Soft Path

Hard Path




Fuel Cells





  In the early '70s, Amory Lovins introduced us to the concept of the Soft Energy Path. I remember his argument in favor of it. It's cheaper. The Hard Energy Path is what we are on now. It is expensive and unsustainable. Amory introduced the concept of negawatts. It is cheaper to use energy efficiently than create new central generation facilities. A penny saved is a penny earned. If you build new generation stations to power the new population, it's going to cost a lot of money. More people need more energy. You are better off using less power by using it more efficiently.  Single family homes and all other buildings, should be designed to use a minimum of energy. I met a man from Atlanta several years ago who complained that his power bill in the summer was over $500 a month. Wouldn't it be smarter to design the house to stay cool in the summer? You would have to put a lot of tax-deductible dollars into hardware and software systems when building the house to effect the difference in the total of mortgage payment and utility payment.

People don't really want kilowatts, they want light and warmth and coolth and mobility. The Soft Energy Path asks the question, "What is the best way to provide these things?" 

The Soft Energy Path (SEP) says that it makes more sense to design and build things with energy efficiency in mind than to continue to use energy inefficiently. A Soft Energy Path employs more people and creates opportunities for local tradesmen, manufacturers and installers. 

One of my favorite examples is lighting. The following is borrowed from Rocky Mountain Institute's Lighting Brief.

"Lighting uses about a fourth of all electricity used in the United States, consuming the energy produced by 120 large power plants (about 4/5 directly and 1/5 in extra air conditioning energy to remove unwanted heat). By using the most efficient sources of electric light in the most effective ways, and by capturing more of the daylight reaching our homes and businesses, we can profitably save up to 90% of this electricity."

A 20 watt Compact Fluorescent bulb puts out the same amount of light as a 75 watt incandescent bulb. It last for 10,000 hours and costs $7.05. An incandescent bulb lasts less than a thousand hours and costs about 2 bucks. You figure it out. 

Consider the impact of the government's announcement that they were going to deploy a free CFL bulb giveaway plan through local utilities. The Feds let out an order for 100,000,000 bulbs. I would expect Sylvania would duke it out with GE and Phillips for the business. Prices would drop. The customer gets them free for promising to use them. The goal is to aggressively obsolete the incandescent bulb. Maybe it would be a good idea to add a "Bad Design" tax of a couple of bucks to make the argument more compelling.

Instead of using an electric light, consider a solar light. These can be specified in new homes and be relatively easy to install in existing buildings.  http://www.solatube.com/

    The reason why we are told that we need more generation plants is for a growing America. That's plausible. We need more new homes, new factories and more office buildings for a growing population. What we should require or incentivize for is technology that puts the least drain on the grid.

In 1989, Lovins gave an address before the Green Energy Conference in Montreal. An excerpt:
"Energy and the economy have a strong bearing on international competitiveness, as it does also for Canada. For example, the United States spends over twice as much of its wealth on energy as Japan does, by percentage. That gives a typical Japanese export an automatic cost advantage of 5 percent. But it is really much worse than that, because when you use energy inefficiently, you leverage enormous sums of capital into inefficient energy supply systems. Even today, in the twilight of the big steam plant era, the United States, for example, is spending about sixty billion dollars per year -- half of it in private investment, half in federal subsidy -- on expanding electric supply. That is about the same as our total investment in all durable goods manufacturing. It is not surprising that our durable manufacturers are uncompetitive in the world market; we are spending our money on the wrong things."

If the builder of a new home were to invest $10,000 in a solar photovoltaic array and solar water heating, that investment would result in a monthly mortgage increase of about $65. That investment of $65 a month would be offset by substantially more in reduced utility bills. PV arrays have a life of 30 years.

It would be pretty difficult to do a comparison of the life-cycle energy costs for a home. We don't know what electricity will cost in 10 or 20 years, but it would be safe to bet that will cost more then. As more energy-efficient designs become available and publicized, homebuyers will have more choices. Home builders will start selling homes based on performance and not just the normal things like the distance to the nearest school and Taco-Time. "Our Bellaire model only uses $200 of electricity a year."

An opportunity exists today for home owners and home builders to let Uncle Sam pay part of the bill. Improvements made to use energy more efficiently are part of the mortgage, the interest on which is tax deductible. It is unlikely that congress will ever pass a law giving utility payments tax deductible status. You will always pay your utility bill with after-tax dollars.

Here is a very good article.

The big question is: Can we do it in time? Can we change the views of Americans about energy policy and get enough done in time to avert tragedy? The tragedy being that of suffering a flicker, a large variation in normal weather patterns that could last 10 years or longer. Agriculture and many other things change. Imagine the disruption if the American Midwest experiences five or ten years of more drought. Canada would become the bread-basket of North America.

For information about the impact of climate change on your region or sector, please visit http://www.climatehotmap.org/impacts/index.html

Pretty Big News Item

And then...

"Key findings of the Pentagon

Sunday February 22, 2004
The Observer

* Future wars will be fought over the issue of survival rather than religion, ideology or national honour.

* By 2007 violent storms smash coastal barriers rendering large parts of the Netherlands inhabitable. Cities like The Hague are abandoned. In California the delta island levees in the Sacramento river area are breached, disrupting the aqueduct system transporting water from north to south.

* Between 2010 and 2020 Europe is hardest hit by climatic change with an average annual temperature drop of 6F. Climate in Britain becomes colder and drier as weather patterns begin to resemble Siberia.

* Deaths from war and famine run into the millions until the planet's population is reduced by such an extent the Earth can cope.

* Riots and internal conflict tear apart India, South Africa and Indonesia.

* Access to water becomes a major battleground. The Nile, Danube and Amazon are all mentioned as being high risk.

There is more...

Americans like to do things in a big way. We like to build big: big nukes, big dams, big coal mining operations. The new buzzword is distributed generation. This is another way to say build small. Now, more than ever, it makes more sense to not build another nuke or big coal-fired plant and place an order for the same dollar amount among the current manufacturers of photovoltaic arrays and solar water heaters, local contractors and installers. The employment benefits go to local communities and not to a small group of boomers who go from big project to big project. Or used to.

    I continue to be amazed at the level of subsidy that the Hard Path participants enjoy today. Isn't this a mature industry that ought to be able to pay its way without subsidies from the federal government? Shouldn't the utility ratepayers foot the entire bill for their nuclear generated electricity? If they had to, their homes would be worthless because no one would buy a house with a $37,457 annual utility bill or whatever it would cost. Who knows what the actual number would be. Could East Coast victims of acid rain get a judgment from the ratepayers of Mid-West utilities that created the NOx and SOx that made the rain acidic?