More Using Less

I came to environmental issues initially from what seems to me to be a very middle class standpoint. My family had always been frugal, adverse to waste, etc., but these were choices that we made from some sense of social responsibility and personal financial responsibility, not absolute necessity. Moving my things out of my dorm room after my first year of college, I realized how much arbitrary stuff I’d kept throughout the year because of my socialized (and possibly genetic?) aversion to throwing things away. But this also meant that I had accumulated plenty of stuff, which made me think about the fact that despite the fact my family and I may have opted to not live excessively, we never went without, and certainly have always had small luxuries.

Therefore, as I gradually came to engagement in environmental issues growing up, I faced what I feel is, at least in my experience, a somewhat common paradigm that “doing stuff that’s good for the environment” means sacrifice. However, I always had this idea – that always felt vaguely idealistic due to current well-entrenched systems – that it shouldn’t mean sacrifice, that there were common sense ways, for example that more localized food production should be able to be environmentally sustainable and build local economies. However, I never felt particularly empowered to be able to make this happen.

My thoughts in the last few months about Cooperative Energy Futures (CEF) have been gradually informing this idea, and tonight Timothy told his story of growing up (which I don’t really want to delve into here because I feel it’s still his story to tell) and I felt like the way in which I perceived his observations and experiences in a way complemented mine. To describe what I took from his story tonight, I’m going to go with something else I’ve heard Timothy say, over a month ago: “Let’s see lack as an asset.” I see this as a way that can (maybe in different ways depending on background, but maybe not, I don’t know) engage people from many class backgrounds (both the “haves” and “have-nots”, let’s say) in ventures that are both environmentally and economically sustainable.

The model being tested by CEF understandably seems unusual: capitalizing energy efficiency can also be described as creating something out of less, which runs opposite to most modern notions about wealth creation. While this is not an entirely new concept (see the ’70s cookbook, More With Less), carrying it out on any scale and with distinct entrepreneurial intent is definitely not a widely-thought-about idea, but it has lots of opportunity as we’re getting to the point at which continued excess is seeming unfeasible. However, less excess doesn’t mean the end of “business.”

Tonight I was told that CEF has been described as “a different kind of more,” which I see as very well capturing what the future will look like in a myriad of sectors. This is a different type of business plan, and it allocates value differently in some ways, but it’s still a business plan. Such a business can still create value and support people.

[Note: Our community conversation I reference was under the understanding of confidentiality, and I got Timothy’s permission to reference him and his comments.]

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Note: This post cross-posted from Discovering Solutions by Christina Getaz.

Have the alternatives been exhausted? (After being exhaustively explored?)

Xcel Energy has one reasonable rationale for their proposed high-voltage power line through South Minneapolis, specifically the Phillips neighborhood, near Lake Street, at first glance: there has been growth, especially in institutions such as hospitals that use large amounts of energy and indisputably require reliable energy. Blackouts in hospitals are obviously a bad thing.

However, is putting through a new power line that’s just a continuation of the current energy-production regime the only option to provide reliable energy? In the face of climate change and fossil fuel depletion and economic challenges, is that the best system to perpetuate? What about being able to use less energy through efficiency measures, many of which are relatively easy, inexpensive and can be done by the large organizations as well as by individual households all around the area? What if there were a few solar panels on homes and small businesses? These options aren’t impossible, are they?

This might not provide all of the community’s energy, but could it possibly be a method in which the energy demand gap could be made up – and provide a basis so that more of the community’s energy could be produced in such manners in the future? Could it engage the community in working individually and collectively on their own energy? Are families,panaderias, groceries, hospitals, banks, churches, mosques, YWCAs and Scandinavian gift shops limited to being consumers of energy, disconnected from its mysterious production? Or, could they be a part of taking ownership of even a small part of what daily powers their homes and places of business, recreation and worship?

More fundamentally, what are the details of the increase in energy usage? What do the various individuals and organizations in the community think about their energy usage? Are some of them already employing energy efficiency materials? Is there any hidden interest in more energy efficiency and renewables that just haven’t found the opportunity to manifest itself? Could this be that opportunity?

Essentially, do we really know if the new power line is necessary if all these questions haven’t been answered? Can we find answers to a lot of these questions? What might those answers tell us about the necessity of the transmission line?

Weatherizing homes and the potential of skill

Here in the Twin Cities, one of our projects is Cooperative Energy Futures, a cooperative harnessing the power of efficiency to build community as well as energy solutions. We sell a lot of materials for home weatherization, but many of us had never tried these materials out. To educate ourselves more about how home weatherization is done, we enlisted the help of Jim Walsh, one of the founders of Project Warm in Kentucky. Last Saturday, about seven solutionaries did a walk-through of a house owned by Macalester College. Jim told us about different kinds of heat loss in a home and explained how to combat them. We mostly focused on convective heat loss (the kind that happens through the loss of warm air) rather than conductive heat loss (the kind that happens as heat moves through solid surfaces like walls). Armed with new knowledge, we walked through the house and he showed us where to look for inefficiencies.

Unfortunately for us (although fortunately for the residents), the house was already very well weatherized and there wasn’t very much for us to do. There was one window that needed weatherstripping, a door sweep to replace on the front door, some caulking to do in the basement, and a whole bunch of window pulleys to make more airtight. All of these are methods to plug up small holes in outer walls that let either cold air come in or warm air escape. We went back today to install them. They’re all fairly cheap methods — where the cost in weatherization lies, Jim told us, is in the labor.

That’s one thing that has really stuck with me, the idea that there’s so much value to add to weatherizing materials by knowing how to use them. I’ve been thinking today about the possibilities for CEF if we were really good at weatherizing. We’re already working on a workshop to teach people how to use caulk and weather stripping. As I understand it, one of the major flaws in energy auditing as it is done now is that the auditing work is separate from the installation of the needed materials. What if folks from CEF came around, did audits, and installed needed materials? I know this idea isn’t new or unique, but it really hit home for me today while I was actually installing pulley covers and caulking windows. I am really excited to figure out how we can simplify the process of making people’s homes more efficient and use it to do the parts of CEF that ARE new and unique: building communities that are empowered to create their own energy solutions.