“Energy” has become such a hotly debated topic lately that I suspect many people are getting pretty exhausted by it, especially considering the ongoing lack of any clear concensus over how to move ahead. This is a real pity, as our energy system is a big deal when it comes to the lives we have and the future we want… and despite the lack of agreement on the solution, there is definitely broad agreement that we have a big problem today!
Energy is important – our ability to control it grants us many of the comforts and luxuries we enjoy. Simultaneously, however, our decisions on what we use (and how) can have long-lasting impacts on other comforts and luxuries equally dear. Getting the energy system right will be a giant step towards a bright future for the planet. Getting it wrong could easily lead to disasters as it has in the past, though the disasters of the future will likely be much larger if we make bad decisions.
Consumers of energy and services, such as yourself, collectively wield most of the power in determining what the story of this century will be in energy use. As a result, you’re targeted endlessly by energy lobby groups, energy suppliers, environmental organisations etc trying to influence your decisions. This is why I’m targeting you as well Hopefully my interests are closely aligned with yours, however. whereas the interests of most energy lobbyists are not!
In the eyes of children, energy must seem quite abstract. Electricity particularly is usually invisible – it comes from the wall when you want it. Gasoline at least has mass and odour. But does a house itself use energy? Did the car use energy before it was first filled with gas? Does food? Not while you’re watching them, but in actuality energy is tied into almost everything we interact with.
In fact, the energy used as electricity from our wall sockets is actually a pretty small fraction of our overall energy use. The breakdown is roughly as shown here:
The above diagram is derived from figures reported for 2010 by the IEA. ‘Industrial’ includes agriculture, construction, mining, and manufacturing. Transport is both personal and commercial. Residential and commercial is primarily heating, lighting, and appliance use. This chart has been drafted from fairly coarse data with a fairly coarse brush – I’ll delve deeper and perhaps refine it in the future, but it will serve for now. Overall, our global society used around 131PWh in 2007 (we may have actually dropped a few percent since due to the economic recession). A useful conversion into Power rather than Energy gives an average power draw of around 15TW. Power is Energy per Time. Specifically, a Watt (Power) is a Joule (Energy) delivered in a Second (Time); but power is also useful when we want to monitor the amount of energy delivered every year, as in this case.
The key thing to take away from this chart, more relevant for now than the exact numbers, is that:
So: Energy plays a big part in all of our comforts and luxuries – not just making our cars move and our lights and TV run when we flip the switch. But is the standard of those luxuries proportional to the amount of energy used? Put another (more simple) way: do our lives get better as we use more energy? This is an important question – as long as energy is a limited resource (and it’s safe to assume it always will be) we should try not to waste it. If it’s possible to have a high standard of living with reduced energy consumption then we’d have a smaller problem to solve.
In considering this issue, it’s interesting to look at some statistics for energy use vs ‘life quality’ at a national level, allowing us to compare different situations. I’m using data from GapMinder.org, because they create the graphs automatically. For now I haven’t worked out how to change the units and axis, so our energy/year is now measured in ‘TOE’, or ‘Ton-of-Oil-Equivalent’. To convert this to Watts just multiply the TOE/Year value by 1,327 (i.e. 4 TOE/yr ~ 5,300W). Somewhat indicative of quality of life is HDI, or Human Development Index. This doesn’t perfectly capture quality of life (if anyone can suggest what would, let me know!) but it’s a composite that looks at years spent in education, life expectancy at birth, buying power of the average person. One measure – not perfect by any means, but something. Let’s take a look:
Each circle is a country, the size of the circle represents the population of that country. Some you can guess probably, but which is which doesn’t matter for now (though follow the link if you’re interested). The interesting thing is that for our (admittedly imperfect) metric of HDI there is a very wide range of energy use amongst countries with a high score (i.e. high quality of life)… but additionally there are no countries with a high score below a certain energy use.
There are also a lot of anomalies, but in general terms we can say that there seems to be a relationship between our quality-of-life representative value, and energy consumption per-person. For now we can’t draw too many conclusions from this (we don’t know whether using a lot of energy makes your life good, or whether it’s just that people who have good lives tend to use a lot of energy) but what we CAN see is that:
Things will rapidly unravel with uncertainties if we try to draw general conclusions, but lets try for a few basic comparisons:
There are so many subtleties here that we should leave it there for now I think and perhaps just conclude from our chart that energy is related to HDI, but that it’s possible to have a high HDI without going to 10kW/person (as for the USA).
The trick is balancing our energy use so that we get maximum quality of life both now and well into the future, and that this is possible for most of the people on the planet – not just the top few percent. Trying to do otherwise has caused numerous problems in the past (as with most other constrained resources) and will cause numerous problems in the future.
My opinion is that energy should be:
Over the coming weeks/months/years I’m going to explore some ideas of we might do this, and build a collection of relevant details. With this site I hope to provide a relatively simple resource for people who are interested in understanding the general issues (myself included!) without having to read every news article and listen to every politician and energy company executive. I will also be doing my best to keep the information here honest and accurate – if something changes you’ll see retractions/amendments.
From these humble beginnings…. let’s see