by: Roger Warehime, Director, Operations
I recently attended a symposium entitled “Envisioning our Energy Future”. The keynote speaker was Dr. Scott Tinker, Director of the Bureau of Economic Geology at the University of Texas at Austin and producer of the award-winning energy documentary, SWITCH. While at the symposium, I was reminded of how important it is to keep in mind the vast scale of how much energy the world uses when talking about our energy future, and so I decided to talk about the topic here in this memo.
Dr. Tinker’s passion is bringing academia, government, industry and non-profit organizations together into what he calls the “radical middle” to address major societal issues in energy and environment. I first became aware of Dr. Tinker’s work three years ago when I viewed his movie. In it he travels the world interviewing technicians, business executives, scientists, and government officials about traditional and non-traditional energy sources and the challenges we face. What I most enjoyed about the film was how it presented an honest assessment that was interesting and free of advocacy bias.
I encourage you to learn more by visiting www.switchenergyproject.com. Here is one paragraph I found on the website that really summed it up for me:
What you need to know: 1. Energy drives the modern world and underpins every other issue. 2. We choose our energy based on four qualities: affordable, available, reliable and clean. 3. But clean is complicated. All energies have environmental impacts, which need to be managed effectively and affordably. 4. Even so, the biggest challenge of energy is scale – the enormous amount of energy we demand. 5. And the only way to counter scale, is with efficiency.
Scale is a factor that is often missing from the discussion about transitioning to renewable energy sources. It is simply difficult to comprehend how much energy we actually consume. The world-wide energy consumption equates to 22,000 kWh per year per person, and this includes 1.5 billion people who do not even have access to electricity. In the United States, our per capita energy consumption is four times that of the world as a whole; that is 88,000 kWh per person per year.
In Owatonna, our average residential electric consumption is 3,120 kWh per person per year; this is less than 4% of the total 88,000 kWh I referenced in the previous paragraph. So, where is the rest of the energy consumption coming from? In addition to the energy you use to heat your home and drive your vehicles, there is energy used by others on your behalf. It takes energy to produce the clothes you wear and the food you consume. It takes energy to deliver these goods to the stores where you shop, and it takes energy to condition the buildings in which you shop, and it takes energy to build the roads which you drive on to bring these goods home, and so on.
Let’s ignore natural gas for heating and oil for transportation for a moment and focus just on electricity consumption in Owatonna. Our power agency, SMMPA, is in final negotiations with a solar developer to build a 5 megawatt solar farm just west of Owatonna. Based on similar installations, it is expected that this farm will occupy approximately 35 acres of land and (ignoring the fact that the energy from the solar farm will only be available for a few hours each day and cannot be stored) produce enough energy for 840 homes. That sounds pretty good. However, looking at the electric requirements for all of our customers in Owatonna (including businesses, schools, and government) the solar farm will provide less than 2% of our needs. A solar farm that could meet all of our electricity needs would cover 3 square miles of land (and again, this ignores the fact that the solar farm will produce energy only for a few hours during the day while the demand for electricity is 24 x 7).
My point in writing this article is not to disparage renewable energy. I support renewable energy and look forward to it continuing to become a larger percentage of our energy mix. However, I think it is important for people to get an understanding of just how immense our energy use is and what a huge undertaking it will be to transition away from the energy sources that brought us the modern world. The transition will happen but it will take many, many years. Meanwhile, OPU remains committed to providing you safe, reliable energy at an affordable price while encouraging you to use energy more efficiently through our energy conservation programs.