Our Energy System, Our Lifestyle

By Nick • Energy • 6 Jul 2011

“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.

Deepwater Horizon Aftermath. Oops.

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:

15 TerraWatts (Power) = 131 PetaWatt Hours (Energy over a year) = Rate of energy release of the detonation of a nuclear bomb large enough to destroy a city (1MT)... every 5 minutes .

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[1]. 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:

  1. Much energy use is indirect – by living in a house, eating food, using roads and other infrastructure, buying appliances, owning a boat, or by using electricity where much of the energy is lost before it gets to the point of use.
  2. For most people the energy used indirectly as embodied energy tied with some other service or good is more than the energy you buy directly as kWh of electricity or litres of oil!

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:

Energy Use vs Human Development Index

Click to Open An Interactive Version of This Graph on Gapminder.org

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:

  1. It’s very definitely not random
  2. It’s very definitely not linear

Things will rapidly unravel with uncertainties if we try to draw general conclusions, but lets try for a few basic comparisons:

  • The USA, Germany, and Japan are all modern relatively democratic nations that are highly industrialised, at similar latitudes and have very similar HDI scores. Yet the USA uses twice as much energy per person!
  • No country scores more than 0.8 HDI using less than 2 TOE (though Hong Kong is an outlier on the boundary)
  • Using a lot of energy doesn’t guarantee a high HDI.

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[3]. 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:

  • Affordable – This does not necessarily mean cheapest, just that the cost should allow us to enjoy a high quality of life[4].
  • Clean – The life cycle environmental impact should be low[5].
  • Safe – The energy source should not create a significant risk of harm in the short or long term.[6]
  • Sustainable – The energy source should be sufficient to meet forseeable needs for the next 300 years at forecast rates of consumption.[7]
  • Distributed - As energy is so critical to our way of life, it is dangerous to become dependent on only a few very large reserves – this can easily result in volatility and resource conflict. Better to have a widely available resource with few fundamental shortages.
  • Judiciously used – Meeting all of the above is a big ask. One thing we know for sure – the less energy we need, the easier it becomes. We should therefore try to minimise the energy we consume, while preserving a high quality of life.

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 :-)



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Unless you are really quite familiar with this field, those are fairly meaningless numbers and fairly meaningless units. There are thousands of different ways in which they’re contextualised - here are a few I like:

    • 15TW is 15,000,000,000,000 Watts… or the equivalent power consumption of a every single person on earth running a large household electric heater, each, 24 hours a day.
    • 131PWh is the amount of energy released by the detonation of a nuclear warhead large enough to destroy a city (1 MT TNT Equivalent)… every 5 minutes… for an entire year.
    • 15TW is the combined engine power output of 37 million Porsche 911 GT2′s running flat out.
    • If we wanted our 131PWh in the form of electricity, it would take roughly 15,000 large nuclear reactors running all the time for a year.

  2. Sure, you could fight to stay in that top few percent yourself… but firstly it’s unethical, secondly you might lose, and finally everyone will lose because – as we see today – people who are deprived tend not to just sit and do nothing. They might attack you. They might burn down some rain forest to keep warm. Either way, what goes around often comes around
  3. An Economist would probably argue that we should use the cheapest source of energy. They’d be right, though only to the extent that all costs associated with a given source of energy are appropriately internalised. For now, at least, they are typically not. A barrel of oil does not have a direct levy for climate change impact, nor for military spending to secure supply lines.
  4. Life cycle environmental impact measures the environmental impact of all phases of an energy source’s life. To take coal as an example; Life Cycle Assessment considers the power plant construction, the mining of the coal, the disposal of the coal ash, the emissions from the plant during operation, the decommissioning of the plant at the end of its life etc. Even such objectively spotless technologies as wind or solar have a significant environmental impact. Solar covers large areas of land, which may be significant. Wind can be noisy/visually intrusive and kill birds or bats. Both wind turbines and solar panels take energy to produce.
  5. Safety is a very tricky thing to properly quantify, and I am not an expert. Suffice to say, however, that all of these nuclear plants were reportedly safe. Risk free energy is perhaps unrealistic – there are multiple deaths each year from solar and wind due to the risks of simply working at height – but these risks are relatively easy to assess and have very limited long term societal impact. The risks of climate change and nuclear disaster are fundamentally different. A big nuclear disaster could have major consequences spanning thousands of years; climate change likewise. When such large consequences and long timeframes are concerned it is no longer sufficient for a system to be ‘safe’ as long as maintenance and supervision is perfect, and no natural disasters occur. It must be safe when maintenance is abandoned, and it is operated by a drunk. If you think this is unrealistic, consider this study
  6. 300 years is simultaneously a very long time and a very short time. It is long in terms of the possible innovations that might occur within this time, hence we could say it’s needlessly conservative. However, planning for less than 300 years seems very short sighted. Longer would be better. I think a good general guideline might be that we could reasonable expect humans to colonise mars before we are close to running out of the energy supply in question.

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