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Monday, April 30, 2007

A Watt Saved is a Watt Earned

The report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is coming out and the way I see it, things aren't all that bad. Fighting global warming is going to be really expensive, for example, but those costs will be recouped down the road in decreased health costs.

The biggest problem facing us is that global leadership needs to be sane. The US ain't got that. In fact, the Bush administration's ideas are downright stupid.

The Guardian:

The final wording of Friday's report will be hammered out during the coming week by scientists and government officials, who must approve it before its release. Publication of the second IPCC report in Brussels earlier this month was delayed after all-night discussions that saw several scientists walk out in protest at what they viewed as political interference.

This week's talks could see similar scenes, particularly as it deals with the political hot potato of how world governments should act together to bring down emissions. The US has lobbied for research into futuristic technology such as giant sunlight-blocking mirrors in space as "insurance", an idea which the draft summary dismisses as "largely speculative, uncosted and with potential for unknown side effects".

Yeah, let's shoot big freakin' mirrors into space -- that'd be much easier than just changing the way we do things. And it wouldn't actually solve anything. We need to cut our carbon output.

One thing I've become interested in is the idea of 'lost energy.' Lost energy is energy spent doing pretty much nothing useful -- lighting surfaces that don't need to be lit, for example. Imagine your local grocery store. It's got big banks of overhead lighting and that lighting isn't just helping you read the label on a can of tomatoes. That lighting is also illuminating the top of the shelves and freezers. In other words, it's lighting areas that no one is looking at. This energy is lost because it's not really doing anything.

But we can recover some of this lost energy. Many people aren't aware of it, but what's commonly referred to as 'solar energy' doesn't actually require sunlight. They're photovoltaic cells; meaning they generate power from any old light. If we put cells on the tops of the shelves and the freezers, we can feed some of that lost energy back into circuit.

Would that be expensive? Yeah. But how much does it cost to insulate a building like that grocery store and how much does that insulation save? The way we think now, not spending the money to insulate that building would be unbelievably stupid. We care about lost energy when it's lost as heat, so why don't we care about energy that's lost as light?

It's about efficiency. When we lose energy, we spend energy. We, as a species, are the energy consuming animal. We figured out fire and we've never gone back. We buy energy, we sell energy -- energy is money. Therefore, lost energy is lost money. We can spend the money now to save the money later. It's like patching a hole in your pocket so the pennies don't fall out. Why are we spending money lighting crap no one will ever look at?

When we talk about energy efficiency, we're talking about lost energy. For example, compact fluorescent bulbs are more efficient than incandescent because incandescent bulbs waste energy by generating heat. It's kind of like an energy leak. We've already dealt with the heat leak, now why aren't we dealing with the light leak?

And this is just one example of what spendthrifts we are with energy. It's the first one that occurred to me when I sat down and started typing. All energy is useful. Why don't we use it? Take hybrid cars -- they generate energy when you hit the brakes. What if we were this stingy with energy in all things? What if the revolving door at the bank generated? What if the shock absorbers on your car generated?

We need to rethink energy. We need to think of every watt as a monetary unit. We'll fight wars for freakin' oil, then blow all the energy we get from the oil on stupid crap. If it's so damned important that we'll fight and die over it, why are we wasting it heating mufflers?

It may be that the best way to fight global warming is to treat energy as what it is -- stuff we pay for. And stuff we pay dearly for.


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