Category: Sustainability Research

The Ramifications of Your Rationalizations: Compensatory Green Beliefs and the Rebound Effect


Zofia Freiberg contributed this guest blog post. She is a systems engineering major at MTU. 
She can be reached at zjfreibe@mtu.edu 


Photo Taken by Kayley Roche kmroche@mtu.edu. Used with permission. 

After installing better insulation, do you think  you would turn up your thermostat? If you purchased an electric car, do you think you would drive more? These behaviors illustrate the rebound effect – behavioral change that offsets efficiency efforts to reduce emissions. This phenomenon is observed with pro-environmental interventions on the scale of an individual’s behavior. In these scenarios, the rebound effect is often attributed to compensatory green beliefs. 

A compensatory belief is based on the idea that the effects of a positive act can counteract the effects of a negative act. Take, for example, the use of a morning run to later justify grabbing a donut for breakfast. Once applied to environmental actions, it becomes a compensatory green belief, or CGB for short.

When asked whether they agree or disagree with behaviors like “I do not often use a dishwasher, so it is okay to have longer showers,” the majority of people tend not to openly endorse CGBs. While someone may not consciously endorse CGBs, their behavior can still be influenced by them. One study on CGBs added open-ended questions regarding CBGs in addition to simple agree/disagree scenario questions. This research confirmed that most people disagree with CGbs when asked about them point blank. Contrastingly, in the interview section, participants often described behaviors that suggested compensation regarding environmental acts. Participants stated things like,  “Well I’m allowed a bath once every couple of months if I have a shower all the rest of the time” and “I’ll often catch the school bus or I’ll walk in the morning to school and then I often think well I’ve cut down on that so if I’m going out in the evening I ask my dad to give me a lift.”

Additionally, both studies found a strong negative correlation (R = -.54)  between endorsing CGBs and reporting behavior and identity traits that are pro-environmental. In fact, the absence of CGB endorsement was a better predictor of pro-environmental behaviors than environmental values or identity. These differences in the qualitative and quantitative findings are concerning. The people who presumably care most about the environment are not objectively acknowledging the CGBs we know they hold. Compensatory beliefs may offer an appealing solution to rationalize behaviors that are unaligned with long term goals or values. Though the rebound effect can be discouraging, it’s vital to note that there is controversy around the magnitude of industry-scale rebound effects. As for the ability of CBGs to counteract eco-friendly acts, that’s up to you.


Tech Forward Sustainability Listening Session

The Tech Forward Initiative on Sustainability and Resilience recently held a campus-wide listening session to hear from more voices across campus. The event was focused on small-group discussions about what Michigan Tech does well, and what can be done differently when it comes to research, education, and campus life issues related to sustainability. Roughly 70 people showed up for a two-hour event on a weeknight, which is a really great indication of just how many people feel strongly about this topic! The folks working within the Tech Forward group are still accepting feedback, so if you did not get a chance to attend the event, please go to this Google Form and share your thoughts about how research, education, or campus life could be improved in regards to sustainability issues – or, feel free to tell us what we are doing that is already going well!

The whole group sharing ideas near the end of the event

Cultivating Community Food Resilience: Revisited

In Fall 2018, undergraduate and graduate students of Dr. Angie Carter’s Communities and Research class at Michigan Tech University (MTU) researched and wrote a report on the food system in the Western UP and food systems councils. The report, entitled “Cultivating Community Food Resilience” was the product  of a partnership between MTU and the Western Upper Peninsula Planning and Development Region, and was intended to inform the development of the Western Upper Peninsula Food Systems Council (WUPFSC) through research and community engagement. It is hard to believe that more than a year has passed since we finished drafting the report, and that more than a year’s worth of WUPFSC meetings in all 6 counties of the Western Upper Peninsula region have since taken place.

We were both students in the class and came back together to reflect on the past year, the research and writing process, and sharing the report.

Question: Describe your process of preparing the report. What was the most impactful for you personally, for the class, for the community?

Kyla: I found the process of researching for this report immensely impactful, specifically connecting with community partners. The amount of support and enthusiasm we found when we started speaking to people about this project was really contagious and I think many of us found the sense of community very affecting. Especially after having graduated and left Houghton, this aspect of the project still impresses me.

I recall experiencing a lot of growth as a member of the class, too. The gains were far more than just intellectual — I think I have become a better community member through the process of pulling together to make this report happen. Coming into conversation with the community was the easy part of this project. The difficult part, the part that required all of us to stretch beyond our comfort zones, was the collaborative, messy work of birthing the report. I’m sure there will be many more experiences like this for folks continuing this work!

