Solving overlapping crises

We are faced with several overlapping and conflicting crises, each demanding a preferred solution. One is overconsumption of resources. Evidence continues to mount that increasing population growth and rising standards of living are using natural resources at a rate exceeding the planet’s ability to supply them. Overfishing is the classic example of using resources at a rate that exceeds the reproductive ability of fish. After years of heavy fishing, eventually only small juvenile fish are left. It may take years, if ever, for the population to recover. Similar concerns are being raised about energy, water and agricultural lands.

According to Global Footprint, if the world’s population consumed resources at the rate the U.S. does, people would need an additional five planets. As competition for resources intensifies, armed conflicts are likely to occur. Reducing our energy dependence is one means to reduce the likelihood of our being involved in energy resource wars.

Others point out that we use energy to do work that has very little benefit. An example is using a 4,000-pound vehicle to move one 150-pound person. More efficient cars, increased walking and biking, increased use of buses and trains and more work done at home could all help reduce energy consumption.

Heating, cooling and lighting an entire 3,000-square-foot home to a uniform level for one or two people is also very wasteful when only heating, cooling and lighting the few rooms regularly used will suffice. Better yet, sharing a home with others or moving into a smaller residence would cut energy consumption dramatically. Perhaps 140 square feet of living space seems drastic for many, but friends have lived well in 600 square feet with money left over for an active social life.

Engineers have yet to address other wasteful energy practices. Heat released by air conditioners and refrigerators is an example. Pumping heat out of the refrigerator into the house, then cooling the house with an air conditioner seems absurd. Perhaps refrigeration units could be designed to use condenser heat for domestic hot water, or dump it outdoors in summer and indoors in winter.

After implementing efficiency, it is time to join the renewable energy revolution. The United Nations has recently concluded that renewable energy sources could provide 25 percent of the world’s electricity by 2030. Achim Steiner, executive director of the U.N. environment program, noted that bankers and fund managers are investing in technologies that address global warming concerns. In 2006, it was estimated that $70 billion was invested in renewable energy globally. Based on existing trends, it is anticipated that global expenditures on renewable energy could reach $85 billion in 2007.

While encouraging, investments in renewable energy pale in comparison to global energy investments of nearly a trillion dollars. Greenpeace points out that BP and Shell Oil, which proudly proclaim their green credentials, still only invest about 5 percent of their funds in renewable energy sources while 95 percent of investment dollars are still going into oil and natural gas projects.

The bulk of investments in renewable energy are driven by tax incentives and government grants, which help lower their costs. The U.N. report indicates 40 percent of the funds go to wind power, 26 percent to biofuels and 16 percent to solar energy.

Illinois recently passed a renewable portfolio standard that requires that 25 percent of our electricity will be produced by renewable energy sources by 2025. The standard indicates that 75 percent of that energy will come from wind. It’s a small step in the right direction.

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are founders and officers of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association and coordinate the annual Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair. They have 3.2 kW of PV and a 1 kW wind generator at their home. Forty acres of their 180-acre home farm are in ecological restorations. They are also active in preserving natural areas. They are retired professors from Northern Illinois University.

from the Aug. 22-28, 2007, issue

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