Energy: Be the Change

Wind turbines in Oesterwurth, Germany
Wind turbines in Oesterwurth, Germany, by Dirk Ingo Franke [published under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0]

We are living in the throes of an energy revolution. In many places, a liter of water now costs more than a gallon of gasoline, and it is easier to buy an ounce of marijuana than a 100 Watt incandescent light bulb. 2014 was the warmest year on record, and “superstorms” are occurring almost as frequently as Superman movies. Within 50 years, small island nations are projected to disappear under the ocean, and the government of the city of New York is giving serious consideration to establishing a system of levees to protect lower Manhattan*. Oil exporting nations like Russia are experiencing enormous economic stress that may have serious political and military consequences. The Koch brothers projected spending for the 2016 presidential election is equal to approximately half of the annual basic science research budget of the US Department of Energy.

Historically, energy use has rarely received consideration from people who are not policy wonks or environmental activists; however, as a result of a confluence of economic, political, environmental, scientific, and technological shifts interest in matters related to energy has rapidly increased. Arguably, the current level of interest has not been achieved since President Carter wore a cardigan sweater on national television and urged people to turn down their thermostats. This revival of interest in energy has spawned diverse forums highlighting different aspects of energy use; however, what really matters to most people is how changes in energy use will affect their lives and what they can do to produce the outcomes they desire.
Too often, discussions about energy focus on one single aspect of energy use without considering the intricate web of connection that energy use creates. For example, Germany has long had an ambitious program to reduce carbon emissions; however, they have also decided to stop generating electricity using nuclear power. The reduction in nuclear power has required an increase in coal burning. As a result, despite an enormous investment in renewable energy, CO2 emissions from Germany have been rising rather than falling. In contrast, the US has pursued a less aggressive renewable energy program, but US CO2 emissions are lower than they were twenty years ago.

Similarly, many people advocate switching from generating electricity by burning coal to generating electricity by burning natural gas because at the point where the fuel is burned natural gas generates much less CO2 than coal. This would suggest that switching from coal to natural gas would reduce climate change; however, if the increased warming due to methane releases associated with extracting and delivering the natural gas exceeds the decrease in warming due to the CO2 reduction resulting from burning, then switching from natural gas to coal may not have a positive influence on climate. Of course climate change is not the only adverse effect associated with fuel burning, so the reduction in particle pollution and acid rain may still make natural gas burning more desirable than coal burning even if natural gas use has a slightly more negative overall effect on climate. Thus, choosing the “right” fuel to burn to generate electricity is more complex than it might first appear.

Electric cars provide a third example of challenges associated with energy decisions. Many people promote electric cars by arguing that they have much lower emissions than gasoline powered cars; however, the electricity that powers the cars must come from somewhere. If the electricity is produced at a coal fired plant then the total emissions associated with driving an electric car can exceed those from a gasoline powered car. In contrast, if the electricity powering the car comes from wind or solar power, then the reductions in emission can be enormous.

Fortunately, there are some examples where no trade- offs are required. LED light bulbs require much less energy than incandescent light bulbs because incandescent light bulbs waste most of their energy generating heat, as anyone who had an Easy Bake Oven can attest. Similarly, regenerative brakes in hybrid cars capture energy that would otherwise be lost to the friction that stops cars using conventional brakes. The hybrid car case is more complex than the LED case; however, data from the US department of energy demonstrates that even on the highway hybrid electric cars get higher gas mileage than conventional gasoline powered cars. This reduction is accompanied by a decrease in emissions/mile traveled, which has a favorable effect on climate and human health, but does not require any lifestyle sacrifice while driving. Of course, hybrid cars cost more than conventional gasoline powered cars, so some sacrifice is required at the time of purchase. The extent of the sacrifice depends on the cost of petroleum averaged over the life of the car, and recent events have shown that such estimates are extraordinarily challenging given the volatility of energy pricing.

As devices become “smarter” and energy generation and consumption become more integrated, technological shifts will provide more and more opportunities for energy consumption reductions accompanied by life style gains. For example, software that allows people to rapidly locate parking places reduces emissions, increases efficiency, and decreases frustration. Similarly, technologies that reduce the amount of spare generating capacity that must be maintained to meet peak demand would lower costs for consumers without decreasing profits.

Despite the coming technological revolution, some decisions will still require weighing competing interests. In capitalist systems, decisions that are much too complex for any individual or group of individuals to address through reasoning are often approached using pricing. Though it may be difficult to establish how much people value leg room over plane ticket cost, millions of average consumers of air travel help the airlines make the decision that most people favor or accept, and people with more exceptional or demanding preferences are offered the opportunity to pay for those preferences. Thus, I favor a model of energy pricing that includes costs and risks associated with energy extraction, direct and indirect subsidization, delivery, and consumption as well as disposal costs incurred after generation is finished. Such pricing might allow people to make decisions that reflect their true preferences.