By The Metric Maven
A Vox article, American energy use, in one diagram, shows that US Scientists using the metric system are Mormons Making Coffee, without adding any coffee. A diagram is presented for 2016 energy use in the United States:
The units used are in quadrillion BTUs. BTUs are not even a well defined unit. It is stated that a BTU is about 1055 joules. So, a quadrillion BTUs is about 1055 Petajoules. The chart has this run-down for energy consumed in the US:
Because the energy values are BTUs nested inside of a name called a Quad, this is even worse than using Olde English prefixes. The actual energy unit is hidden in a nickname. Clearly it could be worse, the different energy sources could be a mixture of KWh, “metric tons” of coal, and so on. The Quad is simply an Argot, used by insiders to make what they do less transparent. See my essay, John and the Argot-nauts. The author of the article tries to put a Quad in perspective by offering this list of Quad equivalents.
A “quad” is one quadrillion (a thousand trillion) BTUs. Here, according to Wikipedia, are a few things equivalent to a quad:
8,007,000,000 gallons (US) of gasoline
293,071,000,000 kilowatt-hours (kWh)
36,000,000 metric tons of coal
970,434,000,000 cubic feet of natural gas
25,200,000 metric tons of oil
So a quad is a lot of energy. The US consumed 97.3 quads in 2016, an amount that has stayed roughly steady (within a quad or so) since 2000.
This list of units seems to ask a reader to add apples, oranges, grapes, strawberries, blueberries and then compare the sum to bananas. In the metric system we choose but one fruit for comparison. In this case the choice of Petajoules will produce integer comparison values for the smallest and the largest values.
If we use Naughtin’s Laws to rewrite this list in metric we obtain:
The data is presented in all integers and the numbers are easily comparable. Solar and Geothermal do not contribute much of the total, but Natural Gas, Coal, and Petroleum do. Even in the US, a joule is almost certainly a more recognizable energy unit than a Quad, as is the metric prefix modifier Peta- (Petabytes of data storage). The units are suppressed in the original diagram, so we could indicate all values are in Petajoules (PJ) and simplify the table further:
The article notes that most people immediately notice the amount of wasted energy, which is about two thirds according to the article, or about 68 435 Petajoules.
The same diagram from 1970 is presented, also in Quads:
It shows that in 1970 we generated about 71 213 Petajoules of energy and wasted 32 178 Petajoules. Wow, we now officially waste about as much energy as we generated in 1970!
In 1950 the total generated energy was 32 810 Petajoules, of which about half was
The larger point is that scientists at LLNL continue to express energy values the same way they did in 1950. There is also a strange implicit assumption that if the values are presented in pre-metric units, that somehow they will be understood better by the public. This is probably just a rationalization for using internal argot to express these values. One can only speculate why there has never been a change. One thing that is certain, is there has been a significant change in the complexity of our energy generation in the US since the 1950s. The 1950 diagram has four energy inputs, today we have nine. To best understand this information, one should examine how it has been presented in the past and consider a simpler, more intuitive way of expressing this data. The metric system would be a good start, and perhaps reading Edward Tufte might be the next step for government scientists to investigate better ways to express this data, assuming they actually want to, not just for public understanding, but for scientists, engineers and others.
Thanks to Peter Goodyear for bringing this article to my attention.
If you liked this essay and wish to support the work of The Metric Maven, please visit his Patreon Page and contribute. Also purchase his books about the metric system:
The first book is titled: Our Crumbling Invisible Infrastructure. It is a succinct set of essays that explain why the absence of the metric system in the US is detrimental to our personal heath and our economy. These essays are separately available for free on my website, but the book has them all in one place in print. The book may be purchased from Amazon here.
The second book is titled The Dimensions of the Cosmos. It takes the metric prefixes from yotta to Yocto and uses each metric prefix to describe a metric world. The book has a considerable number of color images to compliment the prose. It has been receiving good reviews. I think would be a great reference for US science teachers. It has a considerable number of scientific factoids and anecdotes that I believe would be of considerable educational use. It is available from Amazon here.
The third book is called Death By A Thousand Cuts, A Secret History of the Metric System in The United States. This monograph explains how we have been unable to legally deal with weights and measures in the United States from George Washington, to our current day. This book is also available on Amazon here.