Increasing the US contribution of wind and solar power, geothermal energy, and even nuclear power would have virtually no effect on our oil imports or energy security, because we use so little oil for power. However, a pair of articles reminded me that this logic doesn’t necessarily apply elsewhere. On Monday the Financial Times described the rapid growth of electricity demand in the Middle East, much of it fueled by oil that might otherwise be exported. Saudi Arabia apparently burns up to a million barrels per day of oil for power generation in the summer. And last week Fast Company highlighted the potential of large fuel cells to replace the diesel engines that generate power aboard tankers and other ships. As oil prices again approach $100 per barrel, with the possibility of even higher prices ahead when the entire global economy has returned to normal growth, these situations represent golden opportunities to save large quantities of oil for other uses for which its nearest substitutes still cannot replace it at scale.
Based on Department of Energy data the US generated just 0.9% of our electricity from petroleum and its products in the last year, with more than a third of that fueled by petroleum coke, a low-value solid byproduct of oil refining. The 43.5 million barrels of petroleum liquids used in power generation in 2009 represented only 0.6% of the 6.9 billion barrels the US consumed that year. When you break that sliver down by location, much of it is used for either backup generation or on islands or other remote locations. In other words, the remaining potential to displace oil from power generation in the US is very small and not necessarily well-suited to the intermittent renewable energy technologies now in favor. (That should change as electric vehicles enter the fleet by the millions, but that prospect remains some years off, at least.)
That situation isn’t representative of the world as a whole, however, with oil accounting for almost 5% of global electricity generation in 2007. It was even higher on a regional basis, at 7% outside the countries of the OECD and 35% in the Middle East. Globally this amounted to 5 million bbl/day, or nearly 6% of total oil demand. That might not sound like much, until you consider that a drop in demand of around 3 million bbl/day from the first quarter of 2008 to the first quarter of 2009 contributed to a decline in oil prices–ignoring the mid-2008 spike to $145/bbl–of roughly $50/bbl. The price of oil is truly determined by the last few million bbl/day of supply and/or demand. You don’t need to be worried about Peak Oil to see the oil used globally for power generation as potentially low-hanging fruit for redeployment, and as a significant emissions-reduction opportunity.
The best candidates to displace that oil vary by country and region. For countries with a lot of natural gas, like the big producers of the Middle East, a switch to that fuel seems like an obvious choice. However, much of the world’s natural gas outside North America, including most LNG on long-term contracts, is priced based on oil, so the savings probably wouldn’t be as large as they would be here. Even for oil exporters like Saudi Arabia, it might still make more sense to burn the residual fuel from the country’s many large refineries, instead of importing LNG (or developing more of its own gas) and investing in the refining hardware to turn that residuum into gasoline, diesel and jet fuel. That might explain why the Kingdom is pursuing nuclear power to cover much of its future generating capacity growth. Renewables have also been capturing a foothold in the region, particularly in projects like Masdar City.
Finally, the large-scale marine fuel cell opportunity described in Fast Company would target a segment where oil has a near monopoly, outside of military fleets: shipboard power. And while these molten carbonate or solid-oxide high-temperature fuel cells would still consume fossil fuels to auto-generate the hydrogen they use, their high efficiencies would reduce overall oil consumption in shipping. If it proves possible eventually to use even larger fuel cells as the basis for electrifying vessel propulsion, as the article speculated, then oil savings would be much more substantial. Global consumption of bunker fuel by ships amounts to roughly 3.7 million bbl/day, or around 4% of total oil demand. And the environmental benefits of such a switch would go beyond greenhouse gases to include significant local air pollution benefits, particularly in ports.
None of this represents new thinking, but rather an extension of some of the strategies by which the developed world of the time adapted to the high oil prices of the twin oil crises in the 1970s. Still, it’s easy to forget that that the quantity of oil tied up in the sectors mentioned above exceeds the output of the entire North Sea at its peak. If oil prices hadn’t buckled under the weight of the financial crisis and recession a couple of years ago and instead remained on their previous trajectory, I imagine we’d already be well down the path of freeing up more of this oil. Recent price trends suggest that the primary motivation for doing so could be about to return.