the definition of energy

I wish that US politicians and the media would stop using the word energy as shorthand for fossil fuels. The United States is banning the import of Russian oil, gas, and coal, which, while they can be burned to release energy, are not themselves energy.

Equating the word energy with fossil fuels only distorts our perception of the problems and possible solutions. Politicians and pundits panic and look for more oil and gas to replace the Russian supply, even though drilling for additional petroleum and building LNG facilities are time-consuming processes which we must not expand but scale back quickly and dramatically if we are to keep global warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius, as the recent IPCC report alarmingly illustrates.

Rather, if we consider energy more broadly, we can see other ways forward that are cheaper, quicker, and better for the environment. A couple of weeks ago, Bill McKibben published a piece outlining how President Biden could invoke the Defense Production Act to churn out heat pumps to send to Europe so that they can break away from dependency on Russian methane for heating. Bonus: this would create jobs in the US and help our country in its own transition away from fossil fuels after the immediate crisis in Europe has passed. Amazingly, McKibben’s eminently practical and sustainable idea is gaining traction and is being studied by the Biden administration.

It’s also wise and practical to take energy efficiency seriously. It’s been said that the cheapest kilowatt/therm is the one that you don’t have to use. It’s helpful to weatherize and retrofit existing buildings so that their heating, cooling, and lighting needs are lessened, making it easier to run them with available and developing renewable energy resources.

At this point, some of the electricity needed will be generated from fossil fuels and nuclear plants but it is shortsighted to expand these rather than phase them out. Developing new drilling and mining sites is a long, expensive process, as is building new plants, which come with decades of environmental and public health consequences. It is quicker, cheaper, and healthier to move to renewable energy.

The same argument goes for the electrification of transportation. Many countries are already moving toward this goal, which helps in both the environmental and political realms.

While Russia is uppermost in everyone’s minds right now, the truth is that fossil fuels have been used as a political weapon by autocrats and oligarchs around the world. (Rachel Maddow’s book Blowout tells this history in fascinating detail.) Their power will be greatly reduced by a rapid phaseout of these fuel sources in favor of wind, sun, water, and geothermal sources.

These gifts of the earth are a common inheritance.

No one owns the sun or wind.

fits and starts

Ugh! There is so much stuff I want/need to do and not nearly enough brainpower to do it.

Admittedly, part of the problem is that I necessarily deferred a lot of things when I was involved with multi-generational caregiving for years and now there is a huge backlog that needs attention. Some are practical things, like dealing with the rest of the belongings of Grandma, Nana, and Paco that are still stored at our house and finishing the remaining work with Paco’s estate, including the final tax filings and, oh, our tax returns, too. Some are creative things, like writing blog posts and poetry, and the administrative tasks that go along with them, like getting submissions in, which I find both tedious and nerve-wracking. Some are educational, trying to stay informed about what is happening in the world and using that knowledge to advocate for social and environmental justice. And, of course, there are the errands, appointments, and household tasks that need doing, although I appreciate that B and T continue to cover a good chunk of the housework that I abandoned in recent years.

The biggest problem for me remains, though, that it’s difficult for me to muster the energy and concentration I need to tackle tasks that need critical and/or creative thought and decision-making. I suppose this is complicated by my INFJ-ness, which means that nearly everything for me involves deep thought.

It’s exhausting.

There is also the reality that I am dealing with several years’ worth of grief and loss. The difficult period leading to Grandma’s death in 2016 followed by Nana’s struggles with heart failure leading to her death in 2019 followed by Paco’s decline and his death in September last year left me with a lot of deferred grief, which I have only recently realized and begun to process. There is also the personal loss of proximity to daughter E and granddaughters ABC and JG, who live across the Atlantic from us. Overlaying these personal losses is the pandemic and the upheaval, suffering, and death it has caused. The death toll in the US alone is 955,000, which, as staggering as that figure is, is probably an underestimate. The world is also in the midst of a major ideological rift between democracy and authoritarianism which is terrifying and destabilizing. I have lost the sense that the US is on a positive trajectory toward “a more perfect Union” as our Constitution terms it, which adds to my sense of grief.

It’s a lot.

I know it’s a lot and there are valid reasons that I find my concentration and energy so scant. I know I should be patient with myself, as I would be with a friend or loved one. I know I should be practicing self-care and not admonishing myself for not having the wherewithal to power through all of this and “accomplish my goals” and “be my best self” and whatever.

I try.

Sometimes, I manage it. Other times, not so much.

Look. Today, I managed to write this post.

personal energy independence

With the burgeoning war in Ukraine, which is totally unacceptable and reprehensible on Russia’s part, people around the world expect fossil fuel prices to rise. While this is unfortunate, especially for those in lower socioeconomic circumstances, it will have much less impact on my family than most.

