Green 101: Intro to Sustainability Week 5 – Energy

Week 5 was all about energy, both non-renewable (fossil fuels) and renewable (hydro, wind, solar, biofuel, etc) and what we can rely on as a society in the future.

In short, the problem with fossil fuels is that they not only come from finite sources, but negatively affect the atmosphere with harmful CO2 emissions. Not to mention that the instability of the areas where oil comes from jacks the prices up, which makes it economically feasible for oil companies to drill in places that are difficult to get at (oil sands, offshore drilling, etc). Same with natural gas and hydrofracking. While these methods will produce more reserves (therefore extending the time until we run out of oil), it really only delays the inevitable and keeps us dependent on an unsustainable resource.

And while an option like nuclear power produces less CO2 with energy production that can be scaled up manually, there are very real concerns of security and danger of contamination (NIMBY). Enter well-known renewable energy sources, and there are limitations there as well.

  • Solar & Wind: Both need a good amount of space to be effective, and neither can be stored. Not to mention, current costs are high – although if popularity and technology continues to grow, could become more feasible.
  • Biofuel: Based on current energy returns (EROEI), not worth the effort and space they take up. Plus, using available farmland for growing biofuels jacks up the price of food grown for, well, food! There is currently research being performed on “2nd generation” biofuels, and whether those crops might bring a higher return.
  • Hydro: Currently the largest form of renewable power with the highest energy return. In fact, my town of Theresa gets most (?) of its energy from hydro, with a downtown dam across the Indian River. This makes our electric bill incredibly cheap, but who knows what negative effects on the ecosystem are happening down river (the common complaint against hydropower).

The obvious most immediate solution is energy conservation. The small steps that everyday people can take in their lives to reduce their carbon footprint – like insulating their homes or changing lightbulbs to LEDs. Of course, changes like this create the danger of perverse incentives – people might end up using more LED lights if the low cost equals the same as less usage of traditional bulbs.

The real solution seems to be resilience rather than sustainability. Resiliency is how a system withstands shock from outside sources by moving away from vulnerable situations (reliance on supply of local grocery stores, for example). This transition to a more resilient future can be undertaken on very local levels. Rob Hopkins “is the founder of the Transition movement, a radically hopeful and community-driven approach to creating societies independent of fossil fuel.” A video of Hopkins’ TED talk on the subject was part of week 5’s homework:

Transition towns sound like an excellent solution to the problem of reliance on finite resources. The current U.S. movement is strong…could it only be a matter of time before transition comes to my/your neck of the woods?

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