Beyond Headlines

Today’s FT ran an analysis piece with the sardonic headline “Back To Petroleum”, making reference to BP’s attempt to rebrand themselves as “Beyond Petroleum.” While the main thrust of the article deals with BP’s waffling on its alternative energy commitment, the sections that most intrigued me were some of the analyst statements quoted in the article. Fiona Paulus, head of energy at Royal Bank of Scotland, is quoted as follows:

A hundred years ago, the world’s fuel was primarily coal. Today it is oil. In the future, it will be renewable energy. By 2050, perhaps 50 per cent of our energy will be non-carbon-based.

Paulus’ impressive job description and the forum of the Financial Times lends a bit of gravitas to her analysis but reader beware. This strikes me as another case of extrapolating past events into the future or worse, projecting humanity’s ingenuity to credit our race with an energy solution that does not yet exist.

The sentiment (and that’s all it is) that we may be 50% non-carbon-based in our energy use leaves out one factor: logistics. Not all energy sources are created equal. Oil, for instance, is easily transportable compared to natural gas or wind power. It also provides the most energy per unit than any other known energy source by a good margin (known as EROEI — Energy Returned On Energy Invested). Then there is the pesky little detail that in order to build out these renewable energy sources and the infrastructure to accomodate them, we will have to use massive amounts of oil. After all, how many bulldozers have you seen run on solar power?

Just another reminder to be careful of the information we consume, especially newspapers like the FT or the Wall Street Journal. While they are helpful in keeping abreast of current events, they are fairly general in scope and do not provide a complete picture.

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