Reframing the Energy Discussion: Cubic Miles of Oil

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In 2006, the world finally surpassed an enormous benchmark: the consumption of one cubic mile of oil each year. That’s equivalent to 1.1. trillion gallons or 26 billion barrels of oil.

In the conversation surrounding energy consumption, it can be hard to keep interest and sustain any meaningful dialogue as commentators must often wade through various units and conversions in discussing new energy sources. How does a Btu compare to a kWh? How many barrels of oil does it take to produce the same amount of energy as a ton of coal?

On Tuesday August 14, Dr. Ripudaman Malhotra, Associate Director of the Chemical Science and Technology Laboratory at  SRI International, explained how the concept of the cubic mile of oil (CMO) can help simplify and reframe the discussion, as well as provide a more visual understanding of energy consumption and production. Today, the world consumes the energy equivalent of 3.0 CMO each year and given current projections, that rate looks to increase to 9.0 by 2050.

“A crisis is a terrible thing to waste,” Malhotra said, and something we have wasted before. Current energy fears involve the dueling responsibilities of social justice and sustainability. Nations will continue to search for greater and cheaper energy sources to provide for their populations, but these sources must be efficient in their use and sustainable in their collection.

Energy consumption is driven by both population and living standards, Malhotra explained. The Asia/Pacific region, which produces and consumes the most energy and runs a deficit of more than 0.2 CMO, has a per capita consumption of energy that’s ⅛ the amount of the North America region. In order for the Asia/Pacific region to raise its living standard–as judged by energy consumption–to even the global average it would consume an extra 0.68 CMO, nearly the same amount as all of North America. Increasing the living standard to that of Europe would consume an additional 1.48 CMO on top of that 0.68.

But can the world’s reserves sustain such an increase? For Malhotra, it’s a difficult question to answer with any kind of accuracy, because the reserves are constantly changing. New technologies and discoveries are putting to use energy sources that make old projections irrelevant, just as new demands require larger amounts of energy.

“If there is real value being tacked on by a new technology, than you can exploit it,” Malhotra said. But the shift can take decades to occur. Coal had already been on the scene for much of the 1800s, but it wasn’t until 1880 that it surpassed the use of burning wood and biomass. Likewise, it took almost 70 years from the time of oil’s first use in 1890 until it finally surpassed the use of coal in 1960.

Inertia, price and infrastructure can all cause serious hurdles that new energy sources have to overcome. Public perception can also play a large role, ideas like NIMBY, “not in my backyard,” can prevent energy sources from being utilized. Malhotra volunteered two more acronyms, NOPE, “not on planet earth,” and BANANA, “build absolutely nothing, anywhere near anything.” Two of the largest factors that can break these barriers are new strategic importance for militaries and niche markets finding high-value products.

Malhotra explained that to create 1 CMO per year by 2050, in order to meet that 9.0 CMO, current renewable energy technologies would require one nuclear reactor being constructed every week for the next 50 years. In solar roofs, we would to build 250,000 every day until 2050. Obviously, current technologies will be insufficient to meet the demands of the next few decades.

To meet the energy demands of the future, “innovation is needed on all fronts.” Nations must both reduce their energy demands, and also find ways and new technologies to produce more energy.

It might take decades to change the way we use energy, but for Malhotra that is all the more reason to start now rather than put the problem off any longer.

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