We will be paying higher prices for goods due to increased transportation costs but won’t see much impact on our personal transportation and household costs, due to our years-long efforts to reduce our carbon footprint.

Around town, we usually drive our all-electric Chevy Bolt or our plug-in hybrid Chrysler Pacifica, which only switches to its gasoline engine on the rare occasions that we take longer trips and even then gets much better mileage than a regular minivan. Our home heating system is a geothermal heat pump and our hot water is a hybrid electric/air source heat pump which is nearly always in heat pump only mode. Our appliances are electric. We use a rechargeable electric lawn mower. Only our 50+ year old snowblower which is used a few times a year and our outdoor propane grill run on fossil fuels.

The electricity that powers our homes and cars is from renewable sources. The majority is from solar panels that we own in a community solar installation with the balance bought from a 100% renewable energy supplier. I get a great deal of satisfaction from producing and using clean energy, continuing the legacy of my father and several other members of our family who worked in the hydroelectric sector for many years.

While the driving force for me to move to renewable energy was moral, I do also appreciate the economic impact on our family. Our energy costs as B heads toward eventual retirement will stay relatively low and stable. At the time we installed our geothermal heat pump, the cost of methane was near historic lows, making the number of years that it would take cost savings to make up for the installation cost quite high, partially offset by significant savings in our cooling costs. With the price of methane doubled even before the impact of sanctions against Russia, our investment in our heat pump looks to be an even better economic move, in addition to being best for the climate.

From a moral/ethical standpoint, I also appreciate that my energy dollars are not being used to prop up a fossil fuel system that enables injustice. Certainly, Russian proceeds from fossil fuels go largely to a few oligarchs and government officials, not for the benefit of the public. Saudi Arabia uses its fossil fuel wealth in oppressive ways and is not held to account for fear of cutting off supply. In the US, profits land with oil and gas companies while rural folks and disadvantaged communities bear the brunt of the health and safety problems caused by extraction, processing, and transport. While the entire ecosystem is impacted by fossil fuel use, the heaviest burden falls on vulnerable communities who often did little to contribute to the problem.

I know that the example of my family’s transition away from fossil fuels is a miniscule piece of the solution to help heal the planet, but I hope that we early adopters will show people that it’s possible – and even more economical – to make the switch to renewable energy. Political leaders can develop programs to help lower income households join in and benefit, as well as train workers for weatherization and other energy efficiency projects, for renewable energy jobs, and for the environmental restoration and resiliency work before us.

Real energy independence cannot be pumped out of the ground but can come from the sun, wind, and water that are our common gifts. Let’s use them to create a more stable, just world where fossil fuel supplies aren’t used as a weapon.

Fracking update

I spent a lot of time involved with the eventually successful efforts to ban high-volume hydraulic fracturing (fracking) for fossil fuels in New York State. Meanwhile, from my town on the NY/PA border, we have watched a host of negative consequences unfold for some of our PA neighbors. I am also only an hour or so from Cornell University, home to some of the leading researchers on fracking. I was privileged to see these professors speak a number of times, both on campus and at community events.

One of these researchers, Dr. Robert Howarth, has just published a new paper in the journal Biogeosciences about one of the most unfortunate environmental effects of the fracking boom, the release of methane to the atmosphere. Global atmospheric levels of methane are at all-time highs since recording began. The levels started a steep rise in 2006, just as the fracking boom in the United States was picking up.

Having heard and seen so much evidence of methane leakage from fracking, I had already assumed that the two were related, but, in this paper, Dr. Howarth explains the evidence by measuring the amount of 13C present, allowing him to determine the part of the global rise in methane related to fracking, most of which was emitted in the United States. The industry tries to tell us that they are controlling methane emissions through detecting and fixing leaks on the wellpads, but there are many other ways in which methane is released, including venting and flaring at the site, especially in areas where the methane is released when the company is primarily drilling for oil; well leakage that develops over time as casings fail; methane that seeps through the ground to the surface, similar to the way radon reaches basements when it originated thousands of feet below; abandoned wells when fractures intersect with them; compressor station leaks and releases; leakage from transmission and delivery pipes, some of which are over 100 years old; and the production, transport, and use of LNG.

Methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide but is relatively short-lived in the atmosphere. This makes reducing it quickly imperative in the effort to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

It is also why the more ambitious climate plans in the United States, such as those of Gov. Jay Inslee and Sen. Bernie Sanders, call for a ban on fracking.

