Reflections on the future

With some reluctance, we use the phrase “the Energy Fair was bigger and better than ever.” While the phrase is a fitting description, it has long been used to promote unending growth in global population and consumption, which essentially turns the rich natural planetary ecosystem into goods and services while ignoring adverse environmental and economic impacts.

This bigger and better event explores a variety of means to use energy more efficiently, use cleaner energy sources, keep more energy dollars and jobs in the community, and lessen the adverse effects of our energy consumption on the environment.

This year’s event had more speakers, a greater diversity of topics, more booths and more participants than last year. As organizers, we were far less stressed as we had a year of experience, more volunteers and a better sense of the tasks to be done. We had excellent volunteers prior to, during, and after the fair. They brought energy, skills, and enthusiasm to the myriad of tasks inherent in an event of this size.

There were more children and more events for children. Food choices increased with a vegetarian booth and one devoted exclusively to smoothies.

A collection of alternatively-powered vehicles, including electric, hybrid electric, soy diesel, and biodiesel were displayed. Participants could hear the motors and engines hum away and ask the owners and builders a full range of questions about the nuts and bolts of their vehicles.

This year’s fair featured two major speakers. John Perlin spoke enthusiastically and knowledgeably about the progress of silicon solar cells over the past 50 years. The solar future looks bright with a never-ending stream of incremental improvements in cell efficiency and an ever-broadening number of uses for solar panels. As production continues to increase and solar electricity is increasingly grid connected and integrated into building construction, the cost of solar cells continues to decline. With rising oil and natural gas prices, the economic competitiveness of solar electricity increases annually. Growth rates around 25 percent a year will allow more widespread use of the technology.

Thorsteinn Sigfusson explained of how Iceland intends to power its entire transportation system on hydrogen fuel. They have three fuel cell-powered buses in operation and opened the world’s first commercial hydrogen refueling station this past April in Reykjavik. The plan is a long-range project that could take up to 50 years to fully implement.

Sigfusson considered his initial presentation the beginning of a long-term working relationship with the Illinois Renewable Energy Association. Later, we spent about a half day discussing follow up activities over the course of the next year. As plans crystalize, we will describe them in future columns in The Rock River Times. Immediately after the Fair, Sigfusson flew to Oslo, Norway, to discuss how to spread the hydrogen economy to other parts of the European Union. While Iceland is initiating the hydrogen economy, the model they are developing must be modified to fit other climates and economic conditions.

One highly significant concept in the Icelandic approach is the long-range thinking embodied in their effort. Iceland spent 30 years switching from oil to geothermal heating systems. Their effort to switch to a hydrogen economy is also a long-term commitment. This perspective stands in marked contrast to the chaotic, ever-changing nature of our national and state public policies, which guide our energy developments. We spend years making incremental improvements in efficiency, air quality, pollution control, only to have them destroyed by sudden policy changes that make orderly technological progress and market development difficult to achieve.

The chaos that characterizes much of our public policy is often a preferred by some interests. The president of a large New York investment firm endorsed chaos in a Wall Street Journal article published during an economic crisis in the early 1980s. Chaotic conditions were described as presenting enormous opportunities to secure massive profits in a very short period of time. As in the case of the California energy crisis, the artificially-created chaos transferred billions of dollars from one set of interests to another set. Much personal pain was inflicted on those legitimate interests who lost billions of dollars.

What would be the result if the billions of dollars lost had been invested in building a clean, renewable, sustainable energy system for California? The economies of California and much of the United States would be in far better condition. Renewable energy sources would be far less costly, our air would be cleaner, and less CO2 would be warming our climate. When the declaration is made that renewable energy sources are either not ready or too expensive, consider how much power individuals and communities would regain if they reduced their vulnerability to the energy chaos inflicted by distant decision-makers. We could recapture power through efficiency and renewables and provide more local jobs, which help rebuild the local economy.

While this year’s event is over, other events are planned. Check for an electric car event Sept. 13 in River Grove and an introductory pv workshop on Sept. 20 near Oregon.

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