Just as a hypothetical, what if we decided to pack up all oil, gas, and coal developments and go home? What if we decided that we have had enough of fossil fuel pollution, and decided to outlaw the practice of drilling and mining fossil fuels, as well as selling it. I don’t mean a slow transition, but an immediate shift. The purpose of this is to put into perspective what our energy needs and energy market looks like today.
Let’s start with how much energy is consumed and where it comes from. Below is a table created by the U.S. Energy Information Administration showing by energy source how much is being consumed. The units are represented in quadrillion British Thermal Units (BTU).
In case you didn’t know, a BTU is a lot like a calorie, in that is how much energy is needed to raise a specific amount of water a specific temperature. In the case of BTUs, one BTU is the amount of energy needed to raise one pound of water by one degree Fahrenheit. The average household uses about 263.5 million BTUs a year. Compare this number to the amount of BTUs consumed by the United States in a year (specifically 2015), which is 97.344 quadrillion BTUs. To show you the scope of these numbers, I want to write them out fully for you.
The average household consumes 263,500,000 BTUs a year.
The United States in 2015 consumed 97,344,000,000,000,000 BTUs.
This is clearly massive, but how much of it is from fossil fuels? According to the EIA, 79.330 quadrillion BTUs of energy consumed in the United States comes from fossil fuels (coal, natural gas, and petroleum). This means about 81.5% of our energy consumption in the United States comes from fossil fuels! About 8.6% comes from nuclear energy. 0.44% comes from solar power, and 1.8% comes from wind power. With all the renewables together (wind, solar, hydroelectric, geothermal, and biomass), the number is about 9.7% of our energy consumption.
These numbers should be enlightening. It means that today we are still reliant on fossil fuels, and based on the shear amount of energy we get from it, it will be difficult to shift. However, if it were to be an irresponsible and immediate shift, we could assume that we would be 81.5% the energy we demand! This would be gas lines like in the 1970s, and huge electricity shortages across the nations.
To us that live relatively comfortable lives, blackouts don’t sound like big deal. We have dealt with blackouts in snowstorms or ferocious lightning storms. But think of the hospitals need that power to save lives. Think of the 911 responders that now will be without communication. Think of the families that need to refrigerate life-saving medication. Think of all the food that will go bad. Think of the traffic lights in busy cities that will no longer work. Think of the people that live in dire cold environments that will struggle to keep themselves warm. Think of the people that live in dire hot and humid environments that would no longer be able to keep themselves cool. These are all life-threatening situations, and as of right now, oil, gas, and coal are the reliable and cheap energy sources that make it so these things do not happen.
If we were to hypothetically remove fossil fuels altogether, we would fix these problems eventually, right? We would probably be hard at work constructing nuclear reactors, hydroelectric dams, and digging for geothermal energy, but all these endeavors require a lot of energy to do! It takes a lot of energy to construct massive concrete towers for nuclear reactors. It takes a lot of energy to build massive concrete dams or even to get the materials to the rivers in the first place. All of this development for these alternative energy resources would require a lot of energy we wouldn’t have because we have removed fossil fuels entirely. How would we have enough energy to fix this problem in the time we needed it? People would undergo incredible suffering and death while waiting for this solution to come, if it ever could come in time.
To give you a concrete example of this, Southern Australia tried kicking out oil and gas recently. They decided to become reliant on wind energy, unfortunately for them wind is not an incredibly reliant form of energy. The wind doesn’t always blow. Because of this prices would spike up to $14,000 a megawatt hour in Southern Australia, and have averaged around $360 a megawatt hour! Compare this price to other areas in Australia that pay around $90 a megawatt hour. Supply in energy dropped in Southern Australia and prices skyrocketed. Since then, Southern Australia has begged natural gas plants to resume operation.
Getting rid of fossil fuels in one swoop would be terrifying! But so many young people today truly believe that we should immediately introduce legislation in states to get rid of oil and gas. Luckily, I don’t believe this is a widespread belief, but one that I have come across enough to feel like I should write this post. Every time I come across this idea, I can’t help but face palm harder and harder.
And to be clear, I am not saying we couldn’t ever live in a prosperous world without fossil fuels. I am simply saying that is not our world today, and it will not be our world for many days to come. We demand a huge amount of energy, and right now, our current renewable energy sources are not appearing to be the panacea we need.