Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Ecology of Dialogue

Throughout my environmental studies education at the U, I think the single most important concept I have learned is that everything is interconnected. That is the heart of ecology, which is the heartbeat of the relationships between all life on our planet (forgive my lack of a source for that one). Due to these complex connections, one action can have serious effects on something that seems completely unrelated. Therefore, in addressing ecological issues, there is a dire need for balance and consideration of all entities affected by our actions. A watered-down example of this would be initial habitat destruction associated with coal mining, followed by air and water pollution caused by coal-burning, which spreads the impact of that mine much further than the excavation site.

However, these entities not only include the animal populations and habitats damaged by the human hunt for resources, but the people themselves that are driven by the valid need for them. As much as I and others would love to see all land on the planet whole and untouched, that is not an entirely realistic option. We need to protect the planet, but are also by default obligated to sustain our own species. It is up to us to use the gifts of our environment responsibly, and find that balance.

In order to do that, we must communicate. In regard to the specific task at hand, reinventing energy, consumers, utility companies, representatives at different governmental levels and environmental agencies need to work together. Each must provide their own insights to create a balanced solution that accommodates the energy demands of our society while still complying with regulations and the ethical treatment of ecosystems.

Of course, this is easier said than done. That's why the Utah Museum of Natural History has assembled the upcoming panel of speakers with a diverse range of expertise. We will hear from people working for clean energy at the city, county, and state levels, as well as Piper Rhodes of Rio Tinto and Sarah Wright of Utah Clean Energy. By creating dialogue between these people as well as the attendees (you), we can hear different answers to difficult questions, and use this mixture of ideas to create solutions that benefit both people and the environment.

An example of a successful outcome of this cooperation is highlighted in this article from a few years ago. Salt Lake City received federal funding for large-scale solar power implementation project. The “Solar Salt Lake Project” between Salt Lake City and County, as well as Kennecott land, which owns a large portion of Salt Lake Valley’s developable land. In addition, Utah Clean Energy manages the project by sorting out the technical details, and Rocky Mountain Power also provides funding. If all goes well, 10,000 solar systems will be installed in the Salt Lake Valley by 2015.

This is just one project of the many that are required to produce significant progress toward halting and reversing the environmental damage of fossil energy. Through further dialogue, teamwork, innovation, and combinations of expertise, we will continue to make changes and create the balance of a more ecological way of living and working. It’s not just up to the pros, either. The point of the community panel is to create connections between these experts and you, the people who need energy. If you need clarification or are frustrated with the pace of new energy development (I know I am), come and voice those concerns. If you are just awed by the power of the sun, that’s cool too! We need to hear from everyone, because we are all affected in one way or another.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Springing to Action

At this point in the game, I am pretty sure that we can save the world. It might just be the warm weather and budding flowers sending a breeze of optimism through my heart, but I think that we have been presented with a powerful set of tools with which to combat climate change through the reinvention of energy. The first three lectures of The Nature of Things series have provided a clear picture of what needs to be done, and what is happening right now. The new technology presented by Jeff Muhs, Fred Krupp's success stories, and the challenges and innovative solutions that Jonathan Hoekstra discussed have collectively painted a landscape of hope that will soon be free of fossil-based fuel.

I think we can all agree that actual implementation of renewable energy is often frustratingly evasive. We have been provided with the knowledge of what's out there, but we want it right here, too. To balance out the big picture with things we can do in our own lives, The Nature of Things will next feature a panel of energy leaders that specialize in making a difference in our own state of Utah. They will answer questions specific to our unique location, so that we can work together to make progress in our own communities, and by extension, the world at large. The panelists will provide a range of perspectives and a breadth of information about changes being implemented in Utah. For example, they will provide insight concerning where specifically to focus our efforts while building a clean energy economy in Utah, the most promising clean energy projects in Utah right now, and the most important ways that we as private citizens can contribute to clean energy development. The panelists also represent a range of scales, from city to county to state levels, as well as outside organizations such as PacifiCorp and Rio Tinto.

I hope that this panel discussion will give us an even better idea of how to adjust our own behaviors to help keep the ball rolling towards further implementation of clean energy. If we set an example in our own community, others will see the light as well (pun intended). And as long as spring is in the air, I will continue to be cheery and optimistic, and tell you to join the discussion if you're interested in saving the world.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Not Just Throwing Money to the Wind

This shameless plug for the Renewable Energy Campaign was written by Paul Spencer, Office of Sustainability intern.

