Sunday, September 5, 2010

Oil Is Finite, Electricity Is Infinite

Oil has a lot of embedded energy to account for:

Exploration is getting harder all the time; and can take years; and lots of energy is consumed doing so.

Drilling is very hard to do, and takes a lot of energy, including making a lot of "drilling mud", which takes a lot of energy to make, and to inject deep down underground. Look it up! The BP drilling rig is nowhere the deepest at ~23,000 feet below the surface of the ocean.

Extraction takes a lot of electricity (with all of it's overhead!) -- possibly more than refining(!); never mind the energy to build and move and operate those gigantic oil rigs.

Transportation to land is expensive, and super tankers burn a lot of fuel, with it's overhead of embedded energy. The routes taken now have to be lengthened to avoid pirates, and pipelines are hard to build and maintain.

Oil then has to be pumped into tanks onshore for storage, and/or into pipelines. Any energy used along the way has it's own overhead of embedded power.

It then has to be transported to refineries; burning more fuel with it's embedded overhead.

Refineries use a lot of electricity (and all it's overhead!) and they use a lot of natural gas to heat the oil, in a process that takes days. There is a lot of blending and other chemicals used, all of which that have to be made ahead of time, using yet more energy and all of it's overhead. The various fuels and by products are then pumped again to storage tanks.

Then the gasoline/diesel is pumped and transported using pipelines, trucks, and trains, burning more fuel and using electricity, added yet more to the overhead.

It then has to be pumped into the storage tanks at the filling stations, and then pumped out again into the cars, using more electricity, adding that overhead of energy.

By rights, we should also include the military used to defend and maintain our access to oil, and maintaining stability in oil prices. There are huge hidden subsidies in foreign policy, too. Don't fool yourself to think that much of our battle with terrorism is tied to this whole messy and corrupt situation. Do you know how much oil gets stolen in the Congo or in Iraq?

I almost forgot -- it isn't just the fuel! ICE engines require a lot of lubrication and maintenance: you have to add in all the steps to find, produce, transport, store, refine, store, transport, use, then dispose of the engine oils used in the ICE. So, many of the same steps I listed above have to be repeated for the other consumable carbon based things used by ICE machines, including the lubrication oils and the filters, etc. This accumulates even more carbon footprint.


Electricity from coal, on the other hand is fairly easy: mining takes a lot of effort and energy, then moving it around in the storage yards, then transporting it on trains (which are the most efficient way to move anything!), then moving it around storage yards, then burning it, and disposing of the ash waste.  This fly ash can be used as aggregate in concrete.  Dealing with fly ash is a significant challenge.

Electricity generated from natural gas is more similar to making gasoline/diesel, except for the refining stage.  Coal produces the most carbon waste, but has less embedded energy, while natural gas produces far less carbon, but represents a greater amount of embedded energy; just not nearly as much as oil.

Grids losses are not as bad as you might think: the average is a bit less than 8% loss on the grid. Any and all of the overhead for electricity that is used at all the various stages along the way to produce oil -- get added to the oil! So, the 7.5kWh PER GALLON of gasoline could instead just be used directly to move a car 30-60 miles *rather* that making the gasoline.

Electricity can come from renewable sources: solar PV, solar heat, wind power, geothermal (by drilling deep holes!), biomass (methane from plant and animal waste and others), wave power, tidal power, small scale hydro, etc. The more we use of these, the smaller the carbon footprint becomes in the future, as we make the new wind turbines from renewable energy, and so on, and so on.

All of these use energy from our sun, in one form or another -- much more directly that oil an gas.  The Sun is our big-fusion-reactor-in-the-sky!

Each gallon of petroleum fuel represents ~100 TONS of biological material, that is millions and millions of years old. We are squandering it -- using so little of it potential. We should use it only when absolutely necessary.

The cost of electricity is very low compared to gasoline -- an EV can be driven the same distance as an ICE powered car for a fraction of the cost. And again, we are not talking price; but rather the amount of embedded energy.

So, in total gasoline/diesel represents a FAR GREATER amount of carbon per mile traveled -- even now before we produce very much electricity from renewable energy.

And that, my friends, is electricity's greatest strength -- it can come from a great variety of energy resources; many of them being renewable.

Petroleum in finite.

Electricity is (for all intents and purposes, until our Sun burns out) infinite. If we used mostly/all renewable energy sources, then we would not even have to conserve...

We *must* think very long term, if we are to survive on this Eaarth we share. We can live without a lot, but we cannot live without the Eaarth.


  1. From what I have read the Sun will NOT explode in a supernova. Rather it will become a red giant and then shrink to become a white dwarf. It will destroy all life in Earth in the process but not an explosion. Our sun is simply not massive enough to trigger such an explosion.

    When making arguments on Science I think it important to do the research. Even if it doesn't effect our argument it will surely effect our credibility.

  2. Hi James,

    I guess I will change it to "when our Sun burns out" -- I was taking a little literary license.

    Thanks for your feedback!


  3. Hi Neil,
    As an avid EV student and experimenter I love the blog. I have to make a comment about James reference from a purely academic standpoint though. I am a fifty one, return to college student studying environmental science and we are constantly told that wiki's are not to be considered as reliable sources. It is truly an academic argument though as the point you were making is that electricity produced from the sun is going to be around for at least our great great great grandchildren come up with a better method of powering their lives.

  4. Rail is one of the most efficient forms of transportation, but a super-tanker is not too shabby.

    Second only to pipelines in terms of efficiency,[4] the average cost of oil transport by tanker amounts to only two or three United States cents per 1 US gallon (3.8 L).

    I suspect the greatest in efficiencies are in the trip from the refineries to all the individual stations.

    Overall great post. I would add that it is easier to have pollution controls on a few thousand electric plants than on hundreds of millions of individually owned vehicles.

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