Archive for March, 2012

Preliminary results from the energy survey

At Emory & Henry, we’re in the midst of our very first energy behavior survey (you can take the survey here).  This was completed in partnership with an undergraduate sociology class.  It was a really great experience.  The students got valuable experience in survey design and methodology, and the college got a much-needed data set.

The survey was intended to dig a little deeper into the behavioral aspects of energy consumption.  It is by no means an in-depth survey.  Instead, it gives us a broad view of the landscape of the campus culture with regards to energy and sustainability.  It focused on knowledge, behaviors, and perceptions.  The knowledge category is important, because it informs the latter two.  One troubling trend I noticed is the knowledge gap between students and everyone else surveyed.

The proxy question for basic energy knowledge is “in this region, our primary fuel source for electricity is,” and the answer choices are coal, natural gas, nuclear, hydro, or don’t know.  The students insisted on adding the “don’t know” answer, and it proved to be telling.  The chart below shows the answer to this question crosstabbed by affiliation with the college.  So far, only 45% of students were able to answer this correctly, compared with 87% of faculty, 76% of staff, and 72% of alumni.  We’ll publish more complete results after the survey closes.

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The energy of stuff

You may not think about it often, but all the stuff you own has an energy footprint.  For things that consume energy regularly, like computers or cell phones, this is not a novel idea.  You put energy into these things on a daily basis.  Often overlooked, though, is the energy it took to make your stuff.  This is called embodied energy, and it can add up quickly.  Take your average, 2000 square-foot detached house.  On average, this house will consume around 100 MMbtu’s of energy per year.  To build that same house required 1.4 million MMbtu’s.  That means that it would take about 14,000 years for that home’s energy consumption to equal its embodied energy.

How is this possible?  Think about all the things that go into a house.  There is wood, concrete, plastics, metals, and asphalt.  Now think of how each of these things got there.  The wood had to be harvested, transported, milled, transported again, then it was bought and transported a final time.  The copper piping came from a mine, where it was extracted, transported, processed, and transported again.  You can see how all these things add up.

Now think smaller.  It takes the equivalent about 10-15% of your car’s lifetime fuel consumption just to build it.  Considering that your average 30 mpg car consumes about 46 million MMbtu’s per year, that’s a whole lot of energy.

Most everything we buy or consume requires energy to produce and transport, regardless of whether or not it’s a device that needs to be plugged in or charged.  So what can you do? Buy things that are built to last, and then keep them until they are no longer useful.  The longer you keep things, the less important embodied energy becomes.   We can never completely eliminate it, but we can reduce it by buying and using less.

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