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Clean Energy’s Corporate Responsibility to the Cultural Landscape

Wind Turbine Farm
Image Credit: Don Graham (CC BY-SA 2.0)

More and more companies are popping into existence on the booming clean energy market. To assist in their projects, they employ an increasing number of experts. Lawyers to work out land leasing contracts. Press relations experts to cast their energy project in the best light possible. And, of course, surveyors to aid in construction. But seldom do these companies give thought to the social landscapes that surround them. In an arena where too many of these critical projects fail due to local resistance, employing social surveyors can pay dividends.

I have written before about how the residents of Woodward County, Oklahoma and Kent County, Maryland reacted differently to clean energy production. While both regions are rural, agricultural places that pride themselves on history and heritage, only Woodward County welcomed the addition of clean energy producing wind turbines to the landscape. Despite the similarities in place and people, the residents of Kent County rejected attempts to build both a utility-scale wind farm and then a solar array within their county’s borders.

My conclusion was that one factor above all others explains this difference in reaction to clean energy development in places that are otherwise similar: familiarity with energy extraction. Woodward County has a very long history of extracting oil, natural gas, and now wind energy. Kent County never has. While the specifics of wind energy may have been foreign to Woodward residents, the general concepts of land leases, transient workers, industrial traffic, and large structures on the horizon were already very familiar in the context of oil production. For those in Kent County, they have never seen anything like this in their lives.

But with the future of energy transitioning toward small-scale, carbon free production, this type of rejection presents a problem. Historically our energy has been produced at a small number of sites in very large quantities. Going forward, we are seeing a grid where electricity is produced at a huge number of sites in very small quantities. This decentralization of the grid will present logistical problems for communities who reject the development of local clean energy projects.

But it’s also unfair to expect communities to shut up and just accept any changes to the place they have a connection to. This is land that they call home. It should be understandable that when a gigantic, multinational company blows through and proposes what residents see as a radical shift to their landscape and community, those residents balk.

So a balance has to exist. A two-way street has to be built if this critical energy transition is going to occur. People around the world must become willing to live near (or even inside of) their local power plant. But energy corporations and utilities must become mindful of the impact their activities have on local populations.

Energy companies need to demonstrate a much more adept understanding of the social factors and forces that surround their work. This is a responsibility they have to the communities in which they operate. These companies must be responsive to the concerns and criticisms of community members. They must be clear and concise in their communications. They must be receptive to input from communities. They must demonstrate a sincere desire to be a long-term community member when they move in. And they must show that there will be a clear benefit to those around them.

Most important, energy companies have to understand the collective, social identity that exists uniquely in each place they build. Let’s not beat around the bush: people are sensitive about having stuff built near them. If you never take steps to address these feelings of intrusion, you can’t be surprised when crowds of disgruntled neighbors blow up your solar energy project in a courtroom.

To date, companies have done a lousy job of this. The concept known as the “social gap” is proof positive; why is it that, in the United States, wind and solar energy enjoy an overwhelming level of general support, yet so many individual projects fail due to local resistance?

Failure is exactly what happened to a solar project in Kent County. After hearing extensive public resistance to the project, a public utilities judge denied the energy developer’s application for a 60 MW, half mile square solar farm.

In this particular case, it would have been valuable for the company to have understood that the objections of those in Kent County went deeper than the company’s first assumptions. To counter what the company thought was the key issue, they offered to plant a vegetative screen of trees and shrubs to hide the solar farm from the viewscape. But when the root of people’s objection is more about the very presence of a foreign object that many see as trampling on the agricultural identity of the county, a vegetative screen doesn’t make you forget the solar farm is there. In fact, it almost makes it worse. Using vegetation to hide the solar array means that every time people see the screen, they not only think of the solar farm they object to, but they also see a near demeaning attempt by a corporate entity to make them forget the solar panels even exist.

To be clear, I don’t think that was the company’s intention at all. I think the screen is a very well-intentioned attempt to address an issue they saw. Though a better understanding of Kent County residents’ sense of place have may have revealed more effective solutions.

In fact, I would go so far as to recommend to energy companies that they have sociologists or anthropologists on staff to assess the cultural landscape of projects. Just as the work of surveyors in assessing the physical landscape is invaluable to their operations, understanding the cultural landscape will ensure as little friction in the process as possible and go a long way toward upholding these companies’ corporate responsibility.

This new energy future we find ourselves in is clearly one of give and take. For residents, out-of-sight, out-of-mind simply does not work anymore. Just as we are used to the town’s post office, its hospital, and its water tower, we must get used to its solar farm in the same way. But for the corporations who are building those farms, they have a responsibility to understand the culture of where they build. Not only is this part of being a good neighbor, but it will help decrease the resistance that they face now and into the future. Taking the time to meticulously understand a region’s sense of place will aid in their immediate efforts as well as help acclimate us all to our new future with a little friction as possible. Decentralization is the direction we are headed in. We owe it to each other to achieve that future as amiably as possible.

