Chapter 7

Why Your Phone Battery Is Always Low: Energy In Modern Life

“We wanted to give you all a little treat. I recommend ‘Full Cell Phone Battery’.” – Janet, literal know-it-all
“Whoa, it somehow tastes how I felt when my cell phone was fully charged. Oh, I’m so relaxed.” – Eleanor, self-centered narcissist

With the exception of life’s true assholes, nobody likes to think of themselves as the bad guy. Most people get up and go about their business, trying to be polite to strangers and do right by those they love. And on a day-to-day basis, that doesn’t seem very complicated. Life isn’t always easy, but it is usually straightforward for the simple reason that complex moral dilemmas don’t present themselves very often in modern American life (that’s why we love soap operas and Oscar bait movies). Global warming threatens that simplicity.

Climate forces us to ask how the gasoline gets into our cars and where it has gone once the tank is empty again.* It poses unanswerable questions about the side effects of all the stuff we buy. It makes simple things like going to the grocery store fraught with hazy but dire ethical conundrums when all we want to do is grab dinner and head home.

(*Fun fact! A gallon of gasoline weighs a little over 6 pounds, so a 13ish gallon fill up is about the same as stuffing a mid-size teenager into your car and then literally vaporizing them. Kids, tell your parents.)

Having that permanent dread hang over everything we do is exhausting and stressful for everyone except the jackasses in charge of the fossil fuel companies. Those sociopaths feel no such empathy. And while humanity as a whole would be measurably better off if they were bankrupted and removed from positions requiring the least bit of responsibility, even they aren’t supervillains.

Exxon and friends don’t spew smoke into the air for fun, cackle maniacally, and then head down to the money orchard to collect their unrelated billions. We pay them to do what they do because fossil energy literally keeps us alive. Their products are necessary, inescapable, and woven tightly into our lives (literally so in the case of polyester, spandex, and other synthetic fabrics).

We use their energy in more ways than can be definitively listed, but all of them fall into one of two categories. First, there’s “personal” energy, which you pay for directly. The second category is the “background” energy that powers all of the systems that make modern society possible. This much larger and almost invisible energy is priced into everything you buy and do; so you still pay for it, just indirectly.

To understand the difference between direct and indirect energy use, think back to the last time you took a shower. Unless you’re traveling, in prison, or on a submarine or something, chances are you showered at home, and in doing so you paid for energy both directly and indirectly. The hot water is your direct, personal energy use. The shampoo is your indirect, background energy use.

Let’s start with the shower itself. It takes a lot of energy to heat water, and you pay for that energy once a month when your local utility sends you the bill for it. Since there’s no middleman between your bank account and your utility, if you use less, the bill goes down; and if you use more, the bill goes up. That’s direct energy, the kind that you pay for out of your own pocket.

But your shampoo didn’t bubble up from a shampoo spring and get dropped at your door by elves. The shampoo, and the bottle it comes in, had to be made, packed, and shipped. That begins with raw materials that have to be drilled, mined, or harvested before getting carted hundreds or thousands of miles to undergo intense refinement and combination into finished products, which are themselves then shipped hundreds or thousands of additional miles to get to you. All of that takes energy, but you don’t directly foot the bill.

Instead, you pay for that energy indirectly. Fossil fuels are used in multiple capacities at every step of your shampoo’s journey: lighting buildings, powering machinery, fueling trucks, even running the computers that keep track of it all. But you never need to worry your pretty little head about any of that because your share of those costs is invisibly built into the shampoo’s price at the checkout counter. That’s background energy.

Personal Energy Use: The Actual Best Thing Since Sliced Bread

“I don’t know, I’m just trying to understand, trying to figure out, you know, exactly what it all means.” – Lampy, refugee
“Well, it’s kinda hard to describe. It’s like being next to a new loaf of bread.” – The Brave Little Toaster, energy mascot

The internet runneth over with energy calculators and carbon calculators and other gimmicky tools to help you asses your personal environmental damage. These things are useful as far as they go, but they often make something very simple seem more complicated than it really is. Day to day, there are only two activities that account for the lion’s share of any American’s personal energy usage: moving around and temperature control. Everything else is minor.

The graph below shows average household energy use. It does not describe any specific home, especially yours. If you have a large house and/or more than one car, your personal energy usage is substantially higher than this example. If you live in a smaller home and/or don’t own a car, your personal energy usage is much lower. (And then there’s airline flights, which are covered at the end of this chapter.)

What applies to everyone, however, are the huge gaps in scale between transportation and HVAC* on the one hand and everything else on the other. It’s another one of those counter-intuitive science things: the stuff you think about least is actually what rings up most of your bill. But we have a handy yardstick to make it easy to remember: your toaster.

