Pay back the Joules

Pondering the question of international and intergenerational equity, one idea that occurred to me was some sort of ‘pay back the joules’ process. Basically, it would be an acknowledgement that the economic strength of some states has largely been based on the exploitation of non-renewable resources, to the detriment of those in other places. The basic idea of the scheme would be to be to ‘repay’ the same amount of energy, in the form of renewable generating capacity. The transfers would run from states that have used fossil fuels to those that have done so less, in proportion to the difference between the two. A state that had used X Joules of non-renewable fuels would pay half as much as a state that had used 2X Joules, up to the point where the gap between heavy and light users is eliminated

As described before, one barrel of oil contains about 1,700 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of energy. With similar figures for coal and gas, as well as data on total historical consumption, one could work out a total energy figure. It would then simply be a matter of multiplying the mean output of any renewable facility by its usable life. A 500 megawatt (MW) wind farm that lasts for 30 years will produce 131.4 gigawatt-hours (GWh): equivalent to 773,000 barrels of oil. One kilowatt-hour is 3.6 million Joules.

The plan would be one way to defuse the criticism that “the West got rich through dirty fuels, so we have the right to do the same.” It would also help to ensure that the developing world builds the right kind of infrastructure the first time, rather than having to replace most of it (and overcome all the special interests who will want to perpetuate it).

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

9 thoughts on “Pay back the Joules”

  1. Why do we need to pay back the Joules from before climate change was known?

    Back in 1780, we were just using resources we had found. Do states not have the right to use the natural riches within them?

  2. Every day, the United States uses about 20,687,000 barrels of oil.

    That is about 27 of those 500 MW powerplants worth. If those wind turbines cost $1000 per kilowatt, that is 13.5 billion dollars worth of wind farms per day – and that assumes they are operating at 100% power all the time.

    We are never going to ‘pay back the joules.’

  3. 20,687,000 barrels/day / 301,139,947 people


    0.06869 barrels per person per day

    0.06869 barrels per person per day * 159L per barrel


    10.92 litres per person per day


    116.77 kWh per person per day

  4. Oil can be saved from the diesel that railroads use today (231,000 barrels/day in 2006) and from truck freight (2,552,000 barrels/day in 2006) by switching to electrified rail. Trucks carry about a quarter fewer ton-miles than rail, but with 11 times the oil.

  5. However, this calculation of 185,000 barrels of oil/day saved seriously underestimates the fuel saving potential, especially in an oil constrained future, Transferring just 8% of the truck ton-miles to electrified rail would save another 204,000 barrel/day. Transferring half would save 1,276,000 barrels/day, plus the 185,000 barrels/day for 1,461,000 barrels/day saved (roughly equal to ANWR at its peak, but electrified rail does not deplete – which ANWR inevitably will). Transferring 85% of truck freight to rail, and electrifying half of US railroads, which the author considers to be possible with a large enough investment (see Appendix Four), would save 2.3 to 2.4 million barrels/day. That is 12% of USA oil used today for all purposes, not just transportation.

  6. “We’re borrowing money from China to buy oil from the Persian Gulf to burn it in ways that destroy the planet. Every bit of that’s got to change… if we grab hold of that common thread and pull it hard, all of these complex problems begin to unravel and we will find that we’re holding the answer to all of them right in our hand. The answer is to end our reliance on carbon-based fuels.”

    -Al Gore

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *