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.

I Fear

Photo of the US capital building during the 2008 inauguration

Image Credit: Angela N.

 

In his preparation to vacate the chair he has occupied for eight years, Barack Obama gave a speech that will deservedly go down as one of the best American orations in recent memory. While the outgoing leader took a short victory lap, the body of his final address took the form of a warning. Four horsemen that threaten to shred the cohesion of the United States and drive it apart.

Inequality. Racism. Stratification. Apathy.

These four things, Obama said, threaten us all immeasurably more than the gun or the bomb. There is more that connects us than that tears us apart. But if we choose to only see that which causes friction; if we ignore our commonalities and focus solely on our petty deviations from each other; that dangerous fallacy will become self-fulfilling.

Directed to a public that must always remember it has the power to hold accountable it’s elected leaders (whether though petition, protest, or armed revolt), Obama made his remarks in the looming shadow of the monolithic cult of personality that is set to take his place. He’s big. He’s brash. He’s not afraid to “tell the truth”; a quality that was billed as a plus despite being absent any shred of social empathy.

While Obama addressed these words to a nation that has seen a spike in divisive rhetoric, I feel that his impassioned message should be extended to all across our planetary home. So please permit me to do so.

The United States elects a man who threatens a retraction into isolationism. The figurehead of Russia suggests that only those with approved ethnic roots belong within that nation’s boundaries. The United Kingdom declares by public referendum that it is better left on its own. The German far right gains record levels of support touting an anti-immigrant platform. The president of the Philippians is praised for his admission to dolling out summary justice.

All of these events have occurred recently and illustrate on a global scale Obama’s four threats to social cohesion. They are symptomatic of a world that has more lenses than ever to see into the struggles of our fellow humans yet increasingly chooses to splinter into homogenous tribes. We feign ignorance to these issues. We downplay our personal role. We fail to make those in power accountable.

There was once an event that leapt from this same kind of geopolitical splintering and rampant otherism. A conflict that engaged new contraptions and new horrors that had never been seen before. A fight that we were promised would be impossible today due to our interdependence and greater level of global community. A war that consumed the lives of 38 million people across it’s many battlefields in Europe and elsewhere. 100 million if you count its sibling.

In a world that is seeing the rise of rampant nationalism, proposals of ethnic purity tests, movements toward isolationism, and the wider acceptance of extremist ideologies; I fear.

I fear that wide spread conflict will ensue.

I fear that pride of nation and pride of race will stoke an engine of violence and hatred.

I fear that those structures of power, which had previously been weakened to allow the common person to flourish, will be restored to their former, ensnaring, grotesque glory.

And while I do not pray at night for the failure of these new leaders so that I might be proven correct; I fear.

I fear that our world is feeling the thunderous onset of a new era of global conflict. One in which, like the world’s great war in the early twentieth century, will see the rich and powerful and entrenched persons of the world capitalize on the chaos of those below them. Obama’s four threats to social cohesion are easily observed today. Not just in the United States, but across our planet. The stamping of hooves and the tightening of leather reigns can be heard from four horses named Inequality, Racism, Stratification, and Apathy.

Yet while we could stand against this force and demand for ourselves an ever improving world for all humans, and indeed all life that calls this planet home, we seem willing to capitulate to fear. A fear of each other. A fear born out of our refusal to recognize our overwhelming similarities. That capitulation has been, and will continue to be, manipulated by those with social, economic, and political power for their own personal gain.

And so, I fear.

Where Does Fracking Leave Oklahoma’s Future?

Image Credit: Grant Samms
Image Credit: Grant Samms

This is part three in a three part series on fracking in Oklahoma. Read part one here and part two here.

