Our Heroes: Gordian Raacke of Renewable Energy Long Island

Gordian Raacke of Renewable Energy Long Island

You would be hard-pressed to find a more enthusiastic and persuasive advocate for clean energy than Gordian Raacke, founder and executive director of Renewable Energy Long Island (reLI). He is someone whom I have long looked up to and is well respected by the public, the media, policymakers and elected officials alike. Gordian is regarded as a key player in regional energy policy, testifying before local and state legislative bodies and participating in the development of New York State Energy Plans.

Gordian founded the Long Island Solar Roofs Initiative and was vital in establishing WindWorks Long Island, a coalition of environmental and business groups in support of offshore wind power. In 2007 he was selected and trained as a Climate Leader by Al Gore, and Gordian was selected as a Climate Reality mentor in 2012.

In 2012 Gordian initiated a 100 percent renewable electricity study for Long Island. He also walks the renewable talk: he and his wife live in a passive solar home in East Hampton, NY.

In the interview below you'll learn more about reLI's advocacy work, the future of clean energy on Long Island and the "aha" moment that Gordian had while hiking up to Grinnell glacier in Glacier National Park.

Tell me about Renewable Energy Long Island.

reLI is a not-for-profit organization advocating for making the switch from polluting fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy sources. We help people save money on their utility bills by providing consumer-friendly information and listings of solar and energy efficiency contractors. In 2012 we released the Long Island Clean Electricity Vision, a study showing that 100 percent of the island's electricity needs could be supplied from renewable energy sources.

The United States is at a critical juncture in determining its energy future. Same for Long Island?

Long Island must choose how to provide electricity for the 21st century. We can build more large scale fossil fueled power plants and continue business-as-usual or invest in renewable and more decentralized energy technologies. LIPA and PSEG-LI have plans for more conventional fossil power plants to meet future demand, but the utility is also beginning to see the value of solar power. As a region on the front lines of climate change, we must act on the immediate and long-term risks resulting from our reliance on fossil fuels. Renewable energy is safe, clean and will make our region more resilient to disasters.

What's unique about Long Island (and New York) when it comes to meeting electricity demand?

Our beautiful island and state are unique in that we have an abundance of renewable energy resources at our disposal that remain largely untapped. Long Island's coastal waters offer an enormous wind energy resource and we have plentiful sunshine to be harvested. Already, 7,000 solar homeowners here are seeing their electricity bills go down drastically or reduced to $0.

Will we be seeing an offshore wind power project in the near future?

Things are happening: Deepwater Wind has submitted a proposal to LIPA/PSEG-LI in response to a request for utility-scale renewable energy projects.  This 35 turbine, 210 megawatt wind farm 30 miles east of Montauk would generate enough power for 120,000 homes. Another smaller proposal would use three floating wind turbines, a technology still under development. Aside from providing Long Island with clean energy, these projects would help build an offshore wind industry for the United States.

What do you think is the biggest single energy challenge facing the US today?

The challenge before us is to transform our 20th century carbon based energy model into a low or no carbon system within a matter of a few decades. The obvious solution is to build a 100 percent renewable energy infrastructure, starting with the electricity sector. Recent studies have demonstrated the feasibility of powering New York State as well as the entire United States 100 percent from renewable energy sources (Jacobson, Delucchi et al). In Germany and elsewhere in Europe we see regions that are already meeting their energy needs entirely with renewables.

When did you personally take an interest in the future of energy?

When the Exxon Valdez spill happened in March of 1989, I was very upset, and like everybody else, I was saying "how can something like this happen?" and blaming Exxon and the oil industry. Then somebody said to me, "You should be pointing the finger at yourself because you ordered that oil." That insight is what ultimately turned me into an advocate for clean energy. Within a few years I got a job in the field. I realized that the only way to prevent the myriad disasters associated with fossil fuels is to switch to benign energy sources. You don't hear about too many "solar spills."

What changes have you made in your own life to reduce your impact on the environment?

Advocacy has to include making responsible decisions on a personal level. I started by building an energy efficient and passive solar home. Its solar array provides 100 percent of our electricity and a rooftop solar thermal panel heats our water. Instead of driving the Prius, I now walk or bike to work most days. Not only do I reduce my carbon footprint and save money, but it's great exercise. My wife and I are members of Quail Hill Farm, enjoying this local farm cooperative's organic and locally grown produce.

Have you had any direct experience with climate change?

After being trained by Al Gore as a Climate Messenger, I travelled to Glacier National Park in Montana and hiked up to Grinnell glacier. As I filled my bottle with melt water of this once magnificent glacier, I understood climate change for the first time in a real, visceral way. I keep that bottle with liquid glacier on my desk to remind myself what I'm doing every time I switch the lights on.

Who inspires you?

The people in hundreds of communities worldwide who have decided to make the switch to 100 percent renewable energy and in many cases have already achieved their goal. I admire their vision and bold leadership whether they are one of the 138 Renewable Energy Regions in Germany, the island of Samsoe in Denmark, or the city of San Francisco.