One of the most influential people of our time has passed away this week, and his impacts have been huge.
For those of who started in the clean energy field in the 1970s, among a small handful of stubborn visionaries — one always stood out from all the rest. William Holmberg was a decorated Marine (Navy Cross, Silver Star). He retired from the military and started his second career by joining EPA in the early days, and was a driver for pesticides identification and substitution.
As a result of the OPEC oil embargo he jumped ship at EPA, and joined the predecessor to the Department of Energy in the mid-seventies, as he served in the conservation and renewable energy section. In fact he stormed into my U.S. Senate office in the 1970s unannounced, declaring, “we need to talk.” And a long friendship began in 1974 that lasted 40 years with calls every week.
In 1979, Bill was one of the cofounders of ACT’79, the first time ever, a demonstration of the entire portfolio of clean energy — energy efficiency, smart buildings, all kinds of renewable energy, in an actual mock community was set up on The Mall in Washington, DC. Bill’s position within the U.S. Department of Energy brought in the support of Energy Secretary Schlesinger and his wife, and we even received a walk through by Rosslyn Carter, The First Lady.
In that decade Bill also became an advocate of biofuels, during a time when nearly a quarter of US food was rotting in farm silos and small farm income dried up. He was passionate for the “little guy” and the farm economy, through his pesticide work earlier at EPA which offered him first hand insight. With those of us working on Capitol Hill, we staged cross country drive-ins by ethanol cars to the U.S. Capital. He worked with Women Interested in Farm Economics in one event, and the actor Charlton Heston and his ethanol Corvette for another. He single-handedly introduced and drove conversation on the “bio-economy” where every aspect of soil health, recycling, and bio-products to become the basis of global sustainable development. A hard-hitting, thought provoking leader and speaker on biochar, the need to preserve our soils, incorporate non-fossil and non-pesticide food production — and whatever cannot be used to build soils becomes fuels, electricity, thermal energy, fertilizers, building materials, and more.
His support of renewable energy was no less shy, and he joined the American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE) as its biomass energy lead and was an active and avid player in the Sustainable Energy Coalition, composed of the national renewable energy trade associations and some of the national environmental groups to works together on national policy and education issues.
He spent an inordinate amount of time organizing, traveling the country (and the world) and mentoring aspiring clean energy and environmental advocates, entrepreneurs, sustainable farmers and land use planners, and in the national organizations in Washington, DC.
In the 1970’s, the push back to a clean energy vision was rather harsh, since there was barely an industry, and use was tiny. The ideas of large wind farms, millions of solar rooftops, integrated biorefineries, gigawatts of geothermal, gigajoules of energy efficiency savings, and multitudes of marine and hydropower installations caused laughter and ridicule from many policymakers, reporters, and planners.
At one such particularly time of harsh treatment, I came to him complaining about “why should this be so hard”. Without a second of hesitation he responded, “That anything so worthwhile, so beneficial to the planet is just worth fighting for. So Sklar, stop whining and lets get to the next battle”. The Marine Colonel was never afraid of a fight, was never indecisive on what was right and honorable. Never a negative word about anyone. Always ready to push on.
His passing at 88 years old was personally like a punch in the stomach. As one colleague e-mailed me, “I knew he was old but I actually never expected him to go”. I felt exactly the same way. In September 2016, it is actually hard to imagine a time when attitudes by all levels of decision makers were contrary to a sustainable world. But that was where we started and Bill Holmberg was one of the giants that pushed every lever to bring us to where we are. I will sorely miss him.