Energy for Life: The Pursuit of an Ethical Energy Policy

By Paul Gipe

Presented to the Kegley Institute of Ethics, California State University Bakersfield, 17 October 2001

Let’s get this out of the way up front. There are no panaceas, no quick fixes to the state’s or for that matter the nation’s energy conundrum. It’s taken us decades to get into this mess and it will take us a long time to get out of it, if–and this is my message–we have the will to do so.

My title–Energy for Life–is a play on the words and the work of the 19th-century Danish theologian, N.F.S. Grundtvig. A contemporary of Kirkegaard, Grundtvig’s powerful influence helped shaped the democratic, pluralistic, and egalitarian nation that exists today.

What does Grundtvig have to do with energy? The answer is simple, No nation in the world has a saner or more rational policy toward energy than does Denmark. And this policy is built upon the framework laid down by Grundtvig more than a century ago that all public policy, in fact all endeavors, should be life-affirming.

By 2030 Denmark expects to produce 50% of its electricity from renewable resources. I fully expect them to meet that target, because the Danes have the will to do so. They already produce 15% of their electricity with windmills.

Why? Because they believe it’s the right thing to do. It is not just a question of abstract economics. The Danish nation feels a moral imperative to do so.

The topic of tonight’s program is a good start for us as Americans. The mere act of asking the question of whether there’s an ethical dimension to energy policy raises awareness of the issue. The answer for me, and for many others, is a resounding yes, absolutely, no doubt about it.

My interest in wind energy grew out of the ethical dilemma posed by stripmining for coal. If we were to condemn stripmining for what it does to the land and people of Appalachia, then what would we substitute? Nuclear power? Not likely.

26 years ago I proposed wind and solar energy as a relatively more benign choice. Relatively is a key word here. For an elaboration on this theme, see my book Wind Energy Comes of Age.

Fortunately, there are a number of priests, rabbis, and ministers who call upon us as Americans to examine the ethics of our consumptive lifestyle just as clerics in the past have called upon us to examine our behavior in the more traditional realms of religious teaching.

For example, should we raise a moral red flag when a suburbanite drives his Lincoln Navigator from his “modest” 3,000 square-foot Kyle Carter cathedral-ceilinged house to pick up a loaf of bread? Does paying the apparent or monetary price absolve consumers of responsibility for the choices they’ve made?

Ethics, relative to the consumption of natural resources, is in part, but not solely, the difference between responsible and irresponsible use. We need a lamp to light the darkness so we can curl up with a good book. The lamp in a dark, occupied room serves a purpose, it meets a need. An office building with all the lights ablaze long after everyone has gone home, doesn’t meet a need. It wastes or squanders a valuable resource, one costly to extract, refine, produce, and deliver.

Implicitly then, there are values at work here. Should we gouge out great furrows in the earth of Montana or chop the top off a mountain in Tennessee, so that a careless or irresponsible person in Chicago can leave a light on in an unoccupied room. I don’t think so. That’s certainly not the way I was raised. My moral teaching was “waste not, want not” by Midwestern parents who lived through the Great Depression and WWII. And that was long before I discovered the environmental reasons for being miserly.

Within the environmental movement itself, the debate rages over the amount of emphasis to place on the word “efficiency” on the one hand, and on the word “conservation” on the other.

Efficiency is doing more with less. Conservation implies doing without or using less. In the American context, conservation has been a hard sell. Those of us on the front lines are often chided for mentioning the word conservation. “Americans don’t want to hear it,” we’re warned.

Yet efficiency alone, while important, won’t take us where we want to go. Conservation, or if that word is unpalatable, stewardship of a bountiful but finite earth, is critical to our collective future.

For example, which of the following solutions is superior? Is it better to modestly improve the efficiency of the Lincoln Navigator from 14 mpg to say, 18 mpg? That 30% improvement is easily and immediately obtainable.

Or is it better to conserve gasoline by not building, buying, or using the behemoth in the fist place and driving a Toyota Prius instead? The Prius gets nearly 260% better mileage than the Navigator yet does the same job–carries a loaf of bread.

Or is it better still to build real cities where you can walk down the street, pick up the loaf of bread yourself, and talk to your neighbors along the way? Now, how do you calculate the improvement in fuel efficiency of walking?

Paying the monetary price for a Lincoln Navigator, the largest, non-military, personal transport vehicle in the world, doesn’t absolve the driver of responsibility for either the effluent it spews out, the carbon dioxide it emits, or the military establishment necessary to protect its fuel supply. These costs are borne by us all, including those of us who drive small cars, and those of us who walk to pick up our loaf of bread.

Richard Armitage, in a recent PBS Frontline interview, explicitly stated, if it wasn’t obvious before, that our troops are in Saudi Arabia to “insure strategic access to our vital oil supplies”. There’s a moral price tag for using American soldiers to protect our ability to drive Lincoln Navigators. Try explaining those policy choices to a grieving mother of a young man killed in the Kobar Tower bombing.

