In last month's Green Light, I argued that much-touted "clean coal" technology is actually dirty, and unnecessary for fighting climate change besides. That's because we could conceivably break our addiction to coal (and perhaps all fossil fuels) about as fast as we could deploy such untested and expensive means of prolonging it.
This month, more reasons that leap is possible.
Our coal addiction is this: The dirty black rock generates about 45 percent of the nation's electricity, says the Department of Energy. That's down from nearly 50 percent five years ago, but still more than the next two biggest sources (nuclear and natural gas) combined.
Most plans for getting off fossil fuels focus on replicating their ability to meet our presumed endless desire for more electricity. Some experts say that will require more nukes; others favor massive increases in renewables.
But I'm spotlighting efficiency and conservation. These tactics are always figured in, but often de-emphasized. Perhaps they sound unpleasant, or just boring compared to plug-in cars and new solar gizmos.
But the benefits of simply using less electricity are immediate, including cash savings. Compared to new nukes, or giant photovoltaic arrays in the desert, efficiency and conservation cause little environmental damage. And they're actually pretty easy to realize.
My real-world experiment with this involves my vintage South Side rowhouse. Over four years, my wife and I reduced our electricity consumption (which was already below average) by about 60 percent. Despite the presence of a home office, we now burn just 30 percent of the 600 kilowatt-hours per month used by the average Duquesne Light residential customer. Some vending machines use more.
Some of that reduction is thanks to a bunch of those compact-fluorescent light bulbs. Another tactic produced comparable savings, with nearly as little lifestyle impact: simply not using electricity that wasn't benefiting us anyway. In other words, we got better at extinguishing lights in empty rooms and pulling the plugs (or flipping the power-strip switches) of unused appliances.
Machines drain electricity when they're plugged in, regardless of whether they're running. That "vampire load" is even bigger with remote-controlled devices. But why let your TV suck kilowatts the 112 hours a week nobody's watching it?
Meanwhile, if you've got a forced-air furnace, insulating better and lowering your thermostat saves more than gas: The blower runs less often, cutting electric usage. Line-drying laundry helps, too. And consider planting a tree: Our street tree, which blocks the afternoon summer sun, makes unnecessary even a window-unit air-conditioner.
Using less water is also a huge energy-saver: Treating and pumping water causes a quarter of the greenhouse-gas emissions attributable to Pittsburgh's municipal government, according to a 2008 study. At my house, we've cut monthly usage by two-thirds, to 1,000 gallons.
Financially, the upshot is that for each of 2009's seven "warm" months, our total utility bill was under $100. And we've yet to explore no-brainers like an on-demand water-heater, or a more efficient dehumidifier to replace the basement monster that triples our summer electric bill.
Is my example too small-scale? Consider California. There, three decades of laws and programs promoting efficiency have held per capita electricity use steady even as U.S. per capita consumption has risen by 50 percent. And California uses scarcely any coal.
Another real-world experiment is called Europe. In France and Germany, for instance, per capita energy consumption is about half what it is here. In Italy, Spain and the U.K., it's even less.
True, Europe still burns a lot of coal. But the point is, cutting energy use steeply needn't mean unbearable lifestyle changes. And by ramping up renewable energy (why not repurpose fossil-fuel subsidies?), getting free of coal in a decade is a real possibility.
A key issue is energy costs: California and Denmark breed kilowatt-misers largely because of taxes and regulations that make energy more expensive in such places. (Electricity in California costs 15 cents per kilowatt-hour, compared to the national average of 11.55 cents.) But if you use half as much energy, it can get twice as expensive before it starts costing more.
And consider the cost of so-called cheap energy: dirty air, dirty water, extreme weather. What will it cost us not to change?