It is a truism that a picture is worth a thousand words. In fact, the best pictures – the first-ever photo of Earth-rise taken from the Apollo 8 spacecraft in 1968, the iconic snap of a man confronting a line of tanks in Tiananmen Square in 1989, aerial shots of the Amazon rainforest’s seemingly infinite green blanket – are worth a million words, and maybe more. They are pictures that not only say a lot, they mean a lot.
Another picture caught our eye recently which says and means a lot. It is a Sankey diagram and it reveals in detail the path of all the energy used in Canada during 2010. Think of it as a vein map of the Canadian economy, but instead of blood, it shows energy: how it is made, where it is used and when it is lost or exported.
A Sankey diagram is a special type of flow chart. What’s neat about it is that it doesn’t just show the direction of the flow, but also the amount of flow. They are named after an Irishman who used one way back in 1898 to show the energy use (and inefficiency) of steam engines.
One of the most cited examples of a Sankey diagram is Charles Minard's drawing of Napoleon's disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812, showing how the great general’s soldiers died in horrible numbers over time and distance, and why so few came back. Ironically, Minard made his famous drawing thirty years before Sankey's 'first' Sankey diagram.
The energy map described here was made just this year by Canadian Energy Systems Analysis Research (CESAR), a University of Calgary initiative to spur and convey research and analysis about the transformation of Canada’s energy systems. The CESAR website offers a data visualization portal to explore national and provincial energy systems of yesterday and project energy systems of the future. CESAR hopes the modeling resource will help government and industry make better energy policy and investment decisions.
The International Energy Agency, the world’s go-to source for global energy statistics, analysis and recommendations, also use Sankey diagrams. It has published a collection showing energy production (by source) and energy consumption (by category) for the world overall and for countries and regions.
A simple yet powerful way to communicate about energy systems is most welcome these days, as the means by which we produce and consume our energy clearly falls into the complex and misunderstood field.
There’s a lot of discussion about energy production and consumption and the type of energy system we should have in future. There’s also a lot of debate about what’s possible and what isn’t and what it might take to get there.
Sankey diagrams and other visual formats help us cut through the complexity of energy production and usage, sort facts from myths, and restore some sanity to a conversation that has become highly polarized.
While we don’t expect Sankey diagrams to supplant selfies in popularity anytime soon, there’s little doubt they can be incredibly useful tools for better understanding our energy systems today and tomorrow.
OSQAR is taking a break
Like many of you, OSQAR will be taking a break over the summer holidays. Look for our next post the week of August 25.