Recharging our understanding of electricity

Consuming energy hasn’t always been a matter of flipping switches, plugging in cables, and turning dials. Before the advent of electricity, any energy not provided by brute human or animal force needed to be generated at the same time and in the same place that it was needed. Electrification enabled the huge technological advances of the last century, but in doing so, has also distanced us from the sources of the energy it brings.

The issue is conceptual, but has practical ramifications as well. Electricity is no more than a medium for storing and consuming energy. It can be generated in innumerable ways, from solar panels to natural gas. Likewise, fossil fuels are simply means to generate energy, which is the same whether its sources are harmful or not.

While electricity is undeniably essential, it also obscures the generation of our energy. A light bulb looks the same whether it is powered by electricity generated from a wind turbine or coal – which emits the most greenhouse gases of any fossil fuel.

Though huge plants in the hinterlands of major cities now burn thousands of tons of coal each day to create electricity, energy users no longer see the tangible effects of their energy consumption. Energy production has been taken out of their hands and moved to distant locations. They no longer need to keep a furnace or fireplace stoked, dispose of ashes throughout the day, or see dark smoke rising from their house. Coal’s effects, however, remain just as harmful and noxious as they were when its smoke blackened cities and lungs during the Industrial Revolution.

Of course, it’s possible to get information on how and where one’s electricity is generated. A Google search will tell you that 95 per cent of Quebec’s electricity comes from hydroelectric projects in the province’s north, while 70 per cent of the United States’ energy is derived from fossil fuels. However, the physical and conceptual distance between us and these sources often prevents us from using this information meaningfully.

In addition, the fact that most electricity is provided by monopolistic, often government-owned corporations means that there’s little meaningful action that an individual can take to move toward consuming electricity generated from less harmful sources of energy.

Projects aimed at reducing carbon emissions by encouraging people to use less electricity – like the federal government’s now-cancelled “One Ton Challenge” program that tried to reduce personal carbon emissions to one ton of CO2 a year – have had limited success. Detractors point to general apathy among citizens of developed countries, but this can be linked to the abstract terms in which energy is necessarily discussed, given how distanced its generation has become from our quotidian existences.

Electricity grids and centralized electrical generation are obviously here to stay; it is nonetheless vital that we develop a more concrete sense of what energy is and how it is produced. Not only should governments and energy producers make more information on the production of electricity more easily available, but they should also make it easier for individuals and communities to generate some of their own power – through sources like wind and solar energy.

Support should also be given for sources of energy that skip the conduit of electricity altogether. Passive solar heating, for example, is not only cheap and reliable if properly designed, but also connects the user to the source of their heating since it is fundamentally integrated into the physical structure of their day-to-day life.

Climate change activists often speak to the need for systemic change, pointing out that residential consumption accounts for only about 17 per cent of total energy consumption in Canada. It is no doubt vital that industrial energy consumption be severely reduced and attitudes toward energy, rethought.

However, a shift toward generating electricity closer to home, as well as energy sources that bypass electricity altogether, can make people more aware of how energy is produced and consumed. With more direct attunement to these issues, we can hope for greater commitment not only to reducing personal energy consumption, but also to advocating for a systemic rethinking of how energy is produced.

Emilio Comay del Junco is a U1 Arts student and one of The Daily’s design editors. Write him at