Rebecca and Shawn Lawrence Otto

Green Energy in a Blue Economy

I am reluctant to use the term “power couple” in reference to a pair of Minnesota leaders in the area of science and politics, but considering the contributions of Rebecca and Shawn Lawrence Otto, the term moves past cliché and into double entendre.  Rebecca is the Minnesota State Auditor, an elected constitutional office that I consider to be second only to the governor in terms of authority and importance. Shawn has been one of the key figures involved in the organization Science Debate 2008, originally formed to spur the large field of 2008 presidential hopefuls to have at least one debate on the role of science in making public policy.

Rebecca, Shawn and son Jake

Rebecca, Shawn and son Jake

The “double entendre” comes from the leadership role that they have taken as a team in advancing the development of alternative sources of energy to reduce reliance on coal, oil and natural gas in the Minnesota economy. They have, at their homestead, harnessed the power of the wind and the sun in conjunction with practicing conservation to show Minnesotans how to take advantage of renewable resources.

Rebecca has a solid background in science and in policy. She taught environmental science in Minnesota public schools for five years and was a state legislator from 2003–2005. I first met her in 2005 at a Think Blue event at the UAW hall in St. Paul. Tim Mahoney, the guy whose books I keep as campaign treasurer, introduced me and said I should support her in her bid for state auditor. I have to confess to a certain bias here, as hers was the only bumper sticker on my car in the 2006 campaign for state office.

As an auditor, Rebecca showed her worth before taking office. Even before the election, she reviewed the public reports of the Department of Education. Rebecca discovered millions of dollars in errors in the accounting of school funds by the DOE, and over a hundred and eighty million dollars in errors by the incumbent state auditor. Of course this embarrassed the incumbent, Pat Anderson, but it also showed us how important it is to have a watchdog in the auditor’s office. While the state is facing a huge financial crisis, our government can’t afford sloppy books. I think it is important to note that she was endorsed by Anderson’s three most recent predecessors, members of both of the major parties in Minnesota. These were Arne Carlson, Mark Dayton and Judy Dutcher.

Shawn Lawrence Otto is well-known for the screenplay adaptation and his role in producing the movie House of Sand and Fog, a movie I watched and which thoroughly impressed me long before I had met Shawn. He wrote the screenplay for the movie Shining White and has a new movie coming out in 2010, Dreams of a Dying Heart. I have also sent him a book on the history of paleontology that I would like to see made into a movie, and he has at least promised to read it.

As I mentioned earlier, Shawn formed, along with several friends of science, Science Debate 2008. The group didn’t achieve the exact aims they sought but were able to induce the campaigns of both John McCain and Barack Obama to address specific questions on science and technology in policy decisions. Most impressive in this effort is the support of the public towards hearing what the candidates wanted to do. More than 125 million people showed support for science and joined in the request to finally address science in a meaningful manner in politics. According to Shawn:

The organization’s stated goal was to restore science to its rightful place in American public policy and political dialogue.  Since President Obama used those words in his inaugural address, I think we got the message across. Before we started none of the candidates were talking about science at all. So our greatest achievement is that we transformed the way America talks about science and restored some of its importance to policy discussions.  By the time we were done, Senators Obama and McCain had both participated. The initiative made over 800 million media impressions and President Obama put together a top-notch science advisory team expressly to answer our “Top 14 Science Questions Facing America.”

His answers formed the initial basis for the Obama science policy, and all of the Obama Administration’s appointments in science were early Science Debate 2008 supporters, including Steven Chu, Jane Lubchenco, John Holdren, Harold Varmus and Eric Lander.  I think we helped elevate science and research as not only a priority, but as the path to the future, in his policy thinking.  Since then, when we saw that much of the science funding had been cut from the Senate version of the stimulus bill, we mobilized again and were a major part in getting that turned around and restoring some $7 billion in research funding through NSF, DOE, and other agencies that fund university, lab, and corporate research.

This is among the smartest type of stimulus spending because it creates high quality jobs in universities, labs, corporations, suppliers, and construction contractors right now, and leads to the innovations like transistors or the internet that can create entire new economies.  Over half of our economic growth since WWII has come from science and technology, and we have really shortchanged ourselves in the last 8 years, so this is an important new investment that will lead to new prosperity, cleaner energy technologies, a healthier environment, and better healthcare.

The Science Debate 2008 push is still strong and was most evident in the formation of the Obama plan to rebuild the American economy. Shawn was on top of the actions in both the Senate and the House of Representatives and sent updates to those of us who are members, so that when the time came to call or write our representatives and senators, we knew the facts. Thanks to Shawn’s efforts, we were able to stem cutbacks in proposed funding for science in the bill.

Of course, Quiche Moraine is largely about Minnesota, and in our state we are in need of people like the Ottos. I have been out to their farm twice for political fundraisers, and it is a beautiful site. It is welcoming in both the winter and the summer. They have large south-facing windows to capture the warmth of the sun in the winters and natural stone as a feature to insulate their home. In the summer, the stone lends a cool air so that air conditioning is a rare necessity.

Shawn has sent me some additional details on the home and its energy saving features.  Watch for a separate post here on Quiche Moraine.

Perhaps the most notable feature that greets visitors on arrival is the turbine wind generator that provides their electrical supply and, in fact, returns power back to the grid. The Ottos return so much power to the electric company that their electrical bills are often close to zero.