(*HVAC is what engineers, architects, and contractors call Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning. You can pronounce it by spelling it out or as a word like “aich-vack”. Both are common usage.)

Driving and HVAC account for almost all the energy Americans use. Everything else is minor.

A common two-slot toaster requires about 1,000 watts of electricity while it’s toasting. A regular 120 volt wall outlet can provide that many watts by supplying 8.3 amps of current. (That may not sound like a lot of amps, but 0.1 is enough to kill you, so be careful around your toaster.) If you apply that much power for one minute, that’s a Toaster Minute: 1,000 watts of power for one minute.

For comparison’s sake, an average cellphone draws about 0.4 amps at about 4 volts for a paltry 1.6 watts. In other words, you can stare at your phone for a whopping ten hours and twenty-five minutes for one Toaster Minute of energy.* Conversely, even when your phone is at 100% battery, it doesn’t have enough juice in it to toast even a single slice of bread. That’s why your phone battery is always low: it’s tiny.

(*The math: 1,000W/1.6W/60 minutes per hour = 10 hours and 25 minutes. And, yes, physics geeks, I know I left out heat, resistance, load balancing, and lots of other complicating factors, but I’m trying to give people a sense of scale, not get Apollo 13 back to Earth.)

Because they’re so small, cell phones sip power rather than gulp it, but most of the objects you find around the house these days can run for a long time on a single Toaster Minute. Modern LED light bulbs draw about 10W,[1] which means you can leave a lamp on for an hour and a half before you’ve used the same amount of power as the toaster in one minute. A typical 42″ television uses about 80W and can run for thirteen minutes for one Toaster Minute.[2]

Add it all up and using your toaster for five minutes at breakfast (enough time to toast four slices of bread) takes about the same amount of energy as an hour of watching TV while you play on your phone. There’s even enough power left over to run a couple of lamps so the room doesn’t look all sad and blue and flickery.

So, comparatively speaking, your toaster is a power hog. If you have a relatively new and efficient refrigerator, it could run for almost a day on just four Toaster Minutes.[3] Toast your morning bagel and that’s more actual electricity than leaving the lights on overnight.

But let’s get back to you in the shower. An average water heater blows through a bread burning 720 Toaster Minutes per day.[4] So just keeping the hot water ready uses as much energy as toasting bread for twelve straight hours or watching TV consecutively for over six days, no bathroom breaks.

It can be difficult to intuitively fathom such large differences in scale, in no small part because they’re the perfect inverse of what we spend our time paying attention to. We actively turn lights on and off; we glare impatiently at toasters, microwaves, and coffee machines; we pay strictest attention to phones, TVs, and other glowing rectangles for hours on end. Yet all that added together is only a minor fraction of the total bill. The big stuff is in water heaters, furnaces, and air conditioners, power monsters that sit unobtrusively in the background where we hardly ever notice them.

Energy wise, there is only one other activity that is in the same league as HVAC: driving. Let’s assume you own a hyper-efficient Chevy Bolt,* those gorgeous machines get about 0.06 miles per Toaster Minute.[5] So using one for a twenty mile round trip commute, which is shorter than the American average, racks up 333 Toaster Minutes every time you head to work and back. That’s days of TV, weeks of lights, and months of phone time, all for your daily circuit around town.

(*Assembled in Lake Orion, Michigan, Go Dragons!)

But you need a very long commute, over forty miles round trip, before you’re driving enough to equal your water heater’s energy usage. And if you live someplace where the air conditioner has to run around the clock in the summer, you’re basically on a months long roadtrip, using just as much power as if you were covering almost five hundred miles every day.

Those three things (heating stuff, cooling stuff, and moving stuff) account for the overwhelming majority of most Americans direct, personal energy usage. So it’s nice if you’re fastidious about turning the lights off when you leave a room, but you could sit in the dark every night and not save as much power as if you had a better water heater or a more efficient car. But while your thermostat and steering wheel account for most of the energy you directly use, they are teeny-tiny rounding errors in comparison to all the background, indirect energy it takes to keep a modern society and economy humming along.

 

Background Energy: Those Bastards!

“Do you ever think about the people in those cars?” – Bart Simpson
“I try not to. It makes it harder to spit on ’em.” – Milhouse van Houten

It is easy to assign responsibility for direct acts like driving a car or flipping a light switch. But when you look behind those actions to the systems, economies, and people who build, install, maintain, and supply those modern conveniences, clear lines of responsibility quickly blur into an infinite web of almost invisible threads.

