Friday, January 18, 2013

Building Energy for Energy Changes

Is it just me, or have there been lots of stories lately about how country X or area Y could produce all of its electricity with renewables? First there was the study about the mid-Atlantic states, then this on Australia, and this about what Iceland is up to. Plus Germany, which gets 25 percent from renewables and is working toward much higher percentages in the near term. And the World Wildlife Fund study on how much of the world's land would be need to provide 100 percent solar power (answer: it's less than 1 percent).

That's all well and good in theory, but to make it happen, at least in the U.S., is going to require something other than wishful thinking and individuals putting panels on their roofs. As Maggie Koerth-Baker makes clear in her book Before the Lights Go Out, renewables can't be turned on or off as needed to balance the load in the electrical grid, and so therefore require storage in the form of huge, expensive batteries or large infrastructure systems like compressed air energy storage or pumped-storage hydroelectricity.

And before any of that can happen, we have to deal with the fact that competing carbon-based sources (natural gas and coal) are too cheap to encourage any substantial competition from startup technologies that have high infrastructure costs.

The only way to reweight the pricing is through a carbon tax or cap and trade. As Maggie says near the end of the book, the best way to get people to do the right thing is for the right thing to be the cheapest thing. That way, no one has to be cajoled into it.

I don't usually refer to people I write about by their first names on second reference, but since I just saw Maggie speak in a pretty intimate setting this week, I'm making an exception.

Maggie Koerth-Baker standing in front of a projected image of a 19th century old white man with a big mustache
She went over the ins and outs of how the grid functions, and what it means for the future of renewables. The audience, made up of sustainability activists, including people from Windustry and the Alliance for Sustainability, was up for some good discussion afterwards.

Last night I took part in a lively conversation about whether my neighborhood should become what's called a Transition Town. Well, I guess it wasn't really about whether, but how. The approximately 50 people branstormed in small groups on sustainable visions for our area in 2020, then followed up with actions that could bring that vision closer to reality.

I couldn't help talking about big picture items, like carbon taxes or free public transit, but I also brought up the need for Saint Paul to change to coordinated trash hauling, which would save fuel, decrease diesel pollution, and lessen the wear and tear on our streets and allies.

After listening to everyone's ideas, I came away with a short list of ideas I'll be looking into helping with that range in ambition:

  • Setting up a tool-sharing system or possibly a maker space where tools could be used, so that everyone doesn't have to buy a table saw or a ladder.
  • Doing a survey to identify large roofs, such as churches, commercial buildings, or apartment buildings, that could house a cooperatively owned solar array like the one just established northwest of Minneapolis. Our neighborhood has a lot of trees, and most roofs don't face south. Once the survey is done, of course, there'll be a need for a partner to finance and build the array, plus permission from the building owners. Because Minnesota has a law requiring its electric utilities to be 25 percent renewable by 2025, this idea might happen relatively quickly.
  • Starting a campaign encouraging people to drop a car: If you have two, go down to one. This is partly inspired by Maggie describing how she and her husband are able to function with one car because they live near an active busline in Minneapolis, supplemented with biking. My neighborhood is bounded by three buslines and bisected by another, of varying (and in my opinion nowhere near high enough) frequency. We have at least one Hour Car pickup point; we have lots of Nice Ride bike installations available from April to November. We could look into more informal car-sharing among people. It would be a big change, but I think an awareness campaign and an effort to increase the bus frequency could have some effect over time.
That's what'll be on my mind in the coming weeks and months. The Transition Town group is meeting again next month to talk more specifics. Everyone is supposed to bring several neighbors along.

No comments: