Energy consumption carries with it numerous environment impacts. Most importantly, burning fossil fuels (coal, natural gas, to oil) to heat homes or generate electricity emits the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, which is the leading cause of global climate change. Debate about whether climate change is real has long since ended in most scientific circles and is now relegated to the radical blogosphere and pseudo news outlets. The vast preponderance of evidence supports the contention that greenhouse gases being emitted into the atmosphere are trapping heat and warming the globe. Indeed, 2010 is on track to be the warmest year since global temperatures have been monitored.
Beyond the concern of climate change, the extraction, refining, and transport of fossil fuels are responsible for many other impacts. The BP spill in the Gulf this year illustrated the risks associated with going to ever-greater depths to drill for oil. It is frightening to realize that however great the volume of oil released into the Gulf by that failed wellhead (4.9 million barrels), almost as much spills into the world’s oceans every year from oil tankers and wellhead leaks (4.7 million barrels).
In Nigeria, which is the fifth largest exporter of oil to the United States, there are an average of 300 oil spills per year, most of them generating little if any attention. Indeed, parts of the Niger Delta have become veritable oil lagoons, devoid of life. As the world’s largest consumer of oil, we in the United States bear significant responsibility for this environmental damage.
Here in North America, development of the Athabascan oil sands in Alberta, Canada, is not only devastating vast swaths of northern forest, but also dramatically increasing the “global warming intensity” of that oil consumption. In other words, due to the energy intensity of extraction and processing, a gallon of Athabascan oil has higher global warming potential than a gallon of oil that is pumped out of the ground. Canada is currently the largest exporter of oil to the U.S., and about one million gallons per day of that comes from the Athabascan oil sands.
To feed our nation’s 600 coal-fired power plants, we’re removing mountaintops in West Virginia, wreaking environmental destruction on an untold scale in those areas. Our coal-fired power plants, with a peak capacity of about 335,00 megawatts (MW), generate 48.5% of all U.S. electricity — so when we reduce our consumption of electricity, we help to reduce the impacts associated with coal extraction and combustion.
Along with carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel combustion, there are direct air pollution emissions as well. We’ve cleaned up power plants a lot, but they are still a leading source of nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and particulates.
Beyond environmental impacts of our energy consumption are the military costs of ensuring access to Middle Eastern oil, and the terrorism risks posed by our power generation and energy distribution systems. Oil and natural gas pipelines, refineries, power plants, and electricity distribution lines present significant vulnerability to terrorists who want to inflict economic damage to America. As I argued in an Environmental Building News editorial, I believe the Achilles heal of nuclear power isn’t accidental spills or even long-term waste storage, but rather the risk of terrorism.
The bottom line is that conventional energy sources carry significant environmental burdens, hidden economic costs, and looming terrorism risks. Thus, I believe the number-one priority in green building is to reduce energy consumption.
How we do that is the subject of this ongoing Energy Solutions blog. Opportunities range from building highly insulated homes, to installing more efficient fluorescent and LED lighting, operating our homes and appliances for maximum efficiency, conserving water (which saves energy), using renewable energy systems to reduce our need for conventional fuels and electricity, and driving our cars less.
The great thing about using less energy is that you get paid for doing it. Most of the measures to reduce energy use pay for themselves–some very quickly. You get rewarded financially and you can feel good about doing the right thing for the environment.
To summarize, here’s my top-10 list of green building priorities:
#1. Reduce energy use
#2. Reduce water use
In addition to this Energy Solutions blog, Alex contributes to the weekly blog BuildingGreen Product of the Week, which profiles an interesting new green building product each week. You can sign up to receive notices of these blogs by e-mail–enter your e-mail address in the upper right corner of any blog page.