Transition Milwaukee – The case against (but also for) renewable energy

January 23, 2011
What would it look like if Transition Milwaukee made it a practice of protesting renewable energy? And, most of all, we really do need wind turbines and solar panels in our community. – Erik Lindberg,
… passionately opposed to a new experimHTML clipboardental wind project being proposed in Milwaukee and will at some point need to sit on my hands to stop some unadvised posts from flying from my computer out into the world of public mis-conception. Using federal funds, the city of Milwaukee is proposing a 20 to 100 megawatt system on the lakeshore, in a prominent, yet unobtrusive location.
Many of the claims that the city sustainability office is making about the miniature wind-farm are not entirely incorrect yet its main rational, the one that I hear most frequently, is that this will demonstrate “our cities commitment to renewable energy.”

… the greater the enthusiasm, the more severe my reaction, which gained enough steam to power a rant I posted on our listserv. In that rant I argued that this show-project would provide an insubstantial amount of electricity and therefore was merely symbolic, nothing more than a collective pat on the back. Who, after all, I wondered, is Milwaukee trying to impress with this “commitment”? It was a near empty gesture, I fumed, that was meant to convince ourselves that Milwaukee is a good, forward looking city; a sleek and shiny wind turbine would look dazzling against the blue of the lake and would make many a sustainability activist feel good about our progress; the buzz of the ribbon cutting ceremony and the first slow rotations of the blades would confirm to us all that those letters and petitions, even the constant facebook grumbling, were worth it after all.HTML clipboard

So it might be a somewhat empty gesture, but what is the harm in it? Well, there is another sort of symbolism at work here that most raises my indignation–a far more dangerous symbolism. When the average American, at least those who are somewhat conscious of global warming and the finite nature of oil, closes his or her eyes and imagines the future, this future is one that looks pretty much like the present, except for the omnipresent solar panels, wind turbines, and electric cars. It seems likely that the futuristic design of the turbines we see today is not only a matter of the engineering needs. At any rate, the emergence of a city-owned wind garden (we might call it) gives the impression that we are finally on our way to this clean, green, and entirely prosperous, new world order. It gives the impression that we are finally making the switch from our coal-fired power plants to something clean and renewable. It gives the impression that our leaders are on top of things. Thus a project like this not only risks being an empty symbolic gesture; it has the potential to be down right hazardous to the important project of creating a realistic view of the future.

These views are of course premised on the belief that it is all but impossible that renewable energy will ever have the capacity to power an industrialized, growth-based luxury economy—the view that the future won’t look much like today. What sort of installation, I therefore asked, would instead symbolize the absolute futility of replacing fossil fuels with wind power—that’s the sort of lake-side installation I could get behind. Perhaps the model of a defunct wind turbine fashioned from cob. level-headed colleagues in Transition Milwaukee responded with a mixture of cautious agreement (“there, there Erik”?) and disagreement, though perhaps more of the latter. Their reasoning is sound: it is a start and wind is necessary for a smoother ride down Hubbert’s peak; the presence of wind turbines might get people thinking about energy and the problems created by fossil fuels; it might, some suggested, even help precipitate a conversation about the necessity of powering-down.

Protesting it would put us on the side of coal and natural gas activists, would be a de facto endorsement of mountain-top removal.

…Nevertheless, I am not going to go to the public meeting to protest or to squeeze in a 10 second sound bite about the irreplaceability of fossil fuels, or about how we can’t run an industrialized society on photovoltaics. This is true dilemma. I am unable to imagine a responsible way of being publically anti-renewable energy, of discouraging projects like this for the right reasons. To make things even more complicated yet, I’m not exactly anti-renewable energy nor am I sure I really want to discourage this project. But celebrating it would also feel morally awkward. read more at EnergyBulletin

Haase comment:

RE: “Transition Milwaukee is the only game in town. If we don’t speak the truth about energy, no one else will.” –  Erik Lindberg

Nice post Mr. Lindberg, I would make the correction that not only was the industrial revolution powered by renewable energy in WI…Wisconsin still has powerful, profitable, privately funded programs that drive our economy.

While “Transition Milwaukee” is a nice concept the truth is that there are 100’s of sustainable farming and community programs in Wisconsin (for decades)… Shoot me an email sometime and I will share with you what can actually make Wisconsin and even milwaukee actually sustainable beyond peak and all political smoke and mirrors.  

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