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  • Get unplugged and stay active to save energy and improve health and well-being!
  • Try daylighting your home by turning off the lights and opening the blinds.
  • Try preparing “energy-free” meals and avoid using appliances when not necessary.
  • Utilize power strips and smart power strips to reduce the “vampire energy” phenomenon.
  • Hang dry clothing on a clothesline and wash clothes in cold water to save energy doing laundry.
  • When shopping for new appliances check “Energy Guide” labels and look for “Energy Star” rated products.
  • Save on energy bills by getting rebates back from DTE Energy and Consumers Energy.


The Science of Energy: Introduction to Energy

What is energy? What do we mean when we talk about energy conservation and energy usage? What are sources of energy that we use every day? How is energy related to sustainability and sustainable business practices? These are some of the questions that I will be answering in this blog series about the science of energy.

The Science of Energy: Introduction to Energy
By: Matthew Novak
Matthew works as an assistant to the Greater Farmington Area Energy Prize and is a graduate from Louisiana State University with a bachelor’s degree in coastal environmental science. He has worked on energy and environmental issues throughout his time in college and at U of D Jesuit in Detroit, where he attended high school.The Energy Prize is a multi-million dollar competition put on by Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. that is challenging small to medium sized communities throughout the country to work together to achieve innovative, replicable, and scalable reductions in energy consumption.
What is energy? What do we mean when we talk about energy conservation and energy usage? What are sources of energy that we use every day? How is energy related to sustainability and sustainable business practices? These are some of the questions that I will be answering in this blog series about the science of energy.
To start, energy is the fundamental driving force in our Universe, and is simply defined as the ability to do work. Work, in this case, is the movement of an object by the application of force, from heat causing particles in a molecule to vibrate, to an engine making a car move.
The Universal laws that dictate energy in a closed system are known as The Laws of Thermodynamics and are (simply) stated as:
(1) Energy is neither created nor destroyed; it can only be transferred from one source (i.e., mechanical) to another (i.e., heat).
(2) The disorder in the Universe always increases, which means that naturally, energy in a mechanical form (i.e. lifting weights at a gym) is transferred into a more ‘disordered’ form of energy, like heat energy (i.e. your sweat and warmer body temperature).
And (3) when temperature reaches what is called ‘absolute zero,’ in which no temperature exists below it, energy ‘stops.’
Now that that’s out of the way, we can get to the fun part! Energy is everywhere around us and in all of the products we buy! However, we often don’t think about the energy used to make the Starbucks cup sitting next to my laptop, my smartphone, or even my laptop itself, but those are incredibly important things to understand and think about when confronting the global energy problems that we face today.
Think about the plastics in the things I mentioned (plastic Starbucks cup, smartphone, and laptop); these plastics are predominantly petroleum-based, which essentially means they are products of oil (think about that the next time you throw away a plastic container as you fill up your car with gasoline.) Oil is currently the most important energy source in the world, but it does come with many drawbacks.
To think about the energy used in these products, along with the energy involved in cooling your homes, we have to take a step back and look at the entire process, known as the ‘life cycle.’ The life cycle of a product involves the extraction and refinement of the raw materials used to make the product until it becomes unusable waste. However, the life cycle doesn’t end at the landfill; let’s say instead of recycling the plastic Starbucks cup, I were to directly throw it away (gasp). The cup and the trash with it will be picked up and eventually land at a landfill. This is just the beginning for the cup, as plastic takes years and years (beyond our lifetime) to break down, known as biodegradation.
Now, let us turn our focus to the beginning of this process. A lot of the plastics we use in everyday life are based on carbon, which is why fossil fuels, such as oil, are the main source. Oil, which formed from organic material crushed and heated over millions of years, is extracted, then gets transported to refineries and factories that produce the plastic pellets at the foundation of the plastic industry. It is then sold to companies that melt the pellets into the molds that they are selling, which ultimately leads to our use and disposal.
If we peel back even just one more layer, there’s even more energy involved than meets the eye. The oil is shipped in trucks, ships, and pipelines that use refined oil (like diesel fuel) to run and transport products. Energy from fossil fuels, nuclear, or renewable energy sources (like wind, solar, and geothermal) would power the factories at every stage. And energy is used to pick up waste and transport it to landfills, which also use energy in the powering and maintenance of the facility.
As you can probably tell, when you start adding international trade and other factors into the mix, this can get very complicated quicker than you can say ‘saving energy,’ but it is a vitally important cycle to make our global economy function. There are even factors, like the amount of energy and fuel used by ships through international waters, that are currently not well-understood.
This all is just one example of how energy is everywhere around us and in everything we do and buy. As I start digging deeper into the science and economics of energy in future blog posts, it is important to keep in mind this interconnectedness of energy, economics, and environmental issues.
“Energy: Scientific Principles” University of Illinois Department of Material Science and Engineering. Accessed May 25, 2016.
“How Plastics Are Made.” American Chemistry Council. Accessed May 27, 2016.
“What is Energy? Explained.” U.S. Energy Information Administration. Accessed May 25, 2016.


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