Tuesday, December 07, 2004

An Opt-Out Wind Energy Fee

Last year, a group of students at Harvard’s Kennedy School got wind of what millions of students, consumers, businesses, governments and various organizations had been doing for years: paying a little extra money to get some clean, renewable energy. They lobbied the student government and the administration and encouraged their peers to vote on a referendum that would add a small fee to students’ term bills. The reasons for doing so were clear enough to the majority of the school’s public policy students: the planet’s energy supply, weakened by the bombing of oil pipelines and the explosive jitters of investors, seemed as unstable as the planet’s environment and health. Today, all of the Kennedy School’s energy comes from the wind.

This week, Harvard undergraduates have an opportunity that students at hundreds of schools, including the Kennedy School, Duke, the University of North Carolina and the University of Pennsylvania, have already taken: the chance to bring healthy, clean renewable energy to the College.

At particular issue is whether a $10 fee to pay the premium for such energy—mandatory or optional—should be placed on students’ term bills, and whether, if optional, such a fee should be one that students pay only by checking a box on their bill (“opt-in”), or pay by default with the opportunity not to pay, again by checking a box (“opt-out”).

Of course, some wonder why students, and not Harvard, should foot the bill for renewable energy. The answer is two-fold. First, the administration isn’t prepared to do so at this point, so it’s up to the students to get started, with the expectation that the administration will recognize how important this is to students. Second, we students are the ones using energy in the dorms, the ones whose energy use impacts the environment for better or worse. An optional fee isn’t a burden on students, but an opportunity.

If you’re in support of optional renewable energy, an “opt-out” fee is superior to an “opt-in” fee: it avoids the problem of having to “revote” when you (or your parents) pay the term bill, and it ensures that enough money will be secured for a renewable energy purchase even if people forget to tick a box on their term bill. Since students, and not parents, are the ones using energy in the dorms, making the fee “opt-out” will extend the power of students’ decision from the ballot to the term bill, while still allowing for the veto power of students and parents at the time of payment.

The money collected would be handled by a new committee of students and faculty who will be dedicated to making the best purchasing decision at the time and to deciding what portion of the money, if any, should go toward on-campus renewable energy projects. The idea comes with the endorsement of a bevy of student groups, including this newspaper, and all of the candidates for Undergraduate Council president. And a little over a year ago, when undergraduates were polled about paying an extra $25 per year for renewable energy, 69 percent of respondents said they would (17 percent said they weren’t sure). Those results and a wealth of other information can be found at www.greencrimson.com/energy.

Currently, each Harvard undergrad produces roughly 3,340 lbs. of pollutants per year; if each student were to pay $10 to purchase 25 percent of our dorms’ energy from a regional wind farm, the improvement would be equivalent to taking 2,200 cars off the road every year, or planting 260,000 trees.

At a time when the school’s greenhouse gas emissions have increased by 40 percent over the past 12 years, a vote for a small optional renewable energy fee offers us Harvard students the opportunity to play a greater role in an environment each of us already affect. Think of a fee as paying a premium cost for a better product, or investing in an economically and politically stable resource that will lead to a healthier environment, all at the cost of a movie ticket. Ben Affleck movies never looked so bad.

The reasons for paying an extra $10 are blowing in the wind. Today scientists—most recently an eight nation group called the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment—mostly agree that the release of carbon dioxide and other pollutants into the atmosphere has caused a greenhouse effect like never before, resulting in not only increased temperatures, but also in increased frequency of extreme weather events, such as floods and droughts.

But whether or not one believes that our current energy supply is detrimental to the weather, the effects of burning coal and oil are felt at home, and in our lungs, every day. The stuff that comes out of power plant smokestacks has contributed to make asthma one of the fastest growing childhood ailments in industrial and developing countries alike, and has also recently been linked to lung cancer. Here in Massachusetts, where five power plants burn thousands of tons of coal every year, the effects on surrounding communities are significant. A 2000 study by the Harvard School of Public Health Professors Jack Spengler and Jonathan Levy concluded that two local coal-fired power plants, one in Salem and one in Somerset, led directly to a combined 1,710 emergency room visits, 43,300 asthma attacks, and 298,000 daily incidents of upper respiratory symptoms per year.

Harvard’s purchase of wind energy will not only fuel interest in renewable energy by invigorating its ever-growing market, thus making coal plants increasingly obsolete: a purchase will also send a strong message that the thoughtful, intelligent students of the best school in the world understand and care about the impact we as Harvard students have on the local and global environments about which we spend our days learning.

Importantly, that influential message will be felt not just far and wide, but around the Yard—to the administrators and trustees who decide how to lead Harvard—and to the current and future students—who decide how to lead the world.

We think a small step like this is commensurate with the kind of world-shaping Harvard students hope to do when they leave the gates: that is, work not just for oneself, or for a particular cause, or even for one’s school, but for the greater good—to actually make a world of difference.

Alex L. Pasternack ’05 is a history and literature concentrator in Winthrop House, and is also a Crimson editor. Matthew W. Mahan ’05 is a social studies concentrator in Kirkland House. He is also the president of the Undergraduate Council.