Energy Density Matters: Getting the Most Bang for your Buck

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Energy density decides fuel efficiency. The British thermal unit or BTU is universally acknowledged as an objective measure of how energy is measured. An easy way to imagine how much energy found in different fuels is to think of fuel in common terms.

In its Outlook for Energy: A vision to 2040 (“Outlook”), ExxonMobil uses the analogy of a wooden log. One wooden log equals 24,500 BTU. One gallon of gasoline equals 5 logs. One gallon of gasoline equals 13,000 AA batteries or 4,000 smart phone batteries.

No wonder gasoline and diesel fuel is used worldwide. The recent drop in the price of gasoline combined with the greater efficiency of today’s cars and trucks means that consumers today can drive further using less energy that costs less money than anytime in modern history.

In 1918 gasoline cost $4 in today’s dollars. I paid $2 a gallon yesterday here in Austin, Texas. Half of the cars on the road in 1918 were Model T Fords which got around 15 miles per gallon. My Chevrolet Sonic gets twice that in the city.

A Model T Ford cost around $18,000 in today’s dollars. I paid around $15,000 last year for my used Sonic that had 7,000 miles on the odometer.

While Model T Fords can last a long time with little maintenance (I once saw one in a July 4th parade in Montel, Texas that was 75 years old and had required little maintenance), I find my Sonic with its air conditioning and power steering more comfortable to drive.

Putting it in perspective, I can drive twice as far today in a much better quality car on a gallon of gasoline that cost half as much as I would have paid 100 years ago. The modern oil and gas and modern automotive industries have made this possible, and today’s consumers are the beneficiaries.

According to Outlook, “[g]lobal energy demand for transportation is projected to rise by 40 percent from 2010 to 2040.” Clearly the world needs to increase efficiency while also increasing the total amount of energy available to meet this demand.

Fortunately continuous innovation by transportation vehicle manufacturers and energy producers will enable our global population to enjoy the fuel we need to increase our quality of life.

The net result of technological advancements means that the 32 member nations of the Organization of Economically Development (OECD) will use 10 percent less transportation energy from 2010 to 2040 “while in the rest of the world these needs are expected to double.”

Outlook projects that “energy demand for cars and other personal vehicles is expected to rise only slightly from 2010 to 2040, as fuel economy improvements in passenger cars over time essentially offsets a steep rise [doubling from 825 million in 2010 to 1.7 billion in 2040] in the number of cars in the world.” This is good news for energy consumers.

Metropolitan density also drives energy efficiency. Shell points out that when compared with less densely populated regions, cities tend to produce more economic activity with each unit of energy they consume.

Shell states, “[t]oday, just over half of the world’s population lives in cities. By 2050, nearly three-quarters of us will be urbanites.” Greater urban density and greater vehicle efficiency will bring a better quality of life to a larger percentage of the world’s population.

What will drive the increased demand for global transportation fuel? The heavy-duty vehicles required to build the critical infrastructure and transport the goods needed to bring a better quality of life to people in emerging economies.

Future public and private metropolitan investment in housing, water, utilities, and transportation should accommodate the accelerating migration of rural populations to metropolitan areas in emerging economies. Hydrocarbon fuel use will grow to power construction of these needed improvements.

For example, Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi has pledged to bring toilets to the 550 million people who currently lack access to sewer facilities. Lack of toilets increases infant mortality and causes chronic illness.

The transportation energy required to achieve this critical mission must be supplied by energy-rich hydrocarbon fuels such as gasoline and diesel. Electric battery powered vehicles cannot provide the power needed.

The refining industry has the ability now to provide ultra clean diesel to power heavy duty vehicles. Diesel is the most efficient internal combustion engine. Clean diesel fueled heavy-duty vehicles can deliver the cleanest, most affordable, and most fuel cycle efficient construction and transportation technology available to the vast majority of the population of the world’s emerging economies.

Not only are cars and trucks more efficient today while hydrocarbon fuel remains abundant, the entire fuel cycle from rock to tank is cleaner. The advent of hybrid and electric cars has improved air quality and energy efficiency. Dense hydrocarbon liquid fuel will power the needed growth in heavy vehicles needed to bring clean water and goods to a growing global population.

More efficient and cleaner energy for transportation and power generation will improve the quality of life for everyone everywhere.

That’s why energy density matters.

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Tom Morgan

Tom Morgan is an Analyst for Drillinginfo. He has 20 years of experience practicing law with a focus on advocating for public policy to advance energy security and private property rights. Tom received his law degrees from Georgetown University and American University law schools. He hosts the weekly Drillinginfo Energy Minute, and you can find and connect with him on LinkedIn as Tom Morgan.