It takes energy to make energy

Chevron Corporation is one of the biggies. The California-based company has over 60,000 employees and revenues around $200 billion. They supply a lot of the gasoline that Californians burn in their automobiles.

Much of the crude oil that Chevron refines into gasoline comes from their holdings in Southern California, in particular the Lost Hills Oil Field in Kern County. Many Californians are not aware of the long oil history in their home state. Vast deposits of petroleum remain underground, as well as offshore, despite decades of extraction.

Pump jacks are a familiar sight in the Central Valley and Los Angeles Basin. Those big bobbing levers run all day and all night, sucking up the oil and sending it to pipelines. They are machines, so they require energy to run.

Chevron has the solution: solar panels!

That’s right, Chevron, the oil major, is using solar electricity to run its pump jacks at Lost Hills!

That’s sort of like the Kentucky Coal Museum installing rooftop solar, right?

Funny, but in a good way. Southern California is a good place for solar. Lots of sunshine and lots of flat ground and open space. So, it is smart of Chevron to do this. Not to mention they’re likely getting carbon credits for doing it! See, that’s how to make pumping oil “carbon-neutral,” just use solar energy.

Economics and politics aside, it’s a good illustration of A Really Important Idea In Physics, namely, it takes energy to make energy. In fact, that may be the most important physics concept for everyone to understand.

It takes energy to make energy. The energy we actually use, from the food we eat to the diesel that powers the delivery trucks to the gas turbines that generate electricity, is refined, in a sense, from another form of energy. And every step in the conversion process is wasteful. Energy is lost in the sense that it can’t do any more useful work. It just becomes waste heat.

We know the solution to the climate crisis is to reduce our carbon dioxide emissions. But we know the only way to do this is to reduce our use of fossil fuels. That’s not going to happen fast enough. Alternative energy sources can’t replace many applications of fossil fuels, unless of course you include nuclear fission. That may be high on the energy density chart but it is low on the public acceptance chart.

So, solar panels pumping oil is not a bad notion. It may seem perverse, or ironic, that Chevron can improve its “green rep” by doing this, but since it takes energy to make energy, I’m all for it.

2 thoughts on “It takes energy to make energy

  1. The “clean energy” mandates such as low-sulfur diesel and CARB’s low-carbon fuel standard and even summertime blends required in California to reduce evaporative emissions all require energy to produce. Most of that energy is generated in the refining process. Refinery fuel gas, which is a waste product, is used to power most refinery operations, although natural gas supplements that. Refineries have spent decades, since the 1980’s, upgrading their energy efficiency, to the point that today, there is not much to be gained.
    That is part of the reason why replacing gasoline is not an easy task. It is a transportable, relatively safe, highly efficient fuel product optimized by decades of engineering. I once envisioned the use of solar panels positioned as wind blocks in front of the large storage tanks at refineries. They could generate power for the refinery’s use; block airflow across the top of the tanks and maybe provide some shade, both reducing evaporation; and could feature the company’s logo, say in contrasting colors of solar cells. If you can generate enough power to pump oil from self contained solar panels, you don’t have to run power to wells, which are often in remote sites.


    • It is going to be really hard to replace diesel motors. And natural gas is too abundant and too cheap. Gas turbines will be making electricity for decades to come. Love your windmill at the refinery idea! My dad worked at every refinery (except non-union Shell) in the Bay Area at some point, but mostly over in Avon and Rodeo.

      I got inspired to write about this stuff when I was reading about ITER (the big fusion project in France). The ENORMOUS energy requirements to run that facility once it is operational make me question its validity. It’s only a proof-of-concept reactor, not commercially viable, and yet it is going to need a small city’s worth of electricity. It’s crazy. I’m all for science and technology, but imagine what could be done to fight climate changes with all those resources that are being devoted to a giant experiment. Imagine if those resources went into things like your idea instead of a pipe dream. Fusion has been “30 years away” my entire life and I think it is still–at least–30 years away.


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