For the past two weeks, I have written about the state of fracking in Oklahoma and the socio-political quagmire that surrounds the issue. The impetus for all this digital ink was the ban that New York recently placed on fracking in that state. This ban led some to wonder why the same type of ban could not just be placed in Oklahoma. The reasons why that request is, unfortunately, oversimplified and unrealistic were my previous subjects. However, a few people mentioned that I had failed to be critical of fracking and had not emblazoned some of its more demonic implications. This is true. My goal in the past two weeks was simply to be descriptive; to try to explain the situation with as little interference from my own bias as possible. But this week I aim to move away from the descriptive tack I have been taking and become more proscriptive. How can Oklahoma, with all the issues and forces that it contends with, ever hope to ban fracking? My suggestions here will have to be implemented at various times and by a variety of actors. While the ultimate goal of a fracking ban will only reasonably play out in the long term, we can seek better communication and peace of mind for residents today that will build toward a better energy future for the state in later years.

One of the first actors that has to be considered for change would be the industry itself. Energy companies, like Devon and Continental which heavily frack the shale plays in Oklahoma, frequently run publicity campaigns to make themselves appear to be the champions of the state. They often bluster on about how they help the communities that they work in and about all the money they bring to the state. But many of the citizens affected by the work, especially the ones that receive no direct financial compensation, often feel that their communities and daily lives are violently disrupted by the industry. It is common for feelings of resentment and betrayal to be aimed at those companies who residents see as the source of their distress. At public meetings, people have broken down into tears as they describe the legal ability of gas companies, in the right situation, to erect a fracking platform, complete with methane flair, 125 feet from their door and drill under their house without having to obtain their permission or even advise them of drilling activities. Frustrations are frequently aired over the destructive nature of heavy truck traffic on roads and the timing of drilling activities to avoid ordinance enforcement by government overseers. If the industry is sincere in its PR declarations about helping the state and communities, it would limit these behaviors and make itself aware of the true needs of people. In the pursuit of profit, gas companies often ignore the fact that they are operating in areas where human beings permanently reside; human beings who need to be able to sleep and drive to work the next day. This tone deafness to the actual needs of communities has made gas companies the enemies of many, not the heroes. It is not unreasonable for people to expect information about the extent and duration of drilling activities under their land nor for them to expect the roads and bridges on which they rely to be respected by all who use them. This communication and curtesy should become a part of the industry’s best practice lest they see themselves continue to be the enemy of those whose lives they impact.

The second group that we should examine is the role of the state government. While a cynical part of me wants to dismiss the government as being in the death grip of the petroleum industry, there are signs some in government would be willing to vote against the unfettered run of the land that the industry has had. Government hearings about the effect that drilling and waste water disposal practices are having on state residents have started to occur. The Oklahoma Corporation Commission, which oversees petroleum activities in the state, stated in a press release on man-made earthquakes that, while a “definitive link of oil and gas activity to the current major seismic events in Oklahoma has not been established” they are “not waiting for one” to take action. Their steps include mandating an increased amount of well monitoring and increasing the amount of integrity tests that are run on large volume injection wells. Some lawmakers have also expressed interest in proposing legislation that would impact a wide array of issues that arise due to fracking in the state. This kindling of legislative energy to regulate the state’s defining industry is not only a positive shift for the state, but is also an opportunity to seize on for the future. My single most desired action for the government to take would be an interim study on diversification of energy generation and subsequent economic security. While Oklahoma has great potential for clean energy generation, the opportunity is oftentimes used as a way to generate conflict with the state’s energy identity: Oklahoma is an oil state and wind power threatens that identity. But the correct framing could see this improved upon, especially as more and more people are becoming disillusioned with the petroleum industry. While a hearing might seem simply like a bureaucratic time waster, its attention by the government would yield a small amount of legitimacy to clean energy in the state and serve as a starting point for an overhaul. If paired with a PR campaign for the new jobs and new economic opportunity that solar and wind would provide, a clean energy push could be made that would maintain the state’s energy identity. Combined with the possibility of attracting out of state investors and selling excess electricity to other states, an ad campaign about how ‘Oklahoma keeps America moving’ could serve as a transition into a new energy paradigm.

Lastly, the people of Oklahoma itself hold more power than they are often given credit for. Many residents think that they are powerless against the mighty forces of the industry, but the recent small shift in the government’s tune is proving they have some power. The change in government attitudes that I outlined above have been credited to pressure from common people. The city council of Stillwater, Oklahoma is currently and seriously considering a proposal to ban all mining operations (including fracking) within the city borders. That would be a huge step for the state and would be the direct result of constituent pressure. If grass roots resistance to the industry and pressure on government continues to grow, it is not unreasonable to assume that citizens may get their way by sheer force of number. But in this change, it would be important to ensure the debate does not become too polarized. While that outcome certainty is a possibility, there is plenty of ground that the majority of Oklahomans can find in common. Man-made earthquakes have been one of those places. I think that a push toward clean energy framed in terms of economic security and job growth could be another.

Oklahoma is extremely far from the type of fracking ban that New York has put in place. I cannot debate this. However, there is some reason to hope for change. A growing mass of people are demanding more regulations for the industry and more protections from the government. It would be foolish to underestimate this kind of populist pressure. Another thing I cannot debate is the fact that Oklahoma is an energy state. Any push to ban fracking is going to have to take this into consideration. All of the emotion; all of the identity; all of the history will have to be taken into account. But these forces can also be brought to bear to create change. Any ban will have to offer an alternative in its place. That alternative has to be set up in ways that will appeal to energy workers and to the general public. But I hope, as these forces begin to swell, that one day they will be able to overtake the fossil fuel industry in this state. We may see a fracking ban in Oklahoma yet.

One Time for One Planet

Image Credit: Arjan Richter
Image Credit: Arjan Richter

One of the things that I have always appreciated about the future is its tendency toward streamlining. One hundred books on my shelf become a convenient to read thirty gigabits on my kindle. Instead of having to wait for the news to broadcast, and then being chained to one station, I can peruse the entirety of world news from a convenient webpage at my leisure. We seem to be obsessed with the notion of contracting things; making them smaller, punchier, and more concentrated.

This is why the entire concept of how we keep time has me at an utter loss. Despite having incredible advancements in technology, our method of time keeping is so insanely disjointed. Given our species’ increasingly planetary nature, why do we still use a method of time keeping invented by an industry that has long been replaced as a major mover of people? Railroad companies in the United States were the first to popularize the notion of time zones. It was an advancement they needed as, prior to their intervention, each town would set their own time based on noon being whenever the sun was at the highest point in the sky. This meant that “high noon” was often different from town to town. Becoming increasingly frustrated, the railroads instituted time zones as they needed a more standard method of setting their schedules.

Daylight savings time was adopted for a similar reason; standardization. As the United States entered into World War I, fuel that would otherwise be used for artificial lighting was needed for the war effort. Thus, war-time was instituted that adjusted most people’s working days to coincide better with the sun. This practice was ended after the end of the war but was reinstated during World War II. The practice was merged with standard time after the end of our planets’ second great conflict and DST has been causing unnecessary mass confusion ever since.

Both of these time related anecdotes have a common thread. The method of timekeeping was adjusted to better suit societal requirements. There was a pressing need that could be effectively resolved by changing the way we organized things in the temporal dimension. Humans are once again faced with a challenge that can be easily resolved in a similar manner. We live at one of the first times in history where having to organize a meeting between groups of people in Los Angeles, Johannesburg, and Shanghai doesn’t sound ridiculous. Unfortunately, we are experiencing unnecessary resistance to this kind of progress because of our own refusal to adjust our time keeping methods. To organize this meeting you would have to first determine a time to meet that works for one location and then ask other locations if it fits in their schedule, adjusting for time zones. You then have to keep in mind daylight savings time which can differ not only from country to country but sometimes city to city. And if you wanted to have a meeting at the same time a month later, you would have to go through all of the conversions again because the daylight savings time situation may have changed.

There is social need for a change. Our global society needs a global time standard from which to operate; One time for one planet. This could be based off of Greenwich Mean Time as it typically considered the standard time already. The idea would be that at midnight GMT on January the first of a designated year, the entire world enters a unified time zone with the time 00:00. This time would be kept in a twenty-four hour style. Now, scheduling your meeting would be as easy as asking if 15:30 works for each group; no adjustments, no calculations, no confusion.

