We all rely on energy supply in our everyday lives. From the second we get up in the morning with the help of our alarm clock, until the moment we turn off the lights at night. Actually, even when we are asleep, we use energy.
But what is energy? Where does it come from, where does it go, and why is it so important to talk about? We talk about energy efficiency, energy savings, renewable energy, fossil energy, grey energy and growing energy needs. At the same time we should be cutting down on energy use globally, as the population is growing. How does this add up? We rely on fossil fuels, but need a green shift to avoid a climate disaster. We want to surf, travel, eat well, and live a full life – but do we then end up using way too much energy?
Source of energy
Figuring this all out might make your head spin, so let’s start from the basics. All energy, except for geothermal, comes from the sun. For example coal. About 300 million years ago some rays of sunlight gently touch some trees on earth. Through photosynthesis, that sunlight allows these trees to grow. The trees then die and decay over millions of years, ending up as coal, a highly-compressed form of energy deep in the ground. Then somebody extracts that coal and burns it to produce energy.
In this example, there are two problems in the way that sunlight is converted into energy. Firstly, the conversion process (burning) converts matter into energy and matter, most of which is the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. Therefore, coal is not a ‘clean’ energy source. The other problem is that the coal took several million times longer to generate than the speed with which we are burning it up. Therefore, coal is not a sustainable energy source. Of course, this applies in exactly the same way to other fossil fuels such as oil and gas.
You’d think that it would be easier to cut the middle man, and just use sunlight directly to produce energy.
Luckily, with today’s technology we can do that. And the best thing is that we cannot use more of renewable energy than what is being produced. We cannot use 10 years worth of sunlight in one go or burn through a week of wind in one energy peak. We are finding better ways to store, transport, and use renewable energy, making it a more reliable and flexible source of energy.
Renewable energy is getting more and more cost effective as well. We can choose from solar, wind, wave, hydro, and tidal energy, amongst others. In some conversations nuclear power also comes up as an alternative for fossil fuels, but it has been said that switching from fossil fuels to nuclear energy is like giving up smoking cigarettes and switching to smoking crack. This is mainly because plutonium and uranium are finite sources. It’s partially true that nuclear fuel will produce electricity without producing harmful greenhouse gases (although there are a lot of embedded greenhouse gases in nuclear energy production), but nuclear energy produces incredible environmentally harmful waste.
What can YOU do?
Since we cannot rely on fossil fuels for much longer, and the renewable energy sources may not be able to grow as quickly as the population and its energy needs do, we need to look at our energy use. Reducing energy use may sounds intimidating to some. You might think that you have to stop heating your house and/or taking warm showers. Luckily saving energy is very easy, as everything we do and buy is either embodied energy, so called grey energy, or directly consumes energy.
You can start at the very top of your personal “life’s necessities” pyramide!
Start by cutting off single-use products. Making, transporting and storing them consumes a whole bunch of energy – especially in relation to the product being used for just a second before it ends up in a landfill. Think plastic cutlery, plastic bottles, take-away cups and plates. You don’t need any of it.
Then reduce buying unnecessary products. New t-shirt? You probably have 700 in your closet already, just pick one of those. But when you do buy, buy quality and preferably something produced close-by.
Eat with the seasons and as locally produced as possible. This way the transportation and storage of the products you buy is reduced, and you end up getting fresher groceries. Another upside is that you might end up eating more versatile food too; for example apples, berries, vegetables, and mushrooms in the summer-fall season and fish and new potatoes in the winter-spring season. You can also store locally produced, or even self grown, products over the winter in your freezer, as this is still more energy efficient than for example transporting apples from New Zealand in the middle of the European winter.
Look at your home appliances and other energy-using products. Are they energy efficient? Do a quick analysis on how energy efficient your home is, and whether an upgrade on some home appliances would actually make it more energy efficient. Remember that all new products, from electric cars to toasters, have some amount of embodied energy in them, so you cannot justify buying a new Tesla every few years, just because it runs more effectively than the Tesla you already have.
Travel smart. Ask yourself; do I need to take the car to the grocery store that’s 2 km away or should I take the bike? The answer is, take the bike. Apply this rule to all your travels, and add a bit of common sense (and see a previous blogg about sustainable traveling).
Reduce a little on everything. Take a little shorter showers, don’t leave your laptop/TV/lights on when you’re not using them/aren’t in the room, reduce the heat from 23 degrees to 20, use energy efficient light bulbs, wash your clothes in 40 degrees rather than 60, use a shorter washing program, don’t use the dryer but hang your clothes to dry, and so on. You get the picture.
Finally, when you’re done cutting down on your personal energy use, have a look at the system. When possible, support renewable energy projects and those who drive the innovations forward. There are a lot of good renewable R&D (research and development) projects in the nordic countries, and we have the opportunity to become a world leading region when it comes to use and development of renewable energy. Renewable energy, when implemented in a way that doesn’t interfere with the local ecosystems, is the key to a sustainable future. We have the technology, the know-how, and now we just need to get the political system behind the shift! That’s where we, as consumers and workers, come in. No action is too small or too big (as long as it’s fully legal), when it comes to supporting the shift from a fossil past to the renewable future.
Vilma, Nordic Ocean Watch