embodied energy

Every material artifact—a carrot bought at the grocery store, the cooler where it was displayed, the supermarket building, the car driven there, and the road network it travels—requires a certain amount of energy in its manufacture, maintenance, and eventual disposal. The methods used to analyze the total embodied energy of manufactured objects vary, but in general, studies over the decades have used life-cycle analysis to quantify embodied energy in computers, household appliances, automobiles, and other common products.

The embodied energy in our physical infrastructure—from water mains and buildings to superhighways and airports—is immense, and thus infrastructure is one of the most important areas where energy use (and associated greenhouse gas pollution) could be reduced. In addition to building smaller, or building less, we can also build differently. Wood, for example, has the lowest embodied energy of common building materials; plastic has approximately six times as much embodied energy by weight, glass 16 times as much, steel 24 times as much, and aluminum a whopping 126 times as much embodied energy as wood. Erecting the scaffolding of civilization took a great deal of energy, and maintaining and expanding it takes more all the time. This vast amount of embodied energy, along with psychological and financial investments in the current energy distribution system, is a key obstacle to fundamental changes in that system.

Another useful metaphor that communicates the idea of embodied energy across a product’s life cycle is the “energy train.” Take for example that ubiquitous artifact of modern civilization, the mobile phone. To its owner, a cell phone is simply a handy gadget that offers convenience and a feeling of connection. But the phone does not exist in isolation—it isn’t a single locomotive chugging down the tracks; rather, it pulls a train of cars behind it, all of which have ecological and energetic costs. Those metaphorical railroad cars are filled with packaging to ship the phone; an advertising industry to inculcate desire for it; a retail store to sell it; a communications network that allows it to function; an assembly plant to build it; factories to manufacture plastic cases and computer chips and other components; mines where copper, silver, and rare earth elements are dug from the ground; the transportation infrastructure to move raw materials; and of course the energy system (oil wells, coal mines, power plants, hydroelectric dams, etc.) that support the entire operation. It is a very long train, and every car being pulled along must be in place for even one mobile phone to make its first call.