Can We Live Without Oil? Getting There on Less
Americans are addicted to the joys of the open road. But the joys come at too high a price and we’re about to hit bottom. We can get around without oil. Here’s the 12-step program to do it.
If you were a redwood tree with a lifespan of 600 years, and you started life as a seedling in the year 1700, you would be able to live for 200 years in a world without oil, witness the beginning, middle and end of the Age of Oil, and still have 200 years to observe how humans fare in a world without oil (assuming you survive the timber companies).
Our personal memories rarely reach back more than 100 years, to the stories our grandparents told us. Geological time seems to have nothing to do with us. So when someone points out that the Age of Oil will end within our lifetimes, it’s hard to register. But that’s the reality.
Does this mean we’ll revert to the state of medieval villagers, never traveling more than a few miles from our doorsteps? Or can we redesign our transport system so that we can get where we need without burning oil?
The answer to the second question is “Yes,” and it can be done using reasonable, accessible steps and currently available technology. My conclusion is that we could meet all our transport needs without any oil transport fuel. We could use 86 percent less oil, and the remaining 14 percent could be replaced by biofuels. I leave hydrogen out of the picture, because biofuel and electricity provide a better delivery of net energy (see more on this argument on page 29). To view my calculations, see "12 Steps: the cascading maths "
Total U.S. oil consumption is 312 billion gallons a year and rising. Transport accounts for 68 percent (212 billion gallons). I focus chiefly on trips in cars and light trucks, which use 54 percent of the transport oil (118 billion gallons a year). This includes trips to work, to the stores, to school, to visit friends, for vacations, and everything else. So buckle your seat belts, and get ready for an oil-free ride. We’re going to lose our addiction!
1 stay home
We can divert 5 percent of our trips by combining errands or not doing them in the first place. Thanks to the internet, many jobs can be done from home or in a local telework center, either full time or one day a week. Grocery shopping can also be done over the Internet, with home delivery by truck being a far more efficient use of fuel than individual shopping.
5 percent less fuel needed
We can do 5 percent of our trips by foot; ancient people walked all the way out of Africa and around the world. Children could walk to school, instead of being chauffeured by their parents. Many people could walk to work and enjoy the exercise. We could redesign our cities and suburbs to make walking a pleasure, and rejuvenate the suburbs by developing local neighborhood centers, creating places where people could shop, have coffee, and meet their neighbors—all by foot.
So far, we need 10 percent less fuel
Fifteen percent of our trips can be done by bike. Some people say cycling is the most efficient use of energy ever invented. In Davis, California, 80 percent of the streets have bike lanes, and 20 to 25 percent of all local trips are by bike. Imagine a world designed for bicycles, with safe bike lanes, off-road bikeways, bikes with trailers, electric bikes, and folding bikes that are easy to take on a bus or train. In some communities, as much as 40 percent of trips might be made by bicycle. In others, where it snows in winter or there are more hills, the number might be 10 percent.
We’ve saved 25 percent so far
4 share rides
Five percent of our trips can be done sharing vehicles. Picture a system where any resident in a community can join the Community Ride Share Club. If you need a ride, you just flash your card, and a member of the Club will stop and give you a ride. People living in a neighborhood or region could create a website where they offer and receive rides based on shared destinations. It also builds community, as people get to know each other.
We’re down to 30 percent less fuel
5 mass transit
Twenty percent of our trips can be done by bus, light-rail transit, or train. When Boulder, Colorado, re-organized its transit system, substituting minibuses for the big old dinosaur buses, and introducing a city-wide Eco Pass that buys a year’s travel for just $50, the share of trips made by transit increased from 1.6 percent to 4.6 percent. It’s small, but it’s a start.
Imagine minibuses that arrive every ten minutes, and transit stops with electronic timetables within a five-minute walk of every home. Imagine major public investments in light-rail transit, as Portland, Oregon, has done, and high-speed railways, as Europe is doing. If each full bus carries 20 people, it can replace 15 of today’s cars, and using a hybrid engine can reduce bus fuel use by 95 percent.
We’re at 50 percent (Fuel for buses added later.)
