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America’s Low “Energy IQ”

In the summer of 2001, The National Environmental Education Foundation conducted a survey of 1,503 American adults about energy. Although 75% of those surveyed said they knew “A Fair Amount” or “A Lot” about energy, only 12% could correctly answer 7 or more questions on a 10 question energy quiz. The quiz is on pages 4 and 5 of the report (pages 15 and 16 of the PDF). So what’s your “energy IQ”?


What would a price on carbon get us?


The discussions about a carbon tax, or a cap-and-trade system, tend to revolve around “putting a price on carbon,” which is to say, charging polluters money for dumping carbon into the atmosphere. But how should that money be used? Here’s a graph from Vattenfall, the Swedish power company, showing which solutions become cost-effective at a price of €40 per ton of carbon dioxide.

The yellow section has improvements that pay for themselves, since they’re generally based around not burning fuel to begin with. The green section has the improvements that will be cost-effective at the €40 price, and the blue section has the more expensive solutions.

I haven’t verified any data that went into this graph, which is based on McKinsey’s greenhouse gas abatement cost curves, so I can’t comment on how realistic the numbers are. But from an energy literacy point of view, it gives a nice graphical depiction of how [...]

The Short List of Effective Actions

Part of The Short List of Effective ACtions

This list of action items for individual energy savings is the most focused and quantitative I’ve seen. It comes from an October 2008 article in Environment Magazine by Gerald Gardner, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, and Paul Stern from the National Research Council.

The actions in the list are grouped by whether they’re for transportation or inside the home, immediate or longer-term, and no-cost/low-cost or higher-cost. Each item also includes an estimated percentage savings of total energy use. Here’s an example of an immediate, no-cost action for everyone:

Space conditioning:

Heat: Turn down thermostat from 72°F to 68°F during the day and to 65°F at night

A/C: Turn up thermostat from 73°F to 78°F

Energy saved: 3.4 percent

Compare that to the language from the Department of Energy’s “Tips to Save Energy Today: Easy low-cost and no-cost ways to save energy,” from their Energy Saver’s Booklet (full PDF):

Install a programmable thermostat [...]

Spaghetti diagrams, part 2 — “Spaghetti box”


In earlier years of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s spaghetti diagrams, such as the above example from 1976, the ends of the swaths were more like the simpler energy flow diagrams. On the above diagram it’s easier to see that the height of the lines on one side would end up around the height of the lines on the other side than it is on some of the newer versions with oversized boxes that serve as labels. But the boxes are a useful tool, and can let us think about embedding another diagram form — box diagrams — into the spaghetti diagram.

Box diagrams are used for teaching electricity, and were developed by Peter Cheng and David Shipstone in the UK. The picture below is from part 1 (Word doc) of their introductory paper (here’s the Word doc part 2). Since power is the voltage across a bulb multiplied by the current [...]

Spaghetti diagrams, part 1


This “spaghetti diagram” (aka Sankey diagram, or Energy Flow Chart officially) is the 2008 version. Lawrence Livermore National Lab (LLNL) has been making these things since the 1970s. It’s more detailed than a simpler national energy flow diagram because it includes “rejected energy.” It’s also more complex — it actually includes within itself the electricity flow diagram. It’s a pretty cool visualization.

The main thing I dislike is that it doesn’t split up transportation or electricity generation “rejected energy” by sector. Since these are really the two biggest sources of “rejected energy,” you can’t see which group is the biggest “rejector.”

Below, in an undated but funkier design, they’ve not only split up transportation into light duty vehicles, freight/other, and aircraft, they’ve also added domestic and net imports to petroleum and natural gas. They still haven’t split up “Electricity Generation, Transmission & Distribution Losses,” so we don’t know who “loses” the most [...]

Energy losses in electrical systems

Reprinted with permission from "What you need to know about energy," 2008, by the National Academy of Sciences, Courtesy of the National Academies Press, Washington, D.C.

Here’s a picture from What You Need to Know about Energy by the National Academy of Sciences. It shows 100 energy units of coal being used by an incandescent bulb to produce light that has only 2 energy units:

Reprinted with permission from "What you need to know about energy," 2008, by the National Academy of Sciences, Courtesy of the National Academies Press, Washington, D.C.

Incandescent bulbs get hot because only 2/36 (about 5%) of the energy coming into the house to power the bulb comes out as light — the rest of the energy produces heat. If you trace the energy back to the power plant, it turns out a mere 2% of the energy from the coal is doing the desired lighting job! The power plant itself loses 62% of the coal’s energy! Compact fluorescents use about 5% of the coal’s energy — better, but not much.

It’s important [...]

Energy literacy, circa 1982

Here’s a document from 1982, A Conceptual Framework for Energy Education, K-12, commissioned by the Department of Energy. On page 7 is a description of an “energy-literate citizen”:

Understands that we can’t make energy.
Finds more efficient ways to use energy at home, at school, and on the job, for example through the use of waste heat.
Has some historical perspective on energy use and extraction; for example, has an informed notion of where we stand on the fossil fuel depletion curve.
Compares life-cycle costs in deciding on major purchases.
Invests to save energy, for example by purchasing home insulation when it is cost-effective.
Knows how much energy is being used in his/her household and where it goes.
Is aware of the major sources of the energy used in his or her immediate job and in the economy as a whole, including their relative size.
Understands that all energy use and production has a cost, including an environmental [...]

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