The Focus of Year 3: Learning and Political Action

So we’re two-plus years into this adventure. The first year we worked on energy usage and reducing our carbon footprint. The second year we worked on food production and food preservation. This year we’re focusing on learning more about the issues of sustainability from an academic and informational standpoint, and becoming involved in political action.


Sustainability-s-Earth01In January, I discovered Coursera, a free online university! Of course, I got carried away. I signed up for Energy 101, Intro to Sustainability, Climate Literacy, and Sustainability of Food Systems.

I just completed the Energy course and learned SO much from the lectures of Dr. Sam Shelton, retired professor from the Strategic Energy Institute. I knew next to nothing about the big picture of energy or, for that matter, the micro picture of oil, gas, biofuels and therms. This class covered energy at all levels and I learned some surprising things.

For example, I didn’t know that every unit of energy from different energy sources are not “equal.” When it comes to ethanol, that’s a real problem. It requires .8 units of fossil fuel (natural gas and coal) to produce 1 unit of corn ethanol, so even in the best of circumstances, we achieve only a 20% gain. But it gets worse. A gallon of ethanol produces only 2/3rds of the energy of a gallon of gasoline, so adding ethanol to gas actually reduces fuel efficiency. A car that would get 30 miles per gallon on gasoline, will get 28 miles per gallon with a 10% ethanol fuel blend. WHAT!? But it gets worse still because 40% of all corn grown in the US is used to create ethanol fuel. So we are taking farmland and water resources away from food production and this is having an impact on global hunger.

Lobbying at the State Capitol

Minnesota State Capitol


There is only so much an individual or a family can do to impact our carbon footprint. At a certain point, you need to join together with others to take bigger action at the policy and law level.

We have attended rallies and signed petitions in the past. Occasionally we would write to our representatives at the state and national level. This year we did something we’ve never done. We began attending hearings at the state capitol and we met with our legislators.

We attended the House Energy Policy Committee hearing on the 2013 Energy Omnibus Bill, which might have increased the renewable energy standard to 40% by 2030, and included a solar energy jobs act and a solar power cost reduction act. That was a fascinating meeting. I wish I had a play-sheet or someone sitting next to me who could have explained why legislators would say the things they did. For example:

  • There appeared to be a move to define hydro electricity coming to us from Canada as local renewable energy because the rain fell in Minnesota before it flowed to Canada.
  • There was concern that we were “rushing” to set new energy standards when, in fact, the standards we have were set like two or three decades ago!
  • And the supposedly pro-business party was very worried that farmers and businesses might install larger solar installations than they need and would then sell that electricity. That was anti-competitive, but buying power from a North Dakota coal-burning plant was not anti-competitive.

On Earth Day, I attended a Ways and Means committee meeting at the State Capitol to see what was in store for the energy bills. That was a lively meeting. I talked to my legislator later in the day and that was helpful in understanding some of the arguments being made. Or rather, I understood why the arguments didn’t make sense but were being made anyway.

The legislature kindly went into party caucus just as hundreds of people would have seated themselves to watch them debate the energy bills. How convenient. We had all taken time away from work to see our government in action and they spent an hour closed up in separate chambers. They didn’t hear the bill that day.

A Few Lessons I’ve Learned

  • In most cases it is absolutely clear who is with which party. This fact is really sad. Whoever says “they’re all the same,” has never attended a legislative hearing.
  • Committee meetings do not begin on time.
  • Meetings can change rooms without notice and without direction for where it will actually take place.
  • Eat before you go or bring your meal with you.
  • Expect to be there a long time.
  • Bring a guide, if you know one — someone who can explain the background.
  • Take notes. You’ll want to refer back to them to understand what has happened and, honestly, you’re going to hear some pretty unusual things.
  • It’s a lot more interesting than it is painful.
  • Go with friends.
  • You’ll want to do it more often.

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