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Monthly Archives: May 2008

Students at Oberlin College show that conserving resources can be low-tech and fun. Carbon Kids intends to bind individual household groups into a larger movement that includes business, education, government and public utilities. Younger kids are already hard at work in their elementary school.


The following table and plot illustrate changes in usage of electricity, gasoline, coal, etc. with respect to changing population. Apparent in the following table is the dramatic increase in residential energy use relative to the population change during that period. Use of coal and natural gas required to generate that additional electricity has also increased, though coal used for electricity is not specific to residential consumption. Consumer gasoline consumption has slightly outpaced population growth.

Residential Energy Use 1983-2005

A natural target for conservation efforts is therefore in the residential electricity sector. The increased per-capita consumption apparent in the plot below has not resulted in a significantly higher standard of living–at least not in the past few decades. I have not studied post-WWII rural electrification, etc., so can’t comment on per-capita increases during the 40s through the 60s. But I do know that during my childhood in small-town Idaho in the 70’s, my family had electric lights and a refrigerator despite not having a lot of money. Based on this unscientific study, I would suggest that people haven’t gotten happier because of increased electricity consumption. With the availability of energy efficient appliances, heating/cooling units, lighting, etc., significant energy savings are achievable without requiring painful changes in lifestyle.

New Energy Information Administration ( statistics from the 2005 Residential Energy Survey will be released within the next few months, and will provide a detailed breakdown of household energy consumption. With the burgeoning use of consumer electronics, this should be very interesting.

Electricity and Population Growth 1948 - 2005

[refs. 8, 10, 11]

Sources for the above:

5. Energy Information Administration, US Department of Energy, Annual Energy Review 2006.
Table 5.13a Estimated Petroleum Consumption: Residential and Commercial Sectors, 1949-2006
6. Energy Information Administration, US Department of Energy, Annual Energy Review 2006.
Table 6.5 Natural Gas Consumption by Sector, 1949-2006
7. Energy Information Administration, US Department of Energy, Annual Energy Review 2006.
Table 8.5a Consumption of Combustible Fuels for Electricity Generation: Total (All Sectors), Selected Years, 1949-2006
8. Energy Information Administration, US Department of Energy, Annual Energy Review 2006.
Table 8.9 Electricity End Use, Selected Years, 1949-2006
9. Energy Information Administration, US Department of Energy. U.S. Total Gasoline All Sales/Deliveries by Prime Supplier (Thousand Gallons per Day)
10. U.S. Census Bureau. No. HS-1. Population: 1900 to 2002
11. U.S. Census Bureau. The Statistical Abstract 2007: The National Data Book.
Table 11 – Resident Population by Age and Sex: 1980 to 20

By taking such commonsense actions as consolidating trips, using public transportation, and driving the old Honda instead of the SUV, Americans are grudgingly coping with higher gasoline prices. Kids can certainly help their families adopt these new strategies–even if they can’t drive yet.

Perhaps a stretch, but information like this is useful in devising approaches to changing other habitual behaviors–like wasting energy. Among other things, Carbon Kids hopes to give individual actions a collective presence. By working within households/families, communities and schools, the program intends to foster intimate social connections that are pieces of a larger movement. This can’t be done from the top down.

From the other side, individual actions can seem inconsequential if not bound somehow to the actions of others, particularly those people one sees daily. Even local chapters of environmental organizations aggregate individuals from across a city, each person going back to her/his own neighborhood. That’s why, if possible, core activities of Carbon Kids should be connected to schools. In addition to the formalized learning component, elementary schools in particular are in the midst of the neighborhoods they serve, binding the children together by virtue of physical proximity.

This goes to show that younger kids are adept at identifying wasted energy and doing something about it:

The “big kids,” from college students to businesses, can do exactly the same thing. (I’ll be trying to start a program like this at my campus.)

Oregon Green Schools’ page on Hollydale Elementary.