The New Global Energy Thread - U.S. Per Capita Energy Consumption Plummets

Discussion in 'Archive: The Senate Floor' started by Jabbadabbado, May 8, 2009.

Thread Status:
Not open for further replies.
  1. Jabbadabbado Manager Emeritus

    Member Since:
    Mar 19, 1999
    star 7
    People don't notice much of anything at all if they're eating at McDonald's.

    A big chunk of what people are paying for at the grocery store and at fast food restaurants is packaging.

    If you order a typical value meal at McDonald's: soft drink, fries and a hamburger, that also comes with a drink cup, drink lid, a straw, a cardboard box or wax paper wrapper for the burger, the cardboard container for the fries, any number of napkins, individually wrapped containers holding a teaspoon of Ketchup each, and a big paper bag to contain everything but the drink. If you have multiple orders the whole thing may be thrown into another plastic bag, you may get a cardboard drink holder too. Grab a few extra napkins on your way out too.

    The grocery store is not much better if you're buying a lot of packaged goods. I think I posted recently finding a plastic tube at the store full of individually wrapped prunes. The "value add" of the packaging was easily more expensive than the prunes. Despite the trend toward reusable cloth shopping bags, the vast majority of shoppers take home sometimes dozens of extra plastic bags home with every trip.

    So, pretty clearly, one of the biggest energy/resource drains of the U.S. food supply is consumer packaging. Imagine the energy savings we could achieve in our domestic economy if we could achieve a 10% reduction in the volume of consumer packaging.

    I get one box of fruit and vegetables every week from a local co-op. A full week's supply comes in one cardboard box. There is a huge savings in packaging over an average trip to the grocery store. But even I don't know how this nets out with the truck delivery to my door. It's hard to know. There is a focus on locally grown produce, so hopefully a reduction in overall transportation costs. But again, I don't have the expertise to do a reasonable calculation. It may be more about patting myself on the back than conserving resources. Let me pause here while I pat myself on the back one more time.

    Even so, with all the produce we get (it costs $40/week) we have to be pretty creative to use all the vegetables, so we're eating much less meat. I'm not a vegetarian and don't intend to become one as long as I have a viable choice, but I've definitely shifted the balance of my family's diet away from meat.
  2. Darth_Yuthura Jedi Master

    Member Since:
    Nov 7, 2007
    star 4
    Absolutely right. We squander way too much on packaging. I hate those ketchup packets because I never use just one, but they could easily triple the volume with minimal addition to the packaging. The greater the volume, the less packaging you will use. A better solution is to get larger quantities with packaging that allows you to reseal it like bottled soda.

    Recycling is something that people also don't really take into consideration for what it is. Although it's good to recycle materials instead of mining and processing raw resources, it still demands more energy than people realize. When someone says they are saving the planet because they recycle, they are really not contributing much at all. It would be far more beneficial if they found ways to reduce waste in the first place. That's when you don't have to reprocess new soda cans or bottles in the first place.
  3. Jabbadabbado Manager Emeritus

    Member Since:
    Mar 19, 1999
    star 7
    The new term I guess is "precycling" - not consuming the resource in the first place. That's one of the reasons the recession also represents a huge opportunity for the American consumer. Let's rethink how we consume.

    McDonald's isn't just in the business of selling hamburgers. They're also selling all the plastic and paper packaging that goes with it. And we buy it eagerly as if it's something we actually want.

    And in some cases the package is part of what we seem to want. The consumer packaged goods industry is called what it's called for a reason. Dismantling or dramatically reducing the packaging part of that industry would require nothing less than a consumer/producer revolution. A company like Proctor and Gamble spends at least as much time creating "innovations" in packaging as they do in innovating the products themselves. With something like toothpaste or deodorant, it's hard to tell the product apart from its packaging.

    But I would suggest that a national package reduction movement is probably the next major stage after recycling in a consumer environmentalist movement. It's a more meaningful step than recycling, and the resistance to it will be great.
  4. Darth_Yuthura Jedi Master

    Member Since:
    Nov 7, 2007
    star 4
    I know, the packaging is what is often emphasized in my marketing classes. I at least use the waste paper for something after it's served its purpose. We burn our paper garbage as kindling in order to burn brush outdoors or in a fireplace inside during winter. That's not for everyone though.

    Fast food often use paper products, but have only a few items that are not recyclable (supersize soda cups, ketchup packets, utensils, salad bowls) It's unfortunate that those few items aren't segregated from the rest of the paper waste.

    I think that Americans are really ignorant of the value of 'precycling.' We always want to do whatever we want without having it interfere with our lives. Instead of shorter commutes, we want more fuel efficient cars. Anything so long as we don't have to go out of our way to make it so. I think that making a habit of using fewer resources, we can create a permanent solution that is simple to manage. Give incentives for providing local foods, stiff penalties for garbage disposal, and incentives for reducing demand for electricity during peak hours.
  5. Sauntaero Force Ghost

    Member Since:
    Jul 9, 2003
    star 4
    As far as recycling at restaurants goes, many facilities don't accept dirty containers or soiled paper which is why many kitchens don't offer recycling for their patrons. If restaurants like McDonalds were required to offer post-consumer recycling, local facilities would have to be redesigned to process it; it would be a mess. It makes so much more sense not to use the material in the first place. Really, recycling alone is neither cost- nor energy-effective at all.

    Precycling/Reducing has to be the new theme--in a big way. Consumers simply use too much resources, at an invisible cost. Why is everything so overpackaged? Space for advertising?
  6. Darth_Yuthura Jedi Master

    Member Since:
    Nov 7, 2007
    star 4
    Well the matter of reducing waste isn't likely to be taken seriously or acted upon. People don't want to use less 'if they can afford it.' As much as I believe in preventing waste, I have to take into account that it isn't favored by the majority.

    I agree entirely about making vast quantities of packaging for small items, but that is not likely to change. Recycling is better than throwing things away, and it has the least impact on people's way of life. Reducing waste can really only be done if the costs for such resources or the price of garbage disposal were increased. Pulp and paper are so cheap that no one really recylces it anymore. Plastic bottles are so expensive to recycle that you might as well just make a new one from raw resources. Aluminum is really the only material that really makes the most sense to melt down and use again.

    Planned obsolescence is another thing that I really have issues with. When you have so many complex machines (electronics with all kinds of different materials) that are expected to last only a few years, or even a few months; you end up with several computers, cars, ipods, cell phones, and TV's all with deadly elements and all of which contaminate water sources. There is so much garbage in the Pacific that we are starting to see higher-level predators suffering from high levels of chemicals which their prey consumed.
  7. Jabbadabbado Manager Emeritus

    Member Since:
    Mar 19, 1999
    star 7
    I've been composting for a year and have made a systematic effort not to bring extra plastic bags home from retail stores (as I said, most of my produce comes to me weekly by truck delivery).

    But the composting/precycling combination has reduced the volume of my trash by about half and reduced my recycling volume by about a third.

    In terms of energy savings - we've also done the transition to low energy for all our interior and exterior lighting, and we've tried for about a 15% reduction in our water usage. I installed two rain barrels to catch gutter water(converted pickle barrels), so almost all our gardening needs are met with rain water now. I hate showering with the reduced water flow (we also have a strict five minute shower limit for every family member, which totally stinks - I doubt I'll ever get used to it).

    If these kinds of efforts were mandated, the U.S. would make some serious inroads toward energy independence and I think greater economic efficiency. It would make us more competitive globally.
  8. Darth_Yuthura Jedi Master

    Member Since:
    Nov 7, 2007
    star 4
    Well I certainly don't make an effort to reduce the number of plastic bags I go through. I will favor using paper bags, but that's about all. We do make an effort to use those bags again for trash baskets and for aluminum cans, but they at least are used again before ending up in land fills. Also do the compost thing with waste food, but that really doesn't do more than put a band-aid on something that would otherwise end up in landfills. In regards to rainwater, it would really only make sense to use rain barrels if the runoff would enter the sewer system. We have our own tap, so we aren't as concerned with water bills.

    What I really would be pressing for is to change the rates on electricity for different periods of the day... more than on-peak and off-peak hours. If electricity were to escalate to an even higher rate for people who use more than their fair share, it would give people incentive not to use it to excess during peak hours. If the rates per kilowatt hour were to drop for those who use less altogether, it would give more incentive to use less.

    Of course this concept would have to work within the confines of peak and off-peak hours of the day. From what I see, water, sanitation, and electricity are all luxuries that Americans are more willing to pay stiff fees than sacrifice for the savings they get. They are demand-inelastic products, which means that you can adjust the price to a significant degree and demand won't really change much.
  9. Jabbadabbado Manager Emeritus

    Member Since:
    Mar 19, 1999
    star 7
    Great article about the future of nuclear power and civilian nuclear reactor technology.

    The New Nukes

    One caveat is that public support for nuclear power is an extremely fickle thing. Even if there's a renaissance for nuclear power in the U.S., one major accident anywhere in the world could, and probably would, kill it. Another Chernobyl is I would say, increasingly likely as the world's nuclear power infrastructure ages.

    From the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists:
    Without any significant new build for years, the average age of the world's operating nuclear power plants has been increasing steadily, now standing at 24 years. Some nuclear utilities envision reactor lifetimes of 40 years--or even 60 years. Considering that the average age of the 119 units that have already been shutdown is 22 years, the doubling of operational lifetime seems rather optimistic.


    The industry remains a hostage of probability.
  10. Darth_Yuthura Jedi Master

    Member Since:
    Nov 7, 2007
    star 4
    One thing that many people don't consider is how accidents of the past don't happen twice... figuratively speaking.

    Three Mile Island was not a mechanical failure; it was the result of human intervention that it happened. After the accident, the proper safety countermeasures were installed in US reactors to ensure another such accident doesn't happen again. Chernobyl was a combination of design flaws and stupidity of the human intervention that could have and should never have come about. Whether it was only a matter of time before the design flaws would have resulted in the destruction of the plant is unknown, but the accident was directly the result of safety measures being taken down by human operators.

    Most of the nuclear accidents in the US usually involved fast-breeder reactors that wouldn't be allowed to operate today. Such accidents as Simi Valley would not be repeated because of the regulations taken today that weren't in place then.

    And economically we should evaluate reactors by the standards that exist today; not when American reactors were built. All American reactors were all fundamentally flawed in regard to not using a standard design, taking twice as long to build, and using the same kind of vessels that were used in submarines and carriers. The last point is critical, because there is a significant difference between building a compact and durable vessel to house the reactor core instead of building the most efficient stationary reactor core for a commercial plant. The French didn't make the same mistakes we did, which was why they were able to implement nuclear power more successfully than we ever had. If we followed their example and used their standards in construction and design, we could have a new nuclear renaissance that will avoid the mistakes we made last time with a new technology.
  11. Jabbadabbado Manager Emeritus

    Member Since:
    Mar 19, 1999
    star 7
    Even so, aging reactors worldwide plus inevitable human error remains a potentially volatile combination.

    Meanwhile China will forge ahead and will come to dominate the industry:

    - Mainland China has eleven nuclear power reactors in commercial operation, 14 under construction, and at least ten more about to start construction in 2009.
    - Additional reactors are planned, including some of the world's most advanced, to give a sixfold increase in nuclear capacity to at least 60 GWe or possibly more by 2020 and then a further three to fourfold increase to 120-160 GWe by 2030.


    Even then however it will be a tiny fraction of their total mix. Coal will still dominate power production.
  12. Darth_Yuthura Jedi Master

    Member Since:
    Nov 7, 2007
    star 4
    One major issue in regards to nuclear fuel are the waste products. Nuclear fuel generates very little waste in comparison to coal ash (10,000 tons produced annually), but the waste is difficult to deal with as it is. Even though there is merely enough waste to rival to volume of a battleship (30,000 tons), even Yucca Mountain cannot handle to projected volume we expect once the facility is complete.

    Many make an argument that the sheer costs associated with nuclear waste, but don't take into consideration that for over a hundred reactors, atomic energy generates very little waste compared to any other kind of energy. If you were to compare the 30,000 tons that were produced compared to the sheer volume of energy you got from that fuel, the costs that would have to go into disposing of it is very small. The costs only seem huge because we are paying them off all at once, but once Yucca Mountain has been built, we should be able to manage the upkeep more easily than if we decided to go back to coal (as reactors are starting to be decommissioned and will have to be replaced)

    Nuclear energy is like a genie that has been let out of the bottle. Unless we just abandon everything and let the waste and radiation go unchecked, we will have to decommission every nuclear reactor and find a final resting place for the waste until it decomposes over the next thousand years or so. While we are doing that, it makes more sense to continue using the energy and simply planning ahead so that we don't suffer the same problems we face now.

    The costs of using nuclear fuel is about the same today as if we burned coal, but as the price of coal increases; nuclear will remain about the same. It makes more sense to start over and try to emulate the French nuclear program than to continue as we started in the 1950's. We made many mistakes with nuclear energy, but we have learned from them.
  13. Jabbadabbado Manager Emeritus

    Member Since:
    Mar 19, 1999
    star 7
    Uranium isn't an unlimited resource any more than coal or oil. Chinese and Indian demand for energy, as well as increasing energy demand everywhere else, drove up the price of coal dramatically before the recession hit. The price is rebounding now, as are all commodity prices. Any serious national program to expand or even maintain at current levels our reliance on nuclear energy has to take into account inevitably fierce global resource competition.
  14. Darth_Yuthura Jedi Master

    Member Since:
    Nov 7, 2007
    star 4
    Well only a fraction of the price of nuclear energy goes into the fuel (mining, milling, and fabrication) Most of the costs go into interest on capital. Although breeder reactors prove to be the ideal reactor because it transmutes most of the inert U-238 into U-235, the sheer cost of the plant makes heavy water reactors (HWR) more economic. That's unfortunate that a reactor that can extract 20 times the energy from a unit of fuel ends up costing more over its life because it was twice as expensive to build as a HWR
  15. Jabbadabbado Manager Emeritus

    Member Since:
    Mar 19, 1999
    star 7
    From Bloomberg:

    China?s power generation rose to a record in August after the domestic economic recovery spurred demand from businesses and factories.


