The latest Humans of Michigan Tech story features Sydney, an undergrad who lives in an ambulance turned tiny home. The story barely touches the surface of the environmental, economic, and personal benefits that can come from tiny home living. Tiny homes are a great example of how environmentally responsible living is also economically beneficial – Sydney doesn’t have to pay rent or utility bills and can take advantage of the shared systems like showers and internet provided by the college campus. Sydney is not the first MTU student to live in a tiny home while completing a degree here – a student who built a tiny home on a trailer used to live in my yard, before she graduated and moved away from Houghton. There have even been discussions of developing a community of tiny houses on campus! Sydney and other students who have lived in tiny homes demonstrate that it’s possible, even in the cold snowy climate of the UP. Her story makes me wonder – How many students would live like this, if provided the opportunity to try? How can we teach more students about this possibility? What are the barriers in our way of making more environmentally and economically sound investments for qualify living through tiny homes and access to shared systems? We’re proud of you, Sydney!
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 email@example.com
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.
Brendan Beecham is an undergraduate Computer Science major at Michigan Tech. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Michigan Tech has ambitious plans to address the future of education, the contexts in which education operates, and the objectives and aims that a University education serves, given the expected disruptions resulting from external factors (you can read more about Tech Forward here). Discussions and meetings in the fall 2018 semester (you can read more about that process here) resulted in the announcement of big, broad Initiatives intended to create plans for proactively addressing the challenges faced by MTU, Universities, and the societies in which we live. One of the Initiatives is focused on Sustainability & Resilience, and the Working Group has been meeting regularly to discuss possibilities, priorities, and the principles that should guide Sustainability & Resilience activities at MTU — What do you think? What do you think Sustainability & Resilience should look like at MTU?
The coming of the colder weather means that the wood stove in my living room has been brought back to life, and I have spent several nights already this fall watching the fire flickering through its glass front. I, like many of my neighbors and I presume many other residents of the UP, burn wood at home as a source of heat. Although there’s another heating source in my home (propane), I prefer to use the wood burning stove. Yet I’ve recently been reading up on the down sides of burning wood, and have been contemplating what it means for living sustainably.
There’s a lot of science out there about the harmful emissions from burning wood. One report claims that it could be as harmful for you as cigarette smoke or as toxic as what comes out of a diesel tailpipe. Apparently, some physicians in Utah have even proposed banning wood burning stoves in the state (although at least one Utah resident is starkly opposed). The Environmental Protection Agency has set emissions limits on wood burning stoves, and recommends using only newer, more efficient, EPA certified stoves. Yet despite concerns about their negative environmental impacts from emissions, people are arguably driven to burn wood for heat for economic reasons – it’s less expensive than other, fossil-fuel derived heat sources.
The appeal of a wood burning stove, for me, goes beyond economic considerations. Burning wood for heat means that the individual or family seeking heat becomes entirely responsible for their own comfort. Instead of having to pay a monthly bill and rely on a system of technical experts, invisible technologies, and far away bureaucracies, burning wood for heat requires that we rely on ourselves. Burning wood as a heat source mirrors, to me, what energy expert Amory Lovins said long ago when contrasting energy systems on the “hard path” and the “soft path” – it puts energy usage into the hands of the user, making us reliant on our own knowledge, experience, and participation.
At least, that’s always been my experience with using wood as a heat source. Perhaps I would feel very differently about it if I’d ever had to pay for wood to burn, instead of relying on resources on my private property. Not everyone is fortunate enough to have access to land with suitable wood to burn, a real issue of justice that I would be remiss to ignore. Nonetheless, when I look at the flickering firelight in my wood burning stove, I can’t help but contemplate how we define, measure, and pursue sustainability. Is it just about emissions calculations? Do issues of ownership matter? I am interested in pursuing alternatives where individuals and communities can take more ownership and be more responsible for the resources we all depend upon – like clean water, healthy food, and enough energy to provide for our needs and comforts. Does the concept of sustainability captures my concerns about social organization or community resilience, or do I need to look elsewhere for a concept that more accurately represents my interest in ‘sustainable’ living?
At the end of July, I had the opportunity to sit in on a workshop on open-source 3D printing technologies happening here on Tech’s campus. Sponsored the Square One Educational Network, this workshop brought teachers from across the state of Michigan to campus to learn about desktop 3D printers and, most importantly, gave them the opportunity to build their own printer that they took back to their classrooms and students.
