More on Energy and Sustainability


I want to revise and clarify the “simple math” I showed in a previous entry here I called “Energy Sources in a Sustainable World” (link).  World energy production (link) in 2005 showed 36.9% of our energy coming from oil and liquid natural gas, 26.6% of energy coming from coal, natural gas at 22.9%, hydro power at 6.3%, nuclear power at 6.0%, and all other sources at 0.9%.  That means 86.4% of our energy came from fossil fuels – less than I expected, but still a very significant percentage.  If we take fossil fuels out of the equation, then the world per capita energy use must be reduced to 13.6% of the current (2005) amount.  Then, if we accept the assumption that the average American uses 15 times the world average for energy per capita (some say 16x), American energy use in the absence of fossil fuels would have to be reduced to 1/15 * 13.6%, or 0.9% of our current usage.  Of course, the continuing population explosion (recently cited as 1 billion more humans every 13 years) cuts into that, and while development of renewable energy sources is relatively slow – it will take most of that 13 years to add any given new nuclear power plant, for example – it will make things slightly better.  It begs the question: do you think you could live on 1% of your current energy consumption?

For the sake of argument, let’s say in thirteen years we’ve doubled our non-fossil fuel energy sources to allow us to use 1.8% of the current world average, but that has been reduced by population growth from the current 6.5 billion to 7.5 billion (~15%) so we can actually have about 1.5% of our current consumption.  It still looks like there will be some darned cold winters up here in the Great Lakes. 

There is also the increasing development of the third world to consider.  As of 2005 I read there were 2 billion people who don’t have electricity.  I don’t know what the rate of increase is, but China and India, with a major share of world population, are industrializing extremely rapidly, and I expect the 2 billion number is declining.  The good news is that, as standards of living and education levels increase, the birthrate tapers off, which indicates that part of the solution is to help developing countries advance more quickly.  The risk is that they will do as China has done, grasping for the quickest and cheapest energy supplies available, coal and oil, with the result that their pollution output has skyrocketed.  To make matters worse, those fossil-fueled power plants will continue to pollute for a decade or two before it is economically advantageous to replace them with more efficient and ecologically friendly systems.   This could occur sooner, though, if energy prices climb more quickly, but that’s a double edged sword that, as today, increases the cost of almost everything and reduces our standard of living more quickly.

It is clear that, as we provide assistance to developing countries, we need to follow a bit of a “do as I say, not as I do” policy and help them develop ecologically responsible energy technologies and infrastructure designs even if we aren’t there yet ourselves.  Just as the developing world is leapfrogging over wired telecommunications infrastructure and going directly to cellphones, we need to help them go directly to the least polluting, least fossil fuel-dependent, and most efficient technologies for their energy infrastructures.  That will help them produce less pollution and achieve higher efficiencies and lower per capita energy use from the start.  We must also greatly accelerate our own adoption of more efficient technologies and ways of living, and public policy will be needed in many areas to enable that, as people and corporations won’t make the changes until the economics of the situation makes the change an imperative, and it will cost us more to wait for that to occur on its own.  I am generally a “free-marketeer”, but this is one case where the government can “soften our landing” by imposing incentives to modernize sooner.

It is also clear that, due to the global capacity to produce food, population cannot continue to grow at the current rate, though it might do so for one to two decades more.  Many people expect (hope?) that population will level off and begin to decline in the next 20 years, and that would be good (necessary?).  We can help this along by providing aid in the areas of public education and family planning, both of which will help lower population growth rates.

Given that, before the huge implementation of fossil fuel based economic systems, human populations rarely exceeded one billion, many believe that sustainability will probably not be achievable above two billion total population.  Given today’s energy use, even at that population level, we would be able to have, on average, only about 4.5% of our current energy to use.  All I can say is, come on superconducting electrical technologies, fusion power sources, and the other things we dream about but aren’t benefiting from or which don’t exist yet.

As I have discussed before, I can foresee that future technologies will involve far more efficiency, with energy reclamation in virtually all aspects.  Electric motors, highly efficient by design, may reclaim waste heat via solid state thermo-conversion devices.  In fact, such devices will be applied to virtually everything, their cost reduced by economies of scale as they are produced in huge quantities.   Your very armchair, shoes, and clothing may generate small amounts of electricity from your body heat, and use it to provide either small amounts of light or to power personal electronic devices.  Your cellphone may snap on your belt and receive a charge from systems in your clothing that convert light, heat and motion into electricity.  (A device to that attaches to the knee and generates electricity when you walk was announced in 2007.) Tiny, highly efficient earphones will deliver sound so that power hungry audio amplifiers can be turned off in your home video and audio entertainment systems. 

All of that technology sounds great, but fails to address our biggest power needs: climate control (heating and air conditioning), food production, and transportation.  Communications and entertainment equipment is already pretty efficient, though it can be improved.  It is the transportation of ourselves and our food and other goods, as well as the cooking, farming, mining, and production of items we use, that take a lot of our energy budget.  A big drop in our consumption will be part of achieving sustainability, hopeful projections of the achievement of fusion power notwithstanding (I don’t think we can assume we will see that in our lifetimes).  Are you ready to reduce your energy consumption to one twentieth of the current level?  That may be a best case option, and I have already done a number of things to try to get there.

