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Update, June 3 2016: Today we released episode 2 of energy.gov’s first podcast, Direct Current. On this episode, producers Dan Wood and Paul Lester explore the idea of using burritos, Mt. Rushmore, a New York Minute, and the Moon Landing as our new, more evocative energy units, replacing the old, boring ones. Its the final segment on the show, and can be found here. Curious about our calculations? You can download the data, calculations, and sources here. Catch an error or curious about methodology? Shoot Dan Wood an email at email@example.com. Want even more burrito energy comparisons? The below post from 2014 may satiate your hunger. Enjoy!
Recently, we published a graphic that helps you understand how much you spend on energy every year, based on where you live. Now we want to help you understand how much energy you use, not just how much you spend.
How Much Do You Consume?
Explaining how much someone spends on residential and transportation energy is straightforward; you see it every month in your bills. But understanding how much you use is a more complicated concept.
For instance, if I told you that you used 149 million British Thermal Units (Btu) of energy last year on transportation, you would probably be left scratching your head. Just how much energy is in a Btu? How does that compare to more meaningful measures?
But what if I told you that your personal energy consumption needs would require the equivalent of 15,000 pounds of coal to be burned every year? I bet you could picture it a bit better.
We’ve selected a few measures that we think make more sense than “Btu” -- and that we hope will help you understand how much energy you consume. We define total per capita consumption as someone’s combined transportation and residential energy consumption. Learn more about the methodology for that calculation here.
Worth [A Lot More than] Your Weight in Coal
Before we get into the more eccentric measures that we selected for comparison, let’s start with the measure that is most tangible and perhaps most sobering: coal. An average American’s residential and transportation energy consumption would require the burning of over 15,000 pounds of coal a year. That equals out to about 41 pounds of coal a day. If coal powered everything, every few days you would consume your body weight in coal.
These days, an increasing share of our electricity capacity comes from renewable energy. According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), coal amounted to 39 percent of U.S. electricity generation in 2013, down from 52 percent in 1990.
117 Burritos a Day Keep the Doctor Away
My sister once joked, “A car gets 30 miles to the gallon, but when I bike, I get 20 miles to the burrito.” This sounds funny, but it makes sense. Food, like gasoline, is fuel, and contains energy. The more work you do, the more energy you need to consume -- so you’ll need more fuel (in this case, food).
We assume that a large burrito with all the fixings is about 1,200 kilocalories. Since we can convert between kilocalories (kcal) and Btu, and we know that the average American consumes 149 million Btu -- or 37 million kcal -- a year in residential and transportation-related energy, we know that they consume the equivalent of about 31,000 burritos in energy each year, per capita.
By comparison, the average person needs to eat the equivalent of about 600 burritos each year to maintain their weight. This means that, every day, transportation and residential energy needs are 50 times as energy demanding as your body’s energy needs (also known as your metabolism).
That’s a Lot of Dynamite
Exploding dynamite releases an immense amount of energy very quickly, as a shock front moves outward at supersonic speeds. Knowing what dynamite is capable of, we might imagine that the energy contained within a stick of dynamite would be more than the energy contained within a burrito, but we’d be wrong.
At about 600 Btu per stick of dynamite, the average American consumes about 165,000 sticks of dynamite’s worth of energy each year, compared to 31,000 burritos. When you do the math, dynamites contain about 2,150 Btu per pound, while burritos contain about 3,170 Btu per pound, meaning dynamite only has two-thirds the energy that burritos do. Why is this?
While dynamite has less net energy per kilogram than something like a burrito, a stick of dynamite releases all of its energy in a fraction of a second, while food energy is (thankfully) released over the course of hours and days. You can see that dynamite wouldn’t be a reliable fuel source, since it would be extremely difficult to efficiently transfer the shock wave from its instantaneous explosion into a useable form of energy that could be meted out over time.
In the 1985 film Back to the Future, Doc’s famous flux capacitor needs 1.21 gigawatts (which he inexplicably pronounces “jigowatts”) of power to transport Marty to the future. Watts are a measure of power, or energy used over a period of time. If we assume (admittedly, arbitrarily -- but hey, it’s fiction!) that Doc’s DeLorean-based time machine’s flux capacitor is active for one second at 1.21 gigawatts, then we know that Marty used 1.21 gigajoules of energy, or 1.15 million Btu. Therefore, if we could save up all the energy we use every year, we’d be able to send Marty back to the future around 138 times!
What Do We Find?
Now that we understand how each of these measures is calculated, we can explore the graphic and learn some interesting things about each of our home states. Here are the five highest energy-consuming states, per capita.
One thing we notice is that each of these states, except Louisiana, could be expected to have both high residential heating consumption -- due to their cold winters -- and high transportation energy consumption, due to their disperse populations.
Transportation factors most heavily into these numbers. In fact, when we remove residential energy from the mix, we see all of the above states show up in the six highest states for per capita transportation consumption.
Similarly, below we have the five lowest energy-consuming states, per capita. We see that Washington, D.C., New York and Rhode Island have the three lowest transportation consumption rates:
More residents in these states use public transportation, or have shorter daily commutes, thus reducing overall consumption of energy.
Additionally, California and Hawaii -- both known for their warm but temperate climates -- have the two lowest average residential energy consumption rates, as many homes in these states are designed with less insulation and more air ventilating features, since the winters are mild. Similarly, New York and Washington, D.C., have low residential energy consumption because urban dwellers typically need to use less heating energy in the winter than their rural counterparts (heat that dissipates from your residence benefits your neighbors, and vice versa).
How Do I Lower My Energy Consumption?
Lowering our energy consumption will in turn lower our energy spending, so it’s something we all might want to consider.
Luckily, we don’t all need to move to Hawaii in order to do this. (Although that might be nice). We can save energy by making a few adjustments to our homes and by modifying our transportation options. If you live in a climate with a cold winter, you may want to consider weatherization, retrofits and landscape improvements around your home to save energy. Additionally, taking a few steps to increase your vehicle’s fuel efficiency or switching to an alternative fuel or a hybrid vehicle could increase your energy efficiency and decrease your energy consumption.
For a few tips on how to decrease your residential and transportation energy costs, head over to Energy Saver.
If you enjoyed learning about your energy consumption, don’t forget to check out our map of state-by-state energy expenditure, as well.