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Will We Power Our Electronics with Manure?
As our electronic universe expands, how will we maintain our high-tech standard of living?
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May 02, 2012 by Steven Castle

Ever wonder where all of our energy comes from? We usually don’t think about it until we lose power, but PBS’s America Revealed takes a good look at the different ways energy is produced in the United States, from coal and nuclear to newer technologies like natural gas, wind, solar and even “cow power.”

Don’t worry. The show is not a green screed that goes all Al Gore on you. It’s a pretty objective and non-judgmental primer on how we get our energy in this country. Though it does cover some of the environmental problems being caused by the hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) used to retrieve one of our biggest growing sources of energy: natural gas.

If anything, the program helps put into perspective our vast energy needs. Even for the writer who has reported on these issues for years, it’s sobering to see mile-long coal trains, the engineering marvel of our existing network of natural gas pipelines, and how Boston, at the tail end of the natural gas trough, must bring in mammoth tankers filled with liquified natural gas (LNG) to meet the area’s energy needs.

The program doesn’t glorify green technologies such as solar and wind. Those aren’t even explored until later in the hour-long show. And it even ventures into alternative energy sources such as “Cow Power”—the harvesting of electricity-generating methane from manure—that can power 400 homes from the muck of a Vermont dairy farm. The moral: Our vast energy needs can’t be solved by one fuel or another. We need them all to maintain our high-tech standard of living.

You can almost forget the fun fact that most homes in the United States have 26 electronic devices. (I’d guess there’s more in many of our homes). Much more sobering is the thermal imaging of homes, leaking heat that makes us use far more energy than we need to. You don’t even need to see this show or the thermal imaging segment to get a big-picture glimpse of how much energy we waste. Just grab a window seat on your next night flight and gaze out the window. Do we really need all those lights on? Just imagine how much energy and money we can save by putting just a fraction of them on timers or motion sensors.

Here’s the thing, though: We consumers are now the biggest wasters of energy. And no, you don’t need to make electricity from manure or install solar panels to get energy savings. It all starts at home with making your house just a little more efficient, whether through better insulation, a programmable thermostat, home control or a variety of energy management and connected home systems becoming available. Energy efficiency has been called the fifth fuel—after coal, gas, oil, and renewables (solar, wind, nuclear)—and with good reason. With the amount of energy we waste, we can save trillions.

No wonder more and more people are going off the grid, installing solar systems, and building Net Zero (produce all your own energy) houses.

It’s also quite interesting to think of what our energy mix in the future will look like, and how we’ll manage to conserve and even harvest energy despite our ever-expanding universe of electronic technologies. Anyone up for designing a cowPod?

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Steven Castle - Contributing Writer
Steven Castle is Electronic House's managing editor. he has been writing about consumer electronics, homes and energy efficiency topics for two decades. He is also the co-founder of GreenTech Advocates.

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