Update: Lessons from the Livermore Laboratory's energy use graph

The Lawrence Livermore Laboratory energy use graph for 2012 is out, and it tells so many stories, one could study it all day. Two years ago, looking at the 2009 data, I wrote about how important this graph was, and drew Seven Lessons From Lawrence Livermore Laboratory's Energy Use Graph. It's time for an update; a look at what has changed and what has stayed the same.

1) Efficiency really matters, and it is getting worse, not better

The basic message of the graph has not changed since Mike wrote about it in 2007, that our energy systems are shockingly inefficient, with 71% of the energy we create being wasted. Getting it to zero is impossible, but there certainly is room for a lot of improvement. In fact we wasted 3.5 quads more in 2012 that we did in 2009. ( A quad is a quadrillion British thermal units. )

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Department of Energy/Public Domain

The good news is that renewables like solar and wind have doubled, although they still are barely a rounding error. Natural gas use is way up, and coal is down significantly, so even though the total amount of electricity generated remains about the same, the carbon footprint of its production will be down.

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Department of Energy/Public Domain

2) Transportation is our single biggest problem.

There are two completely different worlds on this graph; a whole pile of energy sources going into making electricity that does a whole pile of things, and there's petroleum going into cars. A tiny bit of electricity and natural gas going into transportation and a tiny bit of petroleum going to industry but that's the only crossover between them. And why do we need so much petroleum?

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Department of Energy/Public Domain

3) Cars are incredibly inefficient converters of energy.

Of the 26.7 quads of energy going into transportation, barely a fifth of it is doing useful stuff, the rest is wasted. The idea of pushing a ton of metal to move 200 pounds of flesh is just insanely inefficient. This doesn't even account for the energy used in maintaining the infrastructure and building the roads; It is an inherently stupid way to design a transportation system.

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Department of Energy/Public Domain

4) Buildings and Housing are a problem, but they are not our biggest problem, and we are addressing the wrong part of the problem.

A lot of electricity and natural gas are going into our buildings and our industrial sector. But our residential and commercial buildings are going through their 20 quads at far higher efficiency, almost 50%, and we know we can do better. And again, there are lots of options like renewables and rooftop solar that can play in this sector as well.

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Department of Energy/Public Domain

In fact, the biggest problem with our houses and buildings is their location, and the design of our communities that force people to burn 26.7 quads of energy just getting around to them. in 1970, transportation used just about the same as buildings; now it is 50% more. That's sprawl talking.

What does the graph tell us we should do?

Two years ago my editor said I should "offer some solutions." Here are some obvious ones that came to mind that I do not think have changed:

1. Embrace urbanism.

The fact is, people are getting in their cars to go from place to place, not drive in circles for fun. We have to make it possible to survive without the car, and that means greater density and local shopping. It does NOT mean everyone has to live in New York and high rise buildings; many of our small towns and cities are eminently walkable.

2. Do everything possible to promote walking, bikes, electric bikes, mopeds, buses, light rail, subways, anything that moves more human and less iron.

Gasoline is problem 1 and Electricity is problem 2. Anything that moves more human per unit of energy is an improvement. Anything that reduces the distance human has to move, such as working from home, promoting main streets and supporting local business, is also a big help.

3. Move to Cleveland.

Or Buffalo or Detroit. Cities with rail and canals and water and hydro power and moderate climates that don't need as much air conditioning, the major electrical draw.

4. Listen to Mies.

Less really is more. Smaller cars, smaller houses on smaller lots, apartments instead of detached houses; smaller fridges; you can only increase efficiency so much; at some point we have to downsize our expectations.

Tags: Energy Efficiency | Green Building | Urban Planning