicitly open source. Got people from all over the world contributing their ideas and figured how to re-enable the button and we converted a car.
GH: This is our original prototype that was done almost a year ago. This vehicle underneath the floor here we have a bunch of batteries.
TF: And this is the key deal.
GH: This is how we plug it in. This is what makes all the difference. Right here we plug in.
TF: How many miles per gallon are you getting on this car?
GH: It's about one hundred miles per gallon.
TF: I want to drive this thing.
GH: Absolutely, let's do it.
NARR: In fact if you fuel it with E85 ethanol which contains only 15% gasoline you have a plug in that can go 500 miles for every gallon of gas it uses.
TF: So Felix, I want to convert my hybrid, how much does it cost?
FK: Ten to twelve thousand dollars. But we believe that Toyota could sell these cars to buyers for $3000 more than the cost of a regular hybrid. That's where the huge market is.
TF: Explain something to me. Toyota has been very green, why would they be resisting all this?
FK: There's a lot of speculation, but certainly one reason is that Toyota was spending tens of millions of dollars explaining to people that they didn't have to plug-in. They were essentially saying plugging in was a bad thing.
NARR: Toyota was not the only car maker that was promoting no plugging in as a big benefit. Honda made this TV commercial to emphasize the point.
[TV Commercials shown]
FK: Our goal was to get the information out to people and our ultimate goal was to increase the pressure on Toyota to build them.
TF: But all the major car makers seem convinced that Americans won't buy plug-ins no matter how much drivers can save on gasoline. If these companies thought they'd make money selling plug-ins they'd certainly build them. Part of the car maker's skepticism is based on their experience with marketing electric vehicles in the 1990's.
Richard Wagoner: We made a very interesting move in the mid 90's with our electric vehicle program. Spent a huge amount of money, well over half a billion dollars. A technological marvel, a complete commercial flop from every angle you could imagine. From, no one wanted to buy it to, there was no place to recharge it. A classic example of a very interesting idea but no market for it. So we were looking for a solution and we really thought the hydrogen powered fuel cell was the right thing to do. And I think that was a good call.
NARR: Could it be that the hydrogen fuel cell will power the car of the future?
NARR: I have no doubt that America's love affair with the automobile will never end. It's an American invention, a symbol of our independent spirit.
Of course symbols are different from reality. Americans are more dependent than ever on oil. A few facts: Transportation in the United States burns up 14 million barrels of oil every day. America only 4 -1/2 percent of the world's population consumes ¼ of the world's oil. Nearly -1/2 of this goes to passenger vehicles. Cars, SUVs, light trucks, which are the fastest growing source of deadly green house gasses.
A possible solution that all the major car makers are researching is the hydrogen fuel cell vehicle.
Bill Reinert is national manager of Toyota's advanced technology group.
Bill Reinert (Toyota): With a fuel cell vehicle you take hydrogen and oxygen, you combine them together and it creates electricity and the emissions are water. So that's a very nice clean solution. We're some ways away from doing that.
TF: How far?
BR: We can probably put compelling products on the market within two decades.
TF: So you would go with hydrogen?
NARR: Two decades is an awfully long time to wait. And some say hydrogen cars are such a long shot that they will never make it to market.
But riding with stay at home mom Sandy Spallino in her cool fuel cell prototype from Honda makes quite an impression. It's totally silent, has no emissions and rides like a smooth super charged golf cart.
Sandy Spallino: I use it every day just picking the girls up, doing local errands.
TF: So Sandy, do people stop you? Hey lady, what's that car? What's that cool car?
SS: All the time, I get questions every day, it's really fun.
NARR: Sandy Spallino and her husband John of Redondo Beach California were chosen by Honda as America's first hydrogen fuel cell family, in order to gather data on how the car performs in every day life. Ever since, it's been a parade of publicity.
The car gets between 160 and 190 miles to a tank of hydrogen. And the Spellion's fill up about twice a week.
TF: You know, I've always wanted to say this but, Filler up with hydrogen.
Stephen Ellis (Honda): You're on. How about full service today? Well, we have to open the fuel door here and here's the nozzle where we put hydrogen in. Then we connect it. Then we'll just say Fast Fill and it will begin filling the vehicle.
NARR: So is hydrogen the cure for us oiloholics? On the surface this seems the perfect solution. Even if the car current costs a million dollars to make. With a little ingenuity and scaling for mass production the price will surely come down.
