Peak Oil is You

Donate Bitcoins ;-) or Paypal :-)

Page added on February 26, 2015

Bookmark and Share

Getting Real About Energy in Cubic Miles of Oil

Getting Real About Energy in Cubic Miles of Oil thumbnail
Today, with plummeting oil prices and news reports of US oil production poised to exceed that of Saudi Arabia’s, there is a perception on the street that there is no energy crisis. Yet just a few years ago, we were all talking about one. Have things changed so dramatically so fast? We paid considerable attention to the energy crisis following the oil crunch in the 1970s, but then oil prices plunged, and public attention waned, and with it the efforts at conservation and improving fuel efficiency of vehicles. However, the underlying situation and the challenges facing us had not changed, and nor have they changed this time. A crisis is a terrible thing to waste, and we seem to be doing it all over again.
Meeting the global demand for energy remains a daunting task, and the energy sources we choose to employ will have a profound effect on the lives of billions of people around the world. People have to be involved in making the choice, or the choice will be made for them. For a sustained, informed public debate on this subject, it is necessary to have a common language that is readily understood by the specialist and the non-specialist. A Cubic Mile of Oil (Oxford University Press, 2010) provides a language to talk plainly yet intelligently about energy, and how to assess our future needs and evaluate our progress.
Energy use is essential to our well being—it is our sustenance. We use it in all aspects of living: growing food, manufacturing, transportation, communication, lighting, heating and cooling, earning our livelihoods, for entertainment, and more. All these tasks require energy, and we derive it from many different sources such as oil, coal, natural gas, hydro power, nuclear fission, and wind and solar power. Unfortunately, energy from these sources is expressed in different and often unfamiliar units, which makes it hard to assess their relative contributions. We use kilowatt hours for electricity, gallons or barrels for oil, cubic feet for gas, British thermal units (btus) or tons for coal, and so on—it’s a veritable tower of Babel!
Further, each of these units represents a relatively small amount of energy, and in order to express energy use at a global or national scale, we have to use mind-numbing multipliers like millions, billions, trillions, and even quadrillions. To overcome this problem, my colleague Hew Crane came up with the idea of expressing energy units from all the different sources in one large volumetric measure that is commensurate with the scale of global energy challenge and one for which we can form a mental image. The approximately 90 million barrels of oil the world currently consumes daily adds up to a little over a cubic mile of oil in a year, or one CMO. A CMO thus becomes a very convenient unit to express annual global energy production and consumption. Imagine a pool a mile long, a mile wide, and mile deep, and you have a cubic mile. That’s more than a thousand times the volume of a typical sports arena.
In 2013, the global consumption of oil was 1.1 cubic mile. The world consumed an additional CMO of energy from coal, about three-quarters of one CMO from natural gas, and roughly a quarter of one CMO each from hydrothermal, nuclear power, and wood burning, yielding a grand total of 3.5 CMO. All combined, solar, wind, and biofuels produced less than a tenth of a CMO in 2013. How much will we need in the future? That depends on how seriously we take the UN millennium goals for human development. Between 1981 and 2005, China lifted over 600 million people from poverty, reducing the poverty rate from 85% to 16%. Concomitantly, the infant mortality rate declined from 2100 deaths per day to 770 per day. This achievement was made possible by quadrupling energy consumption.
Global statistics on poverty are stark: 1.4 billion people subsist below the poverty level, defined by the World Bank as living on $1.25/day; infant mortality is 17,000 children a day; 2.4 billion people rely on wood, charcoal, or dung as their primary source of energy, and women and young girls spend more than 6 hours each day collecting fuel and water and completing other chores that deprive them of opportunities for advancement through education and entrepreneurship. Roughly 1.5 billion people have no access to electricity. Even after implementing measures to conserve and markedly improving energy efficiency, it is estimated that annual global energy consumption will have to increase by several CMO/yr to remove the scourge of poverty and to allow all people to lead healthy, productive lives.
The challenge of supplying energy to the world’s population is really overwhelming. Even at a modest growth rate of 2% per year (i.e., a doubling every 36 years), the world’s energy demand by 2050 will be over 7 CMO per year. As we seek solutions to the energy crisis, we have to ensure they scale to the CMO per year level¾if not, we will just be nibbling at the edges. When you consider what it takes to develop an infrastructure capable of producing even one CMO of energy, it becomes evident there are no easy solutions, and it will take an enormous effort sustained over many decades to effect meaningful change.
The slide below illustrates how many power plants it will take to develop capacity for producing 1 CMO/yr.  For each resource, it shows the total number of plants and the rate at which they must be built in order that in fifty years we will have enough of them to produce 1 CMO/yr. Because such analyses are highly dependent on the size and availability factors, I have also included those details. The numbers are truly sobering.

In my discussions, I have found the CMO metric very useful as it evokes a visceral response, drives home the scale of the challenge, and helps sift rhetoric from reality.  If it strikes you similarly, please use feel free to use it.  I was recently informed that this unit was also used by President Jimmy Carter, although—being a navy man—his preference was cubic nautical miles!


