The Cost of Energy Consumption:
A Case for Conservation
The era of abundant, cheap fossil fuels is over. Failure to deal with the reality of increasing energy costs will cripple our economy. Since the industrial revolution the economies of the US and other industrialized nations have grown along with energy use.
Energy consumption is dominated by fossil fuels and particularly by petroleum as illustrated in the graph above. The world produces about 90 million barrels of oil a day. The US imports over 10 million barrels of oil per day out of over 20 million barrels per day that we consume. The good news is that consumption and oil imports have fallen due to the Great Recession of 2007 (see graph below). The bad news is that prices have not fallen.
We are so accustomed to cheap energy that we think we are entitled to it. It must be a plot by the Government or Big Oil or the Arabs or (name your cause), right? The only thing we are entitled to is the right to shape our own destiny, provided that we are smart enough to try.
In this installment I hope to provoke some thought that maybe, just maybe, the energy intensive world we have created is not all good. Everything has a cost, even cheap energy.
The first problem is that we don’t have enough domestic oil to meet our current consumption. Since Hubert was proven correct with his prediction that domestic oil production would peak in 1970 (see above graph) we have become increasingly dependent on foreign oil. We currently import over 10,000,000 barrels of oil a day and with oil at over $100/barrel we are sending more than $1,000,000,000 ($1B) every day to foreign countries. At the time of this writing oil is $121/barrel on the latest news of Iran’s saber rattling. So one cost of energy consumption is the pain we feel every time we fill up our car, pay your home heating bill, pay more for goods & services due to increasing energy costs, etc., etc. Another cost is the national debt that we are accumulating in the process.
Remember Deep Water Horizon oil disaster? Loss of life, billions of dollars lost, environmental catastrophe? Remember the Exxon Valdez oil spill? At 11,000,000 gallons Exxon Valdez disaster doesn’t even make the top 20 list for oil spills! I currently work at the site of Alco Locomotive, the ground water still smells of diesel fuel that was spilled over 50 years ago. Tens of thousands of oil spills occur every year from home heating oil, gasoline tanks, industrial accidents, etc. Loss of life, economic loss, and contaminated water are just a few of the costs we incur as a result of what George W. Bush referred to as “our addiction to oil”.
Luckily we don’t live near the sources of our oil supply or its consequences (for the most part). However, we do live with the consequences of our chosen lifestyle. We Americans love our cars but don’t always consider all the consequences. Unlike other countries, we flee the cities to live in the suburbs. We spend an average of 46 minutes every day commuting to work or about 200 hours per year. Consider your quality of life the next time you are sitting in a traffic jam.
The good news is that only 32,788 people died from highway fatalities last year thanks to improved safety standards. However, consider that it is the leading cause of death for people less than 34 years of age. Might we want to consider a lifestyle that is more focused on quality of life than quantity of energy consumed?
What about electricity? It sure seems clean as it powers our i-devices, our TVs, computer, and other appliances. Consider that 45% of electrical energy in the US is generated from coal. Consider also that if you leave a 100 watt light bulb on for a year you would burn 714 lbs of coal and generate almost a ton of carbon dioxide, 5 lbs of sulfur dioxide (acid rain), and other toxins, such as mercury. The radiation released from a coal powered power plant is far greater than a nuclear power plant and this radiation falls downwind on our crops. The recent Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster reminds us of the danger of nuclear power generation as did Chernobyl and Three Mile Island before it.
Natural gas may be the cleanest of the fossil fuels and we happen to be sitting on top of “the Saudi Arabia of natural gas” according to President Obama but there is strong local opposition to hydrofracking.
I could go on but you get the point: everything has a cost including energy consumption. We are not entitled to cheap energy and need to act intelligently in the face of the inevitability of rising energy costs and its consequences. We have an obligation to our children to prepare for a future that is fundamentally different from the world that I grew up in where energy was so cheap that we could waste as much as we liked. Our greatest natural resource for the near future is conservation. Sensible steps to reducing a fraction of the energy we waste can have a huge impact on our lives.
I the next installment of this series I will present information on energy usage in the world and in the US. It is important that we understand where energy comes from, where it is used, and where it is wasted so that we can make intelligent decisions for the future.
 EIA Annual Review 2009
 Scientific American, December 13, 2007
Note: This series is based on a presentation I have given. I welcome opportunities to deliver it personally to groups of 20 or more. If your group is interested, please contact me through the Member email.
Dave Hauber is Director of Technology at Automated Dynamics in Schenectady, NY. He has over 40 years of experience in advanced materials, composites, textile R&D, control systems, robotics, lasers, ultrasonics, and industrial automation. BS Physics and MA Business. He lives in Troy, NY. He can be reached through Member email or commenting here.