Sunday, October 21, 2007

Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energies

I read the chapter in Towards Sustainable Communities related to energy efficiency and renewable energy and the chapters in New Energy for Cities related to renewable energy and building performance. The readings supported my belief that renewable energies are now ready to take over the world’s electrical grids. As more coal plants get cancelled and even prohibited in some places, we will see further economies of scale of renewables further making these highly adaptable and suitable for sustainable growth.

From the first reading, it was very interesting to see what cities and utilities are doing to finance renewable energy and energy efficiency. It is typically cheaper to reduce energy use than it is to expand energy capacity. Many utilities do not understand this. Some utilities in the West (such as PG&E) actually provide incentives that reduce energy use in households, giving both homeowners and themselves the benefits of prevented energy expansion projects. In addition, such incentives are key to maintaining a vibrant economy, as the financial savings that homeowners accrue multiply across the economy as they flow. Another great example that came to my attention was the deep lake cooling project in Enwave, which uses cold water from the depths of Lake Ontario. Cornell has a similar system called Lake Source Cooling that cools the campus during the summer.

In the Apollo Alliance reading, there are many excellent examples of how cities are taking first steps. It makes a clear argument that renewable energies are not cost-competitive with fossil fuels, yet it fails to mention large renewable energy projects, of which there are many. I think the best case studies are those in the area of building standards and energy efficiency, where cities like Seattle, Dallas, and Chicago have set standards or provided incentives for green buildings. It is unfortunate, however, to not see an example of where standards for new buildings have been set for entire cities. This is a bold step that would probably require subsidies to offset the additional costs to low-income people, but it could well be funded with some type of energy efficiency mechanism that includes, for example, zero-interest on long-term payments.

In spite of all the great tools and examples being shown in these readings, these all fall short of what needs to take place to eliminate the use of fossil fuels. Cities need to be more committed to setting standards city-wide for energy efficiency and to training citizens to do these kinds of jobs. They also need to find ways of procuring more renewable energy in the city. One large obstacle, of course, is that there aren’t many states giving worthy incentives. In addition, the federal government hasn’t taken energy as a priority at all. Reducing energy use by roughly 10-20% is important, but it will not do the job we need to do. I think any overview of energy efficiency and renewable energy needs to discuss the underlying reasons for these. It also needs to discuss what the barriers to implementation are in a larger scale and what the possibilities of getting to that scale are.

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