Infinity and Beyond

Posted by Sustainable OKC | Posted in Community, Current Affairs, Energy, Public Works, Shauna Lawyer Struby, State Government, Transition Town | Posted on 27-02-2009

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by Shauna Lawyer Struby

I love Buzz Lightyear. His optimism in the face of reality (believing he can fly on pop-up wings), makes this diminutive Toy Story hero full of geeky bravura and sincerity incredibly endearing. But it is his mouse-sized roar of, “To infinity and beyond!” that makes him my way cool, sustainable hero.

You’ve probably noticed energy discussions are as ubiquitous as chewing gum these days. The growing awareness we’ve got to do something has folks from cowpokes to CEOs grappling with their “holy electricity switch” moment, that dark point in time they realize cheap, easy energy days are floating away like so many plastic Wal-Mart bags in a sweeping prairie wind.

But start talking about designing sustainable energy systems and things get considerably dicier. While just about everyone supports being energy independent, the notion that the equivalent of Star Trek’s dilithium crystals will be found to satisfy our energy addiction is so deeply embedded in our psyche that some of our elected leaders tend to grasp at any energy solution like desperate junkies in need of a fix. 

The recent deceptive blathering about nuclear power in Oklahoma’s House of Representatives is a perfect case in point. Two bills were approved by the House Energy and Utility Regulation Committee Feb. 17 after nuclear energy advocates manipulated the fear factor that other energy sources alone such as solar, wind and geothermal, will not be enough to meet future power needs.

While there are many reasons nuclear energy is not a sustainable option (and reasons why other truly clean renewable energies like wind and solar are), one of the most under discussed reasons for axing nuclear energy out of any future energy mix is this — nuclear energy production is totally dependent on yet another finite resource — uranium. Dr. David Fleming, author of “The Lean Guide to Nuclear Energy” estimates if the entire world’s electricity were generated by nuclear power, we’d have around three years of uranium left and writes:

“Shortages of uranium — and the lack of realistic alternatives — leading to interruptions in supply, can be expected to start in the middle years of the decade 2010-2019, and to deepen thereafter.”

Clearly nuclear energy is not a Buzz Lightyear, “infinity and beyond” option. And even more obviously, we need to dig deep into proposed energy solutions and thoroughly evaluate them with a stringent list of sustainable criteria.

A few thoughts on the criteria:

  • What is the Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROEI) for the resource? Energyreturnonenergyinvested_edited-1
  • What is the carbon footprint of the energy source? Carbonfootprintenergysources_edited-1
  • What is the water footprint of the energy source?
  • What is the waste footprint of the energy source?
  • With all environmental, waste, water, infrastructure and production costs factored in, how much does the energy cost per kilowatt hour?
  • Since taxpayers subsidize our energy systems, who will profit and how much, i.e. what are the CEO and executive staff salaries, perks and bonuses of the energy producing company, and what is the anticipated return to shareholders on new infrastructure?
  • Are the energy company’s middle and lower-level employees sustainably and equitably compensated with living wages and adequate benefits?
  • How will the proposed energy source impact the area where production is located, the people, non-human animals, eco-system and general environment?
  • What other factors do we need to be thinking about?

As Rob Hopkins notes in “The Transition Handbook” a future with less energy is inevitable. Richard Heinberg extensively covers many of the various pros and cons of a variety of energy sources in his latest Museletter, which beautifully illustrates the depths of the challenges facing us and the urgent need for massive energy conservation programs.

The Transition Movement, founded by Hopkins, takes these realities and helps us see them as opportunities for creatively rethinking how we live in the world and how we use energy, to envision something better, something hopeful, less toxic to ourselves, to our fellow species and congruent with this amazing planet we call home. The first Transition Town initiative in Oklahoma, Transition Town OKC, launched last month, aims to enhance opportunities for our communities to imagine, envision and implement this energy transition together, to capture the power of every person's creativity and move us together toward a positive future.

We know reducing energy consumption will go a long way toward solving the energy puzzle, as will investment in energy technology and clean, truly renewable energy resources, but every energy technology and resource needs adequate and thorough vetting using sustainable criteria. And that means thinking not just about the next 10, 20 or even 50 years, but in Buzz Lightyear speak, “To Infinity and beyond!”