Post-Peak - The Change Starts with Us
The average American consumes six times the energy of the average person in the rest of the world.1 Yet we don’t seem to realize the cost of our massive energy consumption on the poorer people of the world, on our own health, and the health of the environment. Although interest in Peak Oil is growing, most do not yet fully understand that this means the “American Way of Life” will be over within a few decades.
This issue of New Solutions aims to bring the problem of energy consumption down to the personal level, to questions of our personal accountability and our personal capacity to change our societally driven habits. We can’t anticipate that leaders who ignore science or a press that continues to tout fantastic technological solutions will offer us any rational, considered approach for change to a problem both we and they deny. We can only look at ourselves.
There are many individuals and groups who are beginning to see Peak Oil as a unifying principle that offers a perspective on war, inequity and pollution. These people can be found in groups such as community movements of all kinds, simple living groups, agrarian advocates, and intermediate technology organizations. Probably the total number of involved people is in the tens of thousands, well below one percent of citizens in the richer countries.
It is vital that some of these pioneering people begin to make the personal changes needed for a Post Peak Oil world to provide authentic leadership for those who will follow. Such people can develop ways to live on a severely reduced energy budget. This will not be easy because we are so far removed from the knowledge and skills of the past, and because it is hard to make the choice to live using less when those around us are living as if our way of life can go on forever.
A major difficulty is the complexity of the problem itself. It is not easy to understand energy – it is a massive subject and complicated by many different opinions and ideas. It is difficult to decide what to do. Should one recycle plastic bags? Is changing light bulbs really a good idea? Is burning wood a good choice? There are new skills that are needed to wisely formulate our response to the energy crisis. They include thinking numerically about energy, understanding per capita analysis and grasping the difference between embodied energy and operating energy.
Developing Numeracy Skills
There are significant skills lacking in the general population which makes it hard for people to understand the implications of Peak Oil. Lester Milbrath2 says, “We used to think a person was educated if he was literate. We later came to see that mere literacy was insufficient, people also need numeracy. We should expect people to develop the ability to handle numbers and the habit of demanding them.”
More recently, Edward Schreyer3 says, “To be a responsible citizen in a world where nonrenewable fossil fuels are put to ever increasing and ‘ever faster track’ depletion requires that ultimately citizens band together to demand reanalysis and redirection. We used to say that good citizenship requires literacy and that democracy requires a literate population. That remains true but it becomes obvious that to understand energy and environmental sustainability in this Modern Era now also requires a pervasive numeracy.”
Many people lack the ability to understand the numbers that measure energy and thus don’t grasp the implications. The manipulation of the data by special interest groups adds to our confusion. For example, consider the response to the now well known Association for the Study of Peak Oil (ASPO ) curve (Fig. 1),4 which illustrates the volumes of oil consumed in the past and shows projected future consumption. Frequently economists counter with statements such as, “This is ridiculous. We are not running out of oil. We have enough oil to last 30 years at today’s rates of consumption.” A person skilled in numeracy will quickly see that the ASPO chart and the economist’s response are the same. This person understands that both parties agree on the amount of oil remaining. But the economist is “putting a spin” on an agreed-upon fact to counter the ASPO warning.
Understanding some critical numbers is a prerequisite for any major change. We need to begin with a study of how we use energy and how we apportion it. It is not very helpful to be told that oil is the basis of hundreds of thousands of products or that the average morsel of food travels 1500 miles if we cannot fit these facts into the context of our personal energy use.
Energy decisions should be based on good accounting principles. To begin, we need to understand our energy budget (what we are consuming) and then determine how to reduce it. Millions of people have gone through a similar process with their money due to an unexpected layoff or some accident that stopped or reduced the family income. In countries that have gone through financial collapse, like Argentina, the whole society has done it. Now we must do it – but with an energy budget rather than a dollar budget.
For most of us it is not very useful to focus on details far removed from our own experience – for example, the energy requirements in the making of steel, aluminum, glass or paper. This knowledge is highly technical and requires specialists. We must first understand the energy consumption for things with which we are involved and over which we have some control, such as cars, houses and food.
Using Per Capita Numbers
One of the important numeracy skills we must learn is per capita calculations for energy consumption. Developing a per capita perspective (the lack of which is one of the factors that makes understanding the implications of peak oil so difficult) is basic. Our leaders regularly take advantage of our ignorance of per capita numbers to mislead the public. For example, we are told that we are the most generous nation because the U.S. gives more aid money than other wealthy nations. But on a per capita basis our giving is near the bottom, showing selfishness rather than generosity.5 We are told that China now uses more energy than Japan, its total energy consumption having recently passed that of Japan’s. But China has ten times the population of Japan meaning that the average Chinese citizen uses 1/10 that of the average Japanese citizen.1 Until we are able to think intuitively on a per capita basis, the problems of energy on a world- wide basis will elude us.
