Conserving Energy: The Overlooked Key to Mitigating Climate Disruption

Increasing production of renewable energy at competitive cost is the core strategy for environmentalists whose goal is to reduce carbon emissions and minimize the damage caused by the climate effects of global warming. The goal is to replace fossil fuel energy production with clean renewable energy production. It is widely known that per capita energy use has increased significantly in recent years. But the idea of limiting or reducing total energy use is rarely a topic of discussion among either environmentalists or politicians. Conserving energy is just not that exciting and does not provide a clear target for the investment of capital. Nobody wants to tell the public that its energy consumption is excessive; it’s easier to focus on replacing fossil fuel with ‘renewables.’

The Production Transition

Most of the debate around the growing use of energy has to do with its production. In New Mexico, for example, Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM) is a dominant investor-owned utility company. PNM plans to replace its old San Juan coal-fired plant with other coal-sourced and nuclear-sourced energy production. New Energy Economy is a clean energy advocacy group trying to get the state’s Public Regulatory Commission (PRC) to reject the plan and require more investment in solar and wind energy production. Critics complain that the plan will lock New Mexico ‘rate payers’ into costly liability for (1) future damage to the environment and public health caused by continued mining and burning of coal in the Four Corners region, and (2) nuclear power plant risks and huge future decommissioning costs. And the costs of producing electricity will be greater as well. PNM is one of the most intransigent utilities in the nation, seemingly dragging its feet in every way possible to block solar and wind energy production. PNM’s ownership of and partnering with other investor-owned utilities in coal, natural gas, and nuclear facilities most likely are drivers of its plans.

California has structured its relations with utilities differently. Incentives are in place that allow utilities to make more money if energy is conserved. Significant investments are being made in very large solar farms in the high desert to reduce dependence on burning fossil fuel. In contrast, despite boasting some 300 days of annual sunshine and a lot of wind, the state of New Mexico has taken little advantage of alternative forms of energy production. Yet, whatever level of effort made at reducing carbon emissions by converting from fossil fuels to alternative or renewable forms of energy production, the problem is almost universally seen as only an economic conversion problem. That is, if we just get off using fossil fuels and convert to renewable sources of energy, carbon emissions will go down and climate catastrophe will be averted. But that is not quite true.

How much is the addition of solar and wind powered energy production helping us reduce carbon emissions? Well, not so much. In the U.S., emissions have continued to increase. Every discussion of how to mitigate climate change is framed in a context of assuring continued economic growth. In that context, solar and wind add to the total energy production and may even encourage more consumption and waste.

Houston, we have a contradiction!  First, the entire economic system is structured to encourage over-consumption. The culture focuses almost entirely on economic materialism. Second, the consumer culture is now infused with the idea that everything must be upgraded at shorter and shorter intervals. Current product replacement regimes far surpass the old slower paced “planned obsolescence” product design criteria. The “greening” of marketing and advertising do not reflect production and consumption practices that would result in any energy conservation. The entire environmental movement, it seems, has been captured and marketed as another means to achieve the economic growth encouraged by the corporate state.

Another even more disturbing problem has been brought to light but has not been widely discussed among solar or wind power ‘productivists.’* The new high technologies for renewable energy production not only consume considerable quantities of fossil-fuel sourced energy in their manufacture and installation. They also deploy significant amounts of the rare earth, heavy metals, and other exotic and toxic materials. These are the same materials used in the production of all the microelectronics in computers, smart phones, and the endless array of ‘smart devices’ that comprise the burgeoning “Internet of everything.” The manufacture of such devices consumes vast quantities of water, polluting it in the process, in addition to materials that are increasingly in short supply and often very toxic. Hardware upgrades constitute a growing problem of waste and pollution rarely talked about or considered in assessing the value of ‘renewable’ sources of energy.

Social Transformation, Not Production Transition

When the energy consumed in producing renewable energy production systems is combined with looming shortages of materials and increasing waste and pollution, it becomes clear that transitioning from fossil-fuel energy to ‘renewables’ will fall far short of achieving the reduction in carbon emissions necessary to avoid climate chaos over the next few decades.

Other strategies, often simpler and with far less environmental impact, are available, but they will require that we radically reorganize our economy, social policies, and the way we live. Devising ways to reduce energy use and waste will require a lot of creativity and work; this will generate jobs that use relatively little energy while directly reducing the excessive energy use and waste that cause carbon emissions. Investment in such jobs will be in direct conflict with the capital investment regime under which we now live.
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* Ozzie Zehner, Green Illusions: The Dirty Secrets of Clean Energy and the Future of Environmentalism. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2012. Zehner’s insightful and comprehensive study of the intersection of environmentalism and the growth economy goes beyond merely showing how difficult the situation is; he makes valuable suggestions for realistic policy changes that could be far more effective by reducing energy consumption, than the ‘whiz-bang’ high-technology based ‘productivist’ approaches to reestablishing a viable relationship between humanity and our biosphere.

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