No serious student of energy can deny the inanity — the senselessness — of our energy system in the face of increasingly serious resource challenges (Peak Oil, climate change, etc). Beyond the necessity for confronting these challenges to stave off catastrophic implications, a simple (yet incredibly complex) truth: options exist to foster sanity out of the inane nature of today’s energy system.
With Crossing the Energy Divide, Moving from Fossil Fuel Dependence to a Clean-Energy Future, Robert Ayres and Edward Ayres provide a structural approach toward bridging the divide between inane and sane. Key to their bridging strategy that enables us to thrive (or, well, at least survive) amid Peak Oil challenges as alternative (cleaner) options ramp up in scale: attacking the inefficiencies in the U.S. energy system. The Ayres assess, with a good deal of validity, that it would be possible to raise energy efficiency in the economy from 13 to 20 percent (a 50 percent improvement) over the coming decade.
Eight ‘girders’ would enable building this bridge:
- Industrial Waste-Energy Recycling: From petroleum refining to blowing glass to making paper, industry requires tremendous heat inputs … and typically much of the heat goes to waste. While about 10,000 megwatts (10 gigawatts) is recovered, analysis shows that somewhere between 65 to 95 gigawatts of additional economically viable heat recovery could be used for electricity generation (somewhere between 6 and 10 percent of total US electricity demand). This could enable shutting down perhaps 20 percent of coal-fired electricity.
- Decentralized Combined Heat and Power: Rather than generating electricity at centralized plants send it via transmission lines to heat homes, technology has advanced such that it is more cost-effective (on a systems basis) to generate heat and electricity at the point of use. This would enable avoiding in the range of a trillion dollars in utility investments while increasing the efficiency of fossil fuel use. Another 135 gigawatts of electricity generation capacity or, in other terms, 25+ percent of coal electricity generation.
- Energy Use Efficiency in Industry and Buildings: Over the past 40 years, some 75% of new U.S. energy demand was met via increasing efficiency … and “three-quarters of that “invisible energy boom took place in the buildings and industry sectors.” Despite these real achievements, tremendous room exists for increased efficiency. And, those are high payoff opportunities: “efficiency investments are generally low in risk ([think] government T-bills) yet have produced high returns averaging about 25 percent”. This is the sort of investment that a floundering economy could use on a massive scale (especially since this is a job-creating investment). Consider another 25 percent of coal plants, at least, at risk due to increased bulding/industry efficiency.
- End-Use Efficiency: From the refrigerator to cars to Passiv-Haus building standards, the opportunities for improved end-use efficiency are essentially endless. The opportunities are so strong that the authors conclude that “it is hard to make realistic projections of future efficiency gains” but even fewer polluting power plants will be necessary.
- Kick-Starting the Micropower Revolution: In addition to CHP, to rooftop PV and solar hot water “can potentially covert rooftops … into a major source of clean energy for the grid long before the end of this century.”
- Substituting Energy Services: Rather than utility companies providing Kilowatt Hours (and natural gas) to run homes and businesses, Energy Service Companies (ESCs) would provide for cooling, heating, lighting our homes. Paid for the ‘service’, the incentive exists to drive energy efficiency even faster. Telecommuting, flexible work arrangements, internet shopping combiend could cut autmotive trips enough to reduce oil imports by over ten percent.
- Redesigning Cities for the Future: While more efficient (‘smart growth’) urban infrastructure would cut energy demands and pollution, it will serve another path: “It’s not just coastal or riverside cities that can — and should — be gradually redesigned for climate change, however. Programs aimed at reducing automotive dominance of urgan spaces, increasing reliance on bus rapid transit, and reducing or eliminating the need for energy to heat buildings wil generate long-term savings that could more than cover the costs of the upgrading.” An insurance policy that pays for itself …
- Reforming Fresh-Water Management: Pumping and cleaning (both before and after use) water is a heavy energy user … and this is worsening in the face of increasing water scarcities and the use of inefficient pumps in degrading acquifers. From increased end-use efficiencies, better agricultural practices, to moving away from water-demanding ethanol production, addressing fresh-water challenges will help reduce our energy challenges.
The Ayres see a “make-or-break moment”. In the book’s conclusion, they argue that
our investments in [the] future must be twofold, with one stream directed to the clean-energy, low-carbon economy that will phase in over the next several decades, and another, equally strong, directed to the transitional bridge. Without adequate attention to the bridge, the American and global economies could collapse under the mounting pressures of rising population, resource scarcities, environmental decline, and climate disrputions.
But we now have abundant indications that a safe and strong bridge can be built, both quickly and affordably … Among the signs is a U.S. power-generation system that for the past four decades has been stuck at 33 percent efficiency when existing technologies unleashed by regulatory changes can raise that to 60 percent or higher in time. We have an opportunity to save hundreds of billions of dollars in capital costs … We have an opportunity to reduce U.S. fossil fuel use … We have a momentous opportunity to raise the overall energy efficiency of the U.S. economy … And, of course, we have an opportunity to save … cities and towns from the potentialy catastrophic impacts of intensifying climate change — and, at the same time, to materialy upgrade the energy security and quality of life in all other cities and towns.
Perhaps most significant from a pragmatic standpoint, with existing, well-tested, and relatively inexpensive methods, we have the immediate opportunity — not theoretical, not “someday,” not “if only” — to do all this in ways that provide abundant opportunities for profitable investment. Finally, this is an opportunity — an imperative, we believe — to take a course of action that, far from harming or further depressing the economy, as mainstream economists have feared, will give it robust new life.
Crossing the Energy Divide provides serious educational perspectives on energy and energy systems to foster knowledge, it speaks rationally about challenges and opportunities, and it provides a vision for a more prosperous climate-friendly future. Sadly, too large a share of the U.S. political system does not value knowledge, rationality, or fostering greater prosperity for all.