Think about your shampoo bottle again. The price you pay covers such a diverse array of costs that breaking them down feels goofy. But when all of them are added together, you get trillions of Toaster Minutes and billions of tons of carbon pollution.

For example, that shampoo got to your bathroom on many, many trucks. Tracing backward, you have the truck that brought the bottle to the store, the truck that got it to a distribution warehouse, and the truck that took it to the warehouse from the factory. Before that you have all the trucks that brought plastic and ingredients to the factory. And then you have the trucks that hauled the materials in their raw forms: petroleum, farm products, and all the chemicals that went into paint and dyes and odorants so the stuff you squirt on your hair in the morning can imitate the smell of a floral meadow or mountain spring.

Your purchase, sliced down to thousandths and millionths of a penny, paid for the fossil fuels that ran those trucks. But even that only begins to cover it, because in addition to paying for all that raw energy, your shampoo purchase is also paying for the workers at every step of the process: drivers, technicians, assemblers, stockers, cashiers, you name it. And then there are the people behind them: cooks, mechanics, janitors, bartenders, and yet more truck drivers, the ones who haul all the things those people require.

By now, your billionths of a penny are several steps removed from you in the shower, but the flows of our economy are far from done with them. Each trip by each truck leaves tires a little balder, brake pads a little thinner, and gaskets a little more brittle. So getting your hair clean every day not only pays for fuel and people, it also pays for the wearing, tearing, and replacing of thousands of pieces of machinery, which means still more trucks carrying fuel, tires, spare parts, and fresh asphalt for when the road needs fixing.

At this point, your infinitesimal penny slivers have gotten metaphysical in their journey. Do we count the pharmacists who gave your truck drivers flu shots, keeping them healthy enough to haul? How about the home care specialist who kept an eye on grandma so the line cook at the truck stop could scramble the eggs that fed the truck driver? And what about the teachers who kept an eye on everybody’s kids during the day?

The branches that your shampoo money takes are too numerous to catalog, but each one of them counts in the final tally. You are never going to meet the teacher, or the mechanic, or the forklift operator who loaded your shampoo into that final truck. But they’re all using energy that, in your own small way, you helped pay for.

In sum, your personal energy is everyone else’s background energy, just as their personal energy is your background energy. Most of the time, none of us think about any of it. We just turn on the hot water and reach for the shampoo.

 

Waste More Want More

“Do not, my friends, become addicted to water! It will take hold of you, and you will resent its absence.” – Immortan Joe, world’s shittiest water board commissioner

To a certain extent, not realizing how much energy we use each day is a good thing, a mark of progress. Modern life is opaque and complex and interdependent, and we can’t ask everyone to be an energy expert anymore than we can ask everyone to be a veterinarian or drive a bulldozer. And besides, hot water and comfortable indoor temperatures are not gaudy luxuries or frivolous conveniences. They are basic necessities.

Before humanity tamed fossil fuels, hauling water was a daily task, the burden of which often left those doing the work (usually women) stooped over and permanently hunched at young ages. People also spent hefty chunks of everyday life in back breaking labor to keep enough firewood on hand for cold days and colder nights. (Alternatives, like burning cow pies, were a little easier on the back but carried, um, other drawbacks.) Basic survival required perpetual manual labor that was physically exhausting, mentally numbing, and probably left people pretty cranky in general.

Sloughing those endless chores off to pipes, ducts, condensers, boilers, and other machinery is one of history’s Hall of Fame achievements. And we’ve taken to our new free time like ducks to water, so much so that these days, just a few generations removed from all that painful toil, we can scarcely conceive of how much of a drag it was on daily existence.

Similarly, our many transportation options free us from whiling away our lives stuck in one place. Before fossil transportation became cheap, most Americans rarely ventured more than a few miles from home. And when people did undertake long trips, it often meant weeks or months on foot and a possibly permanent goodbye to family, friends, and a whole world of social connections. Now, thanks to fossil energy, we can zip across cities, states, and continents without suffering a single blister.

We live in a time of miracles: thermostats, hot water, and motorized transit of all kinds are wonders. And the tremendous amounts of money and energy we spend on these human basics are overwhelmingly worth it. Given the life sucking alternatives, they’d be bargains at twice the price.

However – and this is a big however – energy that’s so cheap we barely think about it has also made us grossly wasteful. We piss away staggering, mind boggling, atmosphere cooking amounts of power through simple inattention and inefficiency.

One last time, let’s return to you in the shower. Standing there in your sexy nakedness, you can summon unlimited clean water with a touch of your fingers, not too hot, not too cold, but just right. For you this is utterly unremarkable, but it would’ve made you the envy of kings in any previous age.

