This is a slightly longer version of the little article I wrote for my library’s monthly Reference Notes

Every time we use a cell phone, a computer, an electric light, heat or cool our home or drive to work, approximately 80% or more of the energy (depending on where we live in the world) comes from non-renewable resource fossil fuels. Our appliances, even when not in use, are leaching power for tiny lights or clocks or sleep mode or pilot lights.

Demand for fossil fuels (oil, natural gas, and coal) is rising quickly, and production is becoming more expensive. The Economist points to nationalist and political tensions and the challenges of accessing oil in difficult terrain.

In spite of our concerns about the environment and global warming, pollution’s toll on our health, rising costs, and dependence on foreign resources in unstable regions, America’s cars and houses are getting bigger and bigger. The decline of urban quality of life and business opportunity creates suburban sprawl. We commute to work and school, and drive across town to get groceries that have been transported across our nation or around the world. Families relocate to find jobs or affordable housing, and we lose small local communities and must drive long distances to spend time with friends and loved ones.

Meanwhile, rising superpowers China and India extend American-style fossil fuel burning amenities to their immense populations.

Soaring gas prices are a major problem for working families who are also facing the foreclosure crisis and rising food prices. Each year Americans die because they cannot afford to heat or cool their homes. In Fueling our Future, Robert Evans notes that pollution from fossil fuel burning has been linked to heart disease and cancer, and a 2001 study at Harvard linked it to infertility and early menopause as well. The International Panel on Climate Change found that as the earth’s temperature rises worldwide drought is not certain, but likely (Evans 13).

For those of us not profiting from the fossil fuel energy industry, this is all a bit of a worry.

In The Citizen-Powered Energy Handbook, Greg Pahl’s expert sources predict that a horrific energy crisis could be upon us any time between 2010 and 2037. Visions of California’s rolling blackouts, or of the gas lines of that made the US look like a struggling Communist bloc nation during the 70’s dance in our heads.

A comfortable lifestyle using less energy and using energy that does not create pollution or greenhouse gases and does not depend upon tense relationships with antagonistic foreign nations is possible now.

But energy is a commodity-to be produced, bought and sold in the greatest quantities and at the highest profit possible. This model is not just incorrect for our energy future (no pun intended). It is a dangerous gamble.

Scientists and entrepreneurs with excellent ideas are struggling to gain a financial toehold to launch and improve sustainable, pollution- and waste-free technologies to run our homes, industry and transportation with renewable or sustainable resources.

Resources at Montgomery City County Public Libraries sum up the advantages and disadvantages of renewable or sustainable energy.

At this time it actually costs more fossil fuel energy to create biomass and biofuel than they yield. They produce carbon dioxide and may compete with food production for land. If they are managed as commodities like fossil fuels energy, consumers risk the same vulnerabilities we face today- severe weather and other events can result in shortage and drive up price

Hydrogen fuel cells are incredibly efficient, but cost more to produce than they yield.
Solar power is endlessly renewable and free of pollution but requires large surface areas to yield power even approaching the scale of fossil fuels.

Many are opposed to the stately ranks of giant sculpture like windmills needed to produce wind electricity on any great scale. Storage of any renewable energy produced is an important issue still to be solved. Daytime and evening demand must be more carefully balanced with renewable energy resources to insure an adequate supply.

Nuclear power and our long term dream, nuclear fusion, are incredibly efficient, with no greenhouse emissions. Much like the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, on a purely statistical basis this seems to be our best bet. Evans details ways nuclear power production has become much safer (124-26) But the millennia-long legacy of nuclear waste, the dangers of uranium mining, and the tragedies at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island make many wonder if it is worth the price.

If we don’t own profitable stock in an energy trader, what can we do?

Evans states that we must reduce demand / consumption and work for greater
efficiency (174). In the wake of the 2001 energy crisis, California’s efficiency mandates and credits for using alternative energy created both great grumbling and great opportunity.

California is now a worldwide model for reduced consumption, but its hugely profitable Sempra Energy, for example, is still building infrastructure for and trading huge amounts of natural gas in the unregulated energy industry. Efficiency and reduced consumption are key, but not enough. According Evans and Pahl’s sources, the transition from mostly oil, coal and natural gas to mostly renewable energy must go forward quickly.

Sustainable profit is possible.

Even as pollution caused by China’s industrial revolution – fueled mostly by coal and other fossil fuels – spawns whole ‘cancer villages’ within China and washes up onto America’s shores, the richest man in China is worth 4.8 billion dollars because he can barely keep up with demand for his solar modules.

But until policymakers and consumers make a move on a massive, nationwide scale, our best chance for improving our health and saving our endangered ice caps, species, and pocketbooks is one family, one business, one building at a time.

Montgomery Public Library offers many excellent books on creating homes, buildings and lifestyles that employ alternative energy or greatly reduce dependence on fossil fuel energy, from Solar Power your Home for Dummies (690.83 DEGUN) to Eco-Renovation the Ecological Home Improvement Guide (643.47 HARLAN).

Greg Pahl takes it even further. He supports the Community Supported Energy (CSE) Model. Consumers can choose local energy just as they are choosing to purchase local food to improve nutrition and reduce environmental toll, animal cruelty and disease outbreaks (for more on the advantages of local food, see Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser, 641.973).

Pahl notes that hydroelectric power on a massive scale is very powerful, but major sites in America have already been developed (causing great disruption and damage to the environment. However, on a local,community scale, where geography and river flow permit, hydroelectric power would be excellent and environmentally benign (Evans 104). Evans even mentions burning solid waste or capturing methane gas from landfills (102).

Solar power is also much better suited to a distributed application. On a community or local level, fields of mirrors the size of Rhode Island would not be necessary for solar power to make a huge difference, and in places like Arizona, peak production would coincide with peak need.

My money is on solar power, based on an episode of National Public Radio’s Science Friday program. But local communities can make the best decisions based on their unique resources, geography and values. Community energy requires greater responsibility, but it also keeps 3 to 4 times more money circulating in the local economy than absentee ownership (Pahl 267).

“Local communities… tend to be better stewards of their immediate environments because they know that if they are going to continue to thrive they need to conserve those local resources… While the global free-market economy has repeatedly demonstrated that it has no soul or compassion, most communities by contrast are blessed with both (Pahl 268).”

Take advantage of the resources the library offers to learn how to live well while consuming less. Learn about the various options and voice your informed opinion within your community.