Blog: Sean Reed

Sean Reed, executive director of the Clean Energy Coalition, is on the front line of Michigan's clean energy front. This week he explains how starvation amongst the Maasai tribe in Africa shaped his work, and why we should stand up to funding cuts to low income and energy efficiency programs.

"You Cannot Speak to a Frog in a Well about the Ocean"

In my last post, I discussed some of my concerns with the way societal support structures are being dismissed these days.  I mentioned how this resonated in both personal and professional ways for me.  Today, I’ll talk about a specific example of this that is a serious issue facing citizens all across Michigan, that’s not being talked about enough yet, but that I think everyone needs to know about.  But first one more bit of background on why this matters so much to me.

A number of years ago, I found myself in the midst of a self-induced crisis trying to figure out what I could do to make a difference.  Strangely enough, it was when I was climbing a sacred mountain in rural China that I read the following Buddhist saying: "You cannot speak to a frog in a well about the ocean."  While this passage could be interpreted in a variety of ways, I saw it as speaking volumes about my role in this life.  Like the frog, the construct of the "well" defines the parameters of existence for most of us.  Maybe this offers many of us a secure existence, but it also collectively shuts us off from understanding different cognitive constructs and alternative ways of being.  I vowed that I would be a part of an effort to redefine what the "well" really means by bridging the gap between well and ocean.

The work undertaken by the Clean Energy Coalition tries to bridge this gap by working closely with individuals and organizations to move further along the path of energy independence.  As an example of this, Clean Energy Coalition staff have been working on a project with Michigan's "Cities of Promise" for the past year and a half.  These cities include Benton Harbor, Detroit, Flint, Hamtramck, Highland Park, Muskegon Heights, Pontiac, and Saginaw.  To give you a better sense of the plight of these cities, a number of them don't even have a functioning heating system in city hall.  Our work has involved helping to guide strategic energy investments in these cities, then capturing and reinvesting the money saved through a financial tool called a "revolving energy fund".  Over time, these investments would have saved the cities millions.

Why do I say "would have"?  In August, Clean Energy Coalition's contract with the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) to work with Michigan's Cities of Promise was cancelled.  However, Clean Energy Coalition was not alone in this.   Over $90 million worth of contracts through the MPSC's Low Income & Energy Efficiency Fund (LIEEF) were terminated.  The reason?  The State Court of Appeals ruled that the MPSC does not have the authority to manage LIEEF due to its lack of specific mention in a 2008 act passed by the state legislature.  This ruling comes despite the fact that the MPSC has successfully managed the LIEEF for more than 10 years and that LIEEF was initially created by an act of the state legislature.  If this doesn't make any sense to you, join the club.

Thousands of Michigan citizens will be impacted by this Court of Appeals ruling that seems to be based on a technicality.  And the sad but true impending reality is that some of them will die.  Why?  Because LIEEF has historically been a significant provider of financial assistance to qualified individuals to prevent the shut off of utilities during the winter.  The other main provider of heating assistance, the federal LIHEAP program, is targeted for a 50% reduction in funding initially proposed by President Obama.   There is a misconception that the utilities cannot shut off your electric and gas during the winter.  They can.  And this is certainly not something that people should have to learn when it's too late.  This is a tragedy that we will needlessly have to watch unfold over the course of this winter because the state legislature has yet to take this up as a serious issue for Michigan's citizens.  I have attended recent meetings of the State House and Senate Energy and Technology Committees and while LIEEF has not been mentioned, a bill to allow for the manufacture of incandescent light bulbs, despite a federal ban, was not only discussed, but, successfully passed out of the House Committee!

As someone who has come face to face with starvation, as someone who believes in structural change, what do I think we need to do?  I think that we need to get serious here about caring for our fellow Michiganders.  About caring for the world around us.  About caring the world that our children's children will inherit.  Is it worth $10 a year (the cost of the LIEEF surcharge on your utility bill) for you to know that you have provided a warm house for children living in poverty in our state? We all should recognize the tremendous tightrope we walk in modern life with little to buffer us from despair; we can’t know for sure that the plight of Michigan’s economy will never deeply affect us.

Over the course of the 10 years LIEEF has been operating, it has been a tremendous tool not only for addressing the pressing needs of heating assistance, but also with proactively attempting to render obsolete the myriad structural issues that cause individuals, companies, schools, and municipalities to struggle with their utility bills year after year.  Remember my story about the Maasai?  Promoting energy efficiency across society is that long-term solution that addresses structural change.  Work in this arena includes everything from Clean Energy Coalition's strategic energy investments in Michigan's Cities of Promise, to the thousands of low income households that have had targeted energy retrofit work performed.

If you agree with me, that you think this proactive, caring approach makes sense, I highly encourage you to contact your state representative, state senator, or the members of the House and Senate Energy & Technology Committees and let them know that you care about LIEEF, about energy efficiency, and about doing what’s right for Michigan families.