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Energy's 'Three Rs': A Primer
Joel Makower, 1 Jun 06

energy-crisis.jpg Every once in a while, it's time for a primer -- a few basics that help put things in perspective. Despite the dramatic growth of business environmental and sustainability initiatives in recent years, such fundamentals are still important. For every company (or individual) that seem to "get it," a score of companies (or individuals) remain clueless, or seem to be making good time headed in the wrong direction.

(BTW, for a pretty good collection of primers on a range of green business topics, consult's GreenBiz Essentials as well as the collection of "backgrounders" at and

So, today I'll proffer a primer on energy choices.

But first, a digression. Pretty much everyone from pre-school on up these days knows the "Three R's" of solid waste: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. There are countless Web sites on the topic, and more than one song.

What many people don't seem to know (or have forgotten) is that the "Three R's" represents more than just a clever alliteration -- it is a hierarchy of priorities. That is, in addressing one's solid waste -- whether a household, a business, or a city -- the most important thing to do is reduce the amount of stuff that will ultimately need to be disposed of (by buying things in bulk, for example, or things with less packaging). Next most important is to reuse what you buy as much as possible to maximize its value (by repairing, refurbishing, or refilling them, for example). Finally, after you've used the least amount of stuff and reused as much of it as possible, you should recycle what's left.

Simple stuff, although a surprising number of people focus on recycling as their sole goal, despite the fact that it's a decidedly third choice.

So, too, with energy.

While there's no popular equivalent of solid waste's "Three R's," I'll proffer an admittedly kludgy version here: Reduce, Renew, Remedy. As with the other "Three R's," it describes a hierarchy. To wit:

  • When addressing your energy use or climate impacts -- again, whether a household, a business, or a city -- the single most important thing to do is to reduce the overall amount of energy you use -- by purchasing energy-efficient appliances, light bulbs, cars, computers, etc., and by running them as little as necessary.

  • Of the energy you do use, purchase as much renewable energy as possible -- whether from a local utility program, by generating your own (say, by installing solar panels), or by using biofuels for your transportation needs.

  • Finally, after you've used the least amount of energy, and the highest possible percentage of renewable energy, you should remedy the climate impacts of the nonrenewable energy you use, by purchasing carbon offsets, perhaps in the form of "green tags."

    For the record: I have little ownership in the design of these "Three R's." I'd be thrilled if someone improved upon this alliteration, either by choosing better words or by finding an entirely new mnemonic that clearly articulates this concept.

    What's the point? The point is that, much as they do with recycling, a great many smart people are focusing on offsets as their principal strategy for addressing their climate change impacts, despite the fact that it's the third choice. This is apparent from the seeming gold rush of green tag providers of late. You can now offset just about everything: your home, business, driving, vacations, and other purchases and activities. (Read a great discussion of this phenomenon by Katharine Mieszkowski in Salon.)

    Not that there's anything wrong with this -- assuming you've already maximized your energy efficiency and renewables purchases. But buying offsets for an energy-wasteful home or business and calling it environmentally responsible is akin to buying a Diet Coke to go with your double bacon cheeseburger -- and calling it a weight-loss program. Efficiency (and calorie reduction!) comes first.

    As many of us step up our efforts to address climate change and promote clean, renewable energy, it is critical that we keep such basic concepts straight lest we make great progress doing the wrong things. From where I sit, a good many well-intentioned people, and companies -- hellbent to be seen as "carbon neutral" or some such -- are doing exactly that.

    And that's a big waste of energy.

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    What's the point? The point is that, much as they do with recycling, a great many smart people are focusing on offsets as their principal strategy for addressing their climate change impacts, despite the fact that it's the third choice.

    Kind of like going to confession and saying a few Hail Marys instead of actually modifying one's behavior to be more ethical and compassionate....

    Posted by: Kim on 1 Jun 06

    Kim, you've encapsulated the core of the argument about Light vs Bright Green activities.

    And knowing this isn't doing, alas!

    Posted by: Tony Fisk on 1 Jun 06

    How about merging the 3 energy Rs with the WONDERFUL "Handprinting" principle? What if our use of energy made the biosphere and society better, non just less lousy?

    "I hereby introduce the concept of RENEWING ENERGY, instead of renewable."

    It could happen by founding a "fair energy" movement, along with the fair trade practice. I could be a nonprofit business selling energy effectiveness (first), efficiency (second), and renewable energy (third) and using the profit to plant trees (fourth), maybe in partnership with the green belt movement in kenya or similar.
    If the more energy I use the more trees I plant, if my entire energy operation is Remedying nature and society, the more the better.

    Eric Ezechieli - Italy

    Posted by: eric ezechieli - Italy on 1 Jun 06

    Thanks for this very timely and important reminder: actions which make us feel good are not always actions that do good - or at least, not enough. I have a question about point one: "reduce the overall amount of energy you use - by purchasing energy-efficient appliances, light bulbs, cars, computers, etc". I hazard a guess that this will influence about 50 per cent of our energy consumption; the other 50 per cent needs to involve changes to our patterns of daily life - such as the amount we move around, or the degree to which we share resources and collaborate.

    While I'm here, can anyone recommend a proven, fun and effective energy mapping-and-reducing project for classes of 12 year-old school children?

    Posted by: john thackara on 2 Jun 06

    Kim, you've encapsulated the core of the argument about Light vs Bright Green activities.

    I've not heard the "Light vs Bright" distinction before - very useful & important.

    It's good to see mixed messages, i.e. debate, on this site. Much of the manifesto-type writing here involves the idea that reduction is a "hair shirt" approach and just won't be accepted by enough people to be effective, therefore we need to find ways to recycle / remedy that will compensate for this. I think it's obviously wise to admit the practicalities of how willing society as a whole might be to cut back; but it's also wise to still advocate what is obviously the most effective long-term tactic.

    Light Green will obviously sell better in the short term. But the task seems to me to be to dissociate reduction from our habitual categories, where anything but growth and expansion is dark, pessimistic, or even associated with "apocaphilia". It's an aesthetic challenge: to make Bright Green = reduction.

    Posted by: Gyrus on 2 Jun 06

    Kim, Tony, what if the carbon offsets I buy actually _do_ neutralize the CO2 from the manufacture and use of my SUV? The issue then becomes one of wealth distribution; I can afford it but many other people can't. (FWIW, my last two cars were new V8 Mustangs; now I have no car and I walk). But do you see what I'm getting at?

    Posted by: JN2 on 2 Jun 06

    Thanks Joel!

    A little alliteration goes a long way.

    "I have little ownership in the design of these 'Three R's.' " Great. I intend to use them big time, with credit to you. Any backstory?


    Posted by: Howard Silverman on 3 Jun 06

    Apart from recycling being the easy option, it occurs to me that the creators of the 3R mantra overlooked the tendency to view the last missive as being the most important. Maybe it would have more success stated as :

    Recycle, Reuse, Reduce

    Yes, I do see what you're getting at.

    I do not rubbish light green activities at all (Nor, I think, do Alex and co)! If you do see criticism of light green on this site, it is probably in reaction to the temptation to think that 'switching off that unused light bulb' is enough, coupled with the concern that certain stakeholders in the status quo would like to you to continue thinking that.

    My own view is that, of themselves, light green actions will have little impact on the various environmental problems we currently face. Nevertheless they are important; for what they *do* provide to the mix is twofold: awareness and involvement. Those two factors can be nurtured, and used to encourage people to look beyond the switched off light: the chap in your scenario has at least heard of carbon trading!

    Posted by: Tony Fisk on 4 Jun 06

    Joel gets no argument from me, except for one point-- offsets. I wholeheartedly agree that offsets are NOT a permanent solution, but in some cases, it's a necessary option, albeit a temporary one.

    Here is my personal situation: My place of employment is totally inaccessible by public transit. It's a very, very good job that I cannot give up right now or even in the near future.

    This puts me in a difficult position. I can either live closer to work and cut my commute miles down but have to drive for virtually everything else, or I can live where I do, which is 28 miles away but it's a community that is not only stable with decent schools, but is walkable for a large number of our daily needs--post office, doctor, dentist, eye doctor, grocery store, bank, library, metropark, local restaurants, convenience store, and more, plus I'm 3 blocks from two bus lines that can take care of other needs. What's left of virtually all of our other needs are within 3-5 miles by auto.

    Decent, walkable communities of the quality of the one where I reside are extremely rare in my region. I rarely have to drive outside of my commute. There is no one I can carpool with because as is the case everywhere, people live much more scattered from their places of employment than 30 years ago.

    I have been investing a lot in energy efficiency in my home (which is much smaller than the average McMansion these days by the way)-- bulbs, insulation, windows, insulated siding, etc.

    My wife and I consume less of everything than average. We recycle, compost, buy used when we can, new when we have to, and sometimes just go without.

    The only place I'm really stuck as far as my environmental impact is with my commute. My car gets 32-33 mpg. I'd like to do better, but for good reason, I'm simply not in a position to buy another car for at least a few years. But, even when I do, I will still have to drive to work until my employer decides telecommuting a few days per week is permissible (which could be several years away, if at all).

    I recently discovered Terrapass. It's not a permanent solution, I know, but it's all I can do as far as my car emissions for the time being.

    Posted by: Ed on 5 Jun 06



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