Mark Brandon is the Managing Partner of First Sustainable (http://www.firstsustainable.com), a registered investment advisory catering to socially responsible investors. In addition to Socially Responsible Investing (SRI), he may opine on social venturing, microfinance, community investing, clean technology commercialization, sustainability public policy, green products, and, on occasion, University of Texas Longhorn sports.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Heat Waves Highlight Need for Conservation

Record temperatures throughout the US this week are only the beginning of the pain. Next month, when utility bills are received, northerners will only begin to understand. Energy demand is taxing all utitlities, and even though the grid is being monitored closely, the chance of brownouts and rolling blackouts remains high. For some, this heat wave will be the opportunity to lobby for more power plants, but conservation will be the lowest hanging fruit.

Our world consumes 13 terawatts of electricity each year, 80 percent of which comes from fossil fuel sources. Most of that power comes from coal, the dirtiest source of all, accounting for 37 percent of all greenhouse emissions. It not only contributes prodigiously to our global warming problem, it is also a source of mercury in our streams and metals in our soils. Humanity suffers from a cosmic curse that coal is most abundant in the U.S., China, and India. Despite all the evidence of its destructiveness, coal is on the drawing board more than any other source to meet surging needs in those countries.

However, each community has within its power the ability to practice the cleanest form of energy production around, conservation. Keeping those fossil fuels in the ground, or at least, slowing the rate at which they are pulverized and exploded, is not only the cleanest, but it provides an immediate monetary incentive in the form of savings. If your community needs to build a coal-fired plant, it will cost tens of millions and be belching CO2 for 50-60 years. Or, you could create a light bulb tradeout program that will cost a fraction, keep money in the community, and keep some coal in the ground. Even if a community purchased, gave away, and paid for installation of 3 Compact fluorescent Light Bulbs for each family, 8-10 percent of demand would vanish. And, it would take a fraction of the cost of building a new plant.

Many city-owned utilities offer energy audits for their customers, but few take advantage. Widespread insulation and caulking could save another 5-8 percent. The same could be said for smart windows, and efficient refrigerators and HVAC units. The best estimates from government agencies show that 40 percent of all electricity use could be eliminated with minimal top-down conservation.

Of course, this is not done for several reasons. First, even though it is exceedingly difficult to get the permits to build a power plant, it is still easier than trying to get 250,000 people to change their ways. Second, our government's subsidy programs are mostly geared toward finding new supply. The Energy Dept's Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy office functions on half a billion dollars per year, which has been cut by the Bush Administration. Oil exploration subsidies to already fat corporations alone consume 10 times that. Third, maybe we, as Americans, have not yet suffered enough. In 2003, fifteen thousand people lost their lives in Europe as a result of that year's catastrophic heat wave. This was not in some backwards third world country.

Stay cool.

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