By Wallace Manheimer
The industrial age, namely using coal, oil and gas to generate power instead of human and animal muscle, and wind and solar have lifted billions out of poverty. Before the industrial age, civilization was a thin veneer on top of a vast mound of human misery, that civilization maintained by such things as slavery, colonies, and tyranny. The recent calls to reject fossil fuel and go back to the former ways motivates one to see in a quantitative way just how important fossil fuel is and how we rely on it. It takes some numbers, which generally bore people as compared to generalities and preposterous claims, but numbers are important, and in fact are simpler to understand than the vague generalities.
First let us look at the power that the world uses. BP is one of many organizations that publishes this data. Below is their graph of the power used by different parts of the world at various years and with projections for the future. The unit on the vertical axis is billions of tons per year of oil equivalent. Since this is not the usual units we think of, just think of a billion tons of oil per year as approximately equal to a trillion Watts, or a terawatt (TW). These Watts are the same units we are all use to, for instance we know what a 100-Watt light bulb is. Keep it on for 10 hours and you have used a kilowatt hour of energy and added about a dime to your electric bill. Here we will reduce all units of power to Watts, so everything will be in the same units and we can compare the power usage of one aspect of our lives to another.
Note that now the world uses ~14 (TW). Also note that it is the less developed parts of the world that is increasing power use. However, power use is very unequal. The billion or so people in the developed part of the world use about 6 TW, or about 6 kilowatts (KW) per capita. In the United States we use about 8 KW per capita. The billion or so people in China are greatly increasing their power use. At a science meeting in 2009, a high-ranking member of the Chinese Academy of Science said that in 2000, the average Chinese used about 10% of the power of the average American, and they would not rest until the power use is about the same. The 1.2 billion Chinese now use about 2.5 KW per capita, or about 30% of what the Average American uses. Regarding the rest of the world, the other 5 billion people use ~ 1 KW per capita.
Let’s see what these power number means. Take a typical American family with two parents and two children in the household. Say both parents work in different places so they have 2 cars and drive each one the average of 12,000 miles per year. If their cars get 30 miles per gallon (most cars average less), they use together 800 gallons of gas per year. A gallon of gas (or heating oil) has the energy equivalent of about 40 KW hours, and there are about 30 million seconds in a year, so the family’s cars use about 5 kW. Now say they use the average of 500 gallons of heating oil to heat their house; this is about 3 KW. Then say that their home electrical use is the average of about 1.3 KW. However, electricity is produced with an efficiency of, of about 1/3, so their electrical use claims another 4 KW total (of say coal, gas or nuclear fuel). Hence their total power use is ~ 12 KW, or about 3 KW per person for the 4 of them.
But where does the other 5 KW’s come from? Obviously the home is not the only source of power; there are offices and other public buildings, factories, the military, public transportation, airplanes, ships, railraoad,s etc, which use the other 5 KW per capita.
Now think of what the lifestyle in the rest of the world where the average power use is only 1 KW. These countries also have factories, a military, airlines…. The average power these citizens use in the home is probably more like 0.5 KW per capita. These people live on a much, much lower standard than we do in the United States. Is this what we want either for us or for them? Of Course not, not only is it immoral, the citizens of these poorer countries will not stand for it much longer, just like the Chinese do not stand for it now. The world needs more power, not less.
Let’s see what the sources of power are. Here again we turn to BP. Below is their graph year by year of past and predicted world power by source.
Clearly fossil fuels count for ~80% of world power, and at least currently, renewables ~1%. While BP predicts it will go up to ~10-15% in 20 years, this is speculative and depends on strong subsidies for renewables, dependent on the changeable political will of the nations. There are all sorts of speculations of
what the consequences of climate change might be in a worst-case scenario, which everyone seems to assume. However, we should also consider the consequences of ending the use of fossil fuel before a substitute becomes available at about the same quantity and price. The unquestionable consequence of greatly reducing fossil fuel any time in the next 20 or more years will mean the end of the industrial age, and the impoverishment of billions of people worldwide. Furthermore, it would mean nearly continuous war, as different countries scramble for the diminishing resources. No, more than that, there is no doubt that it would it would mean the end of civilization as we know it.
The graphs can be found on page 14 of the 2018 edition of the BP Energy Outlook: https://www.bp.com/content/dam/bp/business-sites/en/global/corporate/pdfs/energy-economics/energy-outlook/bp-energy-outlook-2018.pdf