An insatiable hunger for energy

By the numbers: Homes and businesses 

     We use energy in our homes every day; lots of energy. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, 40% of the energy consumed in the United States goes to powering our homes and commercial buildings.  

    We use energy to keep rooms at comfortable temperatures, to provide lighting and to heat water. We also use energy to cook food and to power our phones, computers, games and appliances.  

By the numbers: Transportation 

Even though Americans account for just 4.23% of the global population, with nearly 291 million registered vehicles, the U.S. is home to almost a quarter of the world’s cars. American motorists drive more than 3 trillion miles annually, and the Federal Highway Administration expects that number to grow by 22% by 2049. 

    The transportation sector includes personal vehicles (cars, small trucks, vans, SUVs, RVs, motorcycles) and public transportation (buses, airplanes, passenger and freight trains, commercial and freight trucks, barges, pipelines). Personal vehicles account for 54.2% of the energy used within the sector, while commercial and freight trucks use 24.5%. One might think that airplanes, trains, and buses would consume most of the energy used in transportation, but those percentages are relatively small; 8.7% for aircraft and 2.6% for trains and buses. 

       The U.S. Energy Information Administration reports that 28% of the energy used in the United States is used for transportation, with petroleum products accounting for about 90% of that energy. 

We consume how much energy? 

    U.S. daily primary energy consumption is more than 2.7 trillion British thermal units (BTUs). That’s 97.5 quadrillion BTUs per year, or roughly 17% of world’s total consumption of around 580 quadrillion BTUs (more than 1.5 quadrillion BTUs of energy a day). What’s a quadrillion? Well, it’s an inconceivable number to me; one with 15 zeroes after it (1,000,000,000,000,000). One quadrillion BTUs is about equal to the amount of potential energy in 45 million tons of coal; or 170 million barrels of crude oil; or 1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. 

Less-obvious costs and impacts 

    While we don’t often think about it, most of the things we use energy for are luxuries — many of which weren’t even available to us, or even possible for that matter, 100 years ago, or 50 years ago, or even 25 years ago. And all of the astonishing technological accomplishments, which we habitually take for granted, come as a result of our consuming natural resources, mostly fossil fuels, which are finite commodities and, all too often, have an environmental cost, such as devastated ecosystems or land stripped of its vitality. What’s more, in order to produce the energy that lies within them, fossil fuels must be burned, which creates pollution (soot, smog, acid rain) that is negatively impacting our health and altering our climate. What’s more, much of that energy could be going to waste, due to drafts, air leaks, leaving appliances running unnecessarily and using outdated heating and cooling systems.

I believe that we need to take time to reflect upon the implications of using, and especially of thoughtlessly wasting, such tremendous amounts of energy. And we must learn to recognize the connections between harvesting and burning fossil fuels and environmental degradation, pollution and worsening health and livelihoods, both locally and globally. 

    According to research from Harvard University, in collaboration with the University of Birmingham, the University of Leicester and University College London, exposure to particulate matter from fossil fuel emissions accounted for 18% of total global deaths in 2018. That’s nearly one in five! Regions with the highest concentrations of fossil fuel-related air pollution, including Eastern North America, Europe and South-East Asia, have the highest rates of mortality, according to the study published in the journal, Environmental Research. (“Global mortality from outdoor fine particle pollution generated by fossil fuel combustion: Results from GEOS-Chem, Environmental Research,” Karn Vohra et.al., April 2021). The study states that “the developing fetus and children younger than 5 years of age are more biologically and neurologically susceptible to the many adverse effects of air pollutants from fossil-fuel combustion than adults.”  

    The most recent Global Burden of Disease Study, the largest and most comprehensive study on the causes of global mortality, put the total number of global deaths from all outdoor airborne particulate matter, including dust and smoke from wildfires and agricultural burns at 4.2 million. The World Health organization says that 7 million people died from exposure to air pollution (indoor and outdoor) in 2016 (their latest data).  

Burning fossil fuels also contributes to an increase in what are commonly called “greenhouse gases” (carbon dioxide and methane) in the atmosphere. It’s widely accepted, within the scientific community, that increasing levels of greenhouse gasses are contributing to an unparalleled rise in average global temperatures; in other words, a rapidly warming planet; some of the consequences of which are:

– Glaciers and other huge bodies of water melting and receding at ever-accelerating rates or disappearing altogether

– Melting sea and polar ice causing sea levels to rise, resulting in warmer, more acidic ocean waters

– Entire species of animals being driven to extinction by vanishing habitat

– And extraordinary and unprecedented storms, heat waves, drought, and winter weather conditions around the world.


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