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The immediate energy solution

No new technology required

November 2008

While development of new energy sources is necessary to solve our energy problem, this will take time.  Shifting our attitude from energy-wasting to energy-conserving is our one hope of getting through the coming out-of-oil transition without experiencing disastrous world-shaking disruptions.
The last U.S. President to make even a half-hearted effort to deal with our ongoing energy crisis was Jimmy Carter, though his effort was indeed half-hearted and had no long-term effect.  He was responding to the gasoline shortages in the 1970's that for a few years had Americans buying smaller cars and driving a bit slower.  As we remember, this didn't last long, both because our politicians were (and are) for the most part incapable of thinking beyond the next election and because many of our countrymen, when the immediate crisis seemed to pass, preferred the luxury of large cars and a waste-generating consumer lifestyle to the reduction in consumption that was called for.  The minor inconvenience of the short-term oil shortage was not seen as the warning that it actually was.

Our energy crisis really started with the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s, though the early exploiters of coal and oil resources cannot be faulted for not worrying about exhausting these seemingly inexhaustible energy supplies.  They could not have had any idea of the limits of these fossil resources.  But a hundred years later, after World War II, it was very clear that erecting an energy-dependent civilization upon a temporary energy source was risky business.  Nonetheless, throughout the Eisenhower and Kennedy years optimism about what science and technology could accomplish was unbounded.  The demonstration that we could control the power of nuclear fission, and the further explosion of the hydrogen fusion bomb (H-bomb), gave confidence that our energy future was secure.  Federal funds flowed to fusion labs, and most Americans, including the political leadership, thought that cheap, inexhaustible fusion power was right around the corner.  Of course this proved not to be.  The difficulties of containing fusion reactions have not yet been overcome, decades later, and while fusion research continues, no one any longer expects that source to be available for transition when the oil runs out.

It's hard to say whether the fact that we are in a crisis will now finally get through the apparently thick skulls of the American people (it hasn't yet got through to our current President), but it had better get through, or we and our children will face disaster before long when the lights go out.  We have not been well served by the market pricing of oil, which is still priced as if there were an everlasting supply.  Cheap oil (cheap even at the recently inflated gasoline prices: they still pay twice the U.S. price for fuel in Europe) has led us to be careless about its use, and has taken the crucial energy-factor out of our calculation (other than as a cost) when we decide on our actions.  And here's the key to our needed revised attitude:  We must always consider energy use for its own sake, separate from our ability to buy and use it.  The market may or may not be efficient, but it's neither wise nor foresightful, and the slight immediate economic cost of wasting energy belies the hidden long-term cost of doing so.  We must ourselves supply the wisdom that the market lacks.

Most Americans seem to be in denial about the fact that the oil that we depend on comes from a limited fossil supply that we are mining, and that therefore the supply will run out.  Try to picture an America largely without oil or electric power. It's not pretty (it's the scenario that survivalists and militants are arming themselves for) but it's a good bet to happen within a couple of decades because our political leadership has not led, and has not convinced the public that strenuous – even Draconian – measures are now needed to avoid this picture.  It may already be too late to avoid it.  It is unlikely that we can shift most power plants, trains, planes, ships, trucks, cars, and home heating to a non-petroleum fuel within twenty years, though twenty years ago – with the right leadership – we might have been able to do it in forty years.  But that's water under the bridge now; we need to deal with the crisis as it is.

There are obviously several prongs to the effort to relieve our crisis, and we should employ all that are useful.  Looking for new oil is one.  Other valid approaches include making better use of natural gas, geothermal, solar, wind, wave and tide power generation.  (Nuclear power has probably had its day.)  But trumping all these power supply methods is one that will have an immediate impact, that has been pointed out for decades, but that our national leadership has paid practically no attention to, because its adoption is thought to slow the economy.  And so it will, and it should!  It is conservation, simply saving energy.  Saving energy means saving money; it means buying less and wasting less.  It will slow our economy, and believe it or not, that is a good and necessary thing.  It will refocus an economy that has become dependent on consumer waste and rapid obsolescence for its current unsustainable hyperactivity toward supplying people's needs and wants in an atmosphere of consumer expectation of "responsible sufficiency".  You say, "Wait.  You're talking about changing the attitudes of 300 million American consumers?"  That's correct.  I'm not suggesting that this note will achieve that, I'm merely pointing out that this change will be necessary if we are to manage the coming transition with some grace.  In the alternative, the transition to a post-oil world will come anyway, but sooner and with much less pleasant impacts.

