Value Of Energy

FuelCost1Epic Camp was a much appreciated break from many of my thoughts but as soon as I returned I was straight back in to reading and researching Peak Oil and views on the effects on our world as we move in to a period of declining oil production. The combination of the inevitable “down” following such an amazing experience and getting back in to researching all this found me back in a motivational black hole. Not wanting to train is partly a good thing since I’ve been rather too enthusiastic following Epic Camps in the past and I’ve race badly. So I took nearly a week doing one ride and sleeping lots. I then did some test sessions.

  • BIKE – Sunday I did my 50 mile loop (850m ascent) in 2:32 averaging 265 watts. A good sign indeed. Felt strong.
  • SWIM –  yesterday back at the club session. Focus on “skills” – real fun. Got my stroke count down to 12. Not normal prep for an Ironman but in terms of my long term swim development excellent
  • RUN – today. 2hr run, 24.5km, set off at solid pace, held till 18km then fell apart a little but held if together. Reasonably happy with that.

Makes me a little more optimistic for Wales in 12 days. This week will do a few more solid sessions, rest next week and then just aim to enjoy it.

There’s the Tri related bit done. Now a little on some things I’ve been thinking about recently which will hopefully make some of you think and consider what is happening to our world and what we can start doing to try and prepare for a better future.

Have you ever wondered how so many products seem ridiculously cheap – eg Bottom brackets for £7 or a t-shirt for a quid. The latter is often made in China. How can they make a profit ? Ignoring any cost other than transport – they can transport it halfway round the world cheaply enough to make a profit on a £1 price. How can that be ? Well … it’s because oil is so insanely cheap. Same thing with all the automation we do, it ultimately comes down to energy from oil is so cheap that it’s worth investing in automation to remove humans. Agriculture is an example with the man power used fractions of a percent of what it used to be. The problem is what happens when we don’t have such cheap energy. Even if the suggested replacements can replace oil they will be no where near as cheap. The reason is “net energy” how much energy you get for the energy you put in. Oil initially when it was seeping out of the ground had more than 200 net energy (ie for every joule of energy put in to extraction you got 200 back). No other fuel comes close, in fact some are less than one.

This made me wonder about what the true value of oil is. From what I can gather oil is basically priced based on the cost of extraction and distribution not based on it’s actual value. I remember years ago thinking – imagine if cars could run off water but it had to be mineral water that it wouldn’t be as great as you’d think since petrol was cheaper than mineral water – how could this be ? Surely thats insane. Pricing it so cheaply means we just waste it. All those darn cars taking children a couple of miles to school – terrible.

I’ve been reading The Ecotechnic Future by John Michael Greer. A great read. He mentions something about the equivalent man power required for the fossil fuel used by each american. It got me thinking and made me spend this morning researching and duplicating (checking) his figures:


This will probably take some explaining. I took a look for total energy consumption in the US and looked at fossil fuels. I then took the population and calculated how much energy of each type was used per person together with the cost. This gives a broad average of everything that is used per person. By this I mean it goes beyond the obvious costs of fuel and heating but also effectively includes the energy costs of everything consumed from food, to tyres on a car to computers. You see the cost per person of all this was £3,703. As an aside I’m pleased to say my calculations confirmed the books overall conclusion though I think it highlighted a typo (not significant!) or two.

Then I thought what is the actual value of all that fuel. Prompted by what the book mentioned I decided to estimate how much human work would be required to deliver the same amount of energy. I based this on someone producing 250 watts (ok I based it on my optimistic IM wattage). Note that this is perhaps optimistic but if I lower the figure my conclusion is even more extreme. I then worked on that for every hour throughout the year. In practise of course we’d need shifts of people to do this work. Based on this the energy use of every man, woman and child in american is equivalent to having 34 people working every hour of the day for them. Or, more realistically ( ;o) ) about 100 people working in 8 hour shifts.

Ever wondered why we’ve become so prosperous ? Back before oil anyone that was wealthy enough to have 100 people working full time for them pandering to their every need would have been prosperous. The problem we have, of course, is what happens when oil runs out. Notice I don’t say “if” because clearly it’s going to run out. I’m assuming no reader believes there’s an infinite supply.

So what does happen ? well perhaps we’ll find an replacement thats got equivalently net energy and is portable / flexible enough to replace it. My research so far puts me firmly in the camp of being extremely skeptical that we will. So … if we don’t then as oil production declines (it’s looking like the decline started since 2005), the price goes up and slowly transport costs will become far more significant. Suddenly transporting your £1 t-shirt half way round the world won’t be happening. Slowly but surely across all industries human labour will start becoming cheaper than paying for the fuel.

Back to my analysis. The main aim was for me to get an idea of the ‘value’ of oil. I know from my accountancy days deciding on somethings value can be done in various ways. Eg – the cost of making it, what people are willing to pay, what an alternative would cost. Looking at all these costs give an idea of the range of possible valuations.

So lets look at petrol. Currently the cost is around $3 per gallon in the US. This is the cost we pay and is more or less based on the cost of getting it out of the ground and to the pump. Another way to look at it is the energy it contains and what the cost of that energy would be from some equivalent source. So in my analysis I took my equivalent number of people required to produce the energy and then decided I’m pay them the Fed min wage (currently $7.25 per hour) this came up with a ‘value” for petrol at $969 per gallon.

I truly hope that shocks you. Certainly if that was the price then oil would be around for our grandchildren and beyond and we probably wouldn’t be in the shit we’re in. For me more evidence that capitalism is flawed. There was no control over the use of this oil wealth, it was exploited for greed with no consideration for future generations or what the effect on the world would be (7 billion world population – way beyond the earths carrying capacity).

Next time you decide to burn oil for some trivial purpose take a second to consider it’s true value and really should you be using it for that.

For giggles I decided to just check out what would be required to replace petrol with some renewable source – say solar. One gallon of petrol has about 114,000 BTU (british thermal units) when burnt. 1 sqm of solar panel in the sun for 1 hr produces about 3,400 BTU. Before I go further these are just illustrative and that figure for solar assumes clear skies and optimum angle to the sun. So … I decide I’ll drive to visit my mum. A journey that uses about 6 gallons of petrol and takes about 5 hours. How many solar panels would I need strapped to my car ? A mere 40.25 square metres ! So say a nice block 10m x 4m (or 33 feet x 12 feet). I’m guessing that would have some weight implications as well as aerodynamics so I’d probably need even more. Also, I only ever used to (I don’t own a car now) manage it that quickly my starting very early in the morning so the first couple of hours were in the dark.

Yes – oil is incredible energy dense and thus incredible valuable despite it’s ridiculously low price. And yes, believe it or not, it’s going to run out. So PLEASE use it wisely.

This entry was posted in Collapse, Epic Camp, Epic France 2011 and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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