Special Report: Peak Oil

Tweaking the Margins

It's easy to say that the status quo is not an option, but harder to consider real options that actually do challenge our conventions.

By Ryan McGreal
Published October 07, 2005

I read with some amusement the Besthings insert in last Saturday's newspaper. Besthings is a sort of magalog published by Union Gas that explains how you can save money by ... using natural gas.

The Fall 2005 issue was remarkable for its strong language about Ontario's energy situation. It touched repeatedly on the growing gap between Ontarians' electrictiy consumption and the peak capacity of the electricity grid, arguing that consumers can help sustain the grid by switching to natural gas appliances.

Ontario chief energy conservation officer Peter Love writes, "To succeed we have to transform our attitudes towards energy and change our way of doing things. We've become comfortable with the status quo. What everyone needs to recognize is that status quo is no longer an option."

Another article quotes Milton Hydro CEO Don Thorne saying, "I think our government has got it right in wanting to build a conservation culture in the province. Government, organizations like Milton Hydro and community leaders need to educate and provide the tools to enable consumers to be more environmentally conscious."

Amazingly, at no point in the entire issue did anyone report the fact that North American natural gas is already in peak production, and that its long-term prospects for growing to meet demand are even poorer than electricity.

Even the Spectator wrote last week about how gas prices have doubled this year over last year ("The energy squeeze", Sept. 30, 2005, p. A1), although they also didn't bother to explore the reasons for that increase.

The Spec's three part series on energy issues merely scratches the surface of the underlying issues, offering superficial advice on how to make houses more efficient without asking the more important question: whether driving cars to and from large, single-family homes in suburbia will even be viable in coming years.

In Monday's paper, part three (Meredith Macleod, "Is ethanol the new frontier?", Oct. 3, 2005, p. A18) continues to pave over the fundamental changes our economy requires if we want to survive the end of cheap, abundant fossil fuels. Instead of asking whether we should continue building cities that require their residents to drive everywhere, the report promises a rosy future of clean-burning cars that run on alternate fuels: french fry grease, fermented crop waste, and hydrogen.

It may not even be possible to grow enough crops - and grow them organically, since current agricultural practices use massive inputs of fossil fuels - to fuel our cars as well as ourselves, but the article uncritically accepts the claims of advocates that "naysayers are using outdated data."

Most analysts agree biofuels produce a net energy yield (that is, the crop produces more energy than is used to grow it), but the return is very small: 1.3 units of energy returned for every unit invested. Compare that to the current ten-fold return on petroleum.

As for hydrogen, it is an energy storage medium not a source of energy. That means the energy to produce hydrogen must come from some other source. The most likely candidate is natural gas, which already has enough problems simply maintaining its current uses.

The Spec article mentions the high cost of hydrogen, but doesn't even consider the insurmountable technical obstacles to using an energy supply that corrodes gaskets and pipes, leaks from even the most tightly sealed containers, and explodes easily.

Finally, at the end of the 1,044 word article, the author dedicates a mere 66 words to an opposing voice. The author paraphrases Dale Marshall, a climate change policy analyst with the David Suzuki Foundation, warning, "North Americans should stop looking for any technological fix and start looking at their lifestyle."

Again, the Spec didn't bother to expand on this statement, preferring to yield to a slightly modified version of the globe-destroying status quo. By providing the illusion of a hard look at the coming energy crisis, the Spec has actually done a disservice to readers by pretending we get through the upcoming energy crisis by tweaking our current way of life around the margins.

Fortunately, Raise the Hammer is willing to pick up the ball. Our next issue, due in mid-October, will be dedicated to exploring different ways Hamilton can prepare for the end of cheap energy and retrofit our sprawl development to be livable in a world where private automobiles are no longer a viable mode of transportation.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal. Recently, he took the plunge and finally joined Facebook.

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