Electrifying learning at Luther

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When community problems and student learning connect, the results can be powerful, even electric. And sometimes that power and electricity are not just metaphorical, but literal. Such is the case with Luther's involvement in Decorah Power.

Walk down the halls of Luther's academic buildings these days and you can see learning everywhere. Professors in classrooms, students studying together and textbooks sitting open on laps and desks. It's an exciting time on campus and the transformative power of education is obvious all around us.

But there is also learning that you can't see or at least it is not as obvious.

Shining a light on the 'hidden curriculum'

The "hidden curriculum" is a phrase that educators use to describe the little lessons that are embedded everywhere in our society and on our campus.

One goal of our sustainability efforts at Luther is to make the hidden curriculum more visible and to find ways to enhance student learning beyond the classroom. We seek to bring some of the unseen dimensions of our campus and society into the limelight where they can be examined and, when appropriate, changed.

Take electricity as an example. We all use it every day—to charge devices, light rooms—but we rarely think about it; energy is out of sight and out of mind. For most Americans, it is only at times of natural disasters like the recent hurricanes that we are even aware of the electricity on which we are so dependent.

But where does that power come from? What is the source of our electricity and who is my provider? What does it cost, financially, environmentally, socially? Who benefits—and who is harmed—in order for me to plug in my computer every day?

At Luther College we want students (and faculty, staff and visitors) to take on the hidden curriculum, to ask the hard questions behind our many daily needs and to search for ways of living that are better. Better for our students—since they learn more—but also better for our community, our neighbors and our planet as we work to reduce our impact and strive for a more sustainable society.

Electricity is not just another example, but our primary focus this fall as Luther is working with the local community to investigate a new way of bringing electricity to Decorah.

Investigating the feasibility of a municipal electric utility

What if I told you we could make a change that would save Luther money, provide unique educational opportunities to our students, strengthen our local community and help us be a model for others working on sustainability?

Too good to be true? Maybe, but wouldn't you at least want to look into it and see if it might work?

That's what Decorah Power, a local non-profit, is doing now as it investigates the possibility of establishing a Municipal Electric Utility (MEU) in our community. In August, Decorah Power launched a feasibility study to determine whether an MEU or "muni" might be possible and desirable as a new way to deliver electricity to the Decorah community, including its largest power user, Luther College.

Luther College has been involved in this effort from the beginning as a willing partner, a financial supporter and through Luther's Center for Sustainable Communities. Working with Decorah Power has already provided great opportunities to our students and caused all of us to ask some hard questions that will be answered through the feasibility study.

Investing in a sustainable future

Why would Luther support such an effort financially, especially at a time when we are tightening our belt to help navigate lower enrollment? There are many reasons, but first we should note that these are not tuition dollars and Luther's $15,000 investment in the feasibility study is not impacting educational expenditures. The money comes from Luther's Climate Action Fund, a dedicated fund outside of operating revenues earmarked for meeting the commitments to emission reductions that the Board of Regents made in 2012.

The Climate Action Fund was established several years ago using grant dollars, savings from previous energy projects and investment of year-end surplus when energy expenditures were lower than budgeted. It's not a "rainy day fund" (which Luther also has) but more like a "warm winter fund."

Electricity is expensive and getting more so all the time. Our current utility recently raised rates to cover the cost of a big new natural gas plant. Just the rate increase alone will cost Luther over $100,000 more each year, so investigating ways to reduce our electricity bill is both a priority and a good use of those Climate Action Fund dollars.

Eric Runestad, Vice President for Finance and Administration, commented on the financial aspects of this project. "Given the extensive investment the college makes each year in electricity, we are interested in learning if a municipal utility might offer an opportunity for budget savings. Information from other colleges in towns with municipal utilities suggests this may be possible. Luther spends over $1 million per year for electricity and with rates on the rise (13% next year), exploring options for affordability is important."

The potential to save money on electricity is one powerful reason why Luther College is involved in Decorah Power, but it's certainly not the only reason. Community is another powerful driver.

The power of community

We strive to make 'community' more than a buzzword at Luther and to take seriously what membership means in the multiple communities that comprise our campus and its many stakeholders. We want students to experience real community both because it enhances their well-being but also because of the strong learning power that lies within community.

The motto for our Paideia program is "Seeking Wisdom in Community." That's a powerful message for our students in the classroom, but community does not stop at the edge of our campus and our responsibilities to the Decorah community are weighty and important.

What does it mean for Luther to be a good citizen of, and leader within, the Decorah community? How does the college support community initiatives and work to ensure that both Luther and Decorah thrive in the changing landscapes of this time? Like so many questions, the answers are elusive but we know that gaining more information and being open to change are keys to finding the answers. Luther is supporting Decorah Power because of the potential benefits to Decorah and is providing some leadership as a way to meet our obligations as an institutional anchor within the community.

Powerful learning opportunities for Luther students

Educational opportunities for our students have already come from the early work of Decorah Power and would only grow if Decorah had its own utility. Forrest Stewart is a junior environmental studies and political science double major with a passion for solutions. He spent the summer doing research with Professor Carly Foster on MEUs and the efforts of other communities to municipalize their electrical service. Forrest noted how his work with Decorah Power added to his education. "It gave context to a lot of what I learn about in both of my majors and allowed me to explore my own intellectual strengths and apply them to an impactful local issue."

Now Forrest is joining a few other students and recent graduate Veronica Seher in assisting engineers with the feasibility study. One way to capitalize on the hidden curriculum is through working with entities who are seeking to transform our systems to be more resilient, forward looking and human scale. It pushes our students beyond the "Luther bubble" and goes beyond the hypothetical to the real problem solving that makes Luther graduates stand out in a competitive hiring environment.

We're committed to sustainability

Luther’s commitment to sustainability is a final reason for supporting Decorah Power. In 2012, the Luther Board of Regents adopted a Climate Action Plan with the following targets for carbon emission reductions:

  • 50% by 2015
  • 70% by 2020
  • 100% by 2030

These targets reference a baseline of 2004 when Luther's emissions peaked. Before the college's first major investment in energy efficiency, before the wind turbine, before the two large solar projects, before the dozens of projects big and small that have reduced both our emissions and our annual energy bills making Luther a "Cool School."

Last year, Luther hit the 50% target, becoming one of a small number of schools across the country that have significantly cut their own emissions through efficiency and renewables rather than buying carbon offsets.

Not only did Luther meet its first target, but it did so with projects that all have a positive return on investment, that ultimately save the college money, especially as these projects mature and Luther becomes the beneficiary of nearly free energy.

All of us at Luther should be proud of what we have accomplished but there is little time to celebrate when we look ahead to the next goal—70% by 2020.

What's next for Luther? How do we meet this next goal, take the next step and keep moving forward?

That's where Decorah Power comes in and the powerful idea of a municipal electric utility. In an upcoming post, I will describe how munis work and what it might mean for Decorah and Luther if we had local control of our electricity.

Jon Jensen Ph.D.

Jon Jensen Ph.D.

Jon Jensen has been a professor in philosophy and environmental studies since 2002, with a focus in environmental philosophy and sustainability. Some of his course topics include Environmental Philosophy, Philosophy of Science and Food and the Environment. Jensen also directs Luther's Center for Sustainable Communities, which coordinates all sustainability initiatives at Luther College. The mission of the Center is to promote sustainability and be a catalyst for change on campus and in the region. Jensen lives on a farm near the Upper Iowa River with his wife and two daughters.

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