Reflections on energy management in the natural world, and Chicago's clean energy transition
Jenny Carney, Vice President, Energy, Sustainability, and Climate Change at WSP, gave the 2019 Lucas J. Daniel Lecture in Sustainable Systems, which was followed by a panel conversation with Mandy LaBrier, Director of Energy Management, City of Chicago, Ed Miller, Program Director, Environment, The Joyce Foundation, and Pastor Booker Vance, Policy Outreach Manager, Elevate Energy.
Following is a transcript of her speech. Video is available here.
Energy management in the natural world is almost exclusively about food. We will definitely be talking about that.
We will be focusing on a discussion around Chicago's clean energy transition with a number of folks who are playing integral roles in actually making that happen, which is not just a technology issue. Of course, there's a lot about our social ecosystems that dictate whether or not we can make that transition, how and when it happens, and who benefits primarily from it. Before we get into that, I will focus a little more on energy management in the natural world.
I wanted to start by sharing a little information about how I got from where I came from to here. I was raised in rural Wisconsin, very much a free range kid. This is me and my siblings posing next to a large dead fish carcass, which is how we do things in rural Wisconsin. I always had a lot of affinity for the natural world and ultimately decided to study ecology and science in college and in graduate school and worked in a lab that was studying the effects of climate change at an ecosystem scale on primary productivity.
I've lived in Chicago since about 2007. Now I'm mostly in urbanite who sits in front of my computer too much. I very much appreciate in my current role that I spent my early career understanding system dynamics from the perspective of ecology. I draw on that experience and those insights quite a bit, even now in my work. My work now is with WSP. I'm a Vice President on the Sustainability, Energy, and Climate Change Team. We work with companies, municipalities, including the city of Chicago, and other organizations to optimize their operations in their real estate portfolios, mostly to decarbonize them, and to help transition them to being future-ready.
We have a chance to undo some of the harm of industrial pollution, but we have to be attendant to all of the system implications of making that transition and work hard to engage different types of stakeholders than who normally might be involved.
That does entail a lot of work with existing buildings, which are the bulk of the buildings that we have and will have over the next several decades. As it pertains to the clean energy transition, just to do a bit of framing, there's a lot of work that has happened on the policy and the regulatory side that is really setting the stage for unleashing action around energy efficiency improvements and transitioning to a renewable supply. This work is happening every day, right now, with lots of tired public servants and their helpers, of which I'm included.
There are a lot of details that have yet to be decided, and they're details that have fairly significant implications for whether or not it really happens and who benefits. We have a chance to, I would say, make our energy systems and our economies more economic and undo some of the harm of industrial pollution, but we have to be attendant to all of the system implications of making that transition and work hard to engage different types of stakeholders than who normally might be involved in such a thing. I hope for tonight that, along with the panelists who will join me later, we can shed some light on the forces at play with shaping the details of this clean energy transition and enable you all to participate because we need your help to make it happen in the most ideal way possible.
Ecology and system dynamics
First, let's talk about ecology a bit. Ecology is a study, a science, that is devoted to studying interactions among organisms and their environment. It focuses primarily on energy transfer, primarily by way of eating or being eaten. It's a science of relationships, or as elder Leopold said, it's "thinking like a mountain." There's a classic tale of why systems thinking is important, a cautionary tale. Some of you may have heard this tale before. It's a fun one. It has to do with how we're always trying to help do things better. We all go to our jobs thinking that we're helping in some way, or at least, hopefully most of us feel that way. Yet we all have all these negative outcomes that require additional solutions. Systems thinking at its most basic is trying to operate outside of a narrow perspective so that you don't cause more problems than the ones that you're trying to solve.
There's a classic tale of why systems thinking is important, a cautionary tale.
This classic tale is set in Borneo in about the 1940s. Borneo, of course, has a tropical climate. Therefore, it is not uncommon for there to be issues with mosquitoes and other insects. A lot of people who lived on the Island were being affected by malaria. People are getting sick and humans being the helpers that we are, thought, "Let's do something about this to make the situation better." The World Health Organization gets involved and they say, "I know. Let's kill those pesky mosquitoes with a pesticide and the problem will be fixed." That works in the sense that mosquitoes die. As with most poisons that are broadcast applied, other things also die. In this case, parasitic wasps were having population declines as well.
