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.

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.

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