October has been officially proclaimed Energy Awareness Month — again. The first proclamation was in 1991 and now, for the second year in a row, by President Obama. It’s good to reinforce the concept of energy awareness and by proclaiming the same month again and again, our leaders are also setting a good example by recycling October, a valuable, limited resource.
All kidding aside, energy awareness is of vital importance to everyone. Most of us don’t think much about our energy use except when it’s time to pay the bills. Many complain about the high cost but do they really understand what we get in the bargain?
Energy takes many forms and it’s not easy to compare watts, calories, gallons of gas or British thermal units. I’ve done some calculations to create some comparisons that might help us better understand our complex and mostly hidden relationship with energy. Let’s start by creating a baseline that we can relate to.
Have you ever worked out at the gym? Perhaps you’ve tried to lose weight and found that to lose a pound of fat requires you to burn 3,500 calories above and beyond what you eat. A 160 pound person, going for a full hour nonstop, will burn about 800 calories running seven miles or playing full-court basketball. Do an hour walking up stairs or vigorous jumping jacks and you’ll burn though about 590 calories. Most people would consider these activities quite vigorous.
There are few who could maintain that kind of activity all day, every day. Athletes who finish the Tour de France burn an average of 118,000 total calories during the race. They are burning an average of 1,350 calories per hour, often 8,000-10,000 calories a day. That is hard physical labor that few people are capable of.
Now that we have a baseline that we can relate to, in terms of hard physical labor, how does it compare to the energy use of a typical suburban household? To generate the yearly energy used by the average family with two vehicles would require the equivalent of a full year of hard physical labor — by 186 people. For the bike enthusiasts, that’s the amount of energy used to complete the Tour de France 2,067 times.
To hire that many people at minimum wage for a year would run close to $3 million. Most families pay a few thousand dollars a year for an equivalent amount of energy. Do you still think your energy bills are too high?
In reality, it’s not that energy costs are too high, but rather, too low. We’ve gotten so accustomed to living outside the normal realm of energy reality that we’ve become accustomed to wasting incredible amounts of it, simply because we thought we could afford to. Wrong. We are rapidly burning through a nonrenewable, one-time gift of ancient, concentrated sunlight. This is not sustainable. By definition, that means that the practice will come to an end, either through our own conscious acts or by the laws of nature. It has allowed our food production to spike, our population to explode and the lives of a few generations to be unlike any others in history. It has also led to serious degradation of our environment and many negative impacts on human health.
This is why Energy Awareness Month is so important. The next time you turn on a light, use the stove or think about the air-conditioned space you’re in, remember the real cost of providing those services. Think about what you can do to live more efficiently. Think about the real value of solar or wind power. When you add it all up, the combination of renewable energy and efficiency makes a lot of sense. Energy Awareness is not just a good idea for October; it’s one powerful principle for a life well-lived.
Steve Rypka is a green living consultant and president of GreenDream Enterprises, a company committed to helping people live lighter on the planet. For more information and links to additional resources relating to this column, or to reach Steve, please visit www.greendream.biz.