I came up with some questions and emailed a few respected and knowledgeable people in the energy and oil industry. A short bio of the interviewees and their answers follow. I edited their answers for flow. Others have answered. But because of the deadline, we might include their answers in future issues. – Editor
1. How serious are the peak oil predictions? Some say 5 years, some say we are in it right now. Some say 20-30 years. What are your estimates and your sources?
A year ago I was assuming the global peak in oil production would occur around 2010, but the recent explosion of demand and the evaporation of spare production capacity are leading most of us who study these things to reel-in our projections. Currently it looks as though the peak may occur much sooner, perhaps 2005 to 2008. (The best sources on this are the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and the Oil Depletion Analysis Centre; an excellent recent study on “Oil Field Megaprojects” by Chris Skrebowski was published in Petroleum Review this spring.) We are seeing the phenomenon unfold before our eyes as one nation after another moves from the column of “oil exporters” to that of “oil importers” (Great Britain made the leap this year). At some point in the very near future the remaining nations in column A will simply be unable to supply all of the nations in column B. (Richard Heinberg)
There is more to understand than being able to read a graph or appreciate that the U.S. is desperate enough for huge oil reserves to kill 20,000 Iraqis in the latest war. An easy mistake for Johny-come-latelies on the peak oil issue is to assume that the “second half” of oil reserves are going to be extracted somehow. This is only an assumption, because when the market senses what I believe will be the final energy crisis — when the peak’s passing is painfully manifest — the economy will be deprived of oil and, without a substitute fuel, will implode.
The evidence as to when the peak occurs is fraught with statistical uncertainty, but because of the unethical practice of governments and corporations, the safe assumption is to place the peak much sooner than “official” estimates. It’s vital that people do not get hung up on the date of the peak. People should have already been doing all they can to live as if the peak has arrived. The real point should be, “What does peak oil mean?” Without interstate trucking being able to provide items from other bioregions, it means the end of the global economy as we know it
There will be a rather steep decline in oil availability, with prices rising through the roof, and great stresses on our industrial society that is totally dependent on oil — not only as a refined product in gasoline (my area of research) but on the 3000+ oil-based products we take for granted (plastics, especially). (William Seavey)
All automobile and oil companies acknowledge that we will run out of gas in 25-40 years. Even without realistic federal assistance, car manufacturers are planning for mass production of fuel-cell cars by 2010, and limited fleets will be on the road next year. (Sandi Brockway)
2. What do you think are the best ways for people in the US to turn the tide from rampant oil addiction/consumption to a more sustainable path? What are the major roadblocks, and what models exist out there that we can start imitating now?
Our main dependence on oil is for transportation. Therefore, reduce your need for transportation. Live near where you work and shop, and drive less. A second area of vulnerability is food production. Therefore, get to know your local farmer, or grow as much as you can of what you eat. The third priority should be home heating. Natural gas is likewise a sunset commodity, and electrical heat is expensive and inefficient; therefore it is essential to reduce the need for home heating as much as possible. Insulate, insulate, insulate. Seal up leaks and maximize solar gain. (Richard Heinberg)
People need to begin reducing petroleum consumption drastically. This can start without much disruption to one’s life, as in eschewing the high horse-powered vehicle that simply does not need to be purchased; even the so-called gas-sipper can sit idly in the driveway as we take that short trip to the market on our bike that may have a basket or a cart hitched to it. On a deeper level, the choice of where to live in relation to one’s job is critical. In the activist sense, a new road or new parking lot can be opposed, not just to protect the community and Earth but to fight profligate oil use. (Jan Lundberg)
As the technology improves for battery storage, we can look forward to more “pure” electric vehicles (EVs) much like GM’s EV1 and EV2 that were taken off the market (and are being crushed in the Arizona desert as I write this!). The GM EVs were never given a real chance. I’ve ridden in one (Bill Denneen leased one), and they have many benefits — not the least of which is they are potentially a zero emission vehicle (ZEV). I also look at bio-fuels, hydrogen, and air propulsion. Since cars consume over half of all the petroleum we use, I really think we need to start here first. Also check out my book “Power Your Car WITHOUT Gasoline!!,” which looks at six viable alternatives to gasoline and diesel.
