A “Missionary” for Sustainable Energy
“I want my life to make a difference,” says John Bahr, Ph.D. An active man in his early 70s, Bahr has enriched his retirement years by involving himself in environmental issues. Starting out with very little knowledge, he has become a powerful advocate for Wisconsin’s sustainable energy movement. “This work satisfies my desire to do something worthwhile with my life while I have the opportunity,” he says. I spoke with Bahr from his Wisconsin home. I wanted to learn more about the work that he does and how it fulfills him as a retiree. — Miriam Kashia
BPGL: How did you become interested in the environment?
BAHR: I first became interested in environmental issues as a Boy Scout in the 1950s. We had a very active group that did a lot of hiking and camping in parks and forests in different parts of the country. As an adult, I’ve been on many Boundary Waters wilderness canoe trips, and enjoyed mountain backpacking and lots of camping and hiking.
BPGL: Did your work life prepare you for what you’re doing today?
BAHR: My electrical, mechanical and biomedical engineering degrees helped set the stage for this current involvement. I’ve worked with General Electric, doing system development and product design research, as well as teaching and program development at the Medical College of Wisconsin. I started and managed two national businesses to develop and sell software to long-term care facilities. In addition, I oversee a farm in Kansas. And I have a lot of experience working with community volunteer organizations.
BPGL: What got you interested in doing advocacy and educational work with alternative energy?
BAHR: After retiring, I began to think about what I might do that would use my experience and also have value to the community. One of my friends asked, “Why not wind power?” He pointed out that there was growing concern about finding an alternative to fossil fuels (coal and oil) to avoid environmental pollution [and lessen] our dependence on foreign countries for our energy needs. I knew very little about this technology, so I started to learn by reading and going to conferences. My interest in wind power expanded to include other renewable energy sources, including: solar PV and heating, biofuels, water power, and geothermal.
It became clear that the general population also had limited knowledge of both the need for alternative energy sources as well as how to meet those needs. People sometimes fear that which they don’t understand, particularly in a time of change. Since renewable energy projects require public acceptance, I realized that those of us who understood this technology, or were learning about it, were in a good position to go out into the community to tell others about it. This became a form of missionary work for me.
Sharing the Message
BPGL: You call it “missionary work.” To carry the analogy further, who are you “preaching to” about renewable energy?
BAHR: I divide the population into three groups in terms of learning about something new:
- Those who already understand what is being proposed, and will accept change without further information or encouragement.
- Those who strongly oppose change and have no interest in learning anything new (my mind is made up, don’t confuse me with the facts). This group can be written off as beyond reach.
- Those people who have neither strong feelings for or against a new idea and are open to learning more about it. However, they are not motivated enough to seek information on their own. If you go to where they gather for other reasons, they will listen to you and consider what you are saying.
So, our education work is focused on community groups, such as church forums; schools; library forums; business groups such as Rotary, Kiwanis and Lions clubs; environmental groups; government groups; etc. We are able to reach people who are there because they routinely go to those groups. So far this program has been presented to over 80 groups in Southeast Wisconsin. If we come to talk to them, they will listen and, hopefully, learn and begin to make changes. That’s what we do.
BPGL: I understand you are active in a number of environmental groups and efforts. What are they, and what is your role?
BAHR: I’m on the Board of RENEW Wisconsin, where I chair the Education Committee. This group presents programs promoting renewable energy sources and sustainable energy practices to groups that request them. We also contact community groups to explain what we do and offer to present a program for one of their meetings. This may be attractive to groups like Rotary and Kiwanis, which need weekly programs for their meetings. It is a positive sign that global warming and renewable energy are increasingly becoming topics of general interest.
I’m also on the Executive Committee of the local Sierra Club, where I chair the Global Warming and Energy Committees. This work is similar to what I do for RENEW. However, the Sierra Club has a large membership with many volunteers and is well known in the community, while RENEW has a number of technical experts in their fields, but a comparatively small general membership. They fit together well.
BPGL: Are you active in other activities in addition to your RENEW and Sierra Club work?
BAHR: I have been active in my Unitarian Universalist Church for many years. We have a strong environmental program called “Green Sanctuary” recently nenamed “Earth Ministry.” As part of this program, the church provides meeting space for many of our global warming and renewable energy community meetings. The church also funded the installation of an 8 kW solar PV system on the church roof. This was the first such installation by a church in our region and is providing a model for other churches.
Because of my growing visibility as an energy educator, I was appointed to the Energy Committee of my local community, Wauwatosa, Wisconsin. Here, I’m helping develop community programs to use energy more efficiently and reduce the total cost of energy to the city. Knowledge and volunteers from my other groups will be helpful with that. Related to this is my work to introduce and promote the Cool Cities program to regional communities, to help structure and promote their own energy savings programs. I hope to use the experience from Wauwatosa as a model for other communities.
Taking Action to Conserve
BPGL: From your perspective, what are the most significant things the average person can do right now to conserve energy?
