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Without Energy Literacy, Conservation Efforts Are Flying Blind

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Saul Griffith, Principal, Overlab at Green:Net 2011If you want to change something first you have to measure it. But when it comes to energy consumption and generation, we don’t have the tools yet to do either. Saul Griffith, a principle at Other Lab and an amateur energy tracker, explained Thursday at the Green:Net event in San Francisco, that we’re still in the dark ages of explaining to people what they need to know about energy use and that energy literacy is important for citizens, policy makers and the planet.

Using an impressive series of charts and graphs, Griffith explained how quality data visualizations help put energy policy into context. For example, his personal energy usages was 18,000 watts a year in 2007, with about 45 percent of that wattage generated by his airline flights — he takes about 40 a year. Compare that to the 3 percent he consumes on lighting, and one can see that replacing a few lightbulbs in his home, as opposed to eliminating one or two plane rides, has a relatively small impact. He also realized, after putting his usage in context with the rest of the nation, that he uses far more than the average American.

The average American uses 11,000 watts, which means that as a person who commutes to work on a bike, and tries to act responsibly with regard to energy consumption, he’s still “no better than a Texan,” which makes him “a planet-f***ing hypocrite.” The moral here is that with better visualizations and software created to render those visualizations, perhaps citizens can figure out both how to make the biggest impact and where they stand with regard to the rest of the world. And maybe it could take the self-righteous down a notch or two.

That’s the personal level, but at the policy level, Griffith also illustrated how much energy we consume and showed imagery to track how much renewable energy we’d need in terms of solar arrays or tidal power to generate the energy we use today. For example, solar power generates about 1 to 2 watts per square meter of land. So when governments are planning out their energy goals for the next few decades they must take into account if they have the room to replace their coal with solar, for example. They must also look ahead and predict real energy demand, as opposed to the demands of today.

With humanity requiring 18 terawatts of power per year to live the way we do now, Griffith’s points are important to creating a populace and a political class that can have honest discussions about energy consumption, distribution and use. His plea is for those with experience in this to help the government and him make these software programs a reality.

4 Responses to “Without Energy Literacy, Conservation Efforts Are Flying Blind”

  1. Oh man, you write this column with this sentence?

    “The average American uses 11,000 watts” Presumably you mean watt-hours per day or kilowatt-hours per year or something. Watts is power, watt-hours is energy. And Americans most certainly don’t need 11 kW of power to live their lives. Hell, my entire house draws less than 1kW with the stove on.

    Your intentions are good, though

    • Anderlan

      Your correction is incorrect.

      Watts is energy per time (power). A Watt is a Joule per second. Which means that saying that all Americans use on average 11,000 watts MAKES PERFECT SENSE. Think of it as as “Americans on average are using 11,000 Joules over any one second, period.”

      Redundantly adding to the confusion is the unfortunately redundant unit of energy Kilowatt-hour. In this unit, time is both a numerator and a denominator. A Kilowatt is 1000 Joules per second, and an hour is 3600 seconds, meaning that a Kilowatt-hour is more simply state as 3.6 MegaJoules. KWh is used in the power industry, so it’s an important unit, but always remember that it is redundantly going to be confusing redundantly and redundantly add to the complexity of any equation it’s part of redundantly.

      Now, given that apology to the writer on Jim’s behalf, I would like to come back around on the writer with a different criticism. The author said “kilowatts per year” which is very confusing and becomes meaningless when taken logically/mathematically. I think he was trying to say “kilowatts on average in 200X” where 200X is some specific year.

    • Anderlan

      See David MacKay’s Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air for estimates on the amount of power we use constantly as an average. If you count the transportation, you get to sobering rates of energy burn like 11KW per person.