Jason Barton

Professional Information and Energy News

About Energy

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“[O]ver $250 billion of America’s $380 billion trade deficit in 2009 was from imported oil. If Beyond displacing oil imports, if the United States could lead in the production of clean energy products and services, we would create more good jobs and exports.

[…]

In fact, one need not believe that global warming poses any risk at all in order to support an energy innovation agenda in the United States and elsewhere.”

R. Atkinson, T. Nordhaus, and M. Shellenberger Read the entire article here, or the Wall St. Journal here.

When we see the disagreement in the U.S. and elsewhere about energy, it’s important to remember how quickly the energy situation has changed, in just a  generation. This is faster than it’s changed in any similar length of time throughout human history.

If you were born in the U.S. in 1950, there were 152 million people in the country, with each person using about 215 million Btu per year in total energy, including electricity, transportation, etc.

If you were born in the U.S. in 2000, you were born into a country of 281 million people, each person using about 350 million Btu in total energy per year.

That’s a 50% increase in energy consumption per person, multiplied by another 90% increase in population, in just 50 years.

This isn’t meant to be alarmist. Many people are not worried by this, as there are strong arguments that there is more than enough available energy to supply this growing appetite. And there probably isn’t reason to get upset.

Though when we look a bit further into the figures, they might make us wonder what options will be available just two generations from now.

U.S. Energy use, production, and self-reliance, 1950-2000. From http://www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/aer/eh/frame.html

In the same two generations that our country’s population nearly doubled, per capita energy consumption also increased by 63%. And since so much of our energy resources are imported, and the bulk of those energy resources are finite, non-renewable resources, the situation merits consideration.

The U.S. is among the most prolific energy consumers, but let’s also look beyond our borders.

During those same two generations, the world population increased from 2.5 billion in 1950, to just over 6 billion people in 2000.

Meanwhile, fortunately, many other countries of the world are experiencing the kind of development that the U.S. has experienced over the last half century. This is undoubtedly a good thing. The question is, when a country like China, which accounts for about 20% of the world’s population, achieves a standard of living similar to what we’ve achieved in the U.S., a country that accounts for about 5% of the world’s population, and about 25% of the world’s energy consumption, well, when we do the math, we’re going to need another planet.

Again, there are plenty of folks who will rightly argue that there are sufficient energy resources out there. A little more drilling and we’ll be just fine. This may be true, but according to the figure below from the European Union, or the U.S. DOE’s World Energy Outlook, in another 50 years we will be facing far fewer options if the status quo remains unchanged.

It helps me to think of energy like money. I have little of either one, yet I’ve read plenty about both. Ahem.

Almost all of our energy comes from the sun. Each day we have an income of energy. Fossil fuels are living matter that grew on the sun’s energy over time. Whether you believe the Earth is 5000 years old, or just over 4 billion years old, the fact remains, we’ve used half of the income we’ve saved from the sun over the life of the Earth in about 100 years. Spending our life’s savings in that comparatively short amount of time is not responsible behavior.

Thankfully, we still have plenty of savings. How will we treat those savings now?

Yes, some investment in alternative energy seems to me to be a very good idea. And yes, putting to use all of our resources, including petroleum, coal, natural gas, and nuclear, also seems to me to be a very good idea.

And the best idea of all is to be very, very efficient with our energy use. It’s about being responsible, conservative, and considerate of the people who will undoubtedly want to have as many resources as possible at their disposal. Ideally (and this is the definition of that over used word, “sustainability”) future generations will have at least as many, if not the same, options available to them that we have available to us today.

We need to increase our energy efficiency.

It won’t be that hard, but we should get right to work.

Thanks for your time, and your energy.

jjb

Natural Gas and Coal note: Here’s a useful fact from an article you can find here.

While coal fired plants still produce roughly half of all the kilowatt hours of electricity consumed in the United States, natural gas, which a decade ago accounted for just 10 percent of electricity produced, now accounts for upwards of 20 percent, according to the Edison Electric Institute. Hydro and alternative sources make up the balance.

Non-renewable energy sources, do, as their name suggests, run out.
Apart from their impact on global warming, they are finite. Based on the data we have today, we can predict the moment they are actually exhausted. Putting a date on these energy sources underscores the world’s need for true sustainable energy sources.

Natural Gas (in cubic meters)
Total world reserves Jan. 1st 2009: 174436171550404
World usage per second: 92653
Estimated date of exhaustion: 07:19 Sep 12, 2068

Oil (in barrels)
Total world reserves Jan. 1st 2009: 1206780968626
World usage per second: 986
Estimated date of exhaustion: 16:36 Oct 22, 2047

Coal (in metric tonnes)
Total world reserves Jan. 1st 2009: 841086192000
World usage per second: 203
Estimated date of exhaustion: 15:35 May 19, 2140

Uranium (in metric tonnes U-235)
Total world reserves Jan. 1st 2009: 18096
World usage per second: 0.0000042222017
Estimated date of exhaustion: 19:56 Nov 28, 2144

¹ Newton’s First Law of Thermodynamics explains that energy can’t be produced or destroyed. The word is used here to denote extraction, conversion, etc. Feel free to let me know if this isn’t clear or still seems inaccurate.

Written by Jason

January 20th, 2010 at 9:08 pm

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2 Responses to 'About Energy'

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  1. […] since only then can we see how it needs to be improved. Since we’re fairly confident that the coal and natural gas replaced by these technologies will run out within the next century, perhaps it’s time to invest in biomass, biofuels, and other renewables. I’m not sure, […]

    Jason Barton

    20 Jan 10 at 9:21 pm

  2. […] but with the savings in overall energy costs, these expenditures are more easily covered, moving us closer to that goal of having plenty of natural gas and coal for many, many generations to […]

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