By Ryan McGreal
Published January 04, 2007
Heading into work today in balmy, ten degree weather (and heading home through rain) felt downright apocalyptic, like a blizzard in July or an unscheduled eclipse. This train of thought can spiral dangerously: "the problems we face seem overwhelming" quickly degenerates into "we are so screwed".
I find that the only way out is to accept that we might be screwed no matter what, but by doing nothing we ensure it. In other words, get off your ass and do something. Of course, the steps we take to prevent and/or mitigate the problems we face could still fail, but it's almost certainly better than doing nothing, and for me, anyway, it strikes a tolerable balance between denial and despair.
In this exhausting context, I give you today's post.
As our energy supplies decline and environmental challenges escalate, we can expect that our energy networks - our fueling stations, electrical grid, and natural gas pipes - may become less reliable than they are today. Currently, our buildings and transportation systems are extremely brittle and susceptible to energy instability.
Gasoline shortages inspire panic, long lines at empty service stations, unrest, anxiety, and even violence. In the short term, most people cannot switch from their cars to another transportation mode, so price spikes are punishing.
Blackouts are fun but disruptive, and long blackouts grind organized society to a halt. Offices and factories shut down. People without gas stoves or barbecues cannot cook, and anyway, food spoils after a day or so. Telephones and cell phones are only guaranteed for about six to twelve hours.
We have not experienced any natural gas shortages, but came close a couple of years ago, when cold weather pushed the NG network close to the breaking point. Two warm winters in a row have provided some slack and myopic markets have dropped gas prices to the point that it seems highly abundant, but we're one cold winter away from a serious shortfall. Do you know how to re-light the pilot light in your furnace?
The fact is, the conventional sources of energy that fuelled the twentieth century cannot solve the problems that they created.
Petroleum: Global daily production will reach an all-time peak (if it hasn't already - for the past two years it's been stalled around 84 million barrels a day) and enter a permanent decline. Ironically, high-tech efforts to increase yields in mature oilfields actually result in steeper production declines once they pass the peak.
Natural Gas: It has already peaked in North America (and the global peak is not as far off as you'd like), and only our past two unseasonably warm winters have obscured just how precarious this fuel is.
It heats buildings, generates electricity, and extracts petroleum from the Alberta Tar Sands. The first two uses cannot respond flexibly to supply constraints or price hikes, at least in the short term, and the third use is responsible for the only growth area in Canadian petroleum production. The alternative, building a nuclear power plant to heat the water used to tease oil out of the tar sands, is more than a decade away and comes with its own problems (see next bullet).
Uranium: Plagued by safety issues across its entire lifecycle, from mining and extraction through refining and fission to waste storage, nuclear power would be more trouble than it's worth even if it wasn't also doomed to run out.
In fact, when you add up the total cost of producing it, including the vast government subsidies and exceptions, the huge technical overhead, and so on, nuclear power may actually consume more energy than it produces. It's like owning a horse so you can thresh hay so you can feed your horse - only radioactive.
Coal: It's true that coal is highly abundant and could meet many of our energy needs. However, coal is extremely dirty, producing radioactive dust, soot, carbon dioxide through its production cycle. More coal power will be terrible for air quality but devastating for climate change, more than cancelling the meager improvements promised under the Kyoto Accord. A hundred coal-fired power plants are in development in the United States alone; China and India each plan hundreds more.
Some combination of new technologies may be able to produce cleaner coal-fired power, but at the expense of lower net energy output (this is why the Bush Administration exempted coal-fired power generators from adding emission controls when they upgrade). In any case, it will be interesting to see how the public's demand for power collides with the visibly escalating reality of climate change and air pollution over the next few decades.
Biofuel: It's basically a non-starter for any mass deployment. Biofuels produce a marginal net energy return at best, and early production is already threatening forests and competing with food production. In any case, we currently consume over 400 times as much energy as the planet's biosphere produces each year, so even if we comandeered 100 percent of the earth's plants to biofuels production, we would end up with less than one four hundredth of what we currently get out of fossil fuels.
In short, the age of cheap, abundant energy is passing, and industrial arrangements that depend on that energy will become progressively less reliable. Ignoring this risk is a bad idea, but so is weeping and gnashing your teeth.
Right now, our civilization is mindbogglingly wealthy. Instead of blowing all that wealth on consumer ephemera, we should be investing in ways to reduce our reliance on conventional energy by a) consuming less, and b) generating at least some of our own power.
It seems the easiest thing in the world: just don't do things that use energy, or trade actions that use more energy for actions that use less. Unfortunately, our society is structured in such a way that consuming is virtually mandatory. However, there are plenty of things you can do to kick the habit. Here are just a few suggestions to get you started:
Renewable energy will never replace fossil energy, so there's no way we can simply swap out our oil, gas, and coal for solar, wind, and geothermal. However, if we manage to reduce our consumption enough, we may be able to establish a sustainable balance of energy use at a significantly higher rate of recovery than our ancestors had before the oil age.
However, the time to develop these sources is now, while we still have plenty of abundant fossil energy to invest in creating the infrastructure. If we wait another twenty years, we will be too poor to make the switch and the renewables era will pass us by.
Wind: both large and small turbines have a role to play, and the government should be making it as easy as possible to get them up and running. Noise and vibration are potential problems for turbines near built-up areas, but quieter models like the vertical-axis turbine from Hamilton-based Cleanfield Energy may solve many of these problems.
Solar: is it too much to ask that every new house be designed for passive solar heating? Why are we investing millions of dollars in buildings with lousy forward compatibility? Also, especially now that photovoltaic systems are becoming more efficienct, we should be installing solar panels on the roofs and south-facing walls of buildings throughout the city.
Geothermal: There may be a big market in coming years for contractors who dig out a second basement to take advantage of geothermal heating and cooling. Essentially, a large space below the main basement is hollowed out, below the frost line where the ground is always around the same temperature. This space cools the house during the summer and warms it during the winter.
In the next issue of RTH I'll be reviewing The Peak Oil Survival Guide and Cookbook by Albert Bates. It delves much more deeply into what individuals and communities can do to insulate themselves from energy instability.