Here’s the next hot topic being asked by Aunt Ednas across the country. There were many variations of this, but at the core of all of them was this basic question, “Why do we still rely so much on oil and gas? Aren’t there alternatives?”
It’s a great question, and undoubtedly it’s one we’ve all heard before in one form or another. The simple answer is that, compared to alternative energy sources like wind and solar, oil and gas are unique in their ability to affordably meet the four key elements that everyone wants from an energy source: demand, scalability, efficiency, and reliability.
The world is adding about a billion people per decade. The simple fact is that we need every molecule of energy we can get and alternatives alone fall well short of meeting growing demand. That is why oil and gas currently make up over 60% of the U.S. energy mix.1
Consider this: According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), in 2016 the United States consumed a total of 7.21 billion barrels of petroleum products, an average of about 19.69 million barrels per day.
By comparison, Nike recently announced a contract to purchase 86 megawatts of wind power from a nearly 40,000 acre wind farm near Corpus Christi, Texas – that’s a wind farm nearly the size of the island of St. Kitts in the Caribbean, and Nike will still need a lot more wind power to reach its goal of powering Nike North America operations with 100 percent renewable energy by its target date of 2025.
At this ratio, you would need a wind farm the size of Rhode Island just to power New York City.
Natural gas and other petroleum fuels have another key attribute — high energy density. This simply means that you can get a lot of energy from a small amount. The advantage here is that, relative to most alternatives, petroleum fuels are more convenient to transport, store, and handle, all of which contribute to keeping the cost down for the customer.
Lastly, any energy source needs to meet a basic standard of reliability. Wind and solar are variable, and this intermittency means their ability to produce power on demand isn’t as reliable as fuels, such as natural gas, that can be stored and used when needed. Think about what it would be like to deal with regular blackouts in today’s world: no lights, no air conditioning, no wifi, and if your cell phone dies, it’s dead until the power comes back on.
In addition, according to a 2014 Brookings Institute study, because solar and wind only operate at full capacity for a small amount of time, far more alternative energy plants would be needed — their estimate was six solar plants and four wind plants — to produce the same energy as one fossil-fuel plant.5
Oil and gas are unique and important energy sources because, with the flip of a switch, they are capable of generating sufficient, uninterrupted energy affordably. And they can do this for billions of people around the world. That’s what we call an energy solution.
We hope this information is helpful. Be on the lookout for the next question in a few weeks. Also, even though the first submission period is over, please make note of any new questions you receive over the next few months — another call for questions is coming this fall!
‘Answering Aunt Edna’ is a recurring series that is designed to help CAN members answer tough questions from their friends, family and neighbors.