The Energy in Things – The Environmental Impacts of Our Stuff

When most people think about energy, they think about the gas that goes into their cars, not the steel that forms their frames. They think about the electricity that comes out of the socket, not the wood and drywall.

The real energy cost to the world of an iPhone 6 is not charging its battery, though—it is creating the phone. Energy scholars call this embodied energyemergy, which is a terrible world for an interesting concept. The stuff that we own contains the ghost energy of all the production processes that went into making it.

And it takes a lot of energy to mine, refine, grow, and create materials. For a smartphone, researchers estimate that it takes roughly 1 gigajoule to create a modern smartphone. That’s roughly 278 kilowatt hours, or 73 times the electricity used to charge the thing for a year.

The energy embodied in the stuff of our lives represents a major—maybe the major—way that we contribute to environmental problems.


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