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Chris Ruiz | TRIUMF | Canada

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A physicists pithy polemic…for parsimony

I am what you might call an ‘Eco-back seat driver’, in that I have admirable ideals and intentions when it comes to looking after the environment but maybe don’t do as much as I really really could if I just put a little more effort into it. There are others in my life who are paragons in that way – they lead by example and really cast allusions about the way things might be if everybody acted like them. One thing I do like to do is brainstorm – to throw ideas around about ways we can solve the energy crisis, pollution, reign in the corporate obliviousness to the degradation of the environment and usher in a new era of rational responsibility – but sometimes, given the wasteful and distracting but unavoidably political nature of the subject, I often meet my critics who come from ‘the other side of the fence’, if indeed there is one. 

One thing I always say, however, to those people who may argue on points such as humankind’s impact on the atmosphere and the correlations with global temperature rises etc, is the following: Regardless of how much greenhouse gas we put into the atmosphere, and how many new non-fossil sources of energy (excluding renewables) we turn to to wean us away from our Middle Eastern (and Canadian, South American,..) crude addiction  (I talk about ‘the West’ here), we still use too much energy in the developed world per capita, and there is no excuse because we have a fantastic range of technologies now that can help us to tighten our energy budget and reduce the impact of each human on their surroundings. 

So I was happy to be partially vindicated in the form of a New Scientist article by Astrophysicist Eric Chaisson in which he argues that the impact caused by our energy usage (and wastage) alone, is enough to cause a large and serious part of the environmental problem that we need to solve in addition to reducing greenhouse gases. 

We have to think about the really wasteful parts of our lives. We now have the technology to build and retrofit homes with smart materials that optimize insulation and utilize the houses natural environment to help conserve energy. It would be possible to run an entire home’s energy supply under a smart computer monitoring system that switches off lights when no-one is in the room, keeps heat confined to the most used areas, stores excess energy and new energy generated by solar or wind on the building (this has been proven to work in inner cities as well using the huge wind currents that are generated on the upside of tall buildings). If only we could all fit our homes this way. No more incandescent light bulbs – there really is no excuse to continue to use Edison’s originally great but extremely wasteful invention from the 19th century (giving Coolidge’s later addition of Tungsten filament credit of course), regardless of how ‘distasteful’ some people might find the spectrum of light emitted from energy efficient bulbs. With new LED technology whole rooms can be lit on a fraction of the cost of normal bulbs. 

The problem is the initial cost. Much as we would like to modify our homes to be the tightest, most environmentally friendly abodes around, we cannot afford it. So how to solve the problem. Well, here’s a crazy idea: How about the government and the power companies put out a massive effort to fit all Canadian (this applies to other countries too) homes with smart energy-saving systems in the next 15 years. The money can be loaned to the homeowner, who will still have the choice of a competitive market of devices and systems. These systems will be built to last. The government and companies will earn their money back in the following way – by simply continuously raising the price of electricity as the usage drops as more homes are converted (different price for different houses in their stages of development). Thus the owner sees no reduction in their bill, but is using perhaps one third of the power they usually do, and therefore can have a healthier conscience about the planet! The strain on the national grid will decrease as well as demand drops. Anyway, this was a crazy idea almost thought up on the spot, which may have gaping holes in it. I’d be interested to hear however what crazy ideas other people have thought up about this most important problem that scientists can make a great impact on if given the resources and green light!

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