Sunday, May 27, 2012

To Dream of Less Energy - Quality of Life and Energy Consumption

Energy consumption makes all things possible.  It allows us to extend our lives into the nighttime hours, it allows us to keep our homes warm or cool, it allows us to freeze food for preservation, or get it piping hot it in about a minute.  Energy, in all its forms, is the foundation of our civilization.  If an era is defined by the predominant technology (the stone age, the bronze age, the information age), then we are living, and have been for about a century, in the age of fossil energy: coal for electricity, oil for transportation.  Information Technology itself would be impossible without abundant energy, and right now the only technology we have that can provide the amount of energy needed with the consistency required is mostly coal (there is a smattering of other: hydro-electric, nuclear, natural gas, but all of them together are less than a third of coal).

There are two primary problems with this system: resource and waste.  The inputs, the raw materials, the oil pumped form the ground and coal dug out of mountains, are limited.  They are finite resources that we will one day run out of.  You can argue about when, about how much time we have left to keep burning through those resources, but you cannot argue about the fact that one day the wells will all be dry, the last heap of dirt will be devoid of useful coal.

The second problem, waste, is manifold.  When these fuels are extracted, the process often involves polluting massive amounts of water and damaging land in a way that will not be repaired for generations.  When the fuels give up their energy in combustion, they release several compounds that are degrading to the environment.  CO2, Nitrogen- and Sulfur-Oxide compounds, and particulates take their toll on air quality, and various partially combusted hydro-carbons foul our streams and water-ways.

It is almost inconceivable that we could live up to our current standards without energy, and equally inconceivable, given current technology, that we could produce enough renewable energy to replace all of the fossil energy we use.  That is why I am dreaming of less.

Technology holds many answer to a future of less energy, but human behavior is equally, if not more important. I dream of a culture that values the energy it uses in an emotional way, not just in price per kWh; where daylighting and passive cooling are as valuable to a home buyer as granite counter tops once were.

I dream of a society in which people care where their power comes from, how it got to them, and what happens in between and afterward.  Where people see a light bulb burning and think, even just once in a while, about what it means that they can run their homes into the night, keep their produce cold 24-7, turn the thermostat up or down on a whim. Where people care not just about having energy, but the kind of energy they have.

A revolution in our energy production is still a long, long way off, but a cultural revolution, or at least a cultural shift in the way we perceive energy is already under foot.  What was once a vanguard is edging into the mainstream, and today more than ever people care about energy.  Not just that they have it, but where it comes from too.  We are still a long way from a culture where everyone cares about energy, and is concerned with reducing energy consumption, but a change in the culture that uses the energy can be much, much quicker than a change in the infrastructure that delivers it.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Rapidly Expanding Responsibilities, and Back to Blogging

To my neglected readers (all 11 of you),

Once again, my professional life has stomped all over my burgeoning writing career.  I know, it is extremely selfish of me to leave you all for so long, but the last fiscal quarter has seen a significant uptick in the rate of inquiries at my little sustainability consulting practice, which has resulted in a couple of new clients.  At the same time, my Professorial responsibilities at Lane Community College have expanded somewhat.  The result is that all of my efforts at writing about sustainability have been sidelined by work that actually pays.

But on top of all that paying work, my financially un-recognized responsibilities have also expanded of late.  In February of this past year, I was officially elected the new chair of the Eugene Branch of the Cascadia Green Building Council.  I have been working with the branch for just over a year now, and served as the chair of the Programming Sub-Committee until the recent elections.  I am taking over from Kristen Taylor, who was the chair for 2 years before me, at a very exciting time.  Kristen over-saw a very constructive process of arriving at a 5 year vision for the branch in a series of sessions just before the election, and both the Branch at large and the Programming Committee that I used to chair have just completed a set of ambitious goals for 2012.  I am very proud to have been selected for this position, and I hope that my energy and passion will translate to good leadership for the Branch as we take the first steps towards our new vision.

With all of these new responsibilities, my writing has completely withered on the vine (much like my garden last spring), but I am finally finding my keel even once again.  As my roles and responsibilities in life are expanding at a rapid rate, I have found the David Allen approach to Getting Things Done (I won't discuss GTD here, but rest assured it is awesome - if you want to know more, consult the internet, it has much to say), and things are finally getting so manageable that I feel confident in actually returning to the blog!  I am in the process right now of re-imagining this little writing sandbox I have been kicking around in for the past few years, and turning it into something a little bit more structured.  We'll see if any good ideas come out of it, or if any of them actually work, in time.  But for now, keep your eyes peeled (all 22 of them) for more to come.

Thank you very much to the handful of regular readers who have supported me as I stumble towards a functional blog,