The Fourth Great American Lie

There is this standing joke about the three great Amercian lies:  1) “the check is in the mail;” 2) “of course I will respect you in the morning;”, and 3) well … let me skip the last one. I think it is time to add a fourth lie to the list — this green project will lower energy use.

In my last post I mentioned that my home town of Oberlin, OH recently purchased new, automatic loader trash/recycling trucks and spent an extra $300,000 so that three of them included fuel-saving, hydraulic-hybrid technology.  Town leaders claimed these trucks would save fuel and reduce carbon emissions.  Simple cost/benefit calculations using their cost and fuel savings figures showed that this was an awful investment that would never pay for itself (in fuel savings) and that the cost per ton of carbon saved was astronomical.

A few weeks ago I requested from the City fuel consumption data for the first six months of operation of the new trucks.  The City Manager and Public Works Director, instead, asked me to wait until after their July 6 report to City Council on the success of the new recycling program.  They both assured me that fuel usage would be covered in this report.  I was promised access to the data following their presentation.

Last Monday, in his presentation to Council, the Public Works Director highlighted data which showed that for the first six months of operation the City recycled 400 tons — as compared with the 337 tons it had recycled in the comparable period prior to acquisition of the new trucks.  This represents a 19% increase in recycling. Unfortunately there was no mention of fuel usage or savings.

Yesterday I obtained fuel consumption data from the Public Works Director for Oberlin’s new garbage/recycing trucks along with comparitive fuel data from previous years using the old trucks. The new trucks are on track to use 2,000 gallons MORE diesel fuel than were used by the old trucks, annually.  That’s right, not less fuel, but MORE fuel.  This is a 19% increase in fuel usage.  Gee what a surprise!

Soon the spin will begin.  City Adminisrators will point out that fuel usage would be even worse were it not for their $300,000 investment in the hybrid technology.  They will point out that the increased fuel usage is due to the new, automatic loading technology included in these trucks (though they failed to mention any expected increased fuel usage when the project was being sold to the public) — which enabled the use of larger recycling containers and the improvement in recycling.  What they will fail to tell us is that they could have achieved the same increase in recycling using the older style truck without automatic loaders.

This is the second recent City project for which the public has been mislead regarding expected enegy savings. The first was the LEED-certified Fire Station renovation.  This green building was supposed to save energy.  It, of course, is bigger and better than the building it replaced — oh yes, and it uses more energy.  But the increase in energy use wasn’t as much as it might have been because it was a green building.  Now we have the same result for the trash and recycle trucks.

Oberlin College is in the process of constructing a new, green hotel — called the “Gateway Project” as it will usher in a new era of green construction.  But people should understand, this new green hotel will use more energy than the old hotel —  it will be bigger and better, and its energy use won’t be as big as it might have been — and this should make us feel good.

And in the next few months Oberlin residents will be asked to approve additional school taxes to construct new, green, energy-efficient public school facilities.  But don’t be surprised when these new facilities actually use more energy than did the old ones.  Don’t get me wrong — they will be more energy efficient than the old facilities, but they will be bigger, and better and — use more energy.

This is the new lie — that our new stuff will use less energy than our old stuff.  But it isn’t true.  Fundamentally we want bigger and better stuff.  People like Donald Trump just build bigger and better stuff and proudly proclaim it.  But isn’t pallitable for most of us — we feel guilty about wanting bigger and better stuff.  So instead we find a way to convince ourseles that our new stuff will be green, it will lower carbon emission, it will make the world a better place — oh, and yes, it will be bigger and better.

We need our lies to make us feel good about doing what we wanted to do all along.  Don’t get me wrong — sometimes the check is in the mail and sometimes the green project does save energy.  But more often than not these lies are offered for temporary expediency,  And, of course, I really will respect you in the morning.

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