In several of her recent posts, Alycia has talked about the importance of individual responsibility and cooperative efforts in reinventing energy. Of course, conservation and reducing consumption are probably the most important things we can do at an individual level. Making our voices heard in politics is also important, but not always immediately fruitful. And, at least as far as energy is concerned, many of us wonder what more we can do, short of outfitting our homes with expensive solar panels or giant electricity-generating gerbil wheels.

However, did you know that if you're a University of Utah student, you're already contributing to one of the biggest green energy purchases in the country, automatically? Every time a U of U student pays tuition, a dollar from that goes to the Renewable Energy Campaign, which uses the money to buy Green-E certified renewable energy credits that help develop wind energy. A dollar may not sound like much, but the collective effort has placed the U in 7th on the EPA's rankings of colleges and universities for green power purchases. Now imagine if every student gave two dollars? Or more?

It's not just up to students to do their part, though. U Faculty and staff have been challenged to step up to the plate as well, with many departments already donating yearly (which also allows for interdepartmental bragging rights, like when UMNH beat Undergraduate Studies in 2009). You don't even have to be associated with the U in order to donate, and it's a great way to help offset your personal electricity use at home. Of course, it also doesn't hurt that it's a tax deductible contribution.

So, if you're a starving student, we thank you for your contribution, and encourage you to challenge your professors, friends, relatives, neighbors, employers, Facebook friends (even the ones you don't like very much), etc., to go to windpower.utah.edu and match or better your own tuition-imposed generosity.

Lastly, we are looking for feedback on options for how the money is spent. Currently the money goes toward cost effective Green-E certified RECs that put power on and develop wind energy in the western US grid in general. Would you be more eager to donate if we invested directly in a more local renewable energy company, even if it pays for less energy? What about buying solar panels for campus buildings? Let us know in the comments!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Things Sprawl Apart

Jonathan Hoekstra’s lecture on Wednesday was both highly informative and empowering. He presented quite a bit of data that proved energy sprawl to be a formidable challenge, accompanied by a number of reasonable actions that we can take right now to prevent it.

As stated in a previous post, I noticed a lack of individual accountability in the first two lectures of the series. Jeff Muhs and Fred Krupp described some great progress in the effort to reinvent energy, but they didn’t spend too much time on encouraging people to conserve energy in the first place. In contrast, Hoekstra stressed energy conservation as the main strategy in preventing energy sprawl and other issues. In what he dubbed the “one percent challenge,” Hoekstra discussed simple actions that we can take, such as thermostat adjustments, turning out lights, and walking instead of driving. Cutting energy consumption by just 1% could save 500,000 acres of land.

However, as much as I like to champion sustainable lifestyle changes, actions need to be taken on all levels, from personal behavior to federal legislation. Hoekstra spent a lot of time discussing the need for a coherent national energy policy. One issue with renewable energy systems, especially wind power, is that they are often established in places where demand is highest, and not necessarily the most efficient locations. This lack of central organization results in a “willy nilly” distribution of power sites, and contributes to energy sprawl.

The race to reinvent energy is an ongoing process with many hurdles along the way, but we are making progress. To go further, it's going to take effort on the part of everyone. When asked whether the public or private sector has more responsibility to fix our nation's energy problems, Hoekstra said that they have different roles to play. We need cohesive policies from the government, while local businesses and citizens seize the entrepreneurial opportunities provided by the need for change. For this local perspective on things, I am looking forward to the final event of the series, which will be a panel discussion of local energy leaders. I think they will provide insight into what we can do in our own city, and help bridge the gap between large-scale ideas and personal action.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Energy Sprawl Solutions

Few would argue that clean energy is the best tool we have to combat climate change (but if you do, speak up!). The first two speakers of The Nature of Things series have delivered messages of innovation and hope for its implementation. The remarkable research and efforts of people involved with fixing our energy problems and cleaning up the planet have proven alternative energy to be extremely beneficial. However, clean energy faces issues that go beyond the unfair market challenges outlined by Fred Krupp and the lack of transformational progress that Jeff Muhs discussed. In particular, land demands associated with energy infrastructure present another problem. Powering our nation with sustainably will require large expanses of land to devote to solar panel installation, wind turbines, biofuel crops, etc. Energy sprawl, discussed more at length in this article, presents a bit of a challenge, but is by no means insurmountable.