6 share cars
Car sharing is the big social invention that will make a future without oil manageable. Car sharing started in Europe in the 1980s and spread to North America in the 1990s. As a member, you buy into a fleet of vehicles parked in convenient spots around the city, and when you want to use one, you book it by phone or over the Internet. Because members pay by the mile and the hour, they think twice before driving. The average member of Vancouver’s Cooperative Auto Network (with 1,600 members) drives 1,400 kilometers a year, compared to a local norm of 6,000 to 24,000 kilometers. You pick the vehicle to suit your trip, and for most trips a small efficient two-seater will do fine, allowing a huge saving of fuel. For our fuel-saving math, we’ll assume that 50 percent of the car-driving public joins a Car Share Club. (No direct fuel reduction.)
7 electric vehicles
Electric vehicles have been given the cold shoulder by the big auto companies, which have decided there’s more money to be made from hybrids and hydrogen vehicles, so they’ve ditched the idea and recalled their EVs, to the immense frustration of EV enthusiasts.
But EVs do make sense. The new lithium ion batteries can last for nearly 200 miles between charges. When oil costs $5 to $10 a gallon, EVs are going to be very enticing, and fully half of the cars on the road might be electric. For Car Share members, a small EV will work just fine for most trips, while a larger fuel-efficient hybrid can be used for longer trips. But will there be enough electricity? See Step 11.
Down to 75 percent less liquid fuel
8 hybrid cars
The new Toyota Prius, which is winning praise from its users, averages 48 miles per gallon, twice the efficiency of today’s average car. But wait. If you take a hybrid such as the Prius and increase the size of its battery so that it can be charged up from the grid when parked, as well as from its on-board engine, its fuel efficiency improves to 167 m.p.g., an 85 percent reduction on today’s typical fuel use (70 percent better than the regular Prius), while still providing the distance for longer trips. Car Share members might use a plug-in hybrid EV for 20 percent of their trips, while private drivers use one for 80 percent; on average, drivers will use them for half their trips.
We’re at 86.25 percent less fuel
9 smart cars
They’re already in Europe, and they’re coming to Canada this fall. The Mercedes diesel Smart CDI two-seater does 69 m.p.g.. The Volkswagen One-Litre, a two-seater prototype that’s been on the roads in Europe, does 237 m.p.g. Yes, you read that correctly. By 2010, they’ll probably do 250 m.p.g., providing a 10-fold improvement on today’s average.
Car Share members might use a Volkswagen One Liter for 80 percent of the trips for which they don’t use an EV, while private drivers might use them for 20 percent. We’re down to 3 percent of the original oil we were using, or 3.7 billion gallons a year.
97 percent less fuel
Pause for Breath
What we have here is a series of changes that produce incredible results. We reduced our need for car-based trips by 50 percent and used EVs for half the remaining trips. For the remaining 25 percent of our trips, we used hybrid EVs that are 85 percent more efficent than today’s cars for half of them and smart cars, which are 90 percent more efficient than today’s cars, for the other half. Altogether, these steps reduced our liquid fuel needs by 97 percent.
We now have to add the buses. Today, they use 1 percent of the transport oil (2.1 billion gallons). This could be cut in half with a hybrid electric drive. Add fuel for the big increase bus ridership in Step 5, and the total comes to just 2.23 billion gallons. Add the 3.7 billion gallons we need for personal vehicles and we need about 6 billion gallons to get around. Can we find a replacement for that remaining oil?
When ethanol is made from crops grown specifically for fuel, such as corn, its energy balance shows a possitive return of 26 to 33 percent. When cellulosic ethanol is made from grass crops and farm residues that would otherwise be burned, however, its return is 79 percent, without diverting production from food. The Minnesota-based Institute for Local Self Reliance estimates that cellulosic crops could produce 10 to 20 billion gallons a year.
Biodiesel has won fame and popularity through the Veggie Van, and other adventures. It can be made from corn oil, canola oil, cottonseed oil, mustard oil, palm oil, restaurant frying oils, animal fats, restaurant trap grease, and algae. The combined U.S. production of vegetable oil and animal fats, if it were all diverted, could produce 4.64 billion gallons a year. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory has estimated that 4 billion gallons could be produced from mustard oil.
Michael Briggs, in the University of New Hampshire’s Biodiesel Group, calculates that if we grow algae on waste streams such as sewage at treatment plants or animal farms, or build large algae farms in a salty environment such as the Salton Sea, or the Sonora desert in southern California, the algae could produce a billion gallons of biodiesel a year from every 20,000 hectares, using sea-water and sunshine.
