Rapid decarbonisation in a conservative state


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This is the fourth instalment in a series of blogs by Paul Allen as he travels across the USA talking with numerous grassroots groups about CAT’s Zero Carbon Britain research project. The first blog explains the purpose of the trip and the second blog details his time in Boston. For the third blog, Paul was in Ohio. Now he is in Utah, the mid point of his journey.

ZCB US research trip: Stop 3 – Salt Lake City, Utah

The next stop in my research program was Salt Lake City Utah. Both Boston and Oberlin had been mainly liberal social / political landscapes, so to get a more comprehensive overview, I also wanted to see if rapid decarbonisation scenarios and interdisciplinary perspectives of sustainability could thrive in a more Republican environment.

Paul at HEAL Utah

My first point of contact was Steven Burian of the University of Utah’s innovative ‘Global Change and Sustainability Centre’ (GCSC). The centre was established in 2009 with the goal of bridging departments and disciplines to facilitate interactions among social scientists, natural scientists, engineers, and policymakers who are interested in understanding the complex challenges and dynamics in both natural and human-built systems.

I was invited to make a ‘Zero Carbon Britain’ presentation to the GCSC. What struck me immediately as the post-presentation discussion got underway was the power of bringing together an interdisciplinary group who, once they all got to know each other, could offer an exciting range of academic perspectives. They explained that they see the sustainability challenge as a very deep and complex one, so it seems a very logical approach to bring together a wide range of disciplines to map and explore the dynamic interactions and interconnections that exist within those systems, and to explore the role of humanity in both creating and helping solve the problems.

From the point of view of my research, rapid decarbonisation touches many parts of our lives, so a cross-disciplinary perspective such as that offered by the GCSC would be essential in mapping how it can actually be delivered. I was very impressed by their research, so I decided to explore one of their programmes in more detail to see an example of how their interdisciplinary approach is evolving.

Steve kindly hooked me up with a programme led by Associate Professor of Communication Danielle Endres exploring ‘how low-carbon energy scientists and engineers talk about the social, cultural, and political implications of their work and how they influence policymaking’. Previous research to date had suggested that scientists and engineers primarily use technical scientific forms of reasoning in their internal conversations and then switch to non-technical, or value-based, forms of reasoning when interacting with the broader public. This new research sets out to discover whether (and how) engineers and scientists blend technical and non-technical modes of reasoning as they navigate the interface between science and decarbonisation policy. I was invited to attend Prof. Enders’ presentation of her initial findings, although the project is only about a year into its three-year duration. Using a range of methods her team had begun collecting and analyzing the ‘internal’ discourse between groups of engineers working in wind energy, nuclear energy power and CCS (carbon capture and storage) technologies. Perhaps their most interesting analysis arose from a technical conference where CCS was being re-branded CCUS (Carbon Capture, Utilisation and Storage). CCUS involves the use of captured carbon dioxide to force the heavier, thicker oil out of wells that have past their peak production. Their analysis revealed a much higher percentage of ‘non-technical’ or value-based arguments amongst the internal technical group than would have previously been expected. It is early days for this project, but clearly an interesting and innovative line of enquiry.

Using the university’s campus as a Living Laboratory

The University of Utah also operates a ‘Sustainability Resource Centre’ that fosters the living, learning laboratory concept, where academics interact directly with ‘campus operations’.  Working in close collaboration with the GCSC, they guide, support, and enable the transition to a ‘sustainable campus’ whilst also enhancing educational opportunities and supporting student engagement through the use of the campus as a ‘living lab’.

I explored several examples of this work. Their programme to reduce car use includes employing a ‘bicycle officer’ to support cyclists, and offering free bus/tram passes to all students. However, as the campus is dispersed over several miles, the university is in the process of installing an innovative cross-campus electric bus. My hosts very kindly arranged for me to take a ride – it uses wireless power charging points between vehicle and roadway to reduce battery size and extend battery life, and so reduce costs.

Paul learns about the electric bus
Wireless charging for the electric bus

Another part of their living lab concept is the ‘Sustainable Campus Initiative Fund’ (SCIF), which provides funding for student-led projects across campus. It works like this: as part of his or her admission fees, every student at the University pays $2.50 per term into the SCIF. Any student or group of students can then apply for funding to support projects with a positive environmental impact that can also help to educate the campus about sustainability. In order to ensure academic outputs are robust, students must collaborate with a faculty or staff member to deliver their projects. Projects have included a living roof, bee-keeping on the roof of a campus library and secure ‘cages’ for storage of bikes on campus.

Bee keeping on Utah campus

In 2010, the University of Utah released a Climate Action Plan with a goal to be carbon neutral by 2050. However at time of writing no detailed ‘scenario’ had been developed.

Key learning from University of Utah:

  • Interdisciplinary cross-fertilisation of ideas works very well – it is essential in increasing engagement and getting to grips with both the drivers and barriers to change.
  • Practical on-campus ‘living lab’ work is engaging and motivating and can have very positive academic outputs plus physical real work benefits.
  • Infrastructure is important but so is ‘culture’ – car habits are still proving hard to break, despite: bike parks, bike lanes, a bike officer, free student pass for all public transport plus the electric bus.
  • Little or no integration with the other two big local players (City and Church) limits the sphere of influence and synergies in comparison with Oberlin.

Research outside the University – HEAL Utah

In addition to exploring the activities at the University of Utah, I also made time to meet the Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah (HEAL Utah). HEAL is housed alongside other non-profit organisations in the new Artspace Commons, the first net zero mixed-use building with onsite solar production in the state. I arranged a lunchtime meeting with staff followed by a public ZCB presentation for their members and supporters in a local library.

Like many others I have met on this trip, rather than just oppose what they feel to be wrong, HEAL decided to develop a positive vision to show what they actually wanted. Their ‘eUtah’ scenario illustrates how renewable energy resources such as solar, wind, and geothermal can deliver the state’s energy needs, demonstrating what happens when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing. Rather than address all energy as ZCB does, eUtah only looks at electricity. An enthusiastic and diverse audience attended my ZCB presentation, and the room was buzzing with conversation by the end of the evening. Several invitations materialised including one to a lecture by leading climatologist Michael Mann as I make my way through Salt Lake City on the train back to Boston.

Lessons from HEAL Utah

  • Having a ‘solutions scenario’ like eUtah keeps up momentum, makes it easier to build links locally and helps engage with a wider public through a positive focus.
  • Engaging with ‘energy utilities’ is vital – their work developing comparisons of the percentage of wind turbines on promotional material compared with the percentage of wind in their power mix offered a useful perspective.
  • HEAL recognise the need to engage with utilities on their comparable constituency areas, which don’t always fit with state boundaries.
Paul meeting Chris Thomas from HEAL Utah