I didn’t think it would be necessary for me to start talking about energy issues quite so soon. Granted, industrial civilization remains hopelessly dependent for its very survival on dwindling supplies of fossil fuels, which are being used up at breakneck paces to prop up the absurdly extravagant lifestyles of a handful of rich nations. Granted, the “green energy revolution” that soaked up so much investment money in recent decades turned out to be yet another gargantuan giveaway to corporations, while plenty of more modest investments that might have done some good got deep-sixed because they didn’t make the kleptocratic rich even richer. Granted, our governments have wasted decades we didn’t have to spare and squandered resources that might have enabled us to cushion the descent into the deindustrial future ahead of us.
Even so, I thought we had a little longer before the remorseless mathematics of depletion tipped us over from rising prices to actual shortages. Of course I didn’t expect the Russo-Ukrainian War to break out, or for Europe to respond with a flurry of shrill denunciations and ineffective sanctions while still demanding that Russia keep supplying it with oil and natural gas. Russia’s angry riposte hasn’t just driven energy bills across Europe to unprecedented heights. It’s also shown just how brittle global energy markets have become—and that in turn offers fair warning of how little spare capacity the world’s remaining fossil fuel reserves have left.
Those of my readers who remember the energy crises of the 1970s, as I do, may be forgiven a certain sense of déjà vu. Back then it was a war between Israel and an alliance of Arab nations that caused a major fossil fuel supplier to yank their product from the market, sending prices skyrocketing. The reactions of the affected countries, however, is much the same: confident assurances that such things can’t possibly have a significant impact on the world’s wealthy nations, followed by blind panic and ineffective flailing once the impact shows up anyway. Plenty of ordinary people have already hit the second stage, while the politicians and the chattering classes of the world’s rich countries are still mired in the first.
I wonder whether the politicians, in particular, have any idea what’s coming their way. Here in the United States, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter aren’t among the presidents most people remember fondly. Their personal qualities (or lack of same) contributed to that, no question, but they also got dealt an extraordinarily difficult hand by history, and ended up taking the blame for events over which they had very limited control. It’s one of the occupational hazards of the full contact sport of national politics.
That said, I have to admit that any one of the three would be an improvement on what we’ve got just now. Poor Joe Biden, whose cognitive impairments are becoming uncomfortably obvious, apparently forgot he was president of the United States a few days ago and decided to audition for the part of the Mouth of Sauron instead. Expecting anything useful from his administration just now is an exercise in futility. Meanwhile officials of the G-7 group of countries—that is to say, the United States and its inner circle of client states—announced with straight faces that they are going to impose a price cap on Russian oil exports, by refusing to allow American or European financial services to support shipments at a price they don’t like. I gather it hasn’t occurred to any of them that Russia can very well afford to stop shipping fuel to any country that tries to abide by the price cap. Midrange estimates suggest that if this happens, the price of oil will shoot up to $190 a barrel or so, around twice its present level, and at that price Russian exports via the black market will more than make up for any lost income.
When governments fail to do anything useful, as so often happens, individuals, families, and communities have to step up to the plate themselves. That was one of the lessons of the energy crises of the 1970s. As noted above, I was there at the time, and I took a more active part in the response than some: down at the bottom of my file cabinet is a certificate I earned back then by completing Washington State’s Master Conserver program.
Master Conserver? Yes. Many people nowadays know about the Master Gardener programs offered by many state extension offices, which run classes and offer exams for gardeners who want to up their game and contribute some volunteer hours to helping others do likewise. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Washington and a few other US states had a Master Conserver program, which taught people from all walks of life how to do basic conservation retrofits and simple lifestyle adjustments in order to save energy and cut expenses. I took the classes at the old Seattle Public Library downtown, an easy walk from the cramped little apartment where my wife and I lived in those days. I still have the handouts I received as part of the training—you can download a scanned copy of the whole set here. More to the point, I still have the basic concepts down cold. They’ve provided the foundation of a surprisingly large amount of my writings since then, including fields with no obvious connection to energy conservation.
One of the things I’ve discovered in the years since then is that astonishingly few people know even the simplest rules of energy conservation. Since quite a large share of my readership is scrambling to deal with soaring energy prices, it strikes me that a refresher course might be very useful just now.
Let’s start with the most crucial lesson, the thing that should be written in letters of fire in your brain right at the outset: it is always easier and cheaper to conserve the energy you have than to bring in more energy to replace it. “Weatherize before you solarize!” was a slogan we heard a lot back in the day, but the rule can be extended much more broadly. Conservation is the key to getting by in a world where energy is expensive. That’s the thing the green energy revolution we all heard so much about never grasped, and that’s why it failed. Learn to squeeze each erg of energy until it yelps, and you can thrive.
With that in mind, let’s talk about heat, the most important form of energy in terms of sustaining human life. (You can get by just fine without light or telecommunications, but getting too cold and staying that way will kill you.) Heat always flows from hotter things to cooler things. If you want it to do things for you, you need to keep it from flowing away too fast. Heat flows in three different ways, convection, conduction, and radiation, and each of these has a medium. The medium of convection is a fluid, such as air or water; this picks up heat in one place and carries it somewhere else. The medium of conduction is solid matter, which absorbs heat from a source and carries it somewhere else. The medium of radiation is infrared light; it moves in straight lines through air from something that emits heat to something that absorbs it.
