Mickey Mouse Mitigation Measures

Throughout the Presidential campaign, we’ve been bombarded with catchphrases, such as “Trumped-up trickle-down economics” and “Get ‘em out.”

I’ve decided to coin my own catchphrase – “Mickey Mouse mitigation measures.” 

Mickey Mouse shaped solar farm in Orlando, FL

Mickey Mouse shaped solar farm in Orlando, FL

Let me start with an example. Over the summer, the New York Times ran a front-page article about a small town in the UK – Ashton Hayes, population 1,000 – that had reduced its carbon emissions by 24%. The article is light on details about what the town’s residents are doing to reduce their carbon emissions, though it does mention triple-pane windows and solar panels. Set aside questions about whether the residents are accurately accounting for everything (are they counting the carbon emitted to manufacture their solar panels?), there are several features of their efforts that make them a prime example of Mickey Mouse climate mitigation:

  • They are fun! But, they are based on a fantasy version of the real world, which includes a talking mouse. The article describes how the town is “adopting the apolitical, voluntary, fun method.” For example, residents are opting to take fewer trips, possibly vacationing in the UK rather than flying to a tropical island.

And, they are taking these actions themselves without policies or politicians. In fact, the town has forbidden politicians from speaking at meetings.

Volunteers in Ashton Hayes, England assess viability of a micro grid (Source: http://www.goingcarbonneutral.co.uk/photo-gallery/the-microgrid-study/)

Volunteers in Ashton Hayes, England assess viability of a micro grid (Source: http://www.goingcarbonneutral.co.uk/photo-gallery/the-microgrid-study/)

There’s no way that the whole world will achieve the ambitious carbon reductions that scientists suggest are needed (e.g., 80% reductions by 2050) with voluntary, individual actions. The vast majority of CO2 emissions come from economic activities that people will not volunteer to give up. We need to focus on decarbonizing transportation of goods and people, decarbonizing the production of things like steel and cement – essential for our bridges, hospitals and apartment buildings – the list goes on. Decarbonizing vacations is not enough.

I don’t want to disparage the efforts of the residents of this town – if they’re having fun with this, they should go for it. But, I will disparage the New York Times editorial team for heralding the town on the front page as a climate “leader.”

  • They are expensive, so something only the rich will do. It costs a lot to get into Disneyland to meet Mickey. Similarly, most sources conclude that triple-pane windows are too expensive to be a good investment, with payback periods of at least several decades. Solar panels in cloudy England don’t seem like a great investment, either.

Maybe upper-middle class Brits are able to shell out extra money to reduce GHG emissions, but it won’t work well for the rest of the world. Since projections suggest that most of the growth in energy use and associated CO2 emissions will come from the developing world, we need to focus on climate solutions that will work in China, India and Sub-Saharan Africa without inhibiting economic growth. 

  • They have no relevance to the majority of the world population. With 1,000 people, Ashton Hayes represents 0.000014% of the world’s population. Not only that, the lifestyles, building stock, institutions, etc. of upper-middle class Brits are different from the rest of the world. Even if triple-pane windows were hugely cost-effective, figuring out how to retrofit 500 year-old British farmhouses with them does not teach us much of relevance to the new apartment buildings in the growing urban centers of China, India and Sub-Saharan Africa.

Disney’s Mickey Mouse-shaped solar farm seems to be the corporate version of Mickey Mouse mitigation. I’m guessing it was somebody’s idea of fun, in the corporate, public relations sense. (This article speculates that the farm will serve a tiny fraction of Disneyworld’s total consumption.) Also, engineering the iconic shape probably cost a bit extra, and incurring that additional cost won’t help us lower emissions in the developing world.

Why should I bother ranting about this? I fear that by paying attention to Mickey Mouse mitigation measures, we’re lulling ourselves into a false sense of achievement and diverting attention from real solutions. Greenhouse gases are different from most environmental problems we have dealt with so far because they are global pollutants. We can fight the local spread of mosquito-borne diseases if everyone does their part and covers outdoor standing water, but climate change is too big to rely on local, voluntary actions.

