Energy Consumption: Not as Simple as Numbers

By now my loyal readers all know that I love maps. Maps can pack a lot of information into a pleasing (or at least interesting) visual image. The map below, for example, uses color shading to show per capita energy use in various countries around the world.

As efficient as they can be for conveying information, maps still might not tell the whole story. Since most if not all countries import or export energy, I wonder what the map above might look like if it showed energy imports or exports per capita? And what forms might those imports or exports take?

Energy imports and exports can show up in unexpected ways. For example, Iceland has a lot of cheap geothermal energy, helping to make the price of electricity in Iceland low compared to other countries. It takes a lot of electricity to refine aluminum ore into aluminum metal, so Iceland’s industries include significant aluminum refining operations. But if you think about it, by exporting ingots of refined aluminum Iceland is also in effect exporting the energy that went into refining the aluminum. Is that a very large fraction of Iceland’s per capita energy usage? We would have to crunch the numbers to find out, but the amount is probably not trivial.

So what’s the point? Well, two points come to mind. First, breezy presentations of things like energy, economics, environmental effects, and a host of other data may not be as simple as they first appear. A complete analysis of energy use or life cycle costs of something may turn out to be more complicated than we might expect. And it is hard to know where to stop as we add things to the analysis. Second, God gave you a good mind, a healthy sense of curiosity, and time to observe and think, so please do not ever hesitate to ask questions about assumptions, analyses, or outcomes that you see in the news or hear from the experts. The experts did not get to where they are without asking questions, and you should ask questions, too!

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