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Climate Change, Energy Conservation, and Sustainability

Humans are changing the earth's climate by burning fossil fuels and destroying forests.  Polar regions have been especially affected, threatening wildlife such as polar bears.  Melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets is causing the sea level to rise, endangering islands and coastal areas.  Warming of the seas causes further sea level rise, and together with acidification from dissolved CO2 it threatens marine species such as coral.  If we continue to burn increasing amounts of fossil fuels, these changes will accelerate, causing severe damage to human populations and the environment during the next fifty to one hundred years.  There is strong evidence the highest safely sustainable level of atmospheric CO2 is 350 parts per million (ppm), but earth is already above that level.  It is urgent to reduce CO2 emissions to the lowest level possible before the effects become irreversible.

Current chart and data for atmospheric CO2

The only way that climate change can be slowed and eventually stabilized or reversed is to drastically reduce the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases we generate.  Energy conservation is part of the answer, since we currently use far more energy than necessary.  Another part is to move from dependency to fossil fuels and other non-renewable resources to sustainable alternatives.

BBC News reviews the evidence, the consequences, and the options in a report on climate change from their Weather Centre.

The Union of Concerned Scientists web site contains objective scientific information about global warming, its causes and effects, and what can be done to minimize it.

Energy Conservation (revised July 25, 2013)

Each of us can take steps to reduce our energy consumption, thereby reducing climate change.  One simple thing is to look for Energy Star labels on all light bulbs, appliances, computers, and even new homes.  Another is to purchase the most efficient automobiles available.  These are generally hybrids, although some conventional gasoline and diesel models achieve EPA ratings in the 30s and 40s.

By far the easiest way to save energy is to replace incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs), or better yet, LED (light emitting diode) bulbs.  CFLs which screw into ordinary table lamps and fixtures are now available at most local hardware stores and even grocery stores.  They are more expensive to purchase than incandescent lamps, but they last about 6 to 15 times as long and use only 20% to 25% as much energy.  LEDs use even less electricty and last more than 25 times as long as incandescent bulbs.  Both CFLs and LEDs save far more money over their lifetime than they cost initially -- think of them as light bulbs that give you money back on your electric bill.

The big news is that LED bulb are now readily available, and the prices have come way down.  Home Depot generally has the best price and selection, but Lowe's is a close second.  For example, at Home Depot a CREE 40-watt replacement LED bulb (which uses only 6 watts) currently costs $9.97, while a Philips 60-watt equivalent LED costs $10.97 and uses 10.5 watts (prices as of 7/25/2013).

When I replaced the incandescentc light bulbs in my home with CFLs, I saved about 100 kilowatt hours per month.  At $0.10 per kilowatt hour, that amounts to $10 per month or $120 per year.  So over their life of about 5 years (10,000 hours), they saved me about $600.  It has been estimated that if every household in the United States replaced just one light bulb with a compact fluorescent lamp, the electricity saved would be equivalent to the output of a large nuclear power station.  Given that most of the energy would actually be produced by fossil fuels, the EPA estimates that the carbon emissions avoided would be equal to those of almost 800,000 automobiles.

Compact fluorescent lampsAll the lamps in the picture at left put out approximately the same amount of light, 800 to 890 lumens.  The incandescent lamp in the center uses 60 watts of power, the circa 1990 CFLs on the left (which I'm still using in my home) use 15 watts, and the present-day CFLs on the right use 13 to 14 watts.  LED bulbs (not pictured) do even better, producing the same amount of light for 9.5 to 12 watts.  Unlike CFLs, LEDs do not require any warm-up time and their life is not shortened by being switched on and off frequently.  Many LEDs are also dimmable.

Look for the Energy Star logo on CFLs and LEDs to make sure they meet certain minimum standards.  Early CFLs were too bulky to fit in some fixtures, and sometimes tended to flicker or produce greenish light.  All these problems have been solved, as well as the "power factor" problem.  Models are readily available to fit almost anywhere an incandescent lamp is used, including spotlights and outdoor floodlights.  For outdoors, be sure to use weatherproof lamps or enclosures.  Bear in mind that CFLs become noticeably dimmer below about 20 F (-7 C), though they can function down to about -10 F or even -20 F (-23 to -29 C), but temperature is not a problem with LEDs.
LED lights on porch
Even very small LED lamps have their uses.  I'm using one as a porch light, and find that it gives enough light for the purpose even though it draws only 1.2 watts.  Unlike most newer LEDs, the light is bluish white (6000 K color temperature, similar to daylight or moonlight), which matches our LED solar Christmas lights and solar lanterns.  (Click picture at right for a larger image.)

solar lanterns   Solar powered yard lanterns are another way to provide light outdoors, and they generate their own electricity.  I have replaced the original nickel-cadmium AA batteries with nickel metal hydride, and occasionally polish the plastic lenses of the solar cells to keep them working efficiently.


We will always need sources of energy, even though we use them as efficiently as possible.  Sustainable or renewable energy sources are those which have minimal impact on the environment and do not rely on fossil fuel.  Most of these derive energy from the sun, either directly or indirectly (such as wind energy or biomass).

In the same way, some materials such as food and fibers from plants can be produced sustainably.  Buying food from local organic farms saves energy used for transport and the production of agricultural chemicals, while producing less pollution.

The Rocky Mountain Institute is a research and consulting organization devoted to sustainability.  There is a wealth of information on their web site.  Although some of their ideas may seem visionary, most of them only require currently available technology.  For example, they have helped the semiconductor industry save vast amounts of energy in chip fabs, mainly by better design of ventilation systems in clean rooms.

Widespread use of sustainable energy will require extensive infrastructure changes.  These are already beginning, for example with the construction of large-scale wind turbine installations, but changes in government policy are needed to accelerate the process.  Other countries, such as Denmark and Germany, are far ahead of the United States in sustainable energy generation.

Meanwhile, we can use sustainable energy on a small scale in our homes.  Electric generation by photovoltaic panels or small wind generators can be stand-alone or tied in with the electric grid.  Passive or active solar heating is virtually free to operate once constructed.  It can be as simple as opening and closing the curtains on our windows, or we can build sun spaces or collectors and heat storage to produce most of our heat and hot water.

Further reading

Winning the Oil Endgame: Innovation for Profits, Jobs, and Security, by Amory B. Lovins et al (Rocky Mountain Institute 2005), ISBN 1-881071-10-3.  This study, financed in part by the Pentagon, shows how the United States can eliminate half of our oil use by the year 2025, with a net savings of $70 billion per year.

How to live a low-carbon life, by Chris Goodall (Earthscan 2007), ISBN 978-1-84407-426-6.  The basic theme of this book is that is that individuals must act first to voluntarily reduce their own greenhouse gas emissions before corporations and governments will act, and that action is very urgent.

Goodall has made a detailed study of the quantity of greenhouse gasses emitted per person in the U.K. which shows that at least a 75% reduction is needed to meet sustainable levels.  The good news is that it is possible for individuals to achieve these reductions today.  U.S. readers will find that most of his recommendations can be applied here as well, but the necessary reductions may be larger.

Real Goods Solar Living Source Book (12th ed), by John Schaeffer (Real Goods 2005), ISBN 0-916571-05-X (available from Solar Living Institute).  This is a unique blend of reference book and catalog, which teaches the basics of sustainable construction, energy conservation and sustainable power followed by catalog pages with multiple products in each category.  

As the name of the book implies, there is considerable information on solar power generation, but also wind power, mini-hydroelectric, hay-bale construction, composting toilets, and much more.  Whether or not you buy materials from Real Goods, this is an informative and useful book.


Last updated July 25, 2013

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