Using per capita analysis, we can make clear comparisons concerning consumption. Many ways of talking about energy leave the reader with an emotional feeling but uncertain as to the implications. A recent article noted that some change in wood use would save enough wood to build a picket fence across the country and back. This is colorful but useless information. A more meaningful comparison would be to note that it saves one percent or ten percent or some other percent of the amount of the wood consumed by the average person per year. This per capita analysis is a key part of understanding our consumption and of finding ways to reduce it.
Per capita also gives us more understanding of the implications of Peak Oil than reviewing large numbers for massive populations. An example is the per capita consumption of minerals and fuels in the U.S. The average American consumes 46,414 pounds of materials in a year.6 This includes coal (7,400 lbs), oil (6,420 lbs – the weight of 1,069 gallons of gasoline), natural gas (3,240 lbs – the weight of 72,000 cu. ft.), cement (902 lbs), iron ore (440 lbs), and clays (290 lbs). The total weight of the three fossil fuels burned per person each year is 17,060 pounds.
Our annual food consumption per person is only 2,200 lbs per person. It is surprising to realize that the total weight of coal, natural gas, and oil per person is about seven times the weight of the food we eat. The difference comes from our “lifestyle,” which is our houses, cars, food, furnishings and the industries that support them.
This example shows what is needed to maintain the American lifestyle. Per capita figures can also be used to compare different lifestyles. A citizen of Bangladesh consumes 1/48th the energy that an American consumes. Yet such people can survive on that limited amount, living a much simpler, more sustainable lifestyle – one that is easier on the earth. In fact, most of the people in the world are living in a simpler manner, much less dependent on fossil fuels.
Energy and Pollution Numeracy
Fossil fuel energy provides the power and feed stocks for our modern industrial products and lifestyle. However, their use also causes massive and damaging pollution. Using numeracy skills, we can understand and evaluate the pollution that results from energy use and its effect on the environment. This is critical information but rarely included in the analysis of our situation.
Our “out of sight, out of mind” system for solid waste disposal is designed to help us ignore the massive burden our consumptive lifestyle places on the environment. Solid waste is at least temporarily visible to us before it is hauled away and, if we choose, we can contemplate its source and effects. Gaseous pollution, on the other hand, is also a product our lifestyle, but is invisible, and thus very easy to ignore. Yet it is much more damaging.
When we burn coal, natural gas or oil to generate electrical power, or use oil as fuel for transport, CO2 (carbon dioxide, which causes global warming) and other pollutants enter the atmosphere. For every pound of fossil fuel we burn, 2.36 pounds of CO2 is created, spreading into the environment. If we use these same fuels as raw materials for products, such as fertilizer for our food, other pollutants are generated. The pollution of land, air and water comes from the use of fuel in manufacturing, electricity generation and in growing food.
Energy or matter can be neither created nor destroyed, but only transformed. The 46,414 pounds of materials each person consumes in the U.S. each year has a corresponding amount of waste (see Fig. 2).In his 1997 book GeoDestinies,7 Walter Youngquist notes:
“The child from birth to death will generate 13 tons of waste paper, 10,355 tons of waste water, 2.5 tons of waste oil and solvents, 3 tons of waste metals, and 3 tons of waste glass. From manufacturing processes, mining and agriculture used to support this individual, there will be 83 tons of hazardous waste, 419 tons from mining (not including coal mining), 197 tons from manufacturing in general, 1,418 tons of carbon dioxide, and 19 tons of carbon monoxide. Consumption of materials during a lifetime will include 1,870 barrels of oil, and 260 pounds of pesticides used to produce the food to sustain the individual.”
Using this slightly dated information and converting the data to pounds per year (assuming a lifespan of 77.3 years) results in the following waste materials per person per year: carbon dioxide (36,668 lbs), manufacturing general (5,097 lbs), hazardous waste (2,147 lbs), carbon monoxide (492 lbs), paper (336 lbs), waste metals (78 lbs), glass (78 lbs), and waste oil/solvent (65 lbs).
This is approximate and in terms of energy we prefer the most recent data from the International Energy Association (IEA).1 Their 2005 report shows that the world wide ratio of CO2 created to fossil fuels burned is 2.36 to 1. Using this ratio and applying it to the 17,060 pounds of fossil fuels noted earlier gives a result of 40,262 lbs per capita per year, very close to the 36,668 lbs derived from the earlier (1997) Youngquist data. Consumption per capita is increasing!
We did this comparison because of our surprise at the weight of CO2 generated.
We called physicist friends to verify this information. They explained the process of combustion – the carbon from the fossil fuel hydrocarbon combines with oxygen from the air. The fact that we can see and touch a piece of coal or a gallon of gasoline but cannot do the same with the carbon dioxide pollutants generated from their combustion does not mean that it is not there. It still exists and has weight.
