Obviously the green movement has been in full swing for a long time now. Since the Mobro 4000/ Break of Dawn Trash barge made famous in 1987 for taking trash from New York and not being able to find a home for it and subsequently making headlines has been seen by many to be the starting point of the current green/recycling movement the world over.
The resulting movement after this incident I think had the best intentions but really failed to make any real change. I wont comment on lobby groups or conspiracies or any “behind the scenes” secrets preventing any real change. Change no matter what Government/ Civil Rights/ oppression all come from the people, if we all collectively decided tomorrow to not except the such wide scale use of fossil fuels we could make that change and without conflict as well most governments are elected by the people and if those people don’t like who is leading they have the democratic right to change it.
I think where this movement has really failed to gain any traction the world over is the lack of focus on the economic impact of both fossil fuel and green energy on an economy. Especially in the post-GFC (possibly still continuing) world with greater instability to governments and economies and “saving Mother Earth” has been put on the back burner as what is seen to be more important issues are dealt with first. Obviously people have to work so they can help build an economy and maintain a country, completely understandable goals. Since more and more governments are making lets be honest pretty weak attempts at combating global warming, we are increasing taxes or inventing new taxes like the Carbon Tax here in Australia. I will come back to the Carbon tax later since I think it is an important piece of legislation but not really impacting on the individual. Due to these changes in revenue electricity and fuels prices amongst other things and for various reasons are increasing.
So what are we doing as individuals to combat this resource cost increase? really we aren’t doing anything. We continue to pay our taxes and go to work, its just sometimes we might stay in instead of going to a movie or maybe not drive down the coast as often. These measures aren’t really doing anything to alter our behaviours in any beneficial way.
Also many of the Slacktivism ways to do your bit for the environment are solely targeted to the middle and upper classes of the first world. Not very helpful when the majority of people in the world don’t fall into that category. Liking a page on Facebook, paying extra for plane or bus or paying even more for electricity to off-set your carbon footprint, does not do a single thing to benefit either the environment or the economy as a whole it may help a private company but that private owned airline isn’t going to shut down a coal power plant and replace it with turbines and solar panels.
An example of an EarthShip Home
Now as I mentioned earlier I was focusing on the economic impact, I will leave the environmental impact to the scientists. While I completely agree that we are harming the planet I don’t think this is the way to sell change to the masses. As im sure you can work out if you are cutting down on your entertainment expenses you probably cant afford to move to a warmer climate and dump a few hundred thousand into a self sustaining EarthShip house with your fruit and vegetable crops. Now you could go out and depending on what state you are in (within Australia at least) put some solar panels on your roof and put power back into the grid. The problem here is that again its an expensive outlay of money with no real return on investment in the short term and since you are already cutting costs this is not a good thing.
So most people cant move, renovate, install large solar panels, build a wind turbine etc, but what can you do? realistically, lots of things. None of these things are going to ground a fleet of fuel guzzling A380 Airbuses or replace 39 coal fired power plants in Australia but the point is that we are not going to change the views of the majority by advertising that the only way to save the planet is to lower our standard of living in anyway. It is now 2013 we have devices that can hold every song we own as well as every book and have access to every piece of recorded knowledge in human history, we went to the moon with much less I think we can manage this one.
There are the obvious solutions turn the lights off in rooms you arent using, dont use the heater/air con as much etc and they are all actually really good things to do that dont impact on your standard of living at all unlike the tree falling in the forest with no one to hear it, a light left on in an empty room still uses electricity. The idea of 100% eco or bust is a ridiculous concept and if you are like me and rent you have even less options to achieve this goal.
When our power plants and associated infrastructure are built, they are built with something called peak power in mind. This is where the expected load on these services is at its greatest, for instance after the working day when everyone is returning home and turning on their tvs and begin cooking dinner. Some power plants are only used for these peak periods and are terribly inefficient since they are regularly started and stopped. If we could do enough in the short term to lower this peak load we would not need these extra power plants and we could be well on our way to a more economically stable world that relies less on imported fossil fuels. Turning your lights off and trying not to live in a house that you have artificially cooled or heated, while it will help it isnt going to do it on its own. Also if you can afford it solar panels on your roof will help but again are not the only answer due to issues with the transmission of power and the fact that the more people that have panels on your street the more inefficient it will be since the lines are not built for mass decentralised energy generation.
