by NORAH WALSH
The effects of natural disasters are a peek into the future if we don’t address our use of energy with heightened attention. With devastating hurricanes, Europe fearing a blackout if Russia shuts off their gas supply, and floods and heat waves causing innumerable deaths, we need to consider how we use energy in the United States in preparation for worsening conditions consequent of climate change, as well as how energy can be used as a political weapon.
I came to Bilbao, Spain, over the summer to study abroad, and as I continue my studies abroad for the fall semester, I’ve started to note the differences between how we in the United States use and regard energy versus how my European friends and Spanish host mom treat it.
How other countries minimize energy usage
In my room, which is located a couple blocks away from the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, the overhead light only holds one lightbulb, even though there are four places that could be filled. This reminded me of 2011 when my family moved into a smaller house after declaring bankruptcy as a result of the 2008 financial crisis and my father having lost his job. Every penny that could be pinched was, and thankfully energy was easy to reduce, since one light bulb illuminating the upstairs bathroom was plenty for us to utilize the space. That was the first time I really understood that using energy cost money, and my knowledge surrounding how energy worked and how it could detriment the environment evolved from that moment onward.
When I first arrived in Bilbao and met my host mom, I was given certain rules to follow in order to respect the household, and almost all of them had to do with energy usage. The main ones I remember were to take short showers, turn off the lights when they weren’t needed and unplug my electronics and chargers when they weren’t being used. In the first couple weeks, I was hyper-cognizant of my actions, but after having grown accustomed to them, they’ve become instinctual.
Not to mention, my host mom doesn’t own a dryer, so all of my clothes are hung up on a clothesline that hangs above the apartment courtyard after they are taken out of the washing machine. This has quite the beneficial effect on the environment, for according to Green America, “Air-drying your clothes can reduce the average household’s carbon footprint by a whopping 2,400 pounds a year.”
My classmates and I were ill-prepared for the chilly temperatures that met us in the northern Spanish city when we first arrived. We embarked to find pants and long-sleeved t-shirts, but only a couple weeks later, we were sweating in our rooms and classrooms alike and finding refuge in air-conditioned sites, such as certain stores and surrounding museums.
The heat wave made me realize how much I had taken my access to air conditioning for granted in the United States. To my host mom and other locals, it was normal to be hot in the summer, so unless it were about the fires or floods that resulted from this high heat, they weren’t concerned. Additionally, nobody was rushing to buy air conditioners and subsequently spend more energy in an attempt to make themselves more comfortable. Instead, they mitigated the problem as best they could by opening windows, eating colder foods and staying out of the sun, especially when the sun was highest in the sky in the middle of the day.
Even at the University of Deusto where I am studying, there’s a cognizance surrounding energy usage. The lights in the classrooms are only turned on if there are people actively inside, and an open window was always the first step to cooling down the room rather than air conditioning.
These practices aren’t only familiar to Europeans, though, for other countries also take energy usage more seriously and act to not waste it.
Kylie Jackson, a junior conservation biology major and environmental sustainability minor who is currently living and studying abroad in New Zealand said, “There are a few aspects where I feel New Zealand is a little more conscientious about resource usage. People actually turn off lights when they aren’t using them here. One of my biggest pet peeves is leaving lights on in empty buildings or rooms, and NZ actually does turn off lights.”
She also described the ways they minimize energy and resource usage.
“All of their toilets have water-saving mechanisms and public restrooms have conveyor-belt-like cloth towels for drying hands that are regularly cleaned and replaced to cut down on paper towel usage,” she said. “People are more likely to live in groups of friends, even sometimes families, in larger houses that are close together rather than singles or single families living alone on large properties. Living close together and with others saves energy and resources.”
While countries like Spain and New Zealand may be more conscientious about their use of energy and resources, there is always more to do, especially when it comes to shifting to renewable energy.
“Regarding the political effects of switching to renewables, the Europeans have, generally, been more willing than the US to move ahead on this,” said Ranjit Singh, associate professor in the Department of Political Science and International Affairs. “Until Biden’s recent initiative, we’ve done virtually nothing. But even the Europeans have dragged.”
One of the initiatives Biden has taken is called the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. One of the goals of the Law is to “Improve transportation options for millions of Americans and reduce greenhouse emissions through the largest investment in public transit in U.S. history,” which pertains to both railways and electric vehicles. Furthermore, another goal the Law asserts is to “Upgrade our power infrastructure to deliver clean, reliable energy across the country and deploy cutting-edge energy technology to achieve a zero-emission future.”
The United States wanting to move towards carbon neutrality by 2050 is promising, but according to the Pew Research Center, only 31% of Americans believe that “the U.S. should phase out the use of oil, coal and natural gas completely.” These opinions may be influenced by the increase in price of consumer goods as well as the price of heating and cooling homes that come along with renewable energy. However, people can save money by controlling their thermostats.