Waste – the Hidden Energy Cost
The volume of materials we use when measured in pounds per person is shocking. Perhaps even more shocking is the amount of invisible waste we generate in a gaseous form. This lack of visibility contributes to a lack of awareness and leads us to be ignorant about the impact of our consumption. Thus we respond to the plastic bag (made from oil) by the side of the road while ignoring the invisible emissions from the tailpipe (also made from oil).
The U.S. Energy Information Agency warns us of this:8
“One important category of costs that is often not reflected in consumers’ bills is energy-related environmental effects. These unwanted effects can be thought of as the tail end of the energy cycle, which begins with extraction and processing of fuels (or gathering of wind or solar energy), proceeds with conversion to useful forms by means of petroleum refining, electricity generation, and other processes, and then concludes with distribution to, and consumption by, end-users. Once the energy has rendered the services for which it is consumed, all that is left are the byproducts of energy use, i.e., waste heat, mine tailings, sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide gases, spent nuclear fuel, and many others....In 1999 U.S. anthropogenic CO2 emissions totaled about 5.6 billion metric tons (of gas); 1 ton of carbon equals 3.667 tons of carbon dioxide gas.”
Because we don’t see CO2 or know the volume produced, we tend to focus on relatively unimportant matters. In the book Garbage Land, Elizabeth Royte9 explains, “Of all the waste generated in the United States – including mining and agricultural waste, oil and gas waste, food processing residues, construction and demolition debris, hazardous waste, incinerator ash, cement-kiln dust, and other categories too rarefied to describe – municipal solid waste represented a mere two percent.”
Later she points out that the average person throws out 4.3 pounds per day (1,570 lbs per year) of waste (designated as “Municipal Solid Waste) which represents the “mere two percent” of all the different kinds of waste Ms. Royte describes in her book. She notes that only 27 percent of the 1,570 pounds – 423 pounds – is recycled or, less than one percent of all the waste per person. The 1,570 pounds per year is miniscule compared to the approximately 40,000 pounds per year of CO2 from burning fossil fuels in the process of heating (and cooling) our homes and driving our cars, as well as other fossil fuel usage.
Americans spend a lot of time and energy arguing about the merits of paper versus plastic bags and what kinds of containers should go in what recycling bins, as if this was the main environmental issue. Big as the post consumer solid waste problem is, it is relatively insignificant compared to the pollution, toxins, and hazardous waste from the manufacturing of everyday products. These are usually unseen or, if seen for a while, are quickly buried in landfills for future generations to deal with. We need to weigh the embodied energy costs of products including the total energy cost of recycling. Otherwise recycling simply eases our consciences while we continue consuming.
Embodied Energy and Operating Energy
Embodied energy plus operating energy equals the total energy cost of an object or a material. Understanding the difference between the two is important for making wise choices about energy use.
Simply put, embodied energy is a calculation of the amount of energy required in all phases of the production of a material or product – its energy cost. This includes extraction and refinement of raw materials, transportation, manufacturing, installation and disposal. Though fairly simple in concept, the actual quantification of embodied energy is an inexact and challenging science with many complex variables. Nevertheless, it is important that the embodied energy factor become part of our decision making.
Figure 3 provides the basic information that allows us to begin to understand embodied energy. This table shows the embodied energy in a variety of materials measured both in millions of joules per kilograms and millions of joules per cubic meter. This information allows even a layperson to begin to do energy analysis.10
Operating energy is the energy used over the lifetime of a material or product after it is manufactured. If product A requires 20 units of energy to make (its embodied energy) and uses 6 units of operating energy per year over its projected 10 year life, its lifetime energy cost would be 80 units (20 plus 6 times 10). If product B requires 25 units of embodied energy and does the same job for 10 years on 3 units of operating energy per year its lifetime energy cost would be 55 units (25 plus 3 times 10). So, we need reasonably complete figures for the embodied energy costs of cars, homes, appliances, etc. in addition to operating cost comparisons to make the best choices for our energy and environmental future.
In practice there are other factors that enter into our decision-making process besides total energy cost. Some people can’t afford the up-front cost to change to more energy-efficient products unless society lends a hand. Our culture trains us to calculate the “pay back time” in money and reject more expensive and efficient products as too costly if the pay back time exceeds what we expect from investments. (This will soon change as Peak Oil boosts the cost of fuel.) But if we had been trained to consider the environment and future generations as much as our convenience and pocketbooks our analysis would have given different results.
Regional Energy Use
Figure 4 shows energy use by region. To measure total energy consumption, we must convert all the various forms of energy – coal, oil, natural gas, uranium – into equivalents of oil consumption. The term used to describe this approach is “barrels of oil equivalent” or “BOE,” or alternately “tons of oil equivalent” or “TOE.” TPES in the graph refers to “Total Primary Energy Supply.” As discussed earlier, it is important to include pollution, which is in the last column of the chart. This reminds us that the use of any energy creates a corresponding pollutant.
