[Note: I've revised this post. In the cool of daytime, I figured that it could stand to be a little less pissed off. So I've changed it to leave fewer things assumed but unsaid and a few things clarified. I've also added links. But I'm leaving the initial title. Yeah, it's incendiary; sometimes ya gotta shout a bit to get important things said.]
Okay, this "we're all gonna die from lack of fuel" bullhockey is really starting to get on my nerves. We are so far away from having no real options we might as well still be living in the fifties and I'm tired of all this gloom and doom, end of the world mahooah.
Now, first of all, I'm not talking about the greenhouse effect or loss of species diversity or any of the considerable number of real crises that are out there right now. I'm not talking about that here. This post is no more or less than a response to the "peak oil" people. I'll readily concede that we are running out of oil. But not quite that fast, not at a speed that demands the kinds of "heroic measures" that then get just about everybody fatalistic because "we'll never be able to get people to do that sort of thing."
I'm also convinced that much of the "peak oil" and "energy crisis" mania currently ramping up in America is a result of media hype paid for by utility and energy companies looking to justify yet more government subsidies and exemptions to build power plants and transmission systems that we don't need and can't afford. When are people finally going to realize that the California blackouts were NOT a result of a lack of capacity, they were a result of corporate greed? To try to "fix" this by funding yet more corporate greed is dimwitted, if not flat out mentally ill. We don't need more power plants, let alone nuclear ones; we need to fight against future Enrons. I was in New York during the 2003 blackout and have been watching the hearings since and I can tell you that there, too, we did not need increased capacity. We needed more conservation, more transparent procedures by the utility companies, and a modest implementation of the kind of accessable infrastructure Thomas Edison would have implemented in the first place if the technology had been available.
Another thing I'm not going to get into here is that, from what I can see, a lot of the current "shortage" comes from oil companies and countries like Saudi Arabia using the current delusional mood out there to jack up prices for no reason beyond their own profits. Does that create an effective reduction in available supply on a given day? Yes. But it doesn't mean as much as it appears to mean about our reserves. Afaict, "peak oil" is sounding more and more like a religion so I'm quite sure that I'll be accused of blasphemy for writing this.
I'm going to make this short. Here are real world, low tech, low capital, low skill ways that we can quickly and cheaply massively cut down our net energy usage. If we didn't have a bunch of crazed idiots running our federal government, we would probably be starting to do some of these on a national scale already. Note, btw, that I'm not including anywhere near all of the things that can and should change. Many of them will, afaics, change without anybody needing to push them any more than is happening already. Now that the price of gas has gotten as high as it has and things like LED garden lights are so obviously superior, I'm seeing quite a few things that were once hardcore "green" showing up at Home Depot, and selling. I will, however, list a few more of these at the end of this piece. What you'll mostly see here is a list of things that a sane government could and may yet encourage (or, as they like to say, "incent") to keep us from energy disaster.
And, in case it isn't obvious, these are also steps you might want to consider taking right now. Just because the great coach potato masses out there need help to get them to do these things doesn't mean that you should wait.
1.) Build cob walls right onto the side of the walls of most low buildings. No tearing down needed. Just a six to ten inch thick cob wall plopped right onto the shingle or vinyl siding or cinderblock or whatever. Boom. Instant superinsulated walls. Encourage earth berm extending beyond that.
Add greenhouses (low tech and built largely out of reused windows would work fine) reaching up to the rafters and built onto the side that gets the most sun.
Put trellises over much or all of sloping parts of the roof (again, reused stuff like surplus gridwall will do fine) covered in ivy, and planters along the roofline.
Do these things along with the measures discussed below and most buildings will stop needing much fuel for heating or cooling ever again.
I would like to add solar hot water heaters to this list. They certainly are amazing. But while they're great, they're still both expensive and complex for most people. I've met a few too many ecologically-minded people who have removed solar hot water systems to take their viability for granted. But consider this a respectful nod and a call for more research and development. The same goes for geothermal cooling.
This is supplemented by adding one and a half inches of insulation inside rooms, right over the existing walls, covered by a new coat of hardboard or equivalent and a skimcoat of plaster. Put the trim back on, remount the outlets a bit further forward, and the room gets a bit over two inches smaller but is now also far better insulated without having to tear out much at all of what was there in the first place. This only needs to be done, btw, for walls that face the outside of the structure. It also, I suspect, is the first, most effective thing to do for large buildings like schools that have paltry budgets but do have a dedicated building staff. After all, this is the kind of thing that, once you've got your rhythm going and optimized your technique and tools, should go pretty doggone fast and be pretty cheap to do.
