Electricity is a tool that must be managed responsibly. Our three precepts must guide our energy strategy. First, we must recognize that we are one of many species on this planet. When our energy use affects other species and ecosystems, that use must be critically examined and potentially curbed. The acquisition, transportation, and use of fossil fuels is deleterious to humans, animals, plants, and everything in the world’s ecosystem. We cannot continue to rely on these finite resources and their use should have been phased out years ago. The potential contamination from a nuclear disaster and current problem of spent nuclear fuel are more than enough evidence to shut down this industry as well. The inability of hydroelectric dams to reconcile their existence with fish and other aquatic ecosystems means that they should be dismantled.
Second, we should work to mimic successful natural systems and live off of the planet’s surpluses when we consider which power sources to use and how to use them. The most obvious form of nature-mimicry is solar energy. In addition to photovoltaic panels, we can harness solar energy for heating water, buildings, and food. Solar energy is best used at its point of generation, and a dispersed grid of rooftop solar is not dissimilar to a forest of aspen in which each seemingly individual tree is linked by a shared root system. Biogas is generated by microorganisms that break down waste organic matter. Instead of letting the methane and other combustible gases escape into the atmosphere, they can be harnessed and used to heat houses, water, and food, as well as power engines; combustion breaks down complex hydrocarbons to less-potent greenhouse gases. Additionally, geothermal power is safe, reliable, and mimics the microorganisms that survive at deep-ocean fissures. Finally, although small-scale wind and stand-alone hydroturbines both depend on renewable resources and are considered low-impact, their use should be carefully monitored, as no species has yet evolved to harness wind or hydrological power.i
In addition to generating power by mimicking natural systems, we must learn to live within our means, and this requires us to recognize natural limits. No species can survive after it has used up all of its resources. The wolf pack that eats the entire herd of deer will soon starve. We must live off of the surplus afforded to us by nature. Our use of solar energy is limited by available area and the creation of energy-capturing technology. If we applied this logic to fossil fuels, we’d be limited to using almost none: for example, a single gallon of gasoline is the product of almost 100 tons of organic matter that has been formed into oil over millions of years. That’s about 40 football fields worth of crops, and at that rate, all of the world’s 400 million arable acres of land could only account for 10 million gallons of gasoline annually, which is about 10 days of US consumption. This doesn’t even consider the biomass and time needed to produce the coal and natural gas. Any wide-spread use of fossil fuels is inherently unbalanced.
Third, we should prefer simple solutions to the complex and the complex to the complicated when it comes to how we use energy. The greater the complication of our electric infrastructure, the farther removed we are from the problem. If we had a known and finite amount of electricity to use each day, we would become better users of this resource. For instance, most people, when their cell phone battery is dying, will limit their use to the essentials. Our current fossil-fuel-driven electrical infrastructure is a dying battery, and we should think carefully about how we use it. If we were forced to strip down our electrical use, we could relearn to survive with a much lighter footprint. It should be considered a crime to dig up millions of years of sequestered carbon in the form of coal to burn it in a power plant (releasing huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere) and then to transmit the electricity hundreds of miles, only to cool buildings to the point of needing a sweater on hot summer days.
We already possess the solutions to this problem. First, we must critically evaluate our own use of electricity and slash it. This will be helped by the adoption of energy-saving behaviors and architecture, such as passive solar water heaters, awnings over south-facing windows, the growth of shade trees, and new construction designed to maximize the winter sun and summer shade. Electricity shouldn’t be depended upon to perform jobs that can be done with simpler means: canning and dehydrating food instead of freezing it, line-drying clothing instead of using a dryer, solar water heater instead of electric or gas, etc. And when we do use electricity, we should chose the most efficient options: laptops instead of desktops, LED lightbulbs in non-recessed fixtures, room-specific heating and cooling, avoiding phantom loads from unused appliances, and the list goes on.
Second, we must decentralize our infrastructure and create local energy grids powered by rooftop solar and small-scale wind installations. Not only will this reduce the inefficiencies inherent in long-distance energy transmission, but it will make us more resilient to natural disasters and blackouts as power can be rerouted between neighborhoods.
Our social conventions must shift to idealize those who live simply and within their means. Most of our personal electrical choices fulfill wants masquerading as needs. In most cases, simpler means are available to complete a task. By making hard choices and sacrifices to reduce our use of electricity and to generate it from clean, renewable sources, we will live with a lighter impact on the ecosystem.
i Some might argue that nuclear power is akin to the natural system that powers the sun. Unfortunately, we are unaware of any species that has evolved to use this power directly. Similarly, the combustion of fossil fuels is perfectly natural rapid oxidization, however, no species uses fire as its primary source of energy.