Friday, September 28, 2007

Every Molecule and Electron

Yesterday's panel discussion on alternative and renewable energy at the annual J.S. Herold Pacesetters Energy Conference covered a wide range of technologies and issues, reflecting the diversity of this growing sector. (The presentations are available on Herold's website.) In my introductory remarks, I cited the importance of energy security and climate change as key drivers of alternative energy, but a couple of comments from one of the panelists really put it all in perspective. Dr. Don Paul, the Chief Technology Officer of Chevron, emphasized that we will need the contribution of every technology--"every molecule," as he put it--to meet growing global demand. That's true, even after factoring in predictable improvements in efficiency.

Dr. Paul also a threw out a mind-boggling figure that describes the scale of the challenge better than any other I've heard: one trillion gallons per year. That's the quantity of energy we currently get from petroleum (it's actually 1.3 trillion) which supplies about a third of total global primary energy, the energy we turn into electricity and fuels to do useful work. That isn't intended to make the hundreds of millions or low billions of gallons of biofuels appear trivial, but it serves as a useful reminder of just how remote the prospect of replacing petroleum entirely is, today.

It also illustrates how the traditional units of measurement in different energy segments get in the way of appreciating the big picture. Oil people talk about barrels per day, in the thousands or millions, while the US gas industry refers to millions or billions of cubic feet per day--or trillions per year. And then there's the rest of the world, including the LNG trade, which talks about millions of tons per year and billions of cubic meters. Along come ethanol and biodiesel, and for some odd reason their producers chose the same unit as American consumers: gallons. Perhaps that explains part of ethanol's appeal, along with its farm origins.

In my geeky, idealistic youth I was a fanatic about metric conversion, and the Systeme Internationale or "SI", in particular. Kilograms, meters and Joules seemed much more sensible than pounds, feet and BTUs. The life-cycle of that movement in this country roughly paralleled that of leisure suits, and I am skeptical either could be revived any time soon. But wouldn't it be nice if energy people could agree on a few common units, one for molecules and another for electrons? If we're going to need every last one of each--and I fervently believe we will--then we at least ought to be able to add them up easily. Don't hold your breath, though. It probably won't happen until some other form of energy has pushed oil and gas off center stage, and then the industry will have to learn to speak in someone else's units.

Disclosure: Chevron Corp. is a client and I own Chevron stock.

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