BAHR: Conserve energy where you live and where you work. We like to say that the least expensive and non-polluting kWh is the one not used. Due to cost considerations, not everyone can put a wind turbine in their back yard or solar panels on their roof. But everybody can save energy. There are many books, publications, and articles containing lists of things everyone can do to save energy. People should get one of these lists and use it. There are trained inspectors, sometimes paid or subsidized by local utilities or state-sponsored energy programs, who will come to your home or business to do an energy survey and offer suggestions of how to reduce your energy consumption. There are very simple things anyone can do, such as convert to compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs). You can also use energy-efficient appliances, carefully manage your thermostat, reduce heat loss through windows, etc. Get — and follow — a guidelines list.
BPGL: What about for the longer term?
BAHR: We need to promote the greater development of renewable energy sources. This may require lobbying with your government and utilities. Work with your neighbors to form neighborhood-based, energy-efficiency groups who can inform and encourage each other in energy efficiency progress in each home. When building a new building or remodeling, use energy-efficient designs and materials. Consider geothermal as a heating and cooling technology. Promote mass transit, and manage your personal transportation to reduce energy use. Recruit and support political candidates who promote responsible energy use.
BPGL: There is a lot of good information available to the public now, but also some misinformation. Are you aware of any harmful myths about alternative energy or conserving energy?
BAHR: A primary concern is the attitude that the most important thing is to provide energy in our country at the lowest possible cost, regardless of the effect on our environment. Sadly there is popular support for this position from some people who think only in the short term.
There is a lot of misinformation about CFLs.
MYTH: CFLs pose a great risk to our environment due to their mercury content.
FACT: Using a CFL for its rated life will reduce environmental mercury much more, because of lower power plant emissions, than the small amount that can be released if the bulb is broken.
MYTH: The power surge required to turn on a CFL is so large that you must leave the light on for several hours to justify using it.
FACT: When you turn on a CFL, the extra energy to get it going is the amount used in 7 seconds of regular use. Frequent turning on and off will reduce the life of a CFL by as much as 50%. An example of this would be a bathroom or closet light. Thus using a CFL in one of these short cycle locations would reduce its expected life to perhaps 5000 hours, compared to 750 hours for a regular light bulb. Of course, if you consider that CFLs cost $1.00 on sale, and that in 5000 hours they save a huge amount of energy ($50.00 worth at current rates), and that they reduce a large amount of greenhouse gas emission, there isn’t much argument.
The Truth about Wind Turbines
There are many wild stories about the danger of wind turbines to those who live nearby. Someone claimed that a woman couldn’t get pregnant if she lived within a mile of a wind turbine (not true). A lawyer appeared at a public hearing to say, “Listening to a wind turbine is like standing next to a runway when a 747 airplane takes off.” When later confronted about the absurdity of his comment, he pointed out that he will say anything his clients will pay him to say. Having stood under a wind turbine running at full power, I can say how quiet they are. It’s like listening to your kitchen refrigerator from the next room. You can hear traffic on an expressway a mile away over the noise of the turbine. Unfortunately, people believe and retell ridiculous things like this.
There is continuing comment about bird kill from wind turbines. At one of our presentations, a person claimed that if you install a wind turbine, “you’ll have flaming birds fall out of the sky.” Information based on many studies indicates the average turbine kills 1.7 birds per year. A study by the highly regarded Sibley Guide estimated that all the wind turbines in the country kill under 100,000 birds per year compared to 500,000,000 killed by cats.
Some things are true but fixable: If the turbine is between the observer and the sun — this will be true for a few houses in morning and evening on a clear day for about 10 minutes a year — shadow flicker can be a problem. If this is objectionable, you can use window blinds or plant a hedge. Most wind farm developers will help with this. In the same category, if the TV signal path from the station antenna to a home goes through wind turbine blades, there can be a problem. Most utilities will work with homeowners to install a different type of home antenna. As you can expect, this is a rare event.
Some people complain about aesthetics. Studies have shown that property values go up faster near a new wind farm than away from it. Many people find them interesting, kind of like living near Mt. Rushmore. If you go by the wind farm at Montford, Wisconsin, in the western part of the state on Highway 18, you see a restaurant that provides parking and an information stand for those who want to stop to see and learn about the turbines (and watch the cows grazing under them). The restaurant staff finds this brings in new business.
These and other sorts of misinformation are the kind of things we address in our educational programs.
An Enriching Experience
BPGL: How has your voluntary environmental work benefited you personally?
BAHR: It provides the opportunity to learn and apply new things. It connects me, in a satisfying way, with the community where I live. It brings me together with people who have similar values. And it provides a good model for my children.
BPGL: What about the ongoing excuse that changes for sustainability are too expensive and will hurt the economy?
BAHR: As I reflect on my discussions with both individuals and city governments, I’m reminded that I sometimes hear that the only change that is acceptable is that which will save money. I challenge that as being out of touch with the reality of our world. Some things should (must) be done simply because it is the right thing to do. How many libraries are built only if an economic analysis shows that they will make money for the community? How do you justify the cost of building and maintaining a church?
There is an article in the morning paper quoting top climate researchers from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warning that we are now very near the CO2 level that will cause irreversible climate change. This will result in all the much publicized effects of great drought in some areas, flooding in others, the growth of deserts, increasingly devastating storm systems, melting ice caps and rising oceans, a proliferation of new viruses and diseases, and a major regional shift of those plants and animals that survive. How do you evaluate the return on investment on that? Some things need to be done just because they are the right things to do. This is not just the right thing to do; it’s a sacred crusade. Everything is at stake.
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