Surviving peak oil

Professor L.D.D. (Danny) HarveyOn Wednesday night, I went to a Post Carbon Toronto meetup, where Professor Danny Harvey made a presentation about how we are going to survive the perils of peak oil.  It’s nice to know that the technology to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels exists.

Now, for those of you whose eyes are glazing over as you read the words “post-carbon” and “peak oil”, let me explain.  Peak oil and post-carbon groups are basically interested in the time following the point where production of oil peaks.  Standard economics predicts that once supply can no longer keep up with demand, demand will be forced to drop through price increases.  It is clearly in the interest of oil and gas companies to keep telling people that they don’t need to prepare for the upcoming scarcity, which is many years away, because that way they can be sure to extract the highest prices once demand is forced to go down.  If, on the other hand, all world governments sensibly addressed climate change with effective conservation and efficiency programs, demand would go down through less painful measures, and fuel prices would remain low as production declined.

It’s interesting to note that predictions by non-oil industry analysts put the peak at about 2010.  After that, oil will be very expensive, unless all world governments smarten up immediately and implement some serious conservation.  There is no looming shortage of natural gas worldwide, but natural gas is still more problematic, because it is transported by pipelines and thus very regionalized.  There is no easy way to transport Russia’s gas to North America, which may have had its peak already.  The best solution is to liquefy natural gas for transport, but liquefied natural gas, or LNG, is very dangerous, expensive and energy-wasteful to produce and transport.  It is considered a high terrorist target on the seas and especially in processing facilities.

So the Post-Carbon groups (a bit of a misnomer, really, because plenty of coal remains for the time being, and carbon-based non-fossil fuels have always been used and always will be, though in much smaller quantities than oil and gas provides) talk about how to deal with a world where oil and natural gas become increasingly scarce.

The first thing Danny talked about was transportation.  It is perhaps the biggest challenge, as our lifestyle has become so dependent on the single-passenger automobile.  But Danny points out that potential for efficiencies abounds.  Cars could easily be built to use half the fuel they currently use.  Carpooling could halve the remaining use.  People would be encouraged to walk or ride bikes more often, public transit would be encouraged.  The biggest changes that we would face, I suppose, because Danny didn’t talk about this, would be in transcontinental trucking and international shipping of produce and manufactured goods.  We will once again have more local economies.

Buildings are Danny’s specialty.  He’s written a very large and dense book on the topic that retails for $300.  He points out that it is not very difficult, through enhanced insulation and triple glazed windows, to reduce the energy used by existing buildings by 75%.  New buildings can be built to use just 10% of the energy of their conventional counterparts, and if you add some photovoltaics, they become net energy producers.  Listening to Danny, I was a little concerned that right when energy prices hit the roof, there will be a manufacturing boom to provide everyone with the insulation and new windows and photovoltaics they want, but Danny doesn’t think this will be much of a problem.  I hope he’s right.  Certainly over time, it will all settle out.  But it would be a whole lot less painful if we did a lot of this insulating now, developed the industry, instead of bailing out car plants that make SUVs now only to ditch them a few years down the road, when we’re hit in the head with what we should have been smart enough to see coming all along.  My, that’s a long, convoluted sentence.

Danny didn’t comment on efficiency in manufacturing.  It’s difficult for me to imagine that there won’t be massive changes in what we make and how it is made.  The other giant elephants in the room are nuclear and coal.  So much fossil energy goes into the building and fuelling of nuclear power plants, that they have a fairly low contribution to reducing global warming, and are certainly not cost-effective.  Converting to coal power would massively increase our emissions of greenhouse gases.  Both technologies are very tempting ways of dealing with rising oil and natural gas prices, because they allow the closest thing to a continuation of the same old habits we’re used to.  Unfortunately, our habits are killing us.

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