08.10.10, 6:00 AM ET
A comprehensive national energy policy will acknowledge the magnitude of the world's energy challenges. Most citizens want to be assured of economic prosperity, national security and a clean environment. In much of the world, accomplishing these goals is impossible, but in America all three can be achieved.
Since the 1950s, energy demand in the U.S. has been increasing while our domestic supply is rapidly decreasing. Sending $300 billion a year to other countries to obtain 60% of our oil, much of it from unreliable regions of the world, is not an intelligent policy. To suggest that energy independence can be achieved quickly and easily using renewable alternatives is equally unreasonable.
Developing a practical energy policy starts by understanding the scale of the problem. Currently we have no clear way to talk about this challenge. Units such as terawatts, joules and BTUs mean little to our policymakers and citizens, adding confusion to an already difficult topic. To help address this issue, our late colleague Hewitt Crane coined the term a "cubic mile of oil."
The approximately 25 billion barrels of oil the world consumes each year amounts to one cubic mile of oil (CMO). We can use the energy contained in a cubic mile of oil as a unit to visually represent energy from all different sources: coal, natural gas, biomass, nuclear, hydro, solar, wind and geothermal. Expressing global energy usage in CMO units allows us to more easily debate and evaluate our progress. It is a big unit. Imagine all of Washington, D.C., submerged under 80 feet of oil. At today's prices, one cubic mile of oil costs about $2 trillion.
Each year the world uses 3 CMO of energy: 1 CMO of oil, 0.8 of coal, 0.6 of natural gas and about 0.2 each of wood, hydro and nuclear. At 0.01 CMO per year, wind and solar combined barely register. Even with very aggressive conservation and efficiency gains, the world's energy use will approach 6 CMO per year in 50 years--twice what we consume today.
What would it take to replace just the world's coal use with non-carbon sources? We would need to build each year for 50 years either 32 new 1,000-megawatt nuclear plants, 31,000 new 3-megawatt windmills, or 28 million new 5-kilowatt photovoltaic homes. These numbers assume realistic availability from wind and solar systems plus the ability to store and transmit their intermittent power, which we cannot fully do today. These numbers indicate why even the most optimistic Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) scenarios call for nearly 60% of the world's energy to be provided by hydrocarbons in the year 2050.
How about a more modest goal--replacing America's coal-fired plants in 10 years? These plants produce about 0.13 CMO of electricity per year. Replacing them would take 280 nuclear plants, 250,000 windmills or 245 million photovoltaic homes. Are we doing anything of this scale today? No. Some the combination of these alternatives is conceptually possible--but not within 10 years.
A new nuclear plant costs many billions of dollars, and replacing all of America's coal-fired plants with nuclear plants would cost roughly a trillion dollars. Producing electricity today from nuclear is three times--and solar thermal four times--more expensive than coal. That is why China is building a new coal-fired plant every week, with India close behind. However, even these aggressive developments will not satisfy the energy needs of these rapidly growing countries.
Eventually the world will move to cleaner alternatives, but it will take many decades. Oil will remain essential for many products and particularly for transportation, which is 70% of U.S. oil use. Until we have practical, cost-effective electric or hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles, transportation usage will not change significantly. When we do have acceptable alternatives, it will take decades to create the required infrastructure and to replace today's vehicles.
The U.S. has plentiful sources of energy; we have simply decided not to use most of them for technical, environmental and political reasons. This de facto policy has hurt our economy, damaged the environment and reduced our national security. We have enough coal resources for the next 200 years, potentially more oil than Saudi Arabia in shale oil, and possibly natural gas in excess of 100 years in shale gas. We have great potential for solar, wind and nuclear energy, and in the future we will also have a new generation of bio-fuels and geo-thermal power.
Cubic Mile of Oil math illustrates the vast scale of our challenge, which no single approach can fully address. We need a national energy plan that uses all of our energy alternatives, along with a comprehensive innovation plan to create the low-cost energy our economy requires and that reduces our risks to national security and the environment. A realistic energy plan will include initiatives for conservation and efficiency; aggressive development and deployment of renewables; increased oil recovery from existing reservoirs; development of new coal, oil, gas and nuclear resources; and development of nontraditional energy resources, such as shale oil and gas.
While we do not yet have all the innovations needed to provide the clean, low-cost and enormous scale of energy resources required, we can develop them over time. To make expeditious progress, the government must make sustained research investments, create realistic energy regulations and provide appropriate commercialization incentives, without picking technological favorites. Although it will take great persistence and the investments required are huge, over a 50-year period our goals are achievable. Our nation requires and deserves such a plan.