Energy Conservation

By Troy Withers
(May 2012)

As oil prices continue to rise drastically, energy has become a central topic in our social and political discourse. President Obama evoked this pivotal issue at a spring 2012 recent news conference, stating that “we will find clean energy options while maintaining our living standards and increasing production.” While this is a politically appropriate statement, the facts of the matter do not support this errant idea. We cannot, in fact, maintain our living standards, increase production, and at the same time sustain society. Any serious conversation regarding energy must now focus on energy conservation and reduction, along with employing alternative energy sources.

Schaumburg, Illinois, has recently emerged as a leader in energy conservation. According to the Chicago Tribune (July 21, 2010), Schaumburg beat eight other suburbs to win Com Ed’s Community Energy Challenge. The collective efforts of Schaumburg residents, businesses, and the Schaumburg airport saved approximately 6.8 million kilowatt hours of energy over the span of a year. More impressive, all the contest contenders combined saved about 34.9 million kilowatt-hours of energy, equivalent to the energy used by 2,000 homes in a year (Manson, 2010). Illustrating the inseparable relationship between energy consumption and climate change, the effort also resulted in a reduction of 25,541 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions, which is the equivalent of taking nearly 4,700 cars off the road for one year.

Not only does this victory prove that Schaumburg may be more than merely an “edge city,” it also serves as an excellent example of how modern urban areas can reduce their energy consumption. As society is increasingly and overwhelmingly urbanizing, any sober discussion on energy conservation must entertain this as a fact, rather than deliberating in the realm of green-tinted fantasy.

Residential retrofit for solar power generation

Given that more than half of the world’s population now lives in cities, Schaumburg’s triumph offers much needed hope for the sustainability of modern society. The pivotal importance of cities as it relates to the future of the Earth and its inhabitants is perfectly summed up by the UK’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research (Oliver, 2007), asserting that “the fate of the Earth’s climate is intrinsically linked to how our cities develop over the coming decades” (par. 4). Even though cities only cover two percent of the Earth’s surface area, they are responsible for 75 percent of the world’s energy consumption. Further exacerbating this urban sprawl is the international development of edge cities, in the mold of American cities like Schaumburg. Schaumburg’s victory and the efforts of the other likewise extended urban hubs provide a pathway towards a more sustainable future for a mankind mired in modernity.

To accomplish its feat, Schaumburg mobilized a mix of policy, educational, and engineering initiatives. The Village of Schaumburg provided grants to residents and businesses for efficiency improvements; upgraded computer equipment at its municipalities; improved the efficiency of Village streetlights and traffic signals; and communicated to large businesses through brochures, newsletters and presentations concerning energy reduction (Manson, 2010). Nevertheless, Schaumburg’s admittedly impressive efforts are still a far cry from more progressive plans for urban sustainability.

Scientific American’s David Biello cites as one example of such a plan the projected “eco-city” called Dongtan on China’s Chongming Island. Though still woefully incomplete, the plan calls for such innovative measures as energy-efficient buildings that would be clustered together to encourage residents to travel on foot; restrictions on automobile traffic to only battery- or hydrogen-powered car; the development of surrounding organic farms which would supply food; and power derived from sea breezes and the burning of rice husks (Biello, 2011, par. 1). The problem is that this city, and many like it, is mainly left to imagination due to cost ineffectiveness and lack of political will. Regardless of the lofty ideals of developments like Dongtan, people still live in the real world and the growing majority of them live in energy intensive, environmentally destructive cities.

Environmental and economic impacts of retrofitting buildings for energy efficiency

It is clear that, along with innovation and future oriented creative engineering, cities must incorporate energy conservation and retrofitting in order to meet the needs and concerns of modern reality. Scientists such as Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute advocate the use of “bottom up” conservation efforts, similar to those encouraged by the Village of Schaumburg to its residents. It cannot be denied that minor individual acts, such as the replacement of traditional incandescent light bulbs with fluorescent light bulbs can save up to 10-20% of the energy used in the US (Cherfas, 2012). What can also not be denied is the unlikelihood that city dwellers will en masse make all of the personal changes necessary to truly make an impact in the globe’s energy consumption. As illustrated in Schaumburg’s example, any real improvement will require the integration of personal action and municipal redevelopment.

Urban retrofitting addresses the looming issues responsibly by reevaluating the present cityscape and making necessary adaptations for more eco-conscious results. If at all possible, equipping old buildings with energy-efficient features will serve as the bridge to the future for cities.  Replacing aging buildings’ black-tar roofs with white roofs that reflect sunlight to keep buildings cooler in the summer (or better yet, green roofs that retain water on-site in addition to reducing the urban heat island effect) or installing solar-thermal hot-water heaters are simple ways to make a significant dent in the alarming energy consumption of the world’s cities. Improving transportation networks by increasing access to public transportation, creative incentives for alternative fuel vehicles, while discouraging traditional automobiles, will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reduce energy consumption.

All in all, a strategic reevaluation of how cities operate can result in a new and responsible manner in which the urban landscape can continue to operate while society hopefully shifts away from the consumptive and sprawl-oriented mindset. Ultimately, humankind will learn that society cannot continue to have it both ways and the nature of things will ensure that we won’t.

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