Thoughts from this year’s Midwest Energy Fair

Turnout is often the measure of success at the annual Midwest Renewable Energy and Sustainable Living Fair, held each year in central Wisconsin over the summer solstice weekend. The presenters and exhibitors at this three-day expo have their own yardstick for gauging a good fair: jaw muscle fatigue.

While I have no idea how many people attended this year’s edition, the ache in my jaws on Sunday afternoon told me I had exceeded my personal quota of answering questions and giving advice about how to use the naturally-occurring and non-depleting energy around us to prepare for the coming energy squeeze.

The barrage of questions at the RENEW Wisconsin table was nonstop. Examples: “If I put up solar panels, can I sell the power I don’t need to my utility?” “How do I know I live in a windy area?” “When will solar energy become cheaper than utility power?” “Why do I have to pay the utilities extra for renewable energy?” “Can I put a wind generator on my house?” “Can you put a wind generator on your property and sell the electricity to your neighbors?” And, of course, this hardy perennial: “How do I persuade my rural electric co-op to provide rebates for wind and solar?”

The fair attracts a diverse group of people that belies the event’s countercultural roots: yuppies, entrepreneurs, energy geeks, the voluntary simplicity crowd, inventors and tinkerers, propagandists of many stripes, active and retired farmers, suburban do-it-yourselfers, the idly curious, and that classic American specimen, the get-rich-quick schemers who see in renewable energy the most promising pathway to early retirement.

As for the pot-of-gold chasers, their unbaked plans invariably involve jumping into the wind development racket. This year, at least a dozen people asked me about the economics of erecting utility-scale wind turbines and generating electricity for sale to utilities, as if that idea hadn’t occurred beforehand to virtually every independent power company in the world. It is amusing to watch their romantic visions implode when they hear that one large turbine would cost a mere $3.5 million to install and gross a maximum of only $200,000 a year, assuming all goes well and Murphy’s Law stays out of the picture. “How do you like that payback period?” I ask.

Another subset of visitors harbors dreams of moving out in the country and building a new residence there. Often, they mention their desire to go off the grid entirely or become a producer of energy, and sell the surplus to their utility. At some point in the conversation, however, it becomes clear that these new homesteaders are not looking to recreate Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond experience, far from it. Instead, they’re looking to accessorize their dream retreats with symbols of sustainability. These days, nothing does the trick more conspicuously than rooftop photovoltaic (PV) panels. Fortunately, the fair is full of vendors who can be counted on to puncture their visions of PV-powered plasma TVs and central air-conditioners when they total up the cost of such a vanity installation.

On a more serious note, these conversations reveal the public’s propensity to embrace renewable energy with greater enthusiasm than it does energy conservation and efficiency. This tendency flows from the simple fact that while renewables contribute to energy supply, conservation and efficiency are strategies for modifying demand, to which we in America have a serious aversion. Here, few people get upset if demand for energy lags behind what’s available. But when energy supply fails to keep up with demand, the situation is presented as an unnatural occurrence, one that makes no sense given our collective wealth and almost childlike belief in the efficiency of markets.

We are conditioned to believe that energy supply shortages are the result of external malefactors like Hugo Chavez and nefarious forces like oil companies. But in whatever public forum the problem is discussed, it is never framed as the inevitable consequence of steadily-rising consumption. In fact, we lack the vocabulary to frame it as such. As the eco-philosopher Garrett Hardin pointed out, we experience supply shortages all the time, but never are they referred to as a “longage of demand.”

For that reason, renewable energy fits better with our “have-it-all” notions of the good life than conservation and efficiency, strategies that presuppose resource limits and endorse behavioral restraints. Perhaps, too, we are fooled by the notion that because sunlight and flowing air are “free resources,” converting them to heat or electricity must be a trivial expense.

Yet, the more we reduce our energy consumption up front, the easier time we’ll have in shifting our reliance from concentrated yet finite energy sources like coal, petroleum and natural gas to more diffuse, self-replenishing sources like solar, wind and wood. Reducing one’s energy overhead costs relatively little and produces a revenue stream that appreciates over time. Replacing one’s energy infrastructure with on-site renewable systems, in contrast, will require a sizable up-front financial commitment relative to what it will produce over time. But when demand reduction and renewable supply options are pursued in tandem, the odds of being able to afford a PV system or a small wind turbine improve measurably.

Though Focus on Energy has long articulated that message in its marketing materials and in one-on-one consultations with prospective customers, it has not been a factor in the design of its renewable energy installation incentives—until now. Starting in July, the program will increase its solar incentive levels by $500 to those customers who adopt at least one household efficiency measure before buying panels. Because I was already committed to a PV system on my roof, I decided to take Focus on Energy up on its offer. Last week, a contractor air-sealed our leaky 85-year-old house, which should reduce infiltration rates by more than 40 percent. Next month, the same contractor will return to improve the insulation level in my attic from R-30 to R-50.

I’m counting on these two measures to slice our household natural gas usage by at least one-third. The savings will then be applied to “finance” the more expensive solar installation, resulting in a package that should still earn a return on investment above 10 percent, a very nice yield considering how safe this investment is. If I follow through with that approach, then PV becomes a luxury that even middle-income fair-goers can afford.

RENEW Wisconsin is a nonprofit organization that acts as a catalyst to advance a sustainable energy future through public policy and private sector initiatives. Michael Vickerman’s commentaries also posted on RENEW’s web site:

from the July 11-17, 2007, issue

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