Wednesday, July 19, 2006

U.S. energy use

This is an update of an essay I had posted on CFUU four years ago, and brought to mind by the new troubles in the Middle East. Naturally, our dependence on foreign energy supplies has been a big part of the debate, and once again I am hearing a factoid that’s been a part of that discussion for years, and is published in UUA documents concerning energy: the U.S., with 5% of the world's population, uses 25% of the world's energy resources. This is an interesting statement; it's accurate without being true, and it's deeper meaning is the exact opposite of it's surface implication.

While it's true that the U.S. uses 25% of the world's coal, natural gas, and petroleum products, those are not the only fuels burned in the world today. In fact the fuels of choice in the homes and small businesses of the Third World are wood, dried dung, and industrial waste such as old tires, construction site debris, and solvents. When I heat my home with my 94% efficient gas furnace, every liter of gas is metered and recorded in the U.S. totals; when a Mexican pottery company fires it's kiln with old truck tires, that isn't counted against the Mexican total because tires are not an official energy source being tracked. Nor is it counted against their Kyoto carbon allowance, for the same reason. Another confusing point is that the U.S. is also a huge energy producer- and that energy is counted as part of the world total. Thus when an Indiana power company burns Kentucky coal, it's using "the world's energy resources". While technically true, the phrase is very- deliberately, in my opinion- misleading.

Even if the 25% figure were accurate, it still would reflect well on the U.S.- we are, after all, more than one third of the world's economy. By their own figures, American industry is more energy efficient than the rest of the world. Those industries aren't just making luxuries for rich Americans, either; we are the world's leading food producer- and agriculture is one of the most energy intensive industries there is. Nor does the American consumer waste more energy than the rest of the world does; he does, however, have large energy expenditures that the Third World does not. The first of these, and the biggest energy bill for the average American, is home heating. Look at a map of where the world population is densest- Africa, India, Southeast Asia, Indonesia- and you'll find they're all in the tropics. Two-thirds of the human race has never experienced what we would call winter; a resident of buffalo, NY, burns more energy just living through the night in January than many Third-Worlders will use in a year. Home cooling is another vast energy consumption, and before you say that Americans are effete, let me assure you that air-conditioning is not mere luxury- in the 2003 heat wave, 15,000 Parisians died while in all of America combined the death toll was under a hundred.

Water is another of the large energy expenditures. Most of mankind has no reliable source of clean fresh water; this was highlighted in a recent U.N. initiative. It takes a fantastic amount of power to pump billions of gallons of water to 300 million people daily- in a second hand way, you're using electricity when you turn on a faucet or flush a toilet. Treating that water after it’s been flushed takes a lot of energy, too, and that’s something the Third World does very little of. Heating that water is another large energy use, and hot water is not just luxury, either; it’s a public health measure. Remember also that it takes power to keep utilities on standby, 24/7, ready for your use. Many places in the world that have power, water, and telephones have them for only a few carefully rationed hours a day.

When you really study that "5%/25%" statement, the inescapable conclusion is not that the U.S. uses too much energy, but that the rest of the world uses too little- not even enough to maintain civilization in many cases. When all the peoples of the world have a roof over their heads, access to schools and hospitals, clean plentiful water, and sewers that lead to treatment plants rather than ditches or streams, they will be using as much energy as the people of the U.S. That is why we must be pushing as hard as we can right now to develop new technologies and new energy sources, so that the whole world can have a decent way of life without causing ecological or economic disaster.

No comments: