Seven Lessons From Lawrence Livermore Laboratory's Energy Use Graph

lawrence livermore energy graph image

All images credit Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory; click here for full size

It was déjà vu all over again when Brian showed the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory graph of Estimated US Energy Use recently. Mike showed an earlier version four years ago that I spent quite a lot of time staring at and thinking about; it has had a major effect on how I think about energy, transportation and building. The publication of the update provides a good opportunity to explain.

lawrence livermore energy graph image

1. Superficially, we have two almost completely separate energy problems.

Coal and natural gas go to buildings and industry, and oil goes to cars. Overall, outside of a little overlap in the industrial sector, they serve completely different functions. They both contribute greenhouse gases, but that is only one of the problems we face in a world of peak oil and dependence on foreign sources.

lawrence livermore energy graph image

2. Transportation is our single biggest problem.

It is by far the single biggest energy hog, sucking up close to 40% of all the energy used. What's worse, it is almost all gasoline, our most problematic energy source.

3. The car is a crappy converter of energy.

Improving fuel efficiency isn't going to make that much of a difference, either; the fundamental problem is that the bulk of the energy used is moving a ton of metal as well as the 150 pounds of person in it. It is an inherently stupid way to design a transportation system.

lawrence livermore energy graph image

4. Switching to electric cars may only exacerbate our problems.

Essentially that electric car is going to be running on coal, and like the gasoline powered car, most of that electricity is going to be moving metal, not people.


5. We are kidding ourselves about them running on renewable energy.

Solar, geothermal and wind are, as David Roberts at Grist notes, little more than a rounding error right now. Natural gas will grow, and it has half the CO2 per unit of electricity than coal is a great improvement, but is not without issues. Unless we make a massive, almost mind-bogglingly huge commitment right now to renewable and nuclear energy right now, we are just robbing Peter to pay Paul. Anybody see that happening?

lawrence livermore energy graph image

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

LEED and Energy Star are a big deal and important. I am an architect and a teacher of sustainable design at a University and editor of the subject here, but I cannot look at this graph and not think that my efforts and focus have been misplaced. I know that the accepted wisdom of Ed Mazria and the Architecture 2030 people says that buildings use up 49% of our energy, but that's not what this graph tells me; it shows residential and commercial using a lot less, 29%.

What this graph also tells me is that we are using a lot more energy getting from building to building than we are in the buildings. It just emphasizes the fact that building suburbs of Energy Star houses with solar panels on top is a complete waste of time, because our single biggest problem is transportation, and new green buildings in the suburbs are just making it worse.

But the graph also shows that almost 3/4 of our electricity is going into buildings. There is room for a lot of improvement there, but the bulk of it is going to air conditioning, and that, like our transportation problems, is primarily a matter of location and development patterns; the single family suburban house in the sunbelt is killing us in more ways than we can imagine.

lawrence livermore energy graph image

7. The fundamental problem is that big honking green monster, our petroleum consumption.

And even Paul Ryan, Mr. Paths To Prosperity, should be able to understand this: if we don't get people out of their cars, then we don't solve our fundamental problems, whether they are balance of trade issues, our deficit issues, our climate issues and our housing crisis issues. It's all there in black, orange, blue, green and white.

What does the graph tell us we should do?

TreeHugger Mat suggested that I should "offer some solutions"; I think that it is a bit presumptuous of me, but I have been dwelling on the implications of this graph for four years, and this is what I came up with:

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. Read Peter Calthorpe here:
How Urbanism, Building Efficiency, and Cleaner Cars Can Solve Climate Change
For Saving Energy, Like Real Estate, The Three Most Important Things Are Location, Location and Location
Minus Oil: Forget Hybrids And Solar Panels, We Need Active, Exciting and Vibrant Cities
My Other Car Is A Bright Green City: A Second Look : TreeHugger
2. Do everything possible to promote 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 an improvement.

3. Move to Cleveland. Or Buffalo. Cities with rail and canals and water and hydro power and moderate climates that don't need air conditioning. It's not a climate thing, or Toronto wouldn't be booming thirty miles north; it is all about politics and will.

4. Listen to Mies. Less really is more. Smaller cars, smaller houses on smaller lots, smaller fridges; you can only increase efficiency so much without spending a fortune, but by just consuming less, you actually spend less.

Efficiency is Crucial to a Green Future
Chart of US Energy Use Reveals Herculean Effort Needed to Ditch Oil, Coal : TreeHugger

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Seven Lessons From Lawrence Livermore Laboratory's Energy Use Graph
It was déjà vu all over again when Brian showed the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory graph of Estimated US Energy Use recently. Mike showed an earlier version four

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