Earlier this year I worked as an election judge for the city of Minneapolis. It was the city’s second experience with ranked choice voting, a system where instead of voting for a single candidate, you get to pick your top three choices. If your first choice candidate is mathematically eliminated from winning, your vote is reallocated to your second (or even third) choice.
I tell this story because I feel a bit like a second choice when I’m here to talk to you about campus sustainability when my father literally wrote a book (if not the book) on the culture of campus sustainability, called the Nature of College.
ILSR's Director of Democratic Energy, John Farrell, gave this presentation at the 5th Annual Conference of the Upper Midwest Association for Campus Sustainability on Nov. 8, 2013. Scroll to the bottom to flip through the accompanying slide presentation.
So I may be a second choice (frankly, I’m my own second choice) but I won’t spend any time second guessing the choice to be here.
I start this conversation about campus sustainability with some of my dad’s thoughts about the struggle between American culture and environmental sustainability. There are several parallels between the broader cultural tension and the tensions between energy utilities and energy consumers. In particular, there are three American Values he highlighted as impediments to sustainability that put an unfortunately small value on the environment: Cheapness, Resourcism, and Silence.
Value 1: Cheapness
Cheapness is the notion that things should be inexpensive. Cheap products tend to fill landfills. In the utility world, cheapness is not just a value, it’s a business model. Utility regulations require the use of “least cost” planning and it therefore becomes the justification for almost every utility action, even when it’s for things that are remarkably expensive. For example, Xcel Energy in Minnesota just spent over $600 million — twice as much as forecast — retrofitting one of their nuclear power plants. This “least cost” retrofit will be quite costly to the utility’s ratepayers.
Least cost is also typically a utility’s the first defense against renewable energy, because utilities operate in a bizarre world where we do not account for the enormous health or environmental cost of acquiring and delivering energy.
The real problem with cheapness in our energy system is that utilities use it to cheapen the consideration of alternatives to their way of doing things.
Value 2: Resourcism
Resourcism is another concept that plays a big role in the utility world. Utilities regularly file “Integrated Resource Plans,” that catalog how we will consume the finite elements of our natural world to generate energy (for the next 10-15 years or more). These integrated plans dis-integrate environmental values from energy generation and can pretend to be least cost by conveniently ignoring the non-monetary value of our natural resources.
Like cheapness, resourcism is a value that reinforces a utility-dominated model of producing energy from dirty, finite sources.
Value 3: Silence
Silence is abundant in our utility system, which is structured to minimize the “noisy” influence of non-utility actors. When we worked to enact a solar energy standard this past year in Minnesota, for example, our hardy band of activists was up against an army of paid lobbyists. When we intervene in proceedings at the public utilities commission, it is a case of non-profit amateurs (like myself) against legions of utility lawyers trying to silence our voice. And all of us as energy customers are only allowed to order our energy choices from the very limited buffet set by our utility.
In these three values, we reinforce an energy system that talks freely about cost and resources, and yet is eerily silent about the billowing pollution from rampant consumption of finite resources.
This is getting rather depressing.
So I will invoke what my dad called a “hoping mechanism” to deal with this despair.
Hope in a Changing System
The hope arises from the fact that our energy system is changing. It’s a transformation that’s possible because wind and solar and biomass and other renewable energy doesn’t have to be built on a massive scale or owned by a utility. Instead, these energy sources can power and be owned by a neighborhood hardware store. They can generate energy for dozens of farmers in a cooperative. Or they can power a campus from the roof of a dormitory.
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