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Electricity is a secondary power source, and its generation from primary sources creates environmental issues. The type and extent of these issues depends on the primary source and the technology used to generate the electricity. The generation of electricity using steam creates issues with wasted heat and water use, and is not as efficient as some of the newer technologies integrating highly efficient combined cycle turbines and cogeneration. The use of gas turbines is more efficient and cost effective, however the dependence on a fossil fuel remains a climate change concern in the absence of carbon capture or sequestration. Many of the newer technologies, especially those that concentrate on the use of renewable resources and engineering gains to reduce fuel consumption, show promise. The advancement of alternative strategies to produce electricity, mainly wind and solar have shown increasing cost competitiveness while presenting an alternate, more sustainable, energy pathway.
There is hope in our energy future, driven by new technologies and the efficiency gains from advancement in science and engineering. Our present and growing electrical energy use need not be a prominent factor in compromising our environmental future. In the words of Bertolt Brecht, the twentieth century German writer, “Because things are the way they are, things will not stay the way they are.”
Electricity is more than just flipping the switch. Every time we use an electrical appliance, or turn on the lights, we use a primary source of energy, usually one of the fossil fuels, to provide our electrical energy needs. Since none of these translations from one energy form to another is completely efficient, our final use costs us more than is immediately apparent.
Since most of our electricity is generated through the combustion of fossil fuels, we are lighting our way out of the darkness by burning the condensed wealth of the past. Our understanding of the real costs of electricity and the energy science and engineering that delivers it, advances our understanding of energy sustainability.
Although we get most of our electricity from fossil fuels, the fastest growing alternatives are wind and solar. Our present average energy conversion efficiency is about 35% and new approaches to electricity generation such as combined cycle plants and cogeneration can yield significant gains. Leveraging advances in science and engineering, investment in infrastructure and increased consumer understanding will contain costs and conserve resources.
We can shape of our energy future to one that is efficient, affordable, renewable, and carbon neutral, if we have the wisdom, knowledge and will to do it. Our study of what goes on beyond the light switch is key to our sustainable energy future.
The complexities of measuring sustainability developments are countered by the usefulness of the information and positive results that can be achieved. We value what we measure. Measuring adds to the valuing of our concerns and an understanding of where our energies for a more sustainable future should be placed. Development of a reliable system of markers and indicators of sustainability has shown the ability to improve quality of life and quality of the environment. To effect change, we have to know what to change, and by how much. We have to be able to better understand the complex systems that dominate nature and societies, and these markers can help in that understanding.
Measuring allows for accommodation of scale. Worldwide problems are aggregations of individual and community behaviors, that have become globalized in their practice and impacts. Measuring provides a mirror of ourselves, and in that refection we can often see the opportunity for a better path …one that takes a foothold in the future while we live in the present. We do have choices, as individuals, as communities, as nations. We need to be smart in the choices we make, and measuring our world can only make us smarter.