Carl Wernicke: Producing Energy To Care

Jun 18, 2014

Credit IHMC

With all the concern about climate change, it’s no surprise that energy production is so much in the news today. It’s a big change for a society that basically assumed that energy came from the light switch, while food came from the grocery store. 

And just as the sustainable food movement has prompted a much-needed understanding of the real costs of cheap food, the energy crisis has opened our eyes to the real cost of all those lights your kids forget to turn off when they leave the room.

I installed solar panels on my house back when it still wasn’t cost efficient, but I’m not jealous of those who are doing it now that it makes economic sense. Well, not too jealous. We also installed a solar water heater when building our house in 2002, but it was a mature technology. I still don’t understand why, in a world desperate to save money we still build houses without a proven device that heats water for free.

One striking parallel between the food and energy movements is how beneficial it is to get people to actually think about what they are doing. Once people started really reading the ingredients labels on the food they were eating, they began to wonder why so many of those ingredients were not actually food.

It’s the same with energy. Once I got my solar panels, cloudy days took on a whole new meaning. Seeing lights burning in an empty room was like discovering the refrigerator door standing open.     

What this change in my thinking really did was make me aware of what a zero-sum game energy is. There really is no such thing as a free lunch.

I have always hated waste. I was a recycler before they called it recycling (my wife called me a packrat, but enlightenment has softened that judgment). I was an early adopter of compact fluorescent bulbs, and as soon as the darn things start to burn out – most of the bulbs in the house are the originals installed in 2002 – I’ll go to L.E.Ds.  

On sunny days when I’m not using the AC or heat, my solar system makes more energy than the house is using. It sells the excess to the grid. In other words, free energy, right? Leave those lights burning and who cares?

No, someone still has to pay for lunch. Every kilowatt of solar energy I waste means one less to sell to the grid, and one more the local power plant must produce, burning coal in the process. And every kilowatt I have to buy means a higher power bill.

Meanwhile, the house is full of electronic displays and devices like the TV that never go fully off, idling on low power so that they can come on faster when I hit the switch.

But the math remains inexorable. Until I can produce all of my energy from solar or some other similar source, every watt I consume means a watt will have to be produced from fossil fuels. I have tried to reason my way out of this understanding, but there it is.

I suppose I could just sit in the house with all the lights off, but when it comes to energy, we have all been sitting in the dark for too long.