    Here are the benefits of a managed economy. China is going to beat the U.S. to a bloody pulp over energy sourcing and the development of an industry for renewable energy technology.

    Even as the world forges ahead with clean energy tech and the pace of advances increases, it still won't prevent the U.S., China, Australia, Japan, the EU, South Korea, etc. from burning every remaining obtainable ounce of fossil fuel.
  16. Alpha-Red Force Ghost

    Member Since:
    Apr 25, 2004
    star 5
    So we've got several dozen nuclear reactors on various submarines and aircraft carriers, and as far as I know we've had a perfect track record with them. Can't the same be done for civilian application of the same technology?
  17. Lowbacca_1977 Force Ghost

    Member Since:
    Jun 28, 2006
    star 6
    I just caught the Simi Valley nuclear meltdown... and living just over the hill from Simi Valley, I'm rather unnerved that I've never known about that.

    Wikipedia does list several military accidents, but they seem to be mostly the testing sites, and not those on submarines or aircraft carriers.
  18. Darth_Yuthura Jedi Master

    Member Since:
    Nov 7, 2007
    star 4
    Ever hear of K-19? That is a Soviet submarine, but it had a terrible accident as a result of poor design and construction.

    The construction of reactor compartments on US submarines is excellent. When Thresher and Scorpion were destroyed, the reactor compartments remained largely intact, despite the subs having imploded by the pressure of the ocean.

    The problem with civilian applications here is that American reactors actually were built much the same as those in submarines and carriers, which was one of the reasons they were so expensive. The accidents of the past really were a result of poor safety measures or experimental designs. EVERY SINGLE nuclear accident of the past can be prevented from ever happening again. The conditions of the past where you could operate a reactor without a containment dome can't be replicated today. Nuclear energy really is safer now than it's ever been.
  19. CucumberBoy Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Mar 11, 2007
    star 3
    Yeah the safety is not the big problem about nuclear though. It's the fact that it's a limited resource and it screws up the enviroment a lot. It's pretty good as a temporary solution, but eventually we have to get rid of it.
  20. Darth_Yuthura Jedi Master

    Member Since:
    Nov 7, 2007
    star 4
    There actually is enough U-235 uranium to make it last longer than oil and natural gas, but if you used fast breeder reactors, that could mean there's enough nuclear fuel to outlast all the world's coal reserves.

    And it only screws up the environment if handled improperly. Otherwise nuclear is the cleanest fuel with the smallest volume of waste of any kind of powerplant.
  21. Jabbadabbado Manager Emeritus

    Member Since:
    Mar 19, 1999
    star 7
    Largest Offshore Wind Farm to Go Online

    the facts:

    -30 kilometers off the coast of Denmark
    -spread over 35 square km
    -209 megawatts
    -$1 billion development cost

    "offshore wind could be the dominant source of employment in the sector in Europe by 2025, providing 200,000 jobs."

    Just to put this in sobering perspective, as of June, 2009, 36 coal-fired plants are either permitted for development or under construction in the U.S., with a total capacity of 21,933 megawatts, according to the National Energy Technology Laboratory.

    The real kicker is that this is a tiny fraction, a few percentage points, of the coal-fired capacity under construction in China.
  22. CucumberBoy Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Mar 11, 2007
    star 3
    Whoaw, really? I thought that the US was at least cutting down on coal power...

    It's on of those things that in a silly way makes me kind of proud of my country. Our goal is to in 2020 have 40% less greenhouse gas emissions than in 1990 and 0 net greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Of course I had nothing to do with it, so I can't really brag - but hopefully we can serve as some sort of role model in this aspect.
  23. Ghost Chosen One

    Member Since:
    Oct 13, 2003
    star 6
    The real question on how to confront climate change, the real core of our upcoming resource (esp. water/energy/food) scarcity problems... how are China and India supposed to develop and raise their people out of absolute poverty (300 million people in India alone, the size of the population of the United States, lives in absolute poverty) without putting too much more stress on the global environment or letting the civilization "machine" quite literally run out of gas?

