Energy consultant Tom Conlon has been sounding the alarm: everyone needs to take our climate crisis more seriously and start acting accordingly. Originally trained as an applied anthropologist, this electrician turned energy policy analyst and software developer has been thinking about how to solve environmental problems for the past 25 years. The Sun’s Fred Allebach spoke with him about the path ahead.
When did you first learn about climate change?
I heard about the “greenhouse effect” when I was studying agroecology at UCSC in the early 1980s. But I think the first time I understood we had a real problem was in 1993, when I was in the Energy Management and Design program at Sonoma State University. One of our professors had been a high-powered consultant at KPMG. There he had found data proving that global surface temperature was rising. He told us he had quit his job so he could teach and warn the next generation (meaning us) about global warming.
What effect did it have on you?
Suddenly I knew what I wanted to do with my life: save energy! I got hired by a statistics professor here in Sonoma who was doing load research for electric and gas utilities. We began helping them design and evaluate energy efficiency programs. When the World Wide Web happened, three of us got ambitious and set up our own company in my living room. We grew and ran some cool programs and built some cool tools. Sold one to Autodesk. Saved people a whole lot of energy, all over the world.
Are you satisfied with what you accomplished?
Not anymore. Sure we helped people get more efficient, but far too many ended up “taking back” the savings and using more energy in other ways. For example, we helped pass some of the world’s best energy codes, but then builders built bigger houses farther away. Our colleagues invented more efficient vehicles, cleaner gas, and ride sharing apps, but drivers kept driving more miles each year. Others created affordable solar modules, but folks bought a gazillion gadgets that plug-in and run all the time.
Although it’s true that California utilities have done more than many of their counterparts to save energy and fight climate change, I learned the hard way that their first loyalty is to their bottom line. Worse, they’ve all but captured our legislators and regulators (appointed by the Governor) who keep letting them get away with far less “drawdown” than what scientists agree we actually need. The fact is they remain among the largest CO2 polluters in the state.
We are simply moving too slowly to stop this crisis. These droughts and floods and wildfires are going to get a lot worse.
What grade would you give Sonoma for fighting climate change?
I’d say we’ve earned an “A” for talk, and a “D” for action. Back in 2005 we boasted that we had set the nation’s most aggressive climate action goals. But instead of decreasing our emissions 25% (from 1990 levels) by 2015, the City of Sonoma’s actually increased by 9%. That trend continues, and if we keep waiting for somebody else to do something, our emissions in 2020 are likely to be even worse.
We can still turn this around, if we all do our part. For households, that means at least a 5% GHG budget cut each year: (https://coolcalifornia.arb.ca.gov/calculator-households-individuals). But individual actions alone won’t get us where we need to go. We all need to work together as a community. That means electeds, their staff, businesses, residents, visitors, everyone. If we can do that, it might be just enough, just in time. To learn more, visit http://www.sonomaclimate.com.