12 Comments on "Getting Real About Energy in Cubic Miles of Oil"

  1. Plantagenet on Thu, 26th Feb 2015 8:42 am 

    Whether you measure it in barrels, BTUs, or CMOS, we are still in an oil glut.

  2. forbin on Thu, 26th Feb 2015 10:54 am 

    well maybe its a condensate glut….



  3. Perk Earl on Thu, 26th Feb 2015 1:07 pm 

    “Even after implementing measures to conserve and markedly improving energy efficiency, it is estimated that annual global energy consumption will have to increase by several CMO/yr to remove the scourge of poverty and to allow all people to lead healthy, productive lives.”

    Well we certainly have our work cut out for us, as every effort to access increasing CMO’s to raise the poor up must be made. Our goal should be for every poor person in the world to live in a 3 bedroom, 2 bath home with heating and AC, a 2 car garage with a 4X4 and a run around car, a big screen TV, front loading washer and dryer, fully furnished, insulated home with large bay triple paned windows, solar on the roof to supplement grid usage, clean potable water and hooked up to a sewer system.

    Ok, to do that we may need to burn 11 CMO’s a year, but I think if we mountaintop strip for coal, work with Venezuela to process their Orinoco heavy oil, build thousands of more nuclear plants, expand Alberta tar sands, frack anywhere and everywhere we possibly can, ANWAR, massive solar and wind projects, offshore oil of Florida and other US coastal states, Australian coal expansion, etc., I mean it’s possible, we just have to focus on our goal without consideration of the repercussions and people are great at that, so what are we waiting for? I mean let’s just ignore any calculations regarding limits and myopically focus on the goal while also encouraging more births. We can have that brief moment of perfected jubilation while embracing 9-12 billion people! We just can’t think about what might go wrong.

  4. Northwest Resident on Thu, 26th Feb 2015 1:45 pm 

    “well maybe its a condensate glut….”

    We have a winner!

  5. Mark Ziegler on Thu, 26th Feb 2015 3:22 pm 

    It is a temporary oil glut Utilizing fracked wells with measurable decline rates.


  6. Plantagenet on Thu, 26th Feb 2015 4:24 pm 

    It may be a temporary oil glut, but the oil supply is still so much greater than demand that all the storage facilities are filling up. That means oil prices aren’t going to recover anytime soon.

    And by the way—-EVERY well has a measurable decline rate. Every oil field will eventually peak and then decline. Once that happens global oil production will have a measurable decline rate—AND thats what peak oil is all about.


  7. isgota on Fri, 27th Feb 2015 8:14 am 

    Some interesting math to see the development of Renew. Energy compared to 1 CMO:

    1200 windmills per week at 1.65 MW each equals to about 100 GW per year, last year about half of that figure was installed.

    250k solar roofs (solar PV) per day at 2.1 kW each equals to 190 GW of solar PV per year, last year about 50 GW was installed and by 2018 100 GW/year is expected.

    So with these numbers wind and PV alone deployment is right now on track for 3/4 CMO, and still speeding up.

    And is actually even bigger because CMOs are based on primary energy, but electricity is final energy. Power generation has low conversions (BP uses a 38% factor), and ICEs are more than 3 times more inneficient than an electric vehicle.

  8. Davy on Fri, 27th Feb 2015 8:21 am 

    ISgot, that is interesting but remember we are talking liquid fuels and grid energy. Our predicament is primarily liquid fuels. Our energy trap with AltE is the huge upfront cost with the long payback. Society is close to not having any money for new construction. All money soon will have to be devoted to fighting the fires of entropic decay. Sure AltE will continue to build out but it will amount to nothing more than an ass pimple.

  9. Steve Challis on Fri, 27th Feb 2015 12:20 pm 

    So the massive and increasing use of oil, coal, gas, etc. since the start of the industrial revolution is reducing the number of people who live in poverty?

    In that case why do we now have 1.4 billion people living in poverty. This is over twice the total population of the Earth in 1750 at the start of the industrial revolution.

  10. Ron Patterson on Sat, 28th Feb 2015 9:54 am 

    In the graphic “Producing 1 CMO Per Year from Various Source”, I am wondering if these five sources must be added to produce 1 cubic mile of oil equivalent or is the author saying that “each” will produce the equivalent.

    200 dams will not come remotely close to producing the energy equivalent of one cubic mile of oil. I did the math, one two hundredth of a cubic mile of oil would be 174,780,500 barrels of oil per year or 478,523 barrels of oil per day. That is almost half a million barrels of oil equivalent per day per dam. Not a chance.

  11. ghung on Sat, 28th Feb 2015 10:16 am 

    The math doesn’t look so hard:

    Three Gorges dam produced 98.8 TWh in 2014

    Oil: 5.78 million BTU/barrel = 1700 kWh / barrel.

    I’m eating a tuna sandwich, so I’ll let someone else do the math.

  12. Ron Patterson on Sat, 28th Feb 2015 1:46 pm 

    I did that math too. It would take 600 Three Gorges dams to produce the energy equivalent of one cubic mile of oil in one year. Three Gorges dam has to be one of the biggest dams in the world. My guess is it would take 2 to 3 thousand regular dams to produce the energy equivalent of one cubic mile of oil in one year.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *