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Sustainability 101: Energy – A Balancing Act Without A Net

Updated: Jun 2, 2020

Finding balance in life is seems to be a common goal for many of us. Figuring out how to manage personal and professional, friends and family, and all the other obligations can pull anyone in a multitude of directions. It can take a lot of energy to keep up. Now in this case, by energy, I mean physical and mental energy. Our bodies require a constant supply of energy to generate and maintain biological order to keep us alive. This energy comes from the chemical bond of energy in food molecules, which serve as fuel for all those little cells inside us. And we spend a lot of time, money and effort to keep ourselves fueled. I personally think about food a lot – it’s delicious and I love being alive – so it’s a worthwhile endeavor.

But how often do we think about the energy required for the rest of our lives, livelihoods, and lifestyles? Like, do you even know how much electricity you use on an average day and where it came from? When you look around you – consider how many electrical outlets are in the room, which were installed to fuel all our gadgets and gizmos aplenty. And what about the building you are in – with its lighting, HVAC, water, and gas supply? Going bigger, the building itself was constructed using lots of energy from a mix of humans and machines as resources. When you look outside, the roads, cars, buses, and bridges all were built requiring varying energy sources. And except for perhaps a few lunches here and there, the main fuel wasn’t dim sum but a type of fossil fuel (likely coal, oil, or natural gas).

It hasn’t always been like this though. Throughout history, other than the sun, our main energy source for everything from building pyramids to farming was muscle, usually human and often enslaved. By the time the industrial revolution came around, our energy sources for heating, transportation, and work were a combination of solar, wood, wind, and physical labor (both by humans and animals).

Once we figured out how to harness the power of steam, our relationship with and demands for energy ramped up quickly. Empowered with the knowledge that a relatively simple machine like a steam engine, powered by coal, could do the work of dozens of horses or humans - essentially every industry except slavery expanded. As Andrew Nikiforuk argues in this book The Energy of Slaves: Oil and the New Servitude, as the world's most portable and versatile energy source, fossil fuels quickly replaced muscles with combustion engines and other labor-saving tools. Since then, oil has transformed our global approach to politics, economics, science, agriculture, gender, and even our equilibrium with natural resources and other living beings.

Honestly, energy is hardly on my mind unless it’s either disrupted (power failure) or in short supply (only 10% percent battery left on my phone – ack!). I also certainly appreciate not having to physically work hard (while also knowing that another person or animal doesn’t either) for my energy needs. Most all of us enjoy our highly energy-intensive lifestyles without thinking about what it took to make it available, just like how we tend not to think about where our food comes from (as we consume it in mass quantities). To me, this just highlights that somewhere along the way to where we are now, we lost our sense of balance with energy. As though on a tightrope high above the cities we’ve built, our relationship with and the way we use energy is becoming dangerous, and urgently needs to change.

It actually needed to change decades ago. But change is tough for us humans and our relationship with energy and how we use it is actually deeply personal, intimate, and often below our consciousness. Certainly, awareness is increasing, and there is even an industry evolving around ‘unplugging’ from our habits. Even the Harvard Business Review offers tips and tricks on how to unplug while on vacation, and you can even find fun off-grid accommodations to ‘get away from it all’ when it’s time for a holiday. Because simply turning off our phones, ignoring the internet, and doing anything sans electronics apparently now requires a manual. So, what happened and how do we regain some semblance of balance?

First, the average person is pretty unaware of their energy usage and this results in a tendency towards excess and haphazard management. Energy use is not a part of everyday conversations, but it should be. As this Greenbiz article on 5 truths about our relationship with energy says, “don’t talk about saving energy as “little things you can do.” It’s about “everything you do.” Appreciating energy means acknowledging that it makes our lifestyles, in their entirety, possible.” So go check your energy bills and take stock of your usage. Think of it as a healthy approach to weight management – diet and exercise. Consider ways to cut back on your usage while also adjusting some lifestyle habits to improve and maintain energy efficiency.

Gaining a better understanding of our energy use also means knowing how it all works. Like, what even is a kWh[i]? In an overly simplified way to compare, think of a kilowatt-hour (kWh, which is a unit of energy) as being quite similar to a Calorie (also a unit of energy, just a different kind). Unfortunately, unlike Calories, there is no standard number of kWh per person to which we should all try to limit ourselves.

