Category Archives: Eco-Activism

An Ugly Month for Solar in November

November was ugly.  Especially in terms of solar production from my rooftop solar photovoltaic system:

November 2017 solar.jpg

The production was nice and steady save for some real dog days when the system produced less than 3 kWh per day.  I am really surprised by the actual production numbers because the system is producing far below my calculated expectations, which were based on fairly pessimistic assumptions.

Like October there is a sort of silver lining.  Even though my photovoltaic system produced slightly more than 212 kWh for the month I consumed less than 300 kWh in total, including both grid and on-site consumption.  Considering how much the family has been staying at home and cooking at home I am going to consider this a victory.  It will be interesting to see what the numbers look like in December with a long holiday vacation at the end of the month.

On the bright side, it looks like solar is contagious.  Two new systems went live over the past week and I know of at least two more that are going live soon.  This is in addition to the several systems going up that I can see on my way to work.  Each one of these systems is like a little dagger in the black heart of the coal economy.

Advertisements

We Have More than Enough Money to Decarbonize Our Energy System

If I ever hear another American politician say that we cannot afford the transition to clean energy I will scream.  Why you ask?

In 2012 it was estimated that consumers in the U.S spent approximately $65 billion on soda.  In that same year it was estimated that consumers in the U.S. spent approximately $11 billion on bottled water.  [1] That is to say that American consumers spent over $75 billion on unnecessary drinks and, in the case of soda, a product that is generally regarded to be detrimental to your health.  Not to mention the environmental impact of disposable, single use containers.

Okay, why is that relevant in the terms of this discussion?  In 2016, the most recent year for which full year data is available, the U.S. invested $44 billion in clean energy including both private investing and government expenditure.  [2]

Therefore, we spend more than 50% more on soda and bottled water per year than we invest in clean energy.  If we just directed the money from soda and bottled water to clean energy investment it would represent an increase of 172%.  That is a lot of solar panels and wind turbines.

Someone may argue that this scenario is impractical, but I would challenge such an argument on several fronts.  One, spending on soda and bottled water—for the most part—is totally discretionary.  No one needs a Diet Coke to survive and other than emergency situations no one needs bottled water.  It could be argued that it would be better if no one consumed bottled water given the economic and environmental impact of a product that can also be obtained from municipal water supplies.  Two, by and large individuals now have the power to redirect their discretionary spending toward renewable energy.  As long as you have the capital or alternative financing arrangements are available you can put solar panels directly on your roof.  Thus, your Diet Coke and Evian habit can be turned into clean energy.  A direct substitution, so to speak.

My point is to illuminate that when we discuss the level of investment necessary to decarbonize our energy system it needs to be placed in direct comparison to some broader economic choices.  Is the future our planet worth skipping that Dr. Pepper?

  1. http://classroom.synonym.com/how-much-do-americans-spend-on-soft-drinks-12081634.html
  2. http://www.businessinsider.com/us-2015-renewable-energy-investments-2016-5

Find Your Tribe

In this crazy, mixed up world where Donald Trump can claim that Hillary Clinton colluded with Russia to harm her own campaign as a means to explain his innocence we need to find solid footing more than ever.  We need to find that tribe of people who connect with our beliefs and our passions in order to feel that we belong to this larger universe.  You need to find your tribe.

What do you are about?  What makes your heart sing?  What makes you smile to get up in the morning and see the possible?  Take stock of these things to find your tribe.

It is important to be part of something larger when engaging with your elected representatives because it gives your message staying power.  If you correspond with them as a member of an organization that has individuals testifying or is providing lobbying materials on behalf of an issue it resonates.  There is a reason why the AARP gets its message heard.  When thousands of people call and tell their representatives that the issue is important to members of AARP that legislative agenda gets traction.

Consider the power we can wield.  When Trump, goaded by the Utah congressional delegation and local state politicians including the governor, announced his intention to review more than a dozen monuments declared under several prior presidential administrations the outdoor community howled.  Better yet progressive outdoor companies led by Patagonia and followed quickly by Arc’teryx, Polartec, and Peak Designs among others made it very clear that they would not participate in the semi-annual Outdoor Retailer convention that took place in Salt Lake City.

By July 2017, less than five months after the actions by the outdoor community, Outdoor Retailer announced it would be moving its convention to Denver.  Numbers are hard to come by and notoriously unreliable, but most accounts attribute upwards of $45 million dollars in spending due to the presence of Outdoor Retailer.  I do not care how right wing your politics run $45 million is a lot of money getting pumped into the local economy.

