Friday, May 29, 2015

Next Step in Human Evolution?

Dan Heyman, Public News Service (PA)
PHOTO: According to a prominent climatologist, there is a hopeful side to climate change – a coming shift in how people make and use energy. Picture by Evan Hansen.
PHOTO: According to a prominent climatologist, there is a hopeful side to climate change – a coming shift in how people make and use energy. Picture by Evan Hansen.

HARRISBURG, Pa. - In a sense, climate change is an opportunity for all of us, according to a prominent climatologist and public science educator.

Geosciences professor Richard Alley of Penn State University, who hosted the PBS miniseries "Earth: The Operators' Manual," said climate change is a serious threat to everyone, but we also now have a chance to change the entire way humans make and use energy. In the past, Alley said, we've burned through a series of energy sources - wood, whale oil and now fossil fuels.

"We're the first generation that knows how to get off the treadmill," he said, "how to build an economical, sustainable energy system without changing the climate and without running out of trees or whales."

One way to help make sure the transition happens, Alley said, is to implement the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan.

Some coal and oil executives say climate change is a hoax, but Alley said that among scientists there's no question that it's real, serious and caused by humans. However, he said, small-scale, decentralized energy production is starting to do for the electricity grid what the Internet did for telecommunications.

"You can make power on your house with your solar cells, make power with wind, you can have some batteries," he said. "You can be a buyer, you can be a seller. A lot of sources, a lot of diversity - and that is robust against fluctuation."

Alley said this transition can be seen as a profound step in human history. He compared it to when people stopped being hunters and gatherers and shifted to agriculture.

"When our ancestors switched to farming food, they learned to make the earth give a whole lot more food," he said. "We can make a while lot more energy that really can do a lot of good for a lot of people in a lot of places."

Engineers looking to make the grid more stable and flexible are considering some creative ideas including using electric cars and water heaters as a kind of giant distributed battery. Alley said these could provide a way to get energy when demand temporarily outstrips supply.

Alley will speak on "Climate Solutions: How to Reduce Energy Consumption and Help Pollinators and Wildlife," at an event to be held from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday at the Patton Township Municipal Building, 100 Patton Plaza, State College.

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