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A common and accurate understanding of energy fundamentals is essential for our public dialog. Make energy a required high school class.



Understanding energy is essential.

Energy is probably one of the most discussed and least understood topics in our public conversation.  It is also the most important input into the wealth and productivity of the United States.

If energy becomes scarce and overly costly, it can devastate our economy and create horrible consequences for individuals struggling to purchase fuel for heating and transportation.  Countries have gone to war over access to energy resources in the past, and the future is not yet writ.  But access to energy is the lifeblood of empire.

Energy consumption also releases billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere with our current fuel mix.  There is no debate about the byproducts of combustion of carbon-based fuels.  None.

While there may be discussion about whether the release of billions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere is in fact affecting the atmosphere, the relocation of insect, plant and tree species, the acidification of the ocean waters, melting glacial sheets and the increasingly common severe weather events worldwide strongly suggest that we have a problem.

As the worldwide demand for energy increases, along with the need for carbon emission reductions, understanding how to manage and reduce energy use will be a necessary survival skill for any smart citizen

But how can we have a reasonable discussion of smart energy use and smart energy policy without fundamentally understanding where our energy comes from, how it is consumed, and what the consequences of using it are?  We can’t.  Because without this common knowledge, misinformation can and will poison the well of public debate.

For this reason, the development of a standardized high school course focused on energy is proposed.

What actions do you propose?

Develop a dedicated energy curriculum

I propose that science teachers and professors incorrectly think that students will be able to pull out the particular components of their chemistry, physics, mathematics and other courses as needed to think about energy in a comprehensive way.  

I think this is not true for many students, and that a specific package of analytic tools drawn from these various fields should be assembled and presented to students as a separate, dedicated course on energy so they can reasonably master issues pertaining to this hugely important topic.  Colleges now have energy-oriented technical degrees, but we need to get all high school students at least conversant with the realities of energy and its use.


Rather than start at the beginning, let’s start at the end.  What do you want a student to walk out of this class to have learned?

S/he should be able to see a tangible linkage between the energy we use, the physical resources that were required to create that energy, and an understanding of the carbon emissions associated with that energy.

S/he should also understand that many of the products around us are the results of significant energy expenditure.

S/he should understand that the cost of many manufactured products can include a significant slice for the energy that was used to create the finished good.

S/he should be able to discuss issues such as energy costs and sources of carbon emissions with reasoned thinking, eschewing the sound-bites that pass for debates on climate and economics on television.

S/he should understand the frailties and strengths of our energy delivery infrastructure.

S/he should learn the concepts, if not the mathematics, behind power generation (basically, heat engines.)

This would give students a lifetime of more enlightened thinking about energy.  Few things are more irritating than seeing some dope on television saying that gasoline prices are “outrageous” without providing a whit of reasoning why.  This is simply unacceptable. 

Course Topics

 Where is Energy?

This would be the first section.  It is sometimes hard to remember how much energy is all around us.  Not just in terms of the gasoline in our cars, the heating oil in our basements, the electricity powering our computers or the diesel fuel in city buses.  Energy, or actually, the use of energy, is reflected in every finished surface in our lives.

For instance, if I look at my telephone, it is a gracefully shaped piece of plastic with an LCD screen built in.  To manufacture this plastic took energy.  To mold and shape it took more energy.  To create the electronics within it took energy.  To create the display took energy.  To create safe packaging for it took energy.  To deliver it took energy.  Say my phone cost $150.  The raw materials may be worth a few bucks.  The energy needed to convert these raw materials into my phone was probably worth substantially more.  In other words, when you pay for that phone, you are probably paying more for the energy that was used to manufacture it than you are for the raw materials out of which it is actually made.

What is Energy?

Here, I would not suggest talking about energy in a formal, thermodynamic way (although that could be done parenthetically) but rather as a review of energy sources (mostly fuels) and their energy contents.  These energy contents would be contextualized so that students would at least get a vague idea of what they mean.  For example, the energy in a gallon of gasoline would be enough to run a 1 kW unit heater for 114 hours, etc.

Students also need to understand that energy is only manifested as heat or work, and these topics should be covered in a much more straightforward way than the normal thermodynamic language.  Heat is easy, and work can be taught with examples.

