Demystifying Energy

Chasing after the three-ring circus of the climate change controversy for the last several years has required me to delve deeply into energy issues, and before long it becomes clear that one reason this issue is stuck in a rut is that the whole field of energy is opaque to most citizens, and therefore susceptible to the most simplistic cliches and slogans. Writing clearly and concisely about energy is quite difficult, which is one reason few people are very good at it. (One of the better authors is Vaclav Smil; see his book Energy Myths and Realities.)
The trouble is that energy is not a unitary phenomenon; in other words, energy comes in many different forms and has many different purposes. It is common to lump the majority of our energy consumption under the banner of “fossil fuels” (oil, coal, and natural gas) versus “renewable” energy, but this is misleading.
The most basic distinctions to keep in mind is that energy consumed in the form of combustion for transportation, in the form of electricity, and in the form of a feedstock for industrial production (such a natural gas and oil for plastics, chemicals and pharmaceuticals). About two-thirds of total American energy is consumed in the form of electricity, and one-third for transportation, which depends overwhelmingly on liquid fuels refined overwhelmingly from oil.
Most people have a good grasp of only one aspect of energy use–gasoline. Because we regularly buy gasoline at the pump, have a good idea of the utility of gasoline (that is, the miles per gallon) as well as its price. The basic unit of energy analysis is the BTU–the “British Thermal Unit.” A BTU of energy, unlike a gallon of gasoline, is an utterly meaningless number to anyone except an energy engineer. It might as well be a Qautloo from Star Trek or measuring speed in furlongs per fortnight. But energy analysis requires a common unit of measurement, and if we did not use the BTU, we would use a similarly opaque composite unit. (In fact, the alternative unit of energy measurement is the Joule, an even more unwieldy unit that measures energy in terms of force necessary to move 1 kilogram a distance of one meter.)
I’ve hit on a scheme to demystify energy bit by bit. I’ve started a short “Energy Fact of the Week” item for the AEI blog,, usually with a chart or a table. Here’s some early themes:
Guess which state produces more oil–Alaska or California? You’ll be surprised at the answer, along with the bonus feature of the state that may soon top Texas as the top domestic oil producer. (Hint: It’s close to John Hinderaker’s home state.)
Often we hear that we need to “get off oil,” especially foreign oil. Well, in one key respect, we already did, quite a while ago. How’d we do it? One word: Coal.
Speaking of (politically incorrect) coal, guess which is the leading coal producing state, and which is the leading coal-consuming state? If you guess West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, or Pennsylvania, the buzzer will sound. Find out the surprising answers here.
This week’s item, not yet posted, will be about energy subsidies. Special bonus: last week I defended the Senate filibuster on, partly because I always enjoy twisting the tail of my spirited but misguided AEI colleague Norm Ornstein.