I now have all of my “wall wart” chargers and most equipment with remote controls and other evidence of standby power on outlet strips that I can switch off when they’re not in use.  I haven’t done that with my digital clocks because I would either have to put them on battery power or reset them every time I turned them back on.  I also haven’t done that with my cable TV box because (thank you, Comcast) the darned thing takes perhaps 45 minutes to download all the program information and, when I want to watch TV I would not be able to find what I want to watch quickly – so I’m paying for that convenience.  I’ve converted almost all the lighting to compact fluorescents (over a year ago), and use halogen bulbs where I have dimmers in hopes that they are more efficient.  I do have one battery-powered clock that receives time information from the National Bureau of Standards (it’s misnamed an “atomic clock, cost about $30) and keeps time accurate to 1 second per million years.  I use it to set my watch and other clocks when they need it, and it automatically changes for daylight savings time as well.  I hang my clothes up to wear again whenever possible, do laundry only when I have a large load, and keep the dryer filter clean to save energy.  I adjust the thermostat for the heating and air conditioning to save energy, too.  I know I need to do more, and will keep trying to improve, but, for now, I am using as little power as I can.  How can I reduce my energy use further?

Let’s see – If I can work from home all but 2 days a month, walk or bicycle to the stores, pretend I’m camping at home and set the thermostat to 50 degrees in winter and 85 degrees in Summer, buy much less stuff and make it last five to ten times as long … I’ll still have a long way to go, but I would get closer to where we are headed.  

I only wish public policy would be set so that the power companies would not have the incentive to fight distributed power generation, and I could have solar cells and wind power that were economically feasible.   Currently home alternative energy generation isn’t economical unless you can sell power back to the power company.  In my state (I attended a presentation by people who installed a 12 kW solar system last year) the public service commission allows the power company to make that difficult.  In order to sell power back you have to hurdle a paperwork barrier, a 19 page application that asks extremely detailed technical questions most people would not understand, similar to asking you to give the compression ratio for each cylinder in your car’s engine in order to renew your registration.  Then, when you have the appropriate meter installed, you may find that they change their requirements periodically, requiring two separate meters, or a different meter, or that they just want you to give them the power for free.  The cost of rewiring for different meter configurations alone would make having such a system uneconomical for the typical homeowner, and the hassle of dealing with the application process and the frequent changes in utility company policy would also make selling power back into the grid nearly valueless.  We definitely need some legislative action to control this situation, in my state at least.

Obviously the challenge of sustainable living is enormous, and we don’t have many answers yet.  I continue to prod my children to be thinking creatively and working towards a sustainable future in every way possible, but, like the developing countries, they are too absorbed in making ends meet to think about it.  That only underlines the fact that, to achieve sustainability, there will need to be many economic incentives (no, mandates) established at the national, corporate, and individual level.  It’s not going to be easy, but … the alternatives are too awful to think about.

Other interesting reading:
World Food Problems, Dec 6, 2000, Straney, lecture notes from course BSCI124 at the University of Maryland
North America, the Energy Picture, June 2002, the North American Energy Working Group
World Energy Overview: 1995-2005, June – October 2007, U.S. Department of Energy
Population Growth, Wikipedia, last updated April 2008
Incentives – The Solar Stimuli, April/May 2008, Don Loweburg, Homepower Magazine
Small Wind in Pennsylvania, 2006, The American Wind Energy Association

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4 responses to “More on Energy and Sustainability

  1. The government has already softened our landing with the ethanol mandates.

    It does have the positive effect of killing a lot of poor third worlders so it is not all bad.

    Here is something that might change things:

    WB-7 First Plasma

  2. BTW why do you have to sell power back to help? If you had enough solar to reduce your demand by even 10% it would be a big help. Especially in summer. Baby steps.

  3. M. Simon – I don’t understand your reference to “killing a lot of poor third worlders”, but that sounds pretty bad to me.

    Personally, I don’t think the government is softening our landing with alcohol mandates, since that seems to be driving up the cost of food and promoting the cultivation of corn (possibly the crop with the most negative environmental impact we grow), among other less than optimal aspects. We need more responsible fuel alternatives, and I don’t see that the move to alcohol (as E85 or E100) will last.

    I am interested in the nuclear power research, and will look into it further, but am skeptical that we’ll see it commercially practical any time soon. A lot of wonderful-sounding technologies of the past have turned out to have practical limitations, and required a lot more time and cost to put into use than initially anticipated. Beyond that, I am cynical about the major energy corporations ever allowing anything producing enormous quantities of extremely cheap energy to actually change the current situation, at least not very quickly or cheaply for us. Not that I believe the conspiracy theories about corporations stifling inventions, but things usually work out somewhere in the middle.

    Also, solar systems (and other significant alternative energy or conservation options I’ve investigated for my own home) still come out as quite expensive unless excess power can be sold back into the grid. As I’ve mentioned in my entries before, economics are still the most influential factor in people, including me, being able to act responsibly. If I win the next lottery, that would change things for me, but right now I can’t afford solar or wind power without the cost mitigating factor of selling power into the grid, and most other people I’ve talked to about this have felt exactly the same way. Why should anyone pay huge bucks and wind up paying far more for their electricity than they do now?

    I will be looking into your blog and links, though. Thanks very much for commenting here.

  4. After doing some digging and searching on the late Dr. Robert Bussard, it appears that fusion research has been progressing at a fairly steady pace, but hampered by shortages of funds and political issues. Dr. Bussard cited the political issues in a talk he gave to Google staffers, and made it appear that fusion power could be as little as ten or twenty years away(http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=1996321846673788606). In ten or twenty years, however, the world population will be expanded by more than a billion, and problems will be escalating rapidly.

    If fusion power came to commercial reality in twenty years, it would only accentuate the difference between haves and have-nots in the world, much as I predicted in a previous entry. It would still be a welcome step on the way to sustainability, however. I hope it comes to pass, but am not content to hold my breath and wait (or take intravenous vitamins to try to stay alive long enough to see it). Instead and still, we need to apply all energies to achieving sustainability, including greatly reduced per-capita energy use, etc.

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