Why did this happen?  Outdoor advocates and companies banded together in a coherent way to make it known they would not stand for the wonton giveaway of our public lands to moneyed interests.  This is the power of our tribes.

This is something that the right wing has understood for years with organizations like the NRA.  Very few members of the NRA actually espouse the virulent views of its leadership but they are counted among the faithful when it comes time to apply political pressure.  We can apply the same level of political pressure on behalf of our causes.

Be active in your tribe.  Be unforgiving in your defense of your tribe.  Be passionate about your tribe.

If you happen to be one of those people so dispossessed and apathetic that there is nothing for which you would man the barricades may whatever god have mercy on your soul.

An October Solar Surprise

October 2017 was kind of an ugly month for my solar photovoltaic system.  I calculated an expected production of approximately 400 kWh and saw production come in at just over 265 kWh.  This works out to about 66% of the predicted output.  Here is how ugly it was:

Solar October 2017.png

Do you see the period of time from October 10th through the 14th?  It must have been almost night out there all day.  What happened?

Easy.  Eastern Iowa saw some seriously gray conditions throughout the month.  Apparently we are entering into the so-called “stratus season” when local climate conditions produce low hanging stratus cloud formations that block out the sun.  November and December are apparently the worst months for this condition.  Awesome.

On the bright side I only ended up using approximately 73 kWh of grid electricity this month, which is not very much in the grand scheme of things.  Considering how well September turned out in terms of production I think I am still ahead of the game by about 64 kWh since my system became active at the end of August.  I will take net positive as we head into the gray months of November and December.

Where are the Tools of Meaningful Change?

Last week I wrote about society possessing the tools for meaningful change as it relates to carbon emissions and climate change for the first time in my memory, which stretches back into the 1980s.

The fact is that the tools for meaningful change exist at many different levels throughout society.  Consider the following hierarchy:

  • International
  • National
  • Community
  • Household
  • Personal

Too often we become fixated on the tools at an International or National level at the expense of seeing the good we can do at a Community, Household or Personal level.  Furthermore, we fail to see the connections that cross multiple levels.  Take a Fortune 500 company in the United States.  It obviously has an impact on the local community.  However, depending upon its size—which as a Fortune 500 company is usually quite large—and its geographic footprint it will definitely impact multiple communities in multiple states thus making it a national concern.  Frequently, these companies have just as much of an economic or physical footprint in multiple countries so their behaviors are international by definition.

At a lower level, a lot of our Personal choices impact both our Household and our Community.  There are no set walls that determine the scope and impact of our actions.  Nonetheless, I find it useful to categorize or bucket our actions into these broad levels so that we can think about things in a more defined sense.

The old adage from the gauzy past was to “think globally, act locally.”  Somewhere along the line we abdicated personal responsibility in favor of pushing large collective solutions.  Those large collective solutions, while spreading the pain of change and adaptation across the entire population, have fallen out of favor with the leadership—if you can it that—in Washington D.C.  Therefore, action must come from levels below International and National categories—unless there are entities that can cut across those categories by virtue of their economic and/or geographic footprints.

Once we understand where the tools of meaningful change exist we can begin to build our own personal menu to create a better world.

Turning the Lights off at Work

It is my opinion that I have cut down my household electricity consumption to a fairly good range.  For a family of four living in an above average sized home using 360 to 390 kWh per month on a twelve month rolling average feels like a success.  Furthermore, I am offsetting more than 100% of that electricity consumption via the solar photovoltaic system on my roof.

Although my children generally groan when I tell them to head back downstairs to turn off lights when they are done playing with LEGOS or practicing piano they understand what is behind the request.  Heck, my son has turned into a little eco-warrior albeit in his own way.  For some reason he is focused on people who smoke.  His frequent refrain when we pass someone smoking is, “Why do people smoke?  It’s not good for them, it is expensive, and the smoke is bad for the environment.”  If only we all could follow the logic of a six year old.

However, much of my days is not spent at home but at work.  It is a fairly standard office setting.  A lot of cubicles, a smattering of offices, and a handful of conference rooms.  It is the type of office environment that would not be out of place in a half hour sitcom or the movie Office Space.  Fortunately my days are not interrupted by Lundberg.

Surprisingly in a recent renovation of the office space some automatic lighting controls were installed that switch lighting on and off based on movement.  This prevents offices and common areas from being lit up all night long when none is occupying the space.  I say surprisingly because the company I work for is not well known for its forward leaning facilities plan.

