The Green Economy: It’s Right AND Smart

Cross posted from It’

During PowerShift 2009, I was lucky enough to be able to speak these words to Representative Markey’s Select Committee on Global Warming:

“The $100,000 Clean Energy Revolving Fund I helped build at Macalester College invests in efficiency projects on campus and puts the savings back into the fund. In its first year, we got a 40% annual return on investment. That’s a bunch of college sophomores with no financial training doing four times better than the stock market – when it’s not collapsing! What would it be like if we harnessed these opportunities, which a green economy provides all across the country?”

In this third post in the series (you can also check out Part 1 and Part 2), I’m going to cut to the chase:

If we want to get real, fundamental, and adequate action taken on climate change, it’s not enough to make it clear that we (even tens of millions of youth in that we), think it’s a good idea.

We have to make it clear that it’s 1. possible, and 2. a good thing all around.

This sounds like a no-brainer, but making that case convincingly can be hard.

A lot of the solutions that are most readily apparent – solar panels on roof-tops, hybrid cars, less consumption – are either way out of the reach of most people (and thus sound elitist), or are framed as a sacrifice. The mentality that a green economy is costly frequently creeps into our own thinking. It’s easy to advocate for spending more money on wind energy electricity or on a super-cool green building because it’s the right thing to do. Scaling up, I’m quite sure a lot of the debates you’ll hear at Copenhagen will revolve around how much wealth various countries should give up for the greater good of a sustainable planet and the well-being of future generations (us and those to come).

Sure it’s right, but is it smart?

I’m not arguing that smart is more important than right, or that we should ever advocate for things that are smart and not right. I’m simply suggesting that if we can’t demonstrate in actual real life that our vision is right AND smart, we’re going to lose.

I hope the insight of how to do so may be helpful as hundreds of youth climate leaders converge on Copenhagen and the struggle for a green economy continues on a thousand campuses and communities.

Read on for what the examples of the Clean Energy Revolving Fund and the Macalester EcoHouse – tales from my own experience that reflect the great work thousands of people across the globe are doing –  have to say about being right and smart.As a freshman at Macalester in 2005, I noticed an ongoing treadmill of students developing and promoting campus sustainability solutions. A lot of these were really good ideas, as summarized in From Neat Ideas to Game Plans, but they tended to follow a predictable pathway. A team of students would get an idea, do research, build support, somehow get the logistics and funding figured out, actually implement the project, and be back to square one. Overall, it tended to emphasize that sustainability means a lot of work, hassle, and money – the task for the truly dedicated. In my mind, that was no way to shift a system.

It struck me that while discussion tends to focus on how costly sustainability is, most of the truly meaningful actions save energy, water, or some other resource, which cut costs. If only we could find a way to channel that savings into a self-sustaining engine that would grow while supporting one project after another after another. Better yet, it would get people thinking “hey this makes sense, why did we never do this before?” and thus unleash the floodgates of creativity and innovation.

I started the Clean Energy Revolving Fund with a couple of other students – we talked with economics professors and managers of other college funds, built support from the student body and academic departments, and hammered through a charter for the fund during long late-night sessions. In retrospect, we made lots of mistakes – not the best financial return mechanism, small horizons (our goal was $100,000 seed funding at a school of 1900 students), and ambiguity in tracking and management. At the time it was heady and innovative.

I drafted the fund’s charter in March 2006, and by the end of April, we had secured $20,000 from the student government – one of the largest single capital requests in its history – and $7,000 from the Environmental Studies Department. In both cases, CERF was recognized as a risk, but a risk with huge potential, and that the alternative was to keep pouring resources into one-time events that did not lead to something greater (like our current energy system one might say). We approached these sources first because we felt that the college administration would be hesitant around such a big idea without commitment from other parties.

In October 2006, we got an additional $40,000 from the administration (later supplemented in late 2007 by another $35,000 for an all-campus lighting retrofit). In May 2006, we held our first meeting of the Clean Energy Revolving Fund (CERF, pronounced “surf”) Board – yeah, it’s the CERF Board – which has students, faculty, staff, and alumni members.

