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Banking on BTUs - A single measure for your activities and your appliances

by Ian Francis Sawicki
July 19, 2012


Ian Sawicki/MEDILL

Measuring energy expenditure with a universal yardstick, the Btu.

(Please click link below for interactive version)

In the not-so-distance future, imagine the world is truly flat. Gone are the days of trade wars, tariffs and embargoes. The cost of a gallon of gasoline or a dozen eggs is the same in Calcutta or Bangkok or Phoenix.  And there’s a universal, globally-accepted currency—units of energy.

At the grocery store, we trade dollars for food calories, which are simply units of energy. At the pump, we trade a slice of our paycheck - earned through the investment of our time and talents - for gasoline. As a refined fossil fuel, gasoline is one form of stored energy. In many ways, our hard earned dollars are little more than promissory notes for banked energy.

So what about a uniform way to view energy commitments across the board?

Employing a common thermal unit, such as the British thermal unit (Btu), the calorie or the joule, to consistently measure energy expenditures in absolute terms would enable consumers to see how much more ‘costs’ to drive to work instead of riding a bike or to watch a movie instead of reading a book.

This flattening of perception could go a long way in modifying consumer choices. And since those choices react to costs, the results could reduce dependency on foreign energy and curb global warming caused by fossil fuel emissions. We have calorie content marked on Cheerios and potato chips. Why not take the pattern a step further and apply a standardized system of measurement to both air conditioners and Mazdas?

“It would probably take a while for people to get used to,” said Lars Perner, assistant professor of marketing psychology at University of Southern California. Perner predicted that significant education and promotion would be necessary for a universal or common thermal unit as a basic rate of exchange to stick.

The United States has been slow to adapt existing energy conservation technologies widely used in Europe, such as “smart” metering, which allows users to clock their energy usage in real-time. This is the result of significant economic, social and technological differences between the U.S. and Europe, Perner said.

“First of all, its an economic issue. Historically, the U.S. has tended to be a more affluent country. We’ve also, perhaps, been less worried about pollution because we don’t have the same population" as the European Union, he said. Importantly, he added that the U.S. had become “accustomed to the idea that we can overcome some of the inconveniences and limitations in life” through technology.

Regardless, a universal measure of energy expenditure may be on its way, dictated by a growing necessity that cannot be remedied by innovation alone.

Don Soifer, executive vice president of the nonpartisan D.C. think tank, the Lexington Institute, said his organization is in support of developing renewable technologies. But the U.S. won’t see large-scale changes in energy use patterns until consumers start changing their consumption habits, he said. And they lack the tools to do so.

"People generally think that saving energy is a good thing,” Soifer said, “When they leave the room they turn out the light, but they don't have a real sense of how much [energy] they are actually using."