May 08, 2006

Global Warming: How to be part of the solution

Prediction from 2000: Click to enlarge

During the past two years, it is no longer possible to deny that global climate change is happening. Today we know not only that it is happening, but that it is happening faster than most climate scientists had predicted and that humans are contributing to this problem. As Time Magazine said in their early April cover story, the sheer number of catastrophic storms, the disappearing ice shields in both the Arctic and the Antarctic, the melting permafrost, the lingering and growing droughts, and the changing plant ecosystems are all signs that were predicted and are now manifesting themselves in a frighteningly rapid fashion. Despite the nay saying of those like Frank Luntz who tells Republicans to use these talking points when discussing Global Warming (emphasis in the original):

The scientific debate remains open. Voters believe that there is no consensus about global warming with the scientific community. Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate, and defer to scientists and other experts in the field.

Emphasize the importance of "acting only with all the facts in hand" and "making the right decision, not the quick decision."

Ö recent polls show that over 85% of Americans believe that global warming is occurring and they believe that the government should do more to encourage or regulate increased gas mileage and cleaner technology to reduce our emissions. Because Americans are a disproportionate contributor to greenhouse gases, this is welcome news for the rest of the planet. No longer are we willing to wait for the government to start addressing this problem. We now know that it is time that we take action ourselves.

So you ask: what can we do to help?

One thing about energy is that we arenít buying energy for itself, but rather for the services that it provides. It is simply a means to an end. What people want are warm showers, lights and electricity, cooling in the summer, heat for the winter, a way to get from home to work, and so on. And they want reliable energy. If we could have all the services we need with less energy, we would be doing well. Thus, using energy more efficiently is surprisingly effective in providing more for significantly less expense. And we reduce our greenhouse gases as well.

During the late seventies when the first great oil shock hit the world, the United States became a leader in finding ways to improve overall energy efficiency. The amount of energy that was saved created significantly more capacity for providing services than what would have been needed to increase capacity by finding new sources of energy such as drilling for more oil or gas, finding additional coal to mine or building new power plants. In fact, the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) reported that by 2000, the increased capacity freed up by the more efficient use of energy was like having an additional 73% more capacity on top of our current U.S. oil consumption to use for other things. Since mid-1970 the United States has become approximately 200% more productive in our energy use. Yet there is a lot more efficiency to be captured because we still waste more than 300% of the energy we use today.

For an example of how incredibly effective energy efficiency is in making better use of the existing capacity, you only need to look at what happened in California in 2000-2001. During that year, California started to experience rolling blackouts and rapidly growing energy costs. At the time, many people said that California had been under-investing in new power plants and that the blackouts were the result of too many people using too much energy for the capacity of the system.* They said that for California to get out of this crisis it would take increasing capacity by 83% over what was currently in use or as Dick Cheney said, California was going to have to build one new power plant per week to keep up with the demand. What California did instead was to put together a crash energy efficiency program that stopped the crisis in its tracks.

The state poured $1 billion in emergency funding into a newly invigorated set of incentive programs dubbed "Flex Your Power." And Californians flexed, big-time. In short order, they replaced nearly eight million lightbulbs with [compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFLs)] in their homes. Cities and towns installed thousands of light-emitting diode (LED) traffic lights, which use less than half as much electricity as the incandescent lamps they replaced. Factories swapped out thousands of old motors for more-efficient new ones.

The program resulted in a reduction in energy used by enough to provide all of Los Angelesí daily needs. And all those lightbulbs, traffic lights and motors replaced continue to save on energy even today long after the crisis is over. Although California is the largest state in the union, the average energy consumption per capita is one of the lowest of all the states as Californians use about 7,000 kwh/person compared to the national average of 12,000 kwh/person. Just think of what could be recovered in costs if everyone was as efficient as Californians in their energy usage. And Californians can still do more.

One other nice thing about concentrating on energy efficiency is that we can also consider how this might help with new demand from the emerging countries. As Lovins wrote:

Consider the example of a good compact fluorescent lamp. It emits the same light as an incandescent lamp but uses four to five times less electricity and lasts 8 to 13 times longer, saving tens of dollars more than it costs. It avoids putting a ton of carbon dioxide and other bad stuff into the air. But it does far more. In suitable numbers--half a billion are made each year--it can cut by a fifth the evening peak load that causes blackouts in overloaded Bombay, boost poor American chicken farmers' profits by a fourth, or raise destitute Haitian households' disposable cash income by up to a third. Making the lamp needs 99.97 percent less capital than does expanding the supply of electricity, thus freeing investment for other tasks. The lamp cuts power needs to levels that make solar-generated power affordable, so girls in rural huts can learn to read at night, advancing the role of women. One light bulb does all that. You can buy it at the supermarket and screw it in yourself. One light bulb at a time, we can make the world safer.

It is clear that energy efficiency is a major part of the solution.

So what can you do to help? You can find out how much energy you are using by getting a home energy audit. If your power company doesnít provide one, you can use the on-line energy audit tool provided by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory: here. The audit will help you figure out how you can get more value for your money and help reduce your impact on the climate.

Check to see if your utility has any programs that promote higher efficiency and if they donít, ask them to consider putting a program together. Buy renewable power if you can find it in your area and work with your community to see what you can do to make it more available.

If you are in the market for a new car, consider a hybrid which will not only be more fuel efficient, but also much cleaner in its emissions. Buy the most fuel efficient car you can afford.

Talk to your place of work and ask that they also take an energy audit and clean up their act. Encourage your neighbors to do the same. Lobby your community and state government to take energy efficiency and global warming seriously. Finally, write your representatives and others in the federal government letting them know we want them to take responsibility for finding a way to address global warming. And let them know that you are signing up to do your part already.

* Of course, today we know that the reason California was facing an energy crisis was not because there wasnít enough energy to go around, but because energy providers had figured out how to game the system by taking energy plants offline.

See also:

Lovins, Amory, Lovins, Hunter, Mobilizing Energy Solutions, American Prospect, January 2002

Lovins, Amory, Lovins, Hunter, Energy Forever, American Prospect, February 2002

[Ed: This was another of my articles written for the Vox Populi Nebraska eZine first published in the April 2006 issue.]

Posted by Mary at May 8, 2006 10:51 PM | Environment | Technorati links |

Thanks for mentioning the Rocky Mountain Institute. I think they do great work. I also found the book Natural Capitalism to be very informative. While not great literature, it's filled with great ideas. It takes a systems-based approach to solving problems. Anyone familiar with continuous improvement, The Toyota Way, total quality management, and all that other seemingly pop-business-psychology stuff, will immediately recognize the approaches the authors are promoting.

Posted by: zappini at May 8, 2006 11:11 PM

zappini, I agree - RMI does a wonderful job of showing how a systems based approach should be applied to energy. They've definitely been visionaries in regards to how we should think about our energy needs.

Posted by: Mary at May 9, 2006 11:32 PM