For the campus — I’m sure I’ll touch on this more when I talk about presenting to the Food Systems and Sustainability (FS&S) class. All of the MTU students I’ve met and talked to about this project and other community food systems topics have had such thoughtful, hopeful responses. I think that this report can serve as a little bit of a touchstone, a synthesis of much of the work that the first round of FS&S and Communities and Research students have done. Every time I look at the report, I am struck by all the elements that made their way in — from the literature we were exposed to during the first round of FS&S, to the problems, ideas, solutions and values that our partners and community brought to the table. So future students will find a lot of information and ideas, and they’ll have a snapshot of food resilience/security at MTU at a time before any of this work, or their work, was carried out. And they’ll hopefully see themselves in the vision of the students who came before them.

Courtney: The research for this project was interesting and impactful to me in a variety of ways. Not only educationally, but as a community member as well. It was really nice to interact with the students on campus and community members as a whole.  I know that personally, all the people I came in contact with during this project were enthusiastic about the project and interested in what we were doing. It was in a sense, a feel-good process.

As a student, I grew immensely during this project; both as an individual and as a team member. We learned how each other worked, what our strengths and weaknesses were and where to improve. Presenting at the Social Science Brown Bag Lunch and the Western UP Food Systems Council Meeting at Zeba Hall in L’Anse, MI in December 2018 helped with my presentation skills which is huge both educationally and professionally. Attending the Western UP Food Systems Council meetings has given me the opportunity to connect with community members through the area, and learn about who they are through networking, sharing and brainstorming.

I believe this project helped our campus and community in a very unique way. Everyone loves food. Having conversations about food, how it is grown, the problems we encounter and how we can solve those problems. For the people who participated, they were able to express how food affects their life, whether positive or not. When starting this project, I was amazed at the number of people who are food insecure in our local area. No one should be without good food. It is my hope that doing the research and helping start the Western UP Food Systems Council, that we might be able to conquer some of the problems in our area.

Question: You’ve shared the report in a couple different forums, including WUPFSC meetings, classes and an academic conference. How can this report be used differently by different audiences?

Text Box: Photo 1 Kyla Valenti presenting at the International Symposium of Society & Natural Resources conference


Photo 1 Kyla Valenti presenting at the International Symposium of Society & Natural Resources conference


Photo 2 (L to R) Class team Jack Wilson, Kyla Valenti, Adewale Adesanya, Courtney Archambeau, Kyle Parker-McGlynn, Angie Carter (not pictured Rob Skalitsky) after presenting at the WUPFSC meeting December 2018

Kyla: Yes, come to think of it, those presentations all differed quite a lot. During the final week of the semester in the Fall of 2018, we shared our newly minted findings and research process at the second Western Upper Peninsula Food Systems Council meeting. During the spring, a couple of us came to Dr. Carter’s Food Systems and Sustainability class to talk about the project, findings and methods and to exchange thoughts and inspiration with other students concerned and passionate about community food systems. More recently, this work was presented at the International Symposium of Society and Natural Resources (ISSNR) in June, 2019.

After having either seen or participated in all of these presentations, I can confidently say that there are many different ways this report can be used and shared. It seems like each presentation, meeting and conversation has led in different directions and evolved the project further. For academic audiences, the conversation may have more to do with research methodology or may focus more on the theory informing this work — more generalizable information that could be applied to a wide array of projects in any number of communities and places. But with members of our own community, the conversation tends to be very different — it easily verges more toward concrete ideas and steps, acknowledges real people, local cultures, and tangible resources and connections. When we presented to other students, I recall experiencing a moment where I realized I’d need to shift from one gear into the other — from the academic gear, into one that was much more specific and personal. The Michigan Tech students I’ve spoken to and worked with have a strong connection to place and deep concern for their community, their school, and their impact.

Courtney: Sharing our research has probably been the best part of the project, next to all of the interactions of course. Sharing what we have learned on different levels was thought provoking and inspiring. The research and methodologies have been shared with students, faculty, and community members; each having their own sets of questions. When sharing with Dr. Carter’s Food Systems and Sustainability Class, their main focus was how we conducted our research and what we thought of our findings.

I think that “Cultivating Community Food Resilience” can be used in a variety of ways and be helpful to different types of groups. As I stated earlier, we have presented our work in a multitude of ways to a multitude of groups, and Kyla stated that each presentation, conversation and read-through has lead to different conversations and impacts.

Question: What are some of the next steps for the WUPFSC?

Courtney: One of the main things that needs to keep happening is the WUPFSC meetings in each of the six counties across the Western UP region. Food summits and community programs would also be beneficial so that community members know what is happening and or how to process foods in a variety of ways.

