Advertisement

Explaining All Of U.S. Energy Use With A Genius Chart And Cheeseburgers

Everything you always wanted to know about energy consumption

How the U.S. uses energy (CREDIT: EnergyLiteracy.com)
How the U.S. uses energy (CREDIT: EnergyLiteracy.com)

Saul Griffith really, really likes to quantify things about energy and carbon. You can watch the MacArthur genius award winner and entrepreneur soberly dissect his formerly unsustainable lifestyle in more detail than you ever thought possible here and here.

Now, together with his Otherlab colleagues, he has created perhaps the most detailed interactive chart of U.S. energy use ever, which is available at the website energyliteracy.com. As Griffith explained in a talk earlier this month (see video below), “I think we may be the first three or four people to read every footnote in every energy agency document ever produced.”

Yes, the chart is quite complicated at first glance, as the screenshot above of the whole thing shows. You’d expect that of any chart that can display how much energy we use for transportation by distance traveled, class of vehicle or purpose (“earn a living” versus “social & recreational”).

Indeed, here is the transportation chart — which you can create yourself by simply clicking on the “Transportation Sector” bar in the interactive chart — in case you’d like to know how much energy is used by our cars versus, say, freight trucks or aviation:

Transportation energy usage. CREDIT: EnergyLiteracy.com
Transportation energy usage. CREDIT: EnergyLiteracy.com

If you look closely at the box in the chart you’ll notice that the “final breakdown” of all transportation sector energy is about 7.2 quadrillion British thermal units (BTUs) — aka quads — for actual energy services (i.e. moving the wheels on your car) and 20.5 quads is waste!

Advertisement

Why is the transportation sector so inefficient — wasting nearly three-fourths (!) of all primary energy it consumes? Well, the main reason is most gasoline engines are incredibly inefficient, and diesels aren’t much better. And, of course, a lot of vehicle energy is lost during braking (though the best hybrid and electric vehicles can recapture some of the braking energy).

The good news is we are at the start of an electric vehicle (EV) revolution and EVs are vastly more efficient than typical internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles. That’s a major reason why EVs have a much lower fueling cost per mile than ICE vehicles.

Griffith also notes that petroleum refining uses roughly 6 percent of total U.S. energy, which means. “If you think about it, every car you think is getting 40 miles a gallon is actually getting 30 miles a gallon, and maybe worse.” It takes a lot of energy to get the fuel ICE cars need to move. So that’s another benefit of switching to EVs.

And in case you were wondering what the heck a quadrillion British thermal units is — Griffith is on it. He understands that most energy discussions are in units that most people have no intuitive feel for. So in this recent talk he goes through his chart and breaks things down in units of cheeseburgers:

The short version is that the United States uses nearly 100 quads (97.5) annually. Per person, that means a typical American uses as much energy as they’d obtain from eating 1,000 cheeseburgers per day! In other words, if every American ate one cheeseburger a day for an entire year, we would all be cumulatively consuming some 0.1 quads or 0.1 percent of U.S. energy consumption.

Advertisement

Note: Griffith is actually assuming this is a relatively small cheeseburger with 210 calories. As he explains, most cheeseburgers sold in this country contain many more calories, and one actually contains over 1000 calories.

So you might say that in his talk, Griffith is trying to break down U.S. energy consumption into bite-size amounts. Yes, Griffith is a cool dude: He once began a talk by showing a T-shirt that read, “Design Won’t Save the World. Go Volunteer at a Soup Kitchen You Pretentious Fuck.”

But he is also is a beyond-brilliant guy who “has multiple degrees in materials science and mechanical engineering, and completed his PhD in Programmable Assembly and Self Replicating machines at MIT.” Good thing for humanity Griffith uses his brilliance to design stuff that might actually save the world, like “a solartracker that eliminates the most expensive and unreliable components in a photovoltaics (PV) system: Gearboxes, motors, wires, and bearings.”