National Commentary

The Peak Oil Crisis: Preparing For Depletion

News on the gasoline stockpile situation was delayed this week due to the Memorial Day holiday. As gasoline consumption figures over the long weekend won’t be available until the middle of next week, we may get a better insight into prospects for this summer then. While waiting, however, it seems like a good time to start thinking a bit about the years ahead and what we should be doing to get ready for them.

There are two areas of energy consumption we, as individuals, can do something about: transportation and buildings. The cost and availability of our food is something that few of us have much control over. If food becomes too expensive, then we simply reduce or forego eating out; reduce our use of prepared, packaged, and expensive foods; or even reduce the quantity we consume until the costs of food meet our budget.

Commercial use of energy to make and distribute things will be sorted out by the market – here again, there is little most of us can do to effect change other than generally reducing consumption either because we are trying to save the world’s resources, or, more likely, we simply can’t afford to pay what stuff is going to cost.

Unaffordable gasoline will affect each of us differently depending on how dependent we are on our automobile and what our alternatives are. In the U.S. we have something on the order of 210 million cars and light trucks in service and, even if the resources are available to replace a fleet of this size, it will be many decades before they can be replaced with vehicles that use little or no gasoline. Worldwide, the situation is even worse.

It probably won’t be too long before we figure out whatever supplies of motor fuel are available will be better spent on growing and distributing food and maintaining vital-to-civilization systems such as water, sewers, electricity, and communications rather than being burned in private cars. For the immediate future though, unaffordable gasoline will be coped with through a combination of increased public transit and a lot more ride sharing.

Soon, there will be lots of room for changes in public policy as we tackle the job of reworking our transportation systems. For now, we are not ready to think seriously about changes, for the reality of imminent oil depletion is not widely recognized. Another three or four dollar increase in gasoline prices should do the trick.

Buildings, however, are another matter — be they offices, factories, commercial space, or homes. In the developed world, most use prodigious amounts of energy. Although our electricity and natural gas bills currently are not increasing as fast as gasoline prices, price increases for other forms of energy won’t be many years behind. Unlike a gas guzzler which can be parked, used infrequently, or scrapped for a more efficient vehicle, few of us will have the opportunity to replace our buildings for more efficient ones.

A couple of hundred years ago most homes were heated and lit by wood plus a little candle wax. That’s obviously not going to work anymore. My guess is that most people’s access to firewood, if any, would be sufficient for a couple of days or, at best, a couple of weeks. For awhile, there will be a rush to huddling around electric heaters, but just as natural gas, oil, propane will soon be too expensive to for many to afford, large amounts of electricity will not be far behind. We are going to have to transition to solar and maybe a little wind energy to control our personal climates.

One of the redeeming features of our current living and work place arrangements is that we waste prodigious amounts of energy in heating, cooling and lighting them, so that there is a lot to be saved. We all know by now that eliminating incandescent bulbs and moving first to compact fluorescents and then, as they become more affordable, to LED’s most of the lighting costs in homes and offices can be eliminated.

Equally big jumps in household efficiency can be achieved by disconnecting clothes dryers and going back to clothes lines. Pulling the plug on the central air would be the third big energy saver.

Given the trends in fossil fuel availability, it is clear that our goal will have to be zero net energy for all our inhabited buildings. This means that the preponderance of the energy used in buildings will soon have to come from the sun, wind, water power, and perhaps a little biomass and will not be delivered in by pipe and power lines or in trucks.

The course from our current building stock to highly efficient ones will be long and difficult. Starting on this course is not difficult or particularly expensive. Plugging air leaks, adding some more insulation, and perhaps improving the window and doors is a good place to start provided one knows what to do, where to start and is physically and financially capable of taking action in the face of rapidly rising energy costs.

Later steps on the way to zero net energy buildings, such as major insulation and window upgrades, solar heating and electric panels, new heating and air conditioning equipment will be very expensive and perhaps unaffordable for many in an inflation-wracked world of depleting oil.

It is at this point that governments at all levels will need to get involved. First they must recognize that the bulk of our inhabited buildings will need to be overhauled to be useful in a world of very high priced energy. Cost/benefit ratios for steps to improve the efficiency for nearly every existing building need to be worked out.

Building codes will need massive overhaul to prevent further construction of buildings that are premised on cheap energy and that will have a very short useful lifetime. Construction of sub-divisions that do not take into account optimum sun angles should come to an immediate halt. Obsolete laws and covenants that frown on efficiencies from clothes lines to solar panels must be abolished as soon as possible.

There is much to be done and the time is growing short.