Energy as an Input

May 30, 2012

By Matt Palmer

A new article by the Canada West Foundation’s “Let’s Talk Energy” project “Energy as an Input” does a great job of detailing the use of fuel sources like coal, oil, and natural gas in Western Canada. While it can be easy to get lost in the numbers, increasing our energy literacy and understanding how different fuel sources are used throughout the system becomes invaluable.

 Even after exporting to other countries and provinces, not all energy available in western Canada is consumed by final end-users. Some is used as an input into the energy-production process; some is used for non-energy purposes and some is refined or otherwise converted to a more useable form. In all three cases, the end result is that some available energy is withdrawn from the overall energy system before it reaches consumers.

In a sense, therefore, the use of energy as an input into other processes represents an intermediate step between production, distribution and trade on the one hand, and energy demand on the other. In State of the West: Energy, we make the distinction between “energy use”—what we do with our raw supply of energy (after net exports)—and “energy consumption,” which refers to the disposition of final energy products and the consumption patterns of end users in the energy system.

Do you know where your electricity comes from? Coal, natural gas, nuclear, wind, or solar panels on your roof? Would knowing where it comes from change how much you consume?

There are many interesting angles to the story of energy and fuel sources. An unintended consequence of the recession and global financial crisis has been a drop in energy consumption. Fuel prices are expected to be higher this summer than in 2008, and in many places prices are already surpassing those levels. That may force many families to forgo summer road trips. People will find other ways, less energy intensive, to enjoy life.

What I find fascinating about this article from Canada West is how much energy is expended in getting the end product – gasoline or electricity – to the end-user. I did an interview with a well-site geologist (video to be posted soon) on Monday, and he related an amazing fact from a trucker working up in the Fort McMurray area who said she uses 7,000 gallons of diesel a month.

Shifting from a high carbon intensive society to a low-carbon one is a big project. It requires visionary thinking, and decisive action. Change does not have to be about sacrifice, rather, change may come from deciding what things are important to us. How does availability of energy (regardless of the fuel) add value to our lives? Finding solutions to harnessing energy from all fuel sources as cleanly and sustainably as possible will go a long way to ensuring the long-term viability of society and life as we know it. But perhaps, there are even greater rewards and solutions to be found from examining why we consume as much energy as we do? Are there ways to reduce per person energy use while maintaining an amazing quality of life for everyone on the planet?

Please feel free to add some feedback to these questions in the comment section.

About Unintended Consequences Documentary Project

I'm Producing and directing a multi-platform documentary project on global energy called "Unintended Consequences".
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