Kyla: What were once “recommendations” are now actualities. Ideas that once belonged to the future are now accomplishments. An example of this is that when we met with community partners last year, one of the key things that folks kept bringing up was that creating partnerships within the community was critical to supporting a strong local food system. “Building partnerships” ended up becoming one of our key themes, so several recommendations for the WUPFSC were built around that. And I have to say, checking back in with the WUPFSC, I am so impressed by just how far they’ve taken those initial recommendations. When I looked at the website after several months, I was amazed by all the resources compiled for that particular purpose: building partnerships. A “networking” page. Lists of community gardens. Funding opportunities. A calendar of local events. This is one area where even from a distance I can tell that the WUPFSC has done a tremendous job. And like many of those who participated in our project, I am optimistic that many of the “next steps” will grow from those partnerships!

—-

Kyla Valenti is a 2019 graduate of the B.S. in Social Sciences (Law and Society) program at Michigan Technological University. Though deeply attached to the UP, she currently resides in Silicon Valley, where she is working to advance her career as a social scientist and mental health practitioner.

Courtney Archambeau is a 2006 graduate of the B.S in Social Sciences (History concentration) program at Michigan Technological University. She is currently a full time employee of Residence Education and Housing Services at Michigan Technological University while pursuing her masters degree in Environmental and Energy Policy.

The students’ report, and other resources about food in our communities, can be found at the Western Upper Peninsula Food Systems Council website.


Giving farmers a new crop: Solar Farms and expanding BTM methods for farmers

 

This is a guest post from Lena Stenvig, an undergraduate student at Michigan Tech. Lena is studying Computer Science and minoring in Environmental Studies. Lena took the photos included in this blog post. She can be reached at lsstenvi@mtu.edu

 

The cherry orchard at Garthe Farms LLC

America is all about its family-owned farms. From its popular food chains serving America-grown burgers to its corn-mazes in the fall attracting people from all around, none of it would be possible without the original small-town humble farmers that do their job equally for supporting their families and for the love of what they do every day; but now our farmers need help. When people moved away from their family farms over to less body-intensive jobs for work, fewer farms began producing more product on more land. Even so, many farmers struggle to produce enough crop to sustain themselves and their family. Around 91 percent of farming families have at least one family member working at a job that is not the farm. This is where Behind the Meter, or BTM comes in.

Behind the meter is a means of producing your own energy so that you are not pulling all of the energy you use from the grid, and as a result pay less for your electricity bill. A popular technique to behind-the-meter is installing solar-panels in one’s yard on upon the roof. In this way a household can produce green energy to lower its carbon footprint and can save on the electricity bill. A typical household has room for a few solar panels. Enough to sustain itself for most of the summer months, but usually not enough when the winter heating bill kicks in. A modern American farm has much more land than your typical resident. Even if most of it is used for farming, there are certainly space that could easily be allocated for a small solar farm. Having worked for Garthe Farms LLC this summer, a cherry farm deep in cherry country near Traverse City, MI, I have seen first-hand where and how this can work. My uncle, Gene Garthe, runs this farm and in recent years invested in four large solar panels that sit in empty space near the driveway nearing the farm house. These four solar panels produce enough energy to run what electricity is needed for the farm, and that is all they desire and need.

Despite producing plenty of energy via solar, Garthe Farms is not a emissions-free facility. Large machinery is used to harvest the cherries from their trees. There are three machines that are necessary in cherry harvesting: the Shaker, which shakes the cherries from the trees, the Catch Frame, which catches the cherries shaken by the Shaker and conveyors them into a tub, and the tractor that takes the tubs when full to the loading dock and brings the Catch Frame a new tub in which to fill more cherries. All three of these machines require diesel fuel to run, and as much work as one can complete towards electric vehicles, it is not economically feasible at the moment to make a machine that chugs through an entire tank of fuel in eight hours of work to operate on an electrically-rechargeable battery. To make up for their fuel usage, perhaps it is better that farms simply produce a form of green energy that can make up for the amount of fossil fuels they consume.

 

Cherry harvest in motion: The Shaker (far) moves to the next tree while the Catch Frame (near) is receiving a new tub in which to place the harvested cherries.

 

In this way farmers can reverse the BTM method. If they can produce their usual crop while also producing energy in either the form of solar or wind, they can sustain their household while also receiving return on what they put out to the grid. This can work if they can have some of their own personal solar panels to run what they need to on the farm, and then working with solar or wind companies to lease certain areas of their land to be utilized for said energy production. For wind, this is easy by simply taking up a small portion of land for each windmill. The minimally invasive turbines do not take up much room on the farm and do not hinder the crops from receiving enough sunlight. Solar panels can prove to be trickier. Because of their method of energy production, solar panels would not work well in a field full of crops that also require sunlight in order to grow. For farms that grow plants that take up less room per unit such as potatoes or corn, placing solar panels in spare spaces around the field while mostly utilizing wind power might be the best option. For farms like my uncle’s, it is a different story entirely.