America leads the world in fossil fuel burning with a per capita energy consumption of 57.5 BOE, approximately 2,400 gallons. The average U.S. citizen, and there are 291 million of us, consumes 12.5 times the energy of the average citizen of Africa or Asia. This huge energy differential illustrates a serious problem that threatens the peace of the world. How will this huge discrepancy be managed in a time of decreasing fossil fuel availability? Will Americans decide to drive SUVs while others go hungry?
This large gap is also apparent for other groupings of nations. Of the 6.2 billion people on the planet, more than five billion people (the non-OECD nations) live in a state of low energy consumption. The OECD members (18 percent of the world’s population) use 51 percent of the world’s energy while the non-OECD nations (82 percent of the world’s population) use 49 percent. On a per capita basis the average OECD citizen uses 4.6 times the energy of the average non-OECD citizen.11 Amazingly, the average U.S. citizen uses more than twice as much energy as the average non-U.S. OECD citizen.
The 5.1 billion poor of the world may aspire to the high energy consumptive lifestyle of the 1.1 billion rich of the world. But long before they will have a chance to achieve a high energy status, the short duration of the fossil fuel age will be over. These billions of people will soon be forced to accept their current energy limits. However, nations using much less energy may have a better chance of surviving declining energy supplies than rich nations. Non-OECD people are closer to nature and closer in time to past sustainable ways of living – some having never left it. The U.S. is a half-century removed from that kind of lifestyle. It is even questionable if most people in the OECD nations could survive physically if forced to live on the energy ration of the majority of the world’s people.
Rich nations may hope that the poorer nations will be content with a low-energy lifestyle. It is more likely, however, that poor countries will understand that the high energy consuming countries are using energy for luxuries – energy that the poor will need for basic survival. Thus increasing inequity5 will cause even more conflict in the world. It may be necessary for us to reduce our energy use substantially both to avoid fossil fuel resource wars and also as a matter of basic humanity.
Energy Fuels and Uses
It is important to distinguish between energy and fuels. Energy is a broad term while fuels are the substances that provide energy, mostly by being burned. The basic fossil fuels are coal, oil, natural gas, and uranium. Figure 512 shows the different kinds of fuels in the left column and the main uses of these fuels in the right column. The numbers above the connecting lines represent the percentages of fuels produced and the percentages of uses. For example, reviewing the left column shows that 100 percent of all nuclear power and 90 percent of all coal burned is used for electricity. Reviewing the right column we see that 96 percent of all transportation fuels come from petroleum (oil). This tells us that running out of oil will only affect our electrical generation in a minor way but would be devastating to our transportation system. Similarly increasing our nuclear power would do little for transportation.
The chart shows how different fuels are consumed to provide different goods and services. A few decades ago, oil was used as a principle source of heat for buildings, but it has been replaced by natural gas. In recent years, natural gas has also been used in increasing amounts for generating electricity. This was done more for environmental reasons than for cost. But the result of this switch may cause increases in the price of electricity since natural gas is also approaching peak. However, there may be some benefit in that the increasing price of electricity will decrease demand.
It is useful to understand which fuels are associated with which uses. As we have noted, fuel for cars comes primarily from oil. Energy for home heating comes from a combination of natural gas, fuel oil and electricity. Electricity is generated from all fuels but mostly (51 percent) from coal. Fuels for commercial and industrial usage use all the various sources and represent the energy that is used to create the materials that make up our cars and houses as well as the infrastructure (roads) that they require.
In the final analysis almost all the energy we consume reduces down to providing the materials and products used for our “lifestyle” such as cars, houses, and food as well as the fuels to maintain and operate the cars and houses. Thus we can perceive energy and its use not as some external substance but as the basis for the day-to-day products and events of ordinary living.
The U.S. consumes approximately 100 quadrillion BTUs of energy per year, abbreviated as 100 quads. This is a mix of coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear, wind, solar, etc. The Energy Information Agency sometimes divides this energy into the categories noted in Figure 5, showing electricity separate and combining residential and commercial. Other times it does not break out electricity but separates residential and commercial. In the second case the categories of energy use are industrial, transportation, residential and commercial. Knowing this clarifies why different energy organizations produce conflicting energy numbers from.
From personal experience people know the cost of maintaining residences and cars. We experience this when paying our utility bills for running our appliances such as computers, lights, home heating, natural gas, air conditioners, water heaters and cooking ranges. Transportation is apparent when we drive our cars or fly somewhere on business or pleasure. However, we are typically unaware of the huge number of trucks that are hauling our food and other goods across the country. This requires a little more subtle thinking. It basically requires that we ask the question – where did this come from?
