Greening Muhlenberg and Beyond

As this blog comes to a close, I am reflecting on green and renewable energy initiatives in my own life. I’ve noticed that there is a great difference between sustainability at Muhlenberg and at my home. A family of six people and one dog goes through quite a lot of resources (and quickly), but that is truly no match for a school that houses around 2,200 people. And yet, here at Muhlenberg, sustainability seems more achievable. 

For a college, Muhlenberg’s green initiatives are fairly progressive. Working with student groups like EnAct and the garden club, they have devised a sustainability plan, which, among many other things, includes a solar panel, a hydroponic garden that provides some of our vegetables, the “just tap it” water fountain initiative to encourage water bottle use, a reduction of paper towels in dorms, and, most recently, paper straws instead of plastic. When I first arrived at Muhlenberg three years ago, I felt inconvenienced by bringing my own cloth towel into the dorm bathrooms to dry my hands with. But in a few weeks, this soon felt like just another adjustment to dorm life; not nearly as big of a life change as adjusting to virtually everything else in college.

I think that, often, when we feel we must make the choice between efficiency and well-being (for ourselves and the planet) we choose efficiency–which is why at home many parents (including mine) do not have energy conservation at the top of their priorities. Their top priorities are probably to shelter, clothe, and feed their very hungry and angsty teenaged children. If we have to use paper plates because all of the plates are in the dishwasher, then so be it.

Similarly, in a college environment, and especially at a school where people pride themselves on being busy, students don’t often take the time to make the best possible choice. This is then why they are forced to be minorly inconvenienced throughout their day–there may be a few grumbles to begin with, but it becomes integrated into their lifestyle. While the most recent Muhlenberg update (paper straws) has been probably caused the most uproar (the paper adds a certain flavor to the water), many of these green initiatives are worked into campus culture, making them feel like just another part of Muhlenberg’s charm.

By having these initiatives for a greener campus, Muhlenberg (and student groups like EnAct) makes the sustainability aspect easy by actively searching and creating solutions to problems that many busy students ignore–or didn’t even care about in the first place. Innovation, here, is then starting with just noticing the things that others may not–finding the places where we lack in our efforts, even when we already have made great strides. And though this institution is not an entrepreneur-driven business venture, this innovative and creative instinct must be present in order for these changes to occur; people must continue to imagine solutions to problems such as waste in the dining hall and overall campus electricity usage. In the coming years, more solutions will be put into place, and more ideas will be suggested; for example, a composting initiative is being set into motion for the MILE houses (the off campus houses owned by the college). Even though we are doing well, we have to be doing more. 

And while Muhlenberg is a much larger institution than a singular household, the idea still stands; the reason these changes are successful is because they remain committed to small changes which make a big impact. It is worthwhile to examine some green initiatives in your own life. Green innovation can happen in your kitchen, or bedroom, or even your backyard–wherever changes can be instituted and daily life can be reimagined. The life of the planet seems worth a small change in your daily routine.

All Work and Some Play Makes the Planet Greener

Saving the planet can seem a little daunting–predictions about things like the rising sea levels, air pollution, or the temperature increase of the globe incite fear and doomsday preppers. It all can seem like too much to fix, too disheartening, too impossible. However, some people are using this gloom and doom as motivation to find the fun.

One such person is Jessica Matthews, part of a Harvard team of innovators, who created the SOCCKET, a soccer ball that harnesses rotational energy to use later as a source of electricity. Her idea was spawned from an incident at her aunt’s wedding in Nigeria; the power went out and they used diesel and kerosene lamps to power the wedding instead. The smell, though it bothered Matthews, did not phase other guests who had become used to these fumes. She was concerned that her family would cease to remember the dangers of these cancer-causing pollutants, so she decided to be proactive. Thus the SOCCKET was born. This playful invention is both fun to use (if you enjoy soccer, that is) and a creative endeavor, as it provides a lightweight, portable power source out of an object that was previously solely used for entertainment. 

