National Commentary

The Peak Oil Crisis: Renovating Suburbia

There has been a lot written lately about the coming demise of America’s suburbs. The general thesis is that without cheap fuels for cars, lawnmowers and heating, suburban living will become untenable.

People will be forced to abandon their homes and make their way to cities, small towns or rural communities where they can survive without gasoline. There is, of course, another side to this coin.

I will be the among the first to grant that suburbia is a creature of cheap energy, particularly gasoline, and unless there are some radical changes in the way we power our homes, feed and clothe ourselves and move about, there will be great difficulties ahead. There are two major problems that need to be solved in order to keep the widely scattered housing of suburbia habitable without cheap energy — transportation and excessive residential consumption of energy.

Not everything about the suburbs will be a downside when the era of cheap fossil fuel comes to an end. Nearly all suburban dwellings have broad roofs and yards that are suitable for collecting some form of solar or in some places wind energy. In many cases, suburban yards are suitable for growing food or perhaps even raising poultry or other small livestock. Most have yards allowing for easy access to subsurface geothermal energy. They are clean and have adequate sources of water and a means to handle sewage. These are not inconsequential assets when trying to maintain large numbers of people in some form of civilization in the face of dwindling supplies of energy. There are already places in Asia that are facing life-threatening water and sanitation problems due to the lack of electricity to run the pumps.

For the immediate future, an unappreciated aspect of suburban homes is easy access to a source of electricity for recharging electric vehicles. Wiring of urban streets and parking areas for recharging plug-in electric cars will cost billions and likely take decades. This week’s Detroit automobile show stands as a monument to the closing era of the internal combustion engine. Nearly every automobile manufacturer is showing some form of electric powered vehicle that should be available, for those that can still afford them, in three or four years.

Some, with good reason, doubt that there will be enough resources, energy, and money to replace the 250 million passenger cars and trucks that we have in America so that we can continue motoring with electricity rather than gasoline. These skeptics are probably right if one assumes that the motor vehicles of the future will be electric clones of the of the 3-6,000 pound behemoths that are clogging the roads today.

Transportation to, from and around suburbia ten or 20 years from now will have to be markedly different than today. While some will have plug-in electric cars, it is unlikely that electricity will continue to be cheap in an era of dwindling fossil fuel supplies, carbon caps and emission taxes. Wasting energy will become a thing of the past. Driving to work or the store in a 4,000 pound electric car will simply become too expensive for most. In place of today’s ubiquitous automobile will be a variety of light electric vehicles, ranging from electric bicycles, tricycles, and scooters, to very small cars that will be inexpensive to produce, use minimal amounts of electric energy and provide much of the mobility that will be required for everyday life.

An important part of suburbia’s future will be far more efficient systems for distributing goods and services than driving many miles to stores and shopping centers in 6,000 pound vehicles to pick up a few pounds of whatever is required. Suburbs need to be modified with the addition of numerous small neighborhood commercial centers so that people can walk, bicycle, or at most take a short light vehicle trip to obtain whatever goods and services they need. Existing housing could be converted into neighborhood centers so that neighborhood centers would not even have to look like stores. Neighborhood centers which would be transfer places for mail, packages, food orders could provide very efficient ways to move essential goods to and from suburban residences without requiring lengthy energy consuming trips.

To maximize efficiency, the concept of a “store” that contains a large inventory could be replaced by warehouses for goods ordered over the internet and delivered to neighborhood centers. These centers could serve as starting points for public transit vehicles that could provide frequent service to move people as well goods to and from the neighborhood centers. They could even supply personal services such as haircuts and dentists. By combining the movement of mail, people and goods on one frequent-service, efficient electric vehicle great energy efficiencies could be achieved.

Renovating the suburban housing stock for optimum energy efficiency will be a long and difficult process taking many decades. With cheap energy, most houses in America were built to very low efficiency standards in order to save on capital costs. It will soon be recognized that using natural gas and oil for residential heating is a massive waste of a valuable resource that should be used for making things and essential vehicles. Residences will have to be modified to all-electricity and renovated to consume the minimum amount of energy for lighting, appliances, heating and cooling that is possible and affordable.

Doing this on a nationwide scale will likely take some form of government intervention. This could be in the form of considerably higher building standards including retrofits of existing buildings, higher energy taxes and even renovation loans to jump start the process. For nearly every existing building there are a variety of steps that need to taken from better insulation and more efficient lighting to replacing windows and heating systems. All of this will be expensive but there is no other choice because staying on in suburbia with greatly reduced sources of energy renovation will be the only option.