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Rethinking Energy: The Importance of Education

Guest post by Miles Whitten, consultant at Circular Energy, proud alum of Duke University and the University of Texas at Austin, and loyal husband of over 48 hours.

Wealth and power have always been associated with a higher standard of living. In the "first world" countries, particularly America, this has become increasingly tied to the extent of automation and electrification present in one's day-to-day life. This culture of consumption - whether made manifest by the presence of a high-definition television in the guest bathroom or the overall footprint (both physical and operational) of today's "dream" homes - attests to our attachment to historical understandings of energy, both from a generation and a utilization standpoint.

It also represents one of the most valuable opportunities we have as a society to evolve the way in which we go about this thing called living, and is uniquely accessible in terms of the direct impact that every single individual can have upon the situation. As such, the conversation of how we go about getting the electricity we need to support our lifestyles, and just exactly how much energy we require to fulfill those desires, is of incredible importance and pertinence to our nation's future.

We're particularly good at using energy in my home state of Texas, where the average resident consumes twice as many kWh's every year as the average American. Zooming farther out into the rest of the country, these non-Texans use about 200% of what a normal EU citizen goes through every year, who themselves use - you guessed it - more than twice that of an individual who lives in a developing nation!

That narrative of today's world: that with increasing affluence comes superior access to modern amenities, and along with it, greater consumption - is made all the more terrifying when you realize that the aspirations of those in developing nations are most closely aligned with achieving a Texan way of life (at least in terms of energy usage, and we'll leave the rest unturned for the moment).

We have long taken for granted our access to cheap and easy energy, and treated this "right" with an assumption of abundance and limitlessness approaching that of our similar entitlement to clean air and safe drinking water. Yet new approaches to producing energy on an individual scale and then optimizing the consumption of that energy - one building at a time - are paving the way for what must happen if we are to survive as a species on this planet.

From breakthroughs in the cost, efficiency, and potential of solar photovoltaic energy systems to new frameworks for providing real-time, actionable, and intuitive information regarding how much energy a building is consuming (and in what ways) - we are starting to see a new narrative emerge: that freedom to generate your own electricity, in a manner consistent with the environmental health of our planet, is the ultimate expression of having made it to the top of the pile. Furthermore, the idea that optimizing the use of that energy: cooperating and competing to maximize limited resources and perform at our highest potential - has the power to change the world. There simply is no peer for a source of motivation than our innate human desire to be the best.

We know from human experience that one of the only catalysts for long-term and lasting change is education, and we must educate our youngest generations (okay, our older generations too) to re-write the rules that determine how we generate, use, and think about energy.

In much the same way that today's children are constantly informing their parents as to how they should be recycling and composting the majority of their trash, it makes intuitive sense to our youngest generations that energy is not without end.

These kids grew up riding around in cars with enchanting heads-up displays, constantly communicating data on miles-per-gallon consumption and an equivalent number of trees planted by driving efficiently. They wonder: why is it that this real-time information about what's going on ceases to exist the moment we step out of our cars and into our homes and offices, where we spend more than 90% of our hours on this planet and use almost half of all energy?

This disassociation of information is very much so akin to our old (and once thought beyond reproach) hub-and-spokes business model of energy generation, transmission, and distribution. The idea that we just come home, plug in devices to our heart's content, pay a once-monthly penance for our energy bill, and the rest will take care of itself - is as outdated as the idea that gasoline costs a quarter a gallon and will forevermore.

Similar to the old education model of throwing old and tired textbooks at school children until they've memorized what they need to know to pass the state-run examinations, our archaic coal-fired and combustion-based model of generating electricity no longer delivers the results we need to compete on a global basis: the kids never learn how to think in the first place, and forget all the useless facts that wearable computers will soon render obsolete anyway; in much the same fashion that folks don't know where their energy came from, how it came to be, or how much of it they should reasonably use in light of their position (geographical and socio-economical) within the community's infrastructure.

We are quickly learning, some nations faster than others, the value inherent in rejecting the assumption of entitled abundance and limitlessness when it comes to safe and pure drinking water, and would do well to adapt this lesson to our misconceptions about energy.

Yet much of this difficulty is rooted in the fact that what you can't see is more difficult to relate to and understand. The mechanics of a car in motion are simply much more accessible with our perception of the world around us than are the electrical properties of atoms on a quantum mechanics scale.

The conservation of water is easy to affect and bear witness to. The reduction of air emissions is easily quantified and communicated through ozone action days and visible smog. And now the production of energy happens on your rooftop and the opportunity to put that energy to use in the best fashion is right in front of you - on your laptop, tablet, or smart phone.

The same way in which individually-specialized and customized education powered by today's newest technologies will democratize education and deliver the results we cannot live without, rooftop solar PV and home energy automation and information intelligence will level the playing field when it comes to how we obtain - and use - electricity in the built environment.

This idea is no longer relegated to the realm of hypotheticals.

Organizations across the states are already hard at work teaching tomorrow's leaders about the value and importance of energy through programs routed in eco-literacy initiatives and social entrepreneurship.

Education institutions - public and private - have taken advantage of the solar energy opportunity to reduce their operating costs. No longer mired in the business of paying to keep the computers on, these schools are making additional investments in the quality and delivery models of their true product: educating the future of our country.

One school district is actually saving their teachers' jobs, investing in novel technology, and funding a new AP class because they can, due to energy conservation efforts. And what they did is just about one of the simplest, yet most effective, energy efficiency strategies: they simply turn things off when they are not using them.

This may not seem revolutionary, but in today's world of a once-monthly automated transfer for your energy bill from your checking account, real-time knowledge is power. No longer must we be miffed as to driving forces behind our rising monthly costs. Shouldn't one be able to spot a leaking electricity faucet while it's still flowing and shut it off?

Software solutions focused on providing an intuitive and engaging platform to drive behavior change and thereby reduce energy consumption are in rolling out in force. Not only can these students see the real-time consequences of their choices and actions on energy usage, one platform presents the information in a competitive gaming environment so that different classrooms can compete against one another to be the best. No more turning out the light because teacher said so, students' natural drive to win fundamentally changes the conversation about conversation.

And in the end that's really what it's all about. All of us old folks are obviously hopeless at turning this ship around and fundamentally changing the way we obtain and use our energy, just like we have no chance of realizing the Hyperloop or ending world hunger in our lifetimes. If we are to have any optimism, it must be that which is generated by the vast potential of our generations to come. And if we have any common sense, we must make the investments in educating our future leaders. Only then will we enable them to find the solutions to today's - and tomorrow's - energy challenges.

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