Which direction are we headed?
As word associations go, “energy” has taken a beating. Because barely a day goes by that we aren’t reminded what gluttons we are when it comes to consuming it, the word “energy” has taken on a sinister connotation. But energy itself isn’t a bad thing, and in fact it’s what makes the world go ‘round…literally. That’s why when discussing energy, another key word needs to be brought to the table: entropy.
Entropy is defined as a tendency towards disorder within a closed system as potential energy is spent. On small scales, loss of potential energy can be a beautiful thing, for example, a perfectly breaking wave. But when a wave breaks, another wave will eventually form behind it; thus, the energy of the system isn’t actually lost. However, with regards to fossil fuels, complete exhaustion of these finite resources is inevitable, and it will certainly be a chaotic world when that happens if we don’t plan accordingly. And planning is the only aspect of that dilemma in our control.
Most people know that the energy fuel mix in the U.S. primarily consists of petroleum, coal and natural gas; however, fewer appreciate how those fuels are consumed. Thanks to myopic marketing, a popular perception is that all fuels are the same and that if we end our dependence on foreign fuels we can live bountifully on home-grown fuels. Although there is merit to increasing independence, the truth is not quite so distorted.
The following pages are my attempt to provide a balanced synopsis of U.S. energy consumption patterns. Energy 101 provides an overview of the relative importance of the non-renewable resources that currently sustain about 90% of our modern lifestyles. Energy 102 begins with an overview of historical consumption patterns and discusses renewable resources. And the three Society Goal pages outline strategies that each of us can use to reduce our dependence on non-renewable fuels by targeting the top three fossil fuel consumption areas: petroleum for transportation; coal for electricity; and petroleum and natural gas used to support industry.
The more I learn about where our energy comes from, the more compelled I am to tell this story. I hope you will respond favorably to my plea to increase the energy efficiency of our nation, so that once again we may be a beacon of encouragement for others. We shouldn’t get bogged down in the fact that other developed nations are further along this path than we are; however, it would be shameful to fail to recognize and correct the errors of our ways so that developing nations falling in line behind us in the quest for ‘bigger, faster, better’ will believe us when we say that it can be done sustainably.