Because renewable energy is projected to cost consumers more, we have to think about how we use energy in order to afford it. Ways to reduce energy can include using energy-efficient products that eliminate energy waste, but they can also be as simple as using more daylight in the home rather than utilizing artificial light, according to Energy Saver.
Additionally, “the best energy is the one you don’t need,” according to Josep Borrel, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy who is also the Vice-President of the European Commission. Countries in the European Union work together to decrease their use and waste of energy, according to an article from The Guardian.
For example, in France, air-conditioned shops face fines if they do not keep their doors closed, illuminated signs are switched off when not in use, as is advertising between 1-6 a.m. except in railway stations and airports.
Germany has turned off fountains and spotlights on public monuments. The rooms in the Lower Saxony state capital are only to be heated from October to the end of March to a maximum of 68 degrees Fahrenheit. They also do not allow mobile air-consitioners or space heaters.
Many of these rules have to do with air conditioning since the recent heat waves that permeated throughout Europe led to power systems being overloaded. However, many people in these countries are accustomed to not having any air conditioning whatsoever, which differentiates them from people in the United States who rely on and take it for granted. This means that the United States would have to endure a learning curve and some discomfort in order to aid in the effort against climate change and be less reliant on energy.
The ways in which we can save energy are elementary, and there’s really no reason why we cannot take these steps to alleviate the stress we have put on the energy economy.
Difficulties reducing energy consumption in the United States
According to Bill Ritter, the director of the Center for the New Energy Economy at Colorado State University and former Colorado governor, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, “The Southwest Energy Efficiency Project estimates that 32 large power plants can be avoided, and $544 million in public health benefit generated, in the Southwest by 2030 by implementing best-practice energy-efficiency programs, many of which require individual action.” However, as Ritter aptly highlights, “While Americans favor reducing energy consumption over new generations, that sentiment does not necessarily translate into action.”
In order to move towards a thought process that prioritizes using less energy rather than just switching to another type of energy, we must become aware of how we utilize and rely on energy in every aspect of our lives.
Part of this is the fault of education, for the lack of energy literacy in the United States leads people to not consider energy as a relevant and important issue, since they don’t consider how much energy they truly use every day.
In her interview with the Wall Street Journal, Katie Gordon, the vice president and director of the energy and climate program at Next Generation said, “It’s simply not intuitive to think about the origins of the energy we use to cook breakfast or drive our kids to school, and we don’t do a great job of educating students about the moral, practical or economic implications of energy consumption.”
Increasing energy literacy, while not a direct plan to decrease the energy we use on a daily basis, is a way in which small actions could accumulate to make large-scale change. My German friends cannot believe that I leave the water on when I shampoo my hair in the shower, nor can they fathom how I can forget to turn the lights on when I leave a room. Not having these practices implicitly ingrained in my mind from when I was young means that my first instincts work against the health of the environment, which makes me complicit in climate change.
Access to energy as a political weapon
Another pressing matter that should motivate us to ease our reliance on energy is the influence that access to energy has in the political sense.
When asked about how energy can be weaponized, Singh said, “You can make the switch to renewables in a planned orderly manner, which requires some pain, but lets you maintain control. Or, you can delay, dawdle, postpone, etc., and then find yourself in an acute crisis (environmental or political—like Ukraine) where everyone is panicked and you’ve lost control over important things. That’s the dilemma. In my view, neither the U.S. nor Europe has taken sufficient steps to avoid the second scenario. And we’re seeing that now.”
On Sept. 26, both Nord Stream gas pipelines started to leak, according to an NPR report that details seismologic records that noted undersea explosions. This attack, for which Russia has denied culpability but has not been traced back to any other cause, exacerbates the issue of how energy control is weaponized to weaken other nations as a political tactic.
In late August, Russia “shut down Nord Stream 1 entirely, blaming problems with equipment,” according to BBC. Though Gazprom, the Russian state-owned corporation, reported that the leak has stopped after the reported explosions, the European Union’s access to gas from Russia remains unstable and uncertain. Furthermore, while the European Union was suffering due to Nord Stream 1 supplying member states with around 35% of Russia-imported gas, the pipeline having been damaged sends a much stronger message than claiming equipment problems are at fault.
Much of Europe fears what would happen if Russia were to cut off their access to gas completely, which emphasizes the power that energy control has as a political tactic. This only reiterates Borrel’s statement that encourages less reliance on this type of energy, which not only carries political weight in relation to the war in Ukraine, but also gives an additional push to utilizing renewable energy. With these efforts, we can move to remedy the climate crisis.