Saturday, February 16, 2013

Design Attributes for Michigan's Energy Future

There are some basic assumptions underlying my view for addressing our energy future. I would hope that readers share these assumptions, but you may not. My proposals follow from those assumptions, although one might be able to accept the proposals on their own merit without agreeing with my underlying assumptions.

1)      We are one human family
2)      We share one finite planet
3)      We have one common future
These are basic assumptions, based upon the realities that I and many others see. There are other assumptions that many people accept without question that should be challenged. The first, and perhaps primary one, is that we need economic ‘growth’. There is a increasing chorus of economists and thinkers who see ‘economic growth’, especially in developed countries as toxic (Victor, 2008; Jackson, 2011; Schor 2010, etc.). This is not to be confused with ‘development’ for which we do need more or with the reality that some developing nations need some economic growth. A difference between ‘growth’ and ‘development’ might best be articulated as the difference between ‘quantitative’  and ‘qualitative’ improvement.

But if we’re focusing here on Michigan’s energy future and policies to optimize the sustainability of our state we must confront these realities. Proposed solutions must simultaneously address quality of life today as well as the quality of life today’s choices leave for our grandchildren and their grandchildren. Proposals and policies must also concurrently enable energy development that provides right livelihoods while maintaining or improving the ability of ecosystems to provide the necessary ingredients for human life and development into the future. These constraints must be front and center on every decision we make. Given the growing uncertainties we face with climate change and our economic and political systems we would be wise to seek more resilient, more adaptive, and thus smaller scale and diverse solutions as opposed to seeking the silver bullet or centralized grand solution to our energy challenges.

Given these underlying assumptions here are what I believe some fundamental areas of opportunity. If we are one human family, on one finite planet with a shared future we should not be building solutions based upon profit for some. We’re either all in this together, in which case we want to share what we learn so others can utilize our knowledge and apply it to their unique circumstances. Or we are a profit maximizing society that proclaims winners as those who  can accumulate greater wealth. I believe that structuring systems where maximizing profit is the driver is antithetical to what is need in a constrained world with increasing population.  If we share the same atmosphere (chemists argue that each of us shares about four molecules of Caesar’s last breath then reducing the amount of pollutants going into it anywhere, help all of us, now and for centuries into the future.

First, we need to emphasize waste reduction. We have huge opportunity costs lost to energy wasted due to inefficiencies, personal behavior, and the production, transportation, and disposal of stuff we use very briefly, i.e. chopsticks, soda straws, etc. Every kw or btu not consumed saves us dollars and reduces pollution now and gives us longer to figure out more effective ways to use energy in the future.

Second, while one of my basic assumptions is that we are a globalized human family, it is neither necessary, nor optimal that we expend so much energy moving material and people great distances. In fact, there are great savings and increased development opportunities to develop and support more local self-reliance, especially around the fundamental necessities of life – food, shelter, water, energy, and health care. This ‘import substitution’ model of local community development can be applied anywhere. In fact, a development program that begins there with surpluses being shared between communities, bioregions and nation states has better long-term prospects than a model that chases profit wherever and however it can be found. Such operational design builds stronger local communities, allows for more citizen voice and control, and reduces the threats that concentrated power – whether in corporate/private or government hands - might abuse. We know that Michigan exports in excess of $20 billion annually to purchase energy resources from beyond our borders. Recapturing those exported funds for use locally would greatly benefit the communities we live in.

Third, technology will hold some of our answers and we should support learning that enables creative designs to be tested. But emphasis should be on ‘appropriate technology’,  that which is scalable and that can be produced affirming ecological integrity and social and economic justice. We want technologies that are repairable and are durable but that can also be disassembled when no longer functioning and then re-utilized, reused or recycled into some other useful item.

Fourth, taking this orientation will help shift behaviors toward a deeper culture of ‘sharing’ which is perhaps the greatest energy saver and producer available to us. Just as our public libraries allow us to share in the huge knowledge base of both current and past generations so might we also continue to develop other models of shared prosperity, shared knowledge, and shared culture. 

So what kinds of policies fit under this approach to our energy future:
1)      Expand year-round production of food in unheated hoop-houses made in Michigan in part from recycled materials. This utilizes a waste stream, creates local jobs, stimulates more local agricultural production, and reduces the energy used to import food. Fund interest free loans to existing growers who are growing for local markets to add hoophouses to their operations.
2)      Renovate existing homes and businesses for energy conservation and efficiency. Train returning vets, recently released prisoners and others who need work in assessing structures for renovation and doing the renovation work including adding insulation, replacing windows, and upgrading HVAC and lighting systems.
3)      Offer free training sessions on do it yourself home energy improvements. Fund tool distribution to neighborhood associations, rural townships, and/or public libraries that commit to sharing the tools and know-how with residents in their neighborhoods.
4)      Fund research into small scale, simple, appropriate technologies that align with these assumptions and can be applied or adapted to many environments.
5)      Support efficient renewable energy production systems, prefer small scale, decentralized applications. E.g., Use of solar tubes for natural lighting, solar hot water, small wind and hydro generators.

These suggestions align with the recent legislation proposed by Senators Sanders and Boxer, at the moment the only sane and comprehensive proposal dealing with a sustainable energy future I've seen.