Crunching Some Numbers on Fossil Fuels

From a review of Jared Diamond’s latest book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, reads:

“I don’t think we have another 20,000 years,” Jared Diamond said in his impeccable German and with the same unassuming, polite composure with which he had answered all preceding questions. And he added: “I think it’s closer to fifteen years.”

I’ve occassionally wondered what the end of oil will look like. Tonight I thought I’d crunch some numbers to get a better idea.

Let’s start with current daily consumption. I’ll use U.S. numbers because they are quite easy to find.

How much energy does the U.S. consume each day from fossil fuels? According to this CBC article, the U.S. consumes 20.52 million barrels of crude oil per day, each of which contains 1700kWh of energy (according to this site). By my calculations (20,520,000 barrels/24h x 1,700,000Wh/barrel) that comes out to 1454 gigawatts of power.

When the oil runs out that energy will need to be replaced if we are going to maintain our current lifestyles. Where will it come from?

My guess is electricity, either directly or indirectly. Directly if we switch to electric cars; indirectly if we use electricity to extract hydrogen from our environment to power our fuel-cell cars.

According to the Energy Information Administration, the U.S., as of 2002, has the capability to produce 905 gigawatts of electricity, one third of which comes from natural gas and petroleum. That leaves about 604 gigawatts of coal, hydro, nuclear, and other renewable energy to see Americans through the end of oil.

So it looks as though Americans will need to more than triple their current capabilities (~600GW) to cover the loss off oil (~1450GW). Is that what they are planning for?

According to the same EIA article:

Of the new capacity, nearly 62 percent is projected to be natural-gas-fired combined-cycle, combustion turbine, or distributed generation technology. From 2011 to 2025, 105 gigawatts of new coal-fired capacity is expected to be brought on line—more than one-half of it after 2020. From 2011 on, coal-fired capacity is expected to account for 40 percent of all capacity additions. Renewable technologies account for just over 5 percent of expected capacity expansion by 2025—primarily wind and biomass units. Distributed generation, mostly gas-fired microturbines, is expected to add just over 12 gigawatts. Because the best resources for hydropower have already been developed, hydropower capacity is expected to increase only slightly in the future.

Assuming that coal outlasts oil, that leaves about 105GW of new capacity will survive after we run out of oil.

That’s a far cry from the 1450 gigawatts needed to fill the gap.

I don’t want to guess what this means for the future, but it certainly doesn’t look good from where I sit.

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