Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Energetic Thoughts

I have only a few stray thoughts on energy:
1) It is easy for me to under-appreciate exactly how far our dependence on oil and coal reaches. I tend to think in a very limited scope—the petroleum that is refined so I can put gasoline in my car’s tank.

But in actuality, I use energy all the time and don’t really think about it. Whenever I flip a switch to turn on a light at home or work, I am consuming energy. Whenever I turn on a device that is plugged into an outlet—my TV, stereo, subwoofer, re-charge my laptop or phone, use the microwave, the stove, or turn on my air conditioner, refrigerator, furnace, or hot water heater, I am using energy. (The last four are the easiest to overlook due to the mere fact that I don’t actually “turn them on.” They are automated processes that I program and forget.)

And of course, those are the most immediate, controllable ways I use energy. But energy is also expended on my behalf, behind the scenes. For something as simple as buying a new toothbrush, a mind-boggling chain of energy consumption is enacted:

A toothbrush-designing scientist goes to work one day—turns the lights on in the air conditioned office, makes a pot of coffee, fires up the ol’ PC, sends his sketch for a new toothbrush model over to the CAD modeler in another office with another set of lights, another computer, another coffee machine, another air conditioner, who sends the final specs over to the manufacturing plant, with air conditioning, lights, coffee maker and giant, industrial-sized machines that cut and form the new toothbrush from plastic blanks (which were also probably formed by a separate manufacturing plant with separate lights, A/C, coffee maker, computers, industrial-sized machines and then shipped either by gasoline-powered truck or plane, ship, or rail), packaged in slim boxes made of cardboard and plastic produced by a whole other production process, loaded onto a truck, airplane or train and shipped to my local Target store with its own lights, computers, cash registers, A/C, coffee makers; where I can then drive my car to pick it up and drive home to use it for a few months and then throw it away.

Phew! That’s a whole lot of energy being used for something seemingly so simple for all of us, huh? (Granted, there is an element of scale involved here. These manufacturing plants produce thousands of products at a time. So, it’s not like all of that energy is used to make one toothbrush. I wonder, however, if efficiency studies of this magnitude are ever done by companies in their “greening-up” efforts.)

Of course, I have NO IDEA how to make this whole chain of energy usage work most efficiently. Like I said, it’s mind-boggling. Especially when you follow the similar chain for EVERY consumer product produced in the world!) I only know just enough to know what’s at stake.

There are very simple, seemingly insignificant ways that I try to reduce my consumption at home. Turn off lights in rooms when I’m not using them. I have replaced my standard light bulbs with the cooler-looking compact fluorescent bulbs (when they fit…grrr!) Program the house to get a little warmer in the summer during the day when I’m not there. Recycle all plastics. Thank the lord Oklahoma City’s metro utilities customers get this service for free. Or just thank Oklahoma City’s metro utilities if you like…

Although water is a resource and not necessarily energy, I still count its conservation as an important task and am careful to not leave it running while brushing my teeth (with my well-designed, totally efficiently-produced toothbrush! :))

Here’s where I fail:

Washing clothes—it seems my technical fabric running and cycling clothes can’t get washed with the rest of the laundry, so I wind up having to do waaaay more small, frequent loads of laundry than I would like.

I LOVE air conditioning in the summer. I keep my house very cool. (You will not get any exact numbers on here from me. Suffice it to say, you could hang meat in my living room!)

My gas-guzzling lawn mower. I think any gas I save with my bike commute is made up for in keeping up with my neighbors’ standards of acceptable grass height.

2) Charlie proffered a good visualization—a post-petroleum world. (Ever read the book _World Made By Hand_ by James Howard Kunstler? It’s a work of fiction that imagines just such a scenario. Kind of dystopian, I will warn you.)

What is the next energy source? I like wind and solar power because they seem virtually inexhaustible compared to our oil supply. (The sun won’t be flickering out for another million billion years or so. However, they are both intermittent. Sometimes the sun doesn’t shine on currently expensive solar panels, and it would take an awful lot of wind turbines to equal what we get from even present petroleum output.)

I think it’s true that the first trap we fall into with this question is thinking that there has to only be ONE energy source in the future. The cynical side of me says that the energy source will be whatever the giant energy companies can claim rights to and sell to us for a hefty profit. This single-source scenario is pretty much their wet-dream.

However, with cars and trucks and the electrical grids all being powered by a MIXTURE of fuel sources (read: competing companies in a true marketplace) we avoid the traps of our oily past—uber-powerful lobbies, price-gouging. And of course, true market competition allows for innovation and perhaps, just perhaps, increasing efficiency to the customer once the new sources have hit the market.

3) True confession time: when I watched the video footage of the recent oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico my first thought was not: “Oh, the poor marine life” or even “Oh, my gosh! What are the fishermen in the area going to do?” (Again, proof of how interdependent the players are in this energy game.)

No, sadly, my first thought was “Oh, Good Lord! What a waste of perfectly good oil! Surely there’s some way we can still capture that oil and harvest it and bring it to market! Surely this won’t be 80-something days of complete, abject, unrecoverable waste!”

Does that make me a bad person?


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