Public transportation seems to work only in places like New York or Chicago, where it is truly ubiquitous. Bicycles are not the answer — the Chinese, for example, are giving them up by the thousands right now as they industrialize further and become wealthier. (William Seavey)
The citizenry must demand a post petroleum transition plan. The best ones being proposed right now that I know of are by the Apollo Alliance [http://www.apolloalliance.org/ ] and the Post Carbon Institute [http://www.postcarbon.org/ ]. Incentives means taxing gasoline more. We must decide this is better than sending our children to murder or be murdered in foreign lands. NASA and the military must become part of the solution.
Community initiatives are essential. But when taxes, programs, and funding are cut by the feds, local and state programs starve. The greatest obstacles are oil-marinated war-profiteering Conservatives and privatization extremists — supported by Fundamentalists who want full control over education, health, and welfare. (Sandi Brockway)
3. Is hydrogen a feasible way to go?
Hydrogen will be useful in niche applications, but I think we can forget about the dream of a “hydrogen economy.” For most situations, batteries provide a more efficient means of storing electricity than does a system of electrically generating and then storing hydrogen, and then turning it back into electricity. We are not facing a crisis caused by insufficient energy storage; we are facing a crisis of the declining availability of energy from primary sources. Wherever we can install renewable energy sources, we will be better off using the energy directly and immediately rather than storing it. There will be situations where storage is needed, and there hydrogen can sometimes help. But folks who are imagining that in ten years millions of people will be driving hydrogen-powered cars are living in fantasyland. (Richard Heinberg)
Hydrogen is a nonstarter. There are so many technical problems with it that I must refer to an excellent new study of the whole issue that is on our website at culturechange.org/alt_energy.htm by Alice Friedemann. As with many boondoggles and scientific pursuits, there is much money to be made pushing something to the point that a fraud is being perpetrated. (Jan Lundberg)
This is a very controversial subject. President Bush has committed $1.7 billion over six years to make sure hydrogen cars are given a good start. GM has committed millions, as has Honda and Toyota. The Honda FCX is actually available to municipal fleets now and has tested out well (by the editors of H2 Nation Magazine). Lee Iacocca, formerly of Chrysler, believes the technology is here now but questions whether the distribution network can ever be fully implemented. (It would possibly have to be done at the expense of the gasoline industry.) Matthew Wald writes in Scientific American that, figuring total “wells to wheels” costs, hydrogen may not make that much sense for vehicles compared to stand alone power sources. (He likes the possibilities of electric vehicles charged by wind/solar). The general public is greatly confused by all this, as well they should be. (William Seavey)
Consider what Amory Lovins has say about this, as quoted in Harvard Magazine [http://www.harvardmagazine.com/on-line/010451.html ] : “Worldwide, we are already making, for industrial use, two-thirds of the hydrogen needed to displace the world’s gasoline,” he says. “We would only need to expand the hydrogen industry by several-fold if hydrogen were used in state-of-the-art efficient vehicles.” Large-scale wind power could probably provide cheap enough electricity, he reckons, and in the Dakotas alone, wind power could make enough hydrogen to fuel, at high efficiency, every highway vehicle in America. There are also experimental processes to make hydrogen using light, plasma, and microorganisms.
“The coming hydrogen economy will pair electricity with hydrogen to produce an energy system that is safer, cleaner, and even more versatile than the one we know today.” – from Rocky Mountain Institute. Suggested reading: www.rmi.org/sitepages/pid304.php (Sandi Brockway)
4. James Lovelock, author of the Gaia hypothesis, has been praising the use of nuclear energy as the only way to thwart global warming, as well as an energy source, since we have no time left for a green energy transformation. What are your opinions about this?