Typically the first question asked in protest to this suggestion is “If it is 11:00 where I am how will I know the time at city X?” It would also 11:00, but really what that person is addressing is the loss of an ability to relate sun positions to times. This would be technically lost, but knowing the time in a place doesn’t really tell you a whole lot about the sun there. If I asked you what the position of the sun is at 8am in Alaska, the answer would vary depending on the time of year. Under a global time standard, terms like morning, noon, and evening would take on the meanings that they had before time zones or DST were popularized. They would describe approximate sun positions, not approximate times.

There are several instances where a global standard is already observed. For starters, the internet runs on a Coordinated Universal Time or UTC (the initialism comes from French). Because of this, most tech companies use UTC for official business. Coincidentally, a lot of these companies have departments all over the world that have to be coordinated. The United States military also uses an international time standard when coordinating between time zones known as Zulu time. China has instituted a national time standard (UTC+08:00) which collapses its five geographic time zones into one standard time zone to avoid confusion. They also don’t observe DST. As a result, the entire economy can move as one unit with no temporal confusion despite vast distance.

As the world continues to become more interconnected the benefits of a universal time only become more obvious. It was estimated that in the US alone, the DST switch costs more than $400 million dollars each spring. I couldn’t find any estimates of global economic cost due to non-standard time, but I am almost certain they exist. With this system we could lessen the amount of confusion in our transactions and our encounters. Commerce, travel, and communication would all benefit from this change. There is also another important yet more ephemeral benefit to this idea. We as a people would benefit from a time standard that represents what we are becoming as a species; united.

On Humanizing Climate Denial

Image Credit: Paul Townsend
Image Credit: Paul Townsend

Imagine you worked at a men’s shirt store, making the world’s most luxurious and stylish shirts. Day after day you stitch together, by hand, plates of fine Egyptian cotton for your clients. Your father did this, as did his father, and his before him; countless generations of clothiers perfecting the art of the dress shirt. The hands of your forefathers guide your fingers as you place stitch upon stitch upon stitch into sleeves and cuffs, chest plates and collars. One day, sitting in your shop you hear the bell over the door ring. The din of traffic on your street grows momentarily. You look up to see a man who you assume is looking to be fitted for one of your shirts. Suddenly, before you can speak, the man rushes over to the counter and throws his body towards you. His vise like hand ensnares your collar and he rips you from your seat dragging you up and over your workstation and towards the door. When you ask him why he is doing this, he tells you that making shirts is bad for the city. He says that for the good of all people you must now become a fitness consultant. You struggle against his grasp but you are still overpowered in every way. This store was not only your life, but it was your father’s and grandfather’s lives. Apparently, without your input, that rich history has been bleached from the tapestry of time and you are powerless to fight it.

Lately, I have been wondering if this is how at least some of the people who deny climate change feel. Fossil fuels are a deep and integral part of the United States’ history. Nearly all of the industries that bore this country from struggling colonial settlement to world super power were either fossil fuels themselves or industries that directly depend on them. Large parts of the American east were built up by the coal those regions produced. Fortunes, and the communities built on its heels, were made off of oil in Texas. The automotive industry, ever a source of national pride, depended on the oil trade for fuel. The steel industry that gave rise to the mighty cities of the nation was dependent on coal. The railroad companies that bound the nation together depended on both steel and coal to move the most important people and the most important goods of their time. This is a deep, deep history and a source of American pride. The entire American dream of being able to start with the shirt on your back and build an empire is spelled out time and again in oil and coal; in steel and train tracks.

But now, people come on to the scene suggesting nothing less than one of the most radical paradigm shifts imaginable. It sounds to those who deny climate change like climate advocates are telling everyone to abandon a ship that has served us for so long. It sounds like a call to dive in to the cold and murky waters of the unknown without a clear sense of direction. It sounds like a terrifying proposition and I wonder sometimes if that is why people are willing to forgo solid scientific evidence and hold fast to an incorrect assumption. Humans have evolved to be afraid of change. If the known is working adequately, why change to something that is unknown and potentially dangerous?

