Jordan Wirfs-Brock
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I'm an energy journalist and a self-proclaimed energy nerd, but today, if you're cool with it, I'd like to try out a new career, and you guys are going to be my guinea pigs. I'll be taking on the role of relationship counselor. Okay, okay. I'm talking about our relationship with energy, with electricity, gasoline, wind turbines, all of it. Or rather, for most of us, it's a lack of a relationship. See, us and energy, we don't talk. We're disconnected, estranged. Here's an example: When I first started covering energy, I asked a bunch of friends what questions they had. And one of my best friends, a physics professor, super smart, asked: "Are we still burning coal?" And I was like, huh. Are we still burning coal? Here we were, a physics PhD and an energy journalist with an engineering degree, stumped. Because here's the thing, "Are we still burning coal?" is a totally reasonable question. It's so easy to go through life using energy every day, every moment, while knowing next to nothing about it. Energy makes everything we do possible, and yet we treat it as an insignificant other. And because us and energy, we don't really talk, we're embarrassed to even ask questions like, "Are we still burning coal?" And in case you're curious, yes, we are; a lot of it. As a journalist, though, I get this amazing license to ask questions, however basic. And I've spent nearly three years asking questions to everyone from power grid engineers to energy economists. What have I learned? It's a problem that most of us are on the outs with energy. I don't have to remind you that we're facing some major energy challenges, and we can't solve them if we treat energy as an insignificant other. But there's good news. The tools we need to rekindle the relationship are already here. So, to kick off our counseling session, let's take a step back and figure out how we ended up with this energy estrangement, this communication breakdown. What is energy, anyway? That's a good place to start. The physics definition in five words: energy is the capacity to do work. All that means is anything that has to move or change, energy is the stuff that makes it possible. It comes in many forms. Chilling a beer in your fridge, that takes energy. The beer itself: energy too, calories. While drinking said beer, brainstorming what you're going to be for Halloween, neurons are moving around in your brain using energy. And making that sweet Oompa Loompa costume - (Laughter) more energy. Yeah, that's me. (Laughter) No, this is important: We can move energy around, change it from one form to another, like when we burn coal to make electricity, but we can never create or destroy it. Pending advancements in space travel, what's here on earth and what's coming from the sun, that's all we got. Okay, on to our relationship history, the movie montage version. Jumping to pre-agricultural humans, 50,000 years ago or so, we took in energy as food, plants and animals, and we used it by doing stuff: chopping wood, going for a walk. We straight-up humans were our own industrial complex. A power plant, factory, supercomputer all rolled into one kick-ass body. And our energy use was limited by how much we could eat and how much we could move: a few thousand calories a day. Then, big breakthrough: we domesticated animals, using them as batteries, essentially storing energy for us. Now, we're commanding energy outside our bodies. Then comes the water wheel, the windmill, we invent the steam engine, we're burning coal, and by 1900, not that long ago, we're here, using about 12,000 calories a day per person. Then we built the modern electric grid, the world's largest machine, we figure out nuclear power, we've got the ability to send humans to the freaking moon, finally the digital revolution, those giant data servers off in the desert, and boom: here we are in 2016, where each American uses the equivalent of 208,000 calories a day. Seriously. It's like we've each got a 100-person battalion at our disposal. It's on the order of the energy in a lightning bolt. We're all Zeuses! And most of this change happened in barely more than a century. So, as we turned into Zeuses, how did our relationship change? Well, I can tell you exactly what it felt like in the pre-Zeus era. No, I'm not a time traveler, but I do run ultramarathons. Last month, I- woo, yeah! I ran a hundred mile race in the mountains of Idaho, up and down mountains, over scree, through mud. (Applause) Thank you! (Applause) (Cheers) For almost 29 hours, burning 15,000 calories, give or take. And during that ordeal, energy and me, we were super tight. I had my caloric intake planned out to the minute, and I was constantly checking in. Eat this gel now, back off the pace, drink more water, go hard down that hill, no, not that hard, now you're getting bloated, and oh! There comes the vomit! (Laughter) You can only ramp up a human power plant so much before it breaks down. And to avoid that, I had to be intimately connected with my energy. I imagine maybe that's what it was like to be a human, hundreds of years ago. But now, as our energy use skyrocketed, we grew less aware of it. We stopped constantly checking in, and we began to blindly trust our energy. We went from using things we could see and touch, to using machines operating hundreds of miles away. Say