from Energy, Security, and Climate and Energy Security and Climate Change Program

Solar and Oil are Two Different Things

June 8, 2010

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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Bill McKibben has an op-ed on the oil spill and climate politics in the LA Times. It’s got a mix of good stuff and crazy stuff in it. But one line in particular irritated me:

“Had [Obama] chosen to, he could have pledged: ‘Ten years from now, America will be using half the oil we do today and producing 10 times as much solar power.’ That would have been stirring.”

Can we all agree that solar power doesn’t do anything to reduce our use of oil? (Yes, McKibben doesn’t explicitly say that we should replace oil with solar; that, however, is precisely how the typical person will read this.) Unless we’re all going to start driving cars with solar panels on the roofs, the two are basically unrelated. Yes, if we move to plug-in vehicles, solar energy will be able to help power them. But so will nuclear, wind, gas, and hydro. As far as replacing oil goes, they all do pretty much the same thing.

Also: Even if we plugged our cars into all the solar power that McKibben says we should build, the effect on U.S. oil consumption would be inconsequential. The United States is expected to get 1.19 billion kWh of electricity from solar this year. This is the same amount of energy as one finds in 700,000 barrels of oil. If we were to produce 10 times as much solar power, that would have the same amount of energy as 7 million barrels of oil. The United States consumes 20 million barrels of oil each day. For solar energy to replace the energy in half of the oil we use, we would need to use 521 times as much solar energy as we do today. I suspect that will not happen.

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