An(other) Inconvenient Truth
by Gabriel Cross
For greenhouse gases, like so many other things in our environment, too little and too much are equally problematic. Life is a balancing act, a tightrope walk, and anything which tips the balance one way or the other can lead to a show stopping, devastating end. Take salt, for example: you can’t live without it, but as any sailor knows drinking salt water will kill you quicker than thirst.
Similarly, greenhouse gases play an important role in keeping the earth at temperatures that can sustain life. Too little means too cold, and too much too hot. No one (who understands it) questions the physics behind the greenhouse effect, and no one questions that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, this was discovered long ago and has been tested repeatedly since.
Starting with the industrial revolution, we have been pumping extra greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, more every year, and primarily carbon dioxide. The results: this summer is the hottest summer in the history of humans recording temperatures on a global scale, with all of the crop failures and droughts that that record implies. So why don’t we just stop generating carbon dioxide?
Well, the answer to that question is the ‘other’ inconvenient truth alluded to in the title of this column: fossil fuels are awesome. As a friend of mine who is an engineer explained it to me: there is no other convenient way that we can store so much energy in such a tiny volume. And it is not for a lack of trying, believe me.
Battery technology gets better every year, but even the most efficient electric vehicles rarely get more than 100 miles on a single charge. The average gas burner, on the other hand, can generally go 3 times as far on one full tank of fuel. As another example, solar technology and wind turbines (so far) cannot compete with coal power plants for energy output, and have pretty serious hurdles to overcome in the area of consistency. So while these sources are sustainable, infinitely cleaner, and overwhelmingly more efficient, when the desired result is a light bulb that comes on at the same intensity every time you flip that switch, coal is what provides the consistency to your grid. That is why roughly 2/3 of our electricity still comes from fossil fuels, and less than 1/10 from renewable, sustainable sources.
We can generate energy in much more efficient ways than by burning fossil fuels, which waste massive amount of energy in powering the grid. Hydroelectric plants, for example, are supremely efficient, generate plenty of energy, produce absolutely no pollution at all, and require less maintenance. The only downside is that the water supply is somewhat seasonal (which is usually evened out by dams), and there is no way to store excess energy.
If you were tasked with designing a system to store excess energy for later use, you would be hard pressed to come up with something as efficient (at storing energy), compact, transportable, and with such longevity as gasoline or coal. That is precisely why we are having such a hard time kicking our habit of burning through fossil fuels to run our increasingly high power life styles. When it comes down to it, it is very very difficult to generate the same amount of on-demand electricity with the same consistency and move the same amount of freight without burning fossil fuels. So what can we possibly do? The short answer: use less energy, reduce the amount of stuff we ship.
In the long term, it may be possible to generate the same amount of energy that we use today without emitting carbon dioxide, but it is not going to happen this year, next, or next decade most likely. So in the interim, reducing energy demand is the only way that we can reign in our run away greenhouse gas emissions. Living a more energy efficient lifestyle, in
other words, is the only thing that will keep us balanced on the tight rope.