In an earlier post, I advanced the idea that every high school student should take a course dedicated to energy. I won’t repeat those reasons here, but I will add another one.
I believe that science teachers and professors tend to think that students will be able to pull out the particular components of their chemistry, physics, mathematics and other courses as needed to think about energy in a comprehensive way. I think this is not true, at least for students not studying science and technology as their primary focus, and that the package of analytic tools drawn from these various fields should be assembled and presented to students as a separate course on energy so they can reasonably master issues pertaining to this hugely important topic. Indeed, colleges now have energy-oriented technical degrees, but we need to get all high school students at least conversant with the realities of energy and it’s use.
At the conclusion of the prior curriculum post, I asked what the structure of a high school energy course would look like. And that’s what I’m hoping to explore today.
Rather than start at the beginning, let’s start at the end. What do you want a kid to walk out of this class to have learned?
To my mind, they should be able to see a tangible linkage between the energy we use, the physical resources that were required to create that energy, and an understanding of the carbon emissions associated with that energy.
They should also understand that many of the products around us are the results of significant energy expenditure.
They should understand that the cost of many manufactured products can include a significant slice for the energy that was used to create the finished good.
They should be able to to discuss issues such as energy costs and sources of carbon emissions with reasoned thinking, eschewing the sound-bites that pass for debates on climate and economics on television.
They should understand the frailties and strengths of our energy delivery infrastructure.
The should learn the concepts, if not the mathematics, behind power generation (basically, heat engines.)
That, to me, would give them a lifetime of more enlightened thinking about energy. Nothing bugs me more than seeing some dope on television saying that gasoline prices are “outrageous” without providing a whit of reasoning why. This is simply unacceptable. And now, on to the course…
Where is Energy?
This would be my first section. It is sometimes hard to remember how much energy is all around us. Not just in terms of the gasoline in our cars, the heating oil in our basements, the electricity powering our computers or the diesel fuel in city buses. Energy, or actually, the use of energy, is reflected in every finished surface in our lives.
What do I mean? If I look at my telephone, it is a gracefully shaped piece of plastic with an LCD screen built in. To manufacture this plastic took energy. To mold and shape it took more energy. To create the electronics within it took energy. To create the display took energy. To create safe packaging for it took energy. To deliver it took energy. Say my phone cost $150. The raw materials may be worth a few bucks. The energy needed to convert these raw materials into my phone was probably worth substantially more. In other words, when you pay for that phone, you are probably paying more for the energy that was used to manufacture it than you are for the raw materials out of which it is actually made.
As an aside, I just looked on line and saw a 250 Watt solar panel selling for $700. Solar panels are often touted as clean energy, but a decent chunk of money – let’s guess 25% of the selling price, which is probably low – was spent working the materials into the final product with energy. Well, if $175 worth of energy went into making this thing, that would translate to perhaps 1,500 kWh of electricity (depending on electric prices) that had to be expended to create it. That’s 1,500,000 watts-hours that were spent to create a 250 Watt solar panel. I mean, how often do people think about that? Actually, doing a review of solar cell manufacturing might be a great way to open kid’s eyes about how energy use is embedded in virtually all products that surround us. A bigger challenge would be to find a product with a price that does not reflect embedded energy.
What is Energy?
Here, I would not suggest talking about energy in a formal, thermodynamic way (although that could be done parenthetically) but rather as a review of energy sources (mostly fuels) and their energy contents. These energy contents would be contextualized so that the kids would at least get a vague idea of what they mean. For example, the energy in a gallon of gasoline would be enough to run a 1 kW unit heater for 114 hours. That sort of thing.
Kids also need to get the idea that energy is only manifested as heat or work, and these topics should be covered in a much more straightforward way than the normal thermodynamic language. Heat is easy, and work can be taught with examples.
I would also, towards the end, reveal to the kids the absolutely mind-boggling amount of energy this country uses each year. You might conclude with having them imagine the size of a cube filled with enough petroleum to power the United States for a year (I haven’t done this math but may when time permits.)
Where Do We Use Energy?
This would more properly be titled “Where Do We Use Fuel” but no matter. This would be a survey of different places we burn fuels to make modern life possible. I would initially treat electricity as just another fuel that we use at the plug, but would later describe how power is generated.
Although it sounds crazy, some kids probably do not have a real good handle on how a furnace or hot water heater physically operates, let alone knowing about how electricity is generated.
It would also be good for them to understand more broadly how energy is used in different industries and energy sectors, so that they can get a feel for how significant our use of energy is at home, compared with, say, industry or transportation. Again, we want them contextualizing.
This would also be a place to explain how efficiencies also matter, and how high efficiency systems (say a compact fluorescent versus incandescent light bulb) can pay for themselves and save energy and emissions.
I would definitely turn the kids onto the Energy Information Agency site, among others, and probably come up with a research project for them.