Make No Impact, Leave No Trace

Leave No Trace Impact Nature Paxson Woelber
Image Credit: Paxson Woelber

Those of us that enjoy hiking through the woods, kayaking down rivers, and general spending time in nature hold one philosophy above all others: Leave No Trace.

It’s a simple concept; while you are enjoying wilderness without signs of human presence, take steps to ensure that those who come after you can enjoy nature in the same way. Pack out all of your trash. Minimize impact from camping and fire building. Travel only on durable surfaces where your footsteps will not damage the flora. Respect wildlife and leave what you find. It’s a courtesy to those that will follow you.

But even for those of us that are so careful to limit our impact in the “natural world,” these principles are dropped once we return home. When the view of trees and rolling hills gives way to skyscrapers and city blocks, we mistakenly believe that we have left nature.

The waste we were so careful to minimize outdoors begins to overflow in our trash cans. Litter that we were meticulous to pack away in nature slips from our pockets in the city. Human waste that was handled with extreme thoughtfulness is now whisked down the toilet to an out-of-sight, out-of-mind facility. Consumption that had been kept as low as possible festers to create mounds of wasted resources.

This pattern of behavior traces back to the fallacy that humans are somehow separate from nature; the idea that we can keep the natural world at arm’s length. It’s a long-held fallacy about humanity’s superiority over the natural world; that we are better than it. We are separate from. We are above. It leads us to separate the “natural world” from our cozy homes in our snug cities. Even our language reflects this fallacious concept; being in the “natural world” versus being in “civilization.” As if they were totally distinct and separate phenomena.

Inevitably, that leads to the idea that our actions in the “human world” don’t effect the “natural” one. We begin to decouple the role that nature plays in our lives and the impacts that we have back on it. People begin to unravel the tapestry that holds the entire planet together while simultaneously insisting that there is no tapestry at all.

But, of course, there is. The plastic microbeads that we use in our apartments inevitably find their way into the stomachs of marine life. The palm oil for the cookies that we have sitting in our pantry came from decimated rain forests. The fuel for our cars causes environmental degradation both when we gather it and when we use it.

Nothing we touch or consume is without an impact to our planet. It’s unfortunate that we can be so attuned to this reality when “in nature,” but have it be obscured when in our “normal lives.” Especially because the impacts that we create when “away” from nature always come back around to impact us somehow.

Those plastic microbeads can go from your face scrub to a fish’s body and then onto your plate. The palm oil cookies were made by damaging the ability of rainforests to absorb CO2; of which higher levels means an ocean less supportive of marine life and more severe storm seasons on land. And, of course, mining your car’s fuel damages natural resource economies like fishing and timber while the exhaust it ends up as contributes to surging asthma rates and heat waves.

We need to kill the concept of “the natural world”. As I sit here in this air-conditioned apartment in the middle of a town with paved roads and bustling coffee shops, I am in the natural world. When I drive my car to meetings in Baltimore, I am in the natural world. Boarding a plane to visit family and friends and to eat cookies made with palm oil, I am in the natural world.

I cannot leave it. You cannot leave it.

So we must keep the ideals of Leave No Trace in mind even when our surroundings have traditionally told us not to bother. Because Leave No Trace is about leaving the world as unmarred as possible for others to enjoy hundreds of years from now.

That means knowing our impact so we can limit it. It means fighting for governmental and business practices that make it simple for individuals to take lighter steps through this world. It means adapting our societies to the ways of the natural world and not pretending like we are somehow separate from it.

“Leave it better than you found it,” my parents would tell me. That doesn’t just apply to a campsite or a backwoods trail; that applies to the earth as a whole. Even… No, especially when you are sitting in the air conditioning.

Our Failed Philosophy of Dominion

Our Failed Philosophy of Dominion
Image Credit: Karsun Designs

The idea that we can tame the wilds of the planet is deeply ingrained in our western worldview. Not only do we think that we can; we think that we have to. We are the ones chosen to set order to a chaotic system. But this philosophy has sadly guided us to a deep misunderstanding of the world and our place in it. It has led us to believe that our actions are without environmental consequence. Worse yet, it has made us act against our own self-interest.

Our theology reinforces the notion that we are superior to the world. “Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness. They will rule over the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the livestock, the whole earth” reads both the Bible and the Torah.  They go on to instruct “fill the earth, and subdue it. Rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and every creature that crawls on the earth.” The Quran notes that “He has subjected to you whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on the earth.” Core to our western theology are themes of dominion.

Those themes extend as well to our philosophical thought. Francis Bacon, the father of the scientific revolution, urged humanity to find “in the womb of nature many secrets of excellent use,” and to exploit them. Industrialization used these instructions to try vainly to free humanity from the natural order of our world. This philosophy extends to the west’s history of conquest and empire as well. It is us, the people of the west, that have been chosen to tame and subdue all wild things; nature and human alike.

You can also see this thinking in our dizzying rate of resource extraction; resources that we consume without thought to the consequences. If we are indeed the masters of this planet, we think, then it doesn’t matter how we use our spoils. We think that we must certainly be able to curtail any negative outcomes that might arise from our actions. As a result, we ignore the consequences that are being placed on us from a changing climate, a collapsing ecosphere, and our ever-present pollutants. We drive blithely on toward a precipitous destiny with no concern passed next quarters’ fiscal returns.

