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Negawatts, CO2 and coal

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President Obama spelled it out as clear as mud. Our future depends on not screwing it up quite so badly. We have been hogging, and hogging is no longer cool. Witness the fouled beaches of the rising seas, the oily rings, mercuric salmon, and carbonaceous skies marking the signature of our people grasping at energy like hogs at a trough.

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Lucky for us we have Amory Lovins, energy efficiency guru and inventor of the now-famous concept – the Negawatt..

What’s a Negawatt?

The negawatt is one we didn’t use. We saved it by not being totally stupid. Invented in 1989 at the Rocky Mountain Institute, negawatts are abundant now. We create them by better design and better standards and practices.

Many negawatts are born of reliability and durability; others come from gizmoes employed to shut off or lower consumption of energy consuming appliances. But all negawatts came from people, the first time any source of power has ever been linked to such a homely species.

A few years back, China decided their people would have refrigeration inside homes. Within a span of 6 years, the population with a fridge went from 2% to 62%. The problem with the quick and dirty manufacture, however, is the quality of design and production. They were junk, and junk is inefficient. The several million saved in production by going quick and dirty COST them several billion in operation the first year. Oops. Hey, add a few power plants here, a few power plants there, and everything's ok, right?

What’s the cheapest way to go?

In response to the environmental impact associated with fossil combustion, particularly with coal, some have suggested replacing dirty coal mining, transport and combustion with a nuclear option. After the numbers were crunched, however, the tragic disasters equivocate with tragic disaster, and the balance sheet shows very little advantage of switching, if we could.

After an analysis of every single combination of switching of fossil, nuclear, biomass, geo-thermal, wind, solar and efficiency, one clear winner stood far ahead of all the others combined. The single logical path resides in using wisely what we need, abandoning most antiquated carbon plants and addressing our mutual needs respectfully across states and countries, continents and oceans, skies and waters, fields and forests.

According to legend, Amory Lovins had been researching potential savings in a series of scenarios, and then came across a typographical error Negawatts, instead of the intended Megawatts. TaaDaa, the concept was branded – the energy we DON’T need!

As the numbers reveal, the greatest savings available in terms of planetary impacts reside in savings in electricity because of the pollution multiplier in generating that watt.

Massive carbon foot-prints can shrink to tiny toe-prints

China burns a lot of coal from around the world these days, although it has some of its own - mostly brown coal. Another product burning in electricity plants is pet-coke floating around the world, a by-product of cleaning out facilities of carbon deposits with gasoline. It makes a hot fire for electricity production in poor countries where health takes a backseat to the façade of progress, but it dumps the nastiest by-products on Earth, the filthiest fuel concocted. Our retail shelves carry products made from the clean-out of Canadian crude replete with metals, sulfur and bituminous deposits all soaked with gasoline and shipped to third world countries where they burn it all over their people to make electricity for toys. The toy costs more than we thought, and now we are breathing the pet-coke from Seattle to LA and Las Vegas.

President Obama’s announcement today will have long term impacts. Without leadership and world recognition of changes available and the urgency to act now, our problems would simply multiply. Discretion and valor spoke clearly today on the world stage. We can all get along better. Our world will continue to make electricity for toys from the little black rocks that burn, for a while.

Moving toward a sustainable future will require some changes in our mind-set and practices, but we are on our way. As the US is cleaning up our act while cooperating with others, President Obama has been impacting the world coal market, much to the dismay of the Koch and Peabody clans. There's a way out of stupid. It's not a boxa chocolates anymore. In a sustainable world, we won't be mining, shipping and breathing those cheap little black rocks that burn.

To quote Piet Hein: “The road to wisdom? Well, it's plain and simple to express: Err and err and err again, but less and less and less.”

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