Baby, don’t you light my fire

I don’t venture into energy policy too often. There are more traps and mistaken concepts than I care to navigate. But occasionally you’ll find me dipping my toes into those muddy waters, this is one of those times.

A recent blog post by David Roberts argues that we can only get to zero carbon energy via electricity. There are bits you can quibble with around the edges (direct water power and solar steam) but he’s right. Based on what we know about using and delivering energy, electricity is the best option to de-carbonize our world. It won’t be easy, but it is possible to envision a carbon free electrical grid.

This isn’t a brand new concept. We’ve been talking about the need to modernize the grid to handle distributed generation for over a decade. I remember having this discussion at a conference in the late 1990’s. The country is also going to have to come to terms with how we are going to move this electricity long distances too. No one likes power lines, for good reason. They’re ugly and disrupt forest ecosystems. But until we figure out how we can get the electricity from one place to another we’re stuck in place.

Zero carbon is a laudable goal in its own right, but there is at least one vitally important reason to stop burning stuff. That stuff is too valuable for other things. Like petroleum, you can do a lot with that stuff. Besides burning oil, there are probably many other things we shouldn’t do with it. Chemical fertilizers seem to be counterproductive in the long run, but replacing oil based grease with animal fat doesn’t strike me as a good option. Several pharmaceuticals wouldn’t exist without petroleum. AIDS drugs among others are built on molecules from oil.

I don’t envision a petroleum-free world, there are too many beneficial things we get from oils to give it up entirely. But burning it? John Straube of RDH Building Science Inc once said that future generations would be horrified that we would burn such a useful material.

As a species, we have gotten into the bad habit of adding energy to solve problems. Instead of going after vigorous source control we run energy intensive filters and dehumidifiers. We also are too enamored of lighting things on fire. The list of problems from combustion is long and varied. You’ll undoubtedly see posts about the problem with burning things in your home from me before too long.

I know that I won’t live to see the end of fire. The romance and infrastructure around combustion aren’t going away soon. But we should be thinking seriously about it. And planning, that will help too. And put down that match.

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I love buildings. I love thinking about how they are made and how they work. I am a building geek. I love to talk about buildings too. Get in touch.
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