Personal Consumption – The Bottom Line
It might be an interesting exercise to consider our daily activities and review our energy use in detail. (In the following scenario, coal is used as the source for electricity since most of our electricity is provided by the burning of coal.) It’s a little story about daily life.
Starting with the alarm from a coal-driven electric clock, we turn off the coal-driven electric blanket, turn on the coal-driven light and go to the bathroom where the use of the sink and toilet trigger the actions of coal-powered electrical pumps that move the water and sewage into and out of coal-driven energy-intensive treatment plants. Possibly we adjust our thermostat upward a bit, and in the basement a furnace begins burning natural gas or in the living room baseboard electric heaters draw energy from the mostly coal-fired power grid. A shower will trigger the burning of natural gas or coal depending on whether we have a gas or electric hot water heater. If it is summer we may adjust our air conditioners, causing puffs of coal CO2 from some remote power plant to enter the atmosphere.
We open the kitchen cabinets and refrigerator and bring out some food. While we slept and while we were at work, the refrigerator was constantly turning itself on and off, each time drawing amps from the mostly coal-fed power grid. We turn on the kitchen range to cook breakfast and natural gas from buried pipes which are part of the countries’ natural gas grid or electricity from the mostly coal-powered electric grid cooks our meal. As we eat we might realize that on average, each food morsel traveled 1500 miles before reaching our plate in diesel-powered trucks. If we read the food labels while we eat and add up the calories, we could multiply by 10 which will tell us how many calories of natural gas and oil were consumed to produce and deliver it. We might compare our oatmeal to the bacon that goes with it to discover that the bacon took many more fossil fuel calories.
After breakfast we might use the electricity-driven garbage disposal and dishwasher to clean up the kitchen before we step into our car and drive to work, leaving the furnace, refrigerator, water heater, and some lights on. Small heaters in our TVs and other appliances will continue running all day and night to make sure there is no delay when we next turn on the machine. If we have a typical car and drive the typical distance, by the time we go to bed that night we will have burned three gallons of gasoline.
As we enter our workplace we may begin to operate our tools of work – personal computers for some and saws and welders for others – mostly powered by coal-produced electricity. Throughout the day we and others use energy to provide the materials for our standard of living – the car, the house with its appliances, the airplane on which we fly to a conference, the hundreds of millions of computers that manage our enterprises, etc.
In all office environments, heating and air conditioning keep the building at a constant temperature day and night. Each person at their workstation or in their office sits beneath a bank of fluorescent lights, most with a computer, drawing power constantly from the mostly coal-fired electrical grid.
Other people in the world are going about their daily business as well – in Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America. Each person will do the same thing we do – rise up, eat, go to work, return home – and each will use different amounts of material and different amounts of energy. This will vary tremendously. Some will ride in cars, others on buses or trains, still others on bicycles and many will walk. The quantity of energy consumed for ordinary life is dramatically different. At the end of the day the average American will have burned seven gallons of oil equivalent while the average Bangladesh citizen will have used two cups.
Community Change vs. Personal Change
We have long advocated the benefits and advantages of living in small local communities. Other Peak Oil groups use related concepts such as “going local,” “localize” and “re-localize.” Many people instinctively think of relocating to smaller communities after learning about Peak Oil. They seem to intuitively understand fossil fuels have led to an unhealthy centralization. But much of this discussion focuses on the potential for policy change. Focusing on what governments – national, state and local – can or should do to reduce energy consumption, without analyzing and changing our own consumption habits, is a form of denial and an avoidance of personal responsibility.
If we cannot determine what to do with our own car and house, how will we determine what to do with community vehicles and buildings? Municipality energy analysis tends to focus on non-personal data gathering, such as, “what are the energy and economic flows in and out of a particular locale?” This can lead to overlooking the effects of our personal lifestyle by limiting potential changes to the municipal level.
Whether people are living in an urban or rural environment, the true aspect of “community” is based on mutual aid and mutual support and includes consideration of future generations. When we have a gut understanding of this we will not continue to consume limited resources with the assumption that “technology will provide a substitute.” In this understanding of community all citizens are conservers by nature; their world view does not hold consumption and growth as the highest good. Thus community begins with the individual person’s choices to reduce energy consumption, which in turn supports both the current and the future community.
As individuals we have control over some part of the energy we use but little control over other areas. We can decide what to eat, what (and perhaps more importantly, whether) to drive and what kind of house we will live in. Is our food grown locally or transported long distances? Is it natural or highly processed? Does the car get high or low gas mileage? Is everything we have and every trip we make necessary for our health and happiness? What is the size of our house and how much insulation is in the walls?
