It’s 2019 and it is very hot in New York. And across much of the US. And across much of Europe. We’re still largely dressing for work like it’s pleasant fall weather out, then air conditioning our homes and offices into oblivion. It’s long past time we adopted saner standards around dress, climate control, and energy consumption, and thankfully, there is already an excellent model for how such an adjustment could be made in the form of the long-standing Japanese campaign, Cool Biz.
To quote from my own Insta post:
I’m not here to defend ConEd, but when power demand exceeds 12K MW (when ConEd’s all-time record is 13K) and stays high for days or weeks, it puts strain on an aging and immensely complicated grid, and that strain is made worse when we insist on cooling tens of thousands of office buildings all around New York to a temperature that is comfortable for people dressed like it is 70 degrees Fahrenheit out. Obviously, this is idiotic, wasteful, and a climate disaster, and yet it is and remains the state of affairs. There is a simple solution: Dress like the gardener pictured here, go to work, and get shit done; in the meantime, turn the thermostat up to 80, save a lot of money, reduce consumption of fossil fuels, and don’t break the grid (which admittedly, could use some TLC).
It’s not rocket science, so rather than belabor the point, I’m simply going to urge all my friends, relatives, and readers out there to rethink the way they are approaching these issues, especially in their places of work (or gathering), and to take the lead in shifting culture, dressing comfortably, and turning the thermostat up.
In the spirit of sane and well-informed conversation about the climate crisis, energy consumption, and our habits, I’m sharing a piece of mine from 2017 below.
This piece was originally published on Medium (where I believe it is no longer available) in the summer of 2017 around the time that Hurricane Irma was bearing down on Florida. It has been very lightly edited.
Value, in Practice
There are many challenges in confronting the reality of global climate breakdown. Among these are the scale, scope, and complexity of the processes at play; however, another perhaps lesser remarked upon challenge is the fact that most of us lack even a basic vocabulary when it comes to energy. In a world fundamentally defined by the sources, quantities, and uses of energy, most of us are energy-ignorant and energy-illiterate. In what follows, I will attempt to establish a basic framework for thinking about energy issues (that should be accessible to anyone with strong literacy and basic numeracy) before going on to link these energy concepts back to the question of value.
Energy and Power
Energy is a quantity. Power is a rate (or a flow, if you prefer). For better or worse, both are used in many colloquial and metaphorical fashions. Here, I’ll try to hew to a simple but technical understanding of both.
In science, energy is usually measured in joules (J); however, even in basic science, multiple units of energy are employed, and in engineering and industry, a great many other energy units come into play. Here, we will use kilowatt-hours (kWh), in spite of the counterintuitive nature of this unit, because it is arguably the most standard measure employed in popular discourse.
In science, power is generally measured in watts (W). Here, we will stick to this unit, although you may see it modified by a number of prefixes. (Here is a simple chart of SI prefixes if you happen to find them intimidating.)
Coming back to the point, energy is a quantity, while power is a rate. We can use an analogy related to water to better understand this. Volume is a quantity, while water flow is a rate. To entirely fill a sink (volume), a certain flow of water (rate) must run from the tap for a given duration of time.
Generally speaking: quantity = rate x time.
Applying this to energy and power, to fully charge a battery (with energy), one must connect the battery to a certain flow (of power) for a given duration of time. This is obviously an immense simplification, but for sake of accessibility, we are going to completely ignore current, resistance, etc.
A brief note, what makes the kilowatt-hour a confusing unit is that it actually denotes energy (a quantity) based on power-time (the rate times the time). Sensible enough, but it is as if we were to denote the volume of water in a sink using the unit faucet flow-minutes.
Energy Basics: Bottom Up
Moving on, we confront another key challenge: The immense difficulty in connecting human-scale activities with global-scale activities. It is exceedingly hard to understand (and contextualize) the relationship between our own activities (say getting coffee in a to-go cup as I did this morning) and the activities of every human being on the planet (see the Great Pacific Garbage Patch).
Let’s try to establish some really simple points of reference. Most of us are familiar with 100W lightbulbs. When we say 100W, we are talking about the flow of energy, so power. If you let this bulb run for 10 hours, it should consume 1 kilowatt-hour (kWh) of energy (100 Watts x 10 hours = 1,000 Watt-hours = 1 kWh, kilo- being the prefix for 1,000). To consume a kilowatt-hour, one could just as easily run a 1,000W motor for one hour, or a 10W condensed-florescent light bulb for 100 hours. In each of these instances, power times time gives 1,000 Watt-hours or 1 kWh.
Coming back to our standard 100W lightbulb, we now have our baseline: Running a 100W lightbulb for 10 hours consumes 1kWh.
If you let that same 100W lightbulb run for 1,000 hours (a little less than three hours a day every day for a year) it should consume 100 kWh of energy (100 W x 1000 h = 100,000 Wh = 100 kWh).
Let’s build on this foundation. One gasoline-gallon-equivalent (the amount of energy contained in one gallon of gasoline) is equal to approximately 33kWh, so when you burn 3 gallons of gas, thatâ€™s roughly equivalent (strictly in energy terms) to the energy consumed by a 100W lightbulb in a year.
Now imagine that you drive a car that has a fuel efficiency of 33 miles per gallon. Conveniently, that would mean that in using one gallon of gas, you would drive 33 miles and consume 33 kWh of energy, for a rate of energy consumption of 1 kWh/mile. So say you went on a 1,000 mile roundtrip road trip – like the one my sister and her boyfriend are in the midst of, having been displaced from South Florida to Georgia by Hurricane Irma – in the process, you would consume 1,000 kWh of energy.
Or say you have a modest commute, and you drive around 10,000 miles per year in that same car; then you would consume 10,000 kWh of energy in gasoline per year.
Now imagine that you take a transcontinental flight. For sake of simplicity, let’s say you are flying from New York to Hyderabad as Neelu and I do at least once a year. Based on math from the late David JC Mckay, we can approximate that this round-trip consumes approximately 10,000 kWh (10MWh) per passenger. Again, a lot of simplification has taken place here, and factors such as windspeed, fullness of flight, weight of nonhuman cargo, etc. all obviously impact these calculations (not to mention that the actual climate impacts of different greenhouse gases and based upon different modes of emission may vary widely). Still, you can see that in taking just one transcontinental flight, an individual passenger is responsible for fuel consumption approximating that of a car in a year (if we accept the idea of averaging fuel consumption per passenger on a flight).
Further, the plane itself would then be consuming around 3,000,000 kWh (3 GWh) of energy in jet fuel for the same round-trip (assuming a full flight accommodating 300 passengers). If we allow for variations in distance and other conditions, we can speculate that transcontinental flights in general probably consume somewhere between 2 million and 4 million kWh in energy round-trip.
Power Basics: TopÂ Down
That all seems reasonable (if a bit disquieting), but how do we start to connect these human-scale numbers to numbers related to the global-scale consumption of energy?
Let’s start from the very top: Global Total Primary Energy Supply in 2014 was 160 PWh (consulting our SI prefix table, we see that peta- corresponds to 10 to the 15th, so 1 PWh = 1,000,000,000,000 kWh, given that kilo- corresponds to 10 to the third), so in 2012, the Total Primary Energy Supply (TPES, which basically corresponds to the total amount of energy in raw state consumed in a year) was approximately 160 trillion kWh. It’s almost impossible to put such a number in meaningful context, but at least recall that one 100W lightbulb â€œburningâ€ for one year (for approximately three hours a day) consumes around 100 kWh of energy.
So what is the relationship between 160 trillion and 100? It boggles the mind, of course. But perhaps we can move back towards the human-scale slightly, and start to make a little more sense of things.
In 2014, TPES in the US came to around 25 PWh, so 25 trillion kWH, or around 80,000 kWH per person for the year. Now, I believe we are getting somewhere. To round out our picture, letâ€™s interpose between the individual and the nation first a university, and then a city; in particular, let’s consider UNC Chapel Hill (where I went to college) and New York City (where I live). The former is powered primarily by a 32MW Cogeneration Plant, which, working at full capacity for an entire day, should in theory be able to produce around 800,000 kWh of energy, while the latter was consuming nearly 1 billion kWh per day of energy on average (as of 2011), so in the vicinity of 300 billion kWh per year. (These numbers are drawn from the cityâ€™s own data, and if anything, seem a little low.)
A Brief Summary before Moving on toÂ Value
- a 100W lightbulb burning for 10 hours consumes 1 kWh of energy;
- while that same 100W bulb subject to average use for a year consumes ~100 kWh;
- which is roughly equivalent to the energy content of 3 gallons of gasoline;
- whereas a 1,000 mile roadtrip might consume around 1,000 kWh of energy in gas, and an average year’s-worth of driving might consume somewhere around 10,000 kWh;
- this latter value, 10,000 kWh, being roughly equivalent to the energy consumption per person for a round-trip transcontinental flight.
- At the same time, the average American in 2014 consumed a little less than 100,000 kWh per year in energy;
- while a power plant of modest size could produce around 1,000,000 kWh in a day working at full capacity (about the same amount of energy that a one-way transatlantic flight consumes in jet fuel);
- and the City of New York consumes on average a little less than 1 billion kWh per day, so around 300 billion kWh per year, or approaching 1 trillion kWh over the course of three years;
- while the entire United States consumed 25 trillion kWh (25,000,000,000,000 kWh, or 25 PWh) in 2014;
- and the global TPES for 2014 was around 160 trillion kWh (or 160 PWh).
Were every person in the world to consume energy at the rate at which Americans consume, global energy consumption would approximately quadruple. And yet, by many accounts, such unfettered (energy) consumption is exactly the goal, both of national governments around the world and underlying the whole idea of so-called â€œdevelopmentâ€ economics. Already, for a single nation, China is by far the world’s largest energy consumer (consuming roughly 50% more energy than does the US); however, given that China’s population is also nearly five times greater than that of the United States, the per-person energy consumption in China remains but a fraction of that here in the US.
Value, in Energy
Here in the United States, we have among the highest ratios of TPES and carbon dioxide emissions per person in the world, although small island nations (like Trinidad and Tobago) and oil-producing countries, especially the Gulf States, tend to exceed even our high ratios in both respects. Meanwhile, in many other OECD countries (for example, Japan, Germany, and France), average per person rates of energy consumption and carbon dioxide emission are roughly half as high as those in the US.
Coming to the point, in 2014 the world had GDP approximating US$73 trillion (this and all following GDP valuations given in 2010 USD equivalents). Of that, the United States accounted for more than US$16 trillion, China for another US$8.5 trillion, Japan for US$5.6 trillion, Germany for US$3.6 trillion, France for US$2.7 trillion, and India for US$2.2 trillion, to give a few major points of reference.
By examining the ratio of TPES to GDP, we can see how energy intensive the production of (monetary) value is, on average, in each country, while bearing in mind that GDP is a noxious, misleading, and at root suicidal concept (as we will come to discuss). Note that, in this instance, lower values actually indicate more efficient production of dollar value per consumption of energy, given that the units here are kWh per dollar:
- World: 2.20 kWh/dollar
- US: 1.63 kWh/dollar
- China: 4.19 kWh/dollar
- Japan: 0.93 kWh/dollar
- Germany: 0.93 kWh/dollar
- France: 1.05 kWh/dollar
- India: 4.42 kWh/dollar
If that still seems a little bit opaque, basically, we are saying that for each dollar of GDP produced (globally, on average), 2.2 kWh of energy are consumed. Unsurprisingly, energy efficiency per dollar of GDP is better in the more â€œadvancedâ€ capitalist economies, and comparatively worse in China and India. To further contextualize, electricity prices between $0.10 and $0.20 per kilowatt hour are pretty standard in the United States, which means that your average cost of energy input per dollar of GDP generated in the US would be somewhere between $0.16 and $0.32.
It can also be instructive to consider the carbon dioxide emissions per GDP ratio. The following are given in kg of carbon dioxide per 2010 USD:
- World: 0.44 kg CO2/dollar
- US: 0.32 kg CO2/dollar
- China: 1.08 kg CO2/dollar
- Japan: 0.21 kg CO2/dollar
- Germany: 0.20 kg CO2/dollar
- France: 0.10 kg CO2/dollar
- India: 0.92 kg CO2/dollar
With a few exceptions (probably related to France’s reliance on nuclear energy and China’s dependence on its massive coal reserves, among other things), the pattern is very similar to that of the TPES to GDP values. Looking just at the US again, to produce $100 in GDP would, on average, generate around 32 kg (so around 70 pounds) in carbon dioxide emissions.
Now that we have some clear points of reference regarding energy consumption, it is easier for us to understand how much energy we are actually consuming to produce the (monetary) value which is then abstractly indexed in the form of GDP.
But what do we actually produce in the process of generating GDP? This simple infographic gives a sector-wise breakdown of the US economy (in 2013, but we can suppose things were not all that much different in 2014). In an era of financialization and skyrocketing inequality, I believe it is clear to most people that increases in GDP do not necessarily correlate (or even correlate at all) to improvements in well-being for most people. Leaving aside “Finance” (19.6% of US GDP in 2013), which now dominates the US and global economies, and giving a good faith pass to “Government” (13%), I find myself asking: What fraction of “Manufacturing” (12.4%) is made up of production by so-called “defense” contractors? Does the prison-industrial-complex get rolled into “Business Services” (11.9%)? What is the true value of the “Education” (along with Healthcare, 8.3%) we receive in this country when so much of it amounts to propaganda, babysitting, and carcerality? When our health outcomes are so poor in a global context, why do we pay so much for “Healthcare”? What fraction of our “Retail and Wholesale Trade” (11.6%) amounts to traffic in useless garbage destined for landfills? Of the “Information” (4.8%) we consume, share, and store, how much of it is misinformation, disinformation, or so trivial as to be effectively value-less? Why is so much of our “Arts & Entertainment” so hateful and trite? Why, in undetaking “Construction”, do we build so much that we do not need, and with so little respect for aesthetics and true consequences? Or, in short, what notion of value (and of the world) is it that we accept when we accept the idea of GDP?
What fraction of the immense energy we pour into production, and justify through the blunt index known as Gross Domestic Product – of which, as good economic nationalist, we are meant to celebrate the eternal rise – is of any true value? And when I say true value, what does that even mean? This brings me back to my previous essay, Value, in Theory (which I believe is no longer available, but check out the Genuine Progress Indicator instead). We need new conceptions of value and new measures of it. No doubt, people who have spent more time on these questions than have I have already done much of the work that I am imagining – something along the lines of an index that would be calculated roughly as follows:
Monetary Value + Social Impact + Ecological Impact = True Value
I do not embrace a strictly utilitarian framework, but I also doubt that B Corps and TBLs will be sufficient in the face of the crisis now unfolding on Planet Earth. It is not enough to make cosmetic (and kitschy) adjustments within our existing paradigm. Judged according to the True Value scale, I suspect that even (perhaps especially) the most valuable objects would have net negative TV, and that our contemporary societies as a whole are deep in the red, quantitatively econobiosocially bankrupt as they have long, morally, been proclaimed to be.
Still, we are into very gray territory. How to measure and quantify social and ecological impact, for example, is a question (are questions) for someone(s) with skillsets more technical than my own. Even determining the comparative energy cost and carbon footprint of something as simple as a disposable plastic cup becomes immensely complicated in the context of our global economy (which is, in part, why I steered clear of considering commodities in writing this piece). It can be helpful to have some foundational principles (for example, non-toxicity is always better than toxicity, and in view of that first principle, reusability is generally better than disposability, allowing for potential differences in energy constraints and taking into account materials use and waste production), and perhaps I will give further thought to those in the future.
For now, I hope this essay has served to catalyze your thinking about energy, both in its day-to-day manifestations, and in the world-moving guise it has taken on in an era of carboniferous capitalism and in the Age of the Anthropocene.
Postscript on Carbon Dioxide Emissions
There is a strain of thought which posits that the demise of civilization is effectively inevitable – coded as it is into the destiny of technology. Throughout the Holocene Age, atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations were apparently steady around 280 ppm (parts per million). This stability was radically disrupted with the rise of industrialization. In 2013, atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration passed 400 ppm for the first time since records have been kept. Measurements from this past summer show concentrations nearing 410 parts per million, and there is no sign yet that we are anywhere near slowing (let alone reversing) the steady increase in the amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide.
Total global emissions of carbon dioxide in 2014 amounted to more than 32,000 Mt (million tonnes). To do our last brief math, a tonne (or Metric ton) is equivalent to 1,000 kg, so 1 million tonnes is equal to 1,000 million kg, or 1 billion kg. Therefore, 32,000 Mt is equal to 32 trillion kg of CO2. It is by dividing this 32 trillion kg of CO2 by the roughly $73 trillion of global GDP (in 2010 USD) that we obtain the above mentioned ratio of 0.44 kg of CO2 per dollar of GDP as a global average (for 2014).
Is civilization – which at this point, I think we cannot help but view as a global phenomenon – doomed to collapse? When we consider the brutality of the violent repression being faced by indigenous air, land, and water protectors around the world – at Standing Rock, in Chhattisgarh, in the Bolivian highlands and the Brazilian Amazon, all across Canada as across Australia, in the Niger Delta as right here in New York City – it is sometimes hard to imagine that it is not.
The International Energy Agency’s (IEA’s) outmoded 450 Scenario – even less ambitious than the much-vaunted Paris Climate Accord – called for global emissions to be reduced such that they would dip below 20,000 Mt of CO2 by 2040, thus in theory keeping atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide beneath 450 ppm (hence the Scenario’s name) so as, purportedly, to prevent anything more than a 2°C rise in global average temperature. In a 2016 report, the IEA also suggested that continuation of various existing national policies as they now stand would lead to a scenario in which global emissions approach 37,000 Mt of CO2 by 2040 (and of course, as probably should have been noted earlier, carbon dioxide is just one of a number of greenhouse gases which humans are pumping into the atmosphere in massive quantities).
All this just to show that continuing with business as usual (pursuing ever-increasing GDP with no regard for the social and ecological impacts) is indeed suicidal on the existential and species level. To many people, this appears too obvious to require demonstrating, and the very idea that quantitative analysis is necessary to shed light on that which is intuitively crystal clear is itself, perhaps, problematic. There are deeper conversations to be had here about colonization, genocide, and slavery, and how all three of these phenomena are intimately interwoven in the history of the rise (and the present supremacy) of capitalism; it may be that our inability to have those deeper conversations will yet lead to our demise, but we should not fool ourselves: The realities and challenges of climate breakdown are realities and challenges we can face – whether or not we have the courage and vision to do so is up to us.