Enter the counter-point to this type of thinking. When pollution and litter pile up, many people get out their gloves and garbage bags to give the earth a helping hand. Stream clean up days and tree planting rallies are popular to ‘help out’ mother nature. The earth needs us, we think, and without us won’t be whole again. We have to get out there and make things right!

But this type of thinking suffers from the same flaw as the humanity-as-conqueror line of thinking. Now, to be clear, I absolutely encourage these types tree planting, litter collecting events. Especially as a way to get people engaged and thinking about their personal environmental impact.

However, taking the attitude of being a force that puts the earth back right still suffers from the fallacy that we have dominion over our planetary home. It still assumes that we can control, shape, and mold this place as we would see fit. The goal may be different, but the fallacious idea of dominion is still asserted.

We do not have nearly the control that either of these lines of thinking assumes that we do. I would go so far as to state that it is wrong to say that we should do anything ‘for the earth.’ Rather, we should do these things for ourselves. No matter what we do, the giant spherical hunk of iron, magma, and rock that we call home will be here billions of years from now.

So, what’s at stake in all this is not the earth, but our place in it. If we expect to continue to have this home, we need to curtail our crippling impact here. When we talk about fighting climate change, it’s not about saving the polar bears; it’s about preserving a planetary state of balance that has treated our species well for millions of years. Acting environmentally isn’t altruistic. It’s about saving our future from our worst impulses.

What we face is a crisis of philosophy. Both what is causing the problem and how we typically address it. The only solution is to internalize that we are not in the driver’s seat. We are not in control. With any other starting point, we are deluding ourselves into a corner from which we will not escape.

Five Reasons I Love ‘Light Green’

Bike to Work
Image Credit: Grant Samms

Happy “Bike to Work Day!” As many people did this morning, I used my bike pedal to get to work instead of my gas pedal. My reason was primarily environmental: why contribute to climate change when I can make the trip emissions free and enjoy some fresh air to boot?  It’s a tiny thing in the fight against climate change, but I can’t help think that it’s still worthwhile.

These types of actions have been dubbed ‘light green,’ typically by people who think that the effort of encouraging people to bike to work on one day of the year would be better put to use on ‘deep green’ actions they see as more impactful. But I kind of love the ‘light green’ stuff. While we certainty need more effort put into legislative pushes, carbon limits, and pollution controls, there are many reasons that the ‘light green’ stuff shouldn’t be dismissed. Here’s five:

1. It’s something

Sure, the amount of greenhouse gas that I averted by biking to work today will probably be undone as soon as the nearest cow lets one rip, but it’s still something. When you multiply those somethings by the (hopefully) millions of people that chose their bike today, the results start to look meaningful. When you take all the of ‘light green’ actions that everyone takes throughout the year, it starts to add up to something real. Meatless Monday, reusable coffee mugs, hybrid car purchases; individually unimpressive but collectively meaningful.

 2. It’s an entry point

If you are the type of person that considers the carbon impacts of all of your actions, who will go far out of your way to minimize your environmental footprint, and who spends the weekends campaigning for a green overhaul of our society, great. But you are in the minority. While those actions are undoubtedly more impactful than hopping on the bike one day a year, most people need that first step before they can scale the mountain. By organizing and promoting these ‘light green’ days on social media, it gives people who want to start considering the environment in their actions a simple place to begin. “You know how you like to ride your bike for fun and exercise after work? Have you considered making that your daily commute? Well, try it this Friday and see how you like it. It’s good for your health and the planet’s.”

3. It’s ownership giving 

Once you get people that simple first step in the environmental door, you give them a way to say “I did that.” “I contributed.” Once they feel that taking ownership of their personal environmental impact is something they can do, they can start to consider it in other places. “It wasn’t so hard to ride to work, so perhaps I can start carrying a reusable coffee mug with me. And what about this light that gets left on overnight without a good reason? I can flip that off on the way out the office door.” Especially when you give people a platform like social media to be proud of their little steps, they begin to feel that their actions are amounting to larger ones. These people may start small, but some of them will be leading activists in a few years demanding that politicians move our world toward zero emissions.

4. It’s movement building

For every person that posts a picture of themselves biking to work on Twitter today, one potential ally is added for the environmental movement. When that pride is expressed, both online and off, an opportunity to form connections and share resources comes up. When someone posts today that they took their first step, we can be there to reach out and say “Hey! There’s a meeting of cyclists this evening and we are going to encourage the city council to make our town more bike accessible.” Humans are group creatures. If a simple bike commute can lead to social connections, then more and more people can be brought into the fold of the environmental movement.

5. It’s world changing 

In the words of high school cheerleaders everywhere, “put it all together and what to do you have?” A vastly improved world, that’s what. If tens of millions take one step today, the world will change a little. If a million take another step tomorrow, the world will change more. And, day by day, if those who started small, with just something, continue to engage with the environmental movement, the arc of history will bend toward sustainability. Because the story of the environmental movement is the story of saving ourselves. If we change the way we see the world, we can ensure that people will be able to see it the same way in two hundred years.

