June 5, 2012

Energy infrastructure takes time to shift

I had an exchange this morning on the Sustainable Tompkins mailing list that seems worth reprinting here.

On 6/5/12 8:31 AM, George Frantz wrote:

More importantly than the question of indigestion, in my opinion, is the question of will this current crisis will ever change the fact that 6 out of 10 homes here in Tompkins County, all of our major employers, and most of the stores we shop in, are heated with natural gas.

When are we going to stop paying our Big Energy surrogates to rape the environments of other regions of the world for our energy supplies?

While I would like to pay Big Energy much less, the actual story isn't anywhere near that simple.

Until about a decade ago, natural gas was pretty much the least intrusive form of energy extraction. Yes, there were pipelines, and yes, it was the cause of some horrible accidents, but the actual extraction was less damaging than oil or coal.

I grew up in a city (Corning) that thrived thanks to its being near first coal and then natural gas sources, combined with the silica from Pennsylvania that made great glass. We didn't just have natural gas infrastructure - we had our own gas company, separate from NYSEG, that benefited the city because of the massive purchases of natural gas for glassmaking.

My senior prom date had a gas well on her farm, about 100 yards across the road. I remembered it being a tiny (if very profitable) thing, and had to go check last year when I was in the area. It's still there, and still tiny.

Most of the infrastructure you grouse about here was installed in a time when natural gas was indeed a clean(er) fuel, filling a niche for home heating and other heat-intensive uses. I marvel at the industry spokespeople who think "Nyah, nyah, your house is heated with gas so shut up" is an argument.

I'm doing what I can to reduce my contributions to the extractive energy crowd. Almost a decade ago I replaced my furnace and insulated my house, and cut my natural gas consumption by about 3/5. I added an on-demand water heater and cut my consumption further. Yes, I added a gas cooktop, though except perhaps in canning season that's not a huge consumer.

All of that was about reducing energy consumption generally, though, not migrating from natural gas, because at that point there was little sign that natural gas would be especially damaging to the world.

This year's project goes a lot further - we're installing a woodstove that can heat the house, cook and bake food, and provide hot water. It will substantially reduce our use of gas and electricity, and also let us worry less about the potential impact of an extended power outage. (No electricity, no furnace.)

You can see the start of that work at:


I'm happy about this work, but I also look at the costs, comparable options for those without a woodlot behind the house, the many renters with little control over their heat options, and the general difficulties of changing infrastructure, and my rhetoric ends up a lot calmer than George's.

Infrastructure changes are never easy. We build things at one time thinking they're both convenient and environmentally sound, and later the rules change.

The rules could change in a worse way, of course, as I suspect owners of gas wells in Seneca and Cayuga counties are about to learn:


So yes, let's pay the extractive industry folks a lot less by using less of what they're selling. We also need to accept that it's going to take a while, and not spend that while thrashing ourselves because circumstances changed.

Posted by simon at June 5, 2012 12:24 PM in ,
Note on photos