BTUs Per Capita

Last Update: Wed Feb 29 20:52:13 2012

BTUs per Capita

I apologize for bringing up a topic that is hopelessly and tediously dull. But if you are going to understand American/Canadian energy usage, you have to understand how much energy Americans use; a little about how we measure energy usage; and what it takes energy wise to get an American through the day. Most of what I say applies to Canadians as well with obvious adjustments for the fact that Canada is more thinly populated, has greater per person heating needs, and is an energy exporter.

I'll start with the bottom line. The US uses a lot of energy per person. More than most other developed countries. A third more than developed countries in cold climates. Twice as much as developed countries in moderate climates that are serious about energy usage. Even if we get deadly serious about energy conservation, we are still going to use lots of energy. Realistically, we might be able to cut usage per person by one third over the course of several decades without crippling pain. But since the population continues to grow, we are always likely to use a lot of energy.

On to details.

Let's discuss the always fascinating subject of per Capita BTU usage (BTU/c). BTU/c is the amount of energy a society uses divided by the number of people using the energy. BTU/c is a useful tool for comparing energy usage in different economies. As a bonus, it can give a hazy picture of how much energy Americans can reasonably expect to save by conservation without being reduced to third world subsistence.

A British Thermal Unit (BTU) is roughly the amount of energy needed to heat one pound of water one degree Fahrenheit. BTUs are often used because of problems with the alternatives. One alternative is calories which come in two varieties that are almost impossible not to confuse. The other alternative is the metric system unit Joules. Joules are inconveniently small. A BTU is 1055 Joules, 252 calories, .252 kilocalories. (The "calories" in food are actually kilocalories.)

BTU/c can be either per day or per year. I'm using per day because it is easily compared to some usage people might recognize. A gallon of most liquid hydrocarbons -- propane, gasoline, kerosene, diesel -- contains roughly 100000 BTU. As low as 90000 for propane. As much as 135000 for kerosene. Ethanol has only 84,000 BTU per gallon. A Kilowatt Hour is 3413 BTU. A cubic foot of natural gas is around 1000BTU. A cord of wood or a ton of coal yield very roughly 20,000,000 BTU.

Here's a table:
Fuel amount BTU
Propane 1 gallon 90000
Unleaded Gasoline 1 gallon 114100
Diesel 1 gallon 129200
Kerosene 1 gallon 135000
Ethanol 1 gallon 84000
Electricity Kilowatt Hour 3413
Natural Gas Cubic Foot 1000
Wood cord 20000000
Coal ton 20000000

In a couple of paragraphs, I will have a table of BTU/c in a number of countries. US usage is quite high compared to most other developed countries. Were it not for our preference for imported oil over domestic energy sources, using a lot of BTUs would not be an economic problem when BTUs are cheap. However, high BTU usage even when energy supplies are domestic tends to put the US at a competitive disadvantage when the price of BTUs goes up as it has recently. Additionally, the cost of imported petroleum dwarfs any likely amount of offsetting exports and causes on-going balance of payments problems. Then there is the possible cost of CO2 driven global warming. Florida real estate, for example, has an assessed value of over a trillion dollars. The average elevation of the state is 100 feet. Enough global warming and there will be considerably less Florida, less Florida Real Estate, and a bunch of very unhappy, underwater (in several senses of the word), property owners. However, one should note that there is absolutely no correlation between 20th century increases in atmospheric CO2 and 20th century changes in sea level ... None whatsoever.

One way to cut US BTU usage is conservation. How much can we cut it without really severe pain? There are a number of major developed countries -- Germany, the UK, France, Japan, Switzerland that use about 400K btu per person. They have evolved relatively low energy consumption economies that might have some resemblance to an energy efficient US. I think their energy usage of 366K BTU/c/day (Switzerland) and 430K (Germany) is probably a bit lower than the US can realistically expect to achieve. Why? Because many climates in the US are more rigorous than theirs; because US distances traveled are typically greater; because US industry includes a lot of activities that tend to be energy intensive; and because the US has a large and energy intensive chemical industry that actually makes stuff folks elsewhere want to buy. From an energy point of view, it does absolutely no good to anyone in the US to move that industry out of the country.

So what can the US realistically expect to achieve via conservation? I'm guessing 550-650BTU/c/day. Current (well, OK 2005) consumption is 896K BTU/c/day. So maybe with high mileage vehicles, public transportation, smaller, more fuel efficient houses, more use of railroads and less of cars, planes, trucks, better appliances, etc,etc,etc we can cut per capita energy use by one third or a bit more. It'll take decades.

Energy usage per person varies widely in different countries:
Country KBTU/capita/day
United Arab Emirates 1424
Kuwait 981
United States 896
Canada 831
Singapore 656
Australia 600
Netherlands 565
Finland 548
Russia 515
Iceland 492
Germany 430
United Kingdom 406
France 404
Japan 388
Denmark 367
Switzerland 366
Estonia 358
Ukraine 349
Slovak Rep 325
Italy 313
Israel 252
Belarus 237
Romania 203
Macao 109
Syria 97
China 73
Egypt 56
India 29

Note: I occasionally give some thought to correcting US energy usage to add energy used to produce imports and subtract exports. It would be difficult to do so because the energy budget for non-petroleum products delivered to US ports for import doesn't seem to be readily available And neither does the energy budget for exported material. For the time being at least, I've put the idea aside. If I ever encounter import/export corrected numbers, I'll update to them.

Note: I have converted BTU/c in this chart from annual to daily and the units from millions of BTU to thousands of BTUs. There are many more countries and other types of data in the original.

Note: BTU per capita numbers for New Zealand and Brunei in the original source looked dubious to me. They don't seem reasonable in terms of BTU/c values for other years found on the Internet. I omitted those two countries. I can't promise that other numbers aren't wrong, but then I couldn't promise that no matter what source I used.

So, at this point, we know that the US uses a lot of energy and that other industrial countries somehow get by on as little as 45% of US usage. We should strongly suspect that -- barring finding vast amounts of cheap BTUs -- US energy use is probably unsustainable. In the next article we'll look at what the US actually does with all those BTUs.