A few more thoughts on the heels of Monday’s post.

In a recent article on energy, climate change, and sports, Amanda Little shared an anecdote about an iconic National Football League team.

“The new Dallas Cowboy’s stadium, for instance, is an energy-guzzling Colossus averaging $200,000 in monthly utility bills and consuming about as much power as Santa Monica, California. (A conventional scoreboard, on its own, can devour as much electricity annually as 100 homes.)” [1]

Can we really continue to afford to think that this kind of energy excess can and will continue? Is that level of energy usage of greater priority or importance than powering neighborhoods? The truth we need to come to terms right about now is that absent some magnificent new discovery that comes into play very quickly and successfully, we may find ourselves having to make some painful determinations about energy consumption priorities that will have ripple effects in many aspects of everyday living—commercially and personally.

As has been noted by a number of bloggers and organizations, the International Energy Agency has now stopped dancing around the issue and finally admitted that Peak Oil was reached back in 2006. One of its prominent officials has once again indicated that “the era of cheap oil is over.”

Consider just a few more facts on the ground: exploration (deep water or tar sands, anyone?) and production has become more difficult and certainly more expensive, to say nothing of the resource quality. The primary exporters of oil are experiencing increasing domestic demand, and so naturally they are keeping more oil for their own national use. Hard not to understand that that just means less for everyone else. The majority of large producing oil fields are experiencing an inexorable decline in production. A poor worldwide economic environment has restricted investment in exploration and production, and there quite clearly will not be a ramp-up quickly or inexpensively. China is leading the way in higher demand for oil. On and on it goes….

These and many other frequently-discussed factors are going to have an impact soon if that process hasn’t already started. The situation simply is not going to get better, as disheartening as that may be. We’re all going to have to recognize a different set of rules about fossil fuel availability and consumption.

While alternative energy development is a primary source of hope, David Fridley’s excellent chapter in The Post Carbon Reader: Managing the 21st Century’s Sustainability Crises [2] has pointed out some very important limitations that need to be recognized and appreciated.

Mr. Fridley offers this important consideration:

“Alternative energy sources will need to form the backbone of a future energy system.
“That system, however, will not be a facsimile of the system we have today based on continuous uninterrupted supply growing to meet whatever demand is placed on it. As we move away from the energy bounty provided by fossil fuels, we will become increasingly reliant on tapping the current flow of energy from the sun (wind, solar) and on new energy manufacturing processes that will require ever larger consumption of resources (biofuels, other manufactured liquids, batteries). What kind of society we can build on this foundation is unclear, but it will most likely require us to pay more attention to controls on energy demand to accommodate the limitations of our future energy supply. Moreover, the modern focus on centralized production and distribution may be hard to maintain, since local conditions will become increasingly important in determining the feasibility of alternative energy production.” (p.13)

And a few more “for instances” from this terrific piece that we need to keep in mind about our supposed Alternative Energy Knight In Shining Armor:

“… —alternative energy depends heavily on specially engineered equipment and infrastructure for capture or conversion, essentially making it a high-tech manufacturing process. However, the full supply chain for alternative energy, from raw materials to manufacturing, is still very dependent on fossil-fuel energy for mining, transport, and materials production. Alternative energy faces the challenge of how to supplant a fossil-fuel-based supply chain with one driven by alternative energy forms themselves in order to break their reliance on a fossil-fuel foundation.” (p.3)

“Closely related to the issue of scalability and timing is commercialization, or the question of how far away a proposed alternative energy source stands from being fully commercialized. Often, newspaper reports of a scientific laboratory breakthrough are accompanied by suggestions that such a breakthrough represents a possible “solution” to our energy challenges. In reality, the average time frame between laboratory demonstration of feasibility and full large-scale commercialization is twenty to twenty-five years. Processes need to be perfected and optimized, patents developed, demonstration tests performed, pilot plants built and evaluated, environmental impacts assessed, and engineering, design, siting, financing, economic, and other studies undertaken.” (p.5)

When you add to that mix the fact that alternative energy supplies are currently inconsistent in terms of availability, and are much less efficienct than fossil fuels (i.e., we’ll need even more alternative energy to do what lesser quantities of oil provide)—among other factors Mr. Fridley takes great care to inform us of, we do not have adequate solutions/replacements in place.

