Energy Literacy part One: Energy is invisible

Saul Griffith is an inventor and entrepreneur. He did his PhD at MIT in programmable matter, exploring the relationship between bits and atoms, or information and materials. Since leaving MIT, he has co-founded a number of technology companies including www.optiopia.com, www.squid-labs.com, www.instructables.com, www.potenco.com, and www.makanipower.com.

You might have just driven home. When you filled your car with gasoline, most likely you didn't even see the fluid as it was pumped into your gas tank. Once home, you probably turned on some lights, some music, your computer, and maybe even heat, so you could read this web page. You can't see the power running through the electrical lines that lead to your light bulb, and you don't feel it, but you do enjoy the results. Our society has made energy invisible. This invisibility makes energy convenient to use -- and the modern age is arguably wonderful as a result -- but it also makes it easy to take it for granted. Here we try to make our appetite for energy visible.

Climate change is a phenomenon we now recognize as one of the most important challenges to ever confront humanity. Like energy use, it is also mostly invisible to us, and in two important ways.  Firstly, the enormous volumes of green-house gases -- carbon dioxide, methane, CFC's etc, are quite literally invisible to our naked eyes. Secondly, the changes in climate progress so slowly that they seem invisible amidst the hustle and bustle of our daily lives. Because these consequences accumulate over decades, generations, and centuries, it is easy to not see them as pressing and urgent. Here we try to make visible these complicated and largely invisible things.

The global energy and climate conversation is about choices, both individual choices and collective choices. By choosing the amount and type of energy we consume, we are choosing the look and feel of our future. Everyone is involved in that choice. Don't be fooled: individual choices collectively have enormous effects.   A large coal power plant has a power output of 1GW (GigaWatt) which is 1 billion (1 000 000 000) Watts.  If 1 billion people reduced their power needs by just 1 watt ( About what is required to keep a compact fluorescent burning for just 1 hour a day), that's a coal fired power plant you don't need to build.  

This material tries to help you make those choices in a more informed manner. We also hope this material influences the governments, organizations and corporations who make the decisions about our energy future on a macro level.

These posts are about energy, climate change, finite resources, and the future. Unfortunately, the creation of this material is implicated in the very climate change and energy challenges we wish to avoid. You chose to read this, which means you chose to use some energy. These posts are not "carbon free" or "carbon neutral". At the time of its publishing there was practically no way that it ever could have been. Nearly every choice you make involves energy and all those choices have implications for the environment.

Two people wrote this stuff. We both ate food produced by modern industrial agriculture to power ourselves while writing. We used at least five computers at different times to do the calculations, write the words, and edit the layout. After we had done our work, editors and designers used computers to further refine the text and images. Each of those computers ran for many hours, consuming somewhere between 20 and 200 watts of power each as they did so. The computers themselves were made in factories in China and Japan with chips produced in the United States, and cases probably made from bauxite mined in Australia and processed in Argentina.

If you print this out, the paper it is printed on was probably made from trees that were cut down in Canada. The chainsaws that cut the trees ran on two-stroke gasoline. The trees were lifted onto a truck with a crane powered by diesel fuel. The truck drove the trees to the sawmill using diesel. Before the trees from which these pages were made had even been pulped, three internal combustion engines had been fired up, burned a fossil fuel and emitted some carbon dioxide. How much CO2? Not a lot. But all the little pieces add up.

If you are just reading this on the web, there are disks and processors in data centers in numerous places running from coal plants, gas plants, even hydro and solar plants where the production of the cement and silicon was itself done using fossil fuels. The point is, it's a really complex system.

As these paragraphs show, the global supply chain for energy is complex. This was in small part inspired by the pamphlet "I, Pencil - My Family Tree as told to Leonard E. Read." (1958). A piece that highlights just how interconnected our modern world is.

Backpacker2

We fill our cars with gas regularly, but don't even see the liquid go into the tank. If we were to imagine that we had to fill a backpack with the fuels required for a day of our lives, what would we be filling our energy back-pack with each day?

Each day the average American sets out with:

OIL = 10.81 L/Person/day (2.9Gallons)


COAL = 9.54 kg/person/day (21 pounds)


NATURAL GAS = 5.88 m^3/person/day (208 cubic feet)

Which roughly converted to those other units is around 22 Pints of oil per day (one per hour!), 21 pounds of coal (another per hour) and 200 cubic feet of natural gas.

I used the annual consumption of coal and natural gas, and the daily consumption of oil, and converted it to the daily average by dividing it out by the population of the US.

The data is here.