TF: Steve, where does the energy come from that makes this hydrogen?
SE: This is a solar powered station. These are Honda designed and engineered photovoltaic cells.
TF: Honda is in the solar business?
SE: Yes, we are.
NARR: If solar power provides the electricity to make the hydrogen and the only byproduct is purified water, what's the problem?
Well, these solar panels about 700 square feet, take a full week to generate enough energy to create one tank of hydrogen fuel. A refill that gets on average 175 miles. Americans drive about 3 trillion miles per year. So it would take over 230 billion square feet of solar panels to meet the current demand.
BR: We have some real severe problems with how we're going to make hydrogen because hydrogen doesn't occur anywhere in nature free. The hydrogen molecule is always tightly chemically bound to another molecule. And to separate those two molecules and to get free hydrogen requires immense amounts of energy. Tremendous amounts of energy
TF: To take the H off the H2O.
BR: That's correct.
NARR: The real problem is that we will need an enormous amount of electricity to get off oil. Whether it's to turn water into hydrogen or to charge batteries for plug-ins. And where to we get our electricity from today? Mainly coal, which generates huge amounts of pollution, unless we can clean up how we burn coal or find cleaner sources of electricity, we will just be shifting our pollution from tail pipes to smoke stacks. And that's where renewable energy comes in.
NARR: I stopped by the solar convention in Washington D.C. There I discovered an endless array of solar panels, solar gizmos, solar you name it. From the basement of the Hyatt it certainly looks like solar has arrived.
Exhibitor at convention: Solar is very mainstream. It's on houses, ballparks, large commercial buildings. The utilities are using it.
TF: So I put that [solar panels] on my roof. Now what's the payback?
Exhibitor: Around eight years depending on your electricity usage. And after that you have free electricity for the life of your house.
NARR: An eight year investment is pretty good, though it costs tens of thousands of dollars to convert a home. For me the big question is, does it really work?
So I checked out the solar decathlon, an amazing contest sponsored by the US department of energy. Where college teams compete to build the most efficient solar house and then drop it onto the national mall in Washington D.C. Unfortunately the sun was not cooperating.
NARR: Not only are the houses judged on the efficiency of their solar design. Each one must also generate enough excess solar energy to power an electric car. The farther it goes the more points earned.
As I toured the other solar houses I was impressed by the ingenuity and enthusiasm of the students who seemed utterly unfazed by the rain.
NARR: Harnessing clean energy from the sun to power your house and car sounds ideal, though it may not be the most effective alternative for all climates. The main problem with solar power today is that it's still very expensive. Costing between 30 to 70,000 dollars to make an average house energy self sufficient with solar panels. I wondered if there was a cheaper source of renewable energy.
Jim Dehlson (Chairman and CEO Clipper Windpower): Wind is certainly far more economic than solar. Solar's had a very hard time coming down in cost.
NARR: Jim Dehlsen is a true American original. He pioneered wind power in the 1970's when everyone thought he was crazy. Today he's still developing wind farms across the country for profit.
TF: Jim, what's the biggest benefit of wind farms?
Jim Dehlsen: Well, we have this tremendous wind resource in America. Four states could supply all of the electricity requirements for the country. There are parts of the Midwest that are referred to as the Saudi Arabia of wind for America. We're building turbines, and only three of those machines, over thirty years, is the same amount of electricity as one million barrels of oil. We could really provide thirty or forty percent of the electricity for the country in relatively short order. In Germany they now get roughly six to seven percent of their electricity from wind.
NARR: But to really move forward the wind industry needs help from the government. The oil industry receives tens of billions of dollars in federal subsidies and assistance every year. On average, wind developers get less than 200 million. And even that relatively paltry amount is periodically withheld.
JD: It's really a case of getting the economics right.
TF: But the federal government has given you subsidies hasn't it?
JD: On and off.
TF: What do you mean On and Off?
JD: Well it's been stop start pretty much from the outset, typically being for two or three years at a time. Then expiring in the mid 80's the incentive program was withdrawn.
TF: You mean they got rid of the subsidies?
JD: That really caused the industry to collapse.
TF: Do we stop and start oil subsidies?
JD: No, not that I know of.
TF: So we could get a third to a half of all our electricity from the wind?
JD: That's right
TF: So it's get your energy from Bin Laden Land or get your energy from the wind. Which part of that sentence don't we understand?