Your humble water heater sits tucked away in a basement or closet, silently doing the work of dozens of servants without ever threatening revolt. You rarely see it and only think about it when something breaks. That’s all well and good, except that water heaters (and all the other devices upon which we rely) need love too.

Even modern, highly efficient water heaters require regular maintenance. An annual checkup includes clearing accumulated sediment, keeping insulation tight and secure, and inspecting parts for rust and other decay. Recall that a typical water heater uses 720 Toaster Minutes of energy daily. If its overall efficiency slips by even 5%, that’s 36 Toaster Minutes of extra energy every single day. Uncorrected, that’s the same amount of energy as leaving your TV on for almost three hours extra every night, the whole year round.

The same goes for furnaces, air conditioners, and cars, all of which use ginormous amounts of power even when they’re in the peak of health. But when filters don’t get changed, vents aren’t cleaned, and tires are left under-inflated, the amount of energy needed to keep things running soars. Compounding matters, inefficiencies not only waste power in the here and now, they force equipment to work harder, which wears it out faster, which means a whole slew of new energy is needed to build, ship, and install a replacement far sooner than otherwise.

Neglecting upkeep is just the beginning, however. Some things are inefficient by nature or design. So far, the examples in this chapter have all assumed electrified and relatively efficient miracle machines. But in contemporary America, many of the most energy intense machines we use aren’t electric; they run directly on fossil fuels, sometimes wasting more than half of all the energy we put into them.

An electric water heater uses about 720 Toaster Minutes per day, but if your water heater runs on gas instead of electricity, it’s using more like 1,080 Toaster Minutes per day,[6] wasting up to 40% of its fuel. The electric Chevy Bolt can complete a twenty mile commute for 333 Toaster Minutes, but the similarly sized Chevy Malibu, which runs on gasoline, would run through a whopping 1,322 Toaster Minutes for the same commute.[7] And if you’re driving a wide assed truck like the Chevy Tahoe or Silverado, that twenty mile daily commute consumes an astonishing 2,351 Toaster Minutes.[8]

Last but definitely not least are the functionally uncountable ways we waste heating and cooling energy: inadequate insulation, unused space, old or no weatherstripping, ignoring the effects of direct sunlight (helpful and otherwise), the list is long. Millions of people redo their homes every year and energy efficiency is rarely anything but an afterthought. Millions more pay hefty utility bills because their landlords won’t invest in newer appliances or better windows.

And all that is just direct, personal energy. Step back and widen the view to include the entire economy’s background energy and the scale of our collective waste fills the sky.

 

The Unbearable Silliness of ‘Carbon Footprints’

“All the pieces matter.” – Lester Freamon, meticulous cataloger

Trying to assign blame down to trillionths of a penny through dozens of degrees of separation is obviously impractical. This is why carbon footprint surveys, quizzes, and calculators on the internet must be used with some caution. There’s no doubt that your particular economic activity supported some amount of carbon going into the air, but trying to quantify just how much is an effectively unanswerable philosophy question.

Take air travel, a huge source of pollution. Carbon calculators usually have a separate line item for how many times you fly per year because even one long flight can cause as much atmospheric damage as a month or more of your (already energy intense) car commute.

A chart comparing monthly car commutes to airline flights.

And yet, the rock bottom truth is that any individual commercial passenger’s decisions barely matter at all. If you don’t buy a seat on a particular flight, some total stranger will; the worst case for the airline is that they have to discount it a little. But even if your seat is empty, the plane is still going to take off and burn almost exactly the same amount of fuel as if you were on board.

At takeoff, a highly efficient and full capacity Boeing 737-800 weighs approximately eighty-six tons, twenty-three tons of which is jet fuel.[9] The presence or absence of you and your luggage hardly rates notice, and matters a lot less to the plane’s total fuel use (and carbon pollution) than the wind, or the time of day, or an extra minute taxiing on the tarmac. How responsible are you for that?

Getting deeper into sophomore ethics territory, what about business travel? Roughly a third of all flights in the US are for work.[10] If you’re flying because your paycheck depends on it, is that voluntary? Do you deserve the blame for that pollution, or does it fall on your employer? In theory you could quit, but they’d just hire someone else to fly those miles and probably make snide jokes about you afterward.

(This is void, of course, for private jet people. If the plane isn’t taking off without you, then all that carbon is yours, you rich asshole.)

