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What's the deal with energy?

green muse

Energy is a tricky subject. It warms our houses, fuels our cars and powers innovation. But at the same time, energy production releases pollutants into the atmosphere that ultimately contribute to the upward creep of global temperatures. There’s no doubt that energy is essential for modernized society, but how do we reconcile its benefits with the steady melting of arctic ice?

According to a study from scientists at Harvard and Rutgers Universities, sea level rise has accelerated significantly since 1990. In the past 20 years, the ocean has risen 3 millimeters per year, roughly twice the average speed of the preceding 80 years. This is due to the melting of glaciers and polar ice caps, as well as thermal expansion – when water heats up, it expands. This change is potentially devastating because even tiny increases in sea level can cause erosion of coastal habitats due to flooding and powerful storm surges. Millions of people live in areas that will be increasingly vulnerable to flooding, especially developing equatorial nations.

Equally as troubling is the decline in air quality caused by fossil fuel emissions. Dirty air means water and land contamination as well as diseases. Conditions such as asthma are worsened by air pollution – In the U.S., the number of people with asthma grew by 4.3 million between 2001 and 2009. Now, one out of every 10 children in this country has asthma. These numbers are even higher for underprivileged citizens who often have no choice but to reside in close proximity to energy plants.

Energy production in its current state creates a host of problems, but is energy itself really that bad? Think of all the things it does for us – it improves healthcare, education, innovation and quality of life. In the U.S., we use an excessive amount, but what if developing and third-world countries had access to more energy? Communities could improve their infrastructure and give residents more opportunity to thrive. Economic disparities could level out as jobs diversify and expand. More energy means better access to education, which can improve opportunities for women and result in lower birth rates and slower population growth.

For example, many developing countries meet the bulk of their energy needs by collecting wood and other biomass for fuel. This is cheap in cash terms but exorbitantly expensive in relation to time. Typical families in South Indian villages collect wood for two to six hours each day, traveling up to five miles from their homes. Access to better energy sources could free up their time as well as eliminate indoor air pollution from biomass cook-stoves. Not only would these families have more time and better air quality, increased access to energy could power transport for medical services and ensure quality heating, lighting, sterilization and refrigeration. Energy also allows for nighttime study and access to radio and the Internet – powerful literacy tools that can improve employment prospects. It also creates income-generating markets through transportation and communication, which can provide a way out of poverty.

So it seems that the world needs more energy, not less. The trouble comes with its production, which is too often in the form of coal, oil and natural gas. These fuels drive climate change and power our society at the same time. So what do we do?

As a nation we’ve made strides in energy efficiency – the Obama administration has made the largest investment in clean energy in American history, and since the president took office, the U.S. has increased solar electricity generation by more than twenty-fold and tripled electricity production from wind power. Furthermore, Obama’s new clean power plan creates stricter fuel efficiency and CO2 emission standards. But is that enough? The U.S. still wastes energy by the truckload while some areas of the world barely have access to electricity. We need to create power that is efficient, affordable and available – but how?

Maybe we need a little creativity. Countries like the United States have to invest in energy innovation in order to create cleaner and more efficient sources of power. If these technologies are affordable enough for use in developing countries, then they could improve standards of living worldwide, giving us more energy and less harmful emissions. So let’s get more people on the grid and reduce greenhouse gas emissions while we’re at it.

Caeleigh MacNeil is a Trinity senior. Her column runs on alternate Wednesdays.

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