Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Power to the People

It seems to me that there are a number of ways in which to address community energy needs, so I’ve been thinking about local power sources for some time (see my earlier post, Not-So-Bad News from Nowhere) and was pleased to read about Hawaii’s efforts to do just that in yesterday's New York Times.

Of course, “local” in this sense is easy to identify, since we’re talking individual islands in a small archipelago. But the state's program to reduce its dependence on foreign sources of fossil fuels is laudable, since there are so many ways to generate power in this particular venue.

Wind, geothermal, wave, sun, algae: all provide potentially useful ways to run the fridge, without inflicting damage on our lungs, genes, or the environment, and they’re wonderfully diverse. One of the major stumbling blocks to alternative energy on the mainland seems to be a lack of imagination. It always seems to come down to one or the other, or maybe a couple of things. But fossil fuels are still big in the mix; nobody appears to be interested in completely phasing out the use of coal or oil or natural gas. Not when there are millions and billions to be made in fostering dependence on these sources. And don't forget nukes--the only "clean" alternative, as long as you don't count the problem of waste disposal.

Several things occur to me that might help solve our collective problems. One is to reduce our population, and thus our future power needs. Folks who are understandably worried about the debt we’re leaving to our grandchildren might want to consider reducing the number of people who will potentially suffer from our current profligacy (and this isn't just about energy, or even The Deficit). Some people like having lots of kids, and I can understand that. But having a couple of kids instead may be a much more sensible option these days, given not only the cost of providing a passel of young’ns with a decent education and standard of living, but uncertainties about the future as well. I guess it's a sign of optimism that I see so many three- or four-kid families these days, and that was probably okay in the past, when a parent (read: Mom) could stay home with the little ones during their early years. But having big families in problematic economies, when steady jobs with a future are still in question, seems at the very least unwise.

In most developed countries, populations are staying fairly steady, or even dropping (causing problems with maintaining ways of life that have been supported in the past by large numbers of offspring, and requiring influxes of foreign workers). This, of course, opens a huge can of lumbricids, and requires its own set of solutions. But one of these solutions leads to the second of my recommendations for the power problem.

We really need to re-think consumption patterns: not only our use of power for electricity, heating, transportation, and the like, but also our expectations about stuff. How much stuff (plastics come to mind immediately, but all other consumer goods should be under the microscope, too) do we really need?

Now, I’m an avowed materialist. I’m also a packrat, a family historian, a passionate recycler, and a lapsed archaeologist. I tend to keep stuff. Which means that I shouldn’t keep getting more stuff, but I do. Books and notebooks are stacked on either side of this laptop as I type, and I show few signs of beginning to manage my addiction. But if I were, according to my own advice, to think carefully about how much I really need that new book on marine algae formation and climate change, I might be able to reduce my related needs, such as more bookshelves to hold the books and magazines (which I’m really reluctant even to pitch in the recycle bin) that keep ending up on my desk .

Happily, I’m not also addicted to buying clothes or tchotchkes, and have long been able to resist buying stuff just because it’s cute, even though I sometimes rue not having picked up the funky bird bath at Tuesday Morning that would have looked great in my silly garden.

Cheap stuff is, in the end, no bargain. We should all be following William Morris’s rule about having nothing in our houses that we don’t know to be useful or believe to be beautiful. That might not exclude the birdbath (it does, after all, bathe birds), but maybe it would keep us from buying some piece of useless crap just because it’s cheap. It also costs energy and resources to produce, and if it isn’t useful or beautiful, it probably shouldn’t have been made in the first place. After all, I can always make a birdbath out of the bent-up copper fire pit the neighbor’s tree fell on, or an old bowl and a tree stump.

In addition to not having so many kids and not buying stuff we don’t need (I know, putting those two items together seems heartless and unsympathetic, not to mention somewhat crass; but I simply must maintain my reputation as a snark), we really do need to be less single-minded about energy production in the first place.

Source diversity is a really good idea in its own right. Why can’t we all have nifty wind generators or solar collectors on our rooftops, or small windmills in our yards? (Well, here's one reason why the latter might not be the answer.) Why can’t we go back to using waterwheels to grind grist where it’s practical, or steam generators in places with geothermal activity? Why can’t there be smaller, less-centralized power plants that reduce the possibility of widespread blackouts?

If the problems are complex, I see no reason why complex solutions can’t be viewed as a challenge to entrepreneurial imagination and embraced in their multiplicity. As I rail to my students every quarter (to explain why lots of people make houses that look like pueblos, and why it didn’t take aliens to inspire pyramids in so many cultures), similar problems lead to similar solutions. But those solutions don’t have to be one thing. They can be many, and regionally appropriate, and focused on the actual needs of the community.

And if we stopped thinking that the only way to reflect progress is to “grow” bigger and broader suburbs with outrageous power needs, we might already be on our way to energy independence through a practical combination of conservation and innovation.

I know I’ve left water out of this disquisition, but it’s a different (although related) problem. And right now, after more than a week of rain, I’m up to my nose in it—so I’ll save that issue for another time.

If I've piqued anyone's interest in either alternative energy sources, increased energy efficiency, or distributed power generation (a term in wide use that describes the decentralization I'm talking about), here are some sources:

The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory
The New Rules Project: Designing Rules as if Community Matters, especially its article on Distributed Generation in Local Plans (also linked above)
The Survival of and Potential for Decentralized Power Generation, by Harry Valentine, at Electric Energy Online

Image source: Landscape with Windmills, by Ivan Constantinovich Aivazovsky (1817-1900), via Wikimedia Commons. Check out windmills around the world on Wikimedia while you're at it.

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