 

So, I hope you rode your bike today. I hope millions did. This should not be the only thing we do all year, but it’s an invitation to those who have not yet engaged. If only 1000 take up the green mantle who wouldn’t have yesterday, I know that we will still be here riding for centuries to come.

The Environmental Quagmire of Nuclear Power

Cooling Towers
Image Credit: Tennessee Valley Authority

Nuclear power is in a bit of a bind. With powerful fossil fuel lobbies on one side and anti-nuclear groups on the other, some spectators feel that the U.S. nuclear industry is destined to collapse. Profitability issues, ever present safety concerns, and difficulty providing a per unit price on par with natural gas and wind are all looming over nuclear power. But for environmentally minded observers with an eye toward both carbon emissions and ethical, sustainable development, nuclear power has proven difficult to fit neatly into either the good or the bad category.

Catalyzed by the 1979 nuclear accident at Three Mile Island, public opinion started to sour toward the use of nuclear fission for electricity production in the early 80’s. By the time of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, anti-nuclear advocacy groups had a solidly opposed public to work with. Since 1994, however, the trend line of approval recovered as more Americans found themselves supporting nuclear power to some degree. This past year, however, Gallup records that only 44% of Americans are in favor of splitting atoms to get our power; the first time supporters were in the minority since 2001. Public support is once again flagging.

The specters of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima still loom large in the minds of a public concerned with safety as well as consistency. All the reassurance in the world seems to make little difference when the results of mishap can be so severe. Many proponents of nuclear power advocate retrofitting existing reactors with newer systems that offer more assurance against incident. Still, the public seems unwilling to fully embrace the technology. Even as some see nuclear power as a solution for climate change, a deep level of distrust pervades.

With nearly one fifth of the United State’s electricity being generated from 61 operating nuclear power centers, those nuclear reactions are a considerable backbone of our energy grid. The newest of these reactors to come online, the Watts Bar Unit 2 in Tennessee, is only months old. It’s the first new operating reactor in the US in 20 years.

The opening of Watts Bar 2 has again stoked debate about nuclear’s role in the nation, and climate change has only complicated this debate. According to the Tennessee Valley Authority, Watts Bar 2 is an effort to meet emission reduction goals that the massive utility set for itself. This climate angle has meant that environmental organizations who have historically been opposed to nuclear’s waste products and fuel mining are finding themselves unable to answer the question of how to replace nuclear’s generated capacity without resorting to carbon intensive sources.

This seemingly unavoidable increase in carbon emissions should all nuclear power be taken offline is a salient point.  When the Fort Calhoun nuclear plant closed for financial reasons, that electrical capacity wasn’t magically replaced by clean energy; cheap natural gas swooped in to fill most of the gap and that meant dirtier energy in that region. As a general response, some proponents of nuclear power argue that bringing a number of the United States’ 38 inactive nuclear reactors back online could immediately get us off much of our carbon based energy. For an industry already averting a sizable amount of carbon from U.S. electrical generation, it’s not a throw-away suggestion.

While many of the arguments, both for and against, seem to live predominantly in the realm of the speculative, there is one concern seen by the public on a monthly basis: rent payer’s bills. It’s an unavoidable fact that energy produced by nuclear reactions is comparatively more expensive. Exactly how much more is difficult to suss out, but the U.S. Energy Information Administration rates natural gas as winning the race for cheap per kWh energy with wind, coal, solar, and nuclear coming in further behind. Even with this uncertainty, most people seem to agree that a utility bill based on 100% nuclear power would be higher than one based on 100% natural gas. Still, some Americans do seem willing to pay more per month to help decrease our nation’s emissions (but the amount may be as little as five bucks).

But for those concerned with the environmental as well as the financial costs of electricity, nuclear power is more difficult to quantify that just in dollar signs. While wind turbines and solar panels are more agreeable than nuclear plants to the average environmentalist, it’s undeniable that the deployment rate of these technologies isn’t quick enough to totally replace the electrical capacity generated by nuclear plants. So a total shutdown of all nuclear plants would mean a jump in emissions.

And that’s the environmental dilemma with nuclear. Expanding our nuclear plants could reduce emissions quickly, but at the cost of higher utility bills when some already struggle and the remote but ever present risk of a nuclear accident. Shuttering these plants, on the other hand, would mean a spike in carbon emissions as environmentalists are in a fatiguing fight to lower them. So, what to do?

To be clear, my opinion on this topic is heavily qualified. While I’m leery myself about a heavy reliance on nuclear power, I’m much more afraid of a future with an out of control climate. While there is always a chance that nuclear power plants may lead to regional calamity, I would rather run the small chance of local catastrophe than the nearly guaranteed chance of a global one. Nuclear waste will continue to pile up and we will struggle with how to secure it, but I would rather live in a world that can at least temporarily contain it’s energy waste than one that puts it directly into the atmosphere. I’m always cognizant of the role of energy costs in social inequality, but I would rather see subsidy programs to help people pay their utility bills than ones to help them evacuate inland. While I would be lying if I said that I was entirely satisfied with the use of nuclear energy for power, the threat from unmitigated climate change is so much larger.

