Johanna Neumann: Imagining cleaner, greener energy

  • Johanna Neumann SUBMITTED PHOTO

Published: 11/18/2020 1:33:49 PM

I envision a world where the way we produce and consume energy has a vanishingly small impact on our natural world. In my vision, the power of the sun’s rays, the strength of the wind and the warmth coming up from the earth’s core would power every aspect of our lives. Our energy systems, like those found in nature, are efficient, elegant and restorative.

How do we get there? As writer Anne Lamott says to her son when he is stuck on his book report about birds: “Just take it bird by bird.”

In this world, I heat my morning coffee on a highly efficient, clean-burning electric induction stove that draws energy from solar power stored in batteries overnight. My right-sized home is the just-right temperature thanks to insulation, good air-sealing and electric heat pump technology. Forward-looking regulators and a nimble responsive network of electric microgrids help us all tap into affordable reliable local renewable energy.

Where are we now?

I, along with most other Americans and our country as a whole, still have a ways to go to realize that vision. I still have an oil tank in my basement. I still put gasoline in our car. But I see the day coming when it will make sense for us to switch over. And clean, efficient technology is waiting, like the talented rookie on the sidelines (bound for the hall of fame) saying, “Put me in coach. I’m ready to play.”

Where do we go from here?

A big chunk of reaching this vision is to “electrify everything.”

Many electric technologies are more efficient than their fossil-fuel powered counterparts because they waste less energy through heat. As our electric grid becomes ever greener — powered by clean renewable energy that uses battery technology to improve resiliency and reliability — we can begin to imagine the cleaner air and stabler climate that comes from electrifying everything.

Not to say that this transition won’t be without hardships. One challenge is that if all the stuff we currently power through the direct burning of fossil fuels — like gas stoves and oil furnaces — switches over to electric power, we’ll see a big spike in electricity demand. To maintain reliable service, we need to ramp up how much clean renewable energy we produce.

On that front, we’re making progress. Today, about 13% of Massachusetts’ electricity comes from the sun, 77 times higher than it was 10 years ago. But we’re also leaving opportunities on the table. For example, we’ve barely moved the needle in how much electricity we get from other renewable sources like offshore wind.

There’s no doubt that we need to accelerate clean energy deployment. But there’s another part to the vision, too. We must use the energy that we invest in producing wisely. After all, the cleanest energy is the energy never have to produce.

Bird by bird

There are many different ways to cut energy waste. One of the most effective and time-tested approaches is to set standards that specify how much energy specific products, such as refrigerators or dishwashers, can use. This approach has been used by the states and the federal government for decades and has played an enormous, if largely invisible role, in reducing energy waste and cutting energy costs for consumers. According to the Appliance Standards Awareness Project, if energy standards had never been put in place, some of our appliances would use two-to-three times more energy than they do today, and we’d pay about $500 more a year to power them.

Massachusetts is currently considering an upgrade to its appliance energy standards. If they pass, by 2025 the additional appliance energy standards would save enough electricity to power 32,000 homes for a year. This policy is under consideration by a legislative conference committee on Beacon Hill. We expect their final report on their recommendations by the end of this month.

If you’d like to see Massachusetts adopt these efficiency standards, you can contact your lawmakers by taking action here.

Passing this policy is one more bird in the book report and one more benchmark in the massive project of building a future powered by 100% renewable energy.

Johanna Neumann, of Amherst, has spent the past two decades working to protect our air, water and open spaces, defend consumers in the marketplace and advance a more sustainable econ omy and democratic society. She can be reached at

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