Putting your carbon footprint in context

Posted by Joe Lucas at 6:00 am, May 25, 2009

Finally — somebody else besides me is addressing the elephant in the room.

University of Cambridge physics professor David MacKay recently wrote a CNN.com commentary saying that energy efficiency and renewable energy, even together, aren’t a total solution – they are only part of a much bigger strategy.

MacKay says Americans consume about 250 kilowatt-hours per day (to help put this in context, one kilowatt-hour is the energy used up by turning on a 40-watt bulb for 24 hours). Think that unplugging your cell phone charger is going to help save the environment? Not so much. That phone charger is about 1/100th of the power consumed by a single light bulb. Or the power used in driving an average car for one second.
That’s not to say that we shouldn’t stress conservation when we can, but MacKay compared it to “bailing the Titanic with a teaspoon.”

In order to have a serious discussion about the role of energy efficiency and renewable energy, MacKay said we need to think about the numbers. Even if energy-efficient technologies cut our consumption in half, it would be crazy to supply our energy use solely with renewable energy. According to MacKay’s figures, we’d need a wind farm three times the size of California just to deliver a day’s worth of energy to the population of the United States – or 1,575 one-gigawatt nuclear power stations.

So I say, let’s embrace all kinds of options. Energy efficiency is great – but it won’t displace the increase in demand resulting from a growing population and a rebounding economy. Renewable energy – while it will grow — won’t be enough to supply America with enough power all on its own, and that’s precisely why we need traditional fuels like coal to be part of our viable solution. We’re going to need to rely on coal for the foreseeable future, and generating electricity from coal is less expensive than other energy alternatives. Plus, we’ve got centuries of it. So let’s keep it in the mix.

3 Responses to “Putting your carbon footprint in context”

  1. salinda Deery says:

    Get real. The only way to think about the future is through renewable energy. Who’s payroll are ypu on anyway???

  2. Monica from ACCCE says:

    Salinda: Did you read the article? If so, I think you would have a better appreciation for the scale of action (as David MacKay puts it) needed for renewables in order for them to produce the baseload power that coal currently provides. MacKay says, “The sober message about wind and solar applies to all renewables: All renewables, much as I love them, deliver only a small power per unit area, so if we want renewable facilities to supply power on a scale at all comparable to our consumption, those facilities must be big.”

    That being said, ACCCE supports the growth of renewables—we’ll need all of our domestic energy sources to meet our rising energy demand. Our point is, we can’t count coal out. It provides half of the country’s electricity—and costs roughly one-third the price of other hard path fuels, which keeps energy costs low for American families and businesses.

  3. [...] up on coal-fired power plants, because alternative energy is “not ready for prime time yet.” Like I said before, energy efficiency and renewable energy, even together, aren’t a total solution – they are only [...]