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Joules, BTUs, Quads—Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off
Illustration: Bryan Christie Design

The fact that energy sources and uses are stated in so many different kinds of terms is increasingly seen as not merely an annoyance but as a serious impediment to public understanding of critical choices. In an effort to get matters onto a more intuitive, citizen-friendly basis, a number of experts have hit on the convenient fact that the world at present consumes about 1 cubic mile of oil (CMO) per year. Among these experts are Ed Kinderman and Hewitt Crane at SRI International, in Menlo Park, Calif., who are preparing a book for Oxford University Press that will be built around the idea of normalizing all energy units to 1 CMO (4.17 cubic kilometers).

One dramatic way of portraying their results is to ask how many alternative energy sources—say coal-fired plants or solar panels—it would take to produce the equivalent of one CMO.

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This photograph shows a car with the words “We Drive Solar” on the door, connected to a charging station. A windmill can be seen in the background.

The Dutch city of Utrecht is embracing vehicle-to-grid technology, an example of which is shown here—an EV connected to a bidirectional charger. The historic Rijn en Zon windmill provides a fitting background for this scene.

We Drive Solar

Hundreds of charging stations for electric vehicles dot Utrecht’s urban landscape in the Netherlands like little electric mushrooms. Unlike those you may have grown accustomed to seeing, many of these stations don’t just charge electric cars—they can also send power from vehicle batteries to the local utility grid for use by homes and businesses.

Debates over the feasibility and value of such vehicle-to-grid technology go back decades. Those arguments are not yet settled. But big automakers like Volkswagen, Nissan, and Hyundai have moved to produce the kinds of cars that can use such bidirectional chargers—alongside similar vehicle-to-home technology, whereby your car can power your house, say, during a blackout, as promoted by Ford with its new F-150 Lightning. Given the rapid uptake of electric vehicles, many people are thinking hard about how to make the best use of all that rolling battery power.

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