Energy Lessons

The sorry state of U.S. energy supplies means more for builders than you might think.

By Ron Jones | April 30, 2001
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At the first National Green Building Conference, held in Denver in 1999, I heard John Knott of Dewees Island, S.C., speak. One of the things he said that has stayed with me was that developers and builders would need to become energy producers as well.

Just two years have passed, and now I’m reading articles about the sorry shape of U.S. energy supplies. "Rolling blackouts"—that sounds ominous, doesn’t it? Predictions for the coming summer are anything but encouraging. Seems Knott was on to something.

Soaring prices and limited supplies are predicted by just about every energy expert who gets quoted by the media now. Those experts point to increased demand throughout the country and the effects of deregulation on utility companies, but also to other factors such as a drop in hydroelectric power because of low rainfall in the Northwest and high natural gas prices nation-wide.

The Blame Game
All the while, various players are pointing fingers at each other, determined to find someone to blame. I have a newspaper clipping featuring a photograph that shows an embittered woman from San Francisco holding her fist in the air with her utility bill handcuffed to her arm in a dramatic symbol of how she was a "captive" of the utility system.

So now we have huge debates going on over price caps and regulatory fixes and what level of government should or shouldn’t be controlling the situation. Meanwhile, in April, California’s largest utility filed for bankruptcy, saying it had to turn to the courts because the "regulatory and political processes have failed" it.

Pacific Gas & Electric has its own handcuffs to wear, I suppose. Interestingly, some would say predictably, the Bush administration has gutted federal research grants for renewable energy. Am I missing something here? It’s not just the government, though. Until recently, a California program that provided financial incentives for consumers to purchase a 2-kilowatt photo-voltaic residential system for about $8,000 didn’t find enough takers. Only when the lights went dark did the program become popular.

I’m not here to judge whether a homeowner should install a hot tub or a renewable energy system, but I do think our culture has interesting priorities. Part of it is just human nature, and part of it might go back to the technology gap from which so many of us suffer. We certainly enjoy the benefits of technology such as refrigeration and air conditioning, but we have become dependent on someone else, or more accurately, a lot of "someone elses," to provide the means to run all these luxuries turned necessities.

I can’t help but recall Robert M. Pirsig’s discussion of all this in his masterful inquiry into values, "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance." Pirsig pointed out the "glaring inconsistency" of how people can’t stand discomfort but also can’t stand the technology that relieves that discomfort. He went on to write about how the people best equipped to flourish without the benefits of technology are the ones who appreciate them the most. They are the people who are self-reliant, have bothered to understand how and why things work and know how to repair something.

Making Choices
Builders and developers can’t fix everything that is deficient in our society. We are not equipped to, and I’m not saying it’s our job. What I am saying is that we succeed or fail based on our individual and collective ability to recognize the needs and desires of our customers, within the limitations of technology, regulation and market demand. But those of us who will succeed best in the future also might have to help our customers re-evaluate their priorities when it comes to choosing one amenity over another.

I have lots of customers who have all the bells and whistles: whirlpool tubs, multiple specialty refrigerators, state-of-the-art entertainment and automation systems, automatic garage door openers and irrigation systems, sophisticated security devices and so on. But few of them are willing to pay for the wiring harness that would allow them to easily add renewable energy producing equipment to their homes so that they could generate at least part of the energy they consume.

Call it a hunch, but I have a feeling John Knott knew what he was talking about. When the lights go out in a subdivision near you, your customers will become a lot more interested in your ability to offer them energy options. It might be wise to formulate answers.