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ETpro's avatar

How big is the world fossil fuel market?

Asked by ETpro (34550points) March 20th, 2011

I’m trying to understand the various options for the world to meet ever growing needs for energy, electrical power, transportation, etc. I found a figure of $400 billion a year for the alternative energy industry. I have no idea how accurate that is. But so far, I have been unable to find any estimates for the fossil fuel industry, including coal, oil and natural gas.

I did find figures on the production of each of those resources. By multiplying barrels of oil, tons of coal, and cubic meters of gas produced by their current prices, I came up with a figure of $37 trillion a year. But that could be wildly off, and doesn’t include conversion to electricity with cost per KW hour and so forth. Can anyone help with an accurate measure for any or all of the different energy sources out there—fossil fuels, renewables, nuclear and what else?

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13 Answers

jaytkay's avatar

I couldn’t find the dollar figure in it, but you may be interested in the WWF report The Energy Report – 100% Renewable Energy by 2050

A short 1-page synopsis is here (

ETpro's avatar

Thanks for a couple of great links. It is strange this dara is so difficult to locate. As vital as energy is to the world we now live in, I would have expected it to be widely studied and published.

funkdaddy's avatar

The US Energy Information Association has some good information on the US here including all those goodies on the right.

One of those:

Summary Statistics: Receipts and Cost of Fossil Fuels for the Electric Power Industry by Sector, Btus might be especially helpful.

That along with this bit that says the US used 21% of the energy on the world might get a you close.

International Energy Outlook 2010 appears to have all the information you’d need in regards to total use by fuel type, but not cost information so it doesn’t quite get us there.

There’s quite a bit of information in the other areas of that site but I didn’t find a complete tidy number anywhere. It may be that there’s too many assumptions that have to be made for it to be meaningful? Between variances in fuel prices by time and region, currency conversions, differences in public/private sources, and factors like transportation and labor costs it may just be impossible to come up with a meaningful total.

ETpro's avatar

@funkdaddy GA! Thanks. That starts to nail down some aspects of the worldwide picture. Very much appreciated.

Ron_C's avatar

@ETpro $37 trillion sounds a little low. Don’t forget the plastics and pesticide markets, most of those are also fossil fuel base. Plus there is fertilizer, industrial gasses, asphalt, and tire industries. It would be safe to say that even if we went to a completely renewable fuel system, there would still be an unbelievable market for fossil fuel products.

I suspect the best estimate is to look at the world’s total industrial gross value and make it 90% of that.

ETpro's avatar

@Ron_C I am sure it is low. I found figures via Google searches for worldwide productions levels of oil in barrels, coal in long tons, and natural gas in MCFs (thousands of cubic feet at set conditions of temperature and pressure). I multiplied these quantities by the price per unit. But this is before anything is done with the resources, so certainly understates the value of the total industry.

NanoNano's avatar

It may surprise you to know that world trading in petroleum is not the biggest commodity by volume traded in the world today. Its #2.

#1 is fresh water.

Oil production is currently somewhere in the range of 90 million barrels per day. The price of oil varies depending on type, but let’s give it a round number of $100 a barrel. That’s 9 billion dollars a day in oil production:

Water use is much more complicated for several reasons, but also much higher. Figures estimate that we currently appropriate somewhere in the range of ⅓ of all the fresh water available on the planet for human consumption in residential, industrial and agricultural settings. (Taking that away from use by native habitat).

ETpro's avatar

Strange set of circumstances for a planet with ¾ of its surface covered with water, no?

But fossil fuels would include oil, methane, ethane, coal, etc.

NanoNano's avatar


Yes, I didn’t include coal etc. as it gets much more complicated… I wrote a technical article about world commodity sales a few years ago but have since lost track of it.

The water issue is getting critical. They estimate that in a few decades the human race will be monopolizing almost all the fresh water on the planet for industrial and agricultural use (residential is the smallest component). A good portiion of this use is non-renewable. So it could lead to some conflict and environmental crisis. Desalination technology is moving ahead pretty rapidly though as well, so we’ll see…

ETpro's avatar

@NanoNano Indeed if you want to get really rich, invent a truly low cost, sustainable way to desalinate sea water. You might be interested in this.

NanoNano's avatar


There’s a company already working on alternative desalination that uses solar power, in California, and there are others around the globe with similar systems:

I don’t doubt the NASA study… But one thing governments tend to overlook is the disruptive effect of future technology to change things as we know it today. Who would have thought that refined silicon would be worth more than its weight in gold today, back in 1930?

ETpro's avatar

@NanoNano If there is one thing I have learned well in science, it is that our current understanding is a poor predictor of future technology. But when we see what appears to be a looming catastrophe of global proportions and we have some pretty reliable models to predict it, I would call it reckless in the extreme to shrug the warning off in hopes some technical breakthrough will occur in the nick of time. It’s almost like going through life constantly counting on a deus ex machina to get you through the next day. I’d call that inordinately poor planning.

NanoNano's avatar


In the case of energy however we already have viable alternatives to petroleum. Not just solar, wind and water, but natural gas.

Its all a matter of political will. Nothing new has to be invented at this point.

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