This is why it’s important for climate advocates to be conscientious of how we present data. I feel like I will always be harkening back to Chris Mooney’s Washington Post op-ed about how resistance to many things in science (vaccines, climate change, nuclear power, evolution in schools) is framed as a science issue but is truly an issue of emotion and trust. Telling people in fossil fuel industries that their trade is killing the planet leads to them taking up a defensive stance. People do not listen when they are worried about being dragged from what they have known their entire lives.

If climate advocates want to help the world change, we must realize the magnitude of what we are suggesting. We must then realize that, while the path may look simple to us, to others it is an unnecessary one filled with danger and uncertainty. It is our job not to oppose these people, but to work with them. Not to force their views in line with ours, but to gently guide them onto a better path. Sometimes good science should be presented like a sledge-hammer; shattering preconception and false observation. But other times it is important to realize that when dealing with people there are many competing and conflicting emotions. This may be the greatest challenge of being a climate change advocate. It is undoubtedly a part of the challenge we face.

I shouldn’t have to say, however, that we must face it.

Bias Makes the World Go ‘Round, or Why Scientists are Socially Abnormal

Anthony Easton
Image Credit: Anthony Easton

Bias is a funny thing. Typically, modern society demonizes bias. If you’re labeled as biased, you may as well be labeled a fraud. Above stupid, idiot, and clueless; biased is seen as one of the most educated ways to instantly debase anyone. In my own dredging of the internet I have noticed that the use of the word biased has started to change from the OED “unduly or unfairly influenced; prejudiced” to a more simple “you disagreed with me”.

But isn’t it time that we started to give bias the credit that it deserves? We wouldn’t have an economy or a society without rampant bias. Bias is what makes the business world turn. Economic competition is driven by bias. If you aren’t biased toward your company then you make a really poor salesman. Anyone who has ever worked retail has been told at one point or another to boost sales of a product they may think is inferior to another, comparable one. But that’s the job of a salesman: to uphold and promote bias. In an economic system without bias, companies would never expand into new markets for fear of stepping on someone else’s livelihood. Or they may never be started in the first place.

I would argue that the people who do the best in business are the most biased. They are trained to look at the world through a lens of competitive business. Donald Trump is a master of bias. That’s how he makes money. It’s not just the business world. In nearly every profession bias is celebrated and, indeed, necessary. This is why scientists are so socially abnormal from the rest of the population. In science, bias is shunned and even punishable. Scientists go to school for years in order to train themselves to see the world with as little bias as possible. The only way to make money in science is to be as unbiased as possible.

I wonder then, if this is one of the reasons that scientists are sometimes viewed with great suspicion. Consider for a moment how dead set Donald Trump is against scientists who promote climate change. He doesn’t seem to be so much against the notion of climate change itself as he is against the scientists who promote it. He seems convinced that there is a conspiracy afoot. He has stated that no scientist really believes in climate change, but that there is so much money being made by top climatologists that they are able to convince all other scientists to go along with them.

In other words, Trump is looking for the bias he has been trained to look for. The fact that scientists actually train themselves to be less biased is so bewildering to him that he has convinced himself that it must simply be present but hidden. There must be a conspiracy because they must be biased because his world fundamentally runs on bias. I also wonder if this is where a lot of the distrust of scientists generally comes from. It should be mentioned that polls consistently show that the public generally feels positive about scientists. Undeniably, however, there are people who view scientists with a great deal of suspicion.

So how is this combated? Well, you’ve got me. I could just resort to the classic scientific response to everything and say that we need to increase scientific literacy (never a bad idea). But beyond that, how to you convince people who have dedicated their entire lives to bias that there are people who shun it? The same concept that made Trump billions would make a scientist broke! This is a massive chasm between world views that may never be solved. I could think of some far flung future in which everyone looked at the world scientifically. But as long as humans are human and have ideas and disagreements, bias will be lurking. Does that mean that science will never be fully accepted by society? Your guess is as good as mine.