So we should buckle down, subside nuclear plants while we phase out our fossil fuels, and then revisit the topic of dismantling this contentious energy source. I don’t want to see another Fukushima, but I can’t bear to see the U.S. emissions spike that closing these facilities would mean. Hopefully, in the future, we can turn our attention to optimizing our power supplies.  But right now, we need nuclear’s head start on low emissions energy.

Our Forgotten Sustainability Culture

Depression
Image Credit: Robert Hoge

Disposable take-home containers. Single use coffee pods. Fast fashion. Cleaning pads that hit the trash after one room. This type of convenience based consumption has become commonplace in American life. But for many of our parents and grandparents, this pattern of buy, use, trash, buy, use, trash would be beyond embarrassing; it would be treasonous.

By the culture that arose after the stock market crash of 1929, we would all be traitors. To our families, to our communities, and to our country. The crippling financial crisis of the Depression forced all people to think more deeply about the consequences of their consumption. Thrift became both virtue and necessity. Waste could not be tolerated. Sustainability had to be the model.

There was a focus, then, on making the very most of all of your resources. Knowing how to alter and mend clothing became a valuable skill that could ensure you got all you could out of a pair of pants. More families took advantage of the natural resources that surrounded them as they hunted, fished, and collected their own wood for cooking and heating. Simple, filling meals became the norm as a way to limit waste. Community gardens sprang up and people ate what was in season. The first thought if a pair of shoes became worn was of how to mend, not where to buy.

If some of the above ideas sound like relatively new concepts, then you’re in the same place I was when I started researching for this piece. Surely, community gardens and the trend toward local food were ideas that originated with the environmental movements of the 1960s and 70s. The ideas of the makerspace and the “right to repair” are relatively new concepts as well, right? The shift toward simple, non-processed, meals made fresh at home is most definitely a departure from America’s obsession with all things pre-cooked, fast, and easy.

All of these concepts have roots in the Depression era, if not further back in time. The ideas of sustainability then were undertaken out of economic necessity. Today, those same American ideals are being used out of ecological necessity. The movement toward buying locally grown, in-season food averts the monstrous carbon footprint of cargo ships bringing fresh limes, in December, to Boston. Our growing interest in repairing the things that we own, as well as buying quality goods to begin with, gets us away from the ecologically and morally troubling trend of importing cheap stuff made in developing nations. Cooking simple meals at home, our growing interest in “clean” and “natural” food, and a general aversion to fast food avoids the waste impact of all those carry-out meals. Same story with the trend toward reusable water bottles and coffee cups. There is even a movement among intrepid “invasivores” to only eat meat harvested from invasive species as a way to put food on the table while controlling the spread of these animals.

Those living through the Depression may not have been familiar with “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,” but they did abide by “Use it up, Wear it out, Make it do.” And while I would never hope that those measures of sustainability are necessitated again by economic turmoil, we can use that mentality to address our environmental woes. As our climate changes and our oceans fill with plastic, those waste reduction measures common in the Depression have been rediscovered to fight an environmental crisis global in scope.

So as municipalities pass laws to ban plastic bags and more of us carry reusable coffee mugs, don’t see these measures as a new wave of environmental liberalism. Rather, see them as the reemergence of patriotic thrift. We have become accustomed to convenience and disposability in our recent past, but these attributes are far from the core of our historic American identity. The ideas of consumption that older generations held can leave us personally fulfilled and keep both our individual and planetary homes tidy. The type of self-sufficiency and purposive consumption that we embraced in our past is, thankfully, an idea that we are starting to get back to.

After all, it’s the patriotic thing to do.

