Interview: Admiral Len Hering

By Carl Smith

In his last assignment before retiring, Rear Admiral Len Hering served as Commander of the Southwest Navy Region. One of the Navy’s top experts in base operations and facility support, he made sustainability a priority during his command and developed groundbreaking programs in energy, water and waste management, setting standards that influenced practices throughout the Department of Defense. In 2005, President Bush awarded Admiral Hering a Presidential Award for Leadership in Federal Energy Management in recognition of his efforts in reducing oil spills and recycling.

During Hering’s tenure as vice president for business services and administration at the University of San Diego, USD installed the largest solar system of any private campus in the country, instituted the most comprehensive water abatement project in the school’s history and reformed numerous business practices to help control costs. He is the founder of the San Diego Regional Sustainability Partnership, a consortium of business, government, academic and community organizations promoting practices that support a sustainable future for the region, and in December 2012 was named Executive Director of the California Center for Sustainable Energy.

In an interview with Green Technology, he discusses the central challenges of sustainability and strategies that can ensure the long-term security of finite resources.

You have led successful sustainability efforts in military and higher education settings. What do you hope to accomplish in your new role as Executive Director of the Center for Sustainable Energy?

My job here is to fulfill the organization’s mission, and that is to accelerate the adoption of a more sustainable future through clean energy. My hopes are that we can cause and assist the state of California – and others – in being able to achieve those goals through market facilitation, education and good sound data exchange.

The military is increasingly involved in energy and water conservation efforts, work that you helped to set in motion. What factors have helped these efforts gain momentum?

The Department of Defense and the government are by far the largest organizations responsible for consuming the resources that we are talking about. When you consider that the job of the government ought to be to protect those resources, you start to realize that we need to do things differently.

I understood from my earlier years as a Boy Scout that you have to conserve resources, and that we need to be responsible in how we use them. I started down the road of understanding energy consumption. In the beginning I wasn’t necessarily bent on replacing energy with renewables. I was trying to figure out how to be more responsible in the consumption of energy. That led me down the road of energy efficiency, building performance, changing behaviors and then finally into the renewable energy space.

This expanded to include virtually all of the resources we used – water, energy, personnel, processes, the whole gamut. Fortunately, people started to see the value of this work because the triple bottom line [profit, people, planet] was affected.

Way back in 1999 I started to convince my folks that we should be looking at the triple bottom line, and we were able to do things because we were effective.

A number of military leaders believe that it’s vital to take the threat of climate change seriously. What are their concerns?

If the forecasts regarding sea level rise are anywhere near correct, close to 100 million or more individuals could be displaced. That’s the moderate forecast, not the extreme forecast. We need to be concerned, especially if you recognize that about 20 percent of the world’s population lives on the coast.

It’s not just the sea rise that we have to be worried about – it’s also the surge. I’ve seen estimates of sea rise of anything from one meter to three meters over the next 50 to 75 years. If you raise the sea level by three meters, that’s close to 9 feet, and a tidal surge of an additional 12 to 15 feet would wipe out most of the islands in the Pacific. It won’t just flood the area; it will be completely underwater.  And that does not take into consideration surge effects or possibility of even greater ice sheet melt.

My good friend Admiral Sam Locklear – he’s the Commander of the Pacific – testified in Congress that, short of North Korea, the biggest threat to his area of responsibility is climate change. That’s a huge statement for a military commander to make.

Why is Congress out of step with these concerns?

The issue that we have to deal with is that the naysayers think that somehow, in the short term, this will all fix itself. It’s not going to—it’s like a checkbook; if you’re unemployed, you can forget about any more money coming into your checkbook.

What we are doing, and how we are doing it, is connected to a finite source. That finite source is gas and oil. Whether or not you think you can tap into that resource for a few more banner years is not the issue.

We can’t create the abundance and the commercial quantity of fossil fuel substitutes that we need for tomorrow if we don’t get started today, but they’re not focusing on this.

