Joining the energy transition

March 21, 2016

This is a photo of transmission lines at sunset.

I find it painful to listen to the dying gasps of the climate change deniers as the evidence mounts. There is a begrudging acknowledgment that the atmosphere and oceans have warmed and the amount of snow and ice has diminished and sea levels have risen. True, their acknowledgement continues to be tempered by raising doubt about the contribution of fossil fuels. They muse about the natural warming and cooling cycles of the planet and conclude that surely this must be having some influence on rising temperatures.

This old tactic – of seeding doubt – does not bother me as much as how they are now attempting to frame and confuse the debate.

They imply that the only alternative being offered by climate change crusaders is to leave carbon in the ground and immediately embrace renewable energy. Then they churn out the statistics that “prove” this would be impractical. They contemplate how horrific, and likely unaffordable, the cost would be. Then they conclude that we might just freeze in the dark if we went “all-renewable” tomorrow.

We desperately need to be talking about “energy transition”. Fossil fuels will continue to be around for decades – when and how we use must change.

When my city undertook a community energy planning exercise several years ago, we learned what this transition could mean for building a climate-friendly and resilient community.

By the time electricity reaches our home, more than 80% of its energy value is lost. We pay for 100 units of fuel to produce electricity but are left with less than 20 units of service by the time it gets to our homes. Most of the energy value is lost in the form of heat at the point of generation. The rest is lost along the way through the transmission lines and local wires that bring that electricity to our homes. Even if we purchased the most energy-efficient refrigerator on the market, it would make no difference to the energy wasted before it gets to our home to keep our food and drinks cold. My community decided we wanted to get at that wasted energy and began to build an energy plan to do that.

Distributed energy – decentralized power and thermal energy sources that are closer to end users – deliver more of the energy value to our homes and businesses. Better to do more with less – getting 80% of the energy value instead of 20% – regardless of what fuel source it is.

Distributed energy coupled with energy conservation and efficiency, renewable energy (when and where it makes sense) and intelligent networks that optimize the performance of our existing infrastructure form the foundation of a plan to join the energy transition.