Energy: The Ball is in Our Court

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Energy Comparison
Energy Comparison. Image courtesy: Professor Richard Perez, ASRC, University of Albany
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Human beings use different kinds of energy for different purposes all over the planet every hour of the day and night.

About one-third of the human-produced energy is used for transportation which requires energy that is easily stored and ready for use at any time – the gasoline in your car gas tank, or your Toyota Prius battery for example.

Other energy is used to produce electricity to power our homes, businesses and industry.

While still other kinds of energy are burned to produce thermal energy as is likely the case in many home furnaces.

To help understand the vastly complicated energy picture on the Earth it helps to have a measurement of energy equivalence to put things into a comparable form.

The terawatt year was constructed for this very purpose. Basically, 1 terawatt-year, (or TWy) is equal to 8766 terawatt hours of energy.

Others refer to 1 terawatt-year as 29.9 quad for their particular calculations. A 1 Terawatt power plant – is the same as a 1000 Gigawatt power plant. Each generates 30 quads of energy a year.

Five billion barrels of oil can also yield the equivalent of 30 quads of energy.

For our purposes, we will use the Terawatt year.

It is important to state (no matter how the energy was collected) that the total energy consumption by humans on the Earth in 2009, reached 16 Terawatt years.

It is estimated (no matter how that energy will be collected) that the total energy consumption by humans on the Earth in 2050 will reach 28 Terawatt years.

What energy shall we use between now and 2050? That’s really the question, isn’t it? Our choices are laid out before us just like at the shoe store – all we have to do is choose!

Lets see what’s available.

It turns out that two main kinds of energy are available. Non-renewable and renewable.

Energy Comparison
Comparing finite and renewable planetary energy reserves. Image courtesy: Professor Richard Perez, ASRC, University of Albany

Non-renewable energy:

Again, remembering our 2009 energy consumption total of 16 Terawatt years and steadily increasing each decade, we see that the finite,  non-renewable energy sources totals 1445 Terawatts. That’s the total supply of energy from those sources – which is equal to 90.3 years of energy at 2009 consumption rates. Once consumed, these non-renewable energy sources will be gone forever.

There are some who claim that there are actually 1655 Terawatts of total energy available, which would allow for 103.44 years of energy consumption at 2009 usage rates. And again, once consumed these non-renewable energy sources will be completely exhausted.

Renewable energy:

Keeping in mind the 2009 energy consumption total of 16 Terawatts per year, but steadily increasing electrical demand year by year – we see that renewable energy sources (that is, energy which never runs out – but continues to produce energy decade after decade) totals 23,034.2 Terawatts per year. That’s 1439 times more than we used in 2009!

There are claims of 23095.7 Terawatts per year available for collection and use by humans, which is 1443 times more than we used in 2009. This kind of energy would be available every year until the sun burns out, the ocean’s freeze and the wind stops blowing, etc..

What’s the difference some might ask? Why worry? Even in the worst-case scenario, we are covered for about 90 years at 2009 energy consumption rates.

One, the actual cost per energy unit. Costs for renewable energy have been falling dramatically so far this decade — and it looks set to continue. In fact, some kinds of renewable energy are already reaching price parity with coal and large-scale nuclear power.

Two, the costs associated with certain kinds of energy use must be factored in as China now realizes where 410,000 people per year die from pollution of the air, water and soil.

The energy ball is in our court.

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