An energy primer for ‘non-energy-geeks’

How much energy we use might help us understand how much we waste

Virtually everything in our world relies on energy: transportation, heating, cooling, food production, manufacturing, the internet and much more.  In my lifetime, energy has been abundant and cheap (largely because fossil fuels have been burned without any consideration of the cost of the damage their emissions cause – something economists refer to as externalities).

But abundance leads to waste.  And abundance of energy has led to widespread loss of energy literacy: unfortunately, most of us have no idea of where our energy comes from or how much we use (and waste).

So here is some basic energy information I hope will help build understanding of energy, and the importance of using it wisely.


  • The amount of electricity used by any device is measured in watts.  Approximate wattage of common household items: cell phone charger: 3 watts; LED light bulb: 9 watts; refrigerator: 100-400 watts, depending on age and size; two-slice toaster: 700 watts; four foot baseboard heater: 1000 watts; hair dryer on high: 1500 watts; hot water heater: 3000 watts; clothes dryer: 4500 watts; a Chevrolet Bolt EV at summer highway speeds: about 15,000 watts (keep reading – there’s a gas vehicle comparison below).
  • Electrical energy is purchased in units called kilowatt-hours (KWH).  One KWH equals 1000 watts used for one hour.  Based on the above numbers, one KWH would run a baseboard heater for one hour; a cell phone charger for 333.3 hours; a clothes dryer for 13 minutes; or an EV for four minutes.  In New Brunswick, one KWH costs about 14 cents.
  • For perspective, the amount of energy in one KWH is roughly equivalent to lifting a one-tonne weight from ground level to the Observation Deck of the CN Tower, a height of 350 meters – something worth reflecting upon the next time you flip a switch or plug something in.


  • One litre of gasoline contains 8.9 KWH of energy – about equal to lifting nine tonnes from ground level to the Observation Deck of the CN Tower.
  • Pickup trucks with names like Silverado, Sierra, Tundra, Ram, F-150, Colorado, Gladiator and Frontier consume 12 litres of gasoline per 100 kilometers driven.  That’s equivalent to 107 KWH/100 km, or lifting 107 tonnes from ground level to the Observation Deck of the CN Tower.
  • SUVs with names like Rogue, Santa Fe, Kona, CR-V, Encore, Trailblazer, Crosstrek, Escape and RAV4 consume 7 litres of gasoline per 100 kilometers driven.  That’s equivalent to 62 KWH/100 km, or lifting 62 tonnes from ground level to the Observation Deck of the CN Tower.
  • A Chevrolet Bolt EV uses about 15 KWH/100 km driven – equivalent to lifting 15 tonnes from ground level to the Observation Deck of the CN Tower.

In summary, all vehicles use a lot of energy – that’s why driving less is key to a net-zero future.  But SUVs use four times as much energy as EVs, and pickup trucks use seven times as much.

Other interesting facts:

  • One barrel of oil contains about 1700 kilowatt-hours of energy.  Based on the above numbers, a pickup truck driven 320,000 kilometers over its lifetime would consume 200 barrels of oil.
  • Considering strictly the mass of stones and the height to which they were lifted, building the great pyramids of Egypt took the energy equivalent of 400 barrels of oil.
  • About 300,000 pickup trucks are sold in Canada each year.
  • Global oil consumption is about 100 million barrels per day, or enough to build the great pyramids 250,000 times over (or three times per second).
  • Global energy consumption today is four times what it was in 1965 because there are more than twice as many humans on the planet today as there were then, and our per capita energy consumption today is nearly double what it was then.

The bottom line: the wonderful lifestyle most of us in the developed world enjoy today is because we consume (and waste) so much energy.  Most of it comes from fossil fuels, and it’s clear that emissions from their consumption are catching up to us in the form of climate change.

So I hope this little primer will help promote energy literacy, and lead to reflection on ways we can use less energy and generate fewer emissions.

If everyone were to pick the low-hanging fruit on the tree of climate solutions, we’d be well on our way to global carbon neutrality – so let’s get picking!

In the news:

According to the International Energy Agency, global emissions could be reduced 1/3 by 2030 simply by improving energy efficiency.

Corporate hypocrisy: Shell plans to increase fossil fuel production despite its net-zero pledge, and the world’s biggest companies have made almost no progress in emission reduction since 2018.

Net zero now: if you’re interested in solar panels, here’s my recent CBC Radio interview about our family’s experience over the past two years – and the expansion that will take us to generating 100% of our own power.


“East bound and down, loaded up and truckin’

A-we gonna do what they say can’t be done

We’ve got a long way to go, and a short time to get there
I’m east bound, just watch ol’ “Bandit” run”

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