Much of a cherry orchard’s area is taken up by plants and grasses that grow below the trees, and the trees stand spaced approximately ten feet apart within each row. Each row stands about another twenty five feet apart. Where some farms may be only able to place solar panels near roads or at the end of rows, orchards may place the panels in these locations are more. If one row of trees were to be replaced with solar panels, the loss of trees would be fairly minimal while also adding enormous potential for solar production. Even without removing trees, placing solar panels at the end of rows would not affect the production of fruit while also receiving gain on solar production.

If we are to look closer at our American farms and examine the issues they face today, and if we can only look at the potential they hold for energy production, we may not only be able to solve the growing problem of farms going bankrupt, but also for finding a place to produce greener energy without disrupting land that is not being used and additionally would ecologically be better off as it is. In this way farmers can continue to do what they love, and not have to work more than they have to in order to pay bills and keep their farm from dying. With this I might say the path onto greener pastures might just be creating greener pastures.

 

 


Industrial Ecology

Photo of Shaelyn taken by Daniel Prada (daprada@mtu.edu).

 

 

This is a guest post by Shaelyn Koleber, who is an environmental engineering undergraduate student at Michigan Tech. She can be reached at sjkolebe@mtu.edu

 

Shaelyn took the photos included in her blog post.

 

 

 

Nature is full of self-sustaining ecosystems; there is a constant recycling of resources. There are complementary functions within nature and the environment is able to completely support itself without outside assistance. For example, trees absorb carbon dioxide and give off oxygen, while animals take in oxygen and give off carbon dioxide—a seemingly perfect complimentary cycle. Whether a plant is eaten by an animal or it dies naturally and decomposes on the forest floor, it is still supporting the ecosystem. Whatever nature produces eventually reaches the end of its life and will be consumed back into the ecosystem. A fallen tree limb, a dead animal, or an uneaten fruit or plant that has fallen to the floor are all absorbed and recycled back as useful forms to support the ecosystem. There is no waste produced from environmental processes and the ecosystem is a closed-loop of resources. This same concept can be applied in buildings and manufacturing where the waste produced from these processes can be used to support the ongoing production. Industrial ecology is a sustainability concept to improve the environmental management of industrial processes. Companies can keep a record of materials throughout a product’s life. There are many subcategories of industrial ecology that are used as analyzation and evaluation techniques to ultimately reduce the impact on the environment, such as: material flow analysis (MFA), life-cycle analysis (LCA), and input-output analyzation. Industrial ecology is an emerging concept that works to mimic the self-sustaining cycle of nature.

Introducing the ecological aspect to industry puts a generalized focus on environmental impact. Industrial ecology is a strategic guideline to use fewer resources while also finding a new purpose for exhausted materials and waste. This does not have to occur within one facility. Different businesses could work together to create networked, ecological industries: waste can be seen as a resource. The saying, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” is demonstrated through the concept of ‘industry partnership.’ The by-product from one industrial process can be used as the input for a separate entity. For example, a coal-firing power plant has a lot of excess heat that can be distributed to a nearby community. This would reduce the energy and resources needed to provide heat services to the town, thus providing environmental and economic benefits. This could only occur with the cooperation of multiple companies independently. The transportation of these materials would have to be a short distance for the net environmental impact to be positive. This idea would have tobe mutually adopted for it to be effective, which could be seen in future years as more industries become conscious of their carbon footprint.

 

Industrial ecology is also seen in the emerging concept of cogeneration. Cogeneration, also known as combined heat and power (CHP), is when a heat engine is used to generate electricity and heat at the same time. Similar to the previously mentioned example, during the production of electricity, the heat can be harnessed and put to use instead of going to waste. This directly views the heat waste as a source and creates a concept of dual-purpose. Rather than the heat being seen as waste, it is seen as another useful product of the process. Smaller-scale industrial ecology concepts can be seen in the construction of homes or commercial buildings. Current construction techniques and technological resources build each utility with separate input needs and waste disposal. Most housing and commercial buildings do not have any industrial ecology, currently. People who plan on living in a house for an extended period of time or have a desire to live sustainably are more prone to implement advanced technologies. Instead of using an air-source air conditioner, a ground source heat pump can be used as a closed-loop system. These systems pump water from the ground where the temperature is constant year-round. While air-source heat pumps are less expensive and easier to install, ground-source pumps are much more efficient and sustainable. The ground-source pumps are buried pipes that loop around a three-to-six-foot-deep trench. This system is a constant exchange of heat with the ground and can heat or cool a home. Diagrams and explanations of the different heating systems can be found on https://smarterhouse.org/heating-systems/types-heating-systems. It takes less energy to simply move heat around than it is to generate heat; therefore, the ground-source pump does not consume a lot of energy. Since the ground-source heat pumps are more efficient, they are also more cost effective. A consumer that installs this system and plans on living in a home for a long time will see a return on their investment. This is just one example of many technologies/designs that exist as readily-available sustainable systems.

