May 30, 2012 in Environment, Lifestyle

Laws of Physics vs. Options for Sustainable Energy

In the years following the industrial revolution, developed countries have seen per capita energy consumption increasing steadily. The US, Canada and UK are some of the highest consumers of energy. And despite well-intentioned suggestions that we turn to biofuels, wind energy and solar power as replacements for our reliance upon fossil fuels, these solutions come with their own unique constraints due to geography and weather.

We need good solutions to the growing problem of sustainable energy use. Clearly, reliance on non-renewable resources is by definition not sustainable. Unfortunately, the topic still seems to push people’s buttons and, in my experience at least, when you bring up “green”, you can often visibly see a polarization of people in the discussion. Worse yet, both sides can exhibit exclusionary viewpoints, e.g., if you’re not with us, you’re against us. Such divisiveness hampers our ability to discover solutions that might help us all.

David MacKay is a professor of Natural Philosophy in the Physics department at the University of Cambridge. Recently, he made a TED Talk giving us a reality check on the practicality of renewable energy sources. The content focuses on the UK, but the issues are globally relevant. I invite you all to have a look:

How can you reduce your energy footprint? Some of the things I do:

  • Use as little heating as practical in winter (sweaters are my friends);
  • Forgo air conditioning in summer (sweat, too, is my friend);
  • Turn off lights in rooms not in use and only use minimal lighting in rooms I’m using;
  • Use goods/appliances until they break, then repair or replace as is practical.

That last bit is important, I think. I’m a huge fan, for example, of keeping my computer equipment running for years and years. The MacBook upon which I’m typing this article has been in 24/7/365 use since mid-2007 and has been repaired several times. And it’ll continue to be used and repaired until such time as it’s no longer suitable for the work I do. (Some of that work, e.g., software development and testing, pushes the system rather hard and now the wee MacBook is struggling to keep up.)

As my computers age, they get upgraded to help them get more life. It’s a bit ironic, but upgrading this system over the years (memory from 1 GB to 2 GB and, finally 4 GB; HDD from 160 GB to 500 GB, 750 GB and, finally, a 600 GB SSD for reliability) has cost me more money overall than it would likely have to buy a new notebook somewhat earlier, yet the overall carbon footprint is reduced. For me, the increased cost is a “small price to pay” for knowing that I’ve reduced my energy consumption.

I’m also a big fan of buying a single vehicle and maintaining it until parts are no longer available. It’s not unreasonable to get over 300,000 km out of a vehicle if you are meticulous about maintenance and always replace items as soon as they require it. The best part of this is that vehicle maintenance is not equivalent to computer upgrades, which means that even significant service costs well into the life of the vehicle still leaves you with overall reduced costs.

My father has an old Ford pickup truck that he’s had since the 1970s. His carbon debt for that vehicle is so far in the negative that his karma must be unbelievably good by now. Way to go, dad!

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