By Mary Westervelt, MBA candidate, Marlboro Graduate School

Live-blogging from “Energy and Resources: Regional Energy Solutions: Visioning  Sustainability based on Conservation and Local Renewables” by Steven Strong, Solar Design Associates

Anyone who’s passionate about the transition to a new energy future would be compelled by the ideas behind this talk – “visioning sustainability”, “conservation”, “local” and “renewables”.  And Steve Strong is well positioned to address these questions.  With over 30 years of experience in the solar industry, most of which has been on its bleeding edge, his knowledge set about what works and what doesn’t in pursuing a new energy future is one of the best in the country.

Whether intentionally or not, Steve very clearly and compellingly hammered home one central point: renewables are essential, after you’ve made your facility as energy-efficient as possible.  Backed by numerous examples from his own history, he dissected the fallacies of chasing new energy sources when you’re wasting the ones you’re using today.  A volt in the wall is worth two on the roof.

So the question I was left with was how to get the community at large to give a toot about efficiency.  Steve gave examples of developers and renovators willing to spend thousands, even millions, on solar panels but unwilling to invest in simple things that would improve the efficiency of the same buildings.  In Steve’s vision of the future, step one is to build energy smart buildings.  Step two is to use solar to wean yourself off the petroleum habit.  Or wind, if the potential is there and the neighbors don’t pitch a fit.  But if these “enlightened” folks who have been hiring Steve don’t get it, how can we get our tuned-out neighbors to spend a thousand dollars to stuff more insulation into their walls?

This is where Steve and I part ways on the efficiency-then-renewables strategy.  His example of the Oberlin College net-zero building experiment demonstrated how a system breakdown between solar capacity and an “unworthy” building (his word) jolted the stakeholders to make changes.  Of course, what they ended up with was less than ideal, but having the in-your-face message of their lost solar investment was exactly what they needed to begin to get on the efficiency bandwagon.  To me, that’s an important message.

We’re a society of quick-fix addicts.  We love the long odds bet, the hail Mary pass.  We buy lottery tickets by the dozen, but we don’t set aside a few dollars for tomorrow.  Building a solar array on a drafty building might be ridiculous to the experts, but to the laity it’s exciting, cutting edge, and compelling.  It’s certainly far more brag-worthy than our new window sealant.  If we were all logical decision makers, we would do the cost-benefit analysis before every investment we made.  But we’re not rational beings; there’s a strong dose of emotion in all the choices we make.

Here’s my proposal: perhaps we need to invest in more renewables on more “unworthy” buildings so that we can recognize how unworthy they really are.  When the loses are in our face, we may just scramble to do the right thing for our building envelope.  So for those who are jazzed by the potential of solar, I say: go for it.  Whether your building is perfect or should be wrapped in a giant layer of foam, you’re going to be taking a step in the right direction.  And if you missed the cheaper, simpler fixes on the first go-around, I’ll bet you’ll be jolted into action.