Special Report: Peak Oil

Mind the Gap: How to Ease Yourself Across the Oil Peak

The best way to survive this period more or less intact is to insulate yourself, as much as possible, from fluctuating energy prices.

By Ryan McGreal
Published May 16, 2005

By nearly all accounts, the age of cheap energy is coming to an end, at least for the forseeable future. We may be destined for a glorious paradise of magical energy too cheap to meter, but nothing on the drawing board today can bridge the gap between our ever-growing demand and what appears to be an absolute upper limit to supply - except price.

The next five or ten years will offer extreme price volatility for energy, particularly oil and natural gas, as demand bangs repeatedly off the production peak and then crashes under gruelling price spikes.

The best way to survive this period more or less intact is to insulate yourself, as much as possible, from fluctuating energy prices. In other words, limit your dependence on cheap energy so you don't miss it as much. The following steps will help.

Trade in your SUV. Seriously, do it. When gas is $2 per litre or higher, the burden of filling up your gas-guzzling suburban tank will be crushing. If you need a car, go for a subcompact or even a sub-subcompact. With fuel economy between 17 and 25 km/l (40 and 60 mpg), your gas bill will take a smaller bite out of your total budget.

Move to a compact community. You might not be able to live where you work, but most car trips are for local errands. This is nearly impossible to do under your own power if you're stuck out in suburban sprawl, but easy and enjoyable in a dense, multi-use neighbourhood with a good mix of homes and businesses. Reduced car use will shield you from rising gas prices, and property is more likely to retain its value in a walkable neighbourhood.

Embrace your smart hydro meter. The Ontario government has made a very smart decision to install electricity meters that charge variable rates depending on time of day. Charging market prices for electricity will inspire consumers to save non-essential uses for off-peak hours, which lets the electricity grid do more with less. (This way, the Ontario government might actually be able to take its lung-busting coal plants offline.)

Beef up your insulation. Retrofitting existing houses can be terribly expensive, but you'll be amazed at what a little caulking and weatherstripping around doors and windows can do to plug the leaks of an old house. The small investment pays for itself several times over. New windows and retrofitted insulation are more expensive, but as energy prices go up, the investment will become increasingly sound. Dump plenty of insulation into your attic, as most heat escapes upwards.

If you're thinking of buying a new home, look into alternatives to a forced-air warming and cooling furnace. As Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute likes to explain, builders normally add just enough insulation to pay for itself in reduced heating costs with a furnace. This is false economy: with a lot more insulation and a passive solar design, it's possible to eliminate the furnace altogether, leading to enormous lifetime savings.

Improve lighting efficiency. The easiest and cheapest way to do this is simply to turn lights off when you don't need them. Replacing incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent and white LED lights saves plenty of money over the life of the bulb. Motion-activated lights in doorways also help.

Use less water. It's easy to forget the connection between water and energy, but it takes power to pump, clean, and treat the water that flows through our municipal system. Don't waste tap water on your lawn; use a rainbarrel instead. Install energy-saving faucets and showerheads. Replace your water heater with an on-demand unit, which heats the water as it is used instead of warehousing hot water in a leaky tank.

Tonnes for Trees. Take the Tonnes for Trees challenge and explore their long list of ways to reduce your carbon output. The same actions that reduce your household emissions will also reduce your energy consumption and save you money.

For still more ideas on how to make your house more efficient, visit Hamilton Green Venture.

Many of these ideas would be industry standards in Canada if regulations were different and people had to pay the real market price for their choices. Our Kyoto World Cities 20/20 Challenge explores what governments can do to help citizens - and themselves - through the energy crunch. This initiative is still in the early stages, and we want to engage as many people as possible in developing it. If you are interested, please contact us at 2020@raisethehammer.org for more information.

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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