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Energy Conservation: A No Brainer
Our economy is constantly growing. All economic activities require energy, so economic growth demands increased energy consumption. To fuel this process we need to pump more oil out of the ground and build more power plants to generate more electricity. Right?
Wrong. It is a well-documented fact that the cheapest, most cost-effective way to increase energy supplies under contemporary conditions is through simple acts of conservation.
You know the drill: Raised on a steady diet of cheap fossil-fuel energy during the 20th century, and especially since World War II, our society is enormously wasteful of energy. Those fossil-fuel supplies are finite and dwindling — most petroleum engineers agree that world oil production already has reached its absolute peak, or will do so within a couple of decades. And in the last 10 or 15 years we’ve come to understand and appreciate the dire ecological impact of fossil-fuel energy on the Earth’s climate, in addition to their contribution to air and water pollution, habitat destruction, and other environmental ills. Energy conservation is the fundamental starting point for a sustainable future.
Oh yeah – conserving energy saves you money, too.
Using data from the California Energy Commission, my team calculated that if every household in the state replaced four 100-watt incandescent light bulbs with four 27-watt compact fluorescent bulbs (the CF equivalent of a 100-watt light), burning on average for five hours a day, the state would save 22 gigawatt-hours per day (a gigawatt is 1,000 megawatts) — enough energy to shut down 17 power plants. Similarly, if each of those households replaced one average-flow showerhead with a low-flow, energy-saving showerhead, California would save an additional 19.2 gWh per day — enough to shut down another 15 power plants. Conservation is a very powerful tool.
So it’s really a no-brainer. Conserving energy reduces greenhouse gas emissions, slows down the depletion of natural resources, decreases environmental pollution, takes strain off of the planet’s inherent life-support systems, and takes a smaller bite out of your wallet. None of us can afford not to conserve energy. The further beauty of conservation is that regardless of what not-so-enlightened pundits and critics say, conservation does not mean sacrifice. Many European and Scandinavian societies enjoy a comparable standard of living to ours in the United States, but they do it on a much tighter energy budget.
As the authors of Beyond the Limits noted in 1992, “the North American economy could do everything it now does, with currently available technologies and at current or lower costs, using half as much energy,” which would bring it to the efficiency levels of Western Europe and Japan. It’s all about awareness, habits, and using energy efficiently. The tools, techniques, and technologies are readily available and well tested. We just have to start implementing them on a much wider basis.
Energy conservation is especially important if you’re interested in achieving some degree of self-sufficiency, independence from conventional utility networks, or off-the-grid living. The lower your household energy consumption, particularly for heating and electricity, the more easily renewable resources can contribute to meeting your needs with clean, reliable, sustainable energy.
But regardless of your mode of living, the same few conservation principles apply to everyone: Build (or buy) smaller rather than larger. Make sure your building envelope is tight. Use passive solar strategies to minimize your heating and cooling loads. Install low-flow showerheads and compact fluorescent lights. Buy the most efficient appliances possible for your needs and budget. Strive to use renewable energy resources.
It's not just about gas & electric: Buy local & in season.
I’d like to mention one other idea. If you want to take the concept of energy conservation to its furthest reaches, consider the notion of embodied energy. Every commodity or product that you consume embodies all the energy it took to produce it and get it to you. From the big-picture perspective, then, you can also conserve by assessing the comparative energy required to produce and transport various goods that you choose to buy. If you live on the East Coast, for example, a locally grown organic tomato in season embodies much less energy than a California organic tomato that’s calling out to your taste buds in January.
The scenarios and possible comparisons are endless, of course, and it’s not always easy to figure out how much energy is embodied in any given thing, or to measure the actual impact of one choice over another. Thinking about this issue will probably take you places you may not want to go, and drive you crazy in the process. Nonetheless, the concept of embodied energy has real environmental import. We suggest that cultivating the habit of thinking about embodied energy is a conscientious act of global citizenship in service to sustainability.
You can live well, but inexpensively.
Imagine a pair of similar suburban homes on a quiet residential street. Both house a family of four living the American suburban lifestyle. The homes appear to be identical, yet one spends under $50 per month on utilities, and the other over $400. It can’t be? Ah, but it can, and often is! This huge cost difference demonstrates the dramatic savings that careful building design, landscaping, and selection of energy-efficient appliances make possible without affecting a family’s basic lifestyle.
Our example isn’t based on some bizarre construction technique, or appliances that can be operated only by rocket scientists, but on simple, common-sense building enhancements and off-the-shelf appliances. Studies have shown that no investment pays as well as conservation. Banks, mutual funds, real estate investments . . . none of these options will bring the 100 to 300 percent returns that are achievable through simple, inexpensive conservation measures. Not even our own dearly beloved renewable energy systems will repay your investment as quickly as conservation.