I would definitely take the data from my house and explain where each energy component went, and how much was used doing what, e.g. how much electricity to the stove versus the refrigerator versus lighting? How much natural gas for hot water versus heating versus clothes dryer.
Power plants are special, and teaching how a power plant works can get a little hairy with a non-technical audience. But explaining types of power generation, typical efficiencies, and the massive amounts of resources that are used to generate electricity in our country should certainly surprise some of them and give them a reasonable flavor for what’s going on.
It’s pretty easy to imagine how you would show kids schematic outlines of things like a house’s heating system and walking through with them where the fuel goes in, and how the heat is transported and delivered to end devices like radiators to add heat to a house that slowly looses heat through it’s skin in cold weather. You could even quickly describe how the boiler is controlled so that it only delivers the right amount of heat. And obviously you’d work up to more complex systems such as p0wer plants.
The kids would presumably have a reasonable feel for the use of fuels like oil, coal, natural gas and uranium by now, so I think it would make a lot of sense for them to learn how these fuels are extracted from the earth and processed for final use. A lot of bad things can happen when you take fuels out of the earth, and there are plenty of great photos, articles and books that discuss environmental degradation due to extraction, though there are also relative success stories. I think it important not to demonize energy “producers” because we unquestionably need these fuels to maintain our standard of living, and I actually believe the big firms generally try to do the best they can environmentally. But there is no question that some activities like coal mining are pretty ugly and reflect some of the hidden cost of our voracious energy appetite.
I think I might throw oil refining into this extraction section, even though it is post-extraction, because refineries don’t fit well in the infrastructure discussion I would envision. Oil refineries are so massive and so complex that they need to be in here somewhere.
Next, possibly to groans, I would show kids why the burning of fossil fuel necessarily results in the release of carbon dioxide. However, I would show them the chemistry (which is simple and presented elsewhere in this blog) only for general overview. What I would want them to take away is the bottom line emissions associated with common energy types. So, a gallon of gasoline produces about 18 pounds of carbon dioxide. A kilowatt hour in their area might reflect emissions of 1 pound of carbon dioxide. Heating a typical house with oil for the winter might result in a ton of CO2 being emitted. Stuff like that. At the least, every kid should know what burning a gallon of gas or using a kWh of power generally means in an environmental sense.
Because this section touches upon carbon dioxide emissions, speaking of climate change seems unavoidable, but it does not strike me as problematic. We can factually state that combustion of carbon results in millions of tons of carbon dioxide being emitted into the atmosphere every year. This is not a theory, nor is it debatable. It is a result of combustion chemistry.
Just so, if there is increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and we are putting millions of tons of it into the atmosphere ourselves, we are contributing to the issue. That is unassailable logic.
Because some of the increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide is absorbed by the ocean, where the CO2 produces carbonic acid, there is also a direct and unambiguous link between growing ocean acidification and our emissions.
It would be interesting to see if any kids would take issue with these claims. But you have to deny that burning carbon results in carbon dioxide as a by product. How can you make that argument without looking silly? Perhaps that’s an argument only a politician can make with a straight face.
You will note that this section and the last capture the front and back end “externalities” associated with fuel extraction and use. Some kids might find this a topic on which they’d like to do a project.
A course like this should probably at least touch upon the infrastructure that moves gas, oil and electricity around the United States. There are plenty of good articles and books floating around that discuss not only how these systems work, but what their limitations and vulnerabilities are. The absolutely immense cost of developing these resources should also be covered.
The Cost of Energy
I’d give the kids at least a quick overview of how commodities are bought, sold and transported. I’d try to give them a feel for what energy costs, both in it’s own units (dollars per MWh, dollars per Therm, etc.) and in dollars per 100,000 Btu. This will teach them they don’t want electric heat in their homes (could be mentioned when explaining how power plants produce energy, too.)
There’s so much possibility here I barely know where to start:
- Energy Conservation
- Solar Hot Water
- Solar Furnaces
- Tidal Power
I will say that I personally would disabuse kids of the notion that yet to be discovered technological “breakthroughs” are going to save the day. Incremental improvements, sure, but the fundamentals of thermodynamics make it unlikely a major game changer is in our immediate future. But you never know, and I’ll be happy if it shows up tomorrow.
Here too I think I would track down all the world’s known reserves of oil and natural gas and calculate for the kids (or better yet let them figure out) approximately how long the world could continue to operate at today’s rate of consumption before said reserves ran out. I should probably know the answer to this, but I don’t because I’ve never done the math. Fortunately, I bet EIA has pretty much all the data you would need to readily do the calculation.
Beyond that, I’m not sure. This has been a really long post and I’m getting tired. But I will say this. I think the outlined course could be highly valuable to kids, and also a lot of fun for them. I think it would better for America if kids had to take a course like this rather than, say, a physics class. Better still would be to take this class in addition to physics!
Not sure if anyone will ever read this, but if you do and if you made it to the end, thanks for reading!