My Power Profile. What’s Yours?

By Nick • Energy • 24 Jul 2011

In my earlier post I looked at the overall energy/power profile of the world. From that big picture view I decided the next logical step was to take a look at the personal perspective on consumption. I’ll take a look at where all this energy actually comes from in a later post.

Personal consumption is an important factor, as we could undoubtedly reduce our collective energy burden by each using less of it. Obviously we don’t want to sacrifice some things. For example: I am attached to food and am reluctant to stop eating it altogether. Likewise, it is good to stay dry when it rains and warm when it snows, so I’m quite fond of my house. But what if there were things we do that use a huge amount of energy and we can give up with a relatively small sacrifice… or better still things that we can do differently, saving energy, while making no sacrifice at all? To find these opportunities requires getting a handle on our personal energy use, as only we as individuals can assess those things which are important to us vs those things which aren’t.

Granted, it was slightly drier *inside* the tent.
Great as an adventure… less great as a way of life.

I talked in my earlier post about the significant of embodied energy. Remembering that, what should we focus on most and first? Does unplugging your mobile phone charger from the wall when you’re not using it really make a difference? Or is it just the tiniest drop in the bucket – still worth doing, perhaps, but potentially one of those trees that stops you from paying attention to the rest of the forest.

What’s the answer? I had some ideas (for example, I never paid much attention to my mobile phone charger), but I certainly didn’t know for sure on the big topics. And I’m an engineer, and have been working on energy systems of various descriptions for coming up on a decade. I want to sort these questions out to have a personal baseline to start this journey from, so I turned to the internet… and to (among other things) an interesting website called ‘Wattzon‘ created/imagined largely by Saul Griffith. Saul Griffith is a bit of a superstar on energy and tracking thereof – see his excellent Long Now talk here… though be warned, it’s long and goes into a lot of detail, more of an “extra reading”(/listening and watching) link.

WattzOn, despite having a dorky name with a ‘z’ instead of an ‘s’ (Saul is a legend, but he was also born with Australianism), is pretty cool. It allows you to create a composite of your travel, your eating, your commuting, your living, and all your stuff… and gives you an average power consumption figure that reflects all the energy tied up with it (Remember power is a measure of energy delivered in a certain time – 1 Watt (Power) = 1 Joule (Energy) every Second (time). To give a non intuitive example that illustrates the concept: creating the computer on which you’re reading this might have taken around 1GJ (One Billion Joules). Making it, not running it. So, if that laptop lasts you three years before you buy a new one and ditch the original then we can say that your laptop is the equivalent of around

Laptop: 10.5 Watts = 1,000,000,000 Joules / 94,608,000 Seconds

(94,608,000 is the number of seconds in three years)

Your laptop uses power also when you have it switched on – that’s extra, and shows up on your (or someones) power bill. If your laptop uses around 60 watts while it’s turned on, then even if you use it for four hours a day, replacing it once every three years means that the same amount of energy went into making the laptop as went into running it. Surprising? It was for me.

Getting into the meat (or the organic soy-derived meat substitute) of the personal energy topic: Where does my energy go? I entered everything I could think of, to the best of my ability, into WattzOn. WattzOn leaves out a few important things in its basic graph which I’ve added as estimates[1].

 Mash it together and we get:

My Power Profile: 2010

In the words of the aforementioned SaulStralian: “I’m a planet Fucker”.

I was a little surprised to be a planet fucker. I mean sure, I live in a rich prosperous nation, and hence naturally consume far more than the global average – The Government uses almost ten times the Bangladeshi  per-capita average just on my behalf. But the nation is Switzerland. Public transport here is amazingly good – I don’t even own a car. I’m using the numbers from last year as I want to compare them to this years, so I was still eating a reasonable amount of meat, but certainly a lot less than “average” (which you’d understand if you’d seen the prices in a swiss supermarket). Our house is relatively small, and has triple glazed windows. Why am I a planet fucker? If I want to consume less, what can I sacrifice?

I’m now a mostly vegetarian (I eat a serving of meat maybe once a month – I miss it occasionally, but only a bit; mostly the change just made me a better cook!). I can commute less (right now I travel approximately 200km each week by commuter rail to get to and from work). And I can perhaps reduce some of my workplace consumption and home consumption (I’ve been conservative on the high side here).

The graph shows quite clearly where the worst of my excesses come from. Last year I flew around 140,000km. That’s like flying all the way around the world 3 and a half times. And it shows. Another big chunk is government services (roads, sewers, cleaning, parks, police, hospitals, army). WattzOn uses a fairly coarse method to estimate this, but it’s perhaps within the ballpark. It’s clear where the big gains are to come from though – a lot less flying (or much more efficient flying). Trouble is, my family live in New Zealand, and I like seeing them, so I want to be able to make at least one trip every two years. In today’s aircraft, which burn kerosene and will continue to do so for a fair while the way things look now, even one trip every two years will be in the range of 1,300W! But I’ll try to get down to that first.

I’ll start to explore the significance of these numbers later, but for now: That’s my power footprint. The goal for now is to get from 13,947 Watts to below 2,000Watts (or to find a wonderful, sustainable, low impact way to make a lot of energy).

Why am I targeting 2,000 W? Because that’s the global average today. Since there are, for example, ~165 Million people in Bangladesh with a per-capita consumption of 300W and living, on average, lives of extreme deprivation (health, food, water, housing, etc), and since our global energy use is already grossly unsustainable with the current methods of generation, I figure I’ll try to meet the Bangladeshi’s halfway until we’ve worked out a great way to make more clean, sustainable energy for everyone.

300W is the average per capita... but that doesn't mean the amount the "average" person receives for their own use. These ship-breakers get a lot less - climate change probably isn't their top concern.

13,957 Watts – that was my average power consumption last year. Take a look at WattzOn – what was yours?



There are a lot of simplifications and assumptions in these estimates. They’re not going to be on the nail, and some might be off by quite a bit. That’s why it’s a first step – let’s go with it for now, the accuracy will improve in time and the underlying message is still probably sound.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Embodied energy of house, embodied energy of office, and energy used at office) based on this (combined with the anecdotal “family home” of 300MWh) and the observation that my work is a lot like my home… only less comfortable and colourful. I decided that our 80 square meter apartment (shared with my fiance) in a multilevel building was around 100MWh and had a 50 year life, giving 230Watts/2 people = 115W for me. Office assumed the same as home, both for building and heating.