The SOCCKET is paired with a jumprope equipped with similar energy harnessing power.  These two products are in line with other such creative invention. Other entrepreneurs have come up with ideas ranging from adding solar panels to bikes, to winning money for changing energy habits. These are new ways that entrepreneurs are incentivizing green energy habits: the consumer can make a small change (using a particular soccer ball while playing, using the least amount of energy for a week to win a cash prize) but feel like they are doing something productive for the sake of the planet.

I personally am not the world’s greatest energy conserver. I often fall asleep with the lights on, take long showers, or use way too much paper when I write with my huge handwriting. So if I felt that I was doing the earth a service while getting rewarded (whether this be through money or entertainment), I would not only feel productive, but simply feel better about playing a role in stopping the planet’s ultimate destruction.  And since many people, like me, really like feeling good about changing their behavior only minimally, it is increasingly important that entrepreneurs find ways to incorporate their work into play.

US versus Them: What the Trends Outside the US Can Tell Us About The Industry

In previous posts, my focus has been on the United States and our slowly growing consumption of clean energy. However, there are many places outside of the supposed greatest country in the world that outperform the US and even excel at implementing green technology. In Sweden, for example, over half of their energy comes from renewable resources. It falls in line with other Nordic countries such as Iceland and Norway, who come in at a whopping 72.6% and 69.4%, respectively. These are pretty high percentages compared to the US’s meager 18%. But it’s also pretty high compared to other countries in Europe, such as Germany, France, Italy, and Greece, who all fall below 20%. The EU as a whole has exactly doubled its percentage of green energy since 2004 to 17% in 2016, which falls behind their goal of 20% for 2020

Both the US and Europe then seem to be neck and neck in energy consumption, but with such extreme outliers. Why are places like Iceland and Washington, for example, relying on green energy far more than places like Greece or France? Is it a question of space? Certainly Iceland and Norway seem to have larger stretches of space than perhaps New York City to implement larger energy structures. But there are certainly places in the Midwest that have the space for larger structures that do not utilize it, and places in Europe that are smaller and more populous that have higher percentages of clean energy.

Is it a question of necessity then? Places like Hawaii have practically 100% renewable energy consumption due to their existence as an island. However, similar land figurations like England still only use 30%. And the question of necessity is also in and of itself questionable, as scientists have suggested that all renewable resources are essential.

This then brings us to the question of economics. It is interesting to note that European countries on the Nordic economy (more closely aligned to socialism than American free market capitalism) do have a higher percentage of renewable energy consumption, while countries that are not, such as Poland, still rely heavily on coal. Is there a connection from socialist economics and politics to renewable energy? In the US, the politics of the states with high percentages of renewable energy range from red to blue, so perhaps this is not the end all answer to this question of why.

But economics might be on the right track. Nonrenewable resources such as oil are still highly valued resources by people in power for the money it brings in. In many places–the US, Europe, and many other parts of the world–money rules. So if there is a profit to be made, people are willing to sacrifice the wealth of the Earth instead. Though the green energy industry is becoming more and more profitable, it will still take some time to be as economically efficient as it is energy efficient.

Thinking Big with Little: Creating Efficient Energy in Different Ways

The clean/renewable energy industry is seemingly focused on the big picture. That’s big as in big companies, big investors, big impact on the environment.  Two main components of the industry, wind turbines and solar panels, occupy large spaces, and are often the biggest and most viscerally associated with “green” energy. In my last blog post, I mentioned the fact that many clean energy startups focus on these bigger products. But clean energy is not just having the apparatuses to create renewable energy. It can also be the ways in which we use energy efficiently.

