Problems

Our current energy system is at the center of a broad range of problems that threaten our lifestyles, our communities, our economy, and our planet. Here’s a brief introduction to some of the biggest problems:

Energy Poverty and Dependency

The average American family spends 5% of their annual income to pay for energy (not counting gas for transportation). The average family below the poverty line spends 15%, which is a major burden on families already struggling to make ends meet. Most families in the United Statesare dependent on these expensive dirty energy sources for their basic needs such as heat, light, hot water, cooking, and transportation, yet have little access to the means to reduce their dependency. For many, rising energy costs force difficult choices between heat, food, and transportation. Since fossil fuel energy sources are jobs-poor (more revenue is spent paying for resource extraction and heavy machinery rather than employing people) and are are located far outside of the neighborhood, this energy dependency also forces dollars to flow out of the local community. With few immediate means to break this dependency on dirty energy, families keep paying and paying. You can learn more about the problem of energy poverty here: http://www.nliec.org/cold.pdf

Pollution and Health Hazards

Burning coal, oil, natural gas, and gasoline are responsible for a large portion of overall air pollution. Petroleum-based chemicals are also the central components and/or fuel sources for chemical manufacturing that creates most of the rest of urban in-door and out-door toxicity. According to a 2004 Environmental Protection Agency study, power plants, particularly coal-fired ones, cause almost 24,000 premature deaths each year (the average shortening of life span due to these plants is 14 years) across the country. Additionally, this pollution is responsible for over 38,000 non-fatal heart attacks and 554,000 asthma attacks each year nationwide. While Minneapolisis far from the worst (A Sierra Club database estimates 18 premature deaths and 351 asthma attacks caused by coal power each year for Hennepin County), asthma and air pollution are having significant health impacts in our community, especially among East African children. You can read more about the linkage between pollution from dirty energy facilities and health impacts here: http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/2011/05/asthma_day.html

Blackouts and Power Surges

As demand for electricity continues to rise, especially during peak power use periods on hot summer afternoons, energy demand stresses the grid, risking blackouts. Blackouts happen when local electricity supply cannot meet what is being used. Another problem – power surges – occur when the voltage jumps suddenly – this often damages electrical equipment. In some states, demand management technology is being used to reduce energy usage during peak energy use periods by shutting fans and motors off periodically – Xcel Energy uses a rudimentary form of this approach with its Saver Switch Program. However, because most energy users do not have any incentive to save energy when it is most needed and most costly, poor power quality continues to be a problem during high energy use periods. These problems are costing South Minneapolis businesses and institutions hundreds of thousands of dollars annually. In addition, the aging local electrical infrastructure in the area faces frequent failures, causing local blackouts that are a nuisance in the neighborhood. You can learn more about various types of power quality problems at this industry article or a broader sense of what is wrong with our electrical grid here.

Negative Impacts of Energy Extraction and Infrastructure

Within our neighborhood, energy infrastructure is primarily present in the form of underground natural gas and oil pipelines, boilers and furnaces in homes and buildings, gas stations, and electrical transmission lines, substations, and local powerlines. The most common negative local impacts are aesthetic and economic. Above-ground pipelines, transmission lines and substations are widely known to depress property values and reduce economic development in surrounding urban areas. There are also concerns about health impacts from electromagnetic fields around high-voltage power lines, as evidenced in the recent Xcel Hiawatha Transmission Line hearings. These types of infrastructure also raise questions of local control – the routing of these facilities is often decided with little opportunity for meaningful input from the residents and businesses most effected. In the 1980s, a similar struggle in Western Minnesota helped ignite community action around energy issues and launched the late Senator Paul Wellstone’s career. Local natural gas infrastructure also occasionally creates catastrophic accidents, such as the pipeline explosion near the Crosstown and 35W in March 2011.

The biggest negative impacts of dirty energy infrastructure are at the other end of the line, where our energy is extracted and produced – here are a few of the impacts of our energy sources:

  • Mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia; which blasts the top off mountains to access coal seams underneath, and has been filling valleys with coal refuse and poisoning communities with toxic coal sludge. While Xcel Energy’s local coal plants do not use mountain-top removal coal mining directly, they do buy coal from companies      that operate these mines (see the connection here). Learn more about mountaintop removal here. Most Minnesota coal comes from strip mines in the Dakotas and Wyoming, which dig similarly massive holes out of the prairies to access coal and shipped to Minnesota by train.
  • Nuclear dry cask storage at Prairie Island right next to a Native American Reservation; Xcel Energy committed to a dramatic increase in renewable energy to be allowed by the      state to store waste there, but the tribe continues to cite of ongoing health issues and disregard for tribal sovereignty.
  • Tar sands mining in Alberta; which is devastating millions of acres of tribal lands and breeding grounds for migratory birds to refine heavy oily sludge into usable oil. The Obama administration originally delayed a major decision about the Keystone XL pipeline, but then denied its permit after being given a 60-day ultimatum from Congress. The Keystone XL pipeline would have opened the flow of Canadian tar sands from Canada to refining and export facilities in Texas, but tar sands oil continues to supply the Upper Midwest. This is one of the most polluting, wasteful, and expensive sources of energy. Read more about the basics here and take a deeper dive here.
  • Hydraulic fracturing (also known as fracking) is a new method of accessing natural gas reserves by pumping water, diesel, and other drilling chemicals into loose rock formations to break the rock and release natural gas. This technique has become common only within the last ten years and is now widely practiced in areas of the Great Plains and Southwest and the Marcellus Shale in Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania,      and New York. This technique is responsible for extreme water pollution (many cases of water in home sinks catching on fire have been documented) and other local effects including seismic activity. To learn more, review the series of “Drilling Down” articles published by the New York Times.
  • Manitoba Hydropower is a large electricity producer in Canadathat supplies      electricity to Xcel Energy in Minnesota and elsewhere by running a series of massive hydroelectric dams. These dams are flooding larger regions of the boreal forests and eroding the local economy for local Cree peoples. Learn more from an interview on Living On Earth in 2000 or this direct report on the environmental justice impacts.