Industrial ecology is a concept that must be practiced by all companies and manufacturers; it must also be well-understood by the general public in order to be fully adopted and implemented into the function of society. Since our society relies heavily on industrial processes, we cannot simply shut them down. However, we can no longer standby and knowingly accept the pollution that companies create through their industrial processes. While it is not reasonable to shut down industrial processes completely, we must keep these companies responsible for the waste and pollution they create. A partial reinvention of industrial processes into industrial ecology will reduce the environmental impact significantly. Without the public’s understanding and demand for such changes, there will be no urgency to place official regulations and therefore create a zero-pollution global industry. This foreseen change will not come easily or naturally; it needs to be talked about and broadcasted on media to mass-educate the public. With a widely supported concept, the engineers, scientists, and policy makers can work together to put the ideas into action. Industrial ecology allows humans to increase their efficient use of ecosystems by mimicking what nature already does. The implementation of this concept will only come with the mutual support from companies, the government, the people, and environmental conservationists. If we continue to move forward with these concepts, the earth can thrive for many eons in our future.

 

 


Your Role in Progressing Toward a Soft-Energy Society

 

Photo by Meghal Janarda

 

This is a guest blog post from Zoe Reep, who is an undergraduate mathematics major at Michigan Tech. Zoe can be reached at zkreep@mtu.edu

 

As our society has grown in population, technology, and abilities, so has its need for energy. And as our need for energy has grown, we have been forced to step outside of early methods of capturing and extracting this energy. Over time, society has shifted from reliance on muscular and biomass sources such as animal labor and firewood in the 15th century to a reliance on fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas in the late 20th century (Evolution of Energy Sources).

 

Figure 1: Graph representing the evolution of energy sources across periods of time (Evolution of Energy Sources).

In the late 1900s, influential writer and scientist Amory Lovins took a critical look at the future of our energy sector in his essay “Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken?.” He proposed that there are two ways in which society can proceed: the hard path, society’s current path characterized by intense fossil fuel consumption and lack of regard to the environmental effects of such consumption; and the soft path, the path that Lovins believed to be the better alternative characterized by renewable energy and the commitment to energy conservation and efficiency.

Those in support of the hard path argue that fossil fuels and nuclear energy alone can sustain our ever-growing population, with its ever-growing desire for energy, if we simply alter our extraction, conversion, distribution, and usage methods to be more efficient. Proponents of the hard path believe that society should focus on providing incentives, such as tax breaks and subsidies, for fossil fuel companies to encourage the exploration and extraction of coal, uranium, and petroleum. Following the decline of the availability of fossil fuels, these hard-pathers support a shift to nuclear power. Typically, those in support of the hard path envision a future of expensive, centralized systems (Newton).

In contrast, those in support of the soft path hold the belief that a reliance on solely fossil fuels is not only unsustainable in the long run, but dangerous. They believe that creating and sustaining large, concentrated facilities for power production enables powerful companies to dictate energy’s place in society and turns energy into a socioeconomic issue. Instead of these centralized systems, proponents of the soft path favor more local energy retrieval methods, such as solar panels on buildings or the use of wind turbines on properties. Additionally, soft-pathers would like to see society slowly transition from a heavy reliance on fossil fuels to a more dispersed reliance on renewable energy sources such as hydro, geothermal, solar, and wind power (Newton).

Lovins views sparked a time of controversy, but also brought up an important issue: which direction is the direction that we need to move in order to ensure that our successors have the same abilities to live full and meaningful lives as we do?

We’ve reached a point where it is difficult to argue that there isn’t something wrong with our current energy industry. [Check out https://ourworldindata.org/fossil-fuels for a look at the increase in fossil fuel consumption. Think our current methods can keep up with the ever-growing demand for energy?] Scientists and researchers have been presenting more and more evidence that our current path is unsustainable and that we might even reap the irreversible consequences of our procrastination and selfish desires in our lifetime. It is beginning to seem that the majority of people recognize the correlation between the dependence on fossil fuels and Earth’s degrading environment and atmospheric conditions , so what’s stopping us from converting to a more sustainable alternative?

