The physics and economics of energy combined with scale realities make it clear that there is no possibility of anything resembling a radically “new energy economy” in the foreseeable future.
The math behind “The New Energy Economy: An Exercise in Magical Thinking”
A week doesn’t pass without a mayor, governor, policymaker or pundit joining the rush to demand, or predict, an energy future that is entirely based on wind/solar and batteries, freed from the “burden” of the hydrocarbons that have fueled societies for centuries. Regardless of one’s opinion about whether, or why, an energy “transformation” is called for, the physics and economics of energy combined with scale realities make it clear that there is no possibility of anything resembling a radically “new energy economy” in the foreseeable future. Bill Gates has said that when it comes to understanding energy realities “we need to bring math to the problem.”
He’s right. So, in my recent Manhattan Institute report, “The New Energy Economy: An Exercise in Magical Thinking,” I did just that.
Herein, then, is a summary of some of bottom-line realities from the underlying math. (See the full report for explanations, documentation and citations.)
Realities About the Scale of Energy Demand
1. Hydrocarbons supply over 80% of world energy: If all that were in the form of oil, the barrels would line up from Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles, and that entire line would grow by the height of the Washington Monument every week.
2. The small two percentage-point decline in the hydrocarbon share of world energy use entailed over $2 trillion in cumulative global spending on alternatives over that period; solar and wind today supply less than 2% of the global energy.
3. When the world’s four billion poor people increase energy use to just one-third of Europe’s per capita level, global demand rises by an amount equal to twice America’s total consumption.
4. A 100x growth in the number of electric vehicles to 400 million on the roads by 2040 would displace 5% of global oil demand.
5. Renewable energy would have to expand 90-fold to replace global hydrocarbons in two decades. It took a half-century for global petroleum production to expand “only” 10-fold.
6. Replacing U.S. hydrocarbon-based electric generation over the next 30 years would require a construction program building out the grid at a rate 14-fold greater than any time in history.
7. Eliminating hydrocarbons to make U.S. electricity (impossible soon, infeasible for decades) would leave untouched 70% of U.S. hydrocarbons use—America uses 16% of world energy.
8. Efficiency increases energy demand by making products & services cheaper: since 1990, global energy efficiency improved 33%, the economy grew 80% and global energy use is up 40%.
9. Efficiency increases energy demand: Since 1995, aviation fuel use/passenger-mile is down 70%, air traffic rose more than 10-fold, and global aviation fuel use rose over 50%.
10. Efficiency increases energy demand: since 1995, energy used per byte is down about 10,000-fold, but global data traffic rose about a million-fold; global electricity used for computing soared.
11. Since 1995, total world energy use rose by 50%, an amount equal to adding two entire United States’ worth of demand.
12. For security and reliability, an average of two months of national demand for hydrocarbons are in storage at any time. Today, barely two hours of national electricity demand can be stored in all utility-scale batteries plus all batteries in one million electric cars in America.
13. Batteries produced annually by the Tesla Gigafactory (world’s biggest battery factory) can store three minutes worth of annual U.S. electric demand.
14. To make enough batteries to store two-day’s worth of U.S. electricity demand would require 1,000 years of production by the Gigafactory (world’s biggest battery factory).
15. Every $1 billion in aircraft produced leads to some $5 billion in aviation fuel consumed over two decades to operate them. Global spending on new jets is more than $50 billion a year—and rising.
16. Every $1 billion spent on datacenters leads to $7 billion in electricity consumed over two decades. Global spending on datatcenters is more than $100 billion a year—and rising.