Jonathan Hoekstra, senior scientist at The Nature Conservancy, will discuss energy sprawl solutions at this week’s Nature of Things lecture. I’ll admit that this issue was news to me before getting involved with The Nature of Things, and I was rather dismayed that alternative energy isn’t entirely perfect (especially since I’ve been heralding its joys to the world for years). However, I appreciate the realistic approach that will be acknowledged in Wednesday’s lecture, and I look forward to the encouraging solutions that Hoekstra will surely present. Addressing these issues now will produce even better options to help the effort to reinvent energy.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Giving Clean Energy a Chance

Fred Krupp's keynote lecture on March 2 provided a balance of practical solutions, willingness to compromise, and hope that is not entirely common in the world of lectures regarding environmental crises. I often find that lectures like this focus on the dire straits in which we have hurled the environment, and then maybe the cool technology that might haul us out, but not so much about implementation. Thankfully, Fred Krupp was full of ideas.

Mainly, Krupp stressed the unequaled power of the marketplace in determining the success of any product. If given the opportunity, he is confident that consumers will drive the demand for clean energy. However, it will take some work to level out the playing field and give clean energy technology a fair chance. There will have to be compromises. Another aspect of Krupp's lecture that I appreciated was the acknowledgment that I order to make improvements, we have to listen to each other and come up a solution that will serve both sides. In the end, cooperation will yield the greatest results while still generating incredible wealth and environmental benefits.

However, Krupp didn't cover a few things that I find important in dialogue about energy and other environmental issues. In both Krupp's and Jeff Muhs' lectures, I noticed that there was little mention of holding individuals accountable for their energy demands. There was some talk about leaving lights on unnecessarily, but there wasn't a lot about reducing the amount of energy we use in the first place, not to mention other lifestyle changes necessary to live in a truly sustainable manner. But that's another blog post. I just don't think technology will solve all of our problems; a lot of the responsibility lies in our own hands as well.

As The Nature of Things gets ready to welcome Jonathan Hoekstra, some of the deeper issues associated with energy use and production will hopefully be addressed. In his discussion about the potential sprawl of energy infrastructure, I hope to hear something about how much energy is reasonable to produce in the first place. We can wait for solutions to appear, but we can also take action ourselves and adjust our own behaviors. It's going to take a huge amount of change from different sources. Keep up with the Nature of Things series to hear about many of them, and generate your own ideas about how to reinvent energy!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Changes, Big and Small

After full immersion in the planning stages of The Nature of Things, watching Jeff Muhs kick off the series with his talk about transformational energy technologies was extra refreshing. Not only did he discuss some truly ground-breaking innovations as promised (electrified roadways? Who would have thought!), but he also frankly addressed the reasons why new energy systems have a hard time being implemented. Unsurprisingly, a primary challenge is the traditional incremental system of technological progress that favors gradually building upon existing methods rather than replacing them with different systems that could work a lot better.

Of Muhs’ many solutions to our energy crisis, I particularly enjoyed his shoutout to universities and other non-federal organizations as capable keyholders to a bright energy future. I see that truth every day as I roam the U of U campus. My peers and I are highly sensitive to the fact that things aren’t moving quite as fast as they should be, and we’re dead set on achieving real change. We are thankful for the few ‘compostable’ plastic spoons in the Union cafeteria over here, but most of us realize that a corn-based spoon is not really going to reverse global warming. I have faith that my generation has the ability to move beyond cutlery, beat the system, and save the world.

And in order to do that, we have to start at home. Another reason I liked hearing from Jeff Muhs is that he is innovating right here in Utah, where his work is extremely important. Utah is one of the US regions most severely impacted by climate change. We are already painfully aware of the limited amount of water available in our arid climate, which will only become more scarce as we release more emissions that mess with the weather and make Utah even more susceptible to drought. As summer starts earlier and ends later, the amount of snowpack on our mountains will not be able to provide the required amount of water to sustain us. Not to mention the myriad other ecological impacts of wonky weather (don’t even get me started on the ski season).

There is a lot at stake, both at home and the world at large, and it’s time to put solutions to action. There are many possibilities out there, which we will continue to explore in the coming Nature of Things lectures. For example, a member of the audience brought up a question about the controversial cap and trade system as a solution to reducing climate-changing carbon emissions. Muhs chose not to touch that can of worms, but this Wednesday’s speaker, Fred Krupp, is bringing a can opener. As president of the Environmental Defense Fund and a leading proponent of the cap and trade system, Krupp will bring new insight to cap and trade as well as a host of other large-scale ideas to battle climate change and reinvent energy. Don’t forget to reserve your free tickets, and we will see you there!