Friday, April 01, 2005

Friday Hope Blogging

In the last few days, I've run across three appealing examples of local approaches to energy problems.

In Florida, a company called ENER1 has been selected to design a renewable energy system that will power a highway rest area.

The company's 10 KW fuel cell based energy source will use methanol created from Florida's two largest industries -- food waste from theme parks and orange peels from citrus processing.
What I like best about this idea is that it uses materials that are already clogging the regional waste stream. One of the best conceptual steps we can take towards solving our energy and pollution woes is to drop the one-size-fits-all approach, and look for ways of turning local problems - like a specific type of waste - into local solutions. It's always nice to see planners paying attention to the subtleties of local systems, instead of trying to make readymade solutions fit disparate problems.

Something like this is being undertaken in Wayne, New Jersey, which has an ambitious plan to overhaul the way its municipal buildings are heated and powered. The centerpiece of the scheme is a large cogeneration plant, but the little details are even more interesting:
Parking lot lights with small wind turbines mounted on them would further cut electrical costs, and solar panels on buildings would provide about 37 percent of their electrical needs. The plan also includes technology to reduce energy use, such as lighting fixtures that dim when ambient light alone is sufficient.
(It's fine to have fancy sensors and automated lighting, but only if you maximize ambient light. You can do this by installing a SunPipe, which diffuses natural light throughout large spaces, with no use of electricity whatsoever.)

I think Wayne is making a wise move. In addition to cost savings and quality of life issues, there's the question of civic pride to consider. When electric lights first became commonplace, virtually every town in America festooned every inch of Main Street with bulbs; they hoped to attract businesses, tourists, and new residents by showing that they were Cities of the Future. (Frankly, I suspect it was partially this sort of hypercompetitive technological overreaching that got us into our current state of affairs, but that's a rant for another day.)

In Electrifying America: Social Meanings of a New Technology, 1880-1940, David Nye writes:
Many small towns, such as Nyack, New York, and Bellefontaine, Ohio, emulated the larger cities by installing White Ways. To them electrification was a form of conspicuous consumption that said, "We are progressive and growing."... For such towns lighting was more than a mere functional necessity or a convenience; it emerged as a glamorous symbol of progress and cultural advancement.
This may be a stretch on my part, but I believe that smaller towns like Wayne will be able to promote and rejuvenate themselves by turning themselves into showcases for similarly "glamorous" advances in green technology and design. And if all goes well, they'll be more able to attract tourists and residents, not least because the money such projects save can be used to keep infrastructure functioning at a time when many cities are being forced to cut services.

Meanwhile, in Michigan, a statewide net-metering program credits citizens who generate their own energy for any energy that they send back to the grid:
Under the agreement, net-metered customers will be credited for net excess generation (NEG) at the utility's retail price of generation. Any credits will be carried over from month to month, limited to a 12-month billing cycle. At the end of each 12 billing-month cycle any cumulative NEG credits, may be retained by the utility and the customer's credit will be reset to zero. The value of any generation credits retained by the utility will be used to offset net metering programming costs, thus benefiting net metering customers.
What I find exciting about all this is neither the technology per se, nor even the financial or energy savings. I'm excited about the possibility that old assumptions will be questioned and discarded, and centuries of economic dogma and false dichotomies swept aside; I'm excited at the thought that the process of pursuing energy independence will help us to achieve a measure of psychological independence.

And I confess that in my wildest dreams, I sometimes imagine living in a world where the brutal, reductive, plodding "thought" of the average MBA becomes an insuperable stumbling-block to professional success, rendering a generation of vipers toothless.

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