Those wasps, in a functioning ecosystem scenario, help to keep this certain caterpillar population in check. The wasps are dead. There's a lot more caterpillars. This happens to be a thatch-eating caterpillar on an island with a lot of thatched roofs. No more malaria, but your roof might cave in. Meanwhile, there are other animals being affected as well by the pesticides: lizards and cats.
In addition to the caterpillar population booming, the rat population booms. Then you end up having a bunch of typhus. We've traded malaria for no roof and typhoid fever, not a great outcome. The World Health Organization gets involved again and they parachute in some new cats to repopulate the cat population. Now, they didn't actually have individual parachutes as shown in this picture, but they did parachute in crates of cats, to try to solve the problem. This is a classic systems thinking example that I think does a good job of pointing out the trouble we create when we don't really understand systemic dynamics.
Energy management in the natural world
1. Getting energy
Moving on to energy management in the natural world, we've got three major sections that I plan to hit on. The first one: getting energy. Really, you've got two options in the natural world. You have sunlight, or if you happen to be near a thermal vent in the ocean or some other area where the earth's hot core is seeping out, you can get some energy that way. That's really it on the supply side, highly centralized in the sense that there are just those two options, but also highly distributed in the sense that sunlight steadily reaches nearly all surfaces on earth like clockwork.
Ecology has a strong focus on really the acquisition and distribution of that sunlight. This is a depiction of different trophic levels. Trophic dynamics basically is about energy movement from one part of the food chain to the next. Trophic is from the Greek word "trophy" or nourishment, and the mass diminishes as you move up the trophic levels, because otherwise the entire enterprise would be a bit of a Ponzi scheme. We have a curious tendency as humans to overlook the base layer. It's not even really labeled on this example. Those are the plants that are making the nourishment from the sunlight.
I think we have a sort of curious inability to empathize with plants.
Actual trophic dynamics are really complex: a web of interactions that happen above ground and below ground, multilayered relationships, and complicated metabolic functions. There's a really simplified version of this that many of us might have learned in our schooling. Classic food chain, little things get eaten by big things. There's a top dog or bird that gets the pick of things to eat. Now, again, you'll find loads of examples that are missing something down here called plants. We have given the significance they play in all of nourishment on life—I think we have a sort of curious inability to empathize with plants.
This other drawing on the right is from the 1940s, where apparently in some sort of attempt to relate to plants, somebody imagined a bunch of industrial workers toiling away in various parts of the plants. In reality, when you measure all of the biomass that exists all across the earth—and this is measured in gigatons of carbon because carbon is the basis of living things—plants take up this enormous portion of the pie. If you look at this little corner here, you have all of the animals in the world. Then, if you look in the little cutout of the animal biomass, you'll see that humans and our livestock is really a small piece of the pie having an outsized effect on everything happening with life across all biomass.
Given that plants are so significant, what's the explanation for our lack of fluency in how they operate in what they do? Well, I blame modernity and urbanity a little bit. There's plenty of cultures that have rich language around plants. I also blame our evolutionary biology a little bit. On the next slide, there are a lot of baby creatures. I want you to take a minute looking at them, seeing if any of them are particularly alluring to you. Maybe they catch your eye. Maybe they evoke some sort of tender feelings and interest.
Did anyone pick the lizard? All right. One lizard picker. Good. How about the creepy looking baby bird? Maybe the seedling? I won't ask who chose amongst the puppy and the baby, because if you pick the puppy, it does not mean you don't love your own children. It's just incredibly cute. We have, embedded in our biology, a real reason to have a bias towards mammals and mammals that look like us. I think it behooves us to get to know these other brilliant creatures that are out there in the natural world.
Plants are really the world's most successful solar panels.