I would also, towards the end, reveal to the students the absolutely mind-boggling amount of energy this country uses each year.  One might conclude with having them imagine the size of a cube filled with enough oil or coal to power the United States for a year

Where Do We Use Energy?

This would more properly be titled “Where Do We Use Fuel”.  This would be a survey of different places we burn fuels to make modern life possible.  I would initially treat electricity as just another fuel that we use at the plug, but later describe how power is generated.

Although it sounds crazy, some students probably do not have a good handle on how a furnace or hot water heater physically operates, let alone knowing about how electricity is generated.

It would  also be good for them to understand more broadly how energy is used in different industries and energy sectors, so that they can get a feel for how significant our use of energy is at home, compared with, say, industry or transportation.  Again, we want them contextualizing.

This would also be a place to explain how efficiencies also matter, and how high efficiency systems (say an LED versus incandescent light bulb) can pay for themselves and save energy and emissions.

I would definitely expose the students onto the Energy Information Agency site, among others, and probably come up with a research project for them.

I might take the data from my house and explain where each energy component went, and how much was used doing what, e.g. how much electricity to the stove versus the refrigerator versus lighting?  How much natural gas for hot water versus heating versus clothes dryer?

Power plants are special, and teaching how a power plant works can get a little hairy with a non-technical audience.  But explaining types of power generation, typical efficiencies, and the massive amounts of resources that are used to generate electricity in our country should certainly surprise some of them and give them a reasonable flavor for what’s going on.

It’s fairly easy to visualize how you might show students schematic outlines of things like a house’s heating system and walking through with them where the fuel goes in, and how the heat is transported and delivered to end devices like radiators to add heat to a house that slowly loses heat through its skin in cold weather.  One could quickly describe how the boiler is controlled so that it only delivers the right amount of heat.  And obviously you’d work up to more complex systems such as power plants.

Energy Extraction

Students would have a reasonable feel for the use of fuels like oil, coal, natural gas and uranium at this point, so it would make a lot of sense for them to learn how these fuels are extracted from the earth and processed for final use. 

Bad things can happen when you take fuels out of the earth, and there are plenty of great photos, articles and books that discuss environmental degradation due to extraction, though there are also relative success stories.  There is no question that some activities like coal mining are pretty ugly and reflect some of the hidden cost of our voracious energy appetite.

Oil refining would be addressed in this extraction section, even though it is post-extraction, because refineries don’t fit well in the envisioned infrastructure discussion.  Oil refineries are so massive and so complex that they need to be in here somewhere.

Carbon Combustion

Students would next learn why the burning of fossil fuel necessarily results in the release of carbon dioxide.  However, they would be shown the chemistry only for general overview.  The desired take away is the bottom line emissions associated with common energy types.  So, a gallon of gasoline produces about 18 pounds of carbon dioxide.  A kilowatt hour in their area might reflect emissions of 1 pound of carbon dioxide. And so on.  At the least, every student should know what burning a gallon of gas or using a kWh of power generally means in an environmental sense.

Because this section touches upon carbon dioxide emissions, speaking of climate change seems unavoidable.  We can factually state that combustion of carbon results in millions of tons of carbon dioxide being emitted into the atmosphere every year.  This is not a theory, nor is it debatable.  It is a result of combustion chemistry.

Just so, if there is increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and we are putting millions of tons of it into the atmosphere ourselves, we are contributing to the issue.  That is unassailable.

Because some of the increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide is absorbed by the ocean, where the CO2 produces carbonic acid, there is also a direct link between growing ocean acidification and our emissions.

It would be interesting to see if any students take issue with these observations, but they would need to deny that burning carbon results in carbon dioxide as a byproduct if so.

You will note that this section and the last capture the front and back end “externalities” associated with fuel extraction and use.  Some students might find this a topic on which they’d like to do a project.

Energy Infrastructure

A course like this should touch upon the infrastructure that moves gas, oil and electricity around the United States.  There are plenty of good articles and books floating around that discuss not only how these systems work, but what their limitations and vulnerabilities are.  The absolutely immense cost of developing these resources should also be covered.

