Energy Images Are Deceiving

Oil, natural gas and coal make up 81 percent of U.S. energy usage. Wind and solar contribute only 2.6 percent—and less than 0.5 percent of world energy consumption. So why are we bombarded with so many images of wind turbines and solar panels?

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Humans are visual creatures. Scientists estimate that our brains process images 60,000 times faster than text… and that 90 percent of all information transmitted to the brain is visual.

Keep that in mind…literally…when I ask you this question. How much do wind and solar power contribute to world energy consumption? Five percent? 10 percent? 15? Not even close.

According to the International Energy Agency wind turbines provide next to nothing when it comes to powering our world. Wind power produces less than one-half of one percent of global energy demand. Solar supplies even less.

You might be confused by these sobering statistics because when people talk about energy, especially renewable energy, what do we see? Windmills and solar panels. Why is that?

Well, there are a lot of people out there, on Wall Street, in the media, government, and in activist groups who have a vested interest in promoting these energy technologies over traditional energy sources.

But, equally important is the fact that windmills and solar panels are visually appealing—at least from a marketing standpoint.

For graphic designers it’s a lot easier and satisfying to show spinning turbines and reflective panels instead of nuclear, coal, or natural gas fired power plants. And while they’re at it, why not show the windmills and gleaming solar systems in an idyllic setting of green hills and blue skies… with children playing while bicyclists joyfully ride by. It’s an emotionally uplifting picture… but it’s completely disconnected from reality.

Modern windmills are giant structures that reach more than twice as high as the Statue of Liberty and can be seen from great distances. The blades spin at upwards of 200 miles per hour, making them as loud as a lawn mower up close and similar to an air conditioner 200 meters away. Bird and bat kills are also still a significant problem.

Solar farms are actually large industrial sites. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but the real-world image is far different than the typical way solar facilities are shown graphically.

Now lets consider an accurate visual representation of US energy consumption. Oil, natural gas, and coal provide 81 percent of our energy needs with nuclear rounding it up to 90 percent. The final 10 percent is filled by renewables. However, 7 and a half percent of that comes from hydroelectric power, biomass, and geothermal. So, only 2 .6 percent of America’s energy use comes from wind and solar power.

Consider then, what an accurate picture of our energy consumption should look like. Oil, which provides most of our transportation through gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel, should be the biggest image in the frame. Natural gas that delivers fuel for heating and cooling, cooking and electricity production is the second biggest player. Coal, Nuclear Power, Biomass, and Hydroelectric make up nearly all of the final third of our energy consumption.

The meager contributions of wind, solar, and geothermal power are so small they hardly deserve to be in the picture. But this kind of accurate, visual representation of our energy use doesn’t sell the fantasy that so many powerful interests want you to believe, and it’s not nearly as appealing for the people who create energy-related images.

You’ve heard the wise old saying “You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.” What’s also true is you shouldn’t judge the importance of an energy source or technology solely by the pictures you see. In the vast majority of cases, those images are deceiving.

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  • It’s been widely reported that our brains process visual information 60,000 times faster than text. Recently some analysts have sought to debunk this estimate (how can we even measure such a thing anyway?), but the general principle is all we need to establish. Humans process images much faster than text. Here are two recent examples of the brain’s processing power.
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  • According to the International Energy Agency’s report on Key Renewables Trends, wind provided 0.46 percent of global energy consumption in 2014 and solar and tidal energy contributed 0.35 percent. Therefore, wind and photovoltaic solar (and tidal) and contributing less than one percent of total global power.
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  • On the U.S. Energy Information Agency’s home page there is a helpful graphic that breaks out our energy consumption. The graph (from U.S. Energy Information Administration, Monthly Energy Review, Table 1.3 and 10.1, April 2017) quantifies renewable energy at approximately 10 percent. However, most of that energy comes biomass and hydroelectric power, two kinds of energy that people don’t generally think about when they hear the word “renewable”. Combined, wind and solar provide only 2.7 percent of total energy consumption.
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