Aveneu Park, Starling, Australia

Cutting US oil demand — what’s electricity got to with it?

The notion of freeing ourselves in the US from foreign oil is a bumper-sticker type slogan that may as well be as old as the original automobiles. Another popular and populist refrain of late is that we can do so by boosting domestic renewable energy and making transmission systems improvements. But US power statistics put the lie to that idea, at least in the near term.

Unlike many Third World countries, oil use in US power plants is negligible. The share of power generated from petroleum liquids of the country’s net generation capacity was 1.1% for 2008 through November, according to an Energy Information Administration monthly report issued earlier this month. Therefore adding renewable energy in the power sector has little to directly do with cutting oil demand.


Also, high oil prices appeared to have dampened oil use in US power generation in 2008. The share of petroleum liquids-fired generation in terms of total Mwh in the US for 2007 was 1.19%, but for 2008 through November, the share fell to 0.75%.

The preponderance of US oil demand is for the transportation sector. Meanwhile, thanks to high prices followed by fallout in consumer confidence, total refined products use in the US last year dropped by nearly 1.2 million b/d, or 5.8%, from the 2007 average, the largest annual decline since 1980, according to the EIA Short-Term Energy Outlook released February 10.

One widely touted potential future nexus between cutting US oil demand and boosting its power supply and flexibility would center around a massive conversion of the automobile fleet to plug-in hybrid vehicles. Proponents say that prospect includes scenarios that could reduce oil use in transportation while at the same time ideally providing a form of power storage in the car batteries. Pilots and research in that area are just beginning.

Theoretically, even if such vehicles were widely available, the fleet conversion would rely on millions of individual Americans chucking the sunk costs of the vehicles they currently drive. Would there be yet another huge government bailout for that?

The changes envisioned are laudable and long overdue, but their advocates should be clear to their audience that a whole new US energy world is far from being a reality any time soon and will require enormous waves of spending on various technologies and infrastructure in the transportation and power sectors.

In the interest of full disclosure, this writer has about a year to pay off a loan on a 2006 vehicle that runs on 87-octane gasoline. I added to my carbon footprint that year by moving from Washington to Houston and buying the car. But, on the other hand, beforehand I rode the Washington metro, which is powered by electricity and half of that remains coal-fired in this country. Bottom line: if someone has an affordable way to immediately convert this vehicle to energy sources that are better for our environment and energy security, please advise. Is there a retrofitting option?

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