How the Liberal Arts and a Semester in China Brought Me to Energy Efficiency

“The future is coming fast,” Susan Coakley, founder and executive director of the Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnerships (NEEP) told us in a recent staff meeting. That statement reflects the atmosphere here at NEEP, a forward-thinking group of people helping to organize, guide, and standardize energy efficiency information, legislation, and codes on both a regional and national level.

I am spending the summer in Lexington, Massachusetts as NEEP’s public policy intern, and have barely skimmed the surface of the vast amount of material and initiatives that NEEP is responsible for – the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic region is a busy place for efficiency. I am assisting this active organization in any way I can, including reading and summarizing proposals, attending and summarizing meetings, and helping with new data organization software.

As an Anthropology major at Connecticut College, I find the production, use, impacts, and perception of energy sources to be fascinating aspects of modern societies, shaping their environments, economies, and public health. I have always been drawn to environmental issues; the Anthropology major and liberal arts education has allowed me to study a variety of topics, like history, economics, art, and science, encouraging the development of  multiple lenses through which issues can be understood. It struck me that changing our energy sources and the way we use energy can have positive economic, environmental, and social impacts.

I leapt into this field last summer, when my desire to help enact positive social change and pressing need for a summer job led me to canvass with the Providence branch of Clean Water Action, a nationwide environmental lobbying organization.

Spending the summer in the Northeast instead of returning home to the wonderful Austin, Texas is a strategy I have embraced in order to escape the heat, work on energy issues outside of Texas’s political environment, and explore the culture and landmarks of this region. Accordingly, I tried to view my work canvassing in the neighborhoods of Rhode Island and southern Massachusetts not only as community organizing and public health advocacy, but also as an anthropological exercise. I usually stuck to the script, but found myself saying unexpected things everyday:

  • “Why do you think climate change is a farce?”
  • “No, actually, the EPA was founded under President Nixon.”
  • “Why did you call the cops on me, ma’am?”
  • “Where did you learn that burning coal has no negative health impacts?”
  •  “Of course we accept fresh quahogs as a donation, sir, thank you!”

By the end of the summer, I had decided that canvassing is a useful, but very emotionally taxing tool for raising public awareness.

It was a relief to return to school and prepare for a semester studying abroad. I spent last semester with the SIT China Program in Kunming,  a city in Yunnan Province,  studying ethnic minorities, Mandarin, and, for the independent study project, China’s energy sources. I had an amazing time exploring Yunnan province and will need years to properly digest my experiences. China is a world leader in clean energy production, so I was excited to learn about their developments, but from the moment I began researching it was clear that fossil fuels would have to be the focus.

In my research I found that China’s continued development of its fossil fuel industry tragically dwarfs its investments in clean energy. When renewable resources are expanded, wind and solar are often passed over in favor of hydro and nuclear power. According to the US Energy Information Administration, the 2012 quantity of coal burned in China for energy production, already the greatest in the world, is set to double by 2040, accompanied by an ever-growing reliance on oil imports that will continue to have worldwide political and environmental impacts. The government has focused on increasing energy efficiency, and there have been many achievements, but not nearly enough to outpace the growth in energy consumption.

Hopefully the increasing international pressure to decrease fossil fuel use and increase energy efficiency worldwide will motivate change, especially in major developing countries like China and India. We will almost certainly see worldwide improvements in energy efficiency, as traditional energy sources become more scarce and environmental concerns more urgent.

Through my experiences at Clean Water Action and abroad, I developed the desire to work alongside like-minded individuals to accomplish concrete policy changes.

Working at NEEP has expanded my understanding of energy issues and led me to ponder big questions. How can we turn energy efficiency into a truly nonpartisan issue, one that is understood as sensible resource management? As the desire to substitute clean energy for fossil fuels grows, and the electric grid by necessity evolves, what is the future of energy stability?

I am excited to be a part of this rapidly expanding world of energy efficiency. The future is coming fast, and real change is happening.

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