Life on the Farm

Steve Farrell

Life on the Farm

My great grandmother lived to be 103 years old. She was born, lived and worked, and died on the family farm in Hildebran, North Carolina.The farm was so far from town that the postman had to pack a lunch when he rode his mule from Hickory once a month.In 1926 the power company brought the grid to the farm. First it was just a few lights but soon it was a well pump, an “icebox”, a radio, etc. To say it changed the life of the farm would be a huge understatement.

What does this have to do with green building? It turns out that the rate structure that the government had with the electric utility in 1927 is fundamentally the same rate structure we have today (albeit the cost per kilowatt has gone way, way up). That rate structure basically says, “Sell more power, make a better return for your investors”.That was obviously a great way to energize the country in 1927 but it has lead to dire consequences in 2013.

I recently attended a Duke Energy symposium at the chamber. When I told the Utility representatives what I do for a living (help their customers achieve responsible energy autonomy) they remarked that my life’s work was essentially a threat to their business model.Fair enough. The utilities never intended to be at the very center of the conversation on ecology and climate change. The rate structure they count on to make the system work totally ignores the unsustainable damage to the environment through mountaintop removal, water pollution, air pollution, coal ash storage, and, the biggie, carbon emissions, etc.

Lets start by doing two things. Lets thank them for the transformative job they did (and still do) electrifying the country and keeping the beast functioning. Secondly, lets agree that any change to rate structures moving forward will acknowledge and accept responsibility for the obligations they have assumed on behalf of the communities they serve.Then perhaps we can begin the conversation of how to operate a grid that doesn’t threaten the health of the planet. It should be noted that a healthy ecosystem is essential to their business model as well as reasonable return on short-term investment.

Until we have a rate structure that lets the utilities make money by selling less dirty energy all of our efforts to design and build more efficient buildings will be like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.I have no idea what this will look like. My naïve opinion is that there will have to be some sort of carbon tax but I’m not even sure about that.

So what do you think? What do you know about utility rate structures? How can we advance the conversation and add value to the critical work we do? Can the WNCGBC become an advocate for policy? Should we?

Lets start talking.

Steve Farrell

Asheville, NC