NIMBY and the Social Gap Collide

Solar Power and Tractor
Image credit: Alan Levine

Previously, I wrote about the surprising lack of conflict in Woodward, Oklahoma over the introduction of wind energy to a historically oil-soaked community. People in Woodward were already familiar with energy production and that made the new-fangled wind turbines look a lot less alien. I also noted that this introduction was set against a backdrop of the most highly concentrated pocket of climate change denial in the country. Wind turbines there were not viewed as clean energy specifically, but as just another form of energy production. And more production is always better.

~~~

Recently, I packed up all my things and moved halfway across the U.S. One thing that remained constant is that I still live in a rural area. Just like Oklahoma, the Eastern Shore of Maryland is a largely rural, agricultural place. Both are long on history and nostalgia; they scoff at “big city folk” and pine for a less complicated era.

But the introduction of clean energy into both couldn’t have been more different.

Unlike Woodward, my new home of Kent County readily sees climate change as a real and imminent danger immediately needing to be addressed. It’s definitely caused by humans and we definitely need to dedicate legislation and tax money to address it. But when utility scale solar companies recently tried to install a solar array across a number of agricultural fields in the area, they ran headlong in the infuriating enigma that is the social gap. If my new home was so ready to address climate change, why did so many local people line up to oppose the very projects they supported in theory?

The answer many gave was that solar panels just “don’t fit” in the landscape. Ours is a historic, agricultural place and planting a crop of alien power generators would ruin that history. When you ask for specific reasons why solar would be a bad fit for the county, you hear of solar farms breaking up the scenic, rolling hills and making good quality farmland unable to grow food. So while those in Woodward saw wind power’s effect on aesthetics as negative but necessary, those in Kent County see solar’s effect as negative and wholly unnecessary.

That is in fact the very case they made to a judge who rejected a license to a solar development company: this is unnecessary. But, if the county as a whole is in favor of dedicating resources to increasing clean power, then why was this project beaten back so feverishly? The social gap rears its head again. While some would place the blame for this behavior on NIMBY, I would wager that the discrepancy is due to what is missing from Kent County’s history: energy production.

If you have a one-hundred-year history of extracting energy as Woodward does, you are used the presence of the looming contraptions that undertake that work. But without that social familiarity, the introduction seems only to have negative impacts.

Unfortunately, that perception is at odds with the emerging future of our electricity production. Rooftop solar, the grid of the future, home storage, and low-capacity but numerous power generating stations; all signs point to decentralization. Historically, our power has been generated by the gigawatt at stations far out of sight. But our future seems to hold much smaller, more numerous stations that individually generate less power. Where historically electricity has flowed only from the utility to their customers, a two-way street is beginning to emerge.

Right down to the solar panels (or even just shingles) mounted on a roof that create enough power for just one house, the generation of our electricity is becoming a local matter. Interestingly, this idea of reclaiming local production has emerged in Kent County in different arena: food. There has been a push on the Eastern Shore (and, indeed, the world) to take a keen interest in where our food is coming from, to consume as much local food as possible, to eat from farms that are cognizant of their environmental impacts, and to demand a reexamination of our entire food system. So it’s not the desire for positive change that is missing from Kent County, but rather it is the physical manifestation that change takes which is troublesome. While Kent County has the social familiarity with agriculture to encourage the localization of our food sources, it lacks that same familiarity with electricity.

This puts proponents of clean energy in an awkward position. On one hand, the desire of those living here needs to be respected and changes to a place should only proceed with the general consent of the communities that inhabit it. On the other hand, our system of energy production is becoming more local which means that everyone will soon live near (or even in) their local power plant. But, having to reconcile these two factors is not simple in a rapidly changing world.

The days of large corporations building power plants that are unquestioningly deemed necessary is rapidly ending. So, too, are the days of not having to worry about where your electricity comes from. So a hybrid solution must be adopted. As we demand that energy developers become more aware of their impact on the environment, we must also become more willing to live near their operations. We need to train ourselves to see our new, clean power plants not as an unsightly necessity, but as a source of local pride and autonomy. Our new, increasingly sustainable world means more local production of everything. Of clean water. Of food. And, now, of electricity.

Community Solar Can Overhaul Utility Assistance Programs

solar-instalation-us-department-of-agriculture
Image Credit: US Department of Agriculture

Complacency might well be the most insidious force in the world today. The cessation of the attempt; failing to reach further for what is better. Never yearning to remix and remake our world for the future. Or, just sitting back and failing to acknowledge when the changes that are happening around us are recursive for the majority. Where a once blossoming promise has withered at the expense of the many, complacency can be found skulking in the shadows.

The complacency with our electrical supply systems has been holding my attention lately. Not just the physical infrastructure itself, but the financial and policy frame works that prop it up. How we get our power and how much control we have over that process turns out to be a very interesting topic for the future facing citizen.

It’s a popular suggestion that families that cannot afford to keep their homes heated in the winter should get assistance from the government. After all, shivering children should make no one giddy. But the ways in which utility bill assistance programs operate are ripe for a rethink. No matter how the money is distributed, funds for these programs ultimately come from tax payers. It is then given to the utilities to make up for a portion of the bill that families cannot afford.

