Energy and the Economist

A colleague of mine just handed off his 2010 edition of the Pocket World in Figures from The Economist magazine to me.  While part of me finds it annoying/amusing to be presented with wood-pulp pages of years-old data, another part of me was curious.  I’m  interested in ideas like the limits of growth, and peak oil, and I’m curious about whether this civilization we’ve built is at all sustainable.

This post is kind of long, so I’m shortening it.

The Pocket World in Figures includes energy production and consumption data for 2006, measured in millions tonnes oil equivalent (m Toe).  And I don’t think I need to be a math genius to add up the columns of the 30 top energy producers, and the thirty top energy consumers, and subtract the second from the first.

There are some wrinkles.  The twelve countries of the Euro area in 2006 (Austria, Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain)  are mixed into the consumers list rather indiscriminately, so it’s somewhat difficult to separate out those numbers from the total consumption.

Even so, the top 30 energy consumers use about 10,801 million tonnes oil equivalent. And the top 30 energy producers together create/mine/excavate/pump/alternate-energy-generate about 10,425 million tonnes oil equivalent.

There’s a gap here.

It’s a gap that’s not going to be closed by “drill, baby, drill.”  It’s not a gap that’s going to be closed by “mine, baby, mine.”

The Exxon Valdez could carry 200,000  tons (short [US] tons) of fuel. We’re short around 376 million tonnes. Converting 376 million tonnes to US tons, I get 414,469,053 tons — or around 2,073 Exxon Valdez’s worth of oil-equivalent a year.

A tonne of energy equivalent is defined as 11.63 Megawatt-hours, so 376 million tonnes is .  This article says that a megawatt hour is equivalent to the energy used by 400-900 US homes, depending on energy consumption. So the top 30 energy consumers are consuming 4,372,880,000 megawatt-hours a year more energy than the top 30 energy producers are producing… a deficit of somewhere between 4 million and 10 million US households’ worth of energy, a year.

My math may be wrong.  The data I’m working with may be wrong.  Maybe I’ve transferred between English and metric units incorrectly, or missed an order of magnitude in one direction or another.  It’s happened before.  It’s also possible, given that I’m only working with the top 30 consumers and producers of energy, that the remaining 165 countries produce enough energy to replace the deficit described here.  Yet a quick flip through the countries section of the Pocket Guide finds a lot more countries consuming more energy than they produce, rather than producing more than they use.  Ireland, for example, produces 1.6 m Toe but uses 15.5 m Toe.

This is not the sort of problem that goes away.  Perhaps it would be clearer, and more accurate, in fact to say that it cannot go away, because it is the defining problem of life on Earth — how does work get done? By the expenditure of energy.

If the energy does not come from oil, or oil-equivalents like coal and natural gas, it must come from wind, solar power, or some other source.  For most of our history, those sources were animal muscle power and either wood or charcoal.  For millions of people in the world, those are still the only sources.


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