The conference rooms do not have these features.  Lights are still controlled by wall mounted switches and projectors for presentations have indeterminate timers.  No matter how many LEDs I switch off in my own home, it cannot compare to switching off the conference room lights at the end of the day before going home.  Heck, I turn off the lights in the three conference rooms I pass on my way to get hot water for tea whenever these rooms are unoccupied.

The computer projectors, though, drive me insane.  When these things are blazing away it is like leaving a 300W incandescent bulb burning.  Ever seen a 300W incandescent bulb?  It’s freaking bright and hot.  A couple of taps on a remote is all it takes to turn these machines off yet most meetings adjourn with the projectors being left on regardless of a meeting taking place in the same room or not.

I now find myself turning into the light and projector police at work.  What about you?  Do you turn the lights off at work?

Refocusing on a Home Based Economy

2009 seems like a long away.  It’s has been “just” eight years, but as Donald Trump continues to be an international embarrassment on a daily basis it makes me wonder about those halcyon days when we waited for Barack Obama to take the oath of office.

2008 was a bear for a lot of people.  The economy literally seemed like it was going off the rails completely and no one had any idea how to fix things.  It turns out the “masters of the universe” in the high finance world had figured out a way to spread the risk and damage from low-grade securitized mortgage loans to almost every aspect of the American economy.  Amazingly, this contagion also spread to the global economy because as much as closed minded right wingers would like to believe the world is not interconnected globalization is a fact of life.

The buzzwords in the winter of 2008 and into 2009 were things like urban homesteading, frugality, DIY, canning, etc.  You get the idea.  We were collectively abandoning a consumer lifestyle focused on buying a plasma television a few inches bigger than the perfectly fine working plasma television in the basement of our home that was half again as big as we needed.  We were all wondering if maybe we had lost something in the pursuit of more square footage, solid surface countertops, nine foot ceilings, and crown molding.  Well, how times have changed.

Or has it?

After eight decent years of economic recovery, which has been uneven and much slower than prior economic recoveries, experts are beginning to wonder if the new era of Trump will also coincide with a recession.  Despite the major stock indices hitting new highs on a seemingly daily basis there is ample evidence that maybe there is just a little gas left in the tank and recession is waiting on the doorstep.

What to do?

My solution is to turn inward and focus on a home based economy.  It’s sort of in line with my theory that the most subversive thing that we can do is nothing.  [LINK]  By focusing our efforts inside of our homes the emphasis is no longer necessarily on the things we buy to consume.  It is inward facing and not concerned with external judgment.

Maybe it is about mindfulness.  Maybe it is about frugality.  Maybe it is about all of those things that we pay lip service to in conversation but forget to act upon the minute we get an email touting the latest sale at REI.  I am as guilty of this behavior as anyone else and it is the single thing that I am trying to break myself from over the course of the next few months.  It is my hope that by focusing on the economy of the home that I will slowly begin to break my own cycle of consumerism.  In the process I hope to solidify household finances and achieve some measure of greater satisfaction.

That sounds great, but what does it mean in practice?

Take a look at the image below:

18xt827xq7jnspng.png

This is for the average “consumer unit,” so in reality you will spend more or less on items as your personal circumstances dictate, e.g. I do not smoke so I do not spend $323 per year on tobacco.  However, as a thought exercise it gets you to think about where you spend your money.

It’s easy to key in on the largest single unit related to “housing.”  Yet, for most of us our housing situation is somewhat inflexible because we have a mortgage, lease, etc.  It is easy for some blogger to scream “downsize” but the costs associated with that may actually make the option prohibitive.

Now, look at some of the other categories.  Transportation eats up the next largest portion.  Well, if you start basing your life around your home you will probably drive a lot less.  Trust me, once I started thinking about every mile driven being $0.50 tossed out the window I began to think about every trip I took by car and how I could reduce those miles.  Stay at home and you do not spend the money on transportation.  Yes, you will still spend money on insurance and tags for your vehicle but every mile not driven is less you spend on fuel and maintenance.

Food is the third largest contributor and another place where a home based philosophy can really make a difference.  Modern Americans spend a smaller share of their income on food than at any other time in the country’s history yet we still spend a lot of money both in and out of the home.  Plus, we throw away a lot of food.

The common thread throughout is by focusing on living a frugal life at home the expenses in a lot of these categories can be ameliorated.  If you are buying less stuff you are spending less money and producing fewer carbon emissions.  Like I said earlier the greenest thing you can do is nothing.