The world we’ve built over the past 200 years has been designed to run on oil and coal. Changing this requires pulling apart almost everything we have and starting fresh. That’s a tall order.
Can the switch out of fossil fuels be accelerated? And how much alternative energy would we need to replace existing fossil fuel use? That’s the focus of a new book by scientists affiliated with SRI International, an independent research institution in California. Called A Cubic Mile of Oil: Realities and Options for Averting the Looming Global Energy Crisis, its argument is summarized in the Globe & Mail and at this website.
One cubic mile of oil (CMO) – imagine a pool of oil one mile wide, one mile long and one mile deep – is roughly the amount of oil that the world consumes every year. The book’s authors say we would need the equivalent of three CMOs to equal the energy that the world consumes every year. But the book’s value is not so much the neat measurement metaphor as enabling us to visualize what it would take to reliably replace a single CMO with non-oil based energy sources, not just now but in the future. By the middle of this century, the writers predict the world will need between six and nine CMOs of energy per year to support a population which is forecast to grow from 6 billion to 9 billion people.
So what would it take to replace just one of these CMOs over the next 50 years?
153 Three Gorges Dams, built at the rate of one every four months:
and 1,000 underground uranium mines.
NB: Currently there are less than 450 working nuclear power plants across the whole world.
Or 4,560,000,000 solar panels, built at the rate of 91,000,000 per year:
As much as we’d like to see alternative and renewable energy sources fill that projected energy gap (full disclosure: Suncor has targeted total investment of $750 million in developing renewable energy by 2012), that isn’t realistic, given the present stage of alternative energy development.
What the CMO analysis shows is that the world is going to need a mix of proven and potential energy sources for a least the next 50 years. After all, it took 200 years (1700 to 1900) to replace wood with coal as the world’s primary energy source, and 130 years for oil and subsequently natural gas to overtake coal.
So, how should we go forward?
- Reduce our energy use, as doing so is the easiest, lowest-cost option to reduce fossil fuel dependency
- Ensure low carbon and renewable sources of energy are an increasing part of the global energy mix
- Carefully develop conventional sources of energy to help drive research and development of alternatives and new environmental technologies
- Conserve and commit to get better at what we already do
- Most importantly, focus on constructive discussion that looks at solutions to get us there faster
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Three Gorges Dam - DigitalGlobe
Wind farm - Wayfinder_73
Nuclear power plant - Toucanradio
Surface uranium mine - SkyTruth
Solar panel - spanginator