The disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has generated endless news stories and opinion pieces on the state of our energy industry and how to “fix” it. Most of the conversations address two key points: independence from foreign oil and alternative energy. Strategies on the first point tend to be limited to expanding domestic drilling capacity. Regarding alternatives, suggestions range from wind and solar to nuclear, biomass, and clean coal. What I find most troubling is that there is so little discussion of conservation. Few people seem to be interested in considering how to get along with less; they simply expect there to be a technological solution that allows us to continue our excessive consumption habits unabated.
The tough stuff
Conservation is not hard, but finding the will to actually do it can be challenging. For most of us, it takes significant behavior changes in our day-to-day activities to conserve energy resources. Driving less, buying less, recycling more, saving water, and using heating and air conditioning more sparingly all require changes in our behavior and expectations.
For most of us, driving less is the biggest challenge. Zoning regulations over the last 50+ years have carefully separated most homes from businesses, eliminating walking and biking as effective transportation methods in most areas. Changes in driving habits will come slowly, unless, as seen in the last price jump, gas prices go back over $4 per gallon; then suddenly people figure out how to drive less.
Buying less stuff has happened organically, concurrent with the recession and tightened credit. I like to think that it is unlikely that our spending habits will return to the frenetic pace of recent decades, but I am often surprised at how short our memories can be. Recycling is more common, even required in many communities, but unless there is a concerted effort both to reduce packaging waste and to better incentivize reuse, we will continue to create too much trash with less room to dump it.
Water efficiency is one of our best hopes for conservation. Cities and states have finally recognized the need to conserve and are putting appropriate regulations in place to do so.
The comfort/convenience question
I think Steve Mouzon stated the comfort/energy situation best in this from his new book, “The Original Green”: “Our ancestors had a comfort range of probably 30 degrees Fahrenheit.” We are physically capable of reasonable comfort between roughly 60 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Yeah, 60 is kind of cold, but you can dress warmly; and 90 is kind of hot, especially in humid climates, but you can dress lightly and use fans and manage. However, few people are willing to do this. In most climates, windows are closed and HVAC equipment runs much of the year, often when the outdoor temperature is perfectly moderate.
So, why don’t people just turn off their HVAC and open windows more often? I see it as a two-part problem. First, in most places, energy costs are too low (my apologies to those who heat with fuel oil). Second, and more important, it takes effort. Most people lead very busy lives, working long days away from home, so it’s difficult to make the frequent changes needed to manage their energy use better.
I have the luxury of working at home, which allows me to monitor indoor and outdoor temperatures and humidity throughout the day. Whenever the temperature outside is close to a comfortable level, my windows and doors are open. This summer, I only use air conditioning when the outside temperature climbs over 82 (or if I have guests in the house), allowing me to open the house almost every evening until about mid-morning, when I close everything up. I keep the AC set at about 84, use fans judiciously, and dress for the weather (you don’t want to see what I’m wearing as I write this). My house isn’t perfectly comfortable, but it is bearable most of the time. I am willing to live with some slight discomfort to cut down on my power use, and I am here to manually manage ventilation as needed during the day.
Our long-term challenge is twofold: How do we encourage people to learn to widen their comfort range, and provide them with the tools, the time, and the wherewithal to manage their homes to use less energy on a daily basis?