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Revenge of the electric oil sands November 29, 2012

Posted by Maury Markowitz in solar.
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Alberta’s oil sands are possibly one of the few saving graces of an otherwise pretty much barren chunk of almost useless land.

There, I said it.

And all the arguments you hear about it’s carbon footprint this and dirty oil that, it’s all BS. The industry has improved leaps and bounds over the last couple of decades, and they have good reasons to keep doing that – the gas and water they use to extract the oil costs a lot of money.

And yet I’m writing an article that beats up on the oil sands. But not for the reasons you might think. If you’re goal is to clean up CO2 release, for instance, improving car fuel economy by 1% will have a far greater effect.

Greenpeace’s best friend

I try to catch The Agenda every morning by podcast on my way to work.

The program periodically covers energy issues, and on Monday Nov 26th they interviewed Rick George, former CEO of Suncor, a major developer of oil sands projects. Mr. George sidestepped any question on greenhouse emissions like a pro, pointedly failing to respond to any point about the oil sand’s contributions, while quickly pointing out that other people’s contributions are higher. Way to go Rick!

But the thing is, he’s right. In spite of all the rhetoric, the oil sands aren’t really that much dirtier than any other source of oil. Even in GHG terms, the amount of extra carbon represented by the extraction process is really not that high. It’s certainly much less of a concern than even a single coal fired power plant.

If we have to pick our battles, the oil sands really aren’t the place to start.

Forest for the trees

But a more telling portion of the interview came when the host asked about other forms of power. Mr. George stated that Ontario gets about 10% of its power from renewables, and then went on to state that things like PV and wind will only ever represent a “tiny slice” of the energy pie.

And there’s where he’s just plain wrong. Just to get things started, Ontario’s supply is 22% hydro and 4% wind, adding up to well over 1/4 of our power supply, not the 1/10th he apparently pulled out of his ass.

When all you have is a hammer every problem starts looking like a nail. And when all you have is the oil patch, everything starts looking like a barrel. Whenever I see these “we need” I always get skeptical. So let’s get skeptical…

So then

A while back I came across a link to a wonderful little bit of graph making. Some of the math involved is a little shaky, and since you all know how much I hate math, I’m just going to do it all for you right here.

The oil sands are big. California big. But only a portion of that has been opened for exploration, a little over 4,700 square klicks. And even of that area, only about 1/5th is being actively worked, right now about 900 square.

Remember how they get the oil out. Basically it’s a huge open-pit mining operation, where they load up the sands into trucks and haul it away. Then they use natural gas to boil water, and steam-clean the sand. Just like your laundry machine, the oil washes off and you collect it. This is a time consuming process, and the total production is about 1.2 million barrels of crude a day.

Ok, here comes some math. A barrel of oil is standardized to be 5.8 × 106 BTU, which you can convert to any unit of energy you want. In this case, let’s convert to electrical terms, that’s about 1.7 MWh, or 1700 kWh. If we make 1.2 million barrels a day, that means we get 438 million barrels a year. And if they contain 1700 kWh each, that means we get about 744 billion kWh a year.

Ok, we’ve been down this path before… four modern 250W panels tilted at 50 degrees and planted in downtown Fort McMurray will produce about 1200 kWh a year (PVWatts is your friend), or 1.2 MWh. So then to get the 744 billion kW, we need 621 million kW (GW) of panels.

A kW of panels is about 2 by 4 meters, and if you plant them on the ground you have to space them out so they don’t shade each other in the winter. For argument’s sake, we’ll say you can only use about 1/3rd of the land area, leaving two panel lengths between each row. So then, we need 2 x 4 x 62,050,000 x 3 meters of land, or about 1,500 square kilometers.

Did you catch that?

Make sure you did.

If you covered up an area slightly larger than the open pit we already have, solar panels would produce just as much energy per year.

But they would do that basically forever. And even though I consider the sands to be fairly “clean” in relative terms, that’s certainly not clean relative to solar!

But wait, there’s more!

This basic comparison ignores one very important point, the “well-to-wheel” issue.

You see, oil is pretty much used just for transportation (look up where a barrel goes). And burning oil for transportation is really inefficient. That’s because an engine turns about 10% of the energy in the gas into actual motion. Yes, it’s that bad.

So since this is a transportation issue, let’s compare this not kW-for-kW, but mile-for-mile. The question is, how much space do we need to fill with panels to drive electric cars the same distance as the oil sands drive gas cars?

A barrel of oil is 42 gallons, and of that, about 20 gallons is gasoline. An average small car that gets 40 mpg would thus go about 800 miles on a barrel of oil. And if we used an entire year’s output of 438 million barrels worth is about 1.75 billion miles of driving.

With me so far? Ok…

The Nissan Leaf gets about 3.2 mi/kWh. The Chevy Volt, perhaps more typical of small cars, uses 36 kWh per 100 miles, or 2.8 mi/kWh. So if we want to get the same 1.75 billion miles, and we average 3.0 miles/kWh, then we’d need 5.84 billion kWh.

So now just do the same math again… 1200 kWh/kW of panels a year, so we need a little under 5 million kW (5 GW) of panels. A kW of panels is 4 by 2 by 3, so that means we’d need 116.8 square kilometres of land.

Now I’m sure you caught it that time.

That’s right, if you covered only 1/7th of the actively worked portion of the oil sands, you could drive cars the same amount of miles that the oil sands would. And you could do that forever.

Note that both of these numbers are a little different than the ones on the original graphic. I consider them to be a little low on the first estimate, and I also think they underestimated the efficiency of electric cars.

Can we?

When faced with numbers like these, fossil heads invariably start scrambling to come up with reasons this would never work. So let me head them off now…

1) It’s a hell of lot easier to install 116 km² of panels than mine 900 km² of oil sands. Orders of magnitude easier. You basically screw them into the ground and plug them together. Your next scheduled tune up is in 12 years.

2) We can ship all of this energy to the US on a wire, and distribute it on the existing grid (yes, it can handle it, they’ve done the math). Building electrical wires is likewise a lot easier than building something like Keystone XL.

3) We made 27 GW worth of panels last year, globally. Installing 5 GW would be a tiny project.

4) There’s enough room on commercial rooftops in Ontario to put up 5 GW worth of panels without taking up a square inch of land.

So there you have it

So there’s my argument against the oil sands. If studied in isolation, they look fine. But when you step back and do a little comparison, it looks to me like a brain dead investment.

Yeah, I know, we don’t have the electric cars yet. And that’s just the point. As long as we keep dumping cheap oil into the market and not charging anything for emissions, guess what, we still won’t have them ten years from now.

We need to think for the future here. The oil sands and gas cars aren’t the future. We’re more likely to use flax.

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