Let's talk about plants a little bit. Plants have a really tremendous diversity of morphology and function, and they live in all kinds of different habitats, and really they're the world's most successful solar panels. Our solar panels, I've noticed, do not come in a lot of different shapes and sizes. They're a rectangle of some type. They're flat. We point them generally in a fixed position towards the sun at some angle. Well, of course, the sun moves around a bit. Leaves will really come in all different types of shapes and sizes. For designers in the audience who are looking for biomimetic inspiration, I think plants are really under-tapped resource. Even in great efforts to assemble information about how nature can inform design, there are very few plant-specific examples. I'm just saying this could be a real differentiator.
For designers looking for biomimetic inspiration, I think plants are really under-tapped resource.
Once you get to know the logic of how plants are designed, you can understand a little bit about what their life strategy is, where they're located in the world, what kind of constraining factors they're dealing with, and what sorts of trade-offs they've made because energy management in nature really is about trade-offs. You can't have it all. You can only metabolize so much energy that you've captured and use it for different purposes.
In these two examples, on the left, we have a spruce tree. On the right, a beech tree. Spruces are evergreen. They keep their leaves all year long. They are slightly conical, but almost, they're just a stick that has some needles coming off of it, very small little needles. The beech is deciduous. It has broad leaves and these two species occur in the same forest. It's not like one is in a certain location and the other lives elsewhere. The spruce tree has a different long game and a different successional place in this ecosystem. It's like a tortoise winning the race. Part of the way that it wins the race is because it photosynthesizes for nearly 85 more days per year than the beech tree. This makes it significantly more productive, and over time, it will come to dominate the forest.
These tend to be in boreal forests at higher latitudes. What's the sun doing there? In the summertime, it's almost just rolling around in a circle in the sky. Why wouldn't you maybe have in high latitudes, a solar panel that's more cylindrical and the sun rotates around it? I don't know. Just an idea. I have a kooky and very, very smart uncle who lives in Northern Wisconsin. He was telling me the other day, how he, in a curmudgeonly manner, stuck his solar panels straight up and down instead of at the appropriate angle to the sun, and in probably an annoying way, pointed out to his friends that it was producing at the same level as if it had been optimally placed according to the calculations. That's Uncle Ed.
Okay. While we're admiring plants, I want to consider for a moment some less obvious means of energy transfer. Trophic levels, trophic dynamics is really just like eating things. Then those things eat some other things. If you're a plant you're clever enough to produce your own meal, but there's other ways that energy moves around in the natural world, and an overlooked aspect of what happens with that is the subject of some really compelling recent science. It has to do with underground activities and the fungi that make it possible. I highly recommend this New Yorker article, “The Secrets of the Wood Wide Web.” It explores the work of a young plant scientist named Merlin Sheldrake, who is not a Harry Potter character, though he is British. He studies mycorrhizal fungi, and that's a field that's really changing our understanding of forest and plants. The findings are that individual plants are all joined together by this underground network of fungi. When I was studying ecology some number of years ago, mycorrhiza were understood in the sense that they had a symbiotic relationship with the plant. So the plant lets them slurp a little kind of carbon rich sugar water out of the roots, and then the mycorrhiza delivers to the plant nutrients that it couldn't otherwise extract from the soil because it doesn't have the right enzymes, so phosphorus and nitrogen and so on.
Individual plants are all joined together by this underground network of fungi. It turns out that this network and these mycorrhiza are basically networking every single tree in the forest with every single other tree in the forest. A dying tree is being shown to actually be divesting of its stuff. It knows it's not going to need it anymore, so it puts carbon and other nutrients out through this network to benefit other plants.
But it turns out that this network and these mycorrhiza are performing a much vaster function, basically networking every single tree in the forest with every single other tree in the forest. The trees don't just share nutrients with the fungi, they send them over this network to the other trees down the way. So a dying tree is being shown to actually be divesting of its stuff. It knows it's not going to need it anymore, so it puts carbon and other nutrients out through this network to benefit other plants.
A young tree that's kind of got some bum luck and is growing in a very shady area and can't generate enough nourishment on its own might be subsidized by this network. There are studies that show seedlings will recognize their siblings and selectively share with them, which seems lovely. They also send messages like, ‘alert, I am being eaten by aphids. You might want to prepare for an onslaught soon.’ Really, I think, amazing stuff.
