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The Blessing of (Energy) Density

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Robert Bryce, a prolific writer about all things energy, has another terrific post up pointing out the virtues of hydrocarbons, particularly oil, something that Canada has in tremendous quantities. Bryce sings the virtues of oil because of its incredible energy density - that is, the energy it packs in per unit of volume.

"The wealth and power that are achieved through the finding and burning of hydrocarbons are enormous. That much is indisputable. And of the hydrocarbons -- coal, oil, and natural gas -- oil is the unchallenged king. No other substance this side of uranium comes close to oil with respect to energy density -- the amount of energy, measured in joules or BTUs, that can be contained in a given volume or mass. Moreover, the products that can be produced from petroleum are relatively cheap, easily transported, usually stable at standard temperature and pressure, and essential for everything from making shoelaces to fueling jumbo jets."

When I talk about energy density, I tend to use cups as a comparison: how much energy is in a cup of wood chips, compared to a cup of ground up coal, compared to a cup of gasoline, or napalm. How much energy is there in a cup of wind, or a cup of sunlight?

When Bryce talks about energy density, he tends to dig deep into the numbers. To illuminate the concept of energy density (something Bryce does extremely well), he compares the amount of energy you'd need to fuel a Boeing 737. A fully-fueled 737 Bryce tells us, takes about 26,000 litres of jet fuel, which "may account for as much as 28 per cent of the plane's weight as it leaves the runway."

To get that same amount of energy in batteries, Bryce observes would be rather awkward: "if Boeing tried to replace jet fuel with batteries in the 737-700, it would need about 1.7 million kilograms of lithium-ion batteries. Put another way, to fuel a jetliner like the 737-700 with batteries would require a battery pack that weighs about 22 times as much as the airplane itself."

In another article on energy density, Bryce points out that dense is also green - that is, the environment is better protected when humanity uses dense forms of energy such as hydrocarbons and nuclear power rather than diffuse sources of energy such as wind or solar power:

"The greenness of density leads to two conclusions. First, those who make environmental policy should consider density a desirable goal in nearly all the issues that they confront. And second, the real environmentalists aren't headline-seeking activists and advocacy groups; they're farmers, urban planners, agronomists, and, yes, even natural-gas drillers and nuclear engineers."

Bryce's view, which I share, is that oil is an incredible resource that literally empowers billions of people, and can empower billions more. If, that is, countries with large oil reserves are allowed to produce them and get them to market. Canada's oil reserves, mostly found in the province of Alberta, are the second largest in the world, only surpassed by Saudi Arabia. Alberta reserves exceed 170 billion barrels, constituting nearly 11 per cent of the entire world's oil reserves. But activists and eco-journalists such as Thomas Friedman are working tirelessly to keep Alberta's oil land-locked. As Bryce puts it, oil is so useful that, if it didn't exist, we'd have to invent it. Fortunately for Canada, it does exist here; getting it to market is the challenge.