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The Real Cost of Cheap Energy

Where does your energy come from? Although I live in Colorado now, I grew up in East Tennessee, where many people still assume their power is fairly clean, dominated by 90-year-old hydroelectric plants. In truth, more than 50 percent of my family’s electricity was generated from coal, and still is. I didn’t think about it much.

What price are we paying for energy apathy? What price will our children pay? As a child, I watched coal-seamed mountaintops disappear in the face of an energy crisis. Potentially potable water now goes to the highest bidders for gas and oil extraction, despite record-breaking drought. Last month marked the second anniversary of BP’s Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, and the Gulf Coast ecology and economy are slowly recovering. Deforestation, now contributing more to greenhouse gas emissions than transportation, is increasing in previously protected areas as a result of oil and gas exploration and extraction.

In an age of anthropogenic deforestation and wetlands loss, with only about 61 trees per capita on Earth, can we really afford to pay the price that this industry demands? Can we guarantee that our descendants will inherit a thriving planet? A recent survey says that only 24 percent of Americans are knowledgeable about energy. We know more about Kim Kardashian than about the energy that directly affects us, whether we want to or not.

To overcome energy apathy, the best remedy is knowledge. Understand the evolution of energy and its path from conservation of limited natural fuels such as whale oil, to the height of conspicuous consumption throughout the industrial age, to the innovation of 21st century clean energy, and finally to efficiency—beautifully engineered systems, buildings, cities, and machines.

Humanity's Energy Evolution

Efficiency is yet a relatively untapped energy source—often forgotten in the face of shiny solar arrays and wind farms. RMI’s research for Reinventing Fire reveals $5 trillion (with twelve zeros) in U.S. energy efficiency savings sitting on the table waiting to be claimed—more if we can move more quickly toward efficiency. That’s $3,205 per person in today’s dollars unrealized—a high fiscal price to pay for energy apathy and just the tip of the iceberg.

We can choose not to pay that price.

Energy efficiency is a powerful economic driver in the face of a slow recovery. It has the potential to generate many jobs in a struggling construction sector. Deep energy retrofits increase property values and revitalize neighbourhoods, because this requires a comprehensive approach to reducing energy while improving the owner and occupant experience. Efficiency drives research and innovation, resulting in new technologies with potential for increased American manufacturing and continuous job creation.

Well-engineered, efficient buildings, cities, and systems reflect the highest evolution of energy. They are beautiful and simple, often emulating nature’s own processes and improving quality of life.

Energy efficiency isn’t only about high-tech air conditioners; it’s not just batteries and electrons. It is manifested in living and work spaces turned to the outdoors, walkable cities, bike paths that keep us connected physically and culturally, eating fresh and delicious regional foods, daylight pouring into a workplace where ideas bloom like the trees that shade the building.

Some say energy efficiency isn’t sexy, so it’s a hard sell. I think it’s very exciting, and it’s why I come to work every day. It carries tremendous potential for good things, including the potential to cure the world of energy apathy.

By. Elaine Gallagher

Elaine Gallagher is a Senior Consultant with Rocky Mountain Institute. This piece was originally published at RMI’s Solutions Blog and was reprinted with permission.


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