Is it going to cost money? Yes, it’s going to cost money. Is it going to be something different? Yes, in the same fashion that it was different in the early 1900s when Rockefeller and Carnegie had debates over kerosene and electricity. We’re in exactly the same space.

Even if you want to look at this from a perspective of not addressing “climate,” I would tell you that from a national security perspective it’s more important that we begin to focus on these issues than not.

Military operations are based on strategy. Are governments, corporations or individuals routinely making any big strategic mistakes in their sustainability programs?

Despite the fact that the first time it was mentioned was in 1964, in the Johnson administration, we have failed to adequately address a secure and security-based national energy policy.

Even this administration is fooling themselves, thinking that whatever they’ve done over the past year positions this country to be more prepared for the inevitable finality of fossil-burning fuel. It has done nothing. It has invested in companies, not strategies.

We are no closer today than we were years ago, and there is not an equal and fair playing field for renewable energy sources that will secure our future.

What are the important strategic targets?

Part of it is investing in the technologies that will provide a more secure future for us; first and foremost is energy storage. We have more than enough combined wind, wave and solar capacity to satisfy every bit of our energy needs. What we don’t have is the capacity to store it. I’m not talking about battery technology – I’m talking about energy storage technology.

When it comes to energy, we need to engage in a completely different model than what was built in the 20s and 30s. We need to look at distributed generation and storage capacity that allows for independent networks, separate from huge fossil fuel-burning energy plants. We need to have a policy that provides the opportunity for the implementation of this in every single state.

California should not be the only state that is engaged in this process. I’m glad to see that some of the other states like Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York have started down this road, but we need to do it from a national level. We need a commitment based on the understanding that it is going to cost more to fix things in the future than for us to address them as we go forward.

Is the shale oil boom, and the prospect of becoming a leading oil exporter, a distraction from this kind of progress?

What seems amazing to me is that if you look at the studies just 15 years ago, oil and gas companies were saying that the environmental impact and the cost of extracting those oils and gases were far too expensive for the market to endure. Now it’s the panacea. The truth is that the forecasts are nowhere near what reality has proven to be true. The environmental impacts are still very questionable. I’ve seen a few of the valleys that have been stripped in the Quebec area. It’s abysmal to think that that is what we’re doing so that we can continue to feed this beast.

I’m distressed. The world’s leading climatologists are now telling everyone that a 2 degrees centigrade temperature rise is what was forecast, but 6 degrees centigrade is a greater probability. Six degrees is catastrophic in their evaluation.

A study that was recently done by the UN indicates that mankind is the single largest contributor to this change. The fossil fuel environment is the one area that we need to focus our attention on, and adding more to this equation isn’t going to help. It’s only going to delay the finale and increase the greenhouse gas emissions that we’re trying to figure out how to fix.

What’s the right balance between regulation and individual responsibility?

The first thing we need to do is to establish a national policy that is based on our security. Once that is done, it becomes easier for government to control how things are pushed forward.

I believe that there are opportunities for us to incentivize good behavior. Unfortunately, most of the things that we’ve done over time, and the discussions that we’ve had, have penalized bad behavior. It seems to me that’s contradictory to the way that you want to get individuals to recognize that they need to understand their energy consumption and how to manage that consumption.

Again, it’s the triple bottom line. If every single human being understood how their use of a particular resource affected the triple bottom line, we might have a more realistic approach in our conversations about what we need to do for our own security.

Does the drought emergency in California serve as an example of what we might expect in the future? 

It is a perfect example. I applaud the Governor for the comments he has made over the past few months – but we are not in our third year of drought, we are in our twelfth year of drought.

A drought is a condition in which the normal rainfall or snowfall is not successfully achieved, and for every year of drought it takes almost three years of normalcy to replace that one year. The fact that we had two good years in between the previous six years doesn’t help the situation, but nothing truly has changed in California in our behavior and the way we do business.

