How do you see energy?

Light bulbs? Kettles? Cups of tea? Houses? I’ve seen them all used to illustrate electrical and thermal energy. I’ve also been bored or lost interest in all of them – or found, when looking at large district energy efficiency or renewable energy schemes, trying to imagine ridiculously large numbers of light bulbs took my attention away from the core message.

The Poddington Peas Example

Try imagining ten thousand garden peas. Now try visualising one hundred thousand garden peas. Get the picture, or struggling to see the difference – even though you know one is a thousandth of the other? Try two tonnes of peas compared to twenty tonnes; or 22m³ compared to 22,000m³. It’s still a bit dull and difficult to grasp.

What if I said ten thousand garden peas were half the weight of an elephant and could fill a small bedroom; yet one hundred thousand was the weight of a sperm whale – the largest predator to have graced our earth – and could fill a whole terrace of homes?

pea whale

Making energy come to life

Communicated well, energy visualisations can engage and help your audience remember and better understand something which cannot be easily seen, heard or even described. Trust me, try explaining energy to a kid. Pretend arm-wrestling is the best metaphor I’ve found. Power over time.

Energy visualisations can also persuade people to see energy as large or small. Just like the sperm whale sounds monstrously large; whilst at Bristol City Council, I found the Eiffel Tower’s lights annually consumed 580MWh. It had recently had efficient bulbs fitted. It sounded large though: we can generate electricity to illuminate seven Eiffel Towers. It helped us engage senior figures, achieving sign-off on Bristol’s successful £2.5m ELENA EU grant application.

Communicating energy shouldn’t need gimmicks, such as the government’s odd combination of Bob Geldof and creepy-looking mascots ‘Gaz’ and ‘Leccy’. Quite how they expect cartoons to dispel peoples fears is beyond many in the industry.

Did you know a Tyrannosaurus Rex was fifteen times hungrier than a human?

Or that 142 humans technically could be fed for a day on a single corpse’s calories?

Energy needn’t be boring. Yes, a 7.5MW wind farm will generate enough electricity to power 8,400 houses – but it’s also generating the same energy requirements the Royal Family’s accommodation consumes; or equivalent to meeting the needs of a village.

Yes, not overfilling your kettle would save your household 39 kWh over the year – meaning we waste the equivalent of over two thousand kettles worth of electricity each year; or, it’s like leaving thirty light bulbs on constantly, all year round.

The formula for numerical visualisations

The formula to numerical visitations is simple: make sure whatever you’re counting in doesn’t go too high (over 100), or too low (a quarter) – and make it memorable. Making it relevant helps show you care about the specifics. For instance, using your neighbourhood’s average domestic energy demands instead of the UK average.

However, to really be remembered, make it random – or, like the rest of the internet, measure everything in cats. Here’s a few examples of different energy consumptions and savings.

Description Energy (kWh)
UK average energy consumption per person 17,700
UK average household consumption 18,800
Eiffel Tower (total) 7,500,000
The Royals’ Accomodation 35,500,000
Electricity needed for a cuppa 0.031
Leaving a 40W bulb on all day 1
Human’s daily dietary needs 3
Human body energy content 128
T-Rex’s daily dietary needs 47
Cat (12lb) daily dietary needs 0.349
 
Washing clothes at 40C (saving) 24
Not overfilling kettle (saving) 39
Turning off appliances (saving) 376
Turning off home PC (saving) 470

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