There are no magic alternatives out there in Energy Solution Land that we can just drop in to our homes and industries and automobiles overnight and then just carry on without so much a single hiccup of interruption or inconvenience. (For all the good that electric vehicles offer, let’s not forget that we do not have the kind of infrastructure in place that will enable us to power an entire new generation of replacement vehicles—at least not without using considerable amounts of fossil fuel-burning power plants to power them up and keep them powered up.)

While our understandable preference may be to just bull our way forward on a blind assumption that something will come to the rescue, reality suggests otherwise. A broader understanding and awareness is called for—notably among and by our political leaders—but so too must the rest of us begin to recognize what looms on the horizon. Peak Oil does not mean our comfy little worlds are going to collapse next week or even soon (however we prefer to define that), but the reality that we’ve now maxed-out worldwide oil production and will never exceed those levels means we’re on the downside of availability.

Everything that we’ve come to rely upon oil for (in other words, pretty much everything), is going to be impacted. And that means we’re going to be impacted. The more of us who appreciate the challenges, the more intelligent our choices will be to plan for the needed adaptations.

We clearly cannot and must not be confident that a limited few will always act in the best interests of the majority. Congress has done a magnificent job of assuring us of that fact. But relying on our government is a necessity nonetheless.

“The Federal Government has many instruments that it can use to accelerate the creation and implementation of new energy technologies. These include research support, technology development, tax and other financial incentives, procurement, technology demonstration and deployment, regulation, standards development, knowledge dissemination, intellectual property protection, public-private partnerships, Federal-state coordination, support for education, immigration law, and international agreements. These instruments involve the responsibilities of many different Executive Branch agencies and Congressional committees. In the past, many actions taken by different administrations and congressional entities have been at cross-purposes with regard to their effects on energy technologies.” [3]

So while we face the daunting challenge of relying on national leaders to articulate our energy priorities and strategies as Peak Oil’s impact becomes more pronounced (leaders who by and large have demonstrated remarkable unanimity in failing to discuss the truths about what we face, by the way), another daunting truth is that much of what will actually be done to deal with the consumption changes will originate at the state, regional, and local levels. While I believe we must have some national objectives in mind, we cannot disregard the importance of bottom up input and expertise.

Soon enough it is not going to matter what your philosophy about governance is, or if deficit-spending is a greater burden than failure to spend, or if the Right is collectively more insane than the Left. We’re going to have to move above and beyond those ultimately petty ideological concerns and develop and deal with real-life implications of a society that it going to have its industrial design and production and transportation systems—and eventual consumption by end-users—all provided and sustained by something other than unlimited amounts of fossil fuels. It will indeed be a whole different kind of world we’ll live in.

While there are clearly some rather imposing challenges and issues, the question ultimately boils down to this: do we allow the challenges to defeat us, or do we recognize the magnitude of what faces us and rise up to seize the opportunities? We’re in due course going to have no choice but to restructure and revise and refine and re-create the industrial support system that has supplied us with our remarkable levels of prosperity for more than a hundred years, as well as doing the very same thing for the lifestyles we currently enjoy.

We must recognize that this will of course lead to different outcomes (we’ll have no choice in that), but that does not necessarily equate to “bad” outcomes. Life is going to be different, and the sooner we come to terms with that truth the better off we’ll be as we begin the process of adaptation and the creation of new strategies and new systems of production and usage. The most optimistic person on this planet cannot expect this to occur in anything less than many years—many years that will pass with less and less of the energy resources that brought us all to this moment. We do have our work cut out for us.

Are we up to the task?

Sources:

[1] http://blogs.forbes.com/amandalittle/2010/11/15/can-professional-sports-do-more-than-politics-to-save-the-planet/; Can Professional Sports Do More Than Politics to Save the Planet? November 15, 2010
[2] http://www.postcarbon.org/report/127153-energy-nine-challenges-of-alternative-energy; The Post Carbon Reader Series: Energy – Nine Challenges of Alternative Energy By David Fridley, p3-4 [Excerpted from The Post Carbon Reader: Managing the 21st Century’s Sustainability Crises, Richard Heinberg and Daniel Lerch, eds. (Healdsburg, CA: Watershed Media, 2010 – http://www.postcarbon.org/reader)
[2] http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/microsites/ostp/pcast-energy-tech-report.pdf; REPORT TO THE PRESIDENT ON ACCELERATING THE PACE OF CHANGE IN ENERGY TECHNOLOGIES THROUGH AN INTEGRATED FEDERAL ENERGY POLICY by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, November 2010 (p19).