We have less control over what is served in restaurants, what models of trucks are selected by the industries that move goods, and the energy options for commercial buildings. We are also removed several steps from business and government decision making. So initially we should focus on evaluating the energy for our food, car and home – the energy we personally use directly on a daily basis. If we lack the will to make changes in these areas, it is unlikely we can affect the energy choices of our institutions.
Personal Energy Choices: Food, Cars and Houses
Ultimately we use energy through our possessions and our actions. There is little energy use that does not come down to the individual, either using energy directly or via products that are made from or use fossil fuels. The average person moves through the day from place to place and from task to task, constantly consuming energy. In most cases the general flow is from house to car to school or work and back with side trips to shopping centers and recreational facilities.
On average, we in the U.S. spend most of our time (90 percent) during the day in buildings or in cars, both of which are heavy energy users. Americans live contained within an energy-consuming machine of some kind – either a transportation vehicle or a building. One way to look at our way of life is as an individual living in a set of energy-consuming buildings defined by home, school and workplace, frequently moving between them by energy-consuming cars. Much of industry and commerce are concerned with the making of the cars and buildings, along with providing the appliances (more energy consuming machines) and the furnishings for the buildings. If we look at our life, we will be able to understand energy flows, how energy is being expended, and what we have to do to use less.
Personal Choices: Food
Many looking for Peak Oil solutions focus on food consumption and our agriculture system as a key area of wasted energy. We have previously noted that it takes ten calories of fossil fuels to produce each calorie of food we eat. (In this document we follow the convention of using the term “calorie” when writing about food, although the scientific notation would be kilocalorie.) According to Cornell researcher Dr. David Pimentel,13 the average person consumes 2,200 pounds of food per year which provides 3,800 calories per day or 1,387,000 calories per year. (We only require 2,500 calories per day or 929,240 calories per year, which explains the nation’s obesity.)
Since we use 10 calories of fossil fuels to provide one calorie of food, we use 13,870,000 fossil fuel calories per year per person (10 times the yearly calories consumed by each person). A gallon of gasoline contains 31,000 calories. Dividing the personal calories used per year by the calories per gallon gives a result of 447 gallons of gasoline (or the fossil fuel equivalent). In barrels that is about 10 barrels of oil equivalent or about 17 percent of the 57.5 BOE each American uses yearly.
We point this out to explain that the problems we are dealing with require detailed analysis. Significant reduction of fossil fuel use in food production requires that we move toward buying our food from local organic growers or growing it ourselves and taking more responsibility for our own food preservation. There are efficiencies of scale in commercial food preservation that may counterbalance some of the waste from long-distance transportation and throwaway containers. Local food processing could be more efficient if done on a community or neighborhood basis rather than in each household to gain some of the benefits of scale. Canning in reusable jars is more energy conserving than buying food in throwaway cans and jars.
Time and space do not permit us to go into more detail. Two of the best analyses for beginning one’s study of food and energy are the papers written by Dale Pfeiffer,14 who has analyzed the allocation of fossil fuels in the food system, and Folke Gunther15 who has modeled a program for reducing energy inputs by a factor of ten. Considering that fossil fuels are finite and that it currently takes ten fossil fuel calories for one food calorie, then Gunther’s 1/10 factor is the ultimate measure of sustainability.
Personal Choices: The Car
There are about 730 million cars in the world, 210 million of them in the U.S. Many U.S. citizens have chosen to drive large cars, most of the time alone. Each car in the U.S. travels an average of 12,000 miles per year. Every American travels an average of 17,000 miles per year. The average trip carries 1.5 passengers. The average car weighs more than 3000 pounds and consumes an average of 550 gallons of fuel in a year.6
The Average Material Consumption16 for the manufacture of a domestic automobile made in 2004 includes: regular steel sheet, tube, and bar (1,361 lbs), high- and medium-strength steel (395 lbs), stainless steel (75 lbs), and other steels (28 lbs) for a total steel poundage of 1,859 pounds. Other metals include iron (308 lbs) and Aluminum (289 lbs). Other materials included plastic and plastic composites (257.5 lbs), fluids and lubricants (198 lbs), rubber (152 lbs), glass (99.5 lbs), copper and brass (51.5 lbs), powder metal parts (41.5 lbs), magnesium parts (10 lbs), zinc die castings (8.5 lbs), and other materials (133 lbs) for a total weight of 3,409 pounds.
The rest of the world (those who drive the other 520 million automobiles) drive smaller cars, drive them fewer miles per year and carry more people on each trip. They buy smaller cars such as the Honda Fit and the Toyota Yaris. There are far fewer cars per capita.
The private automobile is the largest energy-using machine item in our energy budget. The average per capita consumption of 379 gallons of gasoline (assumes 1.5 passengers per trip) is 9 barrels of oil equivalent per year. The manufacturing of a car consumes about 1/10 the lifetime energy use of the vehicle.17 Allocating the embodied energy cost of the car (assuming a 13-year lifespan) adds approximately one more barrel of oil equivalent (BOE) for a total of ten barrels per year per car per person when one includes the manufacturing energy. (There are on average two cars per household.)
