Murphy, Hesse, Toomey & Lehane, LLP’s Advisory Board Member Featured in New England Board of Higher Education Journal Addressing Climate Change

Tom Jorling co-drafted the Clean Air of 1970 and the Clean Water Act of 1972. He was the original deputy director of the environmental agency that served three presidents, the head of environmental studies at Williams College for 17 years and was Vice President of environmental affairs for International Paper for ten years. The below article was recently featured in New England Journal of Higher Education.

Climate change is real and accelerating. It requires an urgent response that must start with a clear objective that focuses all the strategies and tactics that will be necessary to stabilize the Earth’s temperature regime.


The objective to guide research, development and implementation is straightforward: achieve an all-electric economy. Simply put, all sectors of energy use— agriculture, transportation, industrial, residential, business etc.— must transition to electricity. Where liquid fuels are necessary, such as aviation, they must be produced from biological processes.

The objective, however, can only be satisfied by transforming electricity generation to alternative—- non-combustion —sources that transform into electricity the energy from the inexhaustible clean supply provided by the sun and ecosystem, primarily wind and solar.

As the transition occurs, both existing fossil-fuel energy will be replaced and future growth will be accommodated. It is a transition that has historical examples and precedents: wood to coal, oil, and gas; horses to automobiles; hard lines to cell phones, among many other examples of progress. Dislocations associated with these transitions have occurred, but they were quickly over-come by innovation and adaption. It is, and has been, the story of human progress.

While some elements of the transition require intervention at the national level such as the Clean Air Act addressing health-damaging air pollution, the need now is for Federal and state legislation and policy to discipline and make fair the transition from coal, oil and gas. There are other tools available — the focus here is to speed the transition.

There is no question the nation needs a ‘smart grid’ to facilitate the delivery of alternatively generated electricity across geography and time zones. This raises the question— can such a grid be created without defiling the countryside and disrupting ecosystems? The answer is yes.

A significant portion of the cost of the interstate highway system was incurred securing rights-of-way. As a transportation system, it has been highly successful. One consequence, and greatly unappreciated, is that these rights-of-way represent a tremendously valuable federal and state asset that shouldn’t be limited to concrete and asphalt.

Even a quick look at a national map of the interstate highway system reveals a network connecting rural America and urban America. The highway network can also be a connection between and among the same areas for electricity generation, management and distribution. Buried, rein-forced conduit along the rights-of-way of the interstate highway system can connect— -and make smart —the grid, enabling electricity to be moved and delivered efficiently and effectively. This will allow electricity, from generation to user, to be managed back and forth across the country as needed in response to changing seasons, weather, and time of day.

We need to change these rights-of-way from single use to multiple use. This network, already invested in by the public, can accommodate an electric grid, but also pipelines and even elevated high-speed rail. Letting the asset represented by this extensive right-of-way network to be underutilized is a travesty. It can and should be utilized for multiple national needs. All of which can help address climate change.

We do not need to establish new rights of way across the American landscape taking any more forest or agricultural land that plays so important a role in capturing and storing carbon in wood, fiber, and soil.

Another grossly underutilized resource is the extensive areas of roofs on structures, especially flat roofed structures and the parking areas adjacent to the structures, that now cover extensive areas of our landscape. Before human settlement and the expansion of built up land, these areas captured the energy of the sun in what ecologists call primary productivity: plant photosynthesis converting sunlight into biomass in complex ecosystems. These areas can once again be used to capture the sun’s energy and convert it to electricity.

To that end, the country needs to adopt national building codes to require:

  • New building structures to be physically oriented and designed, to the extent possible, for maximum utilization of sunlight, both passive and through photovoltaic systems.
  • Every flat roofed structure newly constructed that has a surface area greater than 1/2 acre in size should be required to install roof top solar photovoltaic panels.
  • All current flat roofed structures greater than 1 acre should be required to retrofit the roof with solar panels within five years. Creative partnerships between owners, utilities and solar investors and installers could flourish in this effort.
  • All parking lots greater than 1 acre should be required to install elevated solar panels. This can be done by the parking lot owner of the space or leased for no or only nominal charge to a solar panel installer.

The federal government should in all forms of federal assistance (such as loans, guarantees, grants, or tax benefits) for housing and economic development condition such assistances and financially support measures to achieve energy efficiency and install solar electric generation opportunities.

These achievable, cost effective, steps can result in the production of large amounts of electricity, and contribute significantly to the objective to achieve an economy without fossil fuels. These widely distributed systems connected through a smart-grid could, in protected conduits (rather than vulnerable suspended wire systems), assist in making our economy sustainable and the people supported by resilient and reliable electric power.


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