There's other types of energy movement across borders. Migrating animals are a good example of this, because along their migratory path they're primarily seeking out food or more hospitable conditions as seasons change. But they're also making deposits along the way, they're eating things along the way, they're being eaten along the way, so that moves energy across ecosystem boundaries.
A kind of special type of animal migration is a salmon species that are anadromous. They run upwards, they go upstream into freshwater ecosystems to spawn, and this ends up being an incredible subsidy for the riparian ecosystems that surround the freshwater systems. Basically, all this ocean mass and nutrients swims upstream and then dies in a different ecosystem lending those nutrients.
While I was preparing for this lecture I decided to see what the recent research on this topic was, so I quickly found this journal article on JSTOR about the biogeochemical transformation of a nutrient subsidy by Peter Levi et al. I thought, "Oh, I know Peter Levi. We went to college together and we worked together in a lab for a summer," so I thought I would dig through my old photographs printed on paper and see if I had anything funny lurking in there. Sure enough, here we are as 22-year-olds air guitar playing some salmon hot pads. Apparently, Peter has really been interested in salmon for quite a while.
2. Storing and using energy
Okay, moving on to the next topic, storing and using energy. Plants and animals pretty much are just using metabolic energy, food and nourishment to make things happen for themselves by way of their bodies. As a result, there's a big focus on trade-offs between different options for energy use while still surviving in whatever niches they happen to exist in.
You'll see different strategies playing out that are really about conserving energy or having tricks up one's sleeve that accommodate saving energy. Speed and mobility is really expensive from an energy and a metabolic perspective. Some animals, they might have speediness as a strategy. They might be predators that have to chase down some prey, or they might be some prey that have to run real fast to get away from a predator, but if you've invested in some other defensive tricks, you can be slow as molasses and it's no problem. I don't know if you've ever seen a porcupine walking, but they take their time, and why wouldn't you? It's like, who's going to bother them?
Different strategies play out that are really about conserving energy or having tricks up one's sleeve that accommodate saving energy.
Another example is this lizard species. This is a sort of short, squat, spiky, somewhat camouflaged entity. It's a horn lizard. It has all these things that might prevent it from being chomped on, it can't move quickly at all, and then it has one final trick where if you get too close it will shoot disgusting tasting blood out of its eyes. So if you can do that, why do you need to be fast? No need.
Other types of defenses can just be activated as needed when there's some kind of environmental signaling suggesting that it's worth investing in a defense infrastructure. These are Daphnia, they're small water crustaceans, and under certain circumstances they will grow neck teeth on the back of their necks, which I guess makes it more difficult for them to be eaten. So this will be kind of generational. So some new Daphnia are getting ready to be born, they're having some interaction with the external world, and they are perceiving some signal that says like, "Look kid, it's a tough world out there. It's particularly bad. You might want to go ahead and grow some neck teeth."
Really, nocturnality is about deciding that it's easier to make a living during the night than it is during the day. One of the things that you might have to make that a reality is some excellent night vision, in the case of this owl predator.
Another type of energy efficiency could be in how you work as a predator. Coral reefs are actually made up of tiny marine invertebrates, so they're animals. The individuals are called polyps, and they form colonies together that build reefs. Each polyp is kind of a sac-like animal with some tentacles surrounding a mouth opening type thing. Some of them will just kind of hang out and wait for some small fish or some plankton to roll by and then eat them, but most of them actually get their food by kind of hosting these tiny unicellular dinoflagellates within them, so they're photosynthesizing little plant cells that are living inside of the tissues of the animal. It's sort of the ultimate in interconnectivity and distributed generation.
Daily energy management has to do with the fact that the sun only shines for part of the day, and so you see a lot of interesting niche behaviors coming out of this dynamic, as well. Really, nocturnality is about deciding that it's easier to make a living during the night than it is during the day, so one of the things that you might have to make that a reality is some excellent night vision, in the case of this owl predator. This is also, by the way, if you have a cat and you've ever felt compelled to leave the lights on for it, it's really unnecessary because they can already see.
You know, this brain is really taking a lot of energy use. I don't have a lot of extra food. Why don't I just shrink my brain for the winter?