2.) Put in air ducts from the outside of buildings to the cooling coils or even the interiors of refrigerators. Whenever the outdoor temperature goes below room temperature, the fridge gets bathed in air from outside. Simple vents and heat exchangers keep it all going right. Whenever possible chilling systems are moved out from under the areas to be chilled. The idea that we put one of the hottest motors in a building (the compressor for a fridge) right under the area we're trying to keep coldest (that same fridge) blows my mind. An aggressive program should be instituted to have refrigerators built in from scratch as part of a house, returning to the original idea of an superinsulated box under or beside a chilling mechanism, well ventilated and connected to a flow of cool or even cold air.
3.) One inch thick cement pads built into the inside of fridges. Two to five inches if there's room. This reduces variability of temperature quite a bit. Cuts fuel use even more. Should cost about twenty bucks per fridge or freezer. There are a number of variations on this idea but the point is to add quite a bit of constant thermal mass within chilled areas. Personally, I'm getting a piece of marble cut for mine, but a.) I dumpster dived my slabs already, b.) I have luxurious tastes, and c.) I've got friends with wonderful skills and tools I can barter the work with.
4.) Flextime of the sort California was well on the way to implementing in the nineties when the dimwit brigade took over. Rush hour is our enemy and must be fought with every tool we have.
5.) Streetcars. Lots of cheap, small streetcars in every small town, every suburban street, even every large office complex. See my article on building same. Dedicated rights of way for mass transit of all sorts also makes a huge difference, as do car-free streets.
6.) Skylights and light pipes all over the place.
7.) LED lighting in hallways and other places where dimmer, less color-optimized lights will do. These LEDs to be powered from solar panels or some other form of power generation right there on that structure. Grid demand for those fixtures goes to zero. Given where the technology is going, LED streetlights should be worth converting to by the end of next year. Adding to this, a modest but widespread and well publicized buyback program for non-LED holiday lights, nightlights, and the rest.
For all such LED-solar panel systems, intertie should be discouraged. LEDS work best on 4 or 5 volt DC. Why in the name of all that's holy do we insist on massively reducing their efficiency and equally massively increasing their cost by routing all power to them on 110 volt AC circuits that then require tons of step-downs, resistors, control circuits, and so forth?
8.) Bus systems extended to run until 3:00 a.m. in every town of over fifty thousand people. Jitneys at other hours and in smaller communities. The reduction in drunk driving costs alone should pay for a lot of this.
9.) Everybody over the age of ten gets a free bike or subsidy to buy a bike. Every ten years they get a credit towards buying another one. Skateboards can also qualify if they are used as transportation. Anything that provides transportation but doesn't put demand on the grid. Personally, I think that people who can document that they walk to work more than a few blocks should get the same subsidy for shoes and such but maybe that's just me.
10.) Massive implementation of greenroof and urban agriculture as has been done in the Philippines and Cuba. See my entry on low cost greenroof. You would be amazed at how much food can be grown per block in an urban area. It should go up even more when all commercial establishments are allowed to reduce required parking by thirty percent as long as half of the converted land must be vegetated.
11.) A buyback program for CRTs, working or not. All CRTs to be crushed and turned back into raw materials. Same for computers from before 2002 and printers from before 2000.
12.) Nationwide program cancelling laws forbidding more than a certain number of unrelated people from living together and related zoning codes and other regulations meant to force a nineteen-fifties ideal of single family, single purpose dwellings on lawn-covered, separated lots. Shared housing is our friend and we should treat it so. In fact, we should encourage it. I'm already active on this issue.
Moving on, afaic, most lawns are insane. For those of you not yet aware, allow me to introduce Food Not Lawns. This applies doubly so to public parks. Not that they should be turned over entirely to food production, but that we should be replacing many of the endless areas of energy-hungry, ecologically poisonous short grass with perennial plantings and the kind of landscaping that we all admire so much in places like the parks of Olmstead and Vaux. Oh, fwiw, Hyde Park in London, one of the places that defined what a park is, now has a breathtakingly beautiful program in place converting some of their lawns to meadows.
13.) Classes in cooking and food preparation to be instituted in ALL U.S. schools, from kindergarten to 12th grade. Each school is also responsible for providing three square feet of planting space per student on which that student will grow food for use by the school. The Edible Schoolyard program shows how this can be done and why. Also see the greenroof comments above for more information on how. In addition, implement a Japanese-style policy of students handling much of the building maintenance.
14.) Each of the 4,000 counties of the United States is required, within three years, to commit at least one square mile to growing biofuels of some sort. Algae stacks are fine. Switchgrass is fine. Whatever works best as locally determined though a toughening standard of net BTUs per acre will eventually be implemented.
15.) All government direct and indirect subsidies of meat, grain, and dairy production phased out. The sanest course is that over five years a ten cent per pound tax be added to meat and equivalent ones to factory farmed dairy to pay for habitat restoration and research into ways to minimize energy and other resource use among ranchers, diary farmers, and other creators of these goods. Grain producers? Take them off government welfare and things should change mighty fast. Would such taxes be regressive? Yes. There are ways to counter that problem for the truly needy and I don't doubt that you can figure them out yourself.
