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My subscription to the magazine Home Power has been feeding my dreams of an off-the-grid house that matches my sense of frugality, economy and efficiency. In the recent December/January 2010 issue was a striking article on energy efficiency, or lack thereof, of our national home. A. J. Simon wrote about the work he supports at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where he and colleagues take a summary look at the energy flow of the nation from the point of generation to the point of consumption. The resources used to create energy, the type of energy created and where the energy goes are broken into categories. (See https://publicaffairs.llnl.gov/news/energy/energy.html#2008 for recent years and an “archive” going back to 1950.)
So, what does this body of work tell us? First, total energy usage is up by about 58 percent since 1982, from 62.9 quadrillion Btu (quads) to 99.5 quads in 2008. (A quadrillion is one followed by 15 zeros, or one thousand million million. A Btu is a British thermal unit, a common unit of energy.) Averaged over the U.S. population, the usage has grown about 22 percent per person and in 2008 was estimated at 326 million Btu per person per year. About 40 percent of our 2008 energy input was devoted to generating electricity. Transportation consumed about 40 percent of our energy output. That’s a lot of energy. Try pumping-out those quads on your stair climber!
Since you’ve stuck with me this far, I owe you at least the short message behind the flow charts of quadrillions and the millions for personal use. In 2008, you received less than half of the 326 million Btu you bought and held in reserve. That’s right! For every dozen eggs you buy at least six are busted before you ever get home! Nationally, of our national storehouse of 99.5 quads of energy, we tossed away 58 perfectly good ones, and this doesn’t count the eggs we inattentively overcook like the lights left on at work, all the computers we never turn off, all the single occupant miles we travel, etc. As we struggle with a federal budget deficit, is that level of waste acceptable?
If you are rich, maybe six of every12 eggs doesn’t seem like much, and this country has been very rich for a long time. So rich that we didn’t seem to notice. We have become complacent. But recently there has been a lot of mumbling that things must change. The deficits are too large. The debt is out of control. There are frequent mutterings that maybe we all need to tighten our belts. I ask if maybe it’s time to take notice of just who is dropping the eggs.
So let’s go back to the LLNL charts, where it is easy to see who has egg on their face. Of the 40 quads consumed to generate electricity only 12.7 end up as useful services. The other 27.3 quads or 68 percent of the resources are wasted. The next biggest wasteful sector is in transportation that consumes almost 28 quads of which 21 quads or a whopping 75 percent are wasted. So there you have it. Two sectors of our economy represent 85 percent of the energy lost or wasted. At least they are so big it’s easy to find them. Converting the wasted quads into dollars is tricky as every energy source has its own calculation, but the Department of Energy reports that a million Btu will cost you about $31 if delivered in electricity and about $16 if delivered as heating oil. At $20 per million Btu the rejected energy is valued at approximately $1 trillion dollars per year! That’s a lot of broken eggs, folks.
These must be times of plenty, because we’re not counting every penny, not even every half dollar. When we let over half of our energy eggs drop to the floor only to reach for more, maybe it’s because eggs are cheap. But is this nonchalance affordable or just a habit? What if we could just keep one out of every dozen eggs from falling to the floor. We still keep our customary diet of six, but we divert the saved egg to pay down the national debt! How much change are you willing to accept to ensure we have a solvent economic future? Well, how much change do you want? Saving even one egg of energy per year of the 12 available nationally puts a couple hundred billion energy dollars in our national pocket, or almost $1,000 into yours.