JD: And if you have a clean resource that's home grown, why not use it?
NARR: Opponents say that wind farms disrupt the natural habitat of the area, killing birds and plants as well as ruining the visual landscape. In light of this developers are building more wind farms off shore and in less inhabited areas. But we need to be careful not to exaggerate the fate of a few species of birds when the fate of all species on earth is at risk from global warming.
Many of the alternative energies that could wean America from its dependence on oil are here and ready to be deployed. But they need long term consistent subsidies and research support from our government to make them competitive with oil. Unfortunately our government's approach to renewables has been utterly inconsistent.
But beyond renewables like solar, wind and ethanol there's another solution. One that requires no alternative energy sources at all. And it's good for business. It's simply a matter of energy efficient design.
NARR: In learning about ways to break our addiction to oil I heard about an energy efficient computer chip factory that Texas Instruments was building in Richardson Texas just outside of Dallas. What struck me was the claim that being green is not only good for the environment but is great for business and can actually keep jobs in America.
A few years ago the top brass at Texas Instruments laid down a challenge. If their design team could figure out how to build their newest chip factory for 180 million dollars less than the going rate of 600 million they would build it in Richardson. Otherwise the factory and all its jobs was going overseas. Paul Westbrook is the sustainable development manger for Texas Instruments.
TF: Paul, what went through your mind when your bosses said; you don't take 180 million out of this building, it's going overseas, I hope you speak Chinese.
Paul Westbrook (Worldwide Construction Texas Instruments): What I really thought was, are they crazy! That's one of those things that's so large you can't even fathom it. We all just thought this was like a bad dream.
TF: So what was the first phone call you made to try to solve that problem?
PW: When we started talking about a sustainable building on a large scale through a couple of meetings we said we should do this design session with the Rock y Mountain Institute.
TF: After a couple of brainstorming session the design team figured out how to eliminate an entire floor of the factory. A huge energy saver.
Steve Pensen (Construction Manager Austin Commercial): The greatest innovation that we did on this project was to actually reduce the square footage.
Green is not necessarily solar panels and it's not solar hot water heaters and it's not wind farms. It is efficient use of the space and resources that you're given on a project.
TF: The innovations include how air is cooled and recycled naturally, allowing the elimination of huge industrial air conditioners. Bigger water pipes with fewer elbows reduces friction and let's them use smaller energy saving pumps. These design breakthroughs in efficiency, among others, are starting a new trend.
SP: Before we started this project, probably ten percent of the proposals that came into our door, the people asking for the projects were green. Now over half the proposals that we see come in are green related.
TF: In the end the project exceeded the savings goal by 40 million dollars. The total reduction in cost was 220 million dollars and that doesn't include the four million Texas Instruments will save every year on energy consumption, just by designing efficiently.
Shawna Sowell is Vice President of worldwide facilities for Texas Instruments.
Shawna Sowell (VP, Worldwide Facilities, Texas Instruments): Amazing things happen when people claim responsibility for creating the impossible. It generates new ideas, it generates passion. And we exceeded a goal that we thought was impossible. How exciting is that? And if you're a true competitor there is nothing like winning.
NARR: Of course that doesn't mean that competitors, like China, are losing. In fact faced with a huge environmental challenge, the Chinese government has made sustainable development a top priority. Half the water in China's seven largest rivers is useless today. One third of the urban population breathes polluted air. Land for agriculture and living has been sharply diminished over the past fifty years.
With so much pressure to become more environmentally sensitive, China is poised to become a major innovator of green technology.
William McDonough (Founder, McDonough & Partners): There are 200,000 industrial design students in China, compared to 4,000 in the United States. So imagine 200,000 designers come into the marketplace designing products and systems. It's phenomenal! China is where the future will be defined.
NARR: Is it possible that a green China will pose a greater challenge than a red China ever did?
NARR: William McDonough is a world renowned leader in designing and building green. As an architect he's working to re-draft our energy future by taking the concept of energy efficient design to a whole new level. At his offices in Charlottesville, Virginia he's laying out plans for what could become one of China's biggest experiments in environmentally sound development.
Bill's designs are based on a strikingly original concept that he calls Cradle to Cradle.
TF: When you say Cradle to Cradle, what exactly do you mean by that?
WM: It means we close all the cycles and stop the whole concept of waste. If you just look at this chair it's an example of Cradle to Cradle. This is the new fabric selected for the Ergos 380. This one is designed to be composted safely.
