Thursday, March 7, 2013

Becomming "Energy Literate"

After a three-week long absence from this little blog, I have returned with - fittingly enough - an editorial of sorts that was spurred by a comment made in class a few weeks ago by Dr. Coop.  Namely, most people in the United States, and likely much of the rest of so-called "energy dependent" countries, do not have any context for understanding what exactly their energy use actually means.  In other words, most people do not know what the significance of all of the "numbers" is - what do kilowatt-hours, megawatts, gigawatts, terawatts, and even plain old watts actually designate?  How about BTUs?  The problem is that without some sort of context as to what exactly these units compare to, they are essentially meaningless.  So, time for a little explanation.  One watt is equal to one joule of energy expended per second.  It takes about five, give or take, of these to power a typical clock radio, about 60 for a light bulb, 1200 for a dishwasher, and the equivalent of 26,856,000 watts to power a large jet.  In other words, these things are continuously using any given wattage - not over a period of time, but at any given time.  As one can see, the power (as opposed to energy, since wattage is energy over time) required by these machines increases astronomically with their complexity.  As we begin to deal with more sizable quantities of Watts (or any units of power or energy, for that matter), we can add the prefixes kilo-, mega-, giga-, and the like to denote various exponential values of 10.  Kilowatt-hours, for example, are units of energy that designate how many kilowatts (or 1000 Watts) are used for an hour.  In other words, if your electric cooperative charges 12 cents per KwH for power, it means they are basically charging you 48 cents to run a 4000W dryer for an hour.
How about those British Thermal Units, or BTUs, for short?  One BTU is the energy required to raise the temperature of one gallon of water by one degree Fahrenheit and is equal to 1055 Joules.  Since the United States uses about 100 quadrillion BTUs of energy per year (or 100 x 10^15 BTUs per year), we can, with a little math, determine that each person in the U.S. of A. is, on average, responsible for 345,000,000,000 Joules per year.  In watts, this is about 10,940 used on average by everyone in the U.S. all of the time.
Now that we have those formalities out of the way, I can get to the proposed rant.  Although these numbers are fairly involved with the "big picture," it is all of the little pictures of individuals', companies' and families' energy use that add up to the big numbers.  As such, it is incredibly important that people who do rely on the ubiquitous washing machine, microwave, and toaster oven be, at the very least, aware of what their energy use actually adds up to.  For most people, their understanding of energy use comes in the form of the monthly utility bills.  This is not all bad, as having to actually pay for electricity has a way of encouraging people not to waste it, and they can weigh their energy use by how big of a dent it puts in their wallet.  However, this notion of energy would be further bolstered by knowledge of the math piece of the equation and by putting one's energy use in context with other users of energy (like that jet I mentioned).  In this way, energy is no longer as abstract, but becomes much more tangible and, by extension, important, in people's understandings of how they maintain their lifestyles.  Since many people already are trying to reduce their home energy use, it seems appropriate for them to also gain a better understanding of energy in general.  My hope is that, as people continue to do this, they will work towards learning more about the reality of the United States' and the rest of the world's use of electricity and other sources of energy.  In this way, when people change their incandescent light bulbs out for fluorescent ones, or insulate their houses, or any number of other things, these actions are no longer arbitrary attempts at "being green" or the like, but based on the knowledge, understanding, and, most importantly, care that they have cultivated by learning more about energy.  And, of course, there's still quite a lot to learn, so let's keep at it!

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