Column: Local net zero commitments and The Energy Fair

By Nick Hylla

In the interest of transparency, I’ll start with an admission that has only been obvious to a few colleagues: I make every effort to avoid talking about climate change. That, by itself, is not strange, but since I’m the director of a nonprofit organization that supports a transition to local renewable energy, I’m an outlier amongst my peers. 

My reasoning is pretty simple and starts with the question:  What is the purpose of talking about something that is both complicated and politicized? If my purpose were to get people booting up their best arguments to “Own the Libs!” or “Science!” then I’d be talking about it all the time. I could chase the likes, ‘friends,’ and comments that come with a heavy dose of political red meat, but I would be astonished if anyone changed their mind.

A better approach, I would argue, is to talk about the financial benefits of energy efficiency (same service less cost!). Or the persistent reality that Wisconsin has no fossil fuel resources and spends $15 billion every year to import them. Or the local economic benefit and jobs that come from shifting our investments from Wall Street to Main Street by improving the performance, comfort, and resiliency of our buildings. Or the fact that electricity is the highest form of energy we humans use and there has never been a greater opportunity to electrify our energy use and produce that electricity locally.

More important than strategic messaging is also leading with results. I work at the Midwest Renewable Energy Association in Custer because of our long-standing commitment to demonstration. Come to our campus and see for yourself. It’s easy to say how things should be (this has replaced baseball as America’s favorite pastime) but difficult to actually do it (what America had been known for). 

That is why I had some trepidation when I was asked to speak at the kick-off event for the campaign to get the city of Stevens Point to commit to net zero carbon emissions by 2040. The broad commitments are perfect fodder for the “misguided liberal” political trope but that can’t be avoided in the troll-the-libs era. The commitments also put pressure on public officials who would support the infrastructure improvements and cost-saving measures but who also severely understand the budget limits, lack of capacity, fixed infrastructure needs, and competing priorities that define the management of streets, parks, police, etc. They are arguably unattainable. And they signal that climate change is a threat that is a social burden requiring sacrifices of all types. People, understandably, don’t like that.

My biggest concern, however, is that these commitments wake the mob and the pitchforks come out to stop anything that is even climate change adjacent. I’ve seen this happen with criminal justice reform, health care reform, and pretty much anything that has a monied lobby on one side and a half-baked political slogan on the other. Ban the climate change books! Stop teaching about renewable energy in schools! Make the city go to a referendum for every investment that reduces energy use! The end result is an expensive justice system, expensive health care system, and expensive energy system. The status quo makes a lot of money for a lot of influential people. But it sure is fun to argue online!

I, of course, spoke at the event because that is my job and these are my people. I’m on the side of people who understand that the Earth is not a candy bar full of sweet crude that is made for humans to idle their trucks in the parking lot not because we can afford the truck or the wasted fuel but because we like the noise and the liberal tears. We are living on borrowed time and borrowed money that is all underwritten by subsidized, ancient, and finite fossil energy. Wasting fossil fuels is screwing over future generations and enriching the worst sort of people today. As a society, we would benefit by making every effort to understand, appreciate, and conserve energy.

Most importantly, as easy as it is to be cynical today, I am constantly surprised at what we can accomplish if we are all rowing in the same direction. The first Energy Fair took place in Amherst in 1990 and a vendor was selling home solar for $80/watt. Since then, solar energy has experienced the fastest commodity price decline of any technology in modern history, and solar and wind are the cheapest sources of electricity on the grid. Today, you can get solar on your house for more than 20 times less. And, large-scale solar is coming to Portage County. Not just big but the biggest in the Midwest. Some communities are on top of a fossil fuel resource, but we are all under a solar resource now. 

So, will the City of Stevens Point achieve net zero energy use by 2040? I wouldn’t bet on it. Should we try? Absolutely. We all should. It’s in our best interest.

Over the past 10 years, the MREA office in Custer has transitioned to net zero. It wasn’t easy. We learned a lot of lessons and have a lot to share. We’ve also never seen more opportunities for homes and businesses to produce, manage, and conserve energy. If you really want to know about the policies, programs, technologies, opportunities, and pitfalls you can come to The Energy Fair this Saturday, June 22. If you are only coming to sharpen some of your political arguments and impress your ‘friends’ that’s fine as well. I’ll be there and will be happy to talk if you join as a member or at least buy me a beer.

Nick Hylla is the executive director of the Midwest Renewable Energy Association.