The average American uses and wastes more energy than anyone else in the world, and therefore contributes more to pollution, to global climate change, and to the rapid depletion of fossil fuel resources than anyone else.  The fact is that the average American could live a comfortable, modern life using about half the energy that he currently uses, thereby helping to solve a host of serious problems simultaneously. So, to save energy, where do we start?

Energy savings, to be most effective, must take place on every level:  national, local, by government, by business, and by individuals.  Consider the federal government:  The world's biggest waster of oil is the U.S. military.  It wastes first of all by being many times as large as it needs to be to protect the United States.  U.S. annual military expenditures are nearly equal to those of all of the Earth's other 200 nations put together.  It also wastes by simply wasting:  by too many ships cruising when they might well be in port, by excessive aviation exercises, and by a culture (which is common everywhere where tax dollars are spent) that is not oriented toward savings.  I'll mention the common example from some years ago when I was a Navy pilot:  Approaching the end of the fiscal year, we were ordered to fly short flights using maximum fuel flow.  We would launch for no other purpose than to use up fuel so that the command could show full usage of its annual fuel allocation, thus assuring that there would be no reduction next year.  I'm not proud of the fact that I've launched numerous times just to fly around in afterburner, even dumping fuel from the wing fuel tank – this was done out of sight of land, out over the Pacific – just to use up fuel.  This would "help" both the overall fuel use statistic and the "fuel-consumption-per-flight-hour" figure, both of which needed a boost.  I'm afraid that this example is still fairly typical of anyone who is spending someone else's resources, whether in government or business, and this attitude needs to be changed.

There are vast improvements that our government agencies and businesses can make, in addition to such basic changes as upgrading our national goods transportation network.  (Here's a BRJ note about that from a couple of years ago – still relevant.)  New notions about employment, using "telecommuting" and flexible work schedules, will help considerably. Reducing travel, holding electronic conferences instead of jetting to conference sites, and rationalizing distribution systems will go a long way.

Inculcating an attitude of always considering the energy use of an action is at the heart of the needed reform in individual, business, and governmental decision-making.  Since thinking generally goes on at the individual level, it is with the individual that the turn-around in our attitude must begin.  Here are some examples of actions and attitudes that mark an energy-conscious individual:

Transportation:  Refuse to buy large, gas-guzzling cars; buy a small, economical car. Group your trips for efficiency. Take the bus. Carpool where possible. Walk, bike. Get real bike lanes marked off. Always consider energy when you decide whether to take a trip. Open windows rather than using the car's A/C. Keep the tires properly inflated. Lower speed on the highway saves gas. Learn to drive smoothly, with gentle braking and acceleration. Use the phone when shopping to ensure that the store you're going to actually has the item you want. (While shopping on the internet may seem an obvious way to save energy, it may not be: The energy cost of shipping the package individually to your door may not beat the trip to the local store to buy it; besides, the flight of business from local stores to the internet may hasten the demise of your local community's economy.)

Home energy:  Insure that the house is well insulated. Have regular maintenance on the heating system. Dress warmly in the house in the winter and drop the room temperature by a degree or two. Use doors to keep less-used rooms cooler. Get used to warmth in the summer; use the A/C sparingly. Change all the light bulbs to compact fluorescent. Turn off lights where they're not needed. Don't waste water (water use is energy use), shorten your shower time to what is necessary. Plant native plants that can manage with natural rainfall. Consider installing "instant hot" water heaters on faucets far from the water tank. Lower the water tank temperature.

Consumption:  Don't buy unneeded stuff. Help our economy readjust from a basis of excess and waste to a basis of responsible sufficiency. Complain about wasteful packaging, and refuse to buy it. Recycle paper and cardboard, plastic, metals, glass, and where possible, food wastes. Urge your waste collector to initiate or improve recycling; urge your supermarket to recycle plastic bags.

Politics:  Be alert to wasteful practices in government and business, and take the time to let responsible leaders know of your concern. Politicians rarely have creative thoughts; they need to hear them from their constituents.

If we all adopt an energy-conscious attitude, and if President Obama provides the national leadership that will be needed, then maybe – just maybe – we'll see our way through the upcoming critical period of the end of the "oil phase" of civilization without the national and world calamity that it would otherwise bring about.  And if we don't, we won't.

© 2008 H. Paul Lillebo

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