Then there are all the other complexifying factors that arise from messy human lives. Take snowbirds, the seasonal air commuters who fly twice per year. These are (usually older) people who spend winters in the warm climates of the Southwest or Southeast but live in the cooler summers of the Midwest or Northeast. Their flights back and forth cause a lot of pollution, but by not needing to run a furnace in a cold winter or blast an air conditioner in a hot summer, their overall level of energy and pollution may actually be lower with that annual flight than without it.

It’s limitlessly complicated, which makes trying to portion out blame extremely silly. Generally speaking, the Americans with the smallest direct energy carbon footprints live in walkable neighborhoods, don’t commute by car, and rarely (if ever) board an airplane.*

(*Most Americans don’t fly in any given year. And half of the people who do fly take only one or two trips.)[11]

If you aren’t one of those low carbon Americans already, you could rent or buy a place in your local city and become one. But if in doing so you price out other folks from doing the same, if the service industry people who work in the shops, salons, bars, and restaurants that make your neighborhood walkable have to commute from far away, then the overall level of high and low carbon people hasn’t changed. You’ve just shifted the direct energy usage to those who can’t afford a walkable neighborhood. Net difference to the atmosphere: zero.

This tendency, for personal or localized energy virtue to mean nothing for overall pollution, is called Jevon’s Paradox, or, more memorably, the ‘boomerang effect’. Say you put solar panels on your roof. That’s good. But by adding energy to your local grid you also decrease the price of electricity, which leads to other people using more of it, which increases overall energy usage, which means your well intentioned actions haven’t resulted in any less carbon actually going into the air. It’s maddening but unavoidable.[12]

No matter how conscientious you are, major reforms that amount to total overhauls of our most basic systems are the only way we get out of this. But, as hidebound politicians and overpaid pundits are fond of pointing out, big structural reforms cost a lot of money.

What most of them skip over is whose money. And it is because of that glaring omission that the argument that addressing global warming will cost too much is the biggest pile of dishonest bullshit in the world today.

Coming up next, how much will a Green Deal cost you? If you’ve never flown in a private jet, not one penny! In fact, unless you’re a multi-millionaire, you’ll probably get paid. Read on! Continue to Chapter 8 – Raw Bullshit: A Green Deal Is Too Expensive

[Endnotes for Chapter 7:

[1 – https://energyusecalculator.com/electricity_ledlightbulb.htm]
[2 – https://energyusecalculator.com/electricity_lcdleddisplay.htm]
[3 – https://energyusecalculator.com/electricity_refrigerator.htm]
[4 – https://energyusecalculator.com/electricity_waterheater.htm At this point in the footnotes, I should point out that these are all ballpark figures and I’m using just the one source to keep things somewhat consistent. Don’t @ me.]
[5 – https://www.chevybolt.org/threads/how-many-m-kwh-are-you-getting.6810/, this is a Bolt owners forum where drivers report between 3-4 miles per kWh (or 60 TMs); for simplicity’s sake I’ve averaged it at 3.5 miles per kWh, or 0.06 miles per Toaster Minute.]
[6 – https://www.diffen.com/difference/Electric_Water_Heater_vs_Gas_Water_Heater]
[7 – The Malibu is rated at 32 MPG by the EPA (https://www.fueleconomy.gov/feg/Find.do?action=sbs&id=40776), which comes to 0.625 gallons for a twenty mile trip. A gallon of gasoline coverts to kWh at a rate of 35.26 (120,000 BTU / 3,412 BTU, https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/units-and-calculators/british-thermal-units.php). So 0.625 gallons x 35.26 = 22.0375 kWh * 60 minutes = 1,322.25 Toaster Minutes.]
[8 – Silverado and Tahoe basic configurations are rated at 18 MPG (https://www.fueleconomy.gov/feg/Find.do?action=sbs&id=40292, https://www.fueleconomy.gov/feg/Find.do?action=sbs&id=40424), which means 1.111 gallons per twenty mile commute, which comes out to 2,351 TMs.]
[9 – https://www.airlines-inform.com/commercial-aircraft/boeing-737-800.html The math: 737-800 max takeoff weight of ~78,000kg converts to 86 standard tons. Fuel capacity of 26,020L at 0.81 g/mL of kerosene (https://www.chevron.com/-/media/chevron/operations/documents/aviation-tech-review.pdf, p7) is 21,076kg which converts to 23 standard tons.]
[10 – https://www.airlines.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/Heimlich-AirTravelSurvey-FINAL-28Feb2017.pdf, p6]
[11 – [https://www.airlines.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/Heimlich-AirTravelSurvey-FINAL-28Feb2017.pdf, p5]
[12 – Green Illusions: The Dirty Secrets of Clean Energy and the Future of Environmentalism by Ozzie Zehner, University of Nebraska Press, 2012, p 171-184]