There are other biofuels, too. Zurich, Switzerland, runs 1200 vehicles on Kompogas from composted organic kitchen and yard wastes (see page 33). One ton produces 17 gallons of fuel, and a typical city produces 0.174 tons of organic waste per person per year, which could make 3 gallons of biofuel. If every community in the U.S. composted like Zurich, this could produce 0.9 billion gallons of biofuel a year.
Changing World Technologies is developing a technique called thermal depolymerization, which mimics the process that converts forests and swamps into fossil fuels. Using this process, Changing World estimates that America’s agricultural wastes could produce 168 billion gallons of biofuel a year. The process is 85 percent efficient, needing 15 percent of its output of energy to keep it going, reducing the net output to 143 billion gallons. The Philadelphia City Council is planning to use the process to treat the city’s sewage, opening up another huge possibility to turn waste into fuel.
In this scenario, 25 percent of our personal trips are made in electric vehicles, and 12.5 percent in hybrid vehicles, which use electricity for 75 percent of their energy. Taken together, we’ll need electricity for 34 percent of our mileage. Right now, those trips use 40 billion gallons of oil, enabling Americans to drive 1,000 billion miles a year at 25 miles per gallon (8,500 miles per household).
A typical car that is converted into an EV uses around 300 watt-hours per mile. An EV tested by the Department of Energy was rated at 164 watt-hours per mile. If a smart-EV used 100 watt-hours per mile plus 50 watts for the battery charging, those 1000 billion miles would require 150,000 billion watt-hours (150,000 gigawatt hours) of electricity a year. That’s a very reachable target for renewable energy, as North Dakota alone has 1.2 million gigawatt-hours of available wind power potential, eight times more than we need. We would also need electricity for the trains and light rail.
Alternatively, with just three hours of sunshine a day, a house in Seattle with a one-kilowatt photovoltaic system on a south-facing roof will generate 1095 kilowatt hours of electricity a year, enough to power a two-seater smart EV for 7,300 miles. The biofuel is available; the electricity is available. Suddenly, the whole endeavor to travel without oil begins to seem possible.
12 smart policies
The lexicon of policies that could accelerate the process of change is enormous, from transportation demand management to tax-shifting to smart growth land-use planning. This is policy wonk heaven: let’s leave it at that.
A Final Word
This has been a quick, back-of-the-envelope exercise, to explore the possibility of transport without oil. It ignored heavy trucks, which use 38 billion gallons of oil a year. If every truck used a hybrid drive, as the new FedEx trucks do, this would cut it to 19 billion gallons. As the price of oil rises, there’ll be incentive for local production, so we can reduce the stupidity of shipping goods back and forth across the country and the world. A 20 percent reduction in shipping would reduce the fuel needed to 15 billion gallons.
Then there’s flying, which uses 10 percent of America’s transport oil (21 billion gallons a year). We’ve got to do a lot less flying. With a good electric train system, all trips under 400 kilometers would be faster and easier by rail, allowing 40 percent fewer flights, reducing the fuel needed to 12.6 billion gallons. If we cut our flying by a further 40 percent, by learning to live and travel more responsibly, that would reduce it to 7.5 billion gallons. Altogether, for heavy trucks and flying, we need 22.5 billion gallons. With the 6 billion gallons we need for personal travel, we need 28.5 billion gallons, still within the amounts of biofuel we demonstrated could be produced.
This exercise ignored the opportunities to save oil now used for commerce and industry, including to make vehicles (55.5 billion gallons a year), to heat homes (9.3 billion gallons a year) and to generate electricity (5.7 billion gallons a year).
We’ve also ignored the many benefits of embracing forms of sustainable energy. No more smog and smog-induced asthma. Less noise and way fewer road accidents. More exercise, more peace and quiet, more conversations with neighbors. The end of oil may seem scary to some, but from where I’m sitting, it looks as if it might work out just fine.
Guy Dauncey is co-author with Patrick Mazza of Stormy Weather: 101 Solutions to Global Climate Change (New Society Publishers, 2001), and president of the BC Sustainable Energy Association (www.bcsea.org ). He lives in Victoria, BC, Canada.