“Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone?”
Canadian singer songwriter Joni Mitchell is so right, and her observation doesn’t just apply to love and relationships. It’s just as true of many material things in modern life, especially energy.
Maybe you may have had this experience yourself recently. You wake up one morning to find your house is freezing.
You slip out from under the covers and your feet hit an icy floor. You immediately sense the unexpectedly chilly air through your pajamas.
You flip the light switch, but nothing happens.
You head to the shower, only to find there’s no hot water - or no water at all.
This has been a reality for hundreds of thousands of North Americans in recent years, and especially this winter as ice storms and other extreme weather events triggered power blackouts.
Suddenly and unexpectedly losing power in your home can be traumatic. Most of us are ill-prepared, especially those of us who live in urban areas where power losses are rare events.
However, one unintended positive consequence of losing power is perhaps a renewed appreciation for the value of an 'on-demand' energy supply. In fact, reliable energy, be it electricity, natural gas or heating oil, is fundamental to modern life as we know it.
Reliable energy is not only essential to meet our basic needs for shelter, food and water, it backstops our penchant for plane travel, cars and trucks that do more than get us from point A to B, and out-of-season fruits and vegetables.
True, we need to transition to an energy system that’s less dependent on carbon-intensive sources, such as fossil fuels. Based on current available technology and alternative energy sources, moving away from hydrocarbons could mean we pay more for our on-demand energy in future, potentially a lot more. (Take Germany, for example. It has the most advanced renewable energy-based economy in Europe and the most expensive electricity to boot.)
In fact, the transition from fossil fuels may mean that modern life as we know it becomes dramatically different. We might have to forsake some energy-intensive luxuries we currently enjoy simply because there may be only enough energy around to provide for basic needs.
In his book, The End of Growth, Canadian economist Jeff Rubin offers a view of what the world might look like when cheap oil dries up. Unexpectedly, it is not all doom and gloom. He points out that high energy costs mean moving goods long distances gets expensive, so more trade and manufacturing will have to be carried out near their markets.
So some of our economy, and the jobs that go with it, will be repatriated (this has already happened in the chemical sector in the U.S., because cheap gas has made North American chemical plants financially viable for the first time in years).
However the future unfolds, the bottom line is that reliable energy, from whatever sources, has to continue to be a top priority for tomorrow’s energy systems. We’ll need to keep all our energy options open and diversified to achieve what we largely take for granted now. An energy system which doesn’t deliver reliable, on-demand energy is a chilling prospect, as North American ice storm survivors can undoubtedly attest.
As Joni also sang, “All we ever wanted was just to come in from the cold.”