you want to make a peanut butter banana smoothie and you turn on a blender. That blender is connected to the outlet, the substation down the street, the transmission lines; it's an uninterrupted chain all the way back to a power plant. And when you hit blend, a generator in that power plant spins slightly faster or slower to accommodate you. For real! But you don't see that, right? You just see the smoothie. That invisible system, it's like magic. You trust that it'll work. Over the past century, we left that close, instinctual energy awareness behind, and we began to blindly trust our energy. And as we did, we took that relationship for granted. And that's how energy became our insignificant other. So, implications... Well, as we grew to think about our energy systems less, we also grew to depend on them more. And that dependency only shows itself when energy's gone, when the power goes out and you find yourself eating a cold can of beans for dinner. Now here's what's dangerous: not just that our energy appetites have grown, but that most of us don't realize how much they've grown, or what our energy appetites even are, so that when we need to tackle challenges involving our energy, we're so disengaged, we've got no idea where to start. When I was running that hundred mile race, I hit some energy complications. Remember the vomit? But, I was able to handle them because I was dialed in to my energy. In any relationship, problems will pop up. With energy, these involve climate change, the economy, geopolitics, energy poverty. The crux of a good relationship is being able to face problems, together. But when it comes to our energy, how can we face problems if we're not even on speaking terms? There are all kinds of technological fixes out there, but they'll be rendered useless if we can't change the relationship. Relax, take a breath. I'm not going to leave you with bleakness. As your energy relationship counselor, I've got some practical advice, but as I said, this is a new role for me, so I consulted the WikiHow illustrated guide on how to fix a relationship in four easy steps. Because of course that exists, right? Okay. Step one: understand the problem. Well, just by being here, you've got a great start. With energy, a key problem is that we've grown habituated to having such a fabulous, reliable partner, a partner we took for granted, so we stopped checking in. Which brings us to step two: learn to discuss better. (Laughter) There's no need to bottle up those energy questions. It's okay to ask, "Are we still burning coal?" or "Can I put a wind turbine on my house?" And you can practice some listening skills too. Maybe next month actually read your utility bill, the one you've got setup on auto-pay. (Laughter) It's okay, I do too. So, communication, it takes two sides, and that poor communication we're accustomed to, it's not actually your fault. Until recently, it was nearly impossible to have a real discussion with your energy even in your own home. Utilities track every bit of electricity from a power plant to your house, but your house itself is a black box. There's no itemized list on that bill you get, so how much goes to your computer, your lights, or poof! just dissipated as lost heat, who knows? That's changing. Advancements like smart meters and smart appliances, these let us peek inside the black box. But, information alone will not repair our broken relationship, so step three: you've got to reconnect. Things like holding hands and gazing into each others' eyes, these can go a long way toward rekindling the flame. Let's be real, energy is not the only relationship in our lives so those ways to reconnect need to be simple, and they can't add to our information overload. Here's a fun one I've been trying: going back to those 208,000 calories a day we each consume, pick an activity, say, binge-watching the latest season of Orange is the New Black. And now think, if I had to eat the amount of calories that matched the energy my TV uses, it would be a nice big slice of chocolate cake, and that's not even counting those data servers off in the desert. So, you don't need cutting edge technology to reconnect, you just need a creative, open mind. Slipping on your energy goggles and starting to see those connections out in the world, it will change your relationship. So, we've understood the problem, we're discussing better, we're practicing that connection. Now we're ready for step four: figuring out how to move forward. I'm really excited for the future. Our relationship with energy is changing on a personal level and a societal one too. The 20th century grid was designed to be magic and invisible, to keep energy at a distance. But innovations happening now can bring you back into the relationship. Things like electricity prices that change dynamically, the ability to generate and store power in your own home, detailed data on our energy behavior, these things can drastically reduce our energy use and costs, but getting them right requires us all taking a more active role in our relationship. You don't have to be like me running a hundred mile race and constantly obsessing over your energy. But you can check in every once and a while. Because when we treat energy as a significant other, a true partner, instead of just seeing energy problems, we're able to see energy solutions. Thank you! (Applause) (Cheers)