In electricity this conflict between efficiency and conservation has come back to bite efficiency advocates in the derriere. California building standards require all new homes to meet certain standards, the amount of insulation, type of windows, and so on. Good, we say, we’ve cut the household energy consumption significantly. But what has happened? Kyle Carter Homes and others like them have begun building bigger and ever bigger houses. You’ve seen them, monster homes, McMansions. Their ads gloat that with all the energy-saving features “you too can now afford twice the house than before.”

The result is that we’re not just running in place, we’re losing ground. This is the social price for the disconnect between efficiency, conservation, and values.

Let’s revisit our suburbanite. And let’s put her in affluent Palo Alto and let’s propose a new power plant there to meet rising demand from ever more, ever bigger, McMansions.

“No way,” our suburbanite will say. “Put those power plants in Kern County, they like power plants down there, snicker, snicker.” Now you may think I made this anecdote up, but I was actually interviewed by a Bay Area NPR station and this was what the reporter wanted to know, why we didn’t object to all the new power plants here. Was there something wrong with us? Not at all, I replied, there should be a power plant in everyone’s backyard.

NIMBY, or Not In My Back Yard is just another manifestation of passing the social costs of energy choices–as in the Lincoln Navigator or the McMansion–on to other often less politically powerful groups.

President Bush last Thursday said, “After September 11, Americans are reassessing what’s really important in life.” I hope he’s right. Ever more, ever cheaper energy doesn’t seem quite such a national priority as before.

Still, there are calls, even now, to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as somehow our patriotic duty, illustrating that despite the President’s comment, policy remains dominated by those who view energy as a commodity–as so many of Bertrand Russell’s pins.

Instead, I suggest the slogan, “Be a patriot, park your SUV!”

Now let’s turn to California’s deregulation fiasco. Californians are all victims of a myth, a belief so all pervasive that few question it, even fewer still realize it is a belief, a veritable secular religion.

Deregulation was a craze, but one unlike the harmless hula-hoop craze of the 50s. This craze hurts real people. Deregulation is more like the tulip mania that engulfed the Dutch in the 17th century and bankrupted the country.

Deregulation’s chief tenet is that all things good come from the so-called free market. I say free-market, because such a thing, certainly with energy, doesn’t exist.

Unfortunately, an unregulated free market is a fool’s paradise where the values most important to us–love, family, clean air & water–are either undervalued or not valued at all, and where only price–but only the apparent price–is raised onto an altar and we are asked to worship it.

Californians and our politicians were not immune to the siren song of deregulation and we have crashed the ship of state on its shoals.

Deregulation’s failure offers us an unparalleled, if unfortunate, opportunity to rethink how we produce, consume, and–most importantly–value electricity in the Golden State.

Electricity is a means to an end–a tool for meeting the needs of people–and not an end in itself.

Therefore, we need to envision an electricity system that is sustainable, a system that meets the needs of people today as well as those of tomorrow, and a system that is built upon sufficiency for all, equitably distributed. We need to envision a system that enhances the quality of life for all Californians, rich and poor alike. Such a system is built upon services rendered, needs met, not upon a constant and never-ending growth of supply. We must envision an energy system for people, or, as Grundtvig would say, an energy system for life.

Californians can regain control of their energy destiny and can construct an electricity supply system that emphasizes using energy responsibly and with respect for our neighbors and for the environment, if we chose to do so.

One achievable near-term objective fitting this vision is reaching residential per capita consumption of electricity equivalent to that of Europeans.

Per capita, Europeans consume about half the electricity of Californians do while enjoying the same standard of living. By several measures, Europeans enjoy a higher standard of living than Californians, yet use less electricity, less oil, less energy in general. They often can walk to pick up a loaf bread, for example.

A young Bakersfield woman said, “what we waste today, we steal from our children.” She meant it literally as a future mother, but she could easily have meant it metaphorically, as what we squander today by our excessive consumption, we steal from future generations.

We can do as well as Europeans. Don’t let anyone tell you it can’t be done. It can, and it can be done without hardship.

In March my wife, Nancy Nies, and I started paying attention to our electricity consumption. Since March we’ve cut our consumption by nearly 50% and we’re on track to bring our annual consumption in line with that of a typical Northern European. And yes, we use air conditioning.

What would happen if everyone did this? Well, we certainly wouldn’t have had a power crisis and we certainly wouldn’t have given the Confederate Cartel a stranglehold over the state’s economy.

Of course we still need new sources of supply, especially to replace the old, dirty power plants operating in the state. And one way to do that is to offer the people of California the same deal that Germany and Spain offer their citizens by instituting an Electricity Feed Law. Such a law simply states that you can connect your solar or wind power system to the grid, and, more importantly, spells out how much you will be paid for it.

German utilities pay 50 cents per kWh for electricity from customer-owned solar panels, 10 cents per kWh from windmills. This simple law is why Germany is today’s world leader in wind and solar energy. It’s because of this law that the windmills being built in Tehachapi today are German-designed, not American.

That’s expensive, you say–maybe, maybe not. It depends upon your values. Germans, Danes, and Spaniards think it’s the right thing to do. To them, it’s worth it.

We can bring back the luster to the Golden State by reassessing, as President Bush has said, what’s really important to us. Let’s build a bright solar future for California and California’s children.

Let’s put a solar power plant in everyone’s back yard. Let’s create an energy system for life.