Energy Consumption Rates across the USA and the World

Glenn A. Richard, Mineral Physics Institute, Stony Brook University

World Oil Consumption per Capita

Screen capture of Google Earth image of data from giasen at World Oil Consumption Per Capita on the Google Earth Community Forums 

This material is replicated on a number of sites as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service Project
Initial Publication Date: December 1, 2008 | Reviewed: December 1, 2010


Energy issues are an important factor in the functioning of our economy and infrastructure. Therefore, students need to understand issues connected with increasing consumption of energy and differences in consumption rates between geographic regions. In this exercise, undergraduate students use Google Earth and information from several web sites to investigate total and per capita rates of oil and total energy consumption in various parts of the world.

In this activity, undergraduate students learn to use satellite and aerial imagery, maps, graphs, spreadsheets, descriptive information, and statistics to compare energy and oil consumption rates between states in the United States and among various countries. They also use this information to explain these differences, as well as differences in categories of consumption, such as domestic, transportation, industrial, and commercial use. They are also asked for opinions regarding what measures countries should take toward reducing oil consumption. 

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Learning Goals

  • Use Google Earth to compare differences in oil and energy consumption between states and countries on a total and per capita basis
  • Use spreadsheets to create graphs and calculate statistics regarding per capita energy use among various categories
  • Develop explanations for differences in energy use patterns
  • Recognize anomalies in data that may be due to error
  • Synthesize quantitative and descriptive information to develop opinions regarding energy policy
  • Critique and suggest alternative means of displaying quantitative data on maps 

Context for Use

This exercise needs to be performed in a computer laboratory where students can work individually or in pairs. Google Earth and a web browser must be available on each workstation. The instructor should have enough prior knowledge of Google Earth to be able to troubleshoot common problems related to errors that students may make. The students should know how to use the Fly To tab in the Search pane, how to zoom in and out, and how to pan the view. They should know how to use the navigation controls and components of the toolbar. The students must have access to accounts that enable them to visit off-campus web sites. The operating system should be configured to recognize kmz files, so that the browser offers to open them in Google Earth. Ideally, there should be an instructor station connected to a projector so that guidance can be provided to the class as a group. In addition to the primary instructor, a teaching assistant should be available to help students troubleshoot problems while the instructor is engaged at the instructor station.

The activity is best suited for a course that studies global concerns, and which provides students with understanding of interrelationships between components of the Earth system, including a perspective on the role of human activity in bringing about global change, and the effects of these changes on human society. 

Prior to this activity, students should be provided with a basic understanding of what energy is and how it is quantified. They should also have a basic understanding of how oil supplies are quantified, and how oil and energy serve the needs of human society in terms of domestic, commercial, transportation, and industrial functions. 

This exercise was originally used in an undergraduate course at Stony Brook University - GEO 311: Geoscience and Global Concerns. Enrollment in the course was a mixture of geoscience and non-geoscience majors. 

Fundamental Information about Using Google Earth 

The Student User Guide is designed to provide information on using Google Earth to educators and students. In addition, the following links to Google's documentation can offer guidance for specific skills needed for this exercise: 

Google Earth User Guide: Introduction 
Google Earth User Guide: Getting to Know Google Earth 
Google Earth User Guide: Navigating in Google Earth 
Google Earth User Guide: Finding Places and Directions 
Google Earth User Guide: Using Layers 
Google Earth User Guide: Measuring Distances and Areas 
Google Earth User Guide: Viewing a Timeline

Description and Teaching Materials

Each student needs to be provided with a printed copy of the following handout in
Word (Microsoft Word 37kB Sep26 08) or pdf (Acrobat (PDF) 27kB Sep26 08) format. The Word version of the document can easily be modified in order to customize the activity for varied class venues, or to adjust its content to conform to changing conditions related to economics and oil supply, production, and consumption. Both the Word and pdf versions of the handout contain links to the data the the students need in order to perform the activity, therefore they could be made available electronically for use along with the paper copies in order to make data access convenient for the students. The students will also need paper copies to fill out and hand in.

Also hand out the one-page Google Earth Tip Sheet (.pdf) 
Google Earth Tip Sheet (Acrobat (PDF) 440kB Nov20 08) 

Students should be seated at computer workstations individually or in pairs. They should be asked to complete the exercise according to the instructions on the handout by writing their answers in the space provided underneath each question. It may be helpful to provide them with some basic instruction on using Google Earth. 

In GEO 311: Geoscience and Global Concerns, we engaged the students periodically in informal discussion during the exercise, and had them hand it in at the end of the session for grading. 

Teaching Notes and Tips

Undergraduate students typically find Google Earth intuitive and easy to use concerning navigation and viewing of mapped data. They may initially need some help learning how expand and collapse listing of data in the Places pane. Some people find saving Google Earth data confusing, however that skill is not needed for this exercise. Students should be made aware of online resources that provide information on using Google Earth.

Per Capita Oil Consumption by State
Per capita oil consumption rates by state, represented by prisms on Google Earth. Prisms emphasize states where per capita consumption rates are highest, but states with larger areas become more prominent than ones with smaller areas. Students have an opportunity to critique the use of prisms to represent quantities on maps in question 3d.

If the students have not had significant previous experience with spreadsheets in their coursework, it is likely that a significant portion of them will need help using Excel to perform calculations and construct graphs. The techniques for accomplishing this should be demonstrated from the instructor station, using a projector. 

Time needed for this exercise may vary depending upon the amount of previous experience students have had using Google Earth and the amount of time devoted to informal discussion during the exercise. Typically, 80 minutes should be sufficient for completion, but the exercise can be used effectively even if it is apportioned into multiple class sessions. 

It is best to associate the exercise with some discussion in order to stimulate ideas among the students about current energy issues and some of the geological, technological, economic, and political challenges concerning developing solutions.

For advanced courses or independent study projects, this exercise can be extended to consider changes in consumption patterns of fossil fuels over time. A good source of data, in spreadsheet format, is available from the BP Statistical Review of World Energy. With data in the historical data spreadsheet, students can graph and map changes in reserves, production, and consumption that have occurred in the past among the world's countries. They can then try to predict what may occur in the future using their own models.


Assessment for this exercise can consist of grading the answers that students hand in on their instruction sheets. For some of the questions, students are asked for their opinions, therefore grading it can be quite subjective. The degree and manner of students' participation in accompanying discussions can also reveal what they have learned from the activity. Concepts presented in the activity can also form the basis of exam questions.

Since some of this exercise calls for qualitative judgments and opinions on the part of students, which may reasonably be expected to vary, grading should be somewhat lenient, in order to enable the students to feel comfortable being creative.

References and Resources