16.) Vigorously enforce the anti-trust laws and laws against fraud, especially against transportation companies, agribusiness, building trades, and makers of electrical devices. We've seen what a hundred years of systematic fraud has left us with. See my post on 1930's and 40's fraud by the West Coast rail and bus companies or just Google "Snell Report" if you don't know about this already. And again I say, much of what is perceived as an energy shortage is, in reality, an artifact of too much Enron-style activity warping our society.
All of the things I've briefly described above could be done concurrently for less than this perverse bunch of wars have been costing us. And I don't doubt that I'm missing at least two dozen other equally viable low tech, low capital, high multiplier options. We have all the tools we need. We just need to use them.
Notice that I barely address new energy technologies. I'm sure as hell not going to suggest anything as delusional as building more nuclear power plants. We are entirely capable of reducing our energy consumption to a level that gives us plenty of time to develop sustainable energy technologies, living mostly on our petrochemical reserves in the meantime.
We have more promising new energy technologies on the horizon that you can shake a stick at, from tidal power to thermal depolymerization. We've got them running energy positive right now. It's all about process engineering at this point. Americans are really good at process engineering when we put our minds to it. Aluminum used to cost more than gold. Now we make lawn chairs out of it. That's process engineering.
I also haven't said a word about industrial energy usage. Don't think that I'm not tempted. But if I get into that here this post will get three or four thousand words longer. You don't want that, do you?
Also, as I mentioned above, some things are changing already.
Here in Portland the public school system is in the process of revising their overall standard for building construction and maintenance to focus on sustainable practices in general and conservation in specific. And having spoken to one of the initiators of this change I can assure you with complete confidence that this was motivated primarily by a shortage of money and a very cold-blooded realization that conservation, things like better insulated buildings and more modern lighting, are a key part of being able to pay the bills at the end of each month.
Other changes? Demand is working; walk into any Safeway or other supermarket these days and you'll find growing percentages of what they sell are organic or otherwise promoted as sustainable. I am pretty confident that they'll continue to get on the locally sourced bandwagon as well as long as demand keeps driving it, not to mention shipping prices.
I've also been tracking a slow but steady shift for things like pizza delivery from cars to bikes or electric vehicles. Not only is it more responsible, their smaller size makes them more nimble and less expensive to use, park, etc.
We're also seeing an implementation of heavy and lightrail worldwide. From what I'm seeing, this is accelerating and has more and more public and government support.
Also, the peak demand in many parts of the country is from summer air conditioners. Well, even beyond the measures I cite above, solar is finally getting widespread enough to address this. When do solar panels give the most power? On hot summer days. Also, the parts of the country that are hungriest for that additional power are building wind farms on a pretty serious scale. The bottom line: it's being dealt with.
We're also just at the beginning of a wonderful thing: landfill mining. Methane recovery is getting pretty common and I'm starting to see what I suspect is the start of a hugely important trend, companies buying mineral and other recovery rights to landfills. Modern advances in robotics and sensors, some of which are coming out of sorting technologies used at recycling centers, make this much more cost effective. This alone, if it gets going in a serious way, makes me want to dance in the streets and hug people.
And, to make a very peak-oil specific point, we are doing just fine at making plastics from non-petrochemical sources. Again, this is process engineering and plastics are already a product of comprehensively artificial processes that convert some of the most common things on earth, carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen, etc. into molecules that not only don't need to be made from petrochemicals, like diesel fuel, they're actually less weighed down with impurities once we switch to non-petrochemical sources. We're running out of oil; not carbon. Really.
We have the means to cut our demand way down. We still have serious fuel reserves, even aside from coal. And we're advancing at flank speed on implementing improved energy options. We only have a crisis if we don't do the kinds of things that I list above. Will we still be in such good shape ten years from now if we don't get our act together? No. While per user demand can be greatly decreased, I agree that with over two billion people joining the high-consumption middle class right now, we either change comprehensively what that means or watch civilization fall and hundreds of millions of people die.
We do have an absolutely critical problem here. But I don't think that it's as simple or as dire as many people I see around me are making it out to be. And I am certainly tired of people trying to use this to shut down everything from space travel to long-term educational planning. I'm also damned sick of people believing claims by the usual suspects that we need to clearcut yet more woods and spend yet more money to build multibillion dollar powerplants and whole new power transmission infrastructure here in North America to address an increase in per capita demand that is neither a given nor best addressed by yet more corporate-welfare-bloated megaprojects. As I've just explained, from what I can see, that per capita increase may not be happening here at all and even if it is, giving more billions and more power to the rapacious, amoral likes of General Electric and Halliburton makes far less sense than spending a fraction of that on the kinds of things that I cite above.
You want to tell me that we have no hope? Talk to the hand. I've spent a hell of a lot of time studying this and I just don't believe it.
Yet again I say it - don't believe the hype.