As I watched a panel of speakers take questions about Michigan's and, by extension, the world's energy future at a recent conference, I was struck by how different their unspoken timetables for change were.
The panel included peak oil lecturer and author Richard Heinberg who other than James Howard Kunstler is probably the most widely recognized name in peak oil circles. It also included Albert Bates, a polymath of sorts, who has authored several books on sustainability, argued environmental and civil rights cases before the U. S. Supreme Court, helped to organize the Global Ecovillage Network, and works assiduously to teach others about permaculture and natural design. Also included were two Michigan state representatives, a utility representative, an independent wind power expert, and an academic transportation expert.
For those who acknowledged the possibility of an upper limit on and perhaps an ongoing drop in the supply of oil starting in, say, the next few years, the time for drastic action seemed to be more or less "yesterday." Not surprisingly this group included Heinberg, Bates, the transportation expert and the wind power expert. One of the state representatives also fell into this group.
The other state representative and the utility representative cautioned against a headlong rush into renewable energy. Yes, an energy transition is necessary to address global warming and fossil fuel depletion. But 2050 is a better time frame for completing the transition. We were told by the state representative that putting all of our eggs in one basket, namely, renewable energy, risked economic damage and risked betting on technologies that might not survive, work as planned or might be improved upon considerably over time.
Rushing to build an entirely new energy infrastructure may indeed not result in an optimal system and may saddle us with technology that will likely be superseded. Witness the efficiency gains in wind generators and the far greater knowledge we have today about where to deploy them compared to, say, 20 years ago. A gradual energy transition would clearly be much better in many ways.
The key question is whether we have the time for said gradual energy transition. Should the analogy be the computer revolution that took from the end of World War II to the middle of this decade to make ownership of a home computer all but universal in the United States? Or should the analogy be the American entry into World War II which led to a command economy directed by the federal government with the aim of winning the war?
One could certainly argue that the United States did not make optimal use of its resources during World War II. But, it did win. And, private industry directed by the War Production Board managed feats which no one believed possible at the beginning. The effort required the sacrifice of the consumer economy, something which is unthinkable today in the United States even now in time of war. In fact, the primary concern in the current economic downturn is to get consumer spending going again even as two wars grind on.
As long as even those who agree that an energy transition is necessary have wildly differing timetables, the needed changes will limp along at a snail's pace. It seems that only a catalyzing event, something as compelling and clear as America's entry into World War II, can now bring about a rapid energy transformation. It's hard to imagine what would be more compelling than a disastrous and failed war in the Middle East, $150 a barrel oil last summer, and now economic freefall. But the public and the vast majority of policymakers have not made the connection.
If they finally do, the now unfolding economic hardship could become the basis a vast public works program aimed at a rapid and successful energy transition, something at least an order of magnitude larger and far more comprehensive than is currently being contemplated by the incoming Obama administration. But that would mean that America could no longer be about mere consumption, a change that would require a true leap of faith.