Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Getting Real About Energy in Cubic Miles of Oil

Today, with plummeting oil prices and news reports of US oil production poised to exceed that of Saudi Arabia’s, there is a perception on the street that there is no energy crisis. Yet just a few years ago, we were all talking about one. Have things changed so dramatically so fast? We paid considerable attention to the energy crisis following the oil crunch in the 1970s, but then oil prices plunged, and public attention waned, and with it the efforts at conservation and improving fuel efficiency of vehicles. However, the underlying situation and the challenges facing us had not changed, and nor have they changed this time. A crisis is a terrible thing to waste, and we seem to be doing it all over again.  I recently spoke about it with Artist Michael Killen.


Meeting the global demand for energy remains a daunting task, and the energy sources we choose to employ will have a profound effect on the lives of billions of people around the world. People have to be involved in making the choice, or the choice will be made for them. For a sustained, informed public debate on this subject, it is necessary to have a common language that is readily understood by the specialist and the non-specialist. A Cubic Mile of Oil (Oxford University Press, 2010) provides a language to talk plainly yet intelligently about energy, and how to assess our future needs and evaluate our progress.

Energy use is essential to our well-being—it is our sustenance. We use it in all aspects of living: growing food, manufacturing, transportation, communication, lighting, heating and cooling, earning our livelihoods, for entertainment, and more. All these tasks require energy, and we derive it from many different sources such as oil, coal, natural gas, hydro power, nuclear fission, and wind and solar power. Unfortunately, energy from these sources is expressed in different and often unfamiliar units, which makes it hard to assess their relative contributions. We use kilowatt hours for electricity, gallons or barrels for oil, cubic feet for gas, British thermal units (btus) or tons for coal, and so on—it’s a veritable tower of Babel! 

Further, each of these units represents a relatively small amount of energy, and in order to express energy use at a global or national scale, we have to use mind-numbing multipliers like millions, billions, trillions, and even quadrillions. To overcome this problem, my colleague Hew Crane came up with the idea of expressing energy units from all the different sources in one large volumetric measure that is commensurate with the scale of global energy challenge and one for which we can form a mental image. The approximately 90 million barrels of oil the world currently consumes daily adds up to a little over a cubic mile of oil in a year, or one CMO. A CMO thus becomes a very convenient unit to express annual global energy production and consumption. Imagine a pool a mile long, a mile wide, and mile deep, and you have a cubic mile. That’s more than a thousand times the volume of a typical sports arena.

In 2013, the global consumption of oil was 1.1 cubic mile. The world consumed an additional CMO of energy from coal, about three-quarters of one CMO from natural gas, and roughly a quarter of one CMO each from hydrothermal, nuclear power, and wood burning, yielding a grand total of 3.5 CMO. All combined, solar, wind, and biofuels produced less than a tenth of a CMO in 2013. How much will we need in the future? That depends on how seriously we take the UN millennium goals for human development. Between 1981 and 2005, China lifted over 600 million people from poverty, reducing the poverty rate from 85% to 16%. Concomitantly, the infant mortality rate declined from 2100 deaths per day to 770 per day. This achievement was made possible by quadrupling energy consumption. 

Global statistics on poverty are stark: 1.4 billion people subsist below the poverty level, defined by the World Bank as living on $1.25/day; infant mortality is 17,000 children a day; 2.4 billion people rely on wood, charcoal, or dung as their primary source of energy, and women and young girls spend more than 6 hours each day collecting fuel and water and completing other chores that deprive them of opportunities for advancement through education and entrepreneurship. Roughly 1.5 billion people have no access to electricity. Even after implementing measures to conserve and markedly improving energy efficiency, it is estimated that annual global energy consumption will have to increase by several CMO/yr to remove the scourge of poverty and to allow all people to lead healthy, productive lives. 

The challenge of supplying energy to the world’s population is really overwhelming. Even at a modest growth rate of 2% per year (i.e., a doubling every 36 years), the world’s energy demand by 2050 will be over 7 CMO per year. As we seek solutions to the energy crisis, we have to ensure they scale to the CMO per year level¾if not, we will just be nibbling at the edges. When you consider what it takes to develop an infrastructure capable of producing even one CMO of energy, it becomes evident there are no easy solutions, and it will take an enormous effort sustained over many decades to effect meaningful change. 

The slide below illustrates how many power plants it will take to develop capacity for producing 1 CMO/yr.  For each resource, it shows the total number of plants and the rate at which they must be built in order that in fifty years we will have enough of them to produce 1 CMO/yr. Because such analyses are highly dependent on the size and availability factors, I have also included those details. The numbers are truly sobering.

In case you are wondering about the impact of continued use of fossil fuels on climate change, please read my post from June 2012, where I discuss the need for a differentiated approach and a focus on things that matter. And oh, did I mention it is also time to seriously look at nuclear again. Speaking of nuclear power, I was recently informed that this unit was also used by President Jimmy Carter, although—being a navy man—his preference was cubic nautical miles!