August 24th, 2004

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Last Saturday I went to SolFest, a renewable energy event at the Solar Living Center in Hopland, California. The event was full of solar panels, biodiesel converters, electric bikes, environmental ISPs, composters, natural fibers, yoga accessories, organic food, and the scent of weed. After wandering through the vendors, I attended a session on sustainable investing, then one titled "What Would Jefferson Do?" Unfortunately, the speaker wasn't able to make it to the latter, but he gave a rousing speech later that day on the main stage, and dag29580863 bought one of his books. In the afternoon I went to a session on "the value of knowing the history of the food we eat," which started with a demonstration of an elementary-school skit and ended with heirloom apple tasting.

darthabsinthe and bain_easag went to a session on shareholder activism, which advocated buying at least 2000 shares in a company you want to change (better yet, have an organization do it), then going to shareholder banquets and taking advantage of your guaranteed five-minute speech slot to highlight the company's indiscretions and advocate more sustainable practices. The speaker also described how much easier it is to talk to upper management when you're a shareholder, and how much more effective it can be. He gave as an example his involvement with getting Home Depot to stop carrying virgin old-growth wood: it turns out that only 1% of their timber fit that category and it was probably more cost-effective to ditch it and avoid the protests and bad press. After Home Depot, Lowe's quickly followed suit. Interesting technique.

I was disappointed that while there was lots of talk about alternative energy, nobody that I heard talked about the need to reduce energy demand. The closest anyone came was the sustainable investment fellow, who talked about the "energy ratio" (energy extracted:energy put in) of various energy sources while discussing investment in solar panels or other alternative energy. Oil used to have an energy ratio of 200:1 (= spurting out of the ground), and now is around 40:1. Solar is about 10:1 based on the average lifespan of solar panels (the low ratio is due mostly to fabrication costs), and most other often-mentioned alternative energy sources are around 10:1 or less. The speaker said that naturally there'll have to be "major rearrangement" in lifestyle when the energy ratio drops, but he didn't directly advocate a reduction in energy demand.

Throughout the sessions and around the booths, people self-righteously proclaimed their support for one alternative energy or another. But from what I've read over the years, they all have their drawbacks.
  • Oil has the obvious drawbacks of pollution, nonrenewability, destabilization of the world, etc. However, it's the easiest, most cost-effective energy source today.
  • Natural gas, though much cleaner, is also nonrenewable, and has a much smaller cache than oil, making scaling difficult.
  • Electricity, when produced from coal (and quite a bit is), is terribly polluting - if you have an electric car, it is more polluting than a similar gasoline-powered car.
  • Diesel generally pollutes less than gasoline, but has high particulate pollution, leading directly to bronchial problems in animals.
  • Biodiesel seems promising, but recycled sources are limited so it can't scale well, it releases some particulate pollution, and using primary sources, such as making your own corn oil, again takes more energy (and water!) than gasoline.
  • Wind turbines are pretty expensive (economically and environmentally) to manufacture, and they can (and do) chop up birds. (If they were deployed on a really huge scale, they may even change global weather patterns.)
  • Dams and other river-turbines are expensive (economically and environmentally) to build and install, really mess with local ecosystems, and can displace people too, as they are (on a huge scale) in India.
  • Ocean current generators are extremely expensive (economically and environmentally) to build and install, and are expensive to maintain since they can get gummed up with barnacles and other ocean-dwellers pretty quickly.
  • Solar panel manufacturing is again expensive (economically and environmentally), though solar seems like the best choice of those listed above, at least for places that get enough sunlight.
  • I don't know enough about hydrogen to say yay or nay. (Can you post something?)
So while some energy sources seem somewhat promising, all have their drawbacks. Why not, in addition to exploring alternative energy, also advocate a reduction in consumption? Here are a few ways of reducing demand that come to mind immediately (if I don't explain well enough, mention it in comments and I'll clarify):
  • Cities could be better-organized to facilitate walking and public transportation, instead of just allowing sprawling, low-density suburbs. This would have the added benefit of helping curb the obesity epidemic, which is partly (possibly largely) fueled by the drive-culture of suburb cul-de-sacs.
  • Houses could have drinking water only in the taps, and greywater everywhere else, such as in the toilets, showers, and especially the sprinkler systems. In light of water tables around the world dropping at an alarming rate, it's just stupid to use thousands of gallons of drinking water to spray off your driveway!
  • Buildings could be built with green materials and passive heating/cooling systems. It's not hard - the main impediments are ignorant architects and contractors.
  • Local sources for goods and services could be used whenever possible, rather than far-away ones that require lots of transportation. (This could also help prevent third-world degradation, such as the clear-cutting of forests.)
Please add more as comments!

Aside: you can calculate your ecological footprint based on your location and lifestyle. (I remember taking a pretty comprehensive ecological footprint calculator back when I was taking the sustainable city planning course, but I can't seem to find it. Here's a site that links to a bunch of them, though.)