The sooner this happens, the better. The economics of fracking are already poor, with a number of companies going bankrupt because of it. In many markets, renewable energy is cheaper than fossil fuel energy already and energy storage technology is progressing rapidly while falling in price. It’s time to ban fracking and new fossil fuel infrastructure and go all in for renewable energy, energy storage, and energy efficiency.

We need to do all we can to keep the planet livable for people and all other life forms. Banning fracking would be a great step in the right direction.

The US and climate

I did not want to have to write this post.

I listened with dismay to DT’s Rose Garden address yesterday, astonished at the level of misunderstanding of climate science, domestic and international economics, and the Paris climate agreement in evidence.

While the president made it seem that the United States is immediately leaving the Paris accord, that is not the case. There is a three year period starting in November, 2016 during which no signatory may exit the agreement. The one-year period in which the separation would occur can’t start until then, so the earliest date that the United States could officially leave would be Nov. 4, 2020, the day after our next presidential election. A lot can happen in three and a half years and my hope is that the United States will never officially withdraw from the Paris agreement.

Even without the federal government’s leadership, many of the states, cities, companies, and individuals in the US will be continuing reductions in carbon emissions and promotion of renewable energy and energy efficiency. Over sixty mayors of large cities declared their intention to follow the climate agreement. The governors of New York, California, and Washington have started an initiative for states to continue working on their clean energy goals. Many companies, large and small, are committed to renewable energy sources for their operations. Many families, like mine, are weatherizing their homes, using energy efficient appliances and lighting, buying solar panels, and driving hybrid or all-electric vehicles like our Chevy Bolt.

The majority of the people of the United States believe in the Paris accord and will continue to work alongside the nations of the world to combat climate change. I hope we will soon return to official federal-level participation. It would not be the first time that the administration has had to backpedal after an unwise decision.

Energy efficiency upgrades

One mistake that many people make in the quest for energy to run the world is assuming that we need more and more energy as populations become more and more developed. This often leads to the supposition that we need more fossil fuels to keep pace because renewable energy can’t be deployed quickly enough to meet demand.

This overlooks that we can live well on less energy if we use it more efficiently. You don’t have to produce ever more (polluting) energy if demand drops. Increasing energy efficiency is the most cost-effective strategy in many instances.

We have been implementing energy efficiency upgrades at our home. We have replaced almost all of our commonly used lights with LEDs or florescents. Our appliances are Energy Star rated. We recently upgraded our hot water heater to a hybrid electric heat pump unit.

Our latest upgrade is foam insulation for our attic and the rim joists in our basement, which should help with our heating and cooling costs.

Lowering your energy usage does not mean you have to be shivering/sweating in the dark! Implementing more efficient devices and better insulation will keep you comfortable while saving energy and money – and create local jobs.

One-Liner Wednesday: change

“The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.”
– Dan Millman

This post is part of Linda’s One-Liner Wednesdays. Join us! Find out how here:  http://lindaghill.com/2015/12/23/one-liner-wednesday-a-new-puppy/

Comment on Forbes fracking piece

Re-posting a comment I made to this Forbes piece:  www.forbes.com/sites/lorensteffy/2013/11/29/new-yorks-fracking-hypocrisy-underscores-energy-illiteracy/?fb_action_ids=10201093779532116&fb_action_types=forbessocial%3Acomment&fb_source=aggregation&fb_aggregation_id=288381481237582

It’s a lot more complicated than Mr. Steffy lets on in this piece. I live in the Southern Tier of NY right along the PA border and know that the vast majority of the Marcellus and the Utica in NY is too shallow, too thin, and/or thermally overmature to drill with the current prices for methane. (For more information, view the recordings of a recent panel at Cornell: http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLJ4sBXNT-ETp0aZilXGWBikMJgNoTeW2K ) Most of the drilling now is in wet gas areas, as the liquid hydrocarbons are drawing higher prices than the dry gas (methane), which is what is in NY and northern tier PA.

Many rural folks who have wells nearby do not benefit from the methane. Most of their homes do not use natural gas and are not on distribution lines for it. The low price of methane does not benefit them but it does drive down any royalties they may get.

NYC folks who are converting to natural gas heat instead of oil are benefitting by lowered costs at the moment, although if large-scale LNG exports begin, domestic prices are sure to rise.

Meanwhile, both rural and urban folks are suffering the effects of climate change, which is caused by ALL fossil fuels. Unconventional fossil fuel extraction, processing, transport, and use are all implicated in methane emissions, which adds to the carbon footprint.

Instead of building out all the infrastructure needed to support unconventional fossil fuel drilling and use, we should build renewable energy infrastructure. It is technologically possible to go to renewable sources without a fracking “bridge”. Read more about a plan to do this in NY and elsewhere here: http://thesolutionsproject.org/

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