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We Can't Just Stop Oil
even with ample solar and wind, here's why
I should start by saying that I am not against solar, wind, or other renewable energy sources. In order to diversify our energy supply and lower CO2 and other pollution, we should continue to create more of this type of energy. At the same time, we need a more realistic narrative because oil is used for more than just gas in a car, and if we want to drive our electric cars on paved roads, we need asphalt. Here is a primer on how oil is obtained and the uses for which it is used. This is a condensed version of Oil and Petroleum Products Explained from the eia, and their graphics are the ones below.
Figure 1 is a simple breakdown of what we produce from a barrel of oil. A few applications for distillate include agricultural and railroad locomotive fuel. In fact, gasoline for cars (not diesel) is less than half of a barrel of oil (42 gallons). What about the other products, and where is the asphalt?
Other products and asphalt
Figure 2 provides a more thorough description of the various uses for oil. You might be thinking to yourself after viewing this graph, “Well, if all cars are electric, we should be able to cut oil use in half.” To understand why this isn't straightforward, we now need to understand a little more about the distillation process.
Oil is refined by heating it, and different types of oil are boiled off at different temperatures. Figure 3 displays this. The issue is that one of the first products to boil out is gasoline, and the last is asphalt. You can't just take a barrel of crude oil and say, "I just want asphalt." Consider it like this: if you want any of the items in Figure 3's list, you also get everything above them. It should be noted that there are some ways to advance up this list, primarily through using strategies like cracking to climb up the chart. It is more challenging to move down the chart.
But there must be a substitute for asphalt
Asphalt is bound together by oil, and bioasphalt does exist; vegetable oil, for instance, is utilized as the binding agent. Vegetable oil production on a larger scale for roads doesn't seem possible right now, or perhaps ever. We may always return to dirt roads, of course. At the moment, if you want paved roads, you need oil, and once you want paved roads, you get all of the other oil products up the ladder in Figure 3.
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Trying to deal with reality rather than being overly critical is my goal here. The current system has evolved with the population, at least since the industrial revolution. It won't be simple to just switch out one energy product for another. We also cannot act as though we can disregard politics or the competing interests throughout the world. We can't just cease doing something without a lot of consequences. Yes, we need to expand solar, wind, and nuclear power, but we also need people to consider and propose solutions that go much further than this. I believe that more realists and systems thinkers are what we really need, not more activists, idealists, optimists, or pessimists.
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Disagreeing and using comments
I'd rather know the truth and understand the world than always be right. I'm not writing to upset or antagonize anyone on purpose, though I guess that could happen. I welcome dissent and disagreement in the comments. We all should be forced to articulate our viewpoints and change our minds when we need to, but we should also know that we can respectfully disagree and move on. So, if you think something said is wrong or misrepresented, then please share your viewpoint in the comments.