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.

mostly fossil-free home!

A project that B and I have been working on for years is finally complete. With the installation of a geothermal heating/cooling system, we are able to disconnect our home from the methane infrastructure, which in our area means that we are no longer burning fracked gas from neighboring Pennsylvania in our home. Because we had previously installed a hybrid electric/heat pump hot water heater, our furnace had been the only thing still attached to the gas lines. Now that it is gone, we won’t have to pay for methane, which is relatively low-priced at the moment, or the delivery charges, which are relatively expensive in New York. Those savings will help with our electric bill, which will go up, although our panels in a community solar array generate a good chunk of our electricity. In our region of New York, changing from methane to geothermal for heating is considered a wash in terms of cost, but our air conditioning costs will be much lower with the heat pump than with our outdoor compressor unit.

We have done other projects to make our home more efficient, such as changing to LED lighting and adding more insulation. We use a rechargeable battery-operated lawn mower and electric leaf blower. The only two household things that will still use fossil fuels are our propane grill and our gasoline-powered snowblower, which is only needed a handful of times a year, if that.

We have also cut way back on our use of gasoline for transportation, driving an all-electric Chevy Bolt and a plug-in hybrid electric Chrysler Pacifica. We only use gasoline when we take the Pacifica on longer trips. It gets 30ish miles on battery. When it is running on gas, some of the engine power re-charges the battery, so even when we have no plug-in charge remaining, a quarter to a third of our miles will still be battery powered. It could be even more than that if we are driving on roads with terrain or lots of stop signs/lights because the braking is regenerative, meaning the energy from slowing the car goes toward charging the battery. It’s possible that, as rapid charging stations become more available, we may be able to take longer trips in our Bolt, which would cut our gasoline usage even further. (I know some of you urbanites are wondering why we don’t use mass transit. Unfortunately, our area has almost no mass transit available.)

We have tried to cut down our fossil fuel usage and control our total energy usage as much as is practicable, but I know there is one sector where our carbon footprint will become heavier rather than lighter. I have not been a frequent flyer in my first almost-six decades, but I am likely to be flying several times a year for the foreseeable future. With daughter E and granddaughter ABC’s recent move to London, I see a fair number of airplane flights coming.

The first one will be next month.

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