Termites have an interesting way to make use of daily energy fluctuations surrounding sunlight. They build their mounds to have built-in automatic air conditioning that makes use of sunlight or the lack of sunlight to drive air flow, cooling during the day, heating during the night, fully automated, collaboratively built by minuscule insects with minuscule brains.
Onto seasonal energy management. This is where energy storage becomes vital. Getting through the night is one thing, but getting through the winter is much more challenging. You have loads of examples within nature of how plants and animals cope with seasonal changes in the availability of solar energy. Much of this has to do with energy storage techniques.
Raccoons will change their coats, but also they make their tails really fat. I think this maybe is happening with squirrels too, because you see that fluffy tail. They can actually just stockpile fat in their tails. Chickadees and other types of birds will decide going into winter, "You know, this brain is really taking a lot of energy use. I don't have a lot of extra food. Why don't I just shrink my brain for the winter? I'll go from singing elaborate songs to just making some pretty simple one note chirps, and then rebuild my brain in the spring time when I'm trying to seem flashy to a potential mate."
Squirrels can also change their brain size seasonally, but in their case, it actually gets bigger in the fall because they're scatter hoarders, or at least some of them are, and they need to create these mental maps of all of these nuts that they've squirreled away, so their brains get bigger to remember where all those damn nuts were placed.
Other seasonal energy management: Amphibians are poikilothermic ectotherms, which means they can't regulate their body temperature and they will just shift with the environmental conditions. Many of these species can actually freeze and thaw several times over the course of the winter. At some point, like a polar vortex level of freezing will actually be too much for them, but just run-of-the-mill freezing is no problem.
Then of course hibernation, it's not just a technique that bears use. Certain snails, lots of other types of mammals, as well as amphibians. The snails have to worry about drying out, and so they make a special moisture saving substance that they use to put over themselves to stay hydrated.
If you're looking for a way to take carbon out of the atmosphere and put it below ground, right there, it's plants. It already happens all the time. We could be facilitative of that instead of relying on developing machines.
Other seasonal energy management: growing roots and storing some sugar in them. For the gardeners in the audience, you may have spent time thinking about which of the plants you grow are annuals versus biennials versus perennials. Biennials and perennials, they're going to come back at least one more year and go through another growing season either to produce seed or to just kind of live in perpetuity. Anything that is going through the trouble of making a nice root like this is probably a biennial or a perennial, because they need to gear back up in the following spring, build some new solar panels, leaves, and get back to their life. We exploit this, of course, by eating these types of foods. Trees do it as well. Deciduous trees that go dormant in the winter, and of course that's where delicious maple syrup comes from. The trees are moving the stored sugar from their roots back up to the canopy where they will use it to build some leaves. We are intercepting it, boiling it down, in my family's case, placing it in reused Snapple bottles and then enjoying it.
Then lastly, energy management for periodic cataclysmic events. Let's try this. Good timing, at least.
All right, there we go. It's not uncommon for there to be some sort of energy related disaster that falls outside of a kind of daily or seasonal rhythm, and so plants especially have some good tricks for dealing with this. Leaves can be eaten off by caterpillars if there's a big infestation de-leafing, and so a tree might have to grow back all of its leaves mid-season. Grasses might be eaten by a roving herd of megafauna, or there could be a fire that goes through. Plants like that tend to have some energy reserves that they can kind of call up to rely upon when there's some sort of disaster like this. It's actually a really important function when it comes to repatriating atmospheric climate back into the soil where it serves us best, because what happens once these grazing animals or this fire comes through, the plant's moving energy from the roots back above ground and all of that fibrous infrastructure that was used to house the food gets sloughed off and becomes soil carbon essentially. It can't be oxidized as long as it stays underneath the soil.
So if you're looking for a way to take carbon out of the atmosphere and put it below ground, right there, it's plants. It already happens all the time. That's how it got there in the first place. As humans, we could be facilitative of that instead of relying on developing machines that might do that in a less effective and pleasing way.
3. Rejecting energy
Okay. Lastly, we're going to talk about ways that plants and animals reject energy. This is another area where I think there's a lot of ways that we could mimic nature to our benefit, because a major effect of climate change is that we have all of this excess energy sloshing around the atmosphere causing devastating storms and so on. So let's take a look at a few examples of how plants and animals deal with unwanted energy.