To replace oil with hydrogen from nuclear electricity would require about a thousand new nuclear reactors in the US alone. The problems with that scenario are rather obvious, starting with the sheer cost. Lovelock is partially correct: the time for a green energy transformation is mostly gone; we should have started in the 1970s and maintained the momentum. But I am generally skeptical about all supply-side solutions—nuclear, coal, hydrogen, methane hydrates, whatever. We need to slash demand—quickly and intelligently, but vigorously. Our problem as humans is that we have gotten so good at finding supply-side solutions to the ecological dilemma (resource depletion, population pressure, habitat destruction) that those are the only ones we even want to contemplate. Meanwhile, the ultimate limits of the planet’s carrying capacity for people are vanishing from sight in the rear-view mirror. (Richard Heinberg)
Lovelock must have bumped his head too hard. Anyone who has studied the possible role of nukes knows they can’t be build fast enough and in great enough numbers to allow for anything like a seamless transition from fossil fuels. Anyway, nuclear power does not supply tires, asphalt, plastics, chemicals and the like, the way fossil fuels do. No one has the right to foist nuclear waste on our planet. All nuclear proliferators should be jailed forever now. (Jan Lundberg)
Nuclear could “charge” our cars if we ever made it safe enough. But we have put the cart before the horse—first we need to create a “closed loop” system (as we are starting to so with other industries) to make sure the components are totally recycled, and never discarded. AND we need to have a world society where everyone agrees not to enrich materials used for energy generation into weapons. Personally, I’m against it. But, unlike many, I’d be willing to live on much less electricity/gasoline. My strawbale place in Baja is solar powered with components that I got used for less than $2000. I have electricity for the basics—lights, electronics, some refrigeration. I don’t have a “green” car yet, but I’m looking. (William Seavey)
5. The Lovins speak and write about efficiency as being a new energy resource. What value will this play out or is it merely giving us more time and not necessarily dealing with the root cause of ravaging a non-renewable resource?
This depends on what we mean by “efficiency.” If it means doing things more cleverly so that we can continue to grow population and per-capita resource usage as oil becomes scarce, then I think efficiency is a dead end. Efficiency only holds promise if we mean reducing the total human demand upon environmental services. Period. (Richard Heinberg)
The Lovins are promoting a fantasy, to their profit, although many of their specific calculations about efficiencies to be derived here and there are no doubt correct. There are so many major factors missing from the Lovins’ conclusions that it is clear they are either in denial or cannot resist pushing the corporate (and lately the Pentagon) line. Additionally, consumers are not going to go for super-light cars if it means being mangled in a crash with a heavier vehicle. Also, suppose all the Lovins’ policy options and reforms could get approved to be implemented for maximum efficiency, which is completely unrealistic, why would these reforms be more feasible than retooling car factories to put out bikes and electric rail trams instead? The Lovins and the rest of the funded environmental movement do not question the “need” for all the energy and the existence of the roads. Therefore, the Lovins are very much part of the problem instead of the solution. (Jan Lundberg)
Amory and Hunter Lovins (Rocky Mountain Institute) are doing amazing things. I think in most of Amory’s industrial consulting work he emphasizes efficiencies, but if you go to his institute at a high elevation — as a friend of mine has — you discover solar panels, super insulation, hydroponics, passive solar heating, etc. They are also at work on the HyperCar, which is utilizing high tech materials to make cars smaller and lighter. The Institute has the answers, at least for people (like corporations) who can afford them. But we all need to pay attention. (William Seavey)
My electric bill dropped to $15-20 after retrofitting my home with compact fluorescents. This also means I need fewer solar panels to get off the grid. How many power plants could we prevent from being built if we just cut our electricity bills in half? $1 bulbs are available everywhere in California — or efficient European appliances, if you pay the price. California is one of the few states that gives incentives to power companies to buy back energy.
Stacking fuel cells at existing power plants could improve conservation by capturing waste heat with turbines and storing all lost energy. Recent breakthroughs using methane gas (from landfills, dairies, and sewers) in place of natural gas can create H2. Why not retrofit every dairy, landfill, sewer, or toilet with anaerobic power plants and sell it back to the grid? (Sandi Brockway)
6. What value do renewable energy sources have in this transition between our addiction and that of a relatively sustainable cycle? In other words, is it a good solution but too late?