The Wind Generator

Most of our electricity comes from the big Jacobs wind generator in the back yard. It generates a peak of about 15,000 watts (15 kilowatts) in a 25mph or faster wind. This is enough power to light 250 60-watt light bulbs or about 10 houses worth. The wind turns the 24′ diameter airfoils of the propeller, which turn a big alternator, which generates three-phase wild AC current. Wild means the voltage goes up and down with the wind speed – its not tamed to a constant 120 volts, like normal house-pet type electricity. This wild power comes down the tower and to the house through some cables we buried underground, where it enters the garage and hits a big mess of electronics called an inverter (the big metal cabinet in the garage) that turns it into normal line quality electricity. If we are generating more than we happen to be using at the moment, it gets sent back out our lines to Connexus Electric Cooperative, which buys it from us at the retail rate. If we are using more than we are generating at the moment, we draw part from the generator, part from Connexus. It’s a sweet system that supplies about 80% of our power. Connexus makes all their power by burning coal, which of course pollutes the air and puts mercury into our lakes, so we feel pretty good about this rig. All told, we figure we are generating enough power to prevent the burning of about 14,000 pounds – about 7 tons – of coal every year. Plus it’s a big charge, so to speak, watching it turn. We always know what’s up with the weather, which way the wind is blowing and how hard. It’s a more intimate connection with the sky. We like it.

As land and business owners, Shawn and Rebecca Otto have put into practice the benefits of green energy and energy-saving architectures. This lends authority to the work that the State Auditor’s office has put into publishing the fantastic article on how local governments in Minnesota are able to save money in the long run by implementing best practices utilizing conservation and modern energy production tools.

I have read through the Best Practices Review: Reducing Energy Costs in Local Government (pdf). Published in July 2008, the 132-page report details the ways in which municipalities can retain functionality and service to their communities by investing wisely in proven technologies to save money when budgets are tight. The report includes case studies, including reliable estimates on the time to payback of investment of these processes.

One case study details the process by which the Blue Earth County designed and has built a new Criminal Justice Center using a green initiatives model. When completed this spring, the county will seek to have the building certified as LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). The goal is to not only expand the capacity of people-warehousing, which is what many people see as the purpose of jails, but to actually create a building that will be a money saver for the county in the long term. This project is a national example of how municipalities are able to perform the functions of government while respecting the specter of cost to residents.

To my mind, the role of state auditor extends far beyond bean-counting and the pursuit of errors in the books of counties, municipalities and nonprofit agencies. I see the auditor as a leader in directing all of the various state agencies in not only saving money but providing more services than standard budgeting would allow. It takes leadership to suggest to a county facing another property tax levy increase that by investing in modern, green technology, they can save their residents money in the long run.

Green technology is a key tool that Minnesota will need to utilize in this blue economy, and I am comforted to have such a “power couple” in Minnesota’s plans for the future.

Additional Resources on Shawn Lawrence Otto and Rebecca Otto:

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6 Responses to “Rebecca and Shawn Lawrence Otto”

  1. March 9th, 2009 at 6:36 pm

    Norm says:

    I did not make the connection that they were married until I saw them together at the Innovation 2008 conference that Shawn’s organization hosted at my school last fall. It was a great couple of days talking about science and its role in culture and politics, and it made me optimistic about the direction the new administration is taking. I hope to work in this area when I graduate, specifically with promoting better science education at the K-12 level, since if we don’t do that we will have an even tougher time competing in the world economy 20 years down the road. Already 90% of the world’s engineers are living in Asia, and soon the companies that provide the high-tech, high-wage jobs here currently will move to where the talent is, especially if we can’t get our immigration system on a sound footing.

  2. March 9th, 2009 at 7:05 pm

    Mike Haubrich says:

    I didn’t make the connection either until I went to their house for a fundraiser while Rebecca was running for State Auditor of the State of Minnesota.

    I am hoping that the new administration will recognize exactly the point that you make regarding engineers. Many of the Indian immigrants that I know came for their education and stayed, and I hope that we can regain that edge.

    But then, India needs their engineers too, don’t they? Good luck!

  3. March 10th, 2009 at 10:35 pm

    Greg Laden says:

    a book on the history of paleontology that I would like to see made into a movie, and he has at least promised to read it.

    I can see the conversation in Hollywood….

    “OK, this can work but at least one of these old dinosaurs has to come alive and attach Los Angeles”

    “But the book takes place in London and Edinborough.,..”

    “Not any more. And this guy who is the assistant preparator? He’s now a chick and he’s the love interest.”

    “But that character grows up to be the famous Paleontologist Sir. Richard Owen!”

    “Not any more. And this side story about mixing up the tail bone and the neck bone of that one dinosaur? It’s now swapping a bag of real crack with fake crack in the evidence room of the LAPD ….”

    and so on.

  4. March 10th, 2009 at 10:45 pm

    Mike Haubrich says:

    Well, yeah, but NO BRUCE WILLIS.

    I am actually hoping that it would be done by a British studio, with Mantell played by Daniel Radcliffe and Owen by Alan Rickman. Mary Anning? I’m thinking Lily Allen’s film debut.

  5. March 10th, 2009 at 10:56 pm

    Greg Laden says:

    And she is actually going to DIE IN THE CHAIR!!!

  6. March 10th, 2009 at 11:28 pm

    Mike Haubrich says:

    So much for my hopes of starting a serious journalism career. This thread has been officially high-jacked by the ghost of Robert Altman.

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