Stewardship is not an intellectual exercise. Stewardship entails understanding in concrete terms the implications of our actions, and using our judgement to best manage the resources with which we have been entrusted. Nowhere is this more true than in the world of energy.
Energy pervades our lives. Energy is so ubiquitous that we scarcely see it. It affects our air and our water. We use it to move ourselves, to heat our homes, refrigerate our food, and to light the darkness. Energy comes at a cost, however. Beyond the economic costs we see on our utility bills, there are societal and environmental costs of energy production. At the very least, choosing to use nonrenewable resources today entails a “cost” of being unavailable tomorrow. All energy production entails some costs; our responsibility as stewards is to be aware of those costs, and to make wise choices based on that understanding.
Patterns of energy use vary dramatically around the world, and within the United States. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory has produced a series of graphics depicting the flow of energy for the entire United States, as well as for each of state alone. The above figure is for the entire United States. The figure for Utah is below, but figures corresponding to other states are available on the LLNL web site.
Any of these fascinating figures justifies a good long look, but a few aspects are particularly worth emphasizing.
- As of 2012, most of Utah’s electricity was generated from coal.
- Notice how much energy is wasted (“Rejected Energy”) in electricity generation. When any fuel is burned to produce heat to turn a turbine to generate electricity, more than half of that energy goes to waste heat. Clever engineers can work to reduce that waste, but some waste is thermodynamically unavoidable.
- Similarly, notice how much energy is wasted for transportation. All that heat dissipated by your car’s radiator? That’s wasted energy.
While these observations pertain to Utah, similar lessons could apply to any state. No matter where you live, a few lessons come through:
- Saving a little electricity, or reducing transportation use, yields especially large energy savings. We reduce not just the energy we would have used, but also the energy that would have been wasted producing the energy we use.
- The energy used for transportation (people, produce, and commercial products) is larger than what is used for residential, commercial, or industrial purposes. We may have become inured to it, but transportation is huge.
- Renewables have grown dramatically in recent years, (and especially since 2012), but they are still only a small part of our overall energy supply.
People can debate the merits of one energy source relative to another, but simply using less is an unambiguous win. Future posts will explore how we can better understand and manage our personal energy use.