CHE 300

Environmental Science

Dr. J. A. Schneider
Dept. of Chemistry
SUNY Oswego
Oswego, NY 13126

Rm: 237 Snygg Hall
Tel: 315.312.2124


Languages Across the Curriculum

Putting It Into B.T.U.'s (New York Times: February 26, 1979) by David Morris


WASHINGTON - How can we expect Americans to participate knowledgeably in debate about our energy future if we have no common frame of reference?

In my own work with Government officials, community organizations, and planners, the hardest problem in energy planning occurs right at the beginning, with the language we use.

Our fragmented units of measuring energy confuse and paralyze rather than inform and catalyze.

In any weight-reducing chart, a calorie is a calorie whether it comes from meat or cereal or vegetables. But while our food energy is measured in calories, our electric bills read in kilowatt hours, gas bills come in therms or cubic feet, fuel oil and gasoline is purchased in gallons. Sophisticated energy analysts speak of megajoules.

This bewildering array breeds the dangerous illusion that there are many different kinds of energy embodied in these commodities. It tends to thwart the curious citizen.

Each of these units, however, could easily be converted into B.T.U.'s: The B.T.U., or British Thermal Unit, is the amount of energy required to raise the temperature of a pound of water one degree Fahrenheit. There are four B.T.U.'s in a calorie, slightly over 3,400 in a kilowatt hour and 100,000 in a therm of natural gas.

Once a common energy unit was adopted, consumers could more easily compare the costs of different fuels and energy-consuming devices.

An electric range with an oven consumes about four million B.T.U.'s per year. In New York City, where electricity costs about $25 per million B.T.U.'s, the annual operating cost would be $100. A gas stove with a pilot light uses about eight million B.T.U.'s per year. At current New York gas prices of about $4 per million B.T.U.'s, the annual operating cost is about $30. A hot shower, in New York using electricity costs about 15 cents; the same shower in Portland, Ore., costs less than a nickel because of inexpensive hydroelectric power.

During the next 20 months, the Public Utilities Regulatory Policies Act of 1978 requires all state public-service commissions to undertake an exhaustive evaluation of many aspects of utility regulation. It imposes on utilities the requirement that they inform consumers of last year's energy consumption compared to this year's. It is an excellent time for such commissions to redesign the utility bill so that it reads in B.T.U.'s.

A common unit of measurement would generate curiosity and investigation.

If kilowatt hours were translated into B.T.U.'s, we would discover that one million B.T.U.'s of electrical energy are three times more expensive than one million B.T.U.'s of natural gas, and might ask why. We would discover that the oil we use to heat our homes costs less, but contains more energy, than the gasoline we pump into our cars. We might look at the newcomer to the internal-combustion engine, alcohol, and view its relatively low energy content against its efficiency.

It would be easy to change our utility bills. It is more difficult to make such a policy applicable to fuel and gasoline stations, yet it can be done.

I do not envision a future when I would drive into the gas station and ask the attendant to fill up the tank with 20 million B.T.U.s, but there is little reason that I can't know how much energy I am paying for, as well as how many gallons.

Such a change would force us to consider other related issues, such as the overall system efficiency of converting raw fuel to the final product, or the qualitative aspects of energy.

The electric utility would undoubtedly try to explain to its customers that even though the cost per B.T.U. consumed inside the house was high, the conversion efficiency is 100 percent compared to 70 percent efficiency of natural gas, thus changing the real cost. In their own self-interest, utilities would tend to enlighten us still further about the use of energy in its various forms.

Yet the more sophisticated concepts of system efficiencies or end-use matching, or quality, must rest on a firm foundation. Currently none exists.

And as long as that continues, we cannot expect the American public to knowledgeably, and willingly, join in our energy debate.

A common basis of dialogue is a necessary, although not a sufficient, condition for an educated public debate about our energy future.

If we do not speak the same language, we often do not speak to the same issues. We flail about, developing at one level ever more complicated computer models to map our energy future, while the average citizen at the other end cannot read a bill.


David Morris is a director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a research and technical-assistance organization.

All material (except for some code, external links and Optional Readings) © Jeffery A. Schneider, 2003