But something is amiss under the surface. The shift since the 1980s to privately owned utilities means that citizens have less and less control over how their power is generated. Utilities, always with an eye to the bottom line, choose the cheapest fuel mix possible which often means a large proportion of carbon sources. When you consider that the production of fossil fuels is already subsided in the United States to the tune of $4 billion a year, the tax money used for utility assistance programs re-subsidizes those polluting energy sourcing with more public money. And when you consider that this money often comes from pots meant to modernize our energy production, this doubling down on the old is all the more egregious.

There are better solutions to making sure that people can afford to keep their lights on and homes heated. There are solutions that give communities more say in how their energy is produced. Solutions that let town halls, and not board rooms, lead on energy modernization.

Community solar is an idea that has increasingly been seen as a solution to addressing the problems of residential solar power. In short, communities build a solar array either in a field or by using the suitable roof space in town. Those for whom rooftop solar is out of reach are then able to subscribe to a portion of the array’s output. For example, even those who rent small apartments could subscribe to the output of one panel. The energy produced from that panel would then come off of their energy bill as if the panel was on their roof.

This type of system is also of great value to those in need of utility assistance. Instead of using assistance funds to simply pay off part of the bill, those funds can be used in an innovative way by giving families in need subscriptions to community arrays. It grants these families more ownership of their energy sourcing and avoids the double subsidization of fossil fuel companies. Community solar can wrest control away from the shareholder and return it to the hands of those actually flipping the switch.

This arrangement also opens a pathway to greater community cohesion as residents could elect to donate some of the power generated by their subscription to families in need within their own town. Producing power where it is consumed also grants a sense of local autonomy; the sort of do-it-yourself sufficiency that Americans mourn the loss of in the modern-day.

These are the kinds of rethinks that will drive our energy future. As utilities, both private and public, prepare for a decentralization of energy production they set the landscape for local sufficiency. Communities are beginning to demand traceability for their electricity. Doors are being opened to new ways of envisioning how we power our homes. And as we install this new, localized future of ours, we are finding innovative methods to provide for everyone in our communities. Beyond just expecting the government to help those in need, we can preserve both the environment and the humanity of those around us. Community solar is a step we all should dare to take.

Our Failed Climate Change Defense

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Image Credit: Claudia Dea

Let’s talk about legal defenses that should not work. You get pulled over. You get asked if you’ve been drinking. You have. You try to deny it. You conjure up all the rationale and excuses you can find in your ethanol addled mind to explain why this isn’t what it looks like. But when the officer asks you to step out of the car, you, with vapors of gin and whisky stumbling off your tongue, come up with the perfect legal defense: You can’t be drunk because you weren’t paying for the alcohol. “Solid point,” says the officer, and lets you on your way to continue careening down the freeway; endangering everyone that shares the road with you that night.

For the past thirty years, the United States has been employing this same defense as to why it shouldn’t be held responsible for the emissions that we spew into the atmosphere like a debauched club goer. The language should sound familiar. “But China won’t do anything!”  Employed by politicians and everyday people alike, the argument goes how can we be expected to act when our actions will only be a drop in the bucket as compared to the big polluter that is China? Or India? Or Russia? Putting aside that fact that the U.S. still emits far more per capita than China (16.4 kilotons per person to China’s 7.6), a large portion of the United States’ carbon bill is actually paid for by China. This is because the groups that tally up carbon bills use the same method that a bar does: Whoever directly creates the carbon spewing activity gets the tab. But what happens if that activity is slid down the bar to the U.S. who has convinced other nations to buy the drinks? The carbon emitted for all of the TVs we buy, the clothes we wear, and all of the cheap chachkies we mindlessly consume gets charged to China even though we get the physical goods. And, for the record, all of the emissions cause by shipping those good across the Pacific on heavily polluting bunker oil don’t get charged to anyone. They don’t really get tracked or accounted for at all.

In this way, the United States (and, indeed, all developed nations) have found a way to hide a sizable part of our total emissions within other nations ledgers. The demand originates in the rich nations, the items are consumed in the rich nations, but the pollution, including the carbon dioxide, is burdened by the developing world.

Yet we wonder what on earth is wrong with nations like China when they can’t seem to get their air pollution under control. “If only they could be environmentally conscious, like those of us over here, they wouldn’t have to suffer under a hazy smog that is literally choking the life out of them.” And so, confident in our assessment that we can’t do anything until China does something about the pollution that we have put there, we tell ourselves that we might as well wait until they get their act together. After all, it’s only fair. Meanwhile, our world continues its slide into a future where the environment is so chaotic that we can’t fully predict how many (or even how) humans may live on it.

Now, in case you’re thinking “we don’t force this on China. It’s their choice to engage in this type of global trade,” you must remember that this problem of outsourcing environmental consequences while importing physical goods isn’t isolated to one country. The history of globally produced consumerism is clear on the business model: park in the cheapest country with the loosest labor and environmental regulations for as long as possible. When that country decides to improve the standard of living for their people, you move on to the next nation. This migration is easy to track based on who the stereotypical producer of cheap stuff is. Japan, to Korea, to China, and now to Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. The wave of consumerism sweeps from developing nation to developing nation while we hide our pollution in their skies.

