As Oil Producers Strive to Meet Rising Global Demand, What About Renewables?

At an October 7 Congressional Staff Briefing, panelists discussed a popular question among energy analysts: can oil production meet rising global demand? Participants stressed that the price of oil will necessarily increase as the supply decreases, and that oil security has become an increasing problem for many countries, including the United States. But for many within the energy community, the real question is not about the future of oil, but about how renewable energy can play into our shared energy future.

Robert Hirsch, Senior Advisor at Management Information Services Inc., noted that “world oil production hit a plateau in mid-2004 and stayed in a narrow fluctuation range in spite of the ‘Great Recession.” As of 2010, that plateau will become a decline of 4 percent annually over the next 2–5 years, leading to ‘worldwide crash mitigation,’ or the implementation of large projects at the maximum possible rate to mitigate the peaking oil. However, sufficient research and development will take time, limiting the degree to which this will resolve the coming oil shortage.

U.S. Military use of Solar Panels

Simultaneously, the U.S. Energy Information Administration projects that world liquid fuel demand will surpass 100 million barrels of oil equivalent per day by 2035, up from 84 million barrels a day in 2009. So oil production will go down, oil demand will go up, and there’s not much we can do about it. Or is there?  Instead of focusing on oil depletion, why not work to change U.S. and world oil consumption patterns?

Consider the U.S. military’s transition away from oil. The military, which must be highly mobile on the ground and in the sea and air, is highly reliant on oil. In 2005, the Department of Defense (DOD) consumed approximately 125 million barrels of oil, 74 percent of which was used to power transport vehicles. A military Humvee, for example, has a fuel capacity of 25 gallons and runs at 12 miles per gallon, giving it a range of 300 miles. Just one tank of fuel costs US$939. With 50,000+ humvees in use today, the total cost for fueling these vehicles can be upward of US$46 million annually. In addition, operations in the field, and often entire military camps, are powered by diesel generators that require a continuous and secure supply of fuel.

As oil prices and security risks increase, the U.S. military has become more interested in exploring alternatives. Just recently, 20 U.S. and NATO oil tankers were set afire in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, while attempting to cross the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan. The DOD’s total fuel expenditure in 2007 was $13.2 billion, a 41 percent increase from 2005. All of this highlights the need to diversify the energy supply and adopt alternative means, not only for monetary reasons, but also to not waste—and endanger—soldiers during oil transport and protection. Alternative energy would allow the United States to use resources that do not require transport and to use surrounding assets freely without any possible danger. Ray Mabus, the Navy Secretary and former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, stated that he hopes to generate half of all power needed for the U.S. Navy and Marines from renewable energy sources by 2020.

The U.S. military is often at the forefront of technological innovation and is the latest influential group to help usher in the future of renewables. Military inventions, once successfully deployed, are often later converted for civilian use. In the late 1970s, the DOD invested in Global Positioning Systems (GPS) to enable the armed forces to have access to 3-D positioning and velocity information in locations all around the world. Today, GPS devices can be obtained in any electronics store.

As the military continues to innovate, it will continue to generate products that have wider application in the civilian economy. Last week, a Marine company arrived in Afghanistan with transportable solar panels that fold up into boxes, solar tent shields that offer shade and electricity, and solar chargers for communication equipment. In the same vein, the Air Force, in late August of this year, flew the first aircraft with a 50-50 combination of biomass fuel and jet fuel.

To assist with the transition to cleaner jet fuel, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has begun extracting oil from algal ponds at a cost of $2 per gallon, with the end goal being large-scale production of jet fuel from this refined algae oil. DARPA has a set target to create a “surrogate JP-8” that would cost less than $3 per gallon at a production rate of 50 million gallons a year to enable the algal biofuel to be competitive with petroleum-based fuels. The military has the capability and funds to pursue these types of alternative energy projects, which are a more affordable investment in the long term than oil production, according to many experts.

As the alternatives to fossil fuels become more reliable, durable, and affordable, expanding use of alternative energy should be the real focus of discussion, rather than how to continue producing 84 million barrels of oil per day, as the world did in 2009, at outrageous environmental, health, social, economic, and security costs.

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