Magazine article Sierra

Safety in Numbers: Decentralized Power Sources Are the New Victory Gardens. (Lay of the Land)

Magazine article Sierra

Safety in Numbers: Decentralized Power Sources Are the New Victory Gardens. (Lay of the Land)

Article excerpt

Among many new terrors revealed last September 11 as the precariousness of our energy system. With worst-case scenarios being surpassed by reality, nuclear power plants and giant hydroelectric dams suddenly started looking like targets. And it only took a drunk with a gun to shut down the Trans-Alaska Pipeline for three days.

As during the Gulf War, alarms are being raised about the 22 percent of U.S. oil that comes from the Middle East. President George W. Bush's solution is to drill the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, even though it couldn't supply more than 3 percent of our oil, or even be available for ten years. Barring the discovery of stupendously large oil fields in friendly, accessible parts of the world, the United States will depend on oil from the Middle East as long as we depend on oil. As Canadian environment minister David Anderson put it, "Whenever asked what an individual can do to fight terrorism, the answer is very simple: Drive less."

There is something jarring these days about those giant SUVs flying enormous American flags. Environmentalists are responding with a new press for improvements in U.S. auto fuel-efficiency standards, now at their lowest point in 20 years. Off the road, in a modern-day echo of the World War II "victory gardens," families, businesses, and communities are generating their own power. Every day, according to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, 30 micropower plants are installed atop or within buildings: solar panels, windmills, fuel cells, or mini-natural-gas turbines. Even apart from the new, often zero-emission technology they employ, these sources are intrinsically more efficient, since they avoid the 5 to 20 percent power loss that comes with transmission of electricity across hundreds of miles. And while traditional power plants lose 60 percent of their energy as heat, homes and businesses can capture this energy to heat water and living spaces, or even use it in air conditioning with absorption-chillers. …

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