A Barber in Tanzania also makes money by charging mobile phones
Throughout Africa and parts of Asia small businesses are popping up offering mobile phone charging stations. Roughly 90% of Africa is not connected to mains power but a large percentage of the population have mobile phones. To charge these phones people would have to wait until they or their friends head into the next big town and pay the hardware store to leave their phone on charge for an evening/overnight or walking a few kilometres to their local store. Due to this requirement for local energy generation these “charging stations” are popping up and utilising solar power to charge peoples phones and they cost between 150 Tz to 300 Tz per charge (about 9 – 18 Australian cents per charge) but sending a Text Message in Tanzania only costs 10 Tz, so you can see there is quite a mark-up for the convenience of the charging stations.
So why tell you about new entrepreneurs in Tanzania? because you can utilise the same technology at home. The main point I’m trying to get across here is that it doesn’t matter if you are a CEO or a Student, solar power is available to you. For example the above image is of a portable solar panel that can be used to charge your phone, it can be stuck in a window with the provided suction caps and left to charge your phone/tablet/music player using nothing but the power of the sun. This particular solar panel can be purchased for a grand total of $20 AUD on eBay. Now this is the cheapest model I could find and doesn’t come with a battery so your phone would need to be on charge during the day which may not be suitable for everyone. Similar models ranging up to $100 do come with a battery which would enable you to setup the panel in the morning go to school/work and charge your phone at night with the battery. Now everyone charging their phone at home for “free” after one small payment is not going to overthrow a government or change the world either but its the concept of scalable modular solar solution that can be used by everybody that I’m trying to get across. So as you can see if you wanted to you could have as many or as few of these as you wanted and for around $60 to $80 for a Panel+Battery setup they are not to expensive.
But lets not be afraid to think bigger! much bigger! there are a few companies now making these much larger camping/backup solar powered generators. The above example is from a company called Goal Zero they make products similar to the mobile phone charger mentioned earlier all the way up to this model which has 2 large solar panels and an inverter which enables you to plug in almost anything that has a standard wall plug. This particular stores products range from $119 for the phone charger up to $2200 for a “base camp” which which has 2 panels 2 battery packs an inverter and 4 efficient LED lights and each of these are scalable so you can always plug more batteries in if you need them. This battery pack/inverter combo can power a fridge for 4 days, just to give you idea of what it is capable of.
Now who ever you buy this kind of product from (I have no affiliation with Goal Zero I just like their work) this is where I think the greatest change in energy usage will come from. Imagine spending $60 and never paying to charge your phone again. Then spending $1000 and being able to install semi-permanent solar panels even if you live in a rental and having a power pack and inverter sitting the corner of a room powering a few lamps, your computer and small TV. For $1000 you could have a room in your house that no longer uses fossil fuels for its electricity generation, except for the embedded cost of creating the product you could actually have a carbon neutral room in your house! Now imagine over time with every saving you make you have a few of these in your house and the only things you use electricity from the grid for are heating/cooling and hot water. As I mentioned this isn’t some $15,000 installation to inefficiently put power back into the grid and from an artificially inflated price pay you pocket change in compensation for your electricity generation, this is $20 – $1000 for a real impact on your electricity usage.
Now obviously this a little dream of mine to live sustainably and using modern technology to achieve it. I haven’t even mentioned the other possibilities for power generation such as wind and hydro which both are even more restricted by legislation and location, but the opportunity’s are endless as long as we try.
While semi-permanent solar installations will help the few do their bit, it is not the solution for 7 billion people. Imagine an Apartment building with the roof and appropriate walls covered in solar panels charging a bank of batteries in the basement that gets used during peak periods as a kind of “Hybrid” solution. As these ideas scale up from energy storage per building to suburb to town to city it becomes more and more of an issue to be tackled at the federal level and then the world level.
So what can we do at the federal level? Well in Australia we have started with the Carbon Tax. In its current form its not particularly useful but if the threshold was expanded and more companies had to pay the tax. I know people don’t want to hear that but at the moment the tax only directly effects I think the top 500 biggest polluters in the country. This money could then go to these new developments so rather than artificially raising the price of electricity for these solar to grid installations we could be building solar/wind hybrid buildings. There is actually a development in Sydney that generates electricity onsite from natural gas, this is getting close but at the end of the day we shouldn’t be burning anything to get electricity.
If we started to build smarter homes that heated and cooled themselves passively rather than relying on electricity and every house in the suburb charged that suburbs battery bank we could then truly have our first green community. So scalable modular and cheap privately owned solar installations to reduce the peak load on our coal fired power plants with the goal of encouraging governments to aid in implementing a permanent solution.
At the core of all of these solutions they can not be sold as a premium option that only the well off can afford, it needs to be affordable and for everyone.