With oil approaching 140 dollars per barrel, there is a lot of talk of peak oil production and the end of civilization as we know it. Well, maybe civilization will come crashing down, but I don’t find this very likely. Read on to see why.
Basically, regardless of what you’ve heard, there is no shortage of energy on planet Earth. Those who say there is have forgotten about that little brilliant yellow ball overhead. That’s right, Mr. Sun. Consider that the chemical energy in one barrel of oil is about equal to the amount of solar energy that directly strikes a 100 square meter section of the Earth in 12.4 hours (see the illustration above). That’s a lot of energy. Isn’t the Sun cool (actually it is quite hot). This means that the total amount of solar energy that strikes the Earth in a given year (taking changes in the angle of incidence due to varying latitude into account) is equal to the chemical energy contained in about 895 trillion barrels of oil (that’s 895 followed by 12 zeros).
To put this number in context, the world uses about 30 billion barrels of oil a year or about 0.003 percent of the energy given to us by the Sun. Even if only 1 percent of solar energy is recoverable, that is still about 300 times the energy contained in the oil the world consumes every year. It is worth emphasizing at this point that this analysis doesn’t even include energy derived from geothermal, tidal, and nuclear sources which do not originate from solar fusion.
So, do you still think there is an energy crisis? Well, maybe there is. While the Sun’s energy is way more abundant than the energy we could ever hope to recover from fossil fuels, it is in a diffuse form that is not readily usable for many applications. In other words, the energy density of oil is much greater than that of sunlight, and the energy in oil is easily retrieved (by burning the stuff). This is why oil derivatives are so great for use in automobiles, planes, and trains. Thus, the crisis (if one exists at all) isn’t so much a lack of energy but a lack of means to collect and store the Sun’s energy. But, we have the technology to engage in “Sun harvesting” activities today. We can collect solar energy directly using photovoltaic cells (i.e., solar panels). We can harvest the Sun’s heat energy (which is the source of all of the Earth’s weather) using hydroelectric power plants and wind farms. And, we live on a planet that abounds with organisms that conveniently turn solar energy into stored chemical energy through photosynthesis. Turning this biomass into ethanol, biodiesel, and other biofuels is just starting to emerge as an economically viable alternative to drilling for black gold. Having said that, hopefully we (i.e., our governments) will learn soon that we shouldn’t encourage turning our food (like corn) into fuel. After all, we still need Fritos to eat.
This brings me to my final point. The important thing to remember is that it is economics, not lack of technological know-how, that is the reason alternative energy has not yet come online en masse. Until recently, fossil fuels where so cheap that they priced alternative energy sources out of the market. But with sky high energy prices, all of this will change (and change in a hurry). While the incredible price hiccup we are currently experiencing may not last, even oil priced at 70-90 dollars a barrel makes a host of alternative energy sources economically viable. So in the short term, don’t get mad at market speculators, they are just leveraging the power of the free market price system to ensure a more speedy and smooth transition to alternative energy. In the long term, get ready for all the wonderful things that the end of cheap oil will bring, like carbon neutral energy, reduced pollution, a more decentralized power grid, and electric cars (see this post). Perhaps the most enjoyable thing the coming revolution in “Sun harvesting” will bring is the ability for the free countries of the world to stick it to the nationalistic governments who control the major portion of the world’s remaining easily retrievable oil reserves. They don’t want to share, so they will be left in the proverbial dust.
If you would like to check the calculations in my figures, most of my data came from here.