The concrete outcomes of the fund have been great: insulating campus buildings, installing water-saving equipment, and doing a full-campus retrofit of 18,000 four-foot light-bulbs (a $70,000 project with $30,000 annual savings and a roughly 5% impact on Macalester’s energy use). Despite a number of early monitoring and accounting glitches, the fund is growing.

The biggest impact, was the shift in mentality. Students started to think strategically about project impacts, built valuable career skills, and pursued their campus sustainability work along a clear path to success. The administration shifted too – rarely do you hear concerns that it’s too hard, too bold, or too costly anymore. Instead, they look at big ideas for how we revamp our campus (and hopefully soon help surrounding communities to do the same) and ask ‘is it smart?’ The message is no longer ‘please spend resources on this.” It is: “invest here, and get returns in $, sustainability, learning, justice …’ A conversation with our college president hit me with the significance of our strategy. To paraphrase, he said ‘this is the kind of academic and civic engagement opportunity that a school like Macalester would love to support anyway, it’s just a question of prioritizing resources. But here, you’re arguing that you can do it for negative cost. Makes sense.’

In 2007, my friend Asa Diebolt and I wrote a guide for students seeking to build revolving funds, published with the help of AASHE. Since then, dozens of college campuses have used it to launch revolving funds in colleges nationwide. That’s the promise – it works at Macalester. It should work at thousands of other campuses. It should work in communities nationwide (more on that in a future post).

Even before CERF was really on its feet, Macalester student leaders were taking the concept of demonstrating this innovation in a new realm – creating an EcoHouse. High-tech eco-themed buildings had already sprouted up on campuses around the country, most costing hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars. We wanted to start from a different premise – that the greenest building is the one you don’t build. Since 75% of the buildings that will be around in 2050 are already standing (in the US), our greatest impact, we reasoned, would be by finding a cost-effective, replicable, and compelling way to make a green building out of an existing building.

The idea sparked in Fall of 2006, was refined, developed, and advanced through Spring 2007, overhauling the actual building was done in summer 2007, and four students were living in it by Fall 2007. The $50,000 project budget included replacing the decaying roof (from asphalt shingles that leach petrochemicals to a steel roof that lasts twice as long), insulating the building, buying high-efficiency appliances, installing a bathroom solar tube, adding edible forest landscaping (sounds cool, right?), worm composting, and installing a solar hot-water heater on the adjacent garage. While the paybacks for different improvements vary, this was a pretty inexpensive overhaul for a building that was already in need of repair. You can read more about the EcoHouse here.

The EcoHouse is an evolving space – it hosts campus and community tours on how to replicate its success, and students develop new projects around it on an ongoing basis. Particularly, it “looks normal” – serving as a great model for everyday people who are on a budget and don’t want a futuristic house. A recent visitor from another campus was delighted because the big obstacle he was facing was that the administration didn’t want to impose some new-age design on the community. Green doesn’t have to be expensive, unexpected, or even look all that different, it’s the way human systems cycle with broader ecosystems that matter.

For a moment, imagine the contrast if our first step had been to ask Macalester to pay $100,000 per year to fund sustainability projects. Or if we had said we wanted hundreds of thousands for a high-tech green dorm with new-fangled architecture and landscape design. The potential for scale, the mentality of collaboration, and the vision of accessible, pragmatic, and sweeping solutions would all have been much reduced. Through our method, both those things and much more are within the realm of feasibility at Mac. We created the possibility.

A key closing point here: These and many other victories weren’t results of policy. They generated the momentum for policy. Macalester’s innovative sustainability plan, which I highlighted in part 1, was derived from the insights and innovations gained through these and other projects. Innovative implementation isn’t the outcome of bold policy action, it’s what forms the dream and informs the mechanism by which bold policy is created – and it is what gets replicated when bold policy works. It’s what verifies that the bold visions we are pushing for are 1. possible and 2. a good thing all around.

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About timothydenherderthomas

Timothy is the General Manager of Cooperative Energy Futures and a member of the Community Power Steering Committee. He's all about people power, and being the changes we actually want to see. Timothy has been heavily involved in community development and using climate solutions as incredible opportunities for local economic activity, collective empowerment, and self-determination. He does lots of network building with buddies in the youth movement as well as labor, faith, agricultural, small business, and neighborhood groups.

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