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.

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