Erik Larson

Feb 15, 2010

Going Green with Green

In Austin, TX, the City Council is set to vote on a “going green” initiative that would increase use of renewable energy sources from the current 11% to 30% by 2020. Average energy bill for residents would increase by an estimated 20%, or to about $120/month from $100/month. Some Austinites have complained that Austin Energy’s proposal does not go far enough, while others wonder about the effect on lower income residents (aka “the poor”). Even so, proponents of the plan argue that cap and trade type measures are inevitable, and that in the long run coal burning will prove costlier than switching to renewable sources.

For Austinites weighing these outcomes, the case of Boulder, Co.—another hipster city with green ambitions—suggests that the hard-nosed “just get on with it” proposal from Austin Energy may be right-headed. In “kooky” Boulder, residents bike to work at 20 times the national average, and the city in 2006 approved the nation’s first “carbon tax” at $21 a year per household, to help pay for energy conservation programs. But Boulder is at present more of a cautionary tale than a model for going green. In spite of aggressive measures to encourage (and perhaps soon to force) residents to adopt conservation technologies like energy efficient light bulbs, low flow showerheads, and programmable thermostats, carbon emissions reduced by barely 1% between 2006 and 2008, and are 27% higher than 1990 levels, worse than the U.S. average of 15%. What gives?

Perhaps ironic, given the Bobo -esque marriage of Bohemian lifestyle and high-tech gadgetry in Boulder—mountain bikes, hiking boots, and iPods are not a strange trio—is the fact that the near ubiquitious use of tech gadgets is part of Boulder’s problem. Conservation measures such as motion detector lights in classrooms at the University of Colorado, for instance, are negated by the proliferation of iPods, cellphones, and laptops by students and faculty. Add to this, sales of high tech recreational devices like big screen TVs continue to skyrocket in Boulder (and elsewhere), and the energy savings of buying powerstrips and other peripherals for such power-hungry devices pales in comparison. In short, going green and going high tech are, at present, in tension, as the situation in Boulder is making clear (see full story here ).

Two observations emerge from this survey of Boulder’s Green Dreams. One, energy conservation is too often viewed as a “feel good” lifestyle choice, when in fact true conservation steps require the kind of sacrifices that few are willing to make. Giving up a gas guzzling Buick or pickup truck in favor of a popular, sexy hybrid model is one thing; using the computer at the public library instead of carrying a laptop around is another. Likewise, installing an energy saving power strip for the 65 inch Plasma is one thing; going with a 25 inch “low tech” TV (or foregoing use of recreational devices like TVs altogether) is another. And so on.

Two, the real problem with Boulder, coming to light even as the city contemplates increasingly Draconian measures to make better headway on carbon emissions, is the fact that coal is still the primary energy source there. The lesson is: it’s very difficult to reduce emissions without switching to renewable sources and chucking the coal. One can’t just “phase in” conservation on the consumer side, with feel good measures like using recyclable plastics, and so on. It doesn’t have much of an effect, and the measures consumers could adopt that might actually help, many simply aren’t willing to do. We aren’t about to give up our cell phone, laptops, and TVs, in Boulder or anywhere else. In consequence, energy consumption in American cities like Boulder is a case of, as they say, “robbing Peter to pay Paul”, as the consumer economy jettisons older technologies in favor of new ones, all the while consuming, consuming, consuming.

The point is, the logical consequence of taking energy conservation seriously—sitting in the dark with one’s laptop turned off, perhaps—is hardly the “feel good” vision of Going Green we envision. It should be fun to Go Green, shouldn’t it? On the other hand, the case of Boulder suggests that the “feel good” green measures are, really, largely ineffective (and hence a bit silly). If we want to really Go Green, we can start with accepting higher energy costs. But, in this case, we can keep the laptop and just pull out the wallet. Go Green with Green, you know what I mean? Sounds like a new slogan for Austin.