The first-ever SxSW Eco took place this week in Austin, Texas. It was a three-day event that brought together sustainable companies, scientists, politicians, media and citizens that are concerned about the environment and passionate about finding solutions to tomorrow’s problems today.
Consider this: Global average energy consumption is approximately 2,000 watts per capita. In the United States, average energy consumption is approximately 10,000 watts per capita.
Also consider that, in the U.S., 40 percent of that energy comes from coal, 20 percent from oil, and 2.5 percent from gas. Renewables are only a tiny sliver on the energy pie chart. In other countries, like Ethiopia, the energy consumption picture is completely opposite: 89 percent of energy comes from combined renewable sources (biomass) and waste materials.
But the standard of living in the United States is worlds away from Ethiopia and other developing countries. And I don’t think you’ll find anyone who’d be willing to trade their job, nice comfy bed, car, and laptop for life in a grass hut.
So is it even possible for us to dream of lowering our energy consumption to 2,000 watts? And if so, what would that life look like?
This was the topic of discussion during a SxSW Eco presentation on Thursday by Matthew Gardner of Sustainserve, Inc.
Gardener suggested that rather than looking at countries like Ethiopia, who are almost at the opposite end of the energy consumption and style of life spectrum, the United States would be better served by emulating Switzerland and other European countries that have managed to maintain a high quality of life while reducing their per capita energy consumption to around 5,000 watts.
Rather than waiting for cutting edge technologies and fuels to make their way to the market, Gardner suggests there are simple policy changes that could have a drastic and immediate effect. For example, just implementing zero energy standards for new buildings, mandated sleep mode for all electronics, and requiring widespread deployment of Combined Heat & Power technologies (CHP) would result in almost a 10 percent reduction in energy use.
The best thing about these three particular points is that the technology already exists and would have zero net effect on quality of life in America. Using them as a foundation for more intensive changes to be implemented gradually over time puts the U.S. on a comfortable path to life at 5,000 or 6,000 watts in a matter of years instead of decades.
Politicians can be reluctant to push these kinds of regulatory changes, so Gardener suggests it’s important to get the public invested in this process as well.
Communicating the message of a sustainable lifestyle in a way that people will understand on a personal level is a must. We need to start talking about life at 2,000 watts as a norm, not a lofty goal. We need to leave green jargon behind and communicate in terms of saved money and time.
And most of all, we need to remind people that with a few pointed changes in infrastructure, energy, transportation habits, we can move closer to life at 2,000 watts without sacrificing quality of life.