Energy addiction — its not-so-obvious costs

We use energy in our homes every day of our lives -?a lot of energy. We use energy to keep rooms at comfortable temperatures, to provide lighting, and to heat water for bathing, hand washing and dishwashing. We also use energy to cook food and to power computers, copiers, games and appliances. By all estimates, more than 40 percent of the energy consumed in the United States goes to powering homes and commercial buildings.

We use energy for transportation, as well. In fact, roughly 28 percent of the energy used in the United States is for transportation -?that is, moving people and goods from one place to another. The transportation sector includes personal vehicles (i.e. cars and light trucks) and public transportation (buses, airplanes, passenger and freight trains, barges, and pipelines). One might think that airplanes, trains, and buses would consume most of the energy used in transportation but, in fact, those percentages are relatively small: roughly 9 percent for aircraft and 3 percent for trains and buses. Personal vehicles, on the other hand, consume more than 60 percent of the energy used in the transportation sector.

Even though we are less than 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States is home to one-third of the world’s automobiles, with automobiles, motorcycles, trucks and buses driving nearly 3 trillion miles annually and the total number of miles driven by Americans projected to grow by 40 percent over the next 20 years, increasing the demand for fuel.

By almost all estimates, we use, as a nation, more than a quarter of the world’s energy. And while we don’t often think about it, most of the things we use energy for are luxuries, many of which weren’t even available to us, or even possible for that matter, 100 years ago, or 50 years ago, or 25 years ago. All of these astonishing technological accomplishments, which we habitually take for granted, come as a result of our consuming natural resources, mostly fossil fuels, which are finite commodities and, all too often, have an environmental cost, such as devastated ecosystems or land stripped of its vitality. What’s more, in order to produce the energy that lies within them, fossil fuels must be burned, which creates pollution (soot, smog, acid rain) that is negatively impacting our health and altering our climate.

Americans currently use nearly 100 quadrillion BTUs of energy annually. The people of the world now consume nearly one-and-a-half quadrillion BTUs of energy every day. What is one quadrillion? Well, it’s an inconceivable number to me; one with fifteen zeroes after it; 1,000,000,000,000,000. One quadrillion BTUs is about equal to the amount ofpotential energy in 45 million (45,000,000) tons of coal; or 170 million (170,000,000) barrels of crude oil; or 1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

I believe that we need to take time to reflect upon the implications of using, and especially of thoughtlessly wasting, such tremendous amounts of energy. And we must learn to recognize the connections between harvesting and burning fossil fuels and environmental degradation, pollution, and worsening health and livelihoods, both locally and globally.

According to a Massachusetts Institute of Technology emissions study concluded in 2013, air pollution plays a part in more than 200,000 premature deaths annually. And that’s here! In the United States! In countries with little ability to regulate and / or enforce pollution and environmental laws, things are far worse. In fact, researchers from the University of North Carolina estimate that worldwide, air pollution claims more than 2 million lives annually.

Burning fossil fuels also contributes to an increase in what are commonly called ‘greenhouse’ gases; i.e. carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane, in the atmosphere. It is widely accepted, within the scientific community, that increasing levels of “greenhouse” gasses are contributing to an unparalleled rise in average global temperatures – in other words, a rapidly warming planet – some of the consequences of which are: glaciers and other huge bodies of water melting and receding at ever-accelerating rates or disappearing altogether

  • Melting sea and polar ice causing sea levels to rise, resulting in warmer, more acidic ocean waters
  • Entire species of animals being driven to extinction by vanishing habitat
  • And extraordinary and unprecedented storms, heat waves, drought and winter weather conditions around the world.

The United Nations World Meteorological Agency says 2013 was the sixth warmest year in recorded history. And, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the decade from 2000 to 2010 was the warmest, with 2010 tied with 2005 as the warmest years on record.

During his recent visit to Indonesia, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said that “Climate change can now be considered perhaps the world’s most fearsome weapon of mass destruction.” He went on to say, “The science is unequivocal.”

The following statement appears within the introduction of the recently released final report, ‘Responding to Climate Change in New York State: the ClimAID Integrated Assessment for Effective Climate Change Adaptation in New York state, which was prepared by Columbia University, the City University of New York, and Cornell University, and funded by the New York state Energy Research and Development Authority; “… higher temperatures and increased heat waves have the potential to increase fatigue of materials in the water, energy, transportation, and telecommunications sectors; affect drinking water supply; cause a greater frequency of summer heat stress on plants and animals; alter pest populations and habits; affect the distribution of key crops such as apples, grapes, cabbage and potatoes; cause reductions in dairy milk production; increase energy demand; and lead to more heat-related deaths and declines in air quality. Projected higher average annual precipitation and frequency of heavy precipitation events could also potentially increase the risks of several problems, including flash floods in urban areas and hilly regions; higher pollutant levels in water supplies; inundation of wastewater treatment plants and other vulnerable development in floodplains, saturated coastal lands and wetland habitats; flooded key rail lines, roadways and transportation hubs; and travel delays. Sea level rise will increase risk of storm surge-related flooding, enhance vulnerability of energy facilities located in coastal areas, and threaten transportation and telecommunications facilities.” The entire report can be found online at www.nyserda.ny.gov/climaid.

This year, I plan to examine the issue of global warming and climate change from several perspectives. This is the first of my column articles addressing the subject.