The water and energy nexus is a perfect example. Nineteen percent of the energy is produced in California is used to move potable water.  40 percent of our residential water goes down the drain never having been used for its intended purpose. When you consider the huge quantities of water that are wasted on things that are not necessary, when you truthfully look at what you need water for, our current crisis is a prime example of what we are to face if we’re not more careful about the resource consumption that’s occurring as the world evolves to a completely different state than it is today.

What people don’t understand is their impact. The average shower in the U.S. is thirteen minutes long. Let’s assume that of the 300 million people in the country, only 200 million shower every day. If we reduce that shower by only three minutes, that’s a savings of 64,000 acre feet a day. Does saving that kind of water daily cause you to consider taking a shorter shower?

How many people brush their teeth and leave the water running while they brush? It’s a behavior issue. People in this country do not realize how wasteful they are of precious resources as the world continues to grow. The United States throws out more food every day than the entire continent of Europe consumes. Europe is not a third world country; they eat pretty well. We throw out more than they consume, and yet one in eight people in the world suffer from chronic hunger.

It’s our behavior. Is it plausible that you don’t fill up the third plate at the buffet? Is it possible that we could recognize that super-sizing and throwing out half of it is not the right thing to do when we look forward? Could you change the way you live a little bit?

There are so many things you can do that have no real effect on you as an individual, but the effect across a vast number is huge. The second and third order effects of everything that you do have impact.

What should we be thinking about in our approach to the drought?

I think that there’s a lot more we can do. We have not incentivized the things that are necessary to create a more secure water source. Unfortunately, it looks like we’re going to rely on people to conserve somehow – but listen to what’s going on now, as people start saying everything’s going to be fine, it’s raining this weekend. Seriously?

When you go through Southern California, recognize that you’re in a desert climate, yet they’re watering acres and acres and acres of that desert. I saved 30 million gallons of water in my first year of water conservation because I stopped watering the desert in El Centro (Navy lands). The taxpayer was watering huge acreage in order to keep things green in the middle of the desert. What a ludicrous example of stewardship.

Is it more important to water grass or is it more important to keep animals and farms and people alive?

How do we move away from wasteful behavior?

It’s education, education, education. It’s providing and implementing good policy, codes and standards.

For example, we’re all going through a transition where we’ve now gotten rid of incandescent bulbs. It’s taken us 12 and half years to get there, yes they were more expensive, but the price of those bulbs have come down by nearly half and they’re sure to continue that trend into the future as market share and competition take hold.

We need to incentivize good behavior and create programs that are long-term because there is a national strategy associated with them. Many of the problems that we have in this country are because our programs are based on budget cycles – two years and three years. You can’t get anything done in two years.

You need a long-term strategy where you say, “This is going to go for seventeen straight years. We’re going to have tax incentives, we’re going to have rebates, we’re going to do financing for point-of-sale opportunities to upgrade and modernize homes so that they’re more energy efficient.” These types of things, on a national scale–on a national scale because there’s a national policy associated with them–will change behavior.

There are some issues here in California that make it difficult for us to achieve our goals. Our rules, regulations, policies and standards need to be reviewed for applicability moving into the future. Many of them were created decades ago. What we’re trying to do, in a cookie cutter approach, is to fix the manner in which they interact in a rapidly changing, technologically advanced environment.

We need to go back and look at how many are effective and how many need to be totally scrapped and re-written, everything from regulation to legislation to the implementation of the business model associated with investor-owned utilities.

How do we set such change in motion?

I think that I come at things from a little different approach. I’ve been around the world. I’ve been to 62 different countries, 154 different ports. I’ve seen the rest of the world. I know how wasteful we are compared to the rest of the world, how little we understand how the rest of the world lives in comparison with our expectations and lifestyle demands.

The non-industrialized world is moving from the 15th century to the 21st century overnight. Their demand for the same resources that made us prosperous is at six times the rate that we consume. The 20th century was the bloodiest century in mankind’s history, and every one of the major conflicts involved economic access to vital resources. If we don’t figure things out, the 21st century is going to make the 20th century pale in comparison.

We need to start recognizing that the first and most important resource that we are in conflict with is a finite resource.

Thank you.

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