The size of the problem

It is a tick over 1,900 km from Sydney to Melbourne and back again. Two full days of driving are needed to cover this distance if you keep to the speed limits.

Imagine each side of the road lined with oil tanker trucks parked end to end in one giant parking lot. Each of the 98,000 trucks is roughly 18m in length and each one is carrying 34,000 litres of crude oil.

This amount of oil, roughly 21 million barrels, is the amount burnt in America in a single day.

Two-thirds of this vast amount goes into the engines of cars, trucks, planes, buses and trains whilst the rest goes to heat buildings and manufacture chemicals and plastics.

“OMG, those Americans!”

Well, hold on. Australia uses around 950,000 barrels a day or a line of trucks 60 km long.

“Hah, that’s nothing, won’t even get you across the Sydney basin.”

Except that in less than a month there would be enough trucks to park along the road to Melbourne and back. Just like the Americans.

The point is that a vast amount of energy is needed to fuel modern economies.

Because fossil fuels were the easiest energy source to extract, transport and convert — thanks mostly to all the hard work plants and animals did to concentrate the sun’s energy all those eons ago — they have a legacy of use. We have mining and transport systems, power stations, vehicles and heating systems all designed to use them. So we still do, millions of barrels and millions of tonnes worth every day.

And for many generations, we imagined the reserves of fossil fuels were near limitless. A coal mine owner in the Victorian era had no notion of ageing coal-fired power stations or peak oil. Their energy was the new gold that put a rocket up industries and one on the moon.

Now, of course, we are not so sure. Twenty-one million barrels a day is a lot of oil. Wars are fought to secure supply and the power held by the few who control it has a global impact.

We know this is a problem. It has been there, simmering away for decades. What to do when the oil runs out, or the supply is held up, is always high on the risk list for any mature economy. Some would argue that the furore over climate change was just a way to keep this risk front and centre.

The solution, of course, is to find other equally reliable, cheap and efficient energy sources and to roll them out into economies. Wherever that energy comes from matters little so long as there is minimal or no disruption to economic growth.

Again the climate change issue helps here. There is a narrative for alternative energy as ‘clean’ or ‘renewable’ with respect to greenhouse gas emissions that have given the earth a thicker atmospheric doona and made it materially hotter. Shift to renewables and the global warming problem will go away.

It won’t of course because two centuries of emissions have latency, but I digress.

The real problem is energy supply and how to transition it.

What the image of oil tankers parked end to end for nearly 2,000km should do is illustrate the size of the problem. It is vast.

Ironically the best way to solve it is to unleash the power of economics and price fossil fuels out of existence.

Now, where have we heard that idea before?

An earlier version of this post appeared as Staggering numbers on the Alloporus blog

One thought on “The size of the problem

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