Radiation isn’t usually much of an issue in home weatherizing, but the other two are major. If you want to stop heat by flowing away via convection, you need to reduce air leakage between a warm place (such as the inside of your house) and a cold place (such as the snowy landscape outside). Warm air leaking out and cold air leaking in are both thieves of heat—and most buildings these days leak air like sieves. Add up the cracks and gaps around doors and windows, along the foundation plate of your house, where cables and pipes come into your house, and so on, and it’s as though you had a hole in the wall a couple of feet across, letting in the cold winter air. Plugging that hole is the easiest and cheapest way to save a whale of a lot of energy.
How do you plug the hole? Caulking and weatherstripping. Your local hardware store can sell you the supplies for both. You caulk any gap that doesn’t need to move—for example, the hole in the wall where your internet cable comes in, or the gaps along your foundation plate. You weatherstrip any gap that has to move—for example, the gaps around your front door or between your windows and window frames. The handouts posted above talk about how to do this, and you can also find detailed instructions online or in many books on home repairs.
That’s convection. Conduction moves through solid matter. There’s a convenient measure of how easily heat moves through different kinds of matter, and it’s called the R value (R for resistance to heat flow). The lower the value, the less resistance the matter puts up to heat flow. The differences are considerable. A single sheet of glass has an R value of 1, which means heat flows through it very, very easily. An ordinary uninsulated wall of standard wood-and-plaster construction has an R value around 9. A well-insulated wall can easily have an R value of 30.
Insulating your walls is usually pretty difficult. On the other hand, if you live in a house rather than an apartment, insulating your attic is usually very easy—just get some fiberglass roll insulation and go to work. Since heat rises, furthermore, insulating your attic will usually benefit you more than insulating anywhere else. If you have a basement or an under-floor crawlspace, putting insulation under the floors will also help a great deal. There are details you need to get right, but here again, the handouts have instructions, and there are plenty of good books and websites that will set you straight. Go to extremes here: some of the most comfortable homes I’ve ever been in had R 60 insulation in the attic. It keeps out summer heat, too.
One thing you can do to keep heat from leaking out through walls is very simple. If you take off the plastic plate that surrounds electrical sockets and light switches in the walls, you’ll find a nice gap on all sides, which allows heat to flow unhindered. Your hardware store can sell you foam gaskets that fit around the sockets, plugging the gap. Put the plastic plate back on, and the gasket is invisible. You’d be surprised how much warmer that alone can make a room feel.
That leaves the windows. Even a double-pane window only has an R value of 2. How do you fix that? Insulated window covers. Instead of the flimsy blinds or thin curtains that are standard these days, get thick warm shades or curtains with insulating layers in them. (If you don’t have a lot of money, you can get the same effect by taking several curtains and hanging them together in the same window.) If you can, get the kind that have little magnets on the sides and an iron strip running up and down the edges of the windows, to stop convection. R 9 is easy to get with insulated window covers, and they will save you plenty of heat and money. (By the way, if this hasn’t occurred to you yet, all these points can also be applied to your workplace, your church or other place of worship, and so on. Keep that in mind as we proceed.)
While we’re talking about heat, let’s discuss cooking a bit. Stoves waste a great deal of energy to cook your food. That’s why slow cookers aka crock pots became so popular in the 1970s—they do the job with a much smaller amount of energy. An appliance much less common in the 1970s, the automatic rice cooker, is equally efficient, using a trickle of energy. Did you know that you can fry, roast, and steam food with a rice cooker? There are entire cookbooks on how to do that.
The upper end of energy smarts when it comes to cooking is the fireless cooker, aka haybox. It’s a box or other container full of insulation, shaped so that you can plop a pot into it. You put food into a pot, bring it to a boil, put it into the haybox, put more insulation on top, and walk away. The heat in the food can’t get out because of the insulation, so it stays put and cooks the food. The best book on fireless cookers, Fireless Cookery by Heidi Kirschner, is unfortunately long out of print, though a publisher I know is trying to get the rights and get it republished; there are older books on the subject all over the various archive sites, however.
Oh, and you should always have at least one way of cooking food that doesn’t depend on having access to electricity or natural gas. Chafing dishes are a good choice for apartment dwellers, rocket stoves and the like may be better of you have a house. There may be long blackouts in your future, and one way to put heat to very good use is to take hot food and put it inside you where it can radiate its warmth into your body core.
From here we can segué neatly into electricity. A great many people these days waste more electricity than they use. All those appliances, computers, et al. that keep a little light burning to tell you that they’re still there? That light also tells you that they’re still slurping up electricity that you have to pay for. Wherever you can, put a surge suppressor bar between the appliance and the socket, and turn it off when you’re not using the applance. Yes, that means that the clock will be wrong. Get a cheap wall clock that runs off a couple of batteries and use that instead.
