Tuesday, February 18, 2014

personal energy use

Given that we are producing more carbon than the planet can cope with, how do we change our energy use so we can continue to survive?

Think about your existence: your personal space and bodily needs, your physical relationship with your environment. Are you cold? Are you hungry? Do you need to go somewhere? How do you get warm? How do you feed yourself? How do you get from one place to another? Basically, how do you rely on external energy?

We all need external energy in some form. The hard part is to think about how we get it, how much we use and how we could try to use less. I like to think about personal energy use in terms of my body and how I directly interact with the energy sources I consume. Do I really need to turn the heat on? How can I feed myself with low energy impact? Can I use my food calories to walk or bike to where I need to go? 

These are the basic use cases, temperature, calories and transportation. What about all the other ways we use energy in our lives? In this era of fossil fuel overuse and climate change, how many of us really look at our personal energy use that goes beyond the basics? In 2012, the average annual electricity consumption for a U.S. residential utility customer was 10,837 kWh, an average of 903 kilowatthours per month. How much external energy do you consume for entertainment, convenience and infrastructure maintenance? 

In the US, most of us have our basic needs met and wind up with a few hours each day that are not devoted to hunting for food and seeking shelter. Our ancestors chopped down a few trees and told stories around a campfire. We harvest fossil fuel, build huge distribution networks, hire professional story tellers and pipe the stories through the entertainment industry to a piece of equipment that requires external energy in our living rooms. This is only one way that we use external energy sources seeking entertainment. 

Think of just about any popular form of entertainment and focus for a moment on how much energy goes into making that happen. An extreme example I can think of is purchasing a specially made all terrain vehicle, putting it up on a special use trailer, hitching it to another vehicle and driving it to a remote location and tooling around on it all day. Contrast the external energy requirement of having fun on an ATV with of that of opening your front door and taking a walk. How many people consciously think about the energy use that goes into their entertainment choices? We take it for granted that we have the right to use external energy for our entertainment. Do we? 

We also feel we have a right to use external energy for convenience. Look around the average US kitchen. It's packed full of electrical appliances that "make our lives easier". See the average energy use of kitchen appliances. We buy dishwashers, stand mixers and three different kinds of appliances to make smoothies. Washing, stirring and chopping actually can be done by hand, using those internal energy calories we just  set by with that big breakfast we ate. We even buy electrical appliances to dry our hair. Last I checked, exposure to air will do the job in time. Our clothes will dry, too, even without a machine. I could make a long list of examples of convenience appliances we don't think twice about purchasing (what energy was required for its manufacturing?) and using every day. A garage door opener? Really?

A similar category to convenience is infrastructure maintenance. Out for my morning walk, I often see folks out with the leaf blower cleaning off their driveways. I can't figure out how to categorize this kind of external energy use, because if it was a simple convenience tool, it would be replacing the broom. However, I doubt any of these guys would have been out every day with their brooms in the first place. The mere existence of a leaf blower allows the bar to be raised on clean driveways. So, I made up the infrastructure maintenance category to include pressure washers, lawn mowers, weed eaters, vacuum cleaners, and huge refrigerators owned by a household of two that are only half full. These are the things that use external energy to maintain our shelter and transportation choices that are already dependent on external energy. Don't get me started on plug-in air fresheners. I don't even know how to categorize those.

So, back to our basic relationship with energy. Up to a point, we can put on a sweater when we're cold instead of turning on the heat. We can eat food that doesn't require long times to cook, or eat our leftovers cold once in awhile. We can bike or walk on our errands that are close by. We can also take a long hard look at our choices in entertainment, convenience and infrastructure maintenance to see where we can reduce the amount of external energy we use. Take a walk, learn to play an musical instrument, have your spouse/partner/friend/roommate read aloud to you while washing the dishes (my personal favorite!), mix up those cookies with a wooden spoon, buy a rotary lawn mower and for goodness sake, let a few leaves stay on your driveway once in awhile.

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