When thinking of energy generation, the biggest questions often revolve around which source is best and why. There are debates for renewables, claiming more efficiency and less environmental impact, and there are debates for finite sources, claiming that we can make coal clean and need to keep our citizens employed.
Though the grid provides the majority of people the everyday convenience of constant energy with the flip of a switch, it is a complicated system. It draws from all forms of energy generation and encompasses generators, transformers, inverters, utilities and energy transport — and this intricacy is why the source of electricity is often overlooked. Most people charge their phones and crank up their air conditioning in the heat, calling for action and a switch to renewables without really considering the source of pollution. While I do believe big business and deregulation is largely to blame for inefficiency, environmental racism and an added environmental burden (i.e. polluting waterways, draining aquifers, atmospheric toxins, or dumping trash in not cool places), demonizing coal workers, or any energy laborer whose perspective on climate change and energy is different than an environmental advocate’s, is not going to solve any problems.
The people that indulge in said conveniences of instant power — myself included — need to recognize that electricity is a privilege and ultimately, we are the deepest root sucking from these sources. Without our demand, energy generation wouldn’t be a problem. Or even better, with our demand we can transform the system so that factories (which consume approximately 30% of US electricity) and buildings are more efficient from the start.
After visiting with the Northern Plains Resource Council and one of our hosts, Jean Wallace, my ideas of optimum efficiency have grown. The most efficient and environmentally friendly option isn’t to stop fracking or use solar instead of coal. The most efficient energy saving technique is to not use it in the first place, and this can be made increasingly possible with proper infrastructure and building policy.
One of the first days of the trip we visited the Northern Plains office, a Leed Platinum certified building, meaning it has the highest rank for energy and resource efficiency. Not only was the building and everything inside made 96% from recycled material, including sunflower seed husk counter tops and recycled glass for the parking lot, but they also cut back 30% of their electricity use by installing reflective light boxes to efficiently utilize natural light. They also installed “outsulation” and had a super-efficient heating system that gets its power from solar energy and had no air conditioning, but rather cooling towers that take advantage of outside air and filter it through the building. Overall, they said they almost never have lights on and when they do need electricity it is covered by their solar array.
Another example of construction efficiency came from our host Jean Wallace, who built a passive solar house into the side of a hill. When designing the house she made the walls of thick concrete to trap and maintain heat, and the windows are strategically placed for maximum natural light without being blinding. Again, any energy costs she had were offset by personal renewable sources, but overall she almost never has a need for a heat source, air conditioning, or lighting.
I know there are some flaws in this plan and some things are unavoidable. For example, our increasing amount of technology is reliant on electricity for power and there is no way to mitigate that other than asking the masses to turn off their devices — which isn’t going to happen — or creating better batteries. There is also the issue of cost and convenience. Raising energy productivity would mean retrofitting existing buildings and building new things smarter and with better technology; this is not something that everyone can afford, or if they can, they may see it as threatening their comfort.
Overall, I know our current policy is not on track to incentivize greener construction, but I hope in the future utilizing these techniques can become more commonplace. All over the world we are seeing improvements in energy efficiency and the implementation of more renewables, with any luck, we will stay on this positive track to a brighter future (without turning the lights on)!