Here's a good one. Kind of big ears and vasodilation is a thermal energy management system, basically a big heat exchanger in the case of this jackrabbit. Toucans also do this with their beaks, and elephants with their ears as well, of course.
Leaves also have shapes that are intended to deal with excess sunlight, so there are sun leaves and there are shade leaves within the same plant. This is an example from an oak tree. The sun leaves that have the heightened exposure to sunlight is the one on the left. It's smaller, it has more elongated lobes. This is to kind of conserve water, because with all that light beating down on it that's a risk. It also allows light to filter lower into the canopy, and those leaves basically turn on and off really quickly. Celluloid hits, they activate, it gets too hot, they shut down to conserve water. The shade leaves are kind of just like steady Eddy, doing their thing with diffused light. And again gardeners, this is why if you are raising seedlings you have to give them a transition period, because you're basically taking what had been a shade leaf and thrusting it into the sunlight. They can reconfigure themselves, but they need an adjustment period to pull that off.
Another mechanism for dealing with unwanted energy. These are Mexican jumping beans, which are actually seed pods that have the larva of a small moth within them. The larva is in there. It's cozy, it's nice, there's a built-in food supply, but you're sort of stuck in your seed pod and don't have a lot of agency over moving around or doing things with the outside world. Well these Mexican jumping beans, actually once they eat out the inside of the bean, they will sort of weave a silk white thread and then they'll grab the web with their little larva forearms and they can jerk it and move the bean. They'll actually hop to shade if they're overheating and they can get there in time. Of course, they have no idea where the shade is so I think they're just hopping around blindly. It's a little less obvious how this would apply to Chicago's clean energy transition, but I find it remarkable, nevertheless.
Okay, and then the last few examples, this is elkhorn coral that is found in high energy parts of the ocean, around an island or so on. It, along with a few other species of corals, particularly important for getting things started with reef development because they can handle the high energy in a way that other corals can't. This has to do with how they're structured. Also, when there's a really extreme event some of the branches might break off, but that's actually a propagation strategy, and so they're using that event to their advantage to spread. Once they're established and create these dense masks, they create a sort of softer, more protected environment for other types of species to move in.
I think it's really fascinating that when you look at the morphology of that and then compare it to the morphology of alpine tree species that are in heavily winded environments, you see a lot of similarity in terms of their physical structure and how they deal with that deluge of energy.
Energy in the natural world: takeaways for humans
Just to do a little recap, considering takeaways about energy in the natural world, comparing that to human situations. So in the natural world it's highly distributed, interconnectivity is high, really a focus on metabolic energy to use your body to do some things that will also be useful. Behavior change and efficiency and trade-off of functions are much more common and used in lieu of or alongside of stockpiling, and stockpiling doesn't go beyond a season or a cataclysmic event or two.
We're making everything the same. You go into a building and it doesn't matter if it's day or night, or winter or summer or fall, you'll have the same ambient conditions. So I think it's worth asking, why are we doing that? We've spent a huge stockpile of energy creating those conditions.
The storage mechanisms they have to get through periods of low energy are many and varied. There's a pretty good playbook to draw from. When you consider that with humans pre-industrial revolution, kind of similar. Doing some biomass combustion to have some creature comforts, raising some food for animals, but again, that's pretty much metabolic in nature. And then really, it's just post-Industrial Revolution now, where we have all of these different energy end uses, and we've found this stockpile of energy in the form of oil reserves that we have turned into, essentially, thermal and illumination and agricultural homogeny. We're making everything the same. You go into a building and it doesn't matter if it's day or night, or winter or summer or fall, you'll have the same ambient conditions.
So I think it's worth asking, why are we doing that? Maybe there's something in our evolutionary biology that's trying to keep us away from extremes, and to smooth the peaks that are really dangerous. But at some point, I think it stopped serving us and we're not really particularly enjoying ourselves or thriving just because we've spent a huge stockpile of energy creating those conditions. And I will say, I know I was responsible for choosing these pictures, but looking at the three, I'm going to say the bird and the plant look about as happy as anyone. And certainly, the old time-y humans and the modern humans don't have any different levels of glee that are observable.
