Running the Numbers: A Call for Energy Literacy
Energy is the defining issue of our time, and numbers and data form the backbone of discussions about energy. The problem with this is that there are serious flaws with energy literacy in America. Mathematics and statistics are often misunderstood, and can be easily twisted to suit specific agendas. We also lack the education in rhetoric and logic that is necessary to interpret information accurately. Quite often we get stuck considering the species and size of various trees, and we miss looking at the forest: the big picture of how our energy use has changed dramatically over the past hundred years, and will continue to change over the century to come.
Finite resources are extracted or produced at a rate of a normal distribution over time — a bell curve. The American Petroleum Institute is currently running TV ads claiming that the United States is going to be the number one producer of oil, and will thereby become energy independent. This is a massive fiction, because the world has peaked its production of oil, and being reliant on a finite resource does not support energy independence. This is the meaning of peak oil: we are at the top portion of the bell curve, balanced at the apex of the peak production of all of the oil that has ever existed on earth.
We know where all of the oil is, and we won’t be discovering any more of it. The bell curve of humanity’s use of oil fits within a 200-year period, between the years 1900 and 2100; we are now at the halfway point of this unrepeatable one-time oil boom. How we choose to use our remaining oil will affect the future ofsociety on our planet, with respect to climate change as well as energy. So we need to carefully consider the facts, to make informed decisions and hold our leaders accountable. Energy literacy is paramount. We need to be having regular public conversations that result in action.
The total amount of oil that has been or ever will be usable is about 2 trillion barrels. You might think that’s a lot of oil, but remember in the years since 1900 we’ve already used about half of it, and worldwide were currently using over 32 billion barrels a year, and counting. So, let’s do the math: a total of 2 trillion barrels ever available, divided in half, equals 1 trillion barrels remaining. One trillion is 1000 billion. One thousand billion barrels divided by 32 billion barrels per year equals a little over 31 years, at the current rate of use. But keep in mind we’ll be descending the bell curve, so there will be less oil available year to year, and it’s likely we will be stretching out these diminishing amounts for the rest of this century.
Why does all this matter? Our society is hurtling at breakneck speed toward the brick wall of the finiteness of fossil fuels, and we will hit it soon. More than 40% of U.S. energy comes from oil. Depending on a finite and decreasingly available fossil fuel is not a sustainable or smart energy policy, and CO2 emissions keep rising as we burn our way into planetary environmental system collapse.
What is to be done? Let’s put the brakes on fossil fuel use. Become energy literate — consider how you use energy to transport, house, heat and feed yourself and your loved ones, and begin to restructure your lives to decrease fossil fuel consumption. We have a golden opportunity, a short period of time in which to make changes. We cannot make more fossil fuels, but we can still choose to conserve what remains. Begin at the personal level, and also engage at the local level: how does your town power its buildings, or run its water treatment facility? Statewide, we need a carbon pollution tax to fund these changes, and we need to push for the same at the federal level. This is not pie-in-the-sky thinking — I speak from pragmatism. Our future depends upon understanding the facts, and having the foresight and fortitude to change our lives.
David Blittersdorf is the President/CEO of AllEarth Renewables in Williston, VT — a company that specializes in the design and manufacture of the grid-connected AllEarth Solar Tracker. He founded NRG Systems in Hinesburg, VT, and is the managing partner of Georgia Mountain Community Wind.