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Replacing Oil Ain’t Easy

The proprietor of the FiveCentNickel blog quantifies in a way I haven’t seen previously just how enormous the challenge of ending our dependence on oil — a favorite canard of politicians on both sides of the aisle — really is. Drawing on a piece by CNET’s Michael Kanellos, he lays out the numbers.

Essentially, world energy consumption for 2006 (the last year for which comprehensive data were available) was approximately cubic mile of oil (CMO) plus “the equivalent of three CMOs from all energy sources.”

World Energy Sources Pie Chart 2006

What are the alternatives for replacing that first CMO?

Solar panels

Assuming annual electricity capture of 2.1 megawatts per solar panel, we’d have to place them on 4.2 billion rooftops. In other words, we’d have to install on them on 250,000 roofs per day for the next 50 years to have enough solar panels to offset our current annual oil usage (and this ignores things like coal; see below).

Wind power

What about wind power generators? You’d need 3 million to equal one CMO. That would require the installation of 1,200 per week for the next 50 years.

Hydroelectric power

A large hydroelectric dam can generate roughly 18 gigawatts of power per year. Thus, to offset one CMO of energy, we’d have to build 200 major hydroelectric dams. The problem? There aren’t enough rivers left in the world to dam up.

Solar thermal power

It would require 7,700 solar thermal plants to offset one CMO. That would require the construction of 150 plants per year for 50 years. Unfortunately, just one has been built in the past 15 years.

Nuclear power plants

It would take 2,500 nuclear power plants producing 900 megawatts to produce the equivalent of one CMO worth of energy. In other words, we’d have to build one a week for 50 years. It’s also worth noting that nuclear power isn’t exactly renewable.

Oh, and energy demands are escalating at a rapid rate, with one estimate cited that we’ll need six CMOs to meet that demand thirty years from now.

Carpooling and better lightbulbs probably aren’t going to cut it. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t conserve, implement available alternatives where practicable, and continue to explore other options. It’s going to be tremendously difficult.

Via Jim Henley’s shared Google Reader feed

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He earned a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Bithead says:

    Carpooling and better lightbulbs probably aren’t going to cut it. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t conserve, implement available alternatives where practicable, and continue to explore other options. It’s going to be tremendously difficult.

    Correct, it will not be easy.
    But we’re making it harder on ourselves than needs be, in so many ways…

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  2. Here’s one way solar could become a viable alternative. It’s a huge and unlikely project, but neither as huge or as unlikely as what you describe.

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  3. Alex Knapp says:

    What a ridiculous article. Not only does it provide quantification without giving all of the numbers of available, it also assumes that the existing state of the technology will persist, rather than the usual trend of improved efficiency and methods.

    Additionally, it’s worth pointing out that the use of some technologies doesn’t require the same level of output as fossil fuels. For example, if we adopted the installation of solar panels on buildings to provide power on an individual level, we wouldn’t need the same amount of power as is provided by a power plant, because not nearly as much energy will be lost to distribution.

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  4. James Joyner says:

    Alex: I’m sure that there are some efficiencies not accounted for here and, certainly, my expertise here is that of a casually informed reader. Still, I think most people think that it’s just a matter of making some relatively mild lifestyle changes or simply switching to another energy source. Even crude figures show that’s just not the case.

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  5. Alex Knapp says:

    James, it won’t be easy–I don’t dispute that. But it’s not going to be nearly as difficult as this article suggests, either. I’m actively involved in environmental initiatives for my company, so I’m pretty up to speed on how fast a lot of this tech is evolving, especially at the present moment. There is a LOT of money going into alternatives to oil, even in places where it might not be obvious.

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  6. Hoodlumman says:

    We’ll just have to cross our fingers and trust in ingenuity and technologies yet to be discovered and implemented to take us forward.

    That’s a serious answer. And one I have faith in.

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  7. Michael says:

    Assuming annual electricity capture of 2.1 megawatts per solar panel, we’d have to place them on 4.2 billion rooftops. In other words, we’d have to install on them on 250,000 roofs per day for the next 50 years to have enough solar panels to offset our current annual oil usage (and this ignores things like coal; see below).

    Somewhere they converted from watts/panel to watts/rooftop. Are they using 1 panel/roof? A single house can potentially support multiple panels, and apartment complexes and office buildings can support even more.

    The difficulty here won’t be the scope of installation, but rather the per-unit cost and production rate. If you could produce a panel capable of producing 2.1 megawatts per year for $1000, you should have no trouble selling 250,000 or more per year.

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  8. gewinnspiel says:

    Thanks for the post, its really informative. But i’m anxious about alternatives!!

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  9. fahrrad says:

    I’m a chronic recycler, but I know I should do more. Thanks for this post.

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  10. C.Wagener says:

    Whoa, what’s this – oil is a highly efficient energy source, not easily replaced?

    Stupid Republicans!!! We just need a government program and energy will soon be almost free and nonpolluting! Clearly all these people and companies have been making irrational decisions over the past six generations. It’s a conspiracy or something. I read it in the Village Voice.

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  11. Dave Schuler says:

    Conflating what are actually two distinct issues, energy and fuel, isn’t particularly helpful. For this country about half of our power generation is coal; about 1.6% is oil.

    Nearly all of our oil is used either for vehicles or heating (most oil heating is in the northeast). There is no ready alternative to oil for use as a vehicle fuel. Problem: the fleet would need to turn over. Even if oil were to increase in price ten fold it would still take decades for that to happen.

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  12. JustADude says:

    You left out a big potential source that is totally green and there all the time.

    Experimental installations are already being tested world wide and that is Ocean Wave power.

    Models show that there is approximately 2TW per year electrical generation power available which is more than the total world wide production of electricity currently available in total.

    All they have to do is build it.

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  13. JustADude says:

    One company , based on their models and test units, concludes they can use an area 10 miles square off the coast of California and provide the entire electrical needs of the state.

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  14. Bithead says:

    We’ll just have to cross our fingers and trust in ingenuity and technologies yet to be discovered and implemented to take us forward.

    That’s a serious answer. And one I have faith in.

    As do I, without reservation, since it has always worked for us in the past. Now, if we can keep the government and the environazis out of the way of that development…

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