Automobile efficiency has been improving for decades. Unfortunately, these improvements in efficiency have not gone into reducing energy consumption. Instead new energy-consuming accessories are added, cars have become larger and people drive more. Though more efficient, engines have been made larger to provide more power, thus eroding the efficiencies obtained. So consuming nine BOE per year (excluding the one barrel per year for manufacturing) is consumer choice and not a function of technological inefficiency.
After numerous Peak Oil conferences, 25 books published in the last 25 months on the subject, and innumerable articles and web sites, the highest mileage car in the country, the hybrid Honda Insight, had total sales of 700 cars in 2005. Total hybrid sales (including the popular Toyota Prius) in 2005 were 205,749, 1.2 percent of the total car sales of 16,950,679.18 But the highest mileage car in America, the Insight, sold less than 1/100 of one percent of sales.
The Hummer, which weighs more than three times the Honda Insight and gets about ten miles per gallon, sold about 61,000 units in 2005.19 (The Hummer also received the 2004 award for most flaws in a car.) In a time of looming energy crisis, Americans in general reject a 60-mpg car for one that gets ten mpg. We can see our problems are more cultural and social than technical. It is the emotional need to have big, quick and fast cars, styled to meet our image of ourselves (heavily reinforced by advertising) which drives the U.S. citizenry.
If small efficient cars had been a national priority in the last 20 years, the average car would get 60 miles or more to the gallon. Worldwide, car manufacturers spend close to $100 billion per year in Research and Development. The Toyota Prius development cost of about $700 million was spread over several years. The fuel cell development by Ballard Power Systems cost about the same. Assuming similar R and D numbers for Honda, then the hybrid cars and fuel cell engines either came to market or, as in the case of Ballard, reached a high level of development with only $2 to $4 billion dollars R and D investment over approximately ten years – a small fraction of the nearly $1 trillion spent for total car R and D in that period. But they are not “sexy” – lifestyle image is a more important factor in car choice for most Americans than transportation utility.
Personal Choices - Houses and Appliances
The private residence is the second largest machine item in the energy budget. Within the house, as well as in office buildings and schools, a host of energy-consuming machines exist, constantly drawing electricity and natural gas from the utility networks and adding heat and pollutants to the environment, either in the house itself or at the utility plant which provides electricity. As part of understanding energy, we must become conversant with the machines that are constantly consuming energy to provide us services.
Houses contain a much wider range of energy-consuming devices than cars. The part of the house that is analogous to the engine of the car is the furnace. In a house most furnaces burn natural gas – analogous to the gasoline of the car. Other furnaces are fueled by electricity, coal or wood. Furnaces burn more fuel than any other device.
The second main energy consuming machine in the house is the refrigerator/freezer, which is fueled mostly by electricity but sometimes by natural gas. Like our cars, our refrigerators become more efficient and larger each year. The average refrigerator has increased in size more than 30 percent between 1972 and 2002, a volume increase from 18 to 22 cubic feet. The third major energy-consuming device is the hot water heater, a device that maintains water at a set temperature throughout a 24-hour period even though the water is drawn only at limited intervals.
Like cars, houses also have an embodied construction or manufacturing energy cost as well as an operational energy cost. And, like the car, the energy cost of construction of a building is small compared to the energy cost of operating the building. In the preceding section we noted that manufacturing the car takes only about ten percent of the total energy used by a car during its lifetime.
Similarly buildings show much more fuel consumption in their operation than in their construction. In this case (see Fig. 6), the energy cost of construction and maintenance for this example, which covers commercial buildings, is about 15 percent rather than the 10 percent of the car. Other sources for residential buildings alone suggest that 10 percent is more representative.20 The authors of the report containing this figure note:
“While the cost of the energy used in our typical houses is about 10 times the energy used in the structure, maintenance and demolition, the present value of annual energy bills over the life of these virtual houses represents only 13-15 percent of the cost of the structure. As a consequence there is resistance to spending large sums for better energy efficiency in order to lower the environmental burden. In effect, the low cost of energy is a major factor contributing to its use.”
Just as cars are getting bigger and faster with more features, so are houses getting bigger and including more appliances, the features of a house. A chart from data in the 2005 Building Energy Data Book21 shows the quantity of energy required to operate a typical house.
This data shows that current energy consumption per house is the highest in recent history. This is reflective of larger homes, more appliances and the lack of any real interest in cutting energy consumption. In spite of major advances in insulation materials, lower energy-consuming appliances and more efficient furnaces, the increase in size and conveniences outweighs all efficiency improvement.
