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Reinventing the Wheel - Kicking the Oil Habit

By x356039 - June 17, 2013

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

Oil. It is the eight hundred pound gorilla in the room at every discussion of climate, energy, and the economy. Our society is unquestionably addicted to it, with the United States consuming a whopping 19.1 million barrels of oil every day. When the total energy used is converted from barrels of oil to watt hours the figure is staggering. Running in at 31 terawatt hours per day, this massively dwarfs all energy consumed in the electric grid which runs in at a much smaller 4 terawatt hours daily. Much of this goes to running our transportation networks, providing fuel for trucks, ships, trains, and airplanes across the country before we even start looking at military consumption. With how incredibly ubiquitous oil is for our economy it is no surprise mainstream environmentalists talk of slowly phasing it out as opposed to going cold turkey on the black stuff, implying one more hit won't put us over the edge.

This is all based on the assumption that we do not have the means to go off of oil. Even renewable energy production is caught in its sticky web. Yet there is hope. The current potential for renewable energy is so great that if we implemented it on a sufficiently large scale even the massive demand for energy the oil economy supports could be met. As was established in a National Renewable Energy Laboratory study released in 2008 if 7% of all commercial and residential rooftops in the United States were fitted with photovoltaic solar panels our electric power demand of 4.05 terawatt hours per day would be completely satisfied. Now granted oil does provide for 33.8 terawatt hours of energy per day so how could solar meet that demand? If we increased the number of solar panels to cover 65% of all residential and commercial rooftops in the United States the massive thirst for oil would be quenched by clean, free sunlight.

Wind power is equally capable of meeting the challenge. A recent NREL study into the wind power potential for the United States pegged the potential wind generation capacity at nine times all electricity consumption in the US. If every form of transportation was converted to using electrical engines; easily doable for cars, trains, and ships, and enough renewable energy sources were installed on a sufficiently massive scale the total needs for the United States would be more than met.

What is also left out of the discussion is whether we should be consuming so much oil in the first place. As was previously mentioned the vast majority of our oil use, 70%, is used for transportation for everything from passengers to freight. Of this the vast majority of all transportation is handled by oil-powered cars, trucks, and buses. 60% of all freight, for example, is hauled by massive diesel-powered trucks. There is also the issue raised of the energy consumption of the United States military.

These issues are equally within our grasp to resolve. When it comes to hauling freight there is nothing more efficient for land transportation than going by rail. Freight trains on average are 300% more fuel efficient per volume of tonnage moved than conventional trucks. Bumping up rail freight capacity to meet all this demand is easily doable, reducing our energy usage by an estimated 3.8 billion gallons of diesel a year. Transportation costs can be reduced further still by encouraging local production and distribution of goods as opposed to the current system of fragile, globe-spanning supply chains.

Military usage, the other major issue, is much less of a problem than most people would think. Contrary to the often-repeated fallacy that 60-70% of all American oil imported is used by the armed forces the numbers from the Department of Defense tell a very different story. US military consumption is approximately 300,000 barrels per day, barely registering much higher than 4% of the 19,100,000 barrels consumed by the nation and easily within the grasp of alternative energy replacement. It also goes without saying this figure could be easily slashed to pieces if so much of that energy wasn't needed to maintain a worldwide network of bases and military deployments.

Of course no discussion of this topic would be complete without addressing one of the biggest economic benefits of getting off our oil addition. Oil prices, as anyone who reads the news can tell you, are highly volatile soaring and plunging wildly with little warning. The increasing gas prices are but one of many consequences of this instability. When oil prices rise the cost of transporting anything by oil power goes up. Everything from food to medicine, clothing, and toothpicks jump when oil prices soar. If these prices were only driven by consumption and limited supply the situation would already be unsustainable but to add insult to injury a recent report by the St. Louis Federal Reserve found 15% of the price of oil per barrel is created purely as a result of Wall Street financial speculation.

Against this there are some basic facts about renewable energy. Wind never stops blowing. The tides have been ebbing and flowing and rivers have been running on this planet ever since the first bodies of water formed. Sunshine is free and guaranteed for the next five billion years! The potential each of these sources is so vastly in excess of our most extravagant of energy expenditures that only a miniscule percentage would be needed to satisfy our needs. This supply is endless, nearly impossible to disrupt, and completely immune to market speculation, geopolitical chaos, or corporate gamesmanship.

And yet all of these reasons why renewable energy so dramatically outclasses oil are precisely why the fossil fuel industry clings to their parasitic firstborn spawn. Oil, unlike solar power, wind power, or hydropower, can be monopolized. Its supply can be restricted and the prices manipulated. What oil offers the corporate hydra is an energy source which is enormously profitable for the owners, overseers, and chief beneficiaries of our economic system. Not only is it massively profitable, it has become virtually ubiquitous for modern society concentrating a disproportionate & unprecedented amount of power in the hands of those who control it.

They don't just love oil because it makes them rich. In the hands of modern corporate capitalism oil is power.

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