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Reducing our dependence on oil is not a quick fix but we can do it with the technology we have today. To live sustainably we must take a close look at the energy within our control, we must take responsibility for it, and we must reduce it.

Many of the blogs and articles in our Community will be about how to reduce one aspect of energy use or another. This blog is to help you measure your progress. It is an old saw in business process improvement that “to improve, you must be able to measure.”

Our Community objective is to reduce “area resident” energy use in operating our homes, in transportation, and in the food we eat - most of what we control. The part we control but can’t estimate reasonably at this time, pertains to our purchases. Each product we buy (examples could range from a head of lettuce at the market to a new home or car) has embedded energy. Hopefully we will learn how to measure this part or the data will be provided by manufacturers, but in the meantime, “please consider that every product has embedded energy when making purchases and discarding functioning items.”

How much energy did you use last year? This is a question most cannot answer or usually even give a reasonablye guess. This blog and the attached worksheet are about how to estimate how much energy you are using “operationally” in a period of time, like during the last year.

But first, let’s talk briefly about measuring energy. Energy can be measured in many units: gallons of gasoline or diesel or propane; kWh of electricity; cords of wood; tons of coal; therms of natural gas; tons of air conditioning; and British Thermal Units (BTU) of the heat given off by a single wooden kitchen match (1) or high-efficiency furnace (60,000 - 300,000 BTUs/Hr). We could just as correctly measure gasoline in kWh or therms. Or measure firewood in BTUs. We don’t primarily because over time we have settled on units of measure that are fairly easy to “measure.” For example, it is far easier to measure gallons of propane or diesel fuel than measure the number of cubic feet or cords put in your tank. And we have settled on conventions. For example we could as easily build a device that measures electricity in therms or BTUs as kWh, but kilowatt hours makes a little clearer the time element in electric power use and of course we want to give credit to James Watt who first measured energy as horsepower, another unit of measure. The bottom line is we can quantify the amount of energy in any equivalent unit. To figure our total, we are going to take the standard unit of measure for each energy source we use and convert it into BTUs; then, we can add them up and see just how many we used in the time period of concern.

Over the next few years we will improve this methodology. First, I’m sure I’ll get corrections from members – I’ll thank you now and I’ll thank you when you send them! Home and Private Transportation are pretty basic, except that in the next few years you will be seeing natural gas cars and trucks; natural gas is measured in Therms. We need some help  in public transportation and food. The biggest variable in transportation are average number of passengers (or % of capacity) impacts BTUs per gallon dramatically. I used US DOE Transportation Energy Fact Book 2010 for these numbers, which has nine passengers per average bus trip. I expect this will increase dramatically as fuel becomes more expensive and public bus transportation improves, then the BTU/passenger mile will drop equally as well.

There are many variables in how much energy is embedded in food, including: how grown (organic or with pesticides and fertilizers, both made in large part from fossil fuels); where it is grown, processed and stored; our diet (meat, vegetarian, or vegan), etc. The numbers on the Estimator were provided by Dr. Pimentel (Cornell University professor, via email 10-29-11). We need more granularity, but this is a good start. Please note: Dr. Pimentel now states fuel use in gasoline equivalents.

Another way the estimates will improve will be because you collect better data. For example: recording miles driven the first of each year (or even better each month), calculating MPG summer and winter, and maybe even gallons of gas purchased. Obviously knowing how many gallons you used in a year is better than using miles driven and average MPG, but collecting that data and not losing some is tough. Better to be accurate than precise, especially if when trying to be precise you end up not being accurate!

Look at the estimator to see what data is needed and put in your schedule a reminder to collect what is important to you. If you ride the bus regularly, get a better estimate of the miles for trips taken regularly. Start keeping track of how often you eat red meat. The better the data the better the estimate. If you have any questions, Ask Our Team.

Also, note I have not included any provisions for “Miscellaneous” such as recreational (skidoos, off-road, etc.), gardening or firewood cutting. I will add these at some point, but felt the miscellaneous items would be minor even for the minority that would have any entries and thus not worth going to a second page at this time. Please feel free to add these items if they are significant in your household.

While we do need to improve our ability to quantify how much energy we use, it is not an excuse to delay this important step. Besides, you will always be able to go back and update these early estimates, based on new data and the procedures we develop.

It is not necessary, but I encourage you to work up an estimate of the energy you use for several reasons. First, just to have an idea of how much energy a person or family uses in a year is critical in developing perspective and appreciation for the work done by fossil fuels. Secondly, as you segment your energy use you will see opportunities to improve. Finally, this will be the number you will measure your progress against – see My Energy Plan and Suggestions for Yours! about next steps on reducing your energy dependence, after you know where you are starting from!

In RESOURCES below get a copy of our Energy Estimator Worksheet.


PDF document:   Residential Energy Estimator

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