By Phil Barnhart
Now that we know that human civilization’s use of fossil fuel is unsustainable yet growing more rapidly than ever before, now that we know that continuing business as usual will destroy the lives of most who are under 40 and nearly all of any future generations, what do we do?
Some have suggested we must abandon technology and return to village life of 1,000 years ago. That might, indeed, happen, but only after a catastrophe that reduces our population to a tiny fraction of what it is now through death by fire, flood, wind or starvation. Humans 100 years, maybe even 50 years from now may be so reduced that village life of a millennium ago is the most advanced and welcoming possible. None of us want our grandchildren to face the horrors that catastrophe will bring.
There is a better solution that can save our future and bring prosperity to the entire planet. It is complex and involves many changes to the way we do things now. A part involves population, a part farm, forestry and fisheries, and a part the end of the use of fossil fuels. That last has a simple slogan, “electrify everything.”
By now there are a number of scientific papers on the topic. A recent one is by Mark Z. Jacobson from Stanford University and his colleagues, called “Impacts of Green New Deal Energy Plans on Grid Stability, Costs, Jobs, Health, and Climate in 143 Countries.” Their study proposes strategies for 143 countries around the world to do away with the use of fossil fuels, 80 percent by 2030 and 100 percent by 2050.
Many published studies claim it cannot be done. All such studies leave out a critical part of the analysis, the current wastefulness of burning fossil fuel for processing, heat, or motion versus high efficiency electric devices.
If we electrify everything, we will increase efficiency enough to reduce the total energy used by 57 percent, energy cost by 61 percent, and reduce costs of a worse environment and health by 91 percent worldwide.
Without sacrificing our comforts and with greatly improved health as a result of much lower pollution, less than half of the energy can do the entire job at lower direct cost. Essentially, that 57 percent is wasted, some used expensively to mine, process, and transport oil, gas, and coal, but mostly from grossly inefficient use in internal combustion engines (ICE), space and water heating, and industrial processes.
The largest savings will be in transportation as highly efficient vehicles run on electric motors replace ICE for all or nearly all purposes. Much of the rest will come from using heat pumps for space and water heating. Modern heat pumps can operate down to -20 percent and are nearly four times more efficient that gas furnaces and water heaters.
Jacobson’s study makes it clear that all our energy needs can be met by wind, water and solar based power generation systems that we already know how to make, together with the rapidly developing energy storage systems coming on line now.
The plan challenges us to install millions of rooftop solar systems, and 30 or 40 times the wind, wave, tidal and central solar capacity we how have. It will take a general mobilization to make it happen in the time we have. You can personally be a part of this transition.
If you are one of the 25 percent who can afford a new car or truck, make your next purchase 100 percent electric plug in, and walk or ride your bike or the bus more often.
If you buy used, look around for the electric car that will do most of what you need. They are now inexpensive, cheap to fuel and very reliable. You will be happy you did.
Are you building or remodeling a house or replacing a worn-out system? Your contractor will probably recommend gas for some part of space or water heating and in the kitchen. Do not fall for it. The slightly more expensive modern heat pumps for water and space heating will be no more expensive to operate now than the gas they replace, and gas prices will be much more volatile in the future as policy catches up with reality in Salem and Washington, DC.
Insulate or replace that gas furnace or water heater with an electric heat pump, that gas stove with an electric oven and induction cook top. Use an efficient electric refrigerator, LED lights and the like. Remember those solar panels. You will be ready for our 100 percent electric future.
Phil Barnhart served in the Oregon State Legislature as a representative from 2001 to 2019 and has worked as an attorney and psychologist. He began driving an electric vehicle in 2012 to help save the planet only to discover it was the best car he had ever had.