Thursday, September 01, 2005

Sleep Aids

(Posted by John.)

The last store at our intersection wasn't a purveyor of caffeinated goods at all - they provided sleep aids so you didn't need caffeine. Similarly, solutions to our energy problems are not going to come simply by finding new sources of energy - though that will be necessary. Rather, we need to start re-thinking what we use our energy for.

Take oil. People can do without a certain amount of driving. What they can't do without is, for example, heating their homes in January. For your information, the IEA estimates that there will be oil supply problems for the 4th quarter of 2005 and the first of 2006. Similarly, we're now looking at severe price hikes for natural gas for this winter and the next few years.

Now, it's possible to heat homes electrically, but this is a huge use of electricity, and the North American electrical grid is overloaded as it is. So electricity might replace oil and natural gas, but is there a more elegant solution? Fortunately, there is - and it's only slightly more complicated than digging a hole. A geothermal heat pump is basically a heat exchanger buried about 6 feet underground. Because earth at that depth stays at a constant temperature year-round, it's possible to moderate a home's temperature by drawing cool air during the summer and warmer air (relative to the air outside) during the winters. You might still need a small heater to supplement the heat pump during the winter, but much less than if you were heating the home entirely on electric.

If that doesn't excite you, solar thermal systems have been heating homes for decades now. Indeed, solar thermal systems have contributed more energy to the US than electric systems ever have, albeit more often for pools than homes. Solar heaters have a number of positive aspects, including low cost, reliability, and high efficiency. Also, solar heaters have an interesting effect: Because a solar heater heats your home gently for the whole day, rather than in spurts (like a conventional furnance), the solar heater effectively turns your home in to a heat "battery" - your walls, furniture, everything retains a lot of heat in the winter. A well insulated home could mostly or entirely heat itself through the winter with low-cost solar systems. As with the geothermal system, it might need an electric heater to supplement it, but either (or both) of these systems can provide for the bulk of household needs.

How about water heating? One of the biggest energy consumers in your home is your hot-water tank, even if it's a modern model. But is it necessary? Not really. A number of people are now adopting "tankless" water heaters, which heat water as it becomes necessary, rather than keeping several dozen gallons hot at all times. The energy savings are potentially huge.

And these are just what's possible to retrofit existing homes. When we talk about building new homes, it's now possible to build "zero energy" homes - not that they don't consume energy, but they generate their own energy. It currently adds slightly to the value of the homes, but the additional cost is paid off within a matter of years, not decades. (How long is a mortgage?)

There are a number of more mundane things homeowners can do - replace old windows, re-insulate their walls, get rid of incandescent bulbs in favour of new compact fluorescents, etc etc.

Then there's the habits we have to change. Simple, silly stuff consumes a non-trivial amount of energy. Do you open the oven to peak at your frozen pizza while it cooks? Stop that. Leave the fridge open? Leave the water running while you brush your teeth/shave? Stop it! Do you leave your car running while you run in to the store? Stop that, too - you're burning gas, and harming your engine.

During the 1980s, California had an enormously successful conservation measure. At one point, the state legislature expected they would never have to build another plant again - they were actually saving electricity that quickly. However, that conservation program was abandoned with the deregulation of electricity in the 1990s. A similar thing happened here in Ontario, and we've paid for it this summer, to the tune of millions of dollars.

It might not be possible to repeat California's success on a national scale. But we could without question make massive reductions in our electricity demand - halving it is not impossible. Reducing America's electricity demand in half would allow America to get rid of all of it's coal generation, which would incidentally save thousands of lives who currently die from air pollution. Alternately, if we could save 30% of US electricity, we could replace all of America's light vehicles with electric models. Air pollution would also go down in this scenario, as electric cars are still cleaner than gasoline cars - even powered from coal. Oh, and America would meet it's Kyoto targets with room to spare.

A note on electric cars: Despite no serious money from the government, electric cars are increasingly realistic alternatives to gas-powered cars. Their ranges are now comparable to gas cars, and the newest technology can near-fully charge a car's batteries in 5-10 minutes. No car maker has produced the "model T" of electric cars - combining low cost, decent performance, and ease of use. But with recent announcements by Mitsubishi, Subaru, and a consortium of North American battery companies, it looks more and more (to my layman eyes, at least) like the future will be run on batteries. Unlike the alrernatives, it's a well-tested technology with an existing distribution grid (copper wire.) It's long been believed that electric cars can be cost-competitive with gas cars, in mass production. Let's hope that this is proven soon.

Then there's the bigger stuff. Suburbia could conceivably be a big problem - is it a sustainable lifestyle in a post-oil age? Some people don't think so. James Howard Kunstler made a big noise a few months ago, in what was at the time the most attention the blogosphere had paid to Peak Oil issues. I was (and am) very skeptical of these claims. The replacements are there, and if nothing else suburbanites are a pretty important market sector, not to mention a big voting bloc. A LOT of money is at stake - and while the market may not be able to solve all problems, catering to the whims of suburbanites is something it's really good at.

Still, my optimism doesn't change a few basic facts: We need to start using less energy. We need to start using energy more intelligently, and differently. Both of these things are possible, without worsening our lifestyles. And we really, really need to build more renewable energy quickly.

Contrast these basic needs with the most recent energy bill passed by the Republican Congress - with the Democrats shamefully playing quislings - and you can see why there's still reason for concern. Our governments are still locked in to the paradigm of needing more energy, rather than using the energy we have more intelligently. This isn't even a partisan problem - shamefully, and defying all common sense, the Ontario Liberal government (basically, Canada's Democrats) is widely expected to announce a new program of nuclear construction, even though Ontario still hasn't paid off the debt from it's current nuclear plants!

I'm almost done here - Angelica will be back soon. But in the next big post, I'm going to wrap up with some concluding thoughts, and try to impress why I'm so optimistic. Of course, when the extremes are "status quo" and "apocalypse", optimistic has some very different meanings.

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