Sunday, April 18, 2010

What Does it Take to get a Paradigm Shift Around Here?

In the 2006 article, “From Recession to Renewables”, and in my own personal reflections paradigm shifts have always had the common denominator that is social suffering. Buddhism became one of the Chinese schools of thought after centuries of a stratified society encouraged by Confucianism, because in Buddhism societal place is rationalized and the ability to move upward is dictated by karma. In order to abolish the Jim Crow laws in America, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. took place. In “From Recession to Renewables”, a small Austrian town was on the verge of erasure (think Detroit, MI after the fallout experienced by the automotive industry) when a radical new economy was instituted to remodel Gussing, Austria into the world leader in renewable energy.

The industry in Gussing can be described as something alien to a capitalist. It takes a resource that is not the cheapest and not the most fruitful and uses it in an economy that is not centralized. Where is the middleman in all of this? He does not exist. The backbone of Gussing is its district heating system which takes cut-offs from local mills to provide heat for industry and residents. The cheap heat has enticed companies into relocating to Gussing, causing the job market to swell. As a result, 18 million extra Euros stay in Gussing when compared to the days of outsourced energy. In a town of four to five thousand, this makes a difference. Instead of allowing a select few to exercise decadence, the whole town lives comfortably. The extra money in the community has led to improvements such as the only successful biodiesel/heat/power cogeneration plant in the world.

In Santa Fe the electric utility is investor-owned and, as such, its operations are motivated by profit. Wherever profit exists for one party, sacrifice must exist for another. It is stated in the Sustainable Santa Fe plan that the community desires an 18.9% reduction in CO2 emissions by the year 2012. A significant portion of this reduction would be possible if more renewable energy was used in the energy generation mix, but that would require a significant capital investment in solar farms, wind turbines, and biomass boilers, all of which are less profitable than coal. Santa Feans have no control over their energy production, which means that they have no control over the biggest contributor to their CO2 emissions. PNM (the electric utility of Santa Fe) has even stated that it will not meet the state mandate to make 20% of its energy portfolio renewable by 2020. To top it off, PNM has demanded five electric rate increases in the last 27 months.

What lesson can be taken from Gussing and applied in Santa Fe? Any change in societal standards must begin with some kind of social suffering. Do Santa Fean’s have any of that? Certainly. It is the reason that my project team became a victim to a robbery, the reason that I was called a “chink” while walking down West Alameda Street, and the reason that the high-school graduation rate is only 50% in this city. There are people who find life dissatisfactory in Santa Fe. If the energy scheme in the City is to change, it must begin with the people who suffer most. For example, the city could offer low-cost district heating for low-income neighborhoods, or even microgrids in the same fashion. This would create the “green-collar” jobs everyone keeps talking about. In Santa Fe, where the sun shines everyday and the wind blows to the chagrin of pedestrians, renewable energy can become an industry.

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