The Latest Lessons From the Chart That Explains Everything

2017 graph

The more I look at this Livermore Lab graph, the more I realize that it is all about design.

Every year the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory produces these Sankey Diagrams of energy flows, which are “single-page references that contain quantitative data about resource, commodity, and byproduct flows in a graphical form.” I have called them The Chart that Explains Everything because you can actually see where our energy is coming from and where it is going.

livermore 2016

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the Department of Energy/Public DomainSuperficially, this year's graph shows some improvements over 2016; solar power is up yugely, from .587 quads to .775 quads (a quad is a trillion BTUs). Still tiny, but growing almost 40 percent in a year! Wind is way up too, while both coal and natural gas are down slightly. If Livermore still did carbon graphs (their last was 2014) it would show a slight decarbonizing of the electricity supply. But we are still burning more energy in total, and the increase in petroleum use is greater than the reduction in coal and gas consumption.

credit: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the Department of Energy

© Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the Department of Energy

For years I claimed that the big honking green bar at the bottom was our biggest problem -- our dependence on petroleum for cars. However, the biggest consumer of energy is still electricity generation, and most of that is going into buildings. Last year I figured out that I had been wrong and that from a CO2 point of view, buildings were our biggest problem.

And I was wrong again, because you have to look at this as one big picture. We live, work and shop in buildings, still the biggest generator of CO2, and that big green bar represents people driving between those buildings. This graph is a model of our urban design: driving inefficient cars and moving stuff between crappy, leaky buildings.

When you look at the graph that way, it seems that North America has essentially been designed to maximize energy consumption. This is an urban design problem, and we have to turn it on its head. A few years ago I came up with a list of things that we had to do if we were going to change the shape of this graph; I update them here:

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, suburbs and cities are eminently walkable.

2. Demand radical building efficiency right now.
The fact that buildings are still the biggest single generator of CO2 is unconscionable when we know how to build buildings that consume almost no energy at not much greater cost than the crap we build now. We don't need to reinvent wheels here. (It's why I love Passive House)

3. Do everything possible to promote bikes, electric bikes, mopeds, buses, light rail, subways, anything that moves more human and less iron. More scooters!
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 a human has to move, such as increasing density, working from home, promoting main streets and supporting local business, is also an improvement. Any alternative to the car, even those dockless electric scooters, should be promoted and encouraged. Seeing how bad the electricity generation picture still is, I am not convinced that electric cars are a big part of the solution.

4. Move to Cleveland. Or Buffalo.
Cities with rail and canals and water and hydro power and moderate climates that don't need as much air conditioning. The northern cities may well be the only ones that are habitable in a few years.

5. Listen to Mies.
Less really is more. Smaller cars, smaller houses on smaller lots, apartments instead of houses, smaller fridges; you can only increase efficiency so much, but you can consume less.

Am I reading too much into one silly chart? I don't think so, it's all right there in front of our face.