Cover Photo: Ground Mounted Solar Panels (Source: Me)

I am currently studying to get a Master's degree and I am taking a course on sustainability at the moment. Every week the professor assigns us readings to do and gives us a question to write a personal response about after the readings. I will be posting these after they are handed back to us to make sure everybody in the class has handed them in. This week, we read:

Recommended:

  • Super Wicked Problems and Climate Change: Restraining the Present to Liberate the Future by R.J. Lazarus (Harvard Law, free)

For a long time, I thought technology by itself would have to make up the entire solution to energy usage in the United States. It will still no doubt be a large and significant player as people abhor losing luxuries after they become "accustomed to a certain lifestyle". Efficiency is going to have to improve drastically. Not just the efficiency of energy sources, but also the efficiency of running a household along with all of the luxuries it entails. Even with these, people and industries will have to adjust their behaviors to limit energy usage to both limit CO2 production and avoid the energy trap.

Part of the issue with any upcoming sacrifice is that environmental economic models are severely underdeveloped. Historically, economic experts have not been very drawn to the field. In Counting the Cost of Fixing the Future, just the cost of polluting using CO2 falls in range between $13.50 to $65 per ton. The article mentions how the value of money in the current day is higher than in the future. On the surface, this is a completely valid line of thought although it is flawed when digging a little deeper. This fundamentally comes down to the discount rate that businesses and policy makers have to use to discount the value of a future generation's income because they are richer and because society theoretically does not care about them as much.

Skimming over a lot of jargon and theory, this discount rate is the key issue in these calculations and my best guess is that analysts are not choosing a very good discount rate. The two assumptions do not hold very well as catastrophic climate change may guarantee that future generations are not actually richer, while many argue that society has a moral obligation to consider the future. The problem is that the discount rate is traditionally linear, while climate change has points of no return. Economists and climate scientists are going to have to work together to create new models to incorporate these points of no return.

Moving past the traditional economics, I found Energy as Master Resource's Energy Return on Investment (EROI) concept particularly compelling. Realistically, even with efficiency improvements civilization requires a bare minimum of a 5:1 EROI. While traditional economics considers reversible flows, energy is irreversible from the properties of thermodynamics. So the biggest issue is that it requires large amounts of energy to produce renewable energy sources. Wind power is pretty fantastic with an EROI of 18:1, but unknown environmental impact and opposition to the aesthetics from organizations like evanstonwind.org can hamper development on a political scale. Planners also have to take into account the migratory patterns of birds before building massive wind farms. The chapter even notes that this energy capital issue could mean it is actually good to burn many fossil fuels today as long as the energy is going to producing renewable sources so they can hit a break even point.

Ignoring the issues with the energy capital, Jacobsen and Delucchi provide concrete numbers for attaining sustainable energy by 2030. While the Scientific American article is short enough that they cannot delve into the math behind the numbers, this is still a tremendously useful tool to track progress of renewable energy as time moves on. Admittedly, these projections neglect a very important component that will be necessary for sustainable energy sources: microgrids. In order to merge the energy from all of these different sources, it will be important for intelligent operators to manage the voltage and frequency of their grids by purchasing electricity from more centralized power generation locations like geothermal plants or photovoltaic power plants. Policy makers also cannot distribute renewable energy sources uniformly across the country. Different breakdowns of renewable energy sources are necessary for different regions.

Jacobsen and Delucchi address land use concerns well, as the wind turbines by themselves take up very little land while spacing in between turbines is suitable for a variety of uses. This does not even touch on the possibility of using offshore wind which produces electricity more consistently and is much easier to construct since construction companies do not have to transport the blades and components over land. The two authors even point out that the number of days of downtime for wind and solar is significantly smaller than for coal power.

So how does all of this address the issue of sacrifice? Transferring to sustainable energy sources means we can continue to use computers, smartphones, ovens, and maybe even dryers. However, this will not be helpful if the efficiencies of all of these devices does not also improve. Switching to LED bulbs is a step in the right direction, but the number of devices in households is increasing across the world. Not only that, but growing urban sprawl combined with inefficient central climate control mean that policy makers are going to have to prevent people from searching from the traditional "American Dream". If people live in smaller insulated apartments and homes and the electronics they use in these homes get more efficient, then maybe technology and new developments in environmental economics can solve the rest of the United States' energy issues.