TF: In other words if we plowed this into the ground it would become soil safely? So Cradle to Cradle is that it starts from the earth, it goes through life as a chair and goes back to earth.
WM: That's one part of Cradle to Cradle. That's what we call biological metabolism so things that go back to soil should all be safe in soil. So that's biological nutrients. This [metal chair] is aluminum, pure aluminum. This we would call a technical nutrient and this gets put through industrial cycles, over and over again.
TF: Today it's a chair tomorrow it could be an airplane part.
WM: Tomorrow it could be a can. So that's Cradle to Cradle in terms of the materials.
NARR: In America McDonough's ideas are changing the ways major US corporations think about design. But in China he's being embraced by the Chinese government.
TF: Why have you focused so much of your energy on trying to transform China?
WM: 80% of Chinese in cities don't have good drinking water. They either don't have enough or the quality is so bad that they'll kill themselves drinking it. It's so bad that they've called for Cradle to Cradle cities.
NARR: Bill invited our film crew to join him in Wong Bijou to see first hand how Cradle to Cradle translates to China.
Though it doesn't look high tech, this village may be the future for rural China.
WM: This is a straw bale house, and that is a straw bale.
NARR: The new homes are constructed from materials that require little or no fossil fuels to make and are biodegradable and recyclable.
WM: ... and right next to it is a block wall that is made out of dirt and the dirt came from right down there.
NARR: Rather than building with traditional clay bricks fired by coal which consumes a lot of energy, they're making bricks out of compressed dirt which are stacked and covered in plaster to make the walls.
WM: Put it in a press, squeeze it. Without using coal or firing it or using soil that is used for farming so you don't burn your coal and you don't lose your farm fields, it's just pressed earth from this place.
NARR: The entire village is designed to save energy. The homes are oriented at a 15% angle to break up the cold winter winds and maximize their daily exposure to the sun.
WM: So this is the first time that Chinese peasants have been given a solar system that is connected to the utility grid.
NARR: Bill believes that China will set the standard for solar power and finally make it affordable to a mass market.
WM: ... the idea that China will be the place in the world that finally brings the cost of solar energy down so the rest of the world can use solar energy because manufacturing costs in China could collapse the price of doing these kinds of things.
NARR: Of course China today is mired in ecological problems and is far behind the west by any environmental standards. But Chinese officials at the highest level of government are listening to Bill and if things go well in this trial village, China of all places, could become a new model of sustainable development.
WM: It signals a strategy of hope because if everyone in rural China lived like this they would cut their consumption of coal and firewood in half. Right now we have to find a way to speak about the future in the present tense. So, can we live in the future as quickly as possible in ways that allow us to tell our children that we realized the problems that we're facing and that we're doing something about them.
TF: Bill when I listen to you I don't know whether to laugh or cry. We're a couple of hours south of Washington D.C. but up the road not a lot of people know who you are. Yet 10,000 miles away in Beijing your ideas are being translated into Chinese and implemented and quoted by the leadership in China.
WM: The Chinese see themselves in crisis. We are not in crisis in this country. We don't have a crisis mentality. We're beginning to start to have a crisis mentality.
TF: You get to be king for a day. King of the United States. What's the one thing you would do to advance your agenda?
WM: I would speak to all the children. I would put out a call to the young people. It's the young people who will do this. It's the next generation. When children hear Cradle to Cradle they get it immediately, they just think well isn't that the way the world is? Then they're surprised to find out that we would make poison things that destroy the planet. Why would we create a system that doesn't give them hope?
NARR: Bill's right. Most kids understand that this is not their parent's energy crisis, but something much more profound. The problem is the next generation won't be in power for another decade or two. And that might just be too late.
We already have the alternative fuels that could make a big difference right now in how much oil we consume, how much we heat up the planet, how dependant we are on nasty governments for our energy supplies and how competitive our companies will be in green technologies. That burgeoning growth industry for the twenty first century.
With just a little leadership from Washington and smart subsidies and regulations consistently applied we could make plug-in hybrids, wind, ethanol and solar so much more competitive with oil. Right now, today.
But it takes a new way of thinking. An understanding that being green is no longer some high minded vaguely unpatriotic hobby for tree hugging girly men. Living, thinking and acting green is the most geo-strategic, tough minded and patriotic thing we can do today.
Green, my fellow citizens, is the new Red, White and Blue.