For plants and animals, it's a straightforward but brutal outcome, where if you're a bad energy manager, then you die. Kind of the ultimate pricing signal to not waste energy. Contrast that with middle-class and affluent Americans, and it's really a not very significant loss of disposable income if you use excessive energy.
So keeping that question in mind about why are we using so much energy to homogenize our days and nights and seasons, I think it's also worth talking a little bit about the costs of energy mismanagement, leading into our discussion of Chicago's clean energy transition. So for plants and animals, it's a straightforward but brutal outcome, where if you're a bad energy manager, then you die. So it's kind of the ultimate pricing signal to not waste energy. Contrast that with middle-class and affluent Americans, and it's really a not very significant loss of disposable income if you use excessive energy. The messaging that goes out to residential customers sort of reinforces that.
Folks have studied when utility bills started messaging around, "this is what you're doing relative to your neighbors." Apparently we're so sensitive to the idea that we're performing badly, that you can't even really tell it like it is. This person clearly is not doing a good job if they're using almost as much energy as every other wasteful energy customer, but they're labeled good, good job. And then there are some suggestions for what benefit they might gain by actually improving their performance. And it's like, "Oh, I could save 85 bucks a year. Or maybe this is an investment opportunity and I could get a real ROI here if I invested in efficiency." So that's one version of the experience of energy mismanagement. Not that powerful. I'm probably not going to rearrange my life around 85 bucks a year.
For poor people, energy mismanagement at a societal level is a deadly condition. Chicago has its own terrible version of this in the form of the 1995 heat wave that killed 739 people over five days. You can map the heat deaths in Chicago to poor neighborhoods, which are communities of color, which are the neighborhoods where redlining and divestment and racist federal policies have created generational impoverishment.
For for-profit utilities, the penalty for energy mismanagement is interesting too. It might just mean more profits, "Hey, this is great. We sell energy and people sure use a lot of it." Under some circumstances, perhaps that catches up with the utility, as has happened with the rise and fall of PG&E, the California-based utility that was reaching record profit levels in 2017, and is now bankrupt because of their miscalculation of the extent to which they could cause catastrophic fires. They're certainly not in a good place now.
And then I think most importantly to be cognizant of, is that for poor people, energy mismanagement at a societal level is a deadly condition. And unfortunately, Chicago has its own terrible version of this in the form of the 1995 heat wave that killed 739 people over five days. Other disasters happen and a similar pattern plays out where the people who die and suffer during hurricanes, and during intense storms that are more common with climate change, are the poor people. You can map the heat deaths in Chicago to poor neighborhoods, which are communities of color, which are the neighborhoods where redlining and divestment and racist federal policies have created generational impoverishment.
I would recommend seeing this documentary, COOKED: Survival By Zip Code, that examines this dynamic, or reading Eric Klinenberg's 2002 book, Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago. Our social infrastructure, as much as our physical infrastructure and our energy infrastructure, is what we need to develop to make sure that this inequitable outcome to energy mismanagement doesn't persist.
So as we move into the panel discussion, my hope is that you all learned something about the mechanics of how a city-wide clean energy transition might work, the social ecosystems that you are, and that you can support, that will dictate the terms of those changes, and also, a challenge for us to be systems thinkers, and to be careful to avoid unintended consequences that might worsen inequality and vulnerability. And perhaps in the best case scenario, we come up with a transition plan that undoes some of the harmful effects and unjust effects of old designs.
A panel discussion with energy experts on what it takes to lead transitions at the city and systems level, as well as a reception, will follow.
Jenny Carney has extensive experience helping clients engage key stakeholders, gaining their support while also developing meaningful sustainability goals and strategies based on technical analysis. Jenny has been deeply involved in the development of the LEED-EBOM Rating System, dating back to the initial pilot phase in 2004. She frequently delivers presentations and trainings pertaining to green buildings, sustainability, and LEED to local, regional, national, and international audiences. Prior to joining the green building community, Jenny worked as a terrestrial ecology and climate change researcher, environmental program developer and manager, and community-based environmental outreach specialist.