Sustainability: The 'no excuses' challenge

Posted Wednesday, July 20, 2011 in Sustainable Maine

Sustainability: The 'no excuses' challenge

Passive solar design helps the Matson residence connect with nature while keeping energy bills low. Photo by Scott Shigley Photography, courtesy Natural Home and Garden.

by Paul Kando

Is a civilization dependent on fossil fuel and nuclear energy sustainable? Are disasters like the Gulf oil spill, the devastation caused by surface coal mining, or Fukushima-Daichi inevitable? Are increased CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere and ocean just the cost of doing business? Are higher temperatures, heavier rains, floods, drought, frequent extreme weather and a rising sea level the unavoidable price we must pay for civilization? Will fossil fuels be affordable in the future? Can there be a viable economy not dependent on 80 percent of its energy coming from fossil fuels?

Is sustainability just about energy? What about conserving water, healthy food, recycling, socially sustainable practices, reasonable costs and aesthetics (e.g. how wind machines look and sound atop mountains)? Aren’t these and other such issues important? They certainly are. Still, energy is the most important and decisive factor in sustainability. In buildings, for example, mediocre energy performance is hardly sustainable. And the consequences of inefficient energy use ultimately extend to extreme rainstorms, major flooding, deaths caused by gas-pipe explosions, skyrocketing energy prices, oil spills, nuclear accidents and more. They impact everyday life. Rising energy prices eat up an increasingly larger portion of the family budget. And much of the damage caused by supplying non-renewable energy, such as government expenses related to oil spills or cleaning up Fukushima, turns into a taxpayer liability – something we pay on top of the nominal price of energy. So do market-distorting subsidies of fossil fuels and nuclear power.

Given our energy dependence, access to energy means power and wealth which, in turn, influence democratic institutions. Vested economic interests have long recognized energy as a decisive factor in shaping the future. Even so, short-sighted greed often leads people to push for disastrous policy decisions, such as controlling Middle Eastern oil by military force parading as national security.

In fact, national security would be better served by reducing the political influence of international energy corporations whose interests do not coincide with those of the nation. This requires switching to locally controlled energy-related services, keeping energy dollars at home. This is what we can ultimately achieve through energy-efficiency improvements and the use of renewable energy, leaving the energy cartel out of the equation. Could this be why energy efficiency has been so neglected since the 1950s that energy consumption has increased five-fold?  In developed countries per capita consumption of non-renewable energy is almost four times too high for sustainability. 

When we are told “there is not enough renewable energy to cover our needs” or “energy conservation is too expensive for most Mainers,” these are half-truths. Indeed, no energy source can cover the wasteful use of energy by a growing world population. But developed economies can reduce their energy consumption by as much as 60 percent, by simply eliminating waste. And given rising energy costs, Mainers cannot afford NOT to conserve. 

But, we are told, conserving energy means less comfort and doing without. In fact, we cannot reduce energy consumption in a house to near zero without providing more comfort: a draft-free home is also more comfortable. Over 32,000 “passive houses” in every climate zone demonstrate that energy consumption can be reduced by 80 to 90 percent, so that a heating system is no longer required, yet comfort is enhanced. It is possible to travel in comfort without expensive gasoline and to generate electricity without air-polluting power plants. The technology to increase energy efficiency by a factor of more than 5 is demonstrably available, and the remaining energy demand can be covered sustainably from local renewable energy sources found all over the world. To boot, energy-efficient solutions are comparatively easy and economical.

In upcoming columns, my colleagues and I will explore these savings, beginning with the building sector. For now, suffice it to say that there are no technical roadblocks in the way of a sustainable economy. We only face lame excuses.  

Paul Kando is with the Midcoast Green Collaborative of Damariscotta.

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