Imagine a land where the southern Florida coastline began at Orlando instead of Miami. Imagine a land where the rich mountain forests became barren desert wastelands. Imagine a land where animals as commonplace as opossums no longer existed.
That is a land Richard de Treville hopes will never exist.
A program associate with the Green Campus Network, part of the Alliance to Save Energy’s Education Team, de Treville plays a key role in teaching college students across the Southeast about the importance of environmental awareness, particularly when it comes to energy efficiency and conservation.
“It’s all so connected,” he says, explaining his passion for energy efficiency. “Even if you’re not into energy but you’re into recycling or organic farming, all of that comes down to getting away from petrochemical products, which are the same byproducts that are from our energy production. Fossil fuels are basically at the heart of it.”
With a degree in environmental sociology from the University of Central Florida, de Treville further explains that interconnectivity and its effects on the environment, as we walk through Nashville’s Shelby Bottoms Greenway on an unseasonably warm, early spring day.
“Climate change occurs naturally,” he says, “but is also increasingly sped up as a result of fossil fuel consumption mostly from human beings. One of the largest contributing factors to that consumption is energy production.”
Human reliance on fossil fuels and their effects on climate change began as far back as the Industrial Revolution. It continued through the New Deal in the 1930s and well into the ‘70s, he explains. The country created ways of power production because it had a growing need for power. However, many of those production facilities were already antiquated designs at the time, and energy-wasting practices began to take hold throughout the country as power plants slowly spread.
“During the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, power companies went out into communities and held huge educational programs on using energy and using it all the time,” de Treville says. People weren’t concerned with their energy consumption because it was exciting and new. Unfortunately, many were still uninformed about energy, where it came from and how it worked.
“There was one story of a woman who lived on a rural, Southeastern farm in the ‘50s,” he says. “She had had light bulbs installed by the power company. She didn’t quite understand the concept of energy. When a bulb burned out, the lady took it out and freaked out because she thought taking the light bulb out of the socket would allow the power to seep out from the wires into the room and kill her. So the lady had shoved corncobs in all of her sockets throughout her house because she was trying to block the energy from coming and killing her.”
Stories like that and many others proved that there was a need for energy education. Then, as a result of the 1970s energy crisis, educational efforts began to happen, and alternative fuels sources were discussed. People began talking about electric cars and solar farms, de Treville says. President Carter even installed solar panels on the White House, where they stayed until their removal during the Reagan administration, when many efforts to explore alternative energy sources ceased.
“I feel we’ve had to pick up in the last four, five, six years where we left off in the ‘70s, especially here in the South,” de Treville says. “We now have to reverse the trend of being ambivalent to using power and start raising an awareness of where power comes from, how it has an impact on the environment, and how much it truly costs.”
Those costs are the reasons for the recent pushes across the country to get away from fossil fuels and the mountaintop removal that has become an almost accepted part of that fuel retrieval.
“If people became more educated on the whole picture, where energy comes from and how it affects their environment, they would see how all of these beautiful mountains, homes, and farms are just destroyed by coal retrieval, one primary way in which we source fuel to make electricity,” de Treville says. “I’d imagine if more people were aware of what is going on in their own backyard, they would think more about what they were doing. They would make more of an effort to change their behaviors.”
“What’s going on in their own backyard?” I ask as we finally sit in a grassy field and watch the random cloud crawl casually across the sky.
“Mountaintop removal,” he answers, matter-of-factly. “It’s how we get coal here and in West Virginia, Virginia, and Kentucky.
“You take the ecosystem of a mountain, slice off the top, and blow it up to get the coal out,” he continues. “It’s left looking like this desert wasteland that totally changes the atmosphere. Animals die, and water systems die. It directly contributes to increased global warming with its loss of tree and animal life and more.
“It’s kind of the equivalent of the rainforest being destroyed in South America. A lot of Appalachia is a temperate rainforest. It’s a different type of rainforest but a rainforest nonetheless, and it’s being destroyed here in our own community.”
De Treville, however, praises the public, private, and nonprofit initiatives of the greater Nashville community, particularly those of the Tennessee Valley Authority, which has some aggressive goals to improve energy efficiency and to reduce fossil fuel and coal production.
“TVA plans to shut down 18 coal-burning power plants within the next five to ten years, especially the old and outdated ones,” de Treville says. “TVA also has an awesome program called EnergyRight Solutions, which is a great way for people to become more energy efficient. You can go to energyright.com and fill out your information. TVA sends you some light bulbs, some tools, and a really awesome packet that teaches you how to do an energy audit. You do some things, and then they’ll send you some recommendations for your house while lining you up with rebates to make improvements.”
Another of TVA’s programs is the Green Power Switch, which ensures the addition of electricity generated by renewable resources in the Tennessee Valley.
While de Treville believes renewable energy resources from solar panels and windmills certainly need to be promoted, he feels energy efficiency is the biggest untapped source of energy out there.
“There’s a really cool chart from the National Academy of Sciences that shows the decrease of energy efficiency from a coal plant to a standard incandescent light bulb in your house,” he explains. “From the time it’s converted from the chemical energy in the coal and travels along the power lines to your home, it is just 1.3% efficient. Even if you get energy from windmills or solar farms, what’s the point of being 1.3% efficient with it? I want to encourage people to become more efficient with their energy use, no matter where it comes from.”
De Treville believes energy efficiency can have an amazing impact not only on the environment but on the job market as well.
“Energy efficiency creates jobs,” he says, and not just within the power companies. “I met a girl who was an intern in our Green Campus Program, who now oversees sustainability efforts for Levi-Strauss & Co. She’s this awesome fashionista who gets to travel all over the world and make Levi-Strauss more sustainable in their production.
“Energy efficiency and going green is also good business,” he adds. “That’s why car companies are making and constantly improving electric cars and hybrids. How are we going to make a better world unless we keep researching these new technologies?
“We won’t, so we have to keep looking into these alternative energy sources and energy-saving techniques. Otherwise, we’re not going to find those better ways, and we won’t be creating the new jobs to research them.”