Published on 08/03/06

Oil-driven energy era coming to end, experts say

By Brad Haire
University of Georgia

Tifton, Ga. – The era of oil-driven energy is coming to an end, said Jim Fischer, a senior technical advisor with the U.S. Department of Energy.

"The world consumes two barrels of oil for every barrel discovered," Fischer said during the Georgia Bio-energy Conference at the University of Georgia Tifton Campus Conference Center in Tifton, Ga., Aug. 1–3.

The world has been using more oil than it has been producing for the past 20 years, he said. And by the year 2020, the world's population will have increased its need for energy by 60 percent.

"So as we reflect on the energy situation, let's keep in mind that we're not at our last drop of oil," he said. "But we're getting close."

The United States uses about a quarter of the world's oil supply but only has about 2 percent of its reserves. The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) nations use 7 percent and have 77 percent of the reserves.

Biofuels could provide a way to oil independence, said John Sheehan, an analyst with the U.S. Department of Energy. But gasohol was never proposed as a way of avoiding all fossil fuels, such as oil, coal and natural gas. "It was proposed as a way of reducing oil consumption," he said.

There are ethical questions in regard to using food crops for fuel, he said. There are trade-offs and "no free lunch."

For example, a typical corn ethanol plant uses 6 to 7 gallons of water to create 1 gallon of ethanol, he said.

If the United States wanted to replace its transportation fuel needs with biofuel, how much land would it take?

Sheehan said it would take a billion acres of switch grass, a plant with many good bioenergy and environmental benefits, given the current state of technology. The United States has only 400 million acres in total farmland now.

The only way to reduce that large of a land demand, he said, would be through improving vehicle efficiency and the bioenergy technology process by capturing more useable energy at the end of the process.

"It's very easy to do this technology or any technology the wrong way," Sheehan said.

Brad Haire is the former news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.