Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Too Big To See?

[PG&E power generating plant at Moss Landing, near Monterey]

A lodge in the north is a combination gas station, cafe, store, and motel. The lodges along the Alaska Highway are too remote to have power lines running to them. There is instead a small building near the main buildings where the generator runs constantly. These small generator buildings are sometimes better sound-insulated, but usually worse.

I have been fussy about turning off lights I am not using because one knows that the generator is outside converting fossil fuel, usually diesel oil, to electricity. This seems like an incredibly wasteful way to get electricity, burning an ancient and irreplaceable resource to get temporary pleasures like watching television, leaving lights on, heating a whole building instead of wearing warm clothes inside it, and so on. It seems unsustainable.

But, I reasoned, it is part of the rigors and remoteness of the north. Everything is expensive here because everything has to be trucked a long way, that is, there is a higher overhead. It makes sense that electricity would also be produced in a fairly primitive, expensive, high-overhead way, by burning fossil fuel, because one is far from the grid.

But then it occurred to me that that is how the grid itself works. Our power plants all burn an ancient and irreplaceable resource to provide temporary pleasure like televisions, curling irons, and heating houses instead of wearing warm clothes inside them.

But we do it on such a vast scale that it seems like an abstraction. An Alaska Highway lodge brings it down to a scale where we can see how primitive and wasteful it is to burn fossil fuel to generate electricity.

We have to find a better way.

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