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  • Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

September 27, 2010 - 4:30pm

Because a lot of the work I do on campus focuses (or at least touches) on energy efficiency, I get a lot of communications from the Association of Energy Engineers. This week, I got a tabloid-format promotion for their annual conference. The lead story starts out "The catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and record temperatures around the world have brought about the "Age of Energy Transformation."


I fully understand that the weather has been bad and seems to be getting worse. In fact, according to the Environmental Defense Action Fund:

  • 43 of 50 states had temperatures above normal this summer
  • Summer night-time heat records were set in 37 states
  • 10 states had their hottest summer on record
  • The global land surface during July and August was hotter than it's been since records were started.

But the inception of an Age of Energy Transformation? Maybe when history is finally written (I can only hope so), but not so that it's immediately obvious to those of us on the ground.

Of course, "on the ground" is a good place to be recently. On the ground, unless you're in a boat, is preferable to on (or under) the water. And a lot of places have been under the water, lately. A quick check of Google News shows flood relief efforts in Wisconsin, South Dakota, North Carolina, Minnesota, Iowa and Pennsylvania. Not to mention Canada, Mexico, much of Central America, Nigeria, and Pakistan. On the flip side (if all the water's going to the floods, it can't be going everywhere else), there are droughts reported in Ohio, Texas, Indiana, Pennsylvania ( a two-fer!), New Jersey, Virginia, Maryland and Kentucky. Also Australia, Russia and central Africa. Combine the flooding in Pakistan with drought-facilitated wildfires in Russia, and wheat prices have spiked around the world.

But is this enough to force our age to absolutely transform energy? Not that I'm noticing. A few changes at the margins, but nothing more.

Virtually all the climate-change prognosticators are predicting massive population disruptions as inhabitable regions become un-. North America, as one of the regions less (or at least later) affected, is expected to become increasingly attractive to any of billions of folks who can find a way to get here. But that threat isn't enough to make us transform energy; it's merely enough to make us hurry up on that big wall we're building.

But, if the zeitgeist is what it claims to be, maybe one sequence of effects is big enough to get our transformation act in gear. Maybe -- just maybe -- we'll be forced to act in order to address the Federal deficit. (Don't laugh -- it was the Treasury Department that finally got Al Capone, after all!) According to information I found on the web (so, of course, it must be authoritative), the National Flood Insurance Program is the most expensive federal grant program of all, and is actuarially unsound. If the weather keeps changing and the floods keep coming, maybe the underwriters and actuaries (does NFIP have actuaries? if it does, is Congress aware of them?) will force the issue into the political/media arena.

It's a crazy thought, I do admit. Federal agencies (and the contractors who work for them) don't make waves -- making waves is a career-ending move. But it has a certain logic to it. Sometimes, all those costs that industry thought it had successfully externalized get clumped together and draw attention. And when that happens, maybe an age of (at least some kind of) transformation is possible.


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