Once you get started, you might also realize how much you care about where your energy comes from (see HERE for Hong Kong). Check out your city’s approach to energy management, your country’s fuel/energy mix, and what regulations are in place to protect you and the environment while also innovating towards the utilization of more renewable energy sources.

According to the International Energy Agency, Hong Kong consumes about 46 billion kWh of electric energy per year, which averages out to about 6,000 kWh per person. To learn more about our usage facts and figures, check out these energy visualization platforms or this informative Energy end-Use Data report for Hong Kong. Some key takeaways:

  • Replacing old appliances and switching out traditional lightbulbs with more efficient LED lightbulbs has been touted as one of the easiest ways to save energy, and it seems to be working. According to the findings of a recent energy consumption survey on the Residential Sector, the average energy consumption in lighting per household dropped by almost 45% from 2012 to 2017.

  • Conversely, the average amount of electricity consumed for cooking has increased by almost 80% from 2012. One of the factors could be an increase in electric cooking equipment in households, so see what you can do to reduce reliance on electric appliances.

  • Energy consumption for refrigeration has dropped by over 43% from 2012 to 2017. This may be driven by the implementation of the "Mandatory Energy Efficiency Labelling Scheme" since 2009.

Indeed, around the house, some of the biggest consumers of energy are air-conditioners and refrigerators, but keep in mind that any device, even if it is in standby mode, is consuming energy. While your energy bill may not have a breakdown of which appliance uses the most energy, check your bill and take stock of your usage over a few months.

Next, talk with your tribe (friends, family, neighbors, doorman, colleagues – your community) about energy. Remove it from the abstract realm of attitudes, values, and beliefs and actually discuss what energy efficiency means and move into the more tangible, emotional area of direct experience where you can see how taking on new energy practices could make sense in the context of your own life.

Going even further, consult local representatives about your concerns on the future of energy availability. We have fossil fuels now, but we are also at risk by putting all our eggs in one basket by relying on any one source of energy. What happens when a typhoon hits and knocks out the power? I mean really, if one day your power was off and didn’t turn back on, would you know what happened or what to do? Probably not, which shows how off-balance things are and there is no safety net to catch us.

It really is time to hit the reset button and take control of our energy-centric lives. Aptly put on the Hong Kong government website: ‘The ways in which we use energy is crucial to how we live. Fossil fuels have always been available within our lifetimes, but they're becoming harder to find. If we do nothing to reduce our energy consumption now, pollution from the use of fossil fuels will increase and fossil fuel reserves will soon run out. We all need to think about using renewable energy sources such as biofuels, solar, and wind power. Most importantly, we should aim to use energy wisely, so there is always enough to go around.’ Indeed, at the current rates of use we will run out of these finite sources within our lifetimes, so why not be proactive about it now? It might pull you in yet another direction and be one more obligation to deal with, but what’s the alternative? Just like our bodies, our society requires a constant supply of energy and we owe it to ourselves to spend an equal (if not more) amount of time, money, and effort to keep ourselves fueled in a healthy, well-balanced way.


Some suggestions on how to learn more about your usage and cut back:

  • Keep up on regular equipment maintenance

  • Unplug unused electronics to minimize standby power consumption

  • Wash clothes in cold water and hang them to dry

  • Set your air conditioning to a warmer temperature. Even a one degree difference can use 3% less energy. Fans use even less.

  • Minimize purchases of new products, especially resource-intensive, heavy or heavily-packaged products. Everything made required energy to make it and by not buying more, you can reduce externalized usage too.

  • Ask your workplace if they are taking advantage of the new Electrical Equipment Upgrade Scheme which provides subsidies to commercial and industrial customers to replace or upgrade their electrical equipment to more energy-efficient models, for both retrofit and new installations.

  • Choose low energy-intensive activities (i.e., hiking vs. sky diving, kayaking vs. powerboats, electric vs. gasoline-powered yard equipment).

  • Check out your city’s approach to energy management, your country’s fuel/energy mix, and what regulations are in place to protect you and the environment while also innovating towards the utilization of more renewable energy sources.

  • Consult local representatives about your concerns on the future of energy availability.


[i] A kWh equals the amount of energy you would use by keeping a 1,000-watt appliance running for one hour. In metric, 1,000 = kilo, so 1,000 watts equals a kilowatt.

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