Tuesday, September 04, 2007

The Energy Diet

An article I read over the long weekend got me thinking about how we talk about energy supply and demand, particularly when we're looking at alternatives to current sources and usage patterns. In an editorial in the July issue of Chemical Engineering Progress, the journal of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, the editor referred to efforts to "find the right 'energy diet'." I'm sure I've seen that phrase a million times before, but for some reason this time it struck me as particularly apt for addressing the energy and environmental problems we face today.

Generally, I've tried to frame competing energy alternatives in terms of how they might fit into our future energy mix. That often prompts questions about which current component of the mix would give up market share to the newcomer, as oil effectively yielded to nuclear power in the 1970s and 80s. But as accurate as it is, the terminology of "energy mix" lacks something in the context of our concerns about climate change and energy security. In particular, it is neutral about the size of the total energy pie, when its size ought to be as much of an issue as its makeup. "Energy diet" connotes something quite different: not only the notion of balance among the various components, but the idea that there might be an optimal quantity of energy for an entity of a given size.

If we talked more about a national or global energy diet, it would be harder to dodge the need for conservation and efficiency, to address the large quantities of energy we now waste. It could also remind us that not all calories--BTUs or kW-hours--are equal, in a world that is increasingly worried about greenhouse gas emissions. High-carbon energy sources such as coal might come to be seen as analogous to cholesterol-promoting foods or trans-fats. Renewables such as wind, solar and biofuels then start to look like fruits and vegetables: healthy components of a balanced diet, but not enough to live on, by themselves.

I don't want to belabor this point, except to say that the way we frame these issues is important. Terminology matters, whether it's the aide of a Congressional leader referring to coal power plants "destroying the air", or proposals to subsidize renewable energy sources by penalizing fossil fuels in the name of "energy independence." All-or-nothing tactics seem unlikely to deliver an energy mix that promotes economic growth while minimizing greenhouse and other emissions. Debating the national energy diet--how much of which kinds of energy we should consume--just might.

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