Alternative Energy Sources Part 2: Technology vs. Humanity
Albert Einstein once said, “It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.” It is hard to believe he could have said that in the early 1920s. What would he say today? I think human beings gamble that we can always figure out how to solve our problems because we are so smart and creative. We have an inordinate faith in science, technology, creativity and ingenuity to find solutions for any problems we create.
For example, we could not have developed to where we are without transportation. But the global nature of business requires that products and people be available quickly. Look at freight; according to CSX moving freight by rail is three times more fuel-efficient than moving freight on the highway. Trains can move a ton of freight more than 436 miles on a single gallon of fuel. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), freight railroads account for just two percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from transportation sources. But if you need it there overnight it will have to go by air. However, air travel greatly increases our carbon footprint.
When I was growing up traveling on an airplane was a major event. But within, say, the last 30 years, air travel has become a way of life as opposed to a major life event.
As I said in Part 1 of this discussion on alternative energy sources, we need to diversify and have several, more efficient ways to produce energy. For example:
- Solar has potential because of the amount of energy that enters our atmosphere every day in solar radiation. With deeper understanding, perhaps we can improve our efficiencies and make up for the fact that the Pacific Northwest, upper Midwest and Great Lakes region do not see sun for large periods of time.
- Nuclear - we haven’t issued a new permit for a nuclear power plant in the United States since Three Mile Island (TMI), which is a big mistake. We haven’t had a significant nuclear accident since TMI and although that event in 1979 had the potential to be tragic, it wasn’t. One of the obstacles that day was the fact that there were only two telephone lines into the facility. The people who knew how to address the problem could not reach the plant. For nuclear power to be more palatable to the general public however we will need to find a more eloquent solution to handling radioactive waste than simply storing on-site.
- Wind – There is definite potential for wind energy but this is a newer focus and is not yet reaching the thresholds needed to support our ever-increasing needs for electricity.
Since cooling buildings is one of the biggest electricity hogs, we need to continue to produce products that can work with alternative energy sources to cut down on electricity consumption. Products such as solar reflective and photovoltaic roofs, especially on commercial buildings, can help us take advantage of these big spaces and have them work for us, not against us.
In a previous blog we touched on the fact that we need to improve our existing building stock as well as build smarter from now on. Because we reroof every 30-40 years, it’s a great opportunity to go back to existing spaces and apply products that work with the sun’s energy. In order to succeed, we have to challenge people to use alternative products without mandating it. The goal is to find the economic incentive for people to do the “right thing.” One way to do this is to rephrase our outlook from upfront cost to life cycle analysis. Consumers have to take the long view on energy savings. We have to change the way we value these things if we are ever going to fund economic incentives to meet the global warming goals of business backed initiatives like the Copenhagen Communiqué.
Lucas Hamilton is Manager, Building Science Applications, for CertainTeed Corporation