The case for renewables and efficiency grows stronger

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President,
Illinois Renewable Energy Association

Advocacy for powering our economy with electricity to move away from fossil fuels to more sustainable energy including efficiency and renewable sources is growing.

A report from the Brattle Group points out that rapid progress in renewable energy technologies is capable of undercutting demand for liquefied natural gas for electrical production and heating. Advocating natural gas as the transition fuel for a clean energy future appears to be losing some of its appeal.

Burning fossil fuels is often done in a way that wastes a great deal of energy. Utilities commonly generate electricity by consuming fuels to boil water, use the steam to power turbines and then dump the heat into the air or surrounding bodies of water wasting two-thirds of the energy used in the process. If the hot water were used as a heat source for heating buildings or industrial processes a dramatic reduction in wasted energy would occur. The process known as co-generation is well understood but still underutilized in our current economy.

The recent surge in natural gas production from fracking has given us low prices for now. The fracking boom was driven by federal policies providing an abundant supply of low cost money to facilitate the effort of increasing natural gas supplies. Ignored in the fracking boom were environmental problems of water and air pollution, an increase in earthquakes associated with the process and the need to use more energy to secure new supplies. Also ignored was the release of methane and its contribution to climate change and the fact that natural gas is a finite resource which should be used more judiciously.

Another approach was possible and remains so today. Natural gas burns at a very high temperature which is useful in industrial processes such as glass and cement manufacturing. This is difficult to reach using solar energy. However an enormous amount of natural gas is wasted to heat our buildings and provide hot water for home and commercial uses. Those services could be effectively provided by using solar hot water and heat pumps. Yet these approaches remain underutilized.

With energy efficiency in existing buildings continually upgraded and more new homes and buildings meeting higher efficiency standards we could be well along a path of dramatic reductions in energy consumption. If climate change necessitates a very rapid transition to renewable energy and accelerated adoption of energy efficiency, the process would be more costly but could stimulate a rapid increase in available jobs.

Policies and incentives to shift from natural gas to electrical supplies for heating and hot water supplies for homes and commercial applications could lead to a slower and less costly transition. With water heaters and gas dryers having an average lifespan of around 15 years and gas furnaces of 25 years, our societal transition could be well advanced by 2030.

If individuals and communities produced more of their own electricity and encouraged the use improved energy efficiency applications along with solar hot water and heat pumps, local economies would be strengthened.

The technologies for such a transition are reliable and readily available but the political will essential for it to occur remains muted.

Authors’ notes:

The Prairie Preservation Society of Ogle County (PPSOC) will host tours and work days this spring, summer and fall. Tours will focus on viewing and learning about beautiful prairie plants. Work days will help participants learn what plants need to be controlled and how to control them. There will also be opportunities to help restore parts of the native landscape.

The next two tour/work days will be held on May 21 and June 4 at Sand Ridge. Meet at 2879 S. Daysville Rd., Oregon, at 9 a.m. Wear comfortable shoes. Expect to see lovely flowers and pull a few weeds. Each will take about two hours.

Watch for information on further tour and work days.

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