We have grown increasingly dependent on energy and the comforts and commodities it supplies to us. We believe that others will find an answer for us, and that the answer will allow us to continue our life of ease. We hold the assumption that our own individual efforts will not produce change, since we are merely a single ant in the midst of a ginormous colony.

I tested a thought that I had on my Energy and Society class. I wanted to see if, when provided the education of why change was important and the means of producing that change, my peers would change small areas of their life that they had grown up comfortable with to benefit the world around them.

We had spent the previous class walking around campus and discussing areas that we felt could be improved, through methods such as user awareness or the implementation of more efficient systems,  to lessen energy consumption. The general consensus seemed to be that there were many aspects of our college life that, with a little change, could lower our energy consumption significantly and if only people knew about these areas, or acted on these areas, we would be in a much better position, energy-speaking.

I used a topic that I knew would strike controversy and that my class would be resistant to: food, and the environmental effects of the current animal agriculture industry – and our consumption of the proteins stemming from it.

Before I began, I asked my class whether they were vegetarian. This elicited several skeptical looks and maybe one or two hesitant “I once was…” or “I tried at one point…” I then provided them with some basic education on the negative effects of the animal agriculture industry through short videos. These videos walked my class through the water, land, and fuel consumption required to create even a single patty and informed them of the emissions and other land-and-water-degradation that results from a mass animal agriculture system.

Following the videos, I asked a very straightforward question: “Who is going to become vegetarian?” When that didn’t receive a response, I decided to cut them a little slack: “Who is going to change their diet?” That received a couple grunts.

I then posed one final question, which is what I want to leave you with today: if you’re not going to make the change, even after being educated about the issue and being provided means to pursue this lifestyle change (even if it is more expensive than the alternative, “normal” route), then what makes you think that anybody else will?

Stop believing that change will occur only when everyone buys into the change; start the change, and help people buy into it. Your actions are important and do create discussion. They have the potential to incite change. If you agree that this energy path we are taking is in fact unsustainable and quite dangerous to rely on, then step up, alter your lifestyle (yes, you might need to give up some of your comforts), and encourage others to do the same. And if you won’t do it for yourself, do it for the generations to come.

Zoe Reep.

 

 


Managing Split Incentives as a Better Way to be Energy Efficient While Renting?

 

Brendan Beecham is an undergraduate Computer Science major at Michigan Tech. He can be reached at blbeecha@mtu.edu.

Understanding the Need

In the present-day variable economy, split incentives could be used as a method of lowering the overall energy bill for a renting tenant. By sharing the cost of energy between the landlord and the tenant, the difficulty that arises with paying for high-cost energy services is mitigated. This in turn allows the renter to use the saved money to pay for other goods and services and inspires sustainable living through spending less on utilities.

 

Source: nucherenonagel.com

 

The power of utilizing split incentives comes from the motivation from the landlord and tenant to be energy efficient. If the landlord accepts one lump sum fee from the tenant as a substitute for the tenant paying the utility themselves, they have much less reason to be mindful of how much energy they use. On the other hand, if a tenant pays their own electric bill every month themselves, the landlord might not see it as worth their money to install energy efficient lights and appliances. This is where split incentives shine.

When each party in the landlord/tenant relationship is responsible for their own half of the electric bill, there is much more pressure to be energy efficient. This is present in many more cases than just rental housing, but for simplicity I will focus on just the landlord/tenant relationship instead of hotels or big businesses.

 

Affordability For Those That Need It

Split incentives are especially important when discussing energy poverty. This is where lower income renters will end up allocating significantly more of their household income to energy bills than other renters. In this case, split incentives can cripple the financial stability of that renter and affect their quality of life. Additionally, this renter’s landlord will most likely be affected by the instability of the renter’s financial situation, which could lead to possible missed rent payments and cause for both parties to be in an unstable financial relationship. Implementing split incentives effectively can help both the renter and the landlord.

Energy poverty is an issue that arises from the infrastructure and behavior of the energy industry as it stands today. This is a huge issue. Until people are able to afford the energy that they need to take part in society, the thought of living efficiently is much less a choice for some than it is a requirement. There is hope, however, as the idea of split incentives is a versatile one and can help to push forward renewable energy technology.

 

Source: thebalance.com

 

Creating A Better Transition For Renewable Energy

Split incentives could be managed in ways that create energy poverty solutions, but they could also be helpful in mitigating the cost of installing renewable energy solutions like solar panels. Where many cite the initial sunk cost of installing solar panels as the number one reason for never transitioning to using renewable energy solutions, a program that effectively splits incentives could mean a lessened financial impact on each one of the parties involved, the renter and the landlord. While no tenant wants to pay for their landlord to install solar panels out of their own pockets, a cooperative action as well as the promise of lower energy costs in the future could cast a much more appealing light on the transition. In fact, this is not unlike the benefits that come from a government incentive program, one that gives tax breaks to parties who install renewables or who have a portion of their power grid being powered by renewables.

