The new energy crisis is about to go wide

Since moving to my new apartment, I occasionally drive to or from work on the north service road, and there’s an impressive new solar panel out in front of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 773 office, next to the bus depot. About the size of the footprint of a small house tilted on its side, it’s mounted on a frame that lets it swivel around and face the sun at all times of day. I have to wonder how much it cost, whether it returns much electricity to the grid, and whether it will be possible to manufacture many more like it as it becomes increasingly obvious that world petroleum supplies are approximately as high as they are ever going to get, and can only go down from now on. We’d better hope so.

The IBEW’s one solar panel sounds a lot like the ones a developer is planning to emplace out in Woodslee. According to the Star, each of the planned 68 luxury houses in this development will have its own 10-kilowatt sun-tracking solar installation, the same capacity as the IBEW’s, and will sell electricity back to the grid at 80.2 cents per kilowatt-hour. Times ten kilowatts, calling an average day 12 hours long, that suggests a ballpark revenue of $96.24 per day (probably less when it’s cloudy) per panel. The article is silent on what percentage of their, no doubt generous, incomes the prospective owners will be spending driving petroleum-fuelled SUVs to and from their fine new exurban McMansions. Of course, they would seem unusually well-placed to drive the new breed of electric or hybrid-electric vehicles instead. It’s a pity they’ll be living on what used to be productive agricultural land, though.

The peak oil issue has been bubbling along under the surface for a while now, largely the province of cranks and doomers, but my feeling is that it will finally become the front-burner issue that it needs to be before much longer. The latest U.S. diplomatic cable to be released (thanks, WikiLeaks!) makes it clear that the American government is perfectly well aware that oil, or at any rate cheap oil, is going away. The fact that you never hear any of them discuss it tells you all you need to know about the likelihood of a magical solution appearing anytime soon. But it’s simply a fact that just the current, sluggish recovery from the Great Recession has driven oil back up into $100-a-barrel territory. In other words, world oil supplies are so tight that even economic growth as disappointing as we’ve seen has nonetheless pushed the price of oil past the red line. Even today’s supine corporate media, packed from top to bottom with careerists trained from infancy to look out for themselves and not rock the boat, have to get the message sooner or later. They’ll finally start asking the right questions, and government officials will have to act like they have some kind of plan.

To this point, the closest any federal U.S. official seems to come to addressing this deadly serious, looming crisis is Barack Obama’s recent announcement of a push for a $53 billion plan to build high-speed rail. It’s nice to think that the White House is on top of things, that they foresee the sharp reduction of air travel and large-scale motoring that will result from super-expensive oil, and this is their way of getting ahead of the problem. It would be even nicer to think that, after years of delay and denial, this will finally shame Canadian governments into bringing something similar to the Québec City-Windsor corridor. But given today’s political climate of denial, greed, short-term thinking, and relentless partisan chiselling, I’m not expecting spectacular breakthroughs in most people’s understanding of their own, enlightened self-interest.

Just look at who Torontonians voted in as their new mayor. The city and province had come together on a far-sighted plan to ensure mobility in Ontario’s biggest city. Given the realities of our energy future, a commitment to light rail was only sensible and a resident of car-addicted Windsor, where either you own an automobile or you’re a second-class citizen, could only look on with envy. Then Rob Ford was voted into office by the megacity suburbanites with a mandate to stick it to the pinkos, and his very first act was to kill the plan. A generation from now Torontonians will curse his name as they blow out their energy budgets trying to heat and cool their homes and struggling to get around using increasingly unaffordable private vehicles and overburdened public transit. For now, though, they (and we) are stuck with this yahoo.

Economics runs on substitutions: if there aren’t enough trees in the tropics to provide all the rubber you need, you want someone to invent artificial rubber, or plastics, and so forth. The thing is, not only is there is no substitute for energy except more energy, but not all energy is created equal. The solar, wind and even nuclear energy projects going up everywhere nowadays are very nice and all, and we’re certainly better off with the electricity they provide than without, but the fact is that you can’t base an industrial civilization just on electricity. You can’t build bridges, ships or tall buildings without coke to smelt steel. You also can’t do the kind of long-distance shipping the world economy currently relies on without bunker oil. There may be a future for limited-range motoring using electric vehicles, but long-haul trucking and especially aviation need highly energy-dense liquid fuels like diesel, gasoline,  and naphtha- or kerosene-grade jet fuel to get anywhere. (Exactly how would an electric “jet” work, anyway? Jet engines function on combustion, after all. Not to mention that batteries are a lot heavier than jet fuel for the amount of energy they hold. On the other hand, once you packed enough batteries into a plane to fly from, say, Toronto to Vancouver, it would probably run very quietly. I’m sure the passengers would be impressed – both of them.)

What are the realistic prospects for replacing oil as a source of liquid fuel? Corn-based ethanol is a waste of time, an artifact of U.S. agricultural subsidies that in energy terms gives back no more than the fossil fuel inputs needed to produce it. Algae biofuels seem to be a more realistic possibility, with the advantage that they are effectively carbon neutral. Algaculture can use fresh, ocean or waste water (and doesn’t spoil fresh sources), doesn’t need to displace agricultural land, and according to the U.S. DOE could replace the U.S.’s current gasoline consumption using just one-seventh of the land area currently devoted to growing corn. That sounds doable to me.

Whatever the case, we had better get off the stick. We are much closer to the resource limits of our planet than most people realize, and we keep grasping for more. Food hoarding is beginning to be a serious concern, and there’s reason to believe that the main thing that prompted the uprising in Egypt is a renewed spike in the price of food. A lot of the world’s oil supply goes through the Suez Canal, which could turn the Egypt situation into a worldwide resource war very quickly. We’re witnessing the beginning of a situation that is likely to be with us for a very long time, creating the very conditions that will make dealing with it that much harder.

At the other end of the north service road, near Jefferson, is Scooter Pro. Like their competitor, Scoot-A-Long of Windsor, they sell e-bikes that produce zero emissions (other than their manufacture, obviously) and cost about 25 cents worth of electricity for a day’s riding – or would, if my electricity use weren’t included in my monthly rent. Compare that to my car, which consumes 8.8 L of fuel per 100 km (city). That comes to 1.83 L for my daily commute, round trip. At the current price of $1.08 per liter for regular gas, that’s effectively $2 just in gas (not counting insurance and maintenance) to get me to and from work on four wheels. At that rate, a thousand dollar e-bike would pay for itself in under two years, assuming I rode it every day, rain or shine (dubious, I admit). On the other hand, it would extend the life of my car, and give me an alternative while the gasoline side of this equation is only going to get worse. Nothing’s written in stone, but don’t be too surprised to see me tooling around on a shiny new electric bike once the weather warms up!

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One Response to The new energy crisis is about to go wide

  1. Pingback: From the halls of Montezuma, to… | Lorne Beaton's Blog

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