The most recent period (2000-2001) in Figure 7 shows a consumption of 111 million BTUs per household. There are about 2.7 persons per household. Dividing 111 million BTUs by 2.7 gives a result of 41 million BTUs per person which is equivalent to 7 barrels of oil per person per year. (We do not include the embodied energy in this number.)
Like cars, our houses are status symbols. In 1950 the average house size was approximately 950 square feet for 3.6 people. In 2005 the average size was 2,000 square feet for 2.6 people. The average size of the single family new house in 2005 was approximately 2400 square feet. In 55 years we have increased the sq.ft. per capita by about 3 times from 264 sq.ft. per person to 770 sq.ft. And little effort has been made to increase efficiency.22 New styles, such as 9- and 10-foot high ceilings, consume even more energy while attempts to increase required R-values in walls are defeated by building industry coalitions.23
Time and space does not permit a detailed summary of other factors, including air transportation or surface freight. Analysis also needs to be made of work places and educational institutions, which fit under commercial and industrial. The home analysis covers the operational energy cost of the house and appliances but does not cover the energy manufacturing cost of the building, the appliances, nor the furnishings (furniture, carpets, etc.).
This cursory analysis shows that nearly half of Americans’ total average annual barrels of oil equivalent (BOE) consumption is for items more or less under their personal control, 10 BOE for food, 9 BOE for the car, and 7 BOE for the house, a total of 26 BOE for these three items. These numbers do not include the infrastructure energy costs or embodied energy. They measure the operating energy consumption.
At some point we will become aware that we have our wealth embedded in two principle areas – our houses and our cars. In most cases, we are heavily indebted for the cars and mortgage, with a relatively small amount of credit card debt.
The vast majority of our house and car “machines” are very inefficient since for decades we have sacrificed energy economy for style and size. The future penalties will be very severe for those who bought large Hummers and large houses. We must understand that this is not a technology issue. Americans do not want to drive small cars no matter how much gasoline is wasted. This is a value of this particular culture, not an attribute of humans in general.
The actions for Americans who see the limitations of Peak Oil are clear. In terms of food it means changing of diet and ways of food buying, storing and preparation. In terms of cars, it means smaller cars with smaller engines and sharing rides. But even more important it means changing our driving habits in terms of speed, acceleration and total miles driven as quickly as we can. In terms of houses it means smaller houses with a much higher percent of the costs put in the initial structure of the house to minimize energy operation costs. It means living with lower heat settings in the winter and higher settings in the summer as well as with smaller appliances and fewer of them. It is not primarily a technology issue – it is a question of our way of living. Or, as we stated at the beginning, “the change begins with you.” And it implies skills of numeracy and analysis that enable us to take control of our energy destiny.
Practicing personal change should precede, or at least go hand in hand with lobbying for government and institutional change. For it will only be with the experience that comes from personal change that we will get the wisdom to make the proper societal changes. Note that we have quite deliberately chosen those areas under which we have control. It is a personal choice. For every energy wasteful square foot of house or pound of car there is a lower energy option that meets our basic needs for shelter or transportation.
What is necessary now is for each person to act on the basis of hope for the future. This means downsizing as quickly as possible. It will be agonizing. The automobile companies have done a great job of advertising that you will risk your children's lives if you drive small cars. The parents will be faced with knowing this and countering the odds that someday their children may look at them with hate and disgust for squandering the resources that will no longer be available for basic survival.
– Pat Murphy
References and Figures
2. Envisioning A Sustainable Society – Learning Our Way Out by Lester Milbrath, p. 20.
3. “The Politics of Energy and the Environment” by Edward R. Schreyer, Ecclectia, December 2005
4. ASPO Newsletter No. 55, July 2005
5. “Peak America – Is Our Time Up?.” New Solutions #7
7. GeoDestinies by Walter Youngquist, 1997, National Book Company, Portland, Oregon, p. 369
8. www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/aer/eh/frame.html (click on “Environmental”)
9. Garbage Land – On the Secret Trail of trash by Elizabeth Royte, 2005, p. 275
11. “Peak Oil, Peak Economy.” New Solutions #5
13. Food, Land, Population and the U.S. Economy by David Pimentel, Cornell University, and Mario Giampietro Isiituto Nazionale dell; Nutrizione, Rome
14. “Eating Fossil Fuels” by Dale Pfeiffer (www.angelfire.com/planet/eatingfossilfuels/)
15. www.feasta.org/documents/wells/contents.html?sitemap.html (Scroll down to Sustainability through local self-sufficiency by Folke Gunther, lecturer of human economics at Lund University.)
22. “Energy Consumption and Greenhouse Gas Emissions Related to the Use, Maintenance and Disposal of a Residential Structure” by Paul Winistorfer, Zhangjing Chen, Bruce Lippke and Nicole Stevens, June 1, 2005, p. 19 (www.corrim.org/reports/2005/final_report/klm%206_26formatted.pdf)