Reflections on energy and our future
My Word by Susan Ornelas
We lived without electricity for a few days. The wind blew, trees fell, and people lost connection to the electric grid. There was still natural gas for cooking and heating water, comforts that made it bearable with no electricity. For those without wood stoves, it was a cold couple of days.
Lots of supermarket frozen food was thrown away from the lack of power. Frozen food thaws when the electricity goes down. Hardware stores sold out of generators, and people struggled with how to keep food cold and lights on. Some folks enjoyed an evening or so of romantic candlelight dinners, but then what?
What do you do with yourself on a long winter night without electricity?
One can't face a situation of no electricity without thinking of the past -- what did people do before electricity was so easy, and so dependable? Only 100 years ago it was a novelty. Without electricity at night, most likely people gathered around a fire, played instruments, and socialized more. They must have gotten more sleep. Maybe it wasn't so bad.
How did people live then? How did they preserve food? How did they entertain themselves? What activities does one prioritize for the light-filled hours? What can be done by candlelight? Four days of no electricity generated more questions for me than answers.
Even if a person had solar power tied to the grid it wouldn't have helped this New Year's Eve. The grid was down -- wires are vulnerable to fallen trees and high winds. I found it awakening to see how dependent we are on that wire grid. Just to grind coffee, or speak on the phone, we are hooked up to electricity. Want to read a book in the evening? You want electricity. E-mail? Need electricity. Run a natural gas-fueled, forced-air heater? Electricity. We are connected to the electric grid, like it or not.
More and more we hear of the concept of peak oil -- the idea that we are at the peak of the discovery of oil fields. Worldwide, people are demanding more oil than this earth can provide. China is a developing economy. They want oil. India is growing. They want more oil. There are lots of people in the world who want to live a lifestyle with more comfort, more convenience, more energy use, more American.
In America, we use over 20 percent of all the energy consumed in the world, even though we are only 5 percent of the world population. In both our homes and businesses, we are planning for a future of cheap energy. We are planning as if the next 50 years will be the same as the last 50. Will there be cheap energy, cheap natural gas and electricity in our future?
Without electricity, we relied on natural gas and the wood stove. In the past, natural gas was considered a waste product of crude oil production. It was just burned off. Today it has become an important source of energy. As a society, we plan to build more natural-gas powered electric generators to keep up with the demand for electricity. The price of natural gas just recently increased 40 to 70 percent, depending on your region. What will we do if natural gas is much more expensive than it is now?
What if we had to live on energy generated locally? What would that be? Would we interfere with salmon migration and place dams on the river to generate electricity? Can we design hydroelectric generators so they can let salmon up the river, while producing energy for humans?
Will we burn wood to keep warm and fed? Revive the wood-cook stove? We all know wood fires create particulates in the air and no one likes a smoky neighborhood. Still, when you enter inside a home, the fire is welcoming. How do we settle the trade-off of air pollution from burning wood, and keeping warm from wood heat?
Maybe part of the solution lies in the simple things we do in life. We can build and live smarter. Our houses can be built to capture natural sunlight and be well insulated. We can grow a winter garden, eat fresh food, and practice food storage techniques that don't need continual energy input.
Maybe we can walk and carpool more. We could be more community minded and less wasteful by co-generating electricity and capturing the heat for industry or homes. These are a few ideas we can do for a less energy-dependent future. If you want to learn more about how you can prepare for more expensive energy, and reduce your energy use, call the Redwood Coast Energy Authority at 269-1700.
We played cards on New Year's Eve. Learned how to play four-way cribbage, and welcomed the New Year with shots of tequila and a few chocolates. OK, I'll admit we went to bed before midnight. We celebrated early. It was raining and it feels so good to wake up early and refreshed, especially for the New Year. Plus we have a task to do this year. We need to develop a more workable lifestyle, one that leaves us less vulnerable to energy outages in the future, when the winter wind blows again.