This article was written as part of the Popularization by Poster contest (vulgarisation avec affiche) held on February 22, 2017 at the École de technologie supérieure (ÉTS). It summarizes why the transition to sustainable energy sources, even though it is essential, will not go smoothly.
Fossil energy is a key component of the global economy and of human comfort. This resource, in addition to being limited, has serious consequences for the environment, including global warming. It is well acknowledged that a shift toward renewable and greener energy sources is needed. But what is less known is that this energy transition will not go smoothly and will have to be well planned to facilitate the transition.
Comparison Between Energy from Human Labor and from Oil Combustion
Energy is a physical measure that determines the ability to do a job within a given timespan.
Production of 1 kWh from manual labor
Take the example of a workman who can shovel 720 loads of 2 kg each/hour, at a height of 1.6 m:
- With each shovelful, the energy produced is: E = m x g x h = 2 x 9.98 x 1.6 = 32 j
- In one hour, 23,040 j = 6.4 Wh
- Knowing that 3600 kj = 1 kWh
- It takes about 160 hours to produce 1 kWh
|1 kWh = energy consumed by an electric baseboard of 1.2 m for one hour|
Production of 10 kWh using one liter of oil
By comparison, the combustion of one liter of oil produces 10 kWh:
This shows clearly that the energy produced with a liter of oil is much cheaper than manual labor. Our civilization therefore is heavily dependent on fossil energy.
Influence of Oil on Today’s Society
Humanity has shifted from an agricultural society to an industrial society. Oil has transformed our way of life by replacing 90% of farmers with tractors, fertilizers and herbicides. Populations moved from country to city, and labor from fields to factories. In addition to powering factories, oil has allowed transport over longer distances and the development of the service sector. It is at the origin of all our current consumption habits. These links are illustrated in the following figure:
Consequences of Fossil Energy Dependence
The GDP is the most important economic indicator of growth rate. The results analysis in Figure 3 indicates that global GDP is dependent on energy production, which is largely dependent on oil. Without fossil energy, there is no economy, therefore no goods and services, nor wealth creation.
Furthermore, a large portion of global energy is obtained from fossil sources: coal, oil, natural gas, and uranium for nuclear power. The renewable portion represents a very small percentage, as shown in Figure 4.
The Notorious Peak Oil
Soon, we will witness the global peak oil production rate, to be inevitably followed by a decline, which will result in rising oil prices and a global economic crisis. Figure 5 shows two oil production curves according to the extraction effort deployed. The red curve shows an increased extraction effort compared to the blue curve. In both cases, corrective measures must be implemented as of today.
The measures to be undertaken in order to deal with the energy transition are: using and financing renewable energies, reducing waste (equipment must be repairable and durable), preserving and protecting the genetic potential (animal and plants), creating denser and less populated cities, improving housing insulation, promoting organic farming and eating local.
The City of Vancouver can serve as a role model:
I would like to thank the organizers of the 2017 Popularization by Poster contest (vulgarisation avec affiche) at ÉTS.