World Energy: The Good, Bad, and BTUs

To speak exclusively of conservation,” said U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney in early 2001, “is to duck tough issues.” It’s hard to argue with that statement, whether or not you agree with anything else Cheney may have to say about energy. The tough issue is that energy production must increase, and conservation will only slow that increase but can’t stop it. Energy production is a global issue, and in a world where populations are increasing and economies are industrializing, the idea that global energy usage can remain flat through conservation is ridiculous. Here’s why:


Using 1995 figures provided by the World Bank, in that year, the world’s energy consumption totaled 316 quadrillion BTUs. A BTU, or British Thermal Unit, is a standard measure of energy that can be used regardless of the type of energy being produced. For example, there are 3,413 BTUs in a kilowatt hour of electricity. A barrel of oil contains 5.8 million BTUs.

Imagine that through conservation and increased energy efficiency, every citizen in the United States were to consume half the BTUs they currently consume. This is certainly possible, though very unlikely in the near term. In 1995 the U.S. citizenry consumed, on average, 327 million BTUs per year, (BTUs by Nation) which is more than twice what many developed countries use per capita, including the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Germany and Japan. In 1995 there were 28 countries in the world (North, BTU’s per $1 GNP) with per capita incomes over $15,000 per year. Let’s call these the developed nations. They numbered 787 million people and they consumed on average 216 million BTUs per person. They represented about 15% of the world’s population and they consumed 68% of the world’s energy. No surprise there.

The problem with thinking that energy production worldwide does not have to dramatically increase in the next ten years is to forget about the rest of the world. Countries with huge populations such as China and India, along with most of Latin America and the rest of Asia, are industrializing with astonishing speed, yet their total energy consumption right now is only at the beginning of a rapid increase. In 1995 the per-capita energy consumption of the 85% of humanity with average incomes under $15,000 was only 23 million BTUs per person, barely 10% of the average for the developed world.

If the per capita energy consumption in the developing world were to reach only 50% of that consumed by the citizens of industrialized nations, and if everyone in the prosperous industrialized nations were to conserve themselves down to that same level, energy production worldwide would have to double. That is to say, if everyone on earth got by on 100 million BTUs of energy per year, that would require 600+ quadrillion BTUs of energy, compared to only 316 QBTUs produced worldwide in 1995. To try to prevent this process is to impinge on the sovereignty of nations, slowing their progress towards prosperity. It’s not a good choice.

That is the tough issue of which Cheney speaks, and the algebra to prove it is conservative. If, for example, everyone on earth consumed as much energy as U.S. citizens currently use, worldwide energy production would not have to go from 316 QBTUs to over 600 QBTUs, but instead to over 1,900 QBTUs! This is absurd, but again demonstrates that the above example assumes radical conservation measures worldwide, and no population growth! Conservation should be a very important option in the United States (whose per capita BTU consumption is only exceeded by the oil rich enclaves of Brunei, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Qatar) but conservation cannot begin to solve the world’s energy challenges alone.

Another way to evaluate energy consumption worldwide is to look at the correlation between BTU consumption and GNP. That is, how many BTUs correspond to each dollar of GNP in various countries? Or put another way, how efficiently do various countries convert energy into wealth? The six largest consumers of energy in the world are the United States, China, Russia, Japan, Germany and India. But whereas the United States only requires 12,000 BTUs per dollar of GNP, which is only slightly higher than average for industrialized nations, China requires 46,000 BTUs per dollar of GNP, and India requires 31,000. (South, BTU’s per $1 GNP) This means that as these countries industrialize, unless they adopt more efficient technologies, they will consume far more energy per capita in order to create wealth for their citizens, and energy consumption worldwide will not double or triple, but will go off the chart.

The prevailing energy issue worldwide is how will global energy production more than double in the next twenty years in a way that is clean and sustainable. Because even with highly efficient energy usage and conservation worldwide, that’s what it’s going to take for all the countries of the world to stay on the course of increasing prosperity.

Can “non-hydro renewables” provide this much energy? Maybe, but it would take a transformation in the world energy infrastructure of unimaginable speed and scope. Environmentalists can hope that such will happen, but they will need to back up hope with technological innovation, solid business plans, and arguments that rely on reason along with passion, if hopes are to become reality.

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