We Need a Power Pyramid

You know this thing, right?

USDA food pyramid

Thanks to the food pyramid, which almost all Americans recognize, we basically know what healthy eating is. You can find a lot of bickering about the details. You will even find some nutritionists who claim everything about it is wrong, but they are sensationalists.

It’s not complicated, it’s important information, and basically right. Eat lots of plants, fewer animal products (Don’t hate, vegetarians. “None” is a special case of “fewer”.), and only a little junk food. Most Americans pretty much know what healthy eating is. (Knowing what it is is quite different from doing it!)

I think we need one of these for energy consumption. We seem, as a nation, to be out of touch with the basics on this, and like the food pyramid, it’s important and it’s simple. Everyone should know the basics about energy the same way they do about healthy food.

I recently heard earnest praise of the iPad because by reading books on it, or using it as a scratchpad, it saves paper. That’s true; the iPad saves paper. But remember, homicide cuts down on traffic congestion. So I started trying to calculate which is better on environmental terms – books or iPad. I estimated that reading books sustainably winds up taking a lot more ground space than generating the energy to manufacture and use an iPad. Then I googled and found an article from the New York Times with a similar goal, but its conclusion was that once you read more than a few hundred books, the overall impact of the iPad is significantly less than buying new books. Now what do I do?

I want to use less energy, but it’s irrational to go to all ends figuring out every last thing about doing it. It doesn’t matter which choice I make because the energy involved in using an iPad or reading the books is very low when compared to more significant types of consumption.

When thinking about conserving energy, we are pretty dumb. We spend far too much attention on things that are visible, immediate, and easy to understand, rather than things that are significant. Unplugging your cell phone charger when not in use to reduce power consumption is like going to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and helping re-sort someone’s sock drawer.

Magazine articles that calculate the gallons of water saved if you run the faucet for 15 fewer seconds while brushing your teeth are missing the point. Why bother brushing your teeth in tiny little spurts of water from the faucet if you are about to take a hot bath? And a hot bath pales in comparison to watering your lawn. Don’t stop brushing your teeth. Stop watering your lawn.

My calculation about the iPad and similar calculations are dangerous. Even if they’re correct, they encourage us to focus in the wrong direction. There are hundreds of similar minutiae I could worry about. Metal forks or recyclable bio-forks at the cafeteria? Paper or plastic at the supermarket? How much energy do I use when downloading a porno?

To be realistic, you are only going to worry about energy consumption a certain amount. After that, you’ll have to get on with your life. Spend the worrying where it counts. In order to do this, we need to know what counts and what doesn’t.

For this, I highly recommend David J. MacKay’s Sustainable Energy – without the hot air, which you can download for free at the link. He gives a clear, straightforward account of how we use energy and how we can potentially generate it.

Take a look at this graphic, for example:

From David J. MacKay's 'Sustainable Energy without the hot air' pp. 204

Current consumption per person in cartoon Britain 2008 (left two columns), and a future consumption plan, along with a possible breakdown of fuels (right two columns). This plan requires that electricity supply be increased from 18 to 48 kWh/d per person of electricity. (MacKay's caption)

This is really good – clear and informative. MacKay’s book contains many fantastic charts, plots, and graphics visualizing energy consumption and generation.

This graphic, though, is for people who are reading an entire book about energy. That makes it for a minority. We need something simpler and more iconic, like a food pyramid for energy consumption.

It may also be useful for the graphic to show not total consumption, but how much energy can be saved by cutting back in certain areas. Cutting back in transportation energy is easy and huge potential benefit. That goes on bottom. Turning off the lights is a very small thing by comparison. That goes in a tiny little triangle on top.

One difficulty is that the power pyramid is dependent on the people it’s targeting. Here in the San Francisco Bay area, I use almost no power for heating because the weather is nice. Also, living in Berkeley, a bicycle-friendly city with good public transit, I choose to forgo a car and use very little energy for transportation. Someone living in rural Wisconsin will naturally have a very different pyramid than I will.

We’ve gotten to where most people know that we’re using too much energy, but we have a lot of work to do in consolidating the message. We need a simple, effective, clear image, like the food pyramid, that can be put where people will see it hundreds of times, and burn in the basic idea. As MacKay points out, the slogan “Every little bit helps,” is not this message, and is in fact its antithesis.

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3 Responses to “We Need a Power Pyramid”

  1. inafutureage Says:

    At a renewable energy festival today, I learned about the Neighborhood Energy Challenge (http://www.neighborhoodenergychallenge.org) – apparently the way it works is that you list the things you do and the energy you use, and you find ways to save. The goal is to become clear about where you spend your energy and your money. This might be a useful model because I don’t think a lot of people know how much energy they use in their lives.

    I remember the iPad calc from NYT; it convinced me to wait until it is mature, and nearly all types of books are available on it. A pyramid would be useful, but simplistic – probably to general for a real analysis. We do need slogans though. I like the idea of making conservation and efficiency patriotic – because that is one thing that gets Americans hot and bothered.

  2. Mark Eichenlaub Says:

    Hi future,

    I like the idea of people learning to measure their energy use. Coincidentally, the home page of that link does say, “rest assured that even your smallest efforts really CAN make a difference…”, but the site seems realistic in its outlook. It looks like they’re trying to get everyone to report their results so they can compile some statistics about energy use, which might also be useful. I don’t know how much we can trust the accuracy of self-reported energy use, though (not due to dishonesty, but just to the difficulty of estimating).

    I agree that a pyramid, or something like it, is simplistic. That’s the idea though. If it looks very simple, people will be willing to put in the minimal effort to understand, or will remember it without conscious effort if they see it enough. A complicated but more accurate picture is also less memorable.

    I edited your comment just to change your website into a hyperlink. Just FYI, html tags work in the comments section on WordPress. You can even use \LaTeX!

  3. inafutureage Says:

    Check out this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3ArEL4uk7_w&feature=player_embedded#!

    It is not an energy pyramid, but an example of how illustrations help people understand huge concepts.

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