Alaska, for example, is currently looking into more efficient energy solutions due to its exorbitant energy consumption. Because of its harsh climate and its vastly spread population, Alaskans are dependent on energy sources that are far away and too expensive. This led to companies such as 60Hertz, which is providing microgrids to Alaskan customers. Microgrids are a group of energy sources that can function in isolation–useful for places like Alaska and the Arctic. What 60Hertz does is “optimize” energy sources, making them more efficient in rural and small areas. For many native Alaskans, the otherwise high cost of energy is devastating, making it hard to live in a frozen tundra. 60Hertz is then utilizing previous technology to make benefit Alaskans and make the process more efficient–and subsidizing the cost as well.

An Allentown native has a similar idea to increase energy efficiency. SaLisa Berrien has created what she calls the “uber of energy.” Using previously established systems for energy customers at COI, she has patented a new and improved system that will allow for energy companies to communicate with their customers more efficiently, and thus reduce unnecessary energy waste. It takes “full advantage of smart grids” which means that the already advanced grid will be faster, smarter, and more reliable in cases of blackouts and other electrical emergencies.

With these innovators using creativity and growth mindsets, continuing to grow and improve upon ideas within previously established companies, they show that clean energy can be accomplished with more than just the large and costly apparatuses. And while micro- and smart- grids do often rely on some of these larger scale setups, what Berrien and 60Hertz prove is that thinking of clean and efficient energy on a smaller and simpler scale can still have a pretty large effect. The images of wind farms and the stretches of solar panel are not what define the industry anymore. 

Why This Blog?

With the state of the US as it is today (read: seemingly on the brink of collapse), we are destined to run out of resources. From Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” to Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth,” we remain cognizant of the fact that we are leeching the earth of what precious vittles she has left–and we do nothing. Gas, coal, and oil have become priorities in the current administration, saving a few jobs perhaps, but on the whole merely contributing to the wealth of those tycoons instead of the health of the planet. While the suggestion to invest in renewable resources often draws ire from those on the right, the benefits of clean energy far outweigh the benefits of non-renewable resources. The industry as a whole employed more than 374,000 workers in 2017 (Forbes).That is 190,000 more than coal, oil, and gas combined. Stocks in bigger companies like First Solar and Brookfield Renewable Energy Partners are rising, and more and more investors are willing to bet big on green companies (Motley Fool).

But the industry at large does not address all of the issues. In fact many of the larger companies depend on costly fees, such as the installation of solar panels and wind turbines (Energy Sage). And while the government continues to undermine those larger companies by slashing their tax breaks, smaller startups become a necessity.

The smaller startups are often directed on mobility: having a source of energy the size of a backpack, or having lightweight and foldable solar panels–especially in places that do not have a consistent source of electricity–are a growing trend.

But most of these startups are run by a whole host of directors: people who have the money to invest in these ventures. They hire people outside of the community that they serve, and in turn, creates a disconnect between the provider and the receiver.

What a smart entrepreneurial start-up could do is to create a business that is sustained by a community that already exists, provide incentives to maintain the community–besides the fact that they would benefit from green energy.

Brenda Palm Barber has already done this by creating Sweet Beginnings, an organization that provides previously incarcerated people employment through beekeeping. The honey is then used for moisturizers–an alternative to the often chemically ridden mainstream products. While this innovative and beautifully radical business has helped reduce the rate of recidivism and provided employment opportunities to many, there are other communities too that have often gone unnoticed: the homeless LGBTQ+ youths, the addicted, the unemployed, the impoverished, those who have fought for our country–the list goes on and on. Plus, while Sweet Beginnings and similar startups are greening specific markets (beauty/skincare/makeup), there is a lack of this element of community in specifically clean energy. Renewable and clean energy seems far away from these communities, then, as the industry is often associated with the larger companies (solar panels, wind turbines and farms) and the startups for energy in other countries. Clean energy seems like an investment–something that only the privileged have access to, associated with those solar panels and wind farms. But what is vital (and what entrepreneurs must begin to focus on) is for clean energy to become accessible and therefore a viable source for communities who need it most.