The Power of "And": Consider Energy as a Three-Legged Stool

Our challenges, opportunities, and solution paths are complex and interrelated. Yet, all too often, we see them individually, not linked and interacting.

A recent blog post challenges the growing fossil fuel 'disinvestment' campaign, asserting that we don't have a path to get off fossil fuels, and asserts that we need to focus on individual consumption. Give Up Something You Love Or Go To Hell laying down that dealing with climate isn't simply primarily a question of cleaning up energy sources (with somewhat a strawman that this is all Bill McKibben / focuses on) but that we must tackle consumption and reduce demand to achieve necessary change.

That discussion has much power and truth in it; we do need to be considering our 'wants' and the real impact of our collective 'wants' but, in a form of the strawman challenge of McKibben, also wrong because the truth is that we must tackle "and" rather than focus on specific 'silver bullets.'

Several years ago, in response to "My New High Efficiency Toilet" to which dfarrah commented:

"I don't have low flow shower heads, but I rinse up, turn off the water, lather up, then rinse quickly. I think this works out well. ..."

My response: a recommendation to get a low-flow showerhead led to this comment:

"Do you really think that my method doesn't save as much as a low flow head running the whole time?"

Well, actually, it likely does "save as much ... and perhaps even more. But this is postulating an either/or situation when there is greater power in "and."

We have, in essence, a three-legged stool for a holistic understanding of our energy use:

  • Consumption: Needs/wants -- what are we seeking? Example: At the end of the day, I want (oops, many days, need) a cold beer ... And, there are lots of ways to control 'consumption' impacts. Do I drink less beer? Is the beer local or from far away? Can or bottle? (And, well, recycling of that material...)

  • Efficiency: How do we get it? Example -- Returning to that necessary beer: Is the beer cooled in an efficient refrigerator, out in the ice on a winter day, or is there a 50-mile drive (fast) to a liquor store carrying the specific micro-brewery beer from rural Tanzania and buying it from an open refrigeration unit?
  • What are the power sources involved? Example: For the electricity to cool the beer, are we talking nuclear or coal or... ? For transport, even 'store to home,' is this foot/bike power or a suburban assault vehicle (or grocery store delivery truck), etc.?
  • Clearly, these three aren't 'the end of the game' (as above, recycling and 'cradle to cradle', etc ...v) but thinking about and understanding the reality of these connections can help us achieve a better approach to our energy/environmental challenges and opportunities.

    A brief 'apology' for the call-out... This is, quite likely, too strong a call out of dfarrah because, probably not just showers -- if others (like all Americans) acted like dfarrah, our energy and resource challenges would be much more under control.

    Moving beyond the stovepipe

    The general challenge of moving beyond stovepiping, of looking at the system-of-system implications, of putting together Silver Dust/Silver BBs (rather than touting Silver Bullets) weighs on my mind. This tangible example, directly understandable and relevant to any / all of us in our daily lives provides a good path toward looking to larger situations.

    Looking for the greatest impact

    We have writ large across our resource challenges, looking for ways to 'use less' to meet our requirements and, when we 'use,' use sustainable/renewable resources. 'Use less' can occur in ways that are, in essence, invisible to us through "efficiency."

    And, they can be conscious choices (driven by ethics, by laws, by fiscal issues) to downshift one's demands via "conservation."

    Either / both of these can be quite powerful.

    Very simply, there is greater power in pursuing conservation + efficiency rather than simply one or the other.

    • Efficiency is a powerful tool, which can be set via standards & regulations, providing "same" services at lower energy demand & lower total cost.
  • Conservation is the choice to act differently, in ways to reduce power demand.
  • Note something here. While we can have some choice as to "efficiency" (what light bulbs do we put in, do we buy ENERGY STAR appliances, which car do we drive), the range of those choices is basically set by forces beyond the individual. It is government regulations and competitive business practices that set forth the range of power demands for refrigerators when we go to buy a new one every 10-15 years. Amid all its problems, one of the too-little discussed and under-appreciated elements of the Waxman-Markey American Clean Energy and Security (ACES) Act, passed by the House in 2009 and languished to death in the Senate, was its focus on energy efficiency for appliances, buildings, and throughout society. While almost all talk about the ACES as "Cap and Trade," those elements of ACES would have had a major positive impact. How large? Considering the costs for buying improved products, the 'average' household would have save $3000 over the next 20 years simply due to the tightened efficiency standards. Government action, well beyond that of the individual, truly is the driving force in terms of efficiency with then each (all) of us able to 'upgrade' to higher efficiency when possible.

    Conservation is something that really is driven more by the individual and by individual choice. While there can be education and cajoling, individuals choose the length and temperature of their shower, heating levels in their homes, etc.

    These are two different paths, with the key decision points resting in different places.

    Truly, we are far more powerful in impact if we pursue both paths.

    Let us take the example of the shower.

    Using a five-gallons-per-minute (5 gpm) (in the range of a 'traditional' shower head), a "Navy shower" might last five minutes and total 25 gallons. Roughly, per year, 9,000 gallons.

    At the upper end, "low flow" would be a shower that uses 2.5 gallons per minute (consider low-flow, roughly, 1.25 to 2.5 gpm showerheads). Assuming that both shower head options have 2.5 gallons of wasted water in pipes to get hot water from the tank to the shower, this would put the low-flow shower at 15 gallons for that five-minute shower or in the range of 5,000-6,000 gallons per year. (And, a 1.25 gpm shower would cut that to under 10 gallons.)

