Future Energy Generation — The Problem Isn’t Electricity

The solution is easy to articulate but nearly impossible to implement: stop using fossil fuels immediately. We realize that this sounds alarmist, but we see no other single action that could have as broad an effect as the immediate cessation of the use of fossil fuels. It would have both positive and negative ramifications for our lives. We would have to give up some things that we have come to enjoy and expect out of life. On the other hand, it would enable us to leave a world for our children and grandchildren that stands a chance of survival. Our generation has not been asked to sacrifice anything for anyone and that has to change. Over the next two weeks we will be writing about the future of energy generation.

Electricity per se is not the problem. We are Luddites but only in the true sense of that word. In the early 1800s, when a group of English weavers destroyed mechanized looms, they were not protesting the industrial revolution, they were protesting the changing relationship between society and technology. We are not against electricity, we are against the way in which our society had decided to use this tool. Let’s start at the beginning.

Most electricity is generated through the combustion of fossil fuels. By the United States Energy Information Administration’s (US EIA) numbers, 39 percent of all our energy goes to generate electricity, which is 42 percent from coal, 22 percent from natural gas, 22 percent from nuclear, 13 percent from renewables, and 1 percent from petroleum.i Even Iceland, the world’s leader in renewable energy, only generates 66 percent of its electricity from non-fossil-fuel sources, and that is possible because it sits on a geothermal “hot spot.” This state of affairs is absurd when one considers that most of Earth’s latitudes receive enough solar radiation to meet our current overconsumption of energy. Even Canada could power itself on the 5–11 kWh of sunlight that hits each square meter. If wind and biogas were added to solar, we would have a robust and sustainable energy system.

The perceived need to generate this much energy leads to conflict and exploitation on the supply side. Our dependence on the Middle East for oil is the underlying concern of the US government’s desire for peace in the region, not “freedom” or “democracy.” The need for cheap coal has destroyed the health of miners for generations, not to mention how it ravaged the ecosystems unfortunate enough to find themselves on top of a coal bed. Our greed has enabled the desolation of northern Alberta, where tar sands are strip-mined from a largely pristine boreal forest, only possible because of the remoteness of the region and the complacency of the then-conservative government. Natural gas extraction through hydrological fracturing, so-called fracking, has caused earthquakes and methane leaks. The no-holds-barred approach to drilling in the US and abroad has claimed countless lives and forever altered delicate biomes. And why? All because this type of energetic consumption is portrayed as inevitable and benign. Children who are taught that this is the only right way to live will grow up to be adults who never question this system of destruction. There is another way, but when we point this out, we are met with derision without consideration.

Our appetite for electricity continues to grow, feeding the problems of production. In the US, we use at least than three times more electricity today than we did half a century ago, and that is per person. Multiply that three-fold increase by a 70 percent population increase, and we arrive at our current national consumption of more than 3.8 trillion kWh per year (or 32.5 kWh per person per day). This increase use goes to increased heating and cooling, more appliances, and a profligate number of electronic devices, not to mention higher levels of consumption and production than ever before. Due to consumer demand for cheap energy, utilities have supplied our perceived need with the lowest-cost alternatives: coal and natural gas.

Instead of asking ourselves “should we use this much power?” we’re asking “how can we use more at ever-lower prices?” Unfortunately, our society only defines price by the cost of a kilowatt hour, which has remained constant since the 1970s (when adjusted for inflation). This cost fails to take into account the deaths of miners, roughnecks, and soldiers. It ignores the tens of thousands of pollution-related asthma cases. It does not set aside enough to mitigate the inevitable accidents and spills. For every penny we save on our electric bill, we are paying dimes on externalized costs.

i United States Energy Information Agency. 2014. “Primary Energy Consumption by Source and Sector, 2014.” Accessed June 1, 2016. https://www.eia.gov/totalenergy/data/monthly/pdf/flow/css_2014_energy.pdf.

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