In a hundred years, it is very likely that the only energy sources we will have left will be renewable ones. So the more generation capacity we can put in place now, the better off we will be; it is never too late to do what we can. However, currently we in the US get only 0.17 percent of our total energy budget from solar and wind combined, so we could double our present production, then double that, and we’d still be shy of one percent. Therefore we should not imagine that renewables can be built up fast enough to enable a “soft landing” in which we maintain a recognizable suburban way of life, but with our clothes dryers and riding lawn mowers running on PV instead of electricity from coal or natural gas. We must prepare for an entirely different way of life. (Richard Heinberg)
The renewable energy Utopia is about perpetuating consumer society without regard to population size or the past and future accumulation of pollution; environmental activists who push this nonsensical concept are usually paid to push “green cars” and solar panels, etc., to please funders’ blind expectations of “progress.” Given the reality of our having attained overpopulation decades ago thanks to petroleum’s role in agriculture propping up our numbers, so-called renewable energy is at best a local solution for specific needs, and is not suitable for a giant grid which loses so much energy in transmission. (Jan Lundberg)
100 square miles of solar panels would keep the lights on in every household in America. (There is space in the Nevada desert for that). Wind generation is quite viable, and even more efficient than solar panels. Bio-diesel and alcohol/ethanol type fuels can be grown on our farms and even REFINED in our own garages! In my view everyone who is at all capable of starting to make these shifts must start to do so NOW. I’ve sold over 3000 copies of my People’s Guide to Basic Solar Power just on the internet alone, to every state and to every province in Canada and some countries overseas. People are very interested in how they can do it themselves, but just need a hand up. I never knew anything about solar power until I started experimenting with it in a small motor home 15 years ago. Most people cannot fathom the implications of all this for the whole of humanity, but for themselves and their children they need to start doing the right thing(s). (William Seavey)
There is no other choice. We need an Apollo or Manhattan Project-style clean hydrogen program now. If we accept Bush’s Energy Plan, Europe, Canada and Asia will become the future leaders in hydrogen and renewable energy solutions — and benefit from the economic boon. BP and Siemens are now the largest manufacturers of solar panels.
from “Hydrogen: Empowering the People” by Jeremy Rifkin, from The Nation [http://www.thenation.com/docprint.mhtml?i=20021223&s=rifkin] . Jeremy Rifkin is the President of Foundation on Economic Trends [ www.foet.org/index.htm] .
“Renewable sources of energy — wind, photovoltaic, hydro, geothermal and biomass — can be … stored and used, when needed…. So, if the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing or the water isn’t flowing, electricity can’t be generated and economic activity grinds to a halt. Hydrogen provides a way to store renewable sources of energy and insure an ongoing and continuous supply of power.” (Sandi Brockway)
7. Richard Heinberg suggests in his new book “PowerDown” that we have 4 options: militarism, denial, powerdown, and community solidarity. What options do you think we will as a species follow during this incredible and inevitable transition/overhaul?
Instead of choices, we really have, instead, the extreme likelihood of collapse and die-off. A social movement cannot turn the tide against a runaway-train economy about to smash, nor can a social movement influence nature as she “bats last” at this stage of the game. Climate change may be totally out of control due to positive feedback loops. But the value of social movements and trying to live sustainably now is incalculable, and there is intrinsic value in trying to build community solidarity. These attempts can serve as models and sources of information, if not furnish us with leaders, for the post-petroleum age. (Jan Lundberg)
I think Heinberg is a brilliant man, and I am honored to have met him (at Solfest). I honestly don’t know which way we are going to go. I only hope it will be a way that makes the most sense for all peoples and species on the planet. Clearly we cannot go on the way we have and expect global society not to eventually implode. (William Seavey)
8. What are the best examples, the best models (not only in the US) that are out there that the mass media should really jump on so people can get inspired rather than freaked out because of this enormous task ahead of us?
