Good Choices Can Conserve Energy Now
by Don Barber
We are in a time when it is takes much more energy to extract fossil fuel (for example, tar sands and shale gas) than in the past, which means less net energy is being produced. Emerging, manufacturing-based economies, such as China, are rapidly expanding their use of energy. And we are past peak oil, consuming it faster than we are finding it. These result in fossil-fuel energy becoming more precious each year.
How will we respond? Before fossil fuels, humans savored energy. Tribes, communities and societies were built around the benefits of collective, efficient energy usage. They multiplied energy using pulleys and levers. They heated dwellings and water, and they cooked from one source. Economies were very local and self-sustaining. Unemployment was non-existent because everyone's energy was needed and used. Communal energy management improved the human condition.
Then fossil fuels afforded us quantum leap advances in technology, life experiences and comfort. With the pending decline in availability of fossil fuel, will those socio-economic gains be lost? Through today's choices, I believe we can create even better civil society. Here are some examples:
"Buying local" requires less energy to transport goods between purchaser and creator. Buying local supports both small businesses and the entrepreneurs that create local wealth, and it circulates money through the local economy several times. Taking our own containers when buying, we reduce waste and save the energy it took to make disposable packaging.
Energy conservation improvements to our structures will conserve both energy and money. Energy conservation retrofits expands building trades and construction, creating local businesses with local workers.
We can insure vibrant local food sources for generations to come through buying produce and value added food products from farm stands, farmers markets, and Community Support Agriculture, and we can demand that our supermarkets stock local produce and restaurants use local foods.
Businesses can make energy management a top priority, harnessing nearly all energy they consume and finding ways to multiply energy such as geothermal, which creates 3.5 units of energy for every unit of energy producing it. Products and services from these businesses will cost less to produce.
Waste materials required energy to produce. We can find ways to create a little or no community waste.
We can embrace energy sources that are available everywhere and to everyone no matter of economic status. These decentralized energy sources can result in individual or local ownership and in time lower cost. They include, for example, solar (photovoltaic and heat); wind; biomass (direct to food, heat, or processing to another fuel source); geothermal; and gravity (hydro-power).
Passenger and freight trains and transport by water use fuel more efficiently than cars and trucks. Buses and carpools save fuel and create opportunities to converse with our neighbors, thereby building community. Bicycling puts us more in touch with our surroundings and benefits our bodies.
Electronic communication and information digitizing saves energy that would be used to make paper and to move it from place to place, and we connect to people and information without having to expend energy to physically move ourselves.
Some of these examples are back to the basics, adopting practices that made communities self-sustaining before the Industrial Revolution. Others use cutting-edge technology to acquire renewable energy and conserve it. By combining the best approaches, I believe today's energy choices offer hope for a great tomorrow.
Barber is town supervisor for the Town of Caroline, which is a member of the Tompkins County Climate Protection Initiative.