Our Energy Problem Is A Quantity Problem

(This post consists of a short overview article I recently wrote for Transform, a magazine for Environment and Sustainability Professionals, plus six related Questions and Answers.)

Reading many of today’s energy articles, it is easy to get the impression that our energy problem is a quality problem—some energy is polluting; other energy is hoped to be less polluting.

There is a different issue that we are not being told about. It is the fact that having enough energy is terribly important, as well. Total world energy consumption has risen quickly over time.

Figure 1. World Energy Consumption by Source, based on Vaclav Smil estimates from Energy Transitions: History, Requirements and Prospects and together with BP Statistical Data for years 1965 and subsequent.

In fact, the amount of energy consumed, on average, by each person (also called “per capita”) has continued to rise, except for two flat periods.


Figure 2. World per Capita Energy Consumption with two circles relating to flat consumption. World Energy Consumption by Source, based on Vaclav Smil estimates from Energy Transitions: History, Requirements and Prospects (Appendix) together with BP Statistical Data for 1965 and subsequent, divided by population estimates by Angus Maddison.

There is a good reason why energy consumed has risen over time on a per capita basis. Every human being needs energy products, as does every business. Energy is what allows food to be cooked and homes to be heated. Energy products allow businesses to manufacture and transport goods. Without energy products of all kinds, workers would be less productive in their jobs. Thus, it would be hard for the world economy to grow.

When energy consumption per capita is rising, it is easy for workers to become more productive because the economy is building more tools (broadly defined) for them to use, making their work easier. Manufacturing cell phones and computers requires energy. Even things like roads, pipelines, and electricity transmission lines are built using energy.

Once energy consumption growth flattens, as it did in the 1920-1940 period, the world economy is negatively affected. The Great Depression of the 1930s occurred during the 1920-1940 period. Problems, in fact, started even earlier. Coal production in the United Kingdom started to drop in 1914, the same year that World War I began. The Great Depression didn’t end until World War II, which was immediately after the 1920-1940 period.

In the 1920-1940 period, many people, especially farmers, were not able to earn an adequate living. This is a situation not too different from the one today, in which many young people are not able to earn an adequate living. Strange as it may seem, this type of wage disparity is a sign of inadequate energy per capita, because jobs that pay well require energy consumption.

The 1980-2000 flat period was in many ways not as bad as the earlier one, because the lack of growth in energy consumption was planned. The United States changed to smaller, more energy-efficient cars in order to reduce the amount of gasoline consumed. Oil-powered electricity generation was taken out of service and replaced with other types of generation, such as nuclear. Heating of homes and businesses was changed to more efficient systems that did not burn oil.

The indirect effect of the planned reduction in oil consumption was a drop in oil prices. Low oil prices adversely affected all oil exporters, but the Soviet Union was especially affected. Its central government collapsed, at least partly because of its reduced revenue stream. Member republics continued to operate, somewhat as in the past. Russia and Ukraine cut back greatly on their industrialization, leading to less use of energy products. Population tended to drop, as citizens found better work prospects elsewhere.

Eventually, in the early 2000s, oil prices rose again. Russia was able to become a major oil exporter again, but Ukraine and other industrialized areas were permanently handicapped by the collapse. Countries affiliated with the Soviet Union (including Eastern European countries, North Korea, and Cuba) found themselves permanently lagging behind the US and Western Europe.

Recently (2013-2017), the world economy seems to have again reached a period of flat energy consumption, on a per capita basis.


Figure 3. Based on data of BP Statistical Review of World Energy, 2017, and 2017 UN Population Estimates.

In fact, in many ways, the flattening looks like that of the 1920 to 1940 period. Increased wage disparity is again becoming a problem. Oil gluts are again becoming a problem, because those at the bottom of the wage hierarchy cannot afford goods using oil, such as motorcycles. Young people are finding their standards of living falling relative to the living standards of their parents. They cannot afford to buy a home and have a family. Governments are becoming less interested in cooperating with other governments.

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