To save the environment (to lower GHG, or just because), we should worry about where all the energy goes, not where it comes from
The world has an energy problem. That can sound like a really stupid statement at face value, like saying the world has a life problem. But it’s true. We have a problem because we’ve become accustomed to a certain lifestyle that requires a mind-boggling amount of energy, and we choose to deal with the issue in a peculiar way: we get in endless debates about where the energy comes from, but ask few questions about where it all goes.
If you have a problem with weight, it does little good to spend your life attacking restaurants for feeding you unhealthy foods, when that is all you order off the menu. But that is what we do in the energy world. We have a problem with overconsumption and we try to solve the problem by arguing about the best way to satisfy the gluttony. While it’s true that one method is, philosophically, healthier for all involved (green energy) than the other (fossil fuels), we are in a state of consumption where we voraciously consume all that is available of both. At this stage of our evolution, it is ridiculous to think we can live without one or the other, because we’ll take all we can get.
Enormous amounts of energy are wasted arguing about the best source of energy, though this problem isn’t a unique blight on humankind. Other examples spring to mind: every country has a criminal code and a tax code to try and control, respectively, criminals and tax cheats (though many have a foot in both camps), but the culprits always always always find ways around the rules. No criminal punishment has ever stopped crime, and no tax code has ever stopped people from evading taxes.
Similarly, no amount of fighting about the necessities of fossil fuels vs. the merits of green energy will help solve the real problem: that 7 billion people consume way too much energy.
A better use of everyone’s time would be to try to catalogue where all the energy goes. How much energy, for example, does it actually take to make a pair of running shoes? And how much energy does it take to make a cheap basic pair compared to a more exotic $200 model?
We could ask that question up and down the consumption chain, and we should, but almost no work has been done on the topic. A google search of how much energy it takes to make various things turns up a few studies, but only for a few hot button topics. Ironically, the search turns up evidence that enormous amounts of energy are wasted creating plastic water bottles (damn you thoughtless lazy consumers) and also that similar is required to make solar panels (damn you thoughtless lazy…idealists). In all fairness, I did find a more peaceful analysis of how much energy it takes to make a piece of toast.
While there would be some measurement complexities due to interwoven manufacturing processes, it should be doable, especially considering all the other outlandish crap we come up with. What is needed are incentives, because the lure of money makes virtually anything possible (sadly, for some strata of society, the lure of money makes literally anything possible – the web is full of stupefying examples).
Currently we need all the energy we can get, from all sources. Maybe if we better understood where all the energy goes, we could spend our time making those chains more efficient, and cut our energy needs by a meaningful amount. Or, at the very least, understand how to make those requirements work with the limitations of renewable energy, such as the habit of solar panels to only work when its sunny (damn you fickle solar panels) or wind turbines that only move when they feel like it (you get the idea).