The Cost of Energy

The students should get an overview of how commodities are bought, sold and transported.  The should understand what energy costs, both in its own units (dollars per MWh, dollars per Therm, etc.) and in dollars per 100,000 Btu.  This will teach them they don’t want electric heat in their homes...

 The Future

There’s so much possibility here I barely know where to start:

  • Energy Conservation
  • Photovoltaics
  • Solar Hot Water
  • Solar Furnaces
  • Wind
  • Fission
  • Fusion
  • Hydro
  • Hydrogen
  • Geothermal
  • Tidal Power


I personally would caution students of the notion that yet to be discovered technological “breakthroughs” are going to save the day.  The fundamentals of thermodynamics make it unlikely a major game changer is in our immediate future, and we cannot use hoped-for breakthroughs as an excuse for inaction (but you never know, and I’ll be happy if a game changer shows up tomorrow.)

Here too students could track down all the world’s known reserves of oil and natural gas and calculate approximately how long the world could continue to operate at today’s rate of consumption before said reserves ran out.  They could evaluate how much carbon dioxide this would introduce to our atmosphere, and estimate how that future concentration would compare with todays.

This is just one exercise where the EIA web site is an invaluable instructional tool.

Summing Up

Energy, considered as its own subject, may be the most important topic we can teach to our high school students, as it touches upon our economy, our climate and our long term quality of life.  Let’s update our national courses according.

I think the outlined course could be highly valuable to students, and also a lot of fun.  It would better for America if students had to take a course like this rather than, say, a physics class.  Better still would be to take this class in addition to physics!

Who will take these actions?

This curriculum could be developed by a team of teachers, professionals and administrators.  Administrators in particular would be needed to champion the notion of energy being as worthy as a core subject as is chemistry or mathematics.

Review and stamp of approval from DOE or EIA would be a great way to vouchsafe the content.

Where will these actions be taken?

If left to me, it would substantially be done in the Engineering Library at BU, or at MIT.  Most collaboration could be done via the internet, with periodic meetings.  This is really thinking and writing work - trips to far flung locales are not needed as far as I can see.  Though I love Prague if you'd like me to set up camp there.

How will these actions have a high impact in addressing climate change?

If we can educate millions of high school students to recognize legitimate energy and climate findings, then the dialog surrounding energy, energy policy and potential climate effects can be vastly elevated.

Rather than "he said, she said" political arguments about energy, the population at large could engage in a substantive discussion about what we are doing, why we are doing it, and whether we want to continue doing it.

Broader knowledge is a vastly powerful tool, and this could have a huge effect on our policy dialog and implementation.  The benefits could potentially be enormous.

For instance, if 1 million students could convince their families to reduce their energy use by a modest 100 gallons of gasoline and 500 kWh per year, over 1 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions would be avoided.

1,000,000 * (100 gal*18 #/gal + 500 kWh*1.2 #/kWh) / 2000 #/ton = 1,200,000 tons

What are other key benefits?

Because energy and climate are such interesting and exciting (yes, exciting) fields of study, the proposed coursework might encourage students not inclined to studying technical subject to rethink their posture. 

While I certainly have the utmost respect for less technical fields of study, I think it is undeniable that national competency in math and science (and energy) is essential in this day and age of globalization.

I would propose too that students having a working understanding of subjects like combustion chemistry or high-tension electrical transmission may be more inclined to examine other things in the news or their experience that they previously might have dismissed as too technical or too boring.

What are the proposal’s costs?

Educationally, this idea of an energy course strikes me as so timely and commonsensical that I honestly don't see a downside.  At all.  Others can hopefully help me understand issues I may have missed.

Financially, developing this curriculum could probably be done of 10 or fewer qualified people.  If we assume a stipend of $10K each for their time, we're talking $100,000.  I have not, however, sent out any feelers to my peers or colleagues to verify what compensation might be fair for their contributions, so this is an estimate only.

Time line

This could be done in under a year.  And savvy instructors could probably produce dedicated textbooks in a year or so.

Related proposals


This proposal is actually a modification of a blog post I made some time back, and as a discussion comment I made on the web site of the Association of Energy Engineers.  Much of what I discuss concerns common scientific knowledge that simply needs to be blended in a way that leverages student understanding of energy, combustion and emissions.