The Future of Renewable Energy – Ain’t Oil Grand?

I just ran across an interesting article about renewable energy over at the Green Tech weblog. In it, they break down the type of investment that would be required to replace the energy provided by a cubic mile of oil (CMO).

In case you’re not aware (as I wasn’t), a CMO is a measure of energy consumption. Apparently the world consumes slightly more than one CMO worth of energy from oil per year, and the equivalent of three CMOs from all energy sources. Over 80% of this total energy usage comes from fossil fuels, including oil, coal, and natural gas (see graph, below).

So… What would it require to replace just one CMO of fossil energy per year?

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.

The future of demand

Even if we decided to pursue one of the above options, it’s important to keep in mind that energy demand is continually increasing. According to Ripudaman Malhotra, a fossil fuels researcher at SRI International, world energy demand is expected to double to six CMOs within the next 30 years.

The good news here is that we still have time. Current estimates show oil reserves of roughly 46 CMOs, natural gas reserves totalling 42 CMOs, and coal reserves of 121 CMOs. These numbers increase further when you add in difficult to extract sources such as tar sands.

The bad news is that, beyond being non-renewable, these sources of energy also have a number of adverse environmental impacts, and burning more of them at a faster rate is just going to create more problems.

The way forward

Clearly, if we’re ever going to come anywhere near freeing ourselves from fossil fuels — an eventual necessity, as we’ll ultimately run out — it will require a tremendous investment, a variety of different technologies (likely including some that haven’t been invented yet), and an awful lot of conservation.

Unfortunately, we’re dealing with a problem on such a massive scale that minor changes won’t be enough. Consider, for example, that replacing 1 billion incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs only saves 0.01 CMOs per year. Yes, it’s important to cut back wherever we can. In this case, however, baby steps won’t be enough.

It’s also important to keep in mind that all of the technologies listed above result in electricity production. Given that a large fraction of our energy consumption is currently non-electric, we’ll need a lot of other infrastructure changes to go along with this.

9 Responses to “The Future of Renewable Energy – Ain’t Oil Grand?”

  1. Anonymous

    Very interesting point, I had never before considered the impact on everything outside of power generation and gasoline/diesel coming from the oil. I know all that stuff is made from it as I have started working in the petrochemical industry. That really is throwing a big problem into cutting our use. Can you imagine not having anything that is made of plastic! I wonder if the oil could be used to produce more of the plastic products and less of gasoline if that is what is desired in the future.

  2. Anonymous

    It’s worth noting that there are a number of conservation, if not renewable, technologies that are starting to look interesting. For example, my company makes Micro-Combined Heat and Power systems for the home. These systems run on natural gas, and provide 80% of the benefits of solar power at about 20% the cost.

    Also, nuclear power can be renewable, or nearly so, if managed properly. We use only a very small fraction of the fuel that is available in a traditional cycle, but breeder reactors and the like can actually make more fuel than they use. This is accomplished through the transmutation of non-fissile uranium to fissile plutonium. This is a resource that if managed properly could go far to reduce our dependence on oil.

  3. Anonymous

    Great article Nickel. Another thing to consider is that so many PRODUCTS come from oil, not just energy. Nylon, PVC pipe, plastics, adhesives, coatings, the list goes on and on.

  4. Anonymous

    This sort of stuff just serves to get renewable enrgy a bad name. There is so much confusion of units (why use cubic miles of oil when everythting else is metric) and Megawatts per year is a meaningless unit that the whole article is cast into doubt.

  5. Anonymous

    This is so overwhelming when you look at the ultimate big picture!
    Some cities are trying their darnedest to go solar (e.g., San Francisco) and I think CA, as a state, is also contemplating/has installed solar panels in spots like the Mohave Desert. If we worked together as a country, and shared resources, imagine how much energy we could generate in our desert regions, the [windy] great plains, the great bays/lakes with their tidal currents…
    One of the grandest sights for those coming into the Bay Area is coming over the Altamont Pass and seeing all those huge windmills. Awesome.
    So, though we, personally, are generating all our own electricity through solar panels, we also recognize that’s really not the best plan of the future. What you describe is really what has to happen: a commitment to changing the big picture.

  6. Anonymous

    We’ve considered putting up solar panels on the house, but it’s a pretty expensive upfront cost. We did build a green-built home, though, so hopefully we’re chipping in somewhat.

  7. Anonymous

    You’ve put the worlds addiction to oil in great perspective here!

    I work for a major oil company and I’ve never heard the expression CMO but it is a good unit!

    Paul Roberts has a great book called the End of Oil. One interesting section talks about how the transition from gas to hydrogen technology could be completed for about $150 billion. A small fraction of what we already have “invested” in the Iraq war. (not being political, just another perspective).

  8. Anonymous

    We’ve done our part, or tried to, by replacing all bulbs with CFLs and trying to conserve wherever possible. I wish some of these other techologies were more cost-effective (solar paneling, etc. can be quite expensive). I imagine over time the technology will become cheaper and available to more and more people. Perhaps then we can begin to make a dent in that largest slice of the pie.

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