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In the oil business it is common to talk about “barrels of oil equivalent” or BOE when comparing the energy provided by different sources. For over 6 decades BP has published this data for every country in their Annual Statistical Review of Energy. “Equivalent barrels” is nice visual way to describe relative energy content, but I think it would be great if someone developed a standard definition for an “equivalent barrel of sunshine”. The BP data is excellent for comparing the energy content of different sources; however, a significant limitation is that it does not consider either the cost required to produce the energy or the impacts on the environment.
When BP’s data is combined with the World Bank’s population data, the average energy consumption per person in every country can be calculated. Below is a plot with a few examples.
When all energy sources are converted to BOE and totaled, each person in the U.S. consumes more than 50 equivalent barrels or BOE energy in a year. In Europe, Japan and Russia the number is usually somewhere between 25 and 35 BOE. The world average in 2013 was about 13 BOE. China zipped passed the world average in 2010, and is now at 15.4 BOE per capital. The U.S. passed 13 BOE per person level about 100 years ago. The average BOE per person in South America is about 8 and Africans consume less than 3 BOE energy per person. The world’s growing per capital energy consumption has many implications for climate change, energy consumption as well as opportunities - or lack thereof - for developing nations.
Recently there has been some debate about whether or not natural gas will be a good bridge fuel to get the world to a zero carbon economy. For this discussion let’s focus on the fossil fuels - oil, natural gas and coal - and how we might project their replacement with wind and solar. For reference, here’s what’s been trending on a per capital basis for fossil fuels and wind and solar from 1965 to 2013 based on BP’s report and World Bank population data.
Global per capital consumption of oil has actually declined since the 1970’s, however use of coal and natural gas continue to rise. Coal remains the fastest growing energy source with China responsible for about 80% of the increased consumption since 2000. Wind and solar show some nice increases in recent years but they start out at some very low numbers. To more clearly demonstrate the baseline for 2013, prior to making projections, the following plot shows relative per capital energy consumption in 2013.
In 2013 every person on earth consumed on average about 4 barrels of oil, 4 equivalent barrels of coal and 3 equivalent barrels worth of natural gas. On average, each of us consumed the equivalent of only 0.15 barrels or 6.3 gallons from wind, and solar provided just 0.03 barrels or 1.2 gallons (there are 42 gallons in a barrel).
So how long will it take for wind and solar to provide as much energy per capital as the equivalent of 11.3 barrels provided by fossil fuels? The answer lies in the assumptions made behind the extrapolations. From 2011 to 2013 wind and solar provided an annual average increase in energy equal to about 1.2 gallons per year. If we assume similar increases in the years to come, then a linear extrapolation suggests that it will take almost 400 years to replace the 11.3 equivalent barrels provided by fossil fuels. Another strategy is to assume the recent percentage increases (roughly a 40% increase/year for solar and 20%/year for wind) seen from 2011 to 2013 will continue.
If wind and solar continue to see 20 and 40 percent increases each year respectively, then they could provide energy equal to the current consumption of oil, natural gas and coal before 2030. Of course extrapolating exponentially is like saying, “Joe made $1 yesterday, and $2 today, so Joe should make over $1 million per day in 3 weeks.” Some question whether even a linear extrapolation is likely now that oil is priced far below $100 per barrel and, thanks to the shale revolution in the U.S., it appears that we will be flooded with fossil fuels for decades to come. But what if world solar and wind energy consumption had a revolution of their own, similar to what happened recently in the U.S. natural gas/shale industry? The following plot incorporates information from EIA to compare the recent history of wind and solar energy consumption with the energy provided by the U.S. natural gas/shale production.
There has been a revolution in world wind and solar energy, but it has been eclipsed by energy from U.S. shale. Until 2008 the energy provided by U.S. natural gas and global wind and solar were tracking each other closely. In 2007 we (meaning everyone on earth) consumed about the same amount of energy from wind and solar as was produced by natural gas from U.S. shale – just under 2 gallons worth of energy each. By 2013 enough wind and solar energy provided to give the world 7.5 gallons per person, however energy produced by U.S. shale alone could have provided everyone on earth almost 13 equivalent gallons of energy.
The challenge of moving to a zero carbon economy and replacing 11.3 barrels of fossil fuel energy for every person on earth with renewables is daunting for many reasons. In 2013 wind and solar only provided 1.6% of the energy provided by fossil fuels. However, for many decades most people, including those in the oil industry, believed the costs would always be too high to extract natural gas and oil from shale. George Mitchell, founder of HARC, has been credited for changing the equation. We need people like Mitchell to change the equation for renewables, so that tapping the energy from a barrel of sunshine is more profitable than fossil fuels at any price. When the costs of climate change are factored in, now may be the right time.
Let’s figure out how to make it happen.
All the energy consumption data in this report was taken from BP’s 2014 Statistical Review spreadsheet. The natural gas data was taken from information provided by EIA (averages were used when numbers differed in different tables). Population data used to compute per capital information comes from the World Bank. Links to the data are provided below.
BP Statistical Review of World Energy -2014 Workbook
EIA AEO2014 Market Trends – Figure data – May 7, 2014
EIA Annual Energy Outlook 2015
Figure 26. U.S. shale gas production in four cases, 2005-40 (trillion cubic feet)
EIA Shale Gas Production