Unpacking a Sustainable Energy System ⚡

Exploring Accessibility, Affordability, Security, and Protection in Energy Systems

Orientation 🧭

Welcome to Fostering Our Earth, a space for untangling the complex systems needed for a sustainable future, from infrastructure and policies to lifestyles and cultures.

Over the next few weeks, we will explore what a sustainable energy system looks like, covering key topics on energy efficiency, renewable energy, energy storage and transmission, and energy justice. Consider this week a broad introduction to sustainable energy and its importance.

The Gist 🎯

Every aspect of our modern lives requires energy — from mobility and climate control to electricity for charging our phones and lighting our homes. Energy is incredibly valuable, both in an enabling sense and economically. It impacts geopolitical relationships and, most relevant to this newsletter, is a massive cause of our emissions. When considering a sustainable energy system, I refer to the following framework: it must be accessible, affordable, secure, and protective (or clean).

Accessibility means that all people, regardless of their location or socio-economic status, have access to clean, reliable energy. Affordability means that the energy cost is reasonable and does not create a financial burden for individuals or businesses. Security means that the energy system is resilient and can withstand physical disruptions, such as natural disasters, technological disruptions like cyber attacks, or geopolitical disruptions, like war. Protective means that the energy system does not negatively impact the environment or human health, such as through air pollution or greenhouse gas emissions. Clean energy comes from renewable sources like wind, solar, or hydropower and is not based on fossil fuels.

We are consuming more energy than ever before, which makes sense; as countries develop, the more energy they use, and therefore a better quality of life, leading to more energy use (it's cyclical).

Our World in Data chart showing global electricity access

However, today, nearly one billion people worldwide lack access to electricity, meaning they don’t have the same ability to charge their phones as we do easily. Even further, 3 billion people don’t have access to clean sources, meaning they rely on solid fuels to cook their food, resulting in air pollution and health concerns. In the US, while energy accessibility doesn’t quite match our definition above and direct access is at about 100%, there are two issues:

  1. Only 20% of electricity generation comes from renewable energy sources.

  2. Low-income households are more likely to be energy burdened, meaning more of their income goes toward energy costs. So it stands to reason that the less money you make, the greater your energy burden will be.

Through each of these terms, we can build a complete picture of the energy that powers us and its impacts on health and affordability.

What do you think energy burden rates are near you? If you want more of this exploration, check out OurWorldInData’s energy page here, with more details on shares and emissions by sector.

Questions You Should Be Asking 💭

Here are four key questions you can ask about our energy system whenever your next party slows down or the next election cycle starts.

  1. What is my city’s plan to increase access to clean energy and improve resilience for all residents?

  2. What opportunities are available to help me make better individual choices? For example, does my city or state offer any rebates to make home efficiency upgrades more affordable?

More broadly, here are things to keep in mind when paying attention to the news:

  1. How can we make energy more affordable for individuals and businesses while ensuring that the costs of transitioning to a sustainable energy system are fairly distributed?

  2. How can we enhance the resilience and security of the energy system and reduce our reliance on fossil fuels?

  3. How can we address the environmental impacts of the energy system, such as air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, and ensure that the transition to a sustainable energy system does not exacerbate existing environmental and social inequalities?

TL;DR + What’s Next 🔮

In the coming weeks, we’ll explore how energy efficiency, renewable energy, energy storage, transmission, and equity form the foundation of building an accessible, affordable, secure, and protective sustainable energy system.

Thanks for reading, and I hope you learned something new. If you have any questions or comments, tweet or toot me!

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