Lessons From Livermore: Look at the Big Picture to Figure Out Where We Have to Go

Chart of energy consumption

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the Department of Energy

Every year when I start teaching my course in Sustainable Design at Ryerson University School of Interior Design, I start with the latest Sankey diagram or flow chart from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the Department of Energy, which I consider to be The Chart That Explains Everything. Because the whole point of sustainable design is to figure out how to stop burning energy and making the Carbon Dioxide that is making our planet unsustainable. TreeHugger Megan looked at this chart recently and wrote Americans used less energy in 2015 than in previous year, solar use makes a big leap. This is true, but it is almost irrelevant. The fact is, we can dance around the increase in solar and talk about reducing the energy consumption in our office buildings and houses, but the big honking energy suck is that green band at the bottom that is petroleum. And it increased more in the last year than the entire energy production of solar in America, let alone the increase in solar. So instead of looking at that little yellow rounding error at the top that is solar's contribution, let's look at the big picture over the last few decades.

2014 Energy

credit: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the Department of Energy

The reason I keep pushing these charts is to make the point that the big sustainable design issue is not how we build our homes and offices, but how we get to them. And that is a function of how we design our cities and how we get between our homes and our offices. That is the sustainable design problem of our time. Between 2014 and 2015 our energy use for housing and offices dropped considerably, thanks primarily to the warm fall, but again, our transportation is up .6 of a quad because we are driving more and buying bigger cars and trucks. Also, everyone keeps looking at the energy data, because it is a simulacrum of carbon, but the Livermore Lab actually does a carbon drawing; lets look at that.

2014 Carbon

credit: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the Department of Energy

Here, in the latest carbon flow chart, the issue is even more obvious. The carbon output of transportation is three times as big as the combined residential and commercial. Of course, the total carbon output from electricity generation is larger than transportation. Obviously changing from coal to cleaner forms of generation will make a huge difference. But there are lots of choices for electricity generation, and just getting off coal isn't enough.

Canada Energy 2011

credit: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the Department of Energy

Take Canada. It is a much prettier picture than the States because it is blessed with lots of hydro and built a lot of nuclear plants, relative to its population. It actually using the same amount of energy heating its homes and buildings as it does in transportation, but it is using 10,700 petajoules for 36 million people. (Please don't ask me to convert this to quads)

2011 Germany Energy

credit: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the Department of Energy

However in Germany, where they build better houses and offices, and don't drive nearly as much because they have great trains and public transport, they are burning only 13,300 PJ for 81 million people. They are just burning 200 more for transportation and not much more for commercial office space; they are just so much more efficient.

1950 Energy

credit: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the Department of Energy

It really gets interesting when you look at the historical picture. Back in 1950, the country ran on coal. We even heated buildings with it. Other buildings were heated with oil; total transportation energy, at 8.6 quads, was barely bigger than the energy used in buildings and was a lot smaller than industrial use of energy.

1970 Energy

credit: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the Department of Energy

By 1970, coal is up just a bit but petroleum use has doubled. So has energy use in houses and offices; that's sprawl happening. Bigger houses, longer travel distances. Electricity use in residential and commercial has gone up by six times; that's air conditioning. You can see people moving south into the sunbelt suburbs.

1990 Energy

credit: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the Department of Energy

The transformation from 1970 to 1990 is astonishing, with electrical generation going up by a factor of 3. Residential consumption of electricity has tripled. Transportation has doubled. These are the years after the oil crisis of the early seventies, when fuel efficiency standards were brought in for cars and building codes were tightened up to conserve energy. You are seeing, clear as day, the massive growth of the sunbelt states and Florida, the increase in driving, the sprawl, the air conditioning. There is also post- three mile island stagnation of the nuclear industry as its proportion of the generating mix drops.

2010 Energy

credit: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the Department of Energy

By 2010, the picture looks pretty much like it does today, with transportation dominating. In forty years since the 1970 snapshot use of natural gas in buildings and homes has barely moved, electricity use has tripled, petroleum use for transportation has doubled. Nuclear has stagnated and while solar, wind and geothermal have appeared on the table but are still barely gossamer threads compared to other energy sources. When you look at it, it's clear that the entire energy picture (and resultant carbon picture) is about design of our cities and homes. The great majority of our electricity is going into air conditioning, half of our gas is going into heating, and the biggest suck of all is our cars, moving us between all of these buildings and houses that are getting further and further apart. So the lessons are that we have to make our homes and offices radically more energy efficient, but we also have to put them in places that people can get to without driving.

credit: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the Department of Energy

There are some other interesting nuggets to be picked out of the latest chart, looking at the top right and bottom left. Gasoline cars are ridiculously inefficient, and by the time all that petroleum is converted, only 5.81 quads of it is useful while the rest is lost in heat and smoke. According to the Department of Energy, "Electric vehicles convert about 59%–62% of the electrical energy from the grid to power at the wheels—conventional gasoline vehicles only convert about 17%–21% of the energy stored in gasoline to power at the wheels." So if every car in America was electric, it would require about 10 quad of electricity, a big proportion of what we are generating now. We will need a whole lot of wind and solar to come up with that. So I reiterate: solar panels are lovely things, but the only way we are going to solve this problem is to stop designing our world around the car, to design homes and buildings that need significantly less cooling, and to get a bike.