You're an ER doctor and three patients enter the waiting room at once. One is having a heart attack, one has a broken arm, and one has the flu. Whom do you treat first?

If you think it's the heart attack patient, I'm with you.

It's time we face the fact that resources are limited and we must triage our energy problems in a logical order.

People talk about competing priorities in addressing the national energy situation; clean air, global warming, and dependence on imported oil. It's useful to look squarely at this issue first, and there appears to be an elephant in the room.

If one compares the total known reserves of oil in the U.S. to our rate of use, we have about 20 billion barrels of known reserves (source EIA), and we use about 20 million barrels a day. So, we have about 1000 days of oil reserves (2.7 years) if we were forced to supply all our daily need with only our current proven reserves. The same calculation for natural gas yields about 10 years of known reserves (BP Review of World Energy 2009) but we have a whopping 234 years of coal!

We have lots of coal and not a lot of oil or gas. Now consider what we do with coal, oil, and gas. In very general terms, we use oil to run our transportation system, and we use gas and coal to make electricity. We are critically low on the fuel needed to operate our planes, trains, and automobiles, but we have lots of fuel to make electricity.

So what problem is more important to work on first, electricity or transportation? I vote for the transportation/oil issue. I trust you agree.

So why are we spending a lot of money in subsidies to promote the use of expensive solar power to make electricity? I'm not sure. It seems to me that electricity is not the problem and if it were, solar is not the answer (See post titled "Grid Tied Photovoltaics") We have enough coal, nuclear energy, and hydro to make electricity for centuries to come. Our electrical problem is like the patient with the flu. Our pending transportation trouble is like the guy having the heart attack. I'm concerned about the guy with the flu and the guy with the broken arm, but let's treat the problems in a logical order. Transportation first, then electricity. Am I not concerned about CO2 from burning coal? Yes, but we have a bigger near term problem that left unaddressed will cause us much more pain and suffering. If our oil situation becomes desperate, we will collectively cast off any concerns for the environment in favor of simple survival. So let's steer clear of those rocks.

As our oil supply depletes, oil prices will rise, potentially in a disruptive way. Policies that anticipate the pending oil/transportation paradigm shift would be wise. But subsidies to make electricity with PV are treating the wrong patient with the wrong medicine.

1 comment:

  1. I like your objective approach to renewable energy economics. I regularly berate the folly of retro-fitted PV.

    You might be interested in my blog about energy at, especially the article where we are trying to reduce petrofuel needs with NH3 produced from wind power. See

    Comments and suggestions welcome.


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