 

Sharing the Cost to Save Energy

Split incentives may mean that landlords have no reason to invest in energy efficiency or renewable energy, because they don’t see the benefits of lower utility bills themselves. By acknowledging and effectively managing split incentives, the solutions for reducing energy poverty and the transition to renewable energy can be streamlined. Like with most improvements to infrastructure systems, it is the programs that are put in place to reduce sunk costs and reduce risk on one party that will push forward for the most change. No landlord will front the cost of installing solar panels if they know there is no incentive to do so. In most private rental situations, there will need to be a push to get an incentive.

 

Source: energynews.us

 

The cost of renewable energy installation makes it a very unrealistic option for most tenants, even those in long term rentals. Even with the price of solar panels dropping as the market expands, for many tenants, the cost of installations are still too high, and the split incentive of renting (when they might not directly benefit from the reduction in utility expenses) is a huge barrier. While renting is an increasing trend in the housing market, tenants won’t want to put money into rental housing, since they don’t own it and won’t see the benefits from the housing value. Most renters are less financially well off that their landlords, so spending their income to install solar panels for the benefit of the landlord is not likely.

 

Conclusion

Split incentives can be managed in ways that have the potential to improve quite a few factors that all relate to energy and the way it’s used in rental housing. Dividing the costs between the landlord and the tenant could provide a stronger reason to be more energy efficient for both parties. Most importantly, incorporating  sustainability into the way we live is quite a daunting task, especially if money is an issue. So to share the burden with others is possibly the biggest leap to see the biggest benefits. Whether it is minimizing the energy footprint that we are leaving, or attempting to save money to be able to afford the everyday essentials in life, managing or leveraging split incentives to provide maximum benefits and incentives to both landlords and tenants is a smart first step.


Life Cycle Assessment and Sustainability

This is a guest post from Dante Paglia, who is a fourth year computer science undergraduate at Michigan Tech. He can be reached at dfpaglia@mtu.edu

 

Life cycle assessment, also known as life cycle analysis, is used to assess environmental impacts associated with all stages of a product’s life. The stages include the collection of the raw materials, processing those materials, manufacturing the product, distribution via various transportation techniques, use of the product as well as the repair, disposal and recycling during the products end of life. This kind of assessment is used by companies and product designers to better understand their products impacts, discover where the product can be improved, and work toward implementing those improvements. Below is a visual of the stages of a products life that are looked at during a life cycle analysis.

 

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) [Public domain] image of Life Cycle Thinking, Wikimedia Commons
Photo from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Life_Cycle_Thinking_Product_System.jpg

 

There are four main phases of a life cycle analysis. The first phase is the goal and scope. This sets the outline of the study and depicts the format of the results as well as who will receive the results of the assessment. The second stage is the life cycle inventory. In this stage the inventory flow of inputs for a product are recorded. Examples of inventory flows include, water, energy, raw materials and waste releases to either land, air or water. In this step, all of the inputs and outputs that are used or created during the products life are recorded. The third stage of a life cycle assessment is the actual impact assessment. The data gathered in the previous step is sorted and assigned impact categories to help weigh the impact the product has on the environment. Lastly, interpretation is done. The information from the results of the analysis must be checked and evaluated. In other words, the results of phases two and three are summarized in the interpretation phase. The completed assessment is then reviewed to understand the impacts of the product and to see where improvements can be made to lessen the overall impact on the environment.

Life cycle analyses are a widely popular tool to increase a company’s sustainability. This is because the analysis usually includes information that fits into all three pillars of sustainability. While the overall goal of the assessment is to review environmental impacts, social and economic impacts are considered as well. You can learn more about the three pillars of sustainability by clicking here.

There are many variants of a life cycle assessment where different stages of a products life are analyzed. The three most common kinds are cradle to gate, cradle to grave, and cradle to cradle. Cradle to gate only looks at a product when it is in the hands of the producer, once it leaves the factory its impacts are no longer considered. Cradle to grave takes it a step further and follows a product from the very beginning all the way until it is disposed of. Lastly, cradle to cradle takes things even further and instead of disposal of the product, it is recycled and reused in the process again. Often a cradle to cradle design leads to the least amount of environmental impact. One example of cradle to cradle is discarded asphalt pavement being reused to create new pavement. Below is a graphic showing another example of cradle to cradle design with steel production. This shows how everything, including the waste bi-products of steel production can be used for something useful or simply recycled back into the steel making process.