How about a “reality” TV show about life in an ecovillage? Before oil gets so expensive that the airline industry collapses, every American who can should travel to other parts of the world where people already use a fraction of the energy that we do here. Even in Europe, they use half what Americans do on a per capita basis. The models are there; the problem is that globalization is destroying them as fast as it possibly can. The one bright side of oil depletion is that soon globalization will be a thing of the past, because it is entirely predicated on cheap transportation. (Richard Heinberg)
If survival comes down to food and land use, think of Pedal Power Produce. Bringing organic vegetables and fruits to farmers’ markets via bike carts eliminates petroleum fuel and the need for big roads. For other transportation and communication needs, there can be Sail Transport Networks. These are projects one can learn about at the culturechange.org website, but hopefully they are being replicated elsewhere. Use your feet, ride your bike, love your neighbors, and enjoy life no matter what. (Jan Lundberg)
As far as energy goes, what happens at energy fairs like Solfest is truly inspiring, when thousands come together peacefully to discuss alternatives. There are hundreds of “intentional communities” throughout the U.S. and the world whose members are trying to live simply, self-suffiently, and sustainably (the three S’s?) right here and now. The Intentional Communities Directory is a good source for that. Then there are individuals like myself who are trying to make a difference with somewhat limited resources (my bale house in Baja went up for less than $20,000, but it took me six years to build). The Mother Earth News Magazine and Countryside Magazine are inspiring in their profiles/accounts of individuals who are living sustainably in a wide variety of locales, here and abroad. Locally, I think the work of HopeDance, Bill Denneen, Sustainable Building Conference, Ken Haggard and Poly Cooper, Larry Santoyo (with permaculture) and others should get more attention. These people have hit the ground running, with their convictions that things MUST change: they know how to do the technical work to make demo projects palatable to the mainstream media. (William Seavey)
Rocky Mountain Institute is a good start [http://.rwwwmi.org] . There are fuel cell and renewable energy projects all over the world. Hydrogen can be harvested locally using several methods — moving us closer to self reliance. Cars, appliances, computers can be filled-up in our homes or in our neighborhoods. All the components necessary are ready to ramp. International consensus that respects the Kyoto treaty, our transition into a post-petroleum era, and a full commitment to a renewable future is necessary. The only thing standing in the way is leadership and our short-sightedness. (Sandi Brockway)
Richard Heinberg is the author of numerous books, most notably The Party’s Over: Oil, War, and the Fate of Industrial Societies and PowerDown: Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World.
[Santa Barbara appearance, Nov. 27]
Jan Lundberg formerly ran Lundberg Survey Incorporated which published the once “bible of the oil industry,” the Lundberg Letter. He now writes essays and songs, and publishes CultureChange.org, a nonprofit collective that can use your support. P.O. Box 4347, Arcata, CA 95518 USA.
William L. Seavey is an advocate, activist, author and energy consultant who has written Power Your Car WITHOUT Gasoline!!, The People’s Guide to Basic Solar Power, Moving to Small Town America, Eden Seeker’s Guide and other lifestyle enhancing books. He is building a sturdy and attractive 1000 sq. ft. home out of strawbales and recycled materials in coastal Mexico, a project that should ultimately cost less than $25,000.
PowerFromSun.com (solar power and gasoline alternatives),
wwwRetirement.com (strawbale house)—no dot after www.
Sandi Brockway is a long time activist, artist, and free-lance writer. She compiled and edited the Macrocosm USA handbook in July, 1989 which was published in 1993. Using its database, she assisted the development of Jerry Brown’s 1992 campaign — helping him win three states and put the environment on the Democratic platform. The searchable database/directory was mounted online at: www.macronet.org.
Jay Hanson was invited to answer the questions but he turned the opportunity down since he felt HopeDance was too full of hope for him. He confided that he makes people depressed when speaking about issues such as oil depletion and population. He has a very informative website: www.dieoff.com and a listserv. The dieoff listserv has been very instrumental in locating material for this issue of HopeDance, which may become more than just one issue.