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In memoriam: John Blackburn

A relentless voice for clean energy

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John Blackburn, like his contemporary Jimmy Carter, made the most out of retirement to advance a better world.

Dr. Blackburn, who died unexpectedly last month, was a walking blend of brilliance, integrity, courage and humanity.

"Jack," as some knew him, knocked on NC WARN's office door one October afternoon in 2005 after we had hosted an event with clean-energy expert Amory Lovins.

Describing himself as a retired economist who "might be able to help," he'd been attracted by our emphasis on energy efficiency as central to combating climate change and paving the way for a renewable energy future. Thus began Dr. B's active, five-year stint as our pro bono technical advisor.

Did I mention humility? It took a year before we learned he had chaired the economics department at Duke University. And longer before he confessed to having been chancellor, and had authored two books detailing how renewable energy can replace hazardous power sources.

John's return from Florida—his home state—coincided with the Cheney-led push to build hundreds of coal and nuclear power plants. Duke Energy and Progress Energy were leading the PR offensive while dismissing conservation, solar and wind.

That power push mirrored one from a generation earlier. Turns out that John Blackburn had been instrumental in disproving the utilities' demand forecasts before Progress and Duke abandoned nine nuclear reactors under way in the Carolinas.

In 2007, the soft-spoken senior revisited the N.C. Utilities Commission in a dark "power suit" with a presentation to match. His expert testimony helped defeat approval for one of the two coal-fired plants Duke Energy planned to build at Cliffside. One commissioner vigorously agreed with Blackburn's insistence that neither unit was needed.

A relentless researcher, Dr. B was the rare individual who read power company forecasts in-depth and could disentangle "utility speak." His last year was enormously productive.

By early 2010, John had concluded that practical levels of growth in energy efficiency, renewables and cogeneration would allow phase-out of all N.C. coal-power plants within two decades—the timeframe demanded by NASA's James Hansen and other climate experts. And he warned that trying to build nuclear plants was diverting time and money from that critical transition.

Next, by analyzing statewide weather data, John concluded that solar and wind generation, working together, could provide 75 percent of North Carolina's round-the-clock electricity. Renowned expert Arjun Makhijani enthusiastically published that landmark study, which Dr. B expanded later, with help from the N.C. Sustainable Energy Association.

All this work continued drawing vital attention to the opposite path being hewn by the big utilities.

Then came Blackburn's clincher: Solar power is now cheaper than juice from new nuclear plants—if the latter could ever be completed. We were glad this study gained international news coverage and was widely celebrated by installers and advocates of renewable energy. As his editor, I know how meticulous John was with research and presentation, with the highest standards of accuracy—no easy task with technical information. So we were pleasantly surprised that this study also generated vociferous and persistent, though clumsy, attacks by the nuclear industry and their cronies in several countries.

Both the solar-wind and solar-nuclear studies cut to the bone of core utility claims that renewables are both unreliable and too expensive. Wish I had a fiver for every time John Blackburn remarked how ridiculous it is that so few U.S. homes have solar hot water systems, which were common, simple and inexpensive in 1930s Florida before the corporate utilities persuaded people to replace them with "modern" electric heaters.

It's always aggravating to see such a noble person's integrity attacked, but John understood it as part of the strategic imperative by corporations desperately needing a diversion from the facts of the debate.

Although news reporters found him a fascinating interview, it was frustrating that most of the state's talk shows and other opinion makers repeatedly declined to include Dr. B's voice in the public debate—even as many of them frequently featured power company CEOs. Think about it: The retired chancellor of a leading university and energy expert now doing cutting-edge work amid an intense state and national fight over energy transformation and an eye-popping climate emergency. And they couldn't find a slot for him?

This was a man who, after completing a mountain of work during a busy stretch, would then drop by our office with a financial contribution, leading to over-the-top ribbing about the meaning of the term "pro bono." (I suspect his financial generosity extended to many nonprofits.)

John knew the importance of staying active both physically (he walked two miles a day) and mentally.

Still, when he would occasionally grump gently that his memory wasn't what it had been—for example, when he couldn't recollect a statistic buried in a utility document—I'd tell him I'd eat a bowl of mud to have his recall at any age. His laugh was among the greatest rewards for his coworkers.

NC WARN will remain forever grateful that a man of Dr. B's stature would give so much of his life to working with a group whose core strategy involves exposing controversial practices. Because the stakes are so high, he supported our assertiveness in pushing to correct what Dr. Hansen has labeled "our wounded democracy."

This formidable clean energy expert was 20 years ahead of his time. If society had responded sooner, we might now have a stronger economy fueled by clean energy jobs—and not be at the brink of runaway climate change.

At an age when he could have relaxed, John courageously strode into the climate-energy fight because he understood the urgency, and realized that corporate inertia and influence are the main impediments. He left North Carolinians with the information necessary to make the shift to climate-protecting clean energy.

I loved John Blackburn—as a friend, and for his inspiring approach to civic engagement in this increasingly chaotic world.

Jim Warren is the executive director of the N.C. Waste Awareness and Reduction Network (NC WARN).

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