Consumption issue lurks beneath oil spill controversy

Friday, June 18, 2010

Politicians, ever cognizant of the election calendar, were lining up to take turns flogging BP because of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, making sure they have the political capital to counterbalance the thousands of dollars each of them has accepted from BP and other oil companies over the years to stay in office.

Both BP and members of Congresss, however, answer to us, the consumers who demand cheap energy every time we press the "start" button on our oversized, overpriced SUVs or push the power button on our room-sized flat screen televisions.

The live video of oil streaming into the Gulf of Mexico water should serve as a reminder of just how much energy we in the United States demand.

That oil leak has been stanched, somewhat, but if it were flowing at the worst-possible rate of 2.5 million gallons a day, it would have to be multiplied more than 300 times to represent all the oil the United States demands each day.

Of that amount, 840 million gallons, 45 percent is turned into gasoline, the rest goes to fuel oil, jet fuel, diesel, heating fuel and other oils.

That oil, of course, usually doesn't wind up coating wetlands and the feathers of shore birds, but does affect the environment even when put to use properly.

If the same type of video were streamed from coal mines around the country, we might have some idea of just how massive our demand for energy is.

Like oil, however, every form of energy has its risks.

Coal produces about half of the nation's electricity, but it comes at the cost of mining with its destruction and hazards to the workers, plus CO2 emissions, and coal ash containing mercury, lead and arsenic -- which can contaminate water supplies unless it's disposed of properly. Coal-fired power plant opponents say they actually put out far more radiation than a nuclear power plant, and nearly 24,000 people a year die prematurely from diseases such as lung cancer.

Nuclear power plants have some massive PR problems to overcome, but proponents say comparing the newest designs with Chernobyl or Three Mile Island is patently unfair.

Wind turbine components roll through our region daily, and although wind is unreliable, proponents hope a smart grid can connect many wind farms together so that power from regions experiencing productive wind can supply those that are becalmed.

Ethanol and biofuels are becoming more and more important, but carry their own issues, and electricity produced by solar cells will become more and more attractive as the price of producting those cells comes down.

But nothing does more to make our supply of energy go farther than reducing demand. Energy rebate programs, programmable thermostats and more efficient systems are already making strides in reducing the amount of energy it takes to wash our clothes, keep our food cold and heat or cool our homes.

Many of us have already switched to compact fluorescent lighting, which use about 25 percent of the energy of an incandescent light bulb and last about 10 times longer. On the horizon are LEDs that could reduce consumption to one-sixth that of incandescent bulbs.

Plus, we've all seen the charts that show how much energy can be saved through recycling plastic, aluminum, steel and other materials.

Doing what we can as consumers to reduce demand will give those in charge of supply time to adapt the most efficient technology.

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