Researchers here on campus have shown that open-source 3D printing technologies allow individuals to make necessary things for a fraction of the cost required to buy them; this is incredibly exciting for those of us interested in economic resiliency as well as social equity. Nevertheless, 3D printing technologies have also received a lot of negative attention. In response to the negative media attention 3D printing technologies have received, A “3D Printers of Peace” contest was launched here at Tech (there’s still time to enter!) to encourage 3D printing innovation that is socially beneficial. This is a great way to bring positive attention to this emerging technology. For me, these mixed reports on the potentials of 3D printing technology raise the question: what’s the future of these technologies, and what role can they play in creating a more sustainable society?
After watching teachers build their own printers, observing their interactions with one another throughout the workshop, and talking with them about why they attended the workshop, my tentative answer is this: 3D printing technologies have the potential to empower us to build, shape, and create our own worlds. As students and as humans, we have become used to living in a world where we can’t fix the machines we use everyday or make simple things that we use to live. 3D printers allow us to make things (from replacement parts for your snow blower to a complete chess set) less expensively, and without the carbon required to get most plastic things from point of production to point of consumption. More importantly, they empower us to become makers of things, which has the potential to radically transform the economic and social arrangements in society. A second thing I learned from the 3D printing workshop is this: the technologies we use in society are embedded in the fabric of that society, they ways we think about and use technologies are shaped by society, and it is important to think about, talk about, and constantly refine our own ideas about technology as we work to apply them to the creation of a more sustainable future .
Someone recently shared with me this news story about two men in Ontario who are going “off the grid” this summer as an experiment in sustainable living. They live in a two-bedroom apartment in a community of over 350,000 people, but they have unplugged their fridge and turned off their hot water heater in order to live without conventional electricity. In addition, they have started a garden and a worm composting system and are planning to avoid throwing trash “away” all summer. However, these two aren’t planning to go without their smartphones. A Canadian company called Goal Zero is sponsoring their experiment in sustainability by providing the equipment necessary to charge phones and computers as well as turn on some lights with portable solar power. Calling themselves “Sustainable Joes,” they are documenting their summer experiment on youtube and Facebook, and have a website where you can learn more about their project and their vision.
I find the story of these Sustainable Joes fascinating. For me, it will be interesting to watch them throughout the summer, with several questions in mind. Not everyone can purchase (or would be willing to purchase) portable solar systems ranging in cost from $500 to $2,000. How many companies would be willing to provide these things for free just to get the word out about their product or to demonstrate its feasibility, and how much energy could we save if more households or communities had solar charging stations for our phones, tablets, and e-readers? What will these Sustainable Joes experience as a sacrifice (like cold showers and cold food), what will they experience as empowering (like, as they say, not being a slave to the power outlet), and how could their portrayal of their experiences as limiting or liberating affect how other people perceive more sustainable lifestyles? What kinds of things will these “average Joes” talk about when documenting their experiment as part of their desire to encourage other people: will they talk about money saved or carbon kept out of the atmosphere, will they share only what worked for them or also what doesn’t? What does it look like to live sustainably in the modern world? I spent almost two years without a refridgerator at one point in my life, but have never gone without the Internet.
The Sustainable Joes experiment demonstrates that a more sustainable lifestyle is within everyone’s reach, and that more sustainable household practices can change both our lifestyles and our attitudes in unexpected ways. Perhaps most importantly, they are leading by example, encouraging us to examine our own lives and ask – what could we do to help develop a more sustainable now?
Professor David Orr has been a long time scholar of sustainability, and is now putting thought into action. He has spearheaded “The Oberlin Project“, an ambitious endeavor to make Oberlin, OH a self-sustaining community: socially, economically, and environmentally.
“Gown towns” are those small towns that have a college or university that tends to dominate the social and economic activity of the town. Small towns like Oberlin OH or Miami OH (Miami University of Ohio) can seem to be more of a service station to the faculty, staff and students of the academic institution than a stand-alone community, especially for those citizens who live and go to school there. Even larger cities, such as Knoxville TN, can be dominated by their universities sometimes (especially during football season… go Vols!). For these towns, it might be quite a challenge to build lasting business and arts districts when at least half of the population is seasonal and transient (i.e., the students). However, many of these towns are close enough to a major city to allow them to be dependent upon them for certain services and sectors; Oberlin (just 40 miles from Cleveland) is no exception.
Now here’s my humble opinion: Houghton/Hancock MI might superficially seem like yet another “gown town”, ripe for new ideas about self-sufficiency and sustainability. However, I’d argue that we are quite different than the gown towns of Oberlin and Miami in one very critical respect: we are over 200 miles from the nearest city (Green Bay, WI). Our remoteness may have forced upon us a self-sufficiency that is rare among gown towns. We are probably not any more or less sustainable than these other towns (and so we have a lot to learn from The Oberlin Project), but I’d argue that at least we’ve got most of the components we need to get there.