    So, an efficient shower head (under this model) is saving about 40 percent of the water use. Efficiency is buying something serious here.

    Now, let's say that the shower 'without conservation' would last 20 minutes. With a high-flow, that would be 100 gallons. Obviously, that conservation choice cuts 75 percent and 75 gallons, a much greater savings than the 25 gallons to 15 gallons by putting in the low-flow shower head. But, it is the combination here.

    "Conservation" (and, let's be clear, this is somewhat an extreme example) achieves 75 percent.

    Conservation + Efficiency achieves an 85 percent or even greater savings.

    Yes, conservation (actually, sensible showering) makes a huge cut.

    Making that conservation + efficiency (a low-flow showerhead) helps take that even further.

    Yet, there is a basic power of of efficiency: The next person in the shower, who might not be Navy-like in showering habits, might take that 20-minute shower. Rather than using 100 gallons, the low-flow cuts that in half, i.e., going toward efficient systems provide a payoff (basically) no matter the users' behavior.

    And, let's take the next step: Where is that water coming from and how is it delivered to the house? Is this from a rain barrel water collection off the roof or is this from desalinated water? Is the water moved to the shower by gravity or by electricity from an oil-burning electrical generator?

    And, by the way, above is "water": What about water temperature? Hot/ tepid/cold shower? Warmed by sun, natural gas, propane, electricity? And, how efficient a heating system? And...

    Of course, it's not just about showers

    First off, bathing is only a small part of our direct water use (cooking, toilets, watering lawns, pools) and a miniscule part of our indirect water use (agriculture, power generation, etc.), thus this shower example is a microcosm of speaking about water. But, across the board of water, the 'conservation + efficiency' is a stronger paradigm.

    Of course, this is true across all systems. A well-insulated building will require less energy to cool or heat. And, adopting conservation measures (heating less at night or when no one is in the house, wearing sweaters and not heating as high) will mean even less energy demands.

    Driving a fuel-efficient vehicle uses less fuel. Driving it well uses even less. And, figuring how to drive it less means even less fuel usage.

    Thus, a basic principle when it comes to pursuit of efficient systems and conserving behavior. It is not an either/or situation, but "and."

    Remember: Conservation + Efficiency.

    It is not an either/or, but both.

    Not just about "Me, myself, and I" ...

    One real challenge, for all of us, is to remember that we face systems-of-systems, interrelated and interacting challenges; with reinforcing opportunities; with multi-faceted complex and simple solutions.


    • Challenges: Global warming, energy (peak oil), resource limitations (water, peak top soil, minerals, etc), economic malaise, social inequities, etc.
  • Solutions: Conservation (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle); efficiency; renewable/sustainable energy and resource sources; multiple domains and levels (individuals; groups/communities; businesses; government); multiple tools (procedures/policies/regulation, habits/behaviors, technology)
  • As per above, the parameters of "efficiency" are driven very heavily by forces outside the control of an individual, frequently via government rule-making (standards setting). And, the parameters of "conservation" are driven by individuals (even if within a social context that set standards of 'acceptable' behaviors).

    We are not going to be able to surmount our challenges and seize our opportunities acting as individuals. We are not going to surmount our challenges or see all opportunities if we simply rely on government (and large business) action. We need both (actually, all).

    Thinking holistically

    As we struggle our way toward a prosperous and climate-friendly future, a key element is to think holistically about our challenges and opportunities. When it comes to, for example, "energy" and human activity should be separated into three interacting areas, of which "source" is only one of the three:

    • USAGE: what do we want (or need). (This is where "conservation" kicks in.)
    • EFFICIENCY: how efficient are the devices/systems used to achieve what we desire
    • ENERGY SOURCE/TYPE: Where does the power come from and in what form.
    If one looks at the problem in this way, it helps avoid silver bullet solution and other stovepiped thinking and fosters holistic (and realistic) paths toward a better, more sustainable tomorrow.

    Let's get wet again...

    For a moment, let us return to the shower and water use. Cutting that shower from 100 to 10 gallons doesn't just impact "water" supplies but has a chain of implications.

    "California... water-related energy use consumes about 19 percent of the state's electricity, 30 percent of its natural gas, and 88 billion gallons of diesel fuel every year. Energy is consumed along the entire water value chain, including conveyance, storage, treatment, distribution and wastewater collection. The study concluded that a "major portion of the solution to water and energy efficiency is closer coordination between the water and energy sectors."

    Now, California is an extreme case (needing to move vast amounts of water vast distances) but illustrative of the linkages. Roughly, the water system requires 8 quads of energy each year or a little more than ten percent of U.S. energy use.

    Now, that electricity and other energy requires massive amounts of water in its production process.

    Slicing that shower's water demand lowers energy demands (not just for heating the water) which lowers water demand for supporting energy generation.

    Our problems and challenges are interrelated, but so are the opportunities and solutions.

    And, well, once again:

    • Efficiency: good
    • Conservation: good
    • Clean-Energy To Treat/Move/Heat Water: good
    • Efficiency + Conservation (or any combo of two of the above): Better
    • Efficiency + Conservation + Clean-Energy: BEST!
    Going for the triple play is the only sensible path forward to a sustainable future.

    And, this is true whether we are talking your personal/family life, community and businesses, government or society.