Are we doing Mickey Mouse mitigation in California?

So, here’s a question. To what extent is California – after all, the home of the original Disneyland – engaging in Mickey Mouse mitigation? I focus on California because it’s my home state, but also because we seem to be the birthplace of many environmental policies that are subsequently adopted around the world.

Unfortunately, I fear that we’re paying an awful lot of attention to some Mickey Mouse approaches.

Take Community Choice Aggregators (CCAs), which a lot of Californians have been talking about recently. Many of these organizations, with names like “Marin Clean Energy” (now MCE), advertise themselves as alternatives to the utility for people interested in getting a higher share of their electricity from renewable sources. Severin’s blog post earlier this year raises important question about whether CCAs can actually reduce emissions and how their costs might compare to utilities’ costs.

My concern is that they’re relying on customers volunteering to get more renewable electricity, and, so far, it’s been largely richer Californians who have made that choice – two of the Mickey Mouse characteristics.

The maps below show a fair amount of overlap between the counties that have embraced CCAs and the counties with higher median household incomes. For example, the median household income in the purple counties, where CCAs are currently serving customers, is almost $80,000 while the median household income in the blue counties, without CCA activity, is $48,000.

Again, I don’t want to disparage people who opt to join CCAs, but let’s not get too excited about their potential to help the whole world fight climate change. We can’t expect the poor or even the rising middle classes in China, India and Sub-Saharan Africa to volunteer to pay more for renewable electricity.

CCA Activity Today in PG&E’s Service Territory

screen-shot-2016-10-22-at-2-29-09-pm

Median Household Income by County, 2009-13

screen-shot-2016-10-22-at-2-27-00-pm

Thomas Friedman, in the book, Hot, Flat and Crowded, has a chapter that criticizes easy, symbolic actions. The chapter is titled, “205 Easy Ways to Save the Earth.” My point is a little different, as even some more difficult actions, like expecting people to voluntarily pay more for clean energy, are not scalable to the rest of the world.

Here’s something that would not be Mickey Mouse: recent leaks suggest the Clinton campaign contemplated a $42 per ton carbon tax, and Washington state has a good-sized carbon tax proposed in a ballot initiative. These policies could be enacted everywhere, so it would be great to gain some experience with them. Plus, putting a price on carbon in the developed world could help spur innovations that could be transferred to the developing world.

We need to keep our eyes on the ball. We need climate change solutions that have a chance of working in the developing world. Before you pat yourself on the back for installing solar panels on your roof or switching to the CCA, ask yourself how this will help mitigate climate change for people who may never hear of Mickey Mouse in their lifetimes.

About Catherine Wolfram

Catherine Wolfram is the Cora Jane Flood Professor of Business Administration at the Haas School of Business, Co-Director of the Energy Institute at Haas, and a Faculty Director of The E2e Project. Her research analyzes the impact of environmental regulation on energy markets and the effects of electricity industry privatization and restructuring around the world. She is currently implementing several randomized control trials to evaluate energy efficiency programs.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Mickey Mouse Mitigation Measures

  1. Merwin Brown says:

    Well said and cleverly done. Implicit for me in your article is that, in addition to efforts on mitigating climate change emissions, we need to make commitments to climate change adaptation contingency measures as well. Thanks.

  2. Nancy Rader says:

    I appreciate the post. CCAs do have the potential to create marginal CO2 benefits above the major benefits stemming from the statewide renewable energy standards imposed on all load-serving entities. But they are a relatively easy choice for cities because citizens don’t experience any significant impacts from the choice. Here in our home town of Berkeley, the city is in the process of considering joining a proposed CCA for Alameda County. At the same time, we’ve got mayoral and city council candidates who continue to fight the Downtown Plan to make Berkeley denser around transit corridors, which will be essential to curb CO2 in a major way. It will be interesting to see if Berkeleyans are willing to take the tough medicine to address climate change, or stick with the easy, marginal steps.

