Saturday, September 8, 2007

The Wind in the Bur Oaks

I have to admit that I couldn’t come up with a more poetic sounding tree than “bur oak” to sub for “willow” in this post’s title. I thought about “hackberry” or “live oak,” or “cedar elm” or even “box elder” in an effort to find a native tree—especially one that implied less resource-dependence than willows do around here. In fact, willows are an emblem of inappropriate excess here in drought-ridden north Texas. They only grow well near streams, and although graceful, they look curiously out of place in most local landscapes. So I chose my favorite native species, with its big frowzy acorns the size of boules, and its craggy, almost lithic bark. I have one growing next to my garage (that's it, in the photo, looking up into the leaves), and will soon have to attend to the wild grapes growing up into its branches in order to assure its survival. But this is a hardy tree, and lovely to look at, even if it isn't all that prevalent out on the remnants of west Texas prairie, where the wind farms are.

Energy is much on my mind these days, for a number of reasons. A recent run-in with the local electrical service company, Oncor (not my provider, Green Mountain) got me going about deregulation and incompetence, and then several news articles about NIMBY issues related to wind energy prompted me to continue ranting about energy dependence in general, and alternative energy sources in particular.

This summer has been relatively mild, with temperature rising to 100 or better only about five times in three months. We were also blessed with abundant rain early in the season, which means that the ambient temperature around our house has been cooled by greener grass and healthier trees (drought restrictions in this area allowed only once-per-week lawn irrigation last summer, and with little rain, my lawn suffered pitiably because I can’t bear to waste water on impractical landscaping). Since we haven’t had the time or the money to convert our St. Augustine lawn to something more useful, it suffers when the rains don’t come. But this year it’s pretty healthy, and helps cool the house. This is especially welcome, because for the last month we have eschewed air conditioning entirely, and had used it sparingly before that. So when I received a notice from the electricity folks that I was going to be shot at dawn for not having an accessible meter, I was a bit put out.

Of course, I exaggerate, but the tone of the letter was rather snotty, and so I called Oncor to find out what was up. I have a completely accessible meter; it’s on the side of my house, visible from the bloody street. The letter said something about a locked gate. I thought it might have had something to do with the fact that my dogs bark loudly and nastily when people even walk by the house, but they’re kept indoors when we’re not home. At any rate, there is a gate, but it’s not locked, and you have to walk by the meter to get to it. I’ve also lived in this house for seven years, and no one has ever before had trouble locating my meter. I told this to the company representative, and mused that perhaps the teenagers they hired during the summer weren’t as astute as the usual crew. She assured me, snippily, that they were using the same “technicians” they always had, but that she’d send someone out to check.

A few days later I got a second bill from Green Mountain for an additional $27 (I’m amused that they had actually underestimated the original bill). I put the bill aside, planning to pay it at the beginning of the month along with the new bill—until I got an e-mail note from them asking me to call, because they needed to discuss something with me. When I called, I told the nice lady that I was pretty sure I knew what this was all about, and recounted the above story. She laughed and acknowledged that the local service companies don’t always have the same perspective, and said it would be fine for me to pay at my usual time. She also mentioned that Oncor had been having trouble filling positions, and that the “same technicians” line was a lot of hooey.

Vindicated, I paid my bill and got on with my life. But the energy question persists, and in the last week I’ve come across a couple of articles that point to the problems that attend alternative energy use. Sure we all want to lessen our dependence on foreign oil (I’d like to eliminate it, along with our dependence on domestic oil), but we’re not really happy about the alternatives. And when environmentalists start talking about nukes as the only practical clean alternative to fossil fuels, my stomach turns. Don’t any of these guys remember Chernobyl? Solar power is becoming more accessible and affordable, but impracticable in many situations (we can’t have panels that show from the street because we live in an historic district). So, many of us choose wind when it's available, even though the rates are slightly higher.

Now, if you live in a state like Texas, with vast expanses of unoccupied semi-desert, wind turbines provide clean energy with relatively little environmental impact. But the turbines themselves are large, tall, ungainly, noisy, and not particularly attractive (although I think they look kind of cool, from a distance). So the idea of erecting these things in Maine or off the east coast doesn’t particularly appeal to those who have paid big money to live in lovely surroundings with gorgeous views—like Sen. Ted Kennedy, whose family environmental credentials are pretty solid. Froma Harrop’s column, “A Sad Coda to Kennedy Career” nicely summarizes the quandary of wealthy liberals who really don’t want those noisy turbines in their back yards, their neighborhoods, or where they sail on weekends.

But it’s not simply a question of “them” vs. “us.” Wind farms can disrupt the environment, they are noisy, and they do compromise wilderness (see the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s article on the controversy about a Maine wind farm). The trouble is, we’re not really thinking small enough. We’re too caught up in the big energy model that we can’t seem to think more minimalistically (I think I made that word up). For example, I’ve often wondered why we couldn’t just have little windmills or other energy sources in our back yards, just as many now generate some of their own power from solar panels. When I looked into it, I discovered that something called “micro wind turbines” actually are available. So my question now is this: why can’t we just rethink how we get our energy in the first place? Why can’t we consider appropriate local sources (wind, water, solar) and start producing our own, in our own towns, for our own citizens, as much as possible. Think of it: no big-ass power poles emitting electromagnetic fields; no Oncor “arborists” chopping the guts out of lovely trees to accommodate their power lines; no grid—or if there is one, it’s small, and local. Break up the grid so that every building that houses a home, a school, or a business, produces at least part of what it needs to run its machines and lights.

More important, however, is the fundamental necessity to reduce our dependence on energy itself. I personally love the idea of having to ride a bicycle every time I want to watch television, but I’m too old to do anything about it now. I can, however, just turn the damned thing off. And I’m perfectly willing to crank up what I need to run this computer, a la Nicholas Negroponte’s units for his One Laptop Per Child initiative. Although I’m not quite ready to buy into the notion that giving children laptops is going to solve any global education crisis, I admire the practicality of his machine.

Our efforts in this house have been modest, by my standards, although giving up air conditioning is looked upon by my friends as both noble and insane. We’ve dutifully replaced about 95% of our light bulbs with compact fluorescents (I balk at getting rid of functioning bulbs, especially when they’re used infrequently), and have bought energy-efficient appliances when we’ve needed new ones, or done without. The next time a coffeemaker conks out on me, I’m going back to using my old Chemex.

We can’t really do much to insulate the house (no spaces between walls), and have a gas furnace, but we’ve added curtains and roman shades to the windows, and portiers between the rooms so that we can keep the thermostat down at 60 degrees in winter (a new, programmable unit will be installed before the coming winter). The computers and peripherals come on only when we’re using them, even though it’s annoying to wait for things to boot up. We use a small convection/microwave oven or the narrow top oven of our dual-fuel range to cook (both use considerably less energy than a standard gas or electric oven), and eat salads and cold meals during most of the summer to reduce even that amount of use. All of this has been accomplished with relatively little sacrifice on our part, and even the animals seem to be fine, as long as there’s air flow.

The point is that it’s not difficult. But this country is so conditioned to constant consumption and convenience that we think we’re entitled to the kind of extravagance that has led us to “need” big, expensive, polluting, ugly energy. We wouldn’t have to worry about wind farms at all if we didn’t accede to the idea that we can’t live without all this stuff.

And I wouldn’t have to argue with energy service providers about whether or not my meter is accessible, because I wouldn’t even need one.

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