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A Cubic Mile of Oil: Facilitating the Shift to Cleaner Energy Sources

Agricultural production consumes large amounts of energy both through direct energy usage, such as fuel and electricity, and through the energy-intensive production of fertilizer. This makes the U.S. agriculture industry sensitive to changes in energy prices. Because current agricultural techniques are energy intensive, food production is also a significant source of climate-altering emissions. Greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture have increased rapidly in recent years.

cubic mile

A Cubic Mile of Oil, by Hewitt Crane, Edwin Kinderman, and Ripudaman Malhotra, illuminates the history, sources, and way forward for global energy. (Photo credit: Oxford University Press Blog).

With this undeniable link between agriculture and energy, the future of energy will greatly influence the future of agriculture. Concerns surrounding fossil fuel supplies and climate change are stimulating attempts to convert more of the world to cleaner, more sustainable energy sources. It is likely that the agriculture industry will find itself adapting alongside energy.

What are these possible advances in the future of energy? How do we attempt to understand the changes and participate in the discussion, which can be muddled by a multitude of energy sources, mathematical equations, and units of measurement?

These questions were the basis for a new book, A Cubic Mile of Oil: Realities and Options for Averting the Looming Global Energy Crisis, by co-authors Hewitt Crane, Edwin Kinderman, and Ripudaman Malhotra of SRI International. The study attempts to clear the hurdle of constantly converting between energy units, such as gallons, barrels, British Thermal Units, and kilowatt-hours, and to address the question of how to continue supplying energy to a growing world population.

The book builds off the premise that talking about current and future energy consumption can be simplified through the use of one all-encompassing unit of measurement, the “cubic mile of oil” (CMO). One CMO can be understood by simply envisioning a swimming pool one mile wide, one mile across, and one mile deep. This unit does away with the need to constantly convert between units and eliminates the need to tack on an unfathomable multiplier, such as one billion barrels.

After establishing the premise for using the CMO, the authors divide the book into three sections. The first explains the history of energy consumption and the sources from which humans have obtained energy. The second separates energy sources into two simple categories: inherited energy sources, such as oil, coal and natural gas, which exist in limited and diminishing supplies; and income energy sources such as wind, biomass, hydropower, and solar power, of which a relatively infinite supply exists. The final section discusses the future of energy supply and consumption, emphasizing the need to conserve our current supply and invest in a sustainable plan for powering our future.

The authors point out that, over time, humans have continually discovered and adapted newer, more efficient forms of energy. From firewood to coal to oil, energy sources—and human use of them—are constantly evolving. Transitioning from coal- and oil-dominated energy to energy that comes primarily from renewable sources is simply continuing human progress in energy innovation.

With debate and uncertainty about how much longer the world can power itself on oil and other major fossil fuels, there is increasing interest and research in renewable energy sources. One of the main obstacles to the use of renewables is developing efficient methods of storage and transportation. Once solutions for storing renewable energy are put into place, humans can live without worrying when the fossil fuel supply will run out. By conserving and making efficient use of today’s energy supplies, as well as investing in research and development of renewables, the world can potentially run on cleaner, more-sustainable energy.

The food industry can be a major player in benefiting from renewable energy and in pioneering new energy sources and techniques. A report by the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program (SARE) profiles many recent innovations in agricultural energy usage. Simple solutions such as updating machinery and using efficient equipment can help farmers begin to see changes in their energy costs and efficiencies. Larger changes on the farm can produce even greater results, such as installing greenhouses to effectively extend the growing season and help protect against unpredictable weather.

Some techniques, such as using manure or food waste (for example, plants that are inadequate for harvesting, or fruit that has fallen to the ground) as fuel solve two problems simultaneously. Farmers can convert this waste into fertilizer or distill it to produce ethanol to power farm equipment. Ethanol provides a cleaner burn than gasoline, and producing it on the farm can significantly cut energy costs. These innovations are only the beginning of clean energy in agriculture, which can alter the food industry in ways that cut costs for farmers and put less strain on the environment.

In A Cubic Mile of Oil, the authors seek to stimulate discussion of the world’s energy future amongst scientists, policymakers, and the general public. They argue that regardless of debates over the effects of climate change, or approximations of how many years of oil reserves are left, the sources and rate of today’s energy usage will not sustain the world much longer. If the potential exists, then why not adopt a strategy of moving toward a cleaner, more efficient approach to global energy, both in the agricultural sector and elsewhere?

Alyssa Casey is a former research intern with the Worldwatch Institute’s food and agriculture program.

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