  3. mcubedecon says:

    The focus on CCAs solely as power purchasing coops is quite misguided. CCAs represent an alternative energy management model that both decentralizes decision making and aligns the interests of those procuring and managing energy with those of consumers. I can go through 40 years of poor decisions at the state level that reverberate across the entire state. Why do we think that they will suddenly start making good decisions? We can’t expect CCAs to universally make good decisions, but we mitigate our risk by dispersing the decision making and the consequences of those decisions.

    And we can readily see the consequences of those poor decisions in the poorly managed procurement of power resources since 2001. (I’ve seen the detailed data on these.) Those poor decisions arose because PG&E, SCE and SDG&E had no incentive to avoid them–they can simply pass through any excess costs to ratepayers. CCAs are run by elected officials who will lose their jobs, and even customers, if they miscalculate as badly as the IOUs have so far.

    And finally CCAs provide an opportunity to integrate across several energy management fields that cannot be afforded to the IOUs. Under state law and regulations, those IOUs cannot set building standards or tie transportation planning directly to electricity usage; CCAs can. In fact moving toward setting up CCAs is among the least Mickey Mouse measures going.

    (By the way, you’re map isn’t entirely accurate. Several southern Central Valley counties are exploring CCAs now, and others moved to making financial commitments. Also, you show the SMUD, Lassen MUD, Plumas-Sierra Coop, and Modesto and Turlock ID service areas as being in PG&E.)

  4. Tom Kabat says:

    Some studies show an effective way to fight climate change is to: 1) go with 80-100% renewable electricity, 2) double the pursuit of energy efficiency and 3) to electrify all stationary loads and ground transportation. Recognizing the apparent preciousness of money compared to climate, a way for CCEs to be less Mickey Mouse is for them to be agnostic about the location of their renewables (a global solution) and for CCEs wishing for jobs/justice to focus on developing the jobs in the area of energy efficiency e.g. local insulation, and in the area of electrification e.g. local heat pump water heater installation, and smart loads. Money can be saved by pursuing renewable resources where they are low cost at utility scale (creating badly needed Central Valley jobs), but efficiency and electrification are the only things that must happen locally and can’t be off-shored.

    • mcubedecon says:

      For solar, the scale economies of remote utility scale solar have largely disappeared. Two factors come into play. First, there is very little gain for solar PV above 10 MW due to the modular construction, and the offsetting permitting costs. And second, transmission (at least in CA) now costs $20/MWH at a minimum.

      And CCEs can be much more effective than IOUs at implementing the measures you’ve listed (which are all good ideas). They can better tailor to local situations and manage their resources more nimbly.

  5. Carl Weinberg says:

    Every journey starts with a single step. If you never start you never get there

  6. dzetland says:

    Great job. I agree with you (and not with Carl et al.) that it’s better to focus on the big picture instead of fighting many battles (for little gain) on trivial stuff — like “double climate neutral” bottled water (Fiji water), for example!

  7. Kenneth Gibson says:

    The Mickey Mouse efforts have some value. Putting solar panels on a roof-top, in a silly shape on a field, into a transparent window all further the technology. Whether they are cost effective in their early installations or not, they contribute to the development of production skills – that is where the economy of scale really matters.
    The most important policy push in the U.S. has been the 30% federal investment tax credit or production tax credit for solar and wind turbine projects. A carbon tax would support investment in those and other technologies to supplant the use of fossil fuels and near fossil fuels like corn ethanol and wood pellets. The most Mickey Mouse thing is cap and trade which is another game for Wall Street brokers and politicians to play. It has helped, but intermittently.
    Along with the carbon tax, I’d get the world to agree that tariffs on imports from industrialized countries that don’t collect the same carbon tax should be imposed.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s