Energy Centralization and Monopoly

Along with transportation fuel, energy makes up almost 10% of the entire economy, but it is controlled by a handful of giant companies with little room for competition. Large scale energy production and distribution technology costs billions of dollars upfront (an average power plant costs $0.5-$3 billion, and transmission lines cost around $1 million per mile), so few local or start-up companies have access to the market. The growth of renewable energy and energy efficiency means that smaller localized energy ventures can compete economically and technologically. However, a complex range of archaic federal and state laws have entrenched the monopoly system of one energy provider per region (in Minneapolis, its Xcel Energy for electricity and Centerpoint Energy for gas). In Our Power’s seven neighborhood area, this means that the $63+ million dollars we spend each year on energy that is going to less then 10 companies (Xcel, Centerpoint, and the different oil companies that sell gasoline to gas stations in our neighborhood, with over half just to Xcel and Centerpoint alone). This system provides little space for community-based energy ventures that would reinvest our energy dollars in the community. It doesn’t create the competition needed to force changes to a cleaner energy system. You can read more about the barriers that this monopoly system creates here (focused on electricity, also generally applies to heating fuel and gasoline). Also check out their recommendations for central principles for a democratic electrical system.

Global Energy Depletion and Rising Energy Prices

As the 1970’s energy crises and the 2008 spike in energy prices (linked with global food riots and food prices and the 2008 financial collapse) demonstrated, volatile and rising energy prices wreak havoc with our lives, communities, and economies. Energy prices have risen dramatically over the past few years, and many researchers believe that we are recently past, at, or near peak oil (the global peak in oil production). This period will be followed by periodically rising prices (volatility and rapid short-term swings up and down will still occur) and the search for new energy sources. The depletion of easily accessible energy is driving the push for costly and damaging energy sources that harm human health and the environment such as mountaintop removal coal mining, garbage incineration, hydraulic fracturing for natural gas and tar sands mining for oil. While oil is the most constrained of our primary energy sources (natural gas prices have fallen dramatically in the past few years due to extensive new (but very polluting) sources, accessible reserves of natural gas and coal are also expected to dwindle in the next few decades. As available reserves of fossil energy are exhausted, rising prices will continue to weaken our economy, prolonging economic stagnation, energy insecurity, and energy poverty until we develop new strategies for moving beyond dependency on dirty energy. For more information about peak energy and how it will affect the economy, visit http://www.energybulletin.net/primer.php. For information on how coal – often touted as a limitless energy source (though with major pollution and climate problems) is also in the process of depletion, visit http://europe.theoildrum.com/node/2726/

Global Conflict and Energy    

Global resources of oil and gas, the fuels most easily used for heating and transportation, are concentrated in the Middle Eastand the Caspian Sea(about 2/3 of all global oil reserves are in these areas). Fueled by high global demand for oil, political and military conflict has been rampant in these areas as well as in other oil producing regions like Venezuela, Nigeria, Sudan and Bolivia. The United States’ interest in safe-guarding global energy production has drawn it into several of these international conflicts, including recently in Kuwait, Iraq, and Libya (while Afghanistanis not a major oil producing country, the roots of the conflict their also stem from regional unrest around American presence in the Middle East). Regardless of whether waging these wars (particularly in Iraq) was directly motivated by securing oil, the strong concern with stability in the region is directly linked to the United States’ economic dependency on foreign oil. Other recent conflicts featuring energy resources include the showdown between Russia and the neighboring nation of Georgia around a pipeline from the Caspian region, the current tensions between Southeast Asian Nations with American support and China around the South China Sea, as well as the financing of state-sponsored genocide in Darfur and Southern Sudan from oil purchases. Read more about the linkage between dependency on dirty energy, especially oil and natural gas, and conflict here.