    If it is going to happen, we can definitely say the age of the automobile must end, for instance. A much smaller percentage of Indians own an automobile, but their urban centers are just as congested and overcrowded.

    The Chinese have had remarkable success in organization, and could mobilize their people to make the changes because they are an authoritarian one-party state. India is more complex (much more like the United States in regards to diversity and laws and government, than China or Japan), but it is stable and capable of great progress, such as going from 5 million cell phone users in 2001 to 500 million cell phone users in 2008, or the rapid decline of the importance of caste in the past 100 years.

    But, from their point of view, why would they? To them, the West asking India/China to cut carbon emissions is like a fat man telling a scrawny and growing teenager to stop eating so much food. India pollutes about 2 tons of carbon emissions into the air a year, while the United States pollutes about 20 tons a year. Asking people in the U.S. to cut carbon emissions means buy another gas guzzler instead of an SUV. In India or China, asking them to cut carbon emissions would mean resigning to perpetual darkness and extreme poverty.

    It was also the West who have been industrializing and consuming and polluting for the past 200 years, often as the expense and exploitation of countries like China and India and other colonial efforts. Why should Asia stop modernization and let their people die, because of their old colonial masters' wasteful, centuries-old habits finally catching up to them?

    Also, population growth usually does not level off until a nation becomes rich. That's achieved when the majority of the people becomes literate and healthy so they can build a sustainable middle class (including sexual equality, education of women, access to birth control and contraceptions). That cannot happen without further development, which means more resource consumption and more waste.

    Yet, climate change has already begun, and it will affect countries like China and India the most. The Himalayan glaciers are already shrinking, which are the source of most Asian rivers, and therefore a major source of fresh water and agriculture. Governments need to discover what their best farmers' agricultural methods are, and then educate other farmers to implement those methods. Perhaps China and India would sign a carbon emissions treaty if it allowed wiggle room and investment in and financial incentives for efficient, environmentally-friendly development of their nations. Make green, sustainable development of India, China, and other LDC's a global mission and high priority for all nations. For the entire world to really come together to help them develop the right way... a modern and globally-coordinated, highly cooperative, "Marshall Plan" for green development in those two Asian giants. That's my idea, anyways.
  24. Jabbadabbado Manager Emeritus

    Member Since:
    Mar 19, 1999
    star 7
    India is facing rioting over electricity shortages. China is throwing everything it has at providing enough energy to sustain their current growth rate. Consequently, the Chinese are rapidly becoming world leaders in energy across the board: coal, nuclear, hydro, wind, solar.

    The U.S. has the problem of expanding its generating capacity to meet the needs of a growing population with about the world's highest per capita energy consumption while at the same time replacing an aging energy infrastructure - an aging, inefficient, rusting grid, nuclear plants at the extreme end of their designed lifespans, etc. Mexico's oil production is now in what looks like permanent decline. Within a decade they may no longer be in a position to export oil to the United States. Canada's oil sands cannot make up the difference.

    Europeans face the problem that the U.S. faced more than two decades ago - their oil production has peaked and is in rapid decline. Soon the great north sea oil exporters will have to import oil like everyone else. Western Europe will become increasingly dependent on Russian oil and natural gas, with increasing potential for conflict over access to those resources.

    Expansion of alternative energy infrastructure is slow - it's adding a tiny fraction of total capacity each year.

    What's happening in the face of these challenges is not a green energy evolution. What's really happening is an unchecked stampede to coal. As far as I know, not a single one of the hundreds of coal fired plants currently planned or under construction around the world, unless it is some kind of unique test facility, is going to "sequester" carbon.

    How much coal is still in the ground. "A lot." A 50 year supply? What if we double the world's coal-fired capacity in a decade?

    I think it's time for total honesty: climate change denial is the only option open to us. All the economically accessible coal and oil still in the ground is going to be burned, most of that within the next two decades.

    We can argue forever about what the environmental impact will be, but whatever that impact is, it's going to happen. There is, at this point, no chance whatsoever of mitigating it.
  25. Darth_Yuthura Jedi Master

    Member Since:
    Nov 7, 2007
    star 4
    Well nuclear is viable in France and Japan. The US can do the same thing, but just can't use the same methods of building power plants for generation one reactors. Nuclear is about as economically viable as coal, assuming that coal prices remain the same. Obviously coal gets more expensive, but over the course of a powerplant's life, nuclear is marginally better. That's still getting better, while coal is getting more expensive.

    Coal is in no shortage. The US has at least enough to last for 200 years at current demands. That amount is only for what reserves we know of. We can safely rely on coal for at least the next hundred years before we can expect problems.

    I would agree with that.
Thread Status:
Not open for further replies.