Imagine a future scenario much more hopeful than that described in Chapter 6, one in which the increasingly antiquated energy infrastructure of today has been replaced with a more secure, reliable and advanced system.
In that scenario, the roof of virtually every building in the American Southwest is equipped with solar panels. Homes and businesses within communities are joined into microgrids and these in turn are connected to the larger (macro) grid system. All generation sources are local. In addition to rooftop solar panels, power is provided by power plants, solar farms and wind generators located in or near population centers. All transmission lines through remote areas have been decommissioned and removed. The lines that remain are now routed alongside highways. Power plants located far from load centers have also been dismantled.
Such a system provides a host of benefits, including virtual immunity against blackouts, whether caused by attack or accident. By radically decreasing the consumption of fossil fuel for electrical generation, it also provides relative immunity to rising fuel prices and thus stabilizes energy costs. It puts power generation into the hands of ordinary citizens, thereby democratizing the electrical system. And, it decreases the production of greenhouse gasses far more significantly than any current clean energy proposals do.
This is of course a fundamental shift in how we generate and transmit electricity. The most fundamental shift however, is in how we consume electricity. Where it was once plentiful to the point of being taken for granted and cheap because so many of the costs, like its contribution to climate change, had been externalized, it is now considered precious. The price of electricity has skyrocketed. Ironically though, the annual per capita cost for electricity has fallen.
That is because we now consume far less electricity than we once did. A fundamental shift has occurred in how it is is perceived. Energy conservation is at the heart of this new perception. Electricity is now respected for the things it can do better than any other form of energy, like powering electronics and lighting and motors. Appliances that use electricity merely as a heat source, like water heaters, stoves and furnaces are now considered archaic. Every aspect of electrical consumption has also undergone an efficiency revolution.
The public has become far more educated about and aware of energy conservation. Consumers don’t think of purchasing appliances without carefully checking their power consumption. Electricity’s role in climate conditioning has plummeted, replaced by better insulation, more-modestly-sized homes and businesses and rooms that are sealed off from use during the hot months. In hot, sunny climates, the roof of every home and business is equipped with solar water heating panels alongside the solar electric panels.
Such a world may sound like a fairy tale, but many people are already far along that path.
On a personal level, my partner Pearl and I have already incorporated many aspects of this scenario. While the average home in the United States consumes 11,496 kWh of electricity annually, we live comfortably, if a bit radically, on about 1% of that amount.
Because we have chosen to adopt ways of living that dramatically reduce our electrical consumption without reducing our quality of life, our needs are met with a solar electric system that cost less than $1000. It also provides a highly reliable source of power for our home. Often our grid-connected neighbors complain about power outages that we are completely unaware of. We use electricity for running computers, a sound system and lighting. Our electrical consumption for cooling during the hot season is zero because we migrate north to spend the summer in a comfortable climate.
The salient point isn’t the amount of power we use, but our relationship to that power. For us, it isn’t a commodity to be used at will, but something to be respected and used with care. Two examples illustrate this point.
Several years ago I attended a symposium on solar energy development in Phoenix, Arizona. Most of the major renewable energy players in the state were there, along with politicians, policy wonks and even the governor. As I sat there listening to one speaker after another drone on about schemes to promote renewable energy, just about all of which focused on the old centralized generation and transmission model, two things caught my attention. One was that despite a brilliant sunny sky outside, the large meeting hall was artificially lighted by dozens of chandeliers. The other was that within those lighting fixtures were several hundred energy wasting incandescent light bulbs. Among the two hundred or so people there, I believe I was the only one to take note of the ironic juxtaposition.
Contrast that with something Pearl said some time ago that illustrates a very different perspective regarding electricity. It was during a spell of cloudy weather and our small solar electric system was generating only a small amount of electricity. Most of the power we were using that day was from our two storage batteries. I had finished the work I was doing on the computer and asked if I should leave it on for her. “No” she replied, it would be a short while before she could get to it and she wanted to “save the precious power.” That phrase encapsulates a perspective fundamentally different from the norm and fundamentally necessary to our aspirations for a future in which all the energy we use is secure, environmentally clean and sustainable. Without that change in perspective, such aspirations are the real fairy tale.
While few will want to take the steps that we have, they nonetheless suggest the degree to which we could, if we desired, make significant changes that would result in greatly increased energy security, not to mention environmental benefits.
It would require changes in the way we think and, to some extent, flexibility in the way we live. A recent Science Friday interview illustrated the importance of flexibility as a determining factor in the long-term survival of a species. The person being interviewed was Piotr Nasrecki, a Harvard zoologist and author of Relics: Travels in Nature’s Time Machine (2011). Nasrecki studies relics, which in biology refers to organisms that have very old lineages. In regard to what we might learn from relic organisms, the interviewer asked, “What does it takes to stay alive?” Nasrecki responded, “…be flexible. If you can adapt…then you are far more likely to survive…”
It remains to be seen whether we, as a people, can change or whether we are so entrenched in a way of living, one that subjects us to serious security threats and environmental damage, that change is unthinkable. It’s our choice.
 U.S. Energy Information Administration, “Frequently Asked Questions: How much energy does an American home use?” http://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.cfm?id=97&t=3
 Piotr Nasrecki, “Searching for Nature’s Time Machine in Relics”, Science Friday, April 13, 2012 http://www.npr.org/2012/04/13/150584452/searching-for-natures-time-machines-in-relics)
© David Omick and Operation Circuit Breaker, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to David Omick and Operation Circuit Breaker with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.