But how can consumers be expected to curb this dangerous cycle of climate blame laying? To be sure, the average American consumer has no power in the court of the World Trade Organization. But they do have a wallet, and the solution to rampant, mindless, climate-destroying consumerism can oddly be solved by some of the rallying cries of American capitalism itself. “Vote with your wallet.” “Buy American.” “Shop local.” All credos of the same lawmakers that abhor any attempt to place the needs of the planet before that of the bottom line. But buying local goods cuts down on untracked cargo ship emissions. Buying American ensures that we must bear the pollution burden of our consumption. Voting with your wallet by buying products that are mindful of their impact helps us internalize our personal impact. Alternatively, voting by not opening your wallet for all of those cheap chachkies may be the most socially and environmentally sound vote you could cast.

Personal responsibility. Another rallying cry of the laissez-faire politician. But in this they are correct: when we take seriously the responsibility to balance our consumption with our environmental impact, we can improve ourselves. When we insist that the products we consume are made with the same attention to planetary preservation as we are in selecting them, we can improve our world. And when we tally up this mindful consumption in whole, acting with sober mind and clear understanding, we can save our future.

The Epitaph of NIMBY

A wind turbine and petroleum pump, side by side
Image credit: Grant Samms

“How dare you stick your liberal-loving, clean-energy-producing, scenic-view-destroying wind turbines on my prime oil land!”

Or something like that. I think that’s what I was expecting to hear anyway.

For the past year and a half I have been wrestling with an idea that I have come to call energy identity. Having gone to grad school in a state where oil enters into nearly every political and economic conversation, I was sure this green energy/traditional energy dichotomy was a totality. On the right? Frack away. On the left? Wind for days.

So it was a bit of a shock when one of my grad school professors told me that there was a town in western Oklahoma that was styling itself as the “Wind Energy Capitol of Oklahoma.” Not only is western Oklahoma (or, indeed, all of Oklahoma) extremely oil soaked, but extremely conservative. Why would a conservative town in a conservative state that depends heavily on oil and gas revenue embrace something I saw as “green” and “liberal”?

The town in question was Woodward, Oklahoma and it would become the topic of my master’s thesis. The town does indeed have a past dripping in oil. Or, at least in the anticipation of it. When the first well was attempted in 1903, it came up dry. While a producing well wouldn’t been seen until 1956, residents spent those intervening fifty years dedicating their own time and resources into encouraging oil exploration on the surrounding plains. Now, another fifty years in the future, oil is all the more important to the area.

So to hear that the city had embraced the new-fangled wind industry was very surprising. Shouldn’t clean wind energy be rejected by their oil identity? Especially since the area so roundly rejects climate change; an issue that wind turbines are meant to address. In fact, in a Yale study, only 51% of the county’s residents believe climate change exists at all. Only 40% believe that humans are the cause. That’s the lowest level of belief anywhere in the United States.

I spent over a year digging up research, interviewing people, and crawling through archives documenting an expected case of collective identity conflict. And when I asked people how they felt about the turbines that had surrounded their city, the answer I got was, “we’re proud of the fact that we’re the hub of wind energy.”

Wait. That can’t be right. Let’s try someone else. “I love looking at them out there.”

Uh-huh. Anyone else? “I’ve heard us called the Saudi Arabia of wind. I think that’s pretty cool.”

Confusion was my reaction for quite a while. In fact, through my entire study, I only met one person who was expressly against wind power. Everyone else was either ambivalent or saw it with some shade of positivity. My confusion was finally reconciled by one respondent who told me that the town “has always had oil. Now we have wind. We’ve always been an energy town.”

And there it was.

“We’ve always been an energy town.” The city most definitely had an energy identity, but it wasn’t the narrow, method-specific one I had envisioned. Instead, it was one of supplying energy in all of its forms for the entire nation. This concept of being a place that specializes in the extraction of energy generally was one I heard over and over from people. “Climate change may be a falsehood,” they might say, “but Woodward will take all of the oil, natural gas, and wind extraction you could give us.” And they wanted more. I heard from people who wanted solar and geothermal and hydroelectric as well.

There’s a concept in sociology for this whole episode. It’s known as Sense of Place. People don’t just merely live somewhere; they form attachments and relationships with that place. In the case of my confusion, residents of Woodward didn’t see their heritage and identity as oil producing specifically, but rather as energy producing in general. So when you slather the landscape with wind turbines, they are seen as just another type of energy extraction.

What’s interesting about this concept is that it helps to explain a problem in the study of energy known as the social gap. Why is it that so many Americans say they support the expansion of clean energy, but react negatively when installations start to go up near their homes? Historically, the explanation to this has been the NIMBY phenomenon: Not In My BackYard! But NIMBY has a number of problems. Chiefly, it assumes that people are either for or against something based on primarily selfish reasons: if something will affect me negatively, then I don’t want it.

But under this model it is impossible to explain the case of a person I met who no longer uses their hunting lodge because of noisy wind turbines yet supports them for the positive impact they see made in the community. Or the case of a hunter I spoke with who lost a favorite hunting spot to transmission line construction yet still supports wind’s expansion. In both of these cases, individuals supported the very thing that had a sharp negative impact on them personally. But when that impact is in line with the culture of an area the power of Sense of Place shines though.

This pattern of reaction to change, based on familiarity and context, is a powerful way to examine and predict reaction to energy development more broadly. Especially as the world finds itself in the throes of a clean energy boom, understanding how and why people react to development the way they do will be critical to the success of the clean energy revolution. In the future, I’m going to discuss more examples of how energy development and society collide and what can be learned from these cases.

For now, it’s important to realize that we should always hold our own heuristics with suspicion. For me, wind energy is a symbol of the fight against climate change and the environmentally destructive fuels at its core. For many in Woodward, it’s simply a way for their town to stay economically competitive in an ever-changing world. My error was in assuming political leaning was the only data point I needed to understand them.