The benefits of energy efficiency

Conservation in Mind, Mar 7, 2023


All forms of energy production have an environmental cost – sulfur, mercury, lead, nitrogen oxides, particulates, ozone, CO2, methane, and damage from extraction.

Short-term, these cause numerous health issues and long-term they threaten our planet’s livability. Therefore, the less energy we consume, the less we damage our health and the environment.

Our energy sources range from clean (solar, wind, nuclear) to moderate (hydro, biomass, natural gas) to dirty (coal, oil).

Solar and wind are very clean, but still require energy for manufacture, installation, and maintenance. Wind requires considerable open space which can be dual use (crops, grazing). Solar requires vast surface area which can also be dual use (roof tops, walls, parking lots, agriculture, and wastelands, i.e. closed dumps, sealed coal-ash pits, road sides). While nuclear’s climate impact is relatively small, it is expensive and poses considerable safety, security, and waste-storage risks.

Coal, oil, and natural gas are associated with increased asthma, bronchitis, cancer, and other illnesses. Their extraction causes considerable environmental damage and their transportation increases pollution. Coal-ash storage is expensive and environmentally risky, as northeast Tennessee knows too well. Large-scale electricity shift from coal to natural gas has greatly reduced CO2 emissions, but methane leaks undo much of that benefit. Per the Environmental Defense Fund, “cutting methane emissions is the fastest opportunity we have to immediately slow the rate of global warming” while “we decarbonize our energy systems”. The more we get our energy from clean sources, the less we damage our health and our planet’s future.

In the US, 37% of energy consumption is in transportation according to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA). We can reduce our transportation-related environmental impact by buying local, planning better so we drive less, flying less, and driving more fuel-efficient vehicles that run on more environmentally gentle energy sources.

Per the EIA, industry consumes 35% of U.S. energy. All the goods we purchase require energy for production and transportation. We can reduce our impact here by wasting less and reusing more. The USDA has found that ~31% of all food is wasted in the US and the average American family loses $1,500/year to wasted food. We can teach our children to take only what they can eat, learn to love leftovers, and educate ourselves on the meaning of “best used by” dates. Reuse more: buy second-hand items, use fewer disposable items (replace paper towels with rags, paper plates with dishes, paper napkins with cloth, tissues with handkerchiefs, disposable cups with reusable, plastic bottles with refillable, etc.), and purchase quality goods built to last.

Residential (16%) and commercial (12%) sectors use the remaining energy which we have reviewed in previous columns and will address more.

Reducing our environmental footprint does not require deprivation. It is easy to overlook the damage we do to the environment because we seldom see it. We will do a favor to ourselves and future generations by considering how we can decrease the environmental damage we do in our everyday lives and maybe even save some money too.



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