Oil Power Contrasted Against Human Power

put together a really interesting piece for that captures a number of perspectives on the value of human labor power as compared to the power generated by a barrel of oil, and goes some distance in explaining why oil is such an efficient energy source, and why we are addicted to it. The post is fascinating, especially as the conversation gets increasingly complex, so definitely read it. Here’s a quick overview of some of the calculations that inform the comparison:

  • One barrel of oil is equivalent to about 25,000 hours of human labor, which is about 12.5 years at 40 hours of labor per week.
  • The average American uses about 60 barrels of oil or oil equivalent (coal and gas) per year. This is about 360 billion joules of energy.
  • For a human to generate labor equivalent to the energy created by a barrel of oil would take an average of 10,000 hours would cost about $200,000 at $20/hour.
  • A barrel of oil generates 1,700 kwh. A human averages 150 kwh per year.

I suppose a subtext of this discussion is the hard reality that we are still very challenged to offer serious, viable alternatives to oil as an energy source. This reality, coupled with a history that has seen industry, and by extension our economy, establish and refine an oil based energy infrastructure over most of the last century, perhaps explains why we still struggle with energy policy and change. Oil has become an integral, integrated part of not only our economy, but also our culture and society. Creating change in this situation is analogous to turning the proverbial freight train.

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