Global Climate Crisis

As coal, oil, and natural gas are burned for personal use or in the production of food or products, they release gasses into the atmosphere that are dramatically changing the global climate. “Greenhouse” gasses like carbon dioxide and methane trap heat from the sun – in normal concentrations, these gasses help keep our planet at a habitable temperature, sustaining the weather and climate systems that human society have thrived in. These gasses have maintained a regular cycle between Ice Ages for millions of years (concentrations of greenhouse gasses varied between 200 parts per million (ppm) of the atmosphere during ice ages to around 300 ppm during warmer inter-glacial periods like the one in which human agriculture was founded). However, since the start of the Industrial Revolution, greenhouse gasses have been climbing rapidly, and are now over 390 ppm, a level not seen for many millions of years and well in excess of what scientists consider to be safe for our planet (350 ppm). This means substantially more heat is being held in the atmosphere, raising the global average temperature and changing weather systems (drought, powerful storms, floods, abundance of insects and pests, ocean currents) all over the planet.

This process has been predicted since the 19th Century, and has become a recognized consensus among the vast majority of scientists and laypeople alike over the past few decades. Beyond extensive scientific research (an international body of over 3500 scientists has been researching the problem for over 20 years), ordinary people all around the world are suffering from the effects of this climate disruption. Some of the most prominent changes are:

  • Global measurements are showing that average temperatures are warming and that there are a much greater number of heat waves and extreme high temperatures (summer heat indexes in MN reached their second highest ever temperatures in 2011), but warming is not even or steady – unusual cold spells and severe winter weather events (along with many more sever summer weather events) are both predicted by climate change and observed.
  • Disrupted rainfall patterns, often with more long droughts and intense but irregular heavy rainfall. Droughts have already been affecting food production world-wide, including low crop yields across Minnesota. Catastrophic rain events are also becoming more common – especially in the tropics. When high precipitation occurs at low enough temperatures, this means heavier snowfall, so higher than normal snowfalls during winters (with slightly warmer temperatures) are consistent with the predictions.
  • More unpredictable and violent storms, including hurricanes and tornado-producing storms. The number of tornadoes and the number of hurricanes, particularly severe      hurricanes, has dramatically increased in the past few years. While it is difficult to pin any particular storm to climate change, an extraordinary number of extremely powerful storms have been recorded in recent years. Residents of North Minneapolis recently affected by the 2011 tornado as well as people across the Gulf Coast and East Coast devastated by recent hurricanes may be examples of a new normal.
  • Shifting habitats for many species, including trees, birds, fish, and pests. Conifer forests are expected to die out from northern Minnesota by the end of the century      (remaining in Canada) and hunters are already seeing duck populations shrink as the prairie potholes they live in dry up (moose are also being affected by formerly rare diseases). Birds are migrating at different times of year, and the insects they eat are emerging at different times. Globally, disease carrying ticks and mosquitoes are increasingly being found further from the tropics and at higher elevations. Exploding populations of bark beetles are killing off Canadian conifer forests because it no longer gets cold enough in the winter to freeze them off.
  • Shrinking sea ice and melting polar and mountain glaciers worldwide – this raises sea level (minimally so far), destabilizes land-based ice sheets that could raise the sea level by many feet if they collapsed, and threatens the water supply for the 40% of the world’s people whose water is supplied by glacier-fed rivers. Additionally, these changes alter oceanic currents that sustain commercially critical fish populations, transfer heat from the tropics, and moderate global weather.

The impacts observed so far (which have been happening far faster than scientists originally expected) have been created by less than half the greenhouse gas emissions we have already released. It is already tripping dangerous cycles where the world’s ecosystems absorb more heat and release more warming gasses such as melting methane-rich Arctic tundra, exposing dark polar waters, and increasing carbon-releasing forest fires. Basically, this lag in impact and feedback loops means that if we were to entirely stop use of fossil fuels instantly, climate change would continue to at least twice the levels of impact we see today. As long as we continue to use carbon-based sources of energy, we are pushing the changes our society will have to adapt to an even greater level – potentially to the breaking point. Confronting these challenges stresses our economy by requiring extensive use of emergency resources – if our economy does not have dramatic surplus in the future, we won’t have the resources to deal with these threats.

For more information understanding the problem and its impacts, visit http://www.cleanair-coolplanet.org/information/

For a much more detailed and technical explanation of the problem and its impacts, visit the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fourth Assessment published in 2007, which is the current most comprehensive resource on the subject: http://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/ar4/syr/en/contents.html

So Now What?

This was the problems page. Our Power is about working together to do something about all of it in a way that will help us individually, support our community, and contribute to a big-picture solution:

Save Energy In Your own Home

Sign Up for Existing programs  to build a better energy future

Engage the Community – get others involved

Build Our Power for a better energy future 

One Response to Problems

  1. Chris Tin says:

    Visit the Our Power page on Facebook to find out about upcoming events. This Saturday, March 16, 2013, from 4:00 PM to 7:00 PM we are hosting a Midtown Neighborhood Energy Party in
    Midtown Global Market basement meeting room. There will be networking and Free food with Vegan options! Please RSVP at Eventbrite >>> http://www.eventbrite.com/event/5401299432 so we know how many people will be eating Vegan.
    The address is: 920 E. Lake Street (the old Sears Tower), Minneapolis, MN 55407. The Our Power Facebook page is >>> https://www.facebook.com/ourpower.

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