Save the Internet, Part 2: The Incentive Package

Last time I talked about why energy matters (obviously for the internet). Today I’ll look at one half of the energy efficiency incentive package… or why we should care about saving energy (as if preserving talking cat videos was not enough of a reason).

Electricity is the cheapest form of power in most places. Why should I care about how much electricity I use for all my googling and facebooking needs, when getting the internet piped into my home costs just $20/month (in Vancouver, Canada).

Energy efficiency seems like a hassle. There is too much information out there to wade through in order to spend money on things that won’t really make a difference to my utility bill… and my bill isn’t even a big deal. Right?

Nope. Not even a little bit. While my own electricity bill may not be significant, it is a totally different story for most businesses and for homeowners who live in anything bigger than my shoebox apartment. I may personally lack a financial incentive to be more energy efficient. But there is a lot more to life than money, even if the other stuff is harder to count.

The real cost of electricity is not showing up on my utility bills. However, I should (and do) care about energy efficiency for two reasons:

    • Electricity generation can be really, really harmful to me, my family and my community

    • I don’t want my community to have to increase electricity generating capacity

  • We’ll save the second part for the next post and focus here on the harm aspect. Electricity is created by releasing energy from a resource. In most parts of the world we continue to burn non-renewable resources to create the vast majority of our electricity. We burn coal, natural gas or oil… and electricity from these resources does not come without noticeable and increasingly problematic costs.

    Air quality is affected.

    Particulates and other substances are released during the burning process. Lower air quality causes a whole host of respiratory problems and can aggravate cardiac conditions- resulting in an increased use of medications, an increased burden on the medical system and even premature death.

    In the US, it is estimated air pollution causes over $100 billion in health costs and claims roughly 25,000 lives every year.

    Our climate is affected.

    Carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere when we burn coal, natural gas or oil, contributing to climate change. You can argue the semantics all you like, but 97% of scientists agree that we are causing our climate to change. By scientific standards, man-made climate change is as real as gravity!

    Why does that matter? Because climate change is causing extreme weather, like droughts, floods, heat waves, cold snaps and other unusual conditions. These extreme weather events make life incredibly difficult for millions of people around the world, can raise food prices, and cost us a huge amount of money in adaptation and disaster relief.

    Our politics, planet and morality are affected.

    Coal, natural gas or oil have to be extracted from the ground and transported to a power plant before they become electricity. Even when this whole process goes perfectly, we are still depleting a fixed asset of our planet that will run out at some point.

    More immediately, our dependence on these limited resources is pushing us to either tolerate human rights abuses by oil-rich countries or engage in violent conflict with them. At the same time we are supporting accelerated environmental destruction in increasingly fragile regions- this can never be undone.

    Are these really things we want to have any part in?

    As we know, extraction and transportation of these resources can often go less than perfectly. Remember the Gulf of Mexico BP spill in 2010? 11 people were killed in the initial explosion and 4.9 million barrels of oil leaked into the ocean, ruining the fishing industry and the families dependent on those incomes, and devastating the marine environment with an oil slick larger than the state of Kansas. That was just one spill. There have been over 70 major oil spills since 2000.

    This is a pretty bleak picture we have painted, and probably not an unfamiliar scene.

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