 

Life Cycle Assessment – What is it?

Photo from: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mitopencourseware/3247853726

 

An example of the use of life cycle analysis is the U.S. Department of Energy produced report that shows the energy and environmental benefits of LED lights over incandescent and fluorescent lights. LED lights proved to be more energy efficient and less harmful to the environment to produce as well as transport than both other kinds. This led to a rise in popularity of LED lights hence providing an overall benefit of large energy savings and significantly less environmental harm. The full study can be found by following this link.

Additionally, life cycle assessment is something that many solar panel producing companies are required to do and have planned out prior to receiving funding from the government. Since solar panels include hazardous materials like cadmium and cadmium compounds, it is not only important to make sure that the raw resources are being retrieved in a safe manner but the end of life of the products needs to be taken into account. If a solar panel is to be disposed of for any reason, whether it be because it broke during production or it is no longer being used or is being replaced, companies need to make sure that their product with these hazardous chemicals is properly disposed of. This means it cannot be tossed into landfills but needs to be recycled in a manner where the harmful compounds are disposed of properly or reused for new solar panels. This article on solar panel recycling explains some of the options there are for safe disposal of unwanted or old panels.  A life cycle assessment helps find issues in these stages and brings them to the attention of the product’s producers allowing them to change their ways.

Life cycle assessment is an important concept to be aware of because every company should be doing some variant of a life cycle analysis for their products. Not every company needs to do cradle to cradle analysis, but they should assess their production in some way. By doing so they can discover issues in their production cycle as well as make improvements to make their product better in terms of energy and environmental harm. With this, their product and company as a whole will become more sustainable and attractive to the large number of investors and customers who are paying closer and closer attention to companies sustainability policies. Most importantly in modern day, the end of life portion of production needs to be analyzed and understood so companies can mitigate the environmental impact their product does. The more recycling options that can be found for products the better to reduce the amounts ending up in landfills causing more harm with their pollution than good they provided overall. Without these kinds of analysis, companies would be able to do whatever is the most cost effective in production, which almost never coincides with sustainability and being environmentally friendly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Studying household conservation

Faculty from social sciences, engineering, and computer sciences at MTU, in partnership with colleagues from institutions across the US and the Netherlands, have recently been awarded researching funding from the National Science Foundation’s new program on Innovations at the Nexus of Food, Energy, and Water. We will be examining ways to model, communicate, and potentially change consumption behaviors impacting food, energy, and water resources in residential homes. You can read a bit more about the project here. This project involves several opportunities for funded PhD research assistantships, two in Environmental and Energy Policy at MTU (read more about how to apply here), and one social scientist located at Rutgers. We are excited to begin this important work researching ways of changing behaviors and understanding impacts to make our lives at home more sustainable!


Whose pollution is it?

Now that it is summer, I finally have some time to write about papers published this year that have been quite interesting. I’ll start here first with one published by Lin et al. in PNAS back in February that sought to calculate how much of the air pollution that wafts over to the US from China can be attributed to the stuff we buy from them…. that is, the pollution that is produced through the production of plastic do-dads and other things that we import and consume here. The authors looked at sulfur dioxide (a precursor to acid rain), nitrogen oxides (potent greenhouse gases), carbon monoxide, and black carbon (also implicated in climate change).

In total, they found that “about 21% of export-related Chinese emissions were attributed to China-to-US export”, indicating that one-fifth of their air pollution is driven by our consumption of their goods.

As for the pollution that wafts over to the US, Chinese pollution was sufficient to cause at least one additional day of ozone levels that violated US standards from Los Angeles to the eastern seaboard. In particular, a substantial proportion of sulfate pollution measured in the western US was attributable to Chinese exports.

Quite a few years ago, my colleagues and I wrote about the way that international trade can complicate consumption impacts on the environment…. specifically how the international wood trade can hide the link between wood consumption and deforestation. One of the consequences of our increasingly international economies is our growing blindness to how we impact our environment (which is now global as well). Prior to the Industrial Revolution, production and consumption were mainly local to regional; product availability was closely tied to regional weather, soil, and human labor. Prices could reflect these conditions and overall supply, including how that supply impacted the quantity and quality of resources such as water, air and soil. Now that our economy has globalized, we need to find better ways to allow product data and prices to once again reflect the environmental capacity of the system, so that we can better understand the impacts of our consumption. Lin et al.’s paper nicely illustrates why we should care about pollution in China; our environments are as connected as our economies, and negative environmental impacts elsewhere have a way of “boomeranging” back to us.