The U.S. fatso after a miracle diet of renewables

monster truck

Americans have turned wasting energy into a fine art. Photo: HeyDanielle via Flickr.

Almost every day on the way to campus I watch all kinds of monster trucks overtaking my small diesel engine-powered car.  The drivers look down at me with amusement and proudly roar from all of their eight monster cylinders, spewing their monster exhaust fumes.  All these dinosaurs on wheels usually carry one person, who is not getting anywhere any faster than I do.  They do burn, however, four times more precious liquid hydrocarbons than I do.

And herein lies the quintessential  U.S. infliction: blithe, mindless waste everywhere.

Renewable energy in perspective

Since this blog post will likely be used for all kinds of political spins from the left and right, here is my disclaimer:

I am enthusiastic about most renewables (the giant-scale ethanol from any source and biodiesel fuel are excluded), and I would love to see a wiser use of much less energy in the U.S., as well as fewer people. Unfortunately, my fellow Americans – most notably politicians and journalists –  are rather oblivious to the challenges of living off of renewables and to the scope of life-style changes that will ensue, including a dramatic decline in population. My fellow Americans are also unduly scared of the inevitable reductions of energy use coming their way just like day comes after night.

Here “energy from renewables” is defined as heat and electricity generated from hydroelectric power stations, geothermal power stations, biomass co-generation facilities, wind turbines, biofuels, and solar thermal and photovoltaic panels.

Let’s start from the accounting of the heat and electricity generated from renewables.  The Energy Information Administration (EIA) has been under a lot of political pressure to make renewables look good.

For example, in EIA’s spreadsheet Table1_2.xls, wind generated 0.546 quadrillion BTU’s (quads) in 2008, but in mer_dataT07.02b.xls the actual electricity consumed in 2008 converts to 0.189 quads, which gives a very nice wind turbine utilization factor of 34%. In fairness to EIA, these 34% may also be the conversion factor from electricity to primary heat energy – they don’t say. Similarly, corn ethanol gets 0.800 quads for the fuel heating value and 0.532 quads for co-products (as if though we were going to burn all that dry distiller grain etc., and cows could not eat the low-fossil-fuel-content grass).

However, no energy charges for the massive fossil fuel subsidies of biofuels are subtracted (sic!).  The same exaggeration applies to solar photovoltaics, but the amount of electricity they generated in 2008 was in the round-off error of other energy sources. And so on.

global matabolism chart

Click to enlarge.

Therefore, in the plot below you will see the most generous, and perhaps not quite true energy throughput from renewables in the U.S., converted to barrels of oil equivalent per day per person. For more description of this plot, please see my post “Energy Throughput Defines Metabolism of Societies.”

The three vertical lines are the U.S.

  • On all renewables (1),
  • All renewables minus hydropower (2), and
  • All renewables minus hydropower minus biofuels and their co-products (3).

On a diet of renewables, a statistical U.S. resident who currently gulps a tenth of a barrel of oil equivalent (BOE) per day, will be sipping roughly 1/100 of BOE/day as renewables only, thus reducing the U.S. energy “metabolism” to the level of China, Gabon, Uruguay, Botswana, or Angola.

One-tenth of a barrel is four gallons. Think four one-gallon milk jugs. Or think about 20 bottles of Scotch, 0.75L each.  Try to drink that from a hose.  One-hundredth of a barrel is 1.5 liters. Think of mineral water in a large bottle.

Of course, I have cheated a little, because China, Angola, Gabon, Uruguay, and Botswana simply do not use much of hydrocarbons per person. However, China is the largest producer, importer and user of coal on the Earth, and the largest spewer of carbon dioxide. Angola is the eighth largest producer of oil in OPEC. Angola sells almost all of their oil to us. Botswana has huge deposits of coal.  After completing a 1,200 mile, $9 billion railroad line to Namibia, funded by the World Bank, Botswana will be able to mine lots more coal and sell it to China. And so it goes.  All of these five countries are significantly subsidized by natural gas, petroleum, and coal that are used for fertilizers, especially nitrogen fertilizers, and field chemicals. Petroleum literally drives current agriculture. Uruguay derives most of its income from agriculture.

Still, you get my message, to undergo a successful diet of renewables, we in the U.S. will have to change our lifestyles more than at any time over the last 100 years.

Imagine if we went on an energy diet — all clean

Now, let’s imagine how we would live in a world with no hydrocarbons and coal. Luckily, this will not happen for many, many generations, except in California and Pennsylvania (I am only half-joking).

Here are some of the effects: No liquid transportation fuels; no or little of the heavily fossil-fuel-dependent biofuels; a very different and better, but smaller agriculture with no GMOs; no plastics (bioplastics are impossible to produce without fossil fuels); and very few cosmetics, medications, household chemicals, and industrial chemicals.

