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Sunday, January 2, 2022

Green Abundance: No Sacrifice, No CO2 Future

I read a lot of "eco" articles and one thing that's often mentioned is how we'll need to learn to live on less for a green future. We'll need to travel less, reduce meat intake, walk or bike instead of drive... One article had a catchy 1, 2, 3:

  • Lower your thermostat by 1 degree
  • Reduce your speed by 2 MPH
  • Change 3 lightbulbs to high-efficiency LEDs

One such article was in the LA Times, titled, "Surviving climate change means an end to burning fossil fuels. Prepare yourself for sacrifices."

This approach of asking people to sacrifice is completely wrong, IMHO. If a low / no carbon future is wrapped in a lifestyle of deprivation, only the most ardent will adopt it. To have a successful mass-adopted movement, you have to have a compelling vision of the future; one with abundance, not deprivation. 

My definition of sustainability is living the best life we can today while maintaining an environment for future generations.

If your movement depends on people sacrificing, it's doomed to a niche at best.

Every time we've transitioned to a new energy source, it has been because it could better meet our needs; not because we had a moral calling. Kerosene replaced whale oil, not out of sympathy for whales; kerosene won because it was easier to get and cheaper to buy. Very few people will reduce their personal quality of life because "it's the right thing to do."

If your movement requires people to sacrifice their quality of life, it's doomed.

Green and Good

It should not be green OR quality of life; it needs to be green AND a better quality of life. Let's look at a couple of examples that are far more effective. 

Impossible Foods

Impossible Foods wants to make plant-based burgers (and other products) that are as good or better than the meats they are displacing. If you are happy to eat quinoa and lentil patties, I would never tell you to do otherwise, but you should know that Joe-six-pack is never going to give up Sunday grillin' for a grain burger. Impossible Foods (and others like them) have a chance to woo people who would have never considered a plant-based alternative as an option.

Tesla Vehicles

The type of electric cars that Tesla makes is another example. There were plenty of electric car companies that existed before Tesla. These other companies primarily offered small vehicles with short ranges and abysmal performance. Tesla, on the other hand, offered a no-compromise sports car, followed by a large luxury sedan (seating 7 with optional rear-facing seats). These were a radical departure from the small (sometimes 3-wheeled) EV offerings of the day.

Other than being electric, Tesla was the opposite of previous generations of EVs such as the CityCar. 

A Tesla allows a driver to have the range and performance that's as good or better than their gas-powered analogs. All while being twice as energy efficient as a Prius. This is the way to get people to transition. If you prefer to walk or bike, good for you, I encourage you to keep doing it; but many people have commutes that make this a near impossibility. They are going to drive and that trip should be in a car that doesn't have a tailpipe.

Energy Abundance, Not An 'Energy Diet'

Asking people to go on an "energy diet" will fail faster than a New Year's resolution. Solar energy needs to be sold as "better than the grid," not as you'll have to keep the lights dim and wear a sweater in your house. Instead, if solar can be paired with batteries and provide energy even during a black-out all while lowering your energy costs, solar could be part of a luxury resilience package, not a Spartan one.  

Asking people to go on an 'energy diet' will fail faster than a New Year's resolution. 

We should not be striving to just 'replace' our current energy usage with renewables; we should be striving to create an abundance of renewable energy. This will open new markets and innovations: direct air carbon capture, desalination, green hydrogen generation... who knows what opportunities a renewable energy abundance would create.

"Negawatts" vs Deprivation

Amory Lovins loves to talk about energy efficiency. He says phrases like, "The cheapest unit of energy is the one that you never generate and never use." He dubs these savings due to efficiency as "negawatts." The distinction between efficiency vs reduced use (or what I'll call energy deprivation) is important. Both of these result in lower energy use, but the impacts are radically different. 

Improving efficiency means that the same benefits can be realized with less energy. That's great. If your vehicle is 10% more efficient, then you can still get to all the places that you need to go in a day, and it costs you 10% less in fuel.

On the other hand, if you had to reduce your miles traveled in a day, then you may not be able to get to all the places that you need to for the demands of your life. This reduces your quality of life and will not be sustainable.

I wanted to make it clear that I'm all for energy reduction via energy efficiency. In fact, efficiency improvements are one way that we can help to achieve an energy abundance.


Electrify All The Things

The formula for moving to a zero-carbon future goes something like this: 

  • replace fossil fuel burning machines with electrically powered ones
  • generate electricity with renewable sources 
These are not a one and then the other, progress on both fronts needs to be made every year. 

Home heating would move from methane furnaces to heat pumps. Personal transportation would move from internal combustion engines to electric vehicles. Cooking would move from gas ranges and stoves to induction cooktops with electric ranges. All the loud, polluting, 2-stroke lawn care equipment would move to electric... And remember, the goal is to displace the existing fossil burners with renewably powered products that are better at the job.


The Urgency 

As India and China are emerging from poverty, their per capita energy consumption is quickly rising. If this increased energy usage comes from the same sort of fossil sources that powered the Western world in the 19 hundreds, we're doomed; weather events and wildfires will be even more extreme... Instead, if we can use Wright's Law to reduce the cost of renewable products, these emerging economies can leapfrog to a better future.


As Jevons Paradox demonstrated, after a disruption, there is MORE supply and prices are cheaper! Let's use this emergent property to accelerate renewables and electrically-powered products while living a life of abundance and providing a habitable planet for future generations.

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