Sunday, November 23, 2008

Timing is everything

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energy infrastructure may indeed not result in an optimal system and may saddle us with technology that will likely be superseded.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.


Henry Warwick said...

I agree with you. The one big ugly monkey wrench in all of this is the Export Land Model. If the oil producing countries continue to develop, increasing amounts of energy will be taken off the table.

For the USA, this is Very Bad News, esp. given the collapse of Cantarell and the North Sea - Britain is now an importer of oil, and Mexico may well cease exporting somewhere in the 2012 - 2016 time frame.

On top of it, the economic collapse has had such demand destruction that the price of oil has also collapsed. This is "OK" for present oil extraction conditions, but bodes very poorly for secondary sources, such as Tar Sands, which require a very high price to make them economically viable.

As a consequence, I am uncertain as to what timing makes sense at all.

Hirsch is asking the peak oil community to lie low and keep quiet for a while.

Deffeyes is putting together a number of dots pointing at the conclusion that the price of oil run up was engineered by several oil producing nations, with disastrous blowback. IF true, then the present economic problem is a direct result of the oil price manipulations.

In short: timing isn't everything when time has run out. And it increasingly looks as though that is true. Hence, the best thing for society would be a WW2 style mobilisation to transform the world's infrastructure. Even if that were done, given thermodynamics, the present configuration of society and technology is not going to hold.

From my view, the proper thing to do is to plan and invent a transition to a non-petroleum society. Otherwise, we'll simply drive off the cliff and arrive in a non-petroleum society in a billion tiny pieces.

So, I disagree with Hirsch. I think we need to agitate even more for immediate implementation and development of alternative energy systems. Timing is NOW.

Frank Gifford said...

Thanks Kurt, for your insights. As I understand it, the United States had 1/2 of all the world's oil at the time of WWII. The fraction we now have is significantly less, and decreasing. There are implications here for our ability to have massive building projects of any sort. The other point; one Jim Kunstler tries to make: no combination of "alternative energies" will allow the continuance of our "happy motoring ways." Yes, let's go for an alternative energy infrastructure project. But let's also keep in mind that our lifestyles will have to change significantly. An important point of focus for our culture should be enhanced perceptions. We need to understand the nature of our problems if we are to solve them. Some do, many don't. Our project, EntropyPawsed
seeks to help with the perception problem by demonstrating a nature linked low energy lifestyle.

Kurt Cobb said...


You are almost certainly correct and many of my other pieces reflect what I believe will be a lower energy future. That said I think we have a fair chance of putting up an impressive alternative energy infrastructure in short order, but only if we make the kind of commitment the United States made in World War II. Even such a gargantuan project would still not replace all the energy I expect us to lose over time. But it could form the basis for a technically advanced albeit low-energy existence. Otherwise, I'm afraid we'll be throwing out the technically advanced part and simply be a low-energy society with all that implies.

Anonymous said...

G'Day Kurt,

Timing is the key - transition must begin before the start of the backslope. All energy is currently allocated and new users are catered for by production growth.

Put in a decline instead of growth and existing users must cut back and in this environment you try and build a new energy system which in energy terms will cost between one and two years of energy in a twenty year transition time. That presuming the system has an EROEI of between 10 and 20...

If you try and build this new infrasructure a planned economy will be needed if it is done while surfing down the backslope.

And the rest of the resource depletion thing also has to be dealt with!!!

Thats why I back a radical downizing and embrace simplicity!!



Clifford J. Wirth, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, University of New Hampshire said...

I agree with you.

According to most independent scientific studies, global oil production will now decline from 74 million barrels per day to 60 million barrels per day by 2015. During the same time demand will increase 9%.

No one can reverse this trend, nor can we conserve our way out of this catastrophe. Because the demand for oil is so high, it will always exceed production levels; thus oil depletion will continue steadily until all recoverable oil is extracted.

Alternatives will not even begin to fill the gap. And most alternatives yield electric power, but we need liquid fuels for tractors/combines, 18 wheel trucks, trains, ships, and mining equipment. The Energy Watch Group (funded by the German Parliament) concludes in a current report titled: “Peak Oil Could Trigger Meltdown of Society:”

"By 2020, and even more by 2030, global oil supply will be dramatically lower. This will create a supply gap which can hardly be closed by growing contributions from other fossil, nuclear or alternative energy sources in this time frame."

So, we are facing the collapse of the highways that depend on diesel trucks for maintenance of bridges, cleaning culverts to avoid road washouts, snow plowing, roadbed and surface repair. When the highways fail, so will the power grid, as highways carry the parts, transformers, steel for pylons, and high tension cables, all from far away. With the highways out, there will be no food coming in from "outside," and without the power grid virtually nothing works, including home heating, pumping of gasoline and diesel, airports, communications, and automated systems.

This is documented in a free 48 page report that can be downloaded, website posted, distributed, and emailed:

I used to live in NH-USA, but moved to a sustainable place. Anyone interested in relocating to a nice, pretty, sustainable area with a good climate and good soil? Email: clifford dot wirth at yahoo dot com or give me a phone call which operates here as my old USA-NH number 603-668-4207.

sv koho said...

Kurt it is a pleasure to have you back on a regular basis again. I did find it odd that the choir was singing different songs or were they to continue the metaphor singing in different keys? I would like to offer the opinion that we simply must move at some pace toward sustainable energy ASAP but there is a significant difference between the America of WW2 and today. We spent our way out of the great depression and lucked out after the war as the last man standing from an industrial perspective. That wont happen again. We had very little national debt by WW2. Our debt of all types is higher now than it was than in the depression as a percent of GDP. The PTB are spending vast sums of our children s inheritance to bail out their people in flagrant disregard of the will of the people and to prop up banks and industries that need to fail. They are going to throw money at cars and houses and banks until the money is gone and to no avail. It is starting to look like Obama and his economic choices will not be change but business as usual. All that money that could be spent on infrastructure for a new energy future will be squandered on the nightmare that was our suburban american dream. Printing money we don't have to save businesses we shouldn't save will leave nothing left for trying to build a new America. If the US continues on this path we face national default and economic collapse. Until things get much much worse there will be no change or possibility of change. If our foreign creditors call in their loans the party will indeed be over. Americans are living in a dream world if they think that the US cannot default. There will be many countries defaulting in the next few years and the US will almost certainly not be able to meet its obligations certainly to its citizens and quite possibly to its international creditors.

Anonymous said...

It is starting to look like Obama and his economic choices will not be change but business as usual.

Why do you find this surprising?
Wasn't that the very purpose of the show and what else can you expect to be sold to the masses?
THIS is the scourge of democracy, a self defeating idea in the medium term!