I recently attended the Military Energy and Fuels Conference in Alexandria, Virginia. Robbie Diamond, Founder and President of Securing America’s Future Energy (SAFE) made a comment about short term opportunities that once again brings to light what I believe is a critical failure of thinking on America’s energy problem: that in the short term there is “little we can today.” Mr. Diamond suggests, and many believe, that until we can cost effectively deploy renewable energy technologies there is nothing we can do to change America’s outdated energy paradigm.
In fact, there are at least three things we can do today: 1) increase the efficiency of our current infrastructure through demand reduction and changed human behavior; 2) turn the “nope dealers” from a force of evil to a catalyst for change; and 3) make capital and policy investments in new infrastructure.
While it is not a requirement to decrease demand for energy before increasing the use of renewable or alternative energy sources, it is certainly the best practice. It makes no sense to install a 5MW solar array when, after demand reduction measures are completed, you only needed to pay for and site a 3MW array. Demand reduction is the least expensive and most readily available source of energy. Secretary Chu remarked to US News and World Report in March, “I’m all for solar photovoltaics on roofs. But it could make more sense to plug up leaky windows than investing in solar photovoltaic generation on your roof.”
Yes, I know, during his presidential campaign President Obama said that we should put air in our tires and we laughed at him. But it was a moment of poorly explained philosophy rather than uninformed idiocy. Reducing demand, whether in your car or in your house, is the most cost effective and logical first step in changing energy habits. The three most effective energy efficiency building upgrades that can be made are to improve insulation, improve lighting and improve HVAC.
Demand reduction efforts can be made immediately. Every homeowner, business owner, or building manager can slowly morph his home or place of work into a low energy using device. This will decrease the size and expenditure required of any future source of alternative and/or renewable energy projects. As energy conservation measures are made, economies of scale will continue to develop improving the business case for the installation of renewables like wind and solar.
Secondly, every organization has “nope dealers.” You know these folks: they are the ones whose first response is always “no.” No matter how creative, practical and progressive an idea is, when they hear of it, they say no. These are usually people with great knowledge and bureaucratic power. They want to protect and extend that power. They exercise this power by lording rules and regulations of which they are aware, and you aren’t, over your head. Their primary goal is to protect their kingdom not advance the strategic goals of the organization. But these individuals could be great instruments for change. Rather than saying “no” they can be useful in identifying obstacles, people that can help clear those obstacles and creating a realistic way ahead for innovative ideas.
We must not underestimate the impact of the behavioral science issues inherent in changing our energy habits. Our lifestyles are established by years of repetition and we are comfortable with them even if we are not completely happy with them. Change is difficult. It will take time to educate our citizens about the importance and all encompassing nature of energy in today’s political climate. We need the time we have between today and the point in time when renewable energy sources are commercially viable and readily available to all of us. Demand reduction programs by themselves facilitate the education process and the nope dealers themselves can be educated to understand the critical role they can and are expected to play in getting us from where we are today to where we want to be.
Lastly, and Mr. Diamond was correct in pointing out that this step is currently under way, we need to be making capital and policy investments in emerging infrastructure. The cost of new power sources needs to be reduced and new legislation and policy needs to be created to facilitate the deployment of these technologies. Roadblocks that were created years ago need to be removed. Today we must be paving the road to the future by anticipating what the future will be and how we expect to get there.
Our way ahead is not easy nor imminent. But every day is a day to transform. We must understand that change is a process and the small initial steps are as important as the larger, sexier steps we take later on. Individuals must learn to value the process, and emotionally and fiscally value the benefits from taking these smaller steps.