No significant production of steel and cement, and wind turbines, and nuclear reactors, and most of aluminum and copper, and of photovoltaic panels. No more driving a monster SUV, or any internal combustion engine car, to work and to shop, and positively no flying. Little or no air conditioning, and little heating.

Most of the higher education as we know it today, unnecessary and gone. Most golf courses, gone.

Las Vegas and Reno: does anyone remember them?  Most of New York, Los Angeles, Washington, and all other mega-cities, gone.

Growing rice and alfalfa in the desert, gone. Most agricultural irrigation projects, gone.  City lights at night, gone. Most of our energy-intensive hospitals and health care, down.

Most of our imaginary investments and pension plans, puff! (They evaporate into the thin and much cleaner air.)

The military as we know it today, gone. Most of federal government, gone.  Most lobbyists, gone. The United States is a loose collection of independent and often squabbling states, and many nation states disappear.

Calling 911, gone.

Rockets, satellites, GPS, most of cellular phone communications, most of the internet, most of TV, cable, The Shopping Channel,, FedEx, UPS, Google, and this blog — all gone.

The global economy, and Walmart and Costco, gone.

And so on.

Suddenly, the oh-I-am-so-business-oriented governor of Florida, Rick Scott, who rejected federal funding for trains, does not look so smart.  The V-8 powered troglodytes in New York, who are suing the city to get rid of bike paths, become ghosts of the past.

In fact, most of us do not look very smart when we think back about our lifestyles and investment choices. Is it time for all of us to get smarter?

My answer is, yes, it is time.

Do I think that anyone but my family, some students, and a small group of friends will ever listen to me?  Hell, no!  Why? Read this, for example, to see how far we have strayed from a thinking society.

They seem to think we’re stupid

OK, have you read the last link?  Then please reflect on how full of contempt for all of us our rulers must be.  Do they really think that we are mindless robots with no free will?

P.S.  Sadly, the tragic earthquake in Japan has illustrated what I wrote just a week ago.  As the New York Times reported:

In the wake of Friday’s natural disaster in northern Japan, and the growing nuclear catastrophe that it touched off, residents here are fast learning that many things they have taken for granted — fully stocked supermarkets, precisely punctual trains, power for their electronics and cars — can readily slip beyond their reach.

Across the vast Tokyo metropolis, home to about one-quarter of the nation’s population, life has suddenly been upended in ways large and small. Some stores have been stripped bare of essentials like rice and milk, prompting the prime minister, Naoto Kan, to go on national television and implore people not to panic. Rolling blackouts to save energy have forced office workers to head home early rather than be trapped downtown. Many people are staying inside to avoid contact with any radioactivity from the stricken nuclear power plant in Fukushima, 170 miles to the north, that may be carried this way by the wind.

Cross posted from LifeItself.

— Tad Patzek

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  1. Auntiegrav says

    Humans are like any other domesticated animal: they thrive in captivity and die if allowed total freedom. We need fences, containment, nurturing, training and restrictions in order to thrive as part of civilization. That’s what civilization IS: containment. The idea that humans are independent, intentional beings with some magical ability to see the future and act accordingly is total BS: the future we imagine we see is rarely related to the real one, and everyone has a different model of the universe in their head. Civlization and society are the way we force humans to have SOME things in common in our heads so that we act together for our own best interests. The more talk you hear about “free will” and “freedom” and “free markets”, the more you know the person saying it is deluded about the real nature of human beings. We always need to build fences around ourselves in order to thrive, and we also need to break through the fences once in a while to find new ideas and new territory, but taking down the fences intentionally only leads to a bunch of lost cattle and extreme efforts trying to put everything back in place after the cattle run around and ruin the neighbor’s crops so there won’t be feed to buy next year.
    We will not ‘educate’ our way out of this mess. Cattle will be lost and fences will have to be rebuilt, and all of the cattle aren’t going to fit in the barn if they’ve been allowed to breed and consume freely. Earth is the only barn we have, and the animals are eating the woodwork.

  2. Kerrick says

    Fatphobia in the environmental movement hurts our cause. It is really disappointing to me to see my fat friends and allies insulted in this headline. I was so angry I didn’t read the rest of the article—which is sad because it’s probably very interesting and informative.

    Fat people are not the problem. My fat friends work hard to reduce their carbon footprint, and they live lifestyles that are as healthy as mine, if not more so. A few of my skinny friends, however—and often the ones I hear making fatphobic comments—go through liters of soda a day, drive around the block rather than walk, and live on mostly CAFO meat and processed foods. So can we stop abusing the fat people who are on board with the environmental movement and accept that overconsumption comes in all sizes?

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