Lights are easy these days. LED light bulbs use a tiny fraction of the electicity that old-fashioned incandescent bulbs did. Even so, turning off any light you’re not actually using will cut your bills. If your fixtures splash around more light than you actually need, go to lower wattage light bulbs or simply leave a bulb out. With the same principle in mind, look at the items in your home that use electricity, and ask yourself whether you actually need the powered version. You can do most of the same things by hand almost as quickly and conveniently, and there are cases where the handpowered version is actually easier and more fun. (I hear from a lot of people these days who’ve abandoned computer games for board games, card games, and tabletop roleplaying games, and never want to go back.)
Hot water is another major energy use—many households put around 15-20% of their entire energy use into heating water. Obviously you can use less, and if you have leaky faucets, fix them or get them fixed—the rats in the drains can do without the warmth. Less obviously, if you can get to the pipes through which hot water flows from heater to faucet or shower head, see if they’ve got insulation on them. These days, most pipes don’t. You can get foam insulating jackets for hot water pipes at your hardware store, and they make sure that much more of the heat gets to you. If you have a tank-style water heater, get an insulating jacket for that, too—here again, the more insulation, the less heat gets wasted. Your hardware store has the insulating jackets, too. Measure your water heater before you go, so you get the right size.
Those are some of the basics. There are plenty of further details, some of which you’ll find in the handouts linked above and more of which you can find in books on the subject, especially old books from the 1970s and 1980s. (The publisher I mentioned above is hard at work getting the rights to bring a bunch of the best of these back into print; I’ll make announcements as soon as they start rolling off the presses.) It’s entirely possible for most people, with only a very modest investment of time and money, to shave 20% off their household energy consumption using methods of the kind I’ve described here.
Can you go beyond that? Of course, but at that point you’re looking at returning to ways of living that were standard before fossil fuels flooded the industrial world with cheap abundant energy. Your ancestors, if they lived in temperate climates, wore hats indoors, not to mention many layers of warm clothing, and when they went to bed they had caps or kerchiefs on their heads. (Your body loses around a third of its heat through the head, because the brain burns so much energy.) They were up by sunrise because daylight was a resource not to be wasted, and they knew a galaxy of tricks for making energy go further that most people have forgotten. Find a local historical reenactment group and you can recover much of this knowledge. How far do you want to go? Well, you might start thinking instead about how far you have to go, because it may come to that—if not this winter, then in the years ahead.
You’ll notice that I haven’t yet talked about ways to generate more energy. You can do that, but there’s a very good reason why it’s crucial to control energy losses first. All the energy sources you can provide for yourself—sunlight, wind, wood fuel, and so on—are diffuse, irregularly available, and much less convenient than the energy resources you’re used to using. If you live in the industrial world you’re used to having huge amounts of highly concentrated energy any time you want it. That’s exactly what alternative energy sources can’t give you.
So, yes, you can put solar thermal panels, a sunspace, or a solar greenhouse on the south side of your home, get some thermal mass to store the heat, and use that to harvest sunlight on cold but clear winter days. You can get a solar water heater up on the roof to assist your other water heater during the cold season and give you hot water for free in the warm season. If local ordinances permit, you can put in a fireplace insert or a woodstove so you have a way of generating heat that isn’t dependent on fossil fuels or the electrical grid. All those things can help. None of them will let you continue to treat energy as casually as you could when natural gas was cheap.
You can also slap photovoltaic panels on the roof or, if you happen to be in a very good location, put up a wind turbine. If you do that, however, you’re going to find out in person what Europe is finding out as a continent: sunlight and wind are diffuse, irregularly available, and inconvenient, and converting them into any other form of energy imposes conversion costs that eat most of what you get. As a result, they won’t support a modern lifestyle. They might, if you’re lucky and smart, yield a modest amount of electricity for you to use, but you’ll pay through the nose to get that. If you’re not so lucky or smart, they’ll eat your money and give back very little. Most people are better off avoiding that trap, and going for as many non-electric options as they can.
Does all this sound unspeakably grim? Most of the people who have ever lived were fine with it. They knew perfectly well that energy was scarce and had to be conserved, though most of them never phrased it in those terms. Keep in mind that Jesus and the Buddha taught their disciples, Plato and Confucius created their philosophies, Sophocles and Shakespeare wrote their plays, Murasaki Shikibu and Jane Austen penned their novels, and Galileo Galilei and Isaac Newton revolutionized humanity’s knowledge of nature in societies that lived under such conditions. They never dreamed that human beings would someday have the dubious privilege of wasting fantastic amounts of energy during a brief, self-terminating era of wretched excess.
We’re headed back to a world they would have recognized. Yes, I know a lot of people are still stuck on the failed fantasy of perpetual progress, and will insist at the top of their lungs that we’re on our way to the stars, no matter what. I trust, dear reader, that your mind isn’t held hostage by that delusion, and that you’re ready, willing, and able to get ready for the energy shortages we’re facing. If you are, you might want to get to work, because we don’t have much time before winter comes.