|Sign of the times.|
We live in an age of great transition. We are in the midst of the monumental process of switching from one set of primary energy sources —fossil fuels— to another— renewables. During this transition we will see almost every facet of our lives altered as all sorts of substitutions are made in a far-reaching kaleidoscope of change. In fact, this metamorphosis is already happening in slow motion all around us. If you were to pull a Rip Van Winkle and sleep through the next ten years, you would wake up to a different world indeed.
|But where do the reindeer land?|
Let’s take natural gas first.
Natural gas to heat indoor space will be replaced by heat pumps powered by electricity, passive solar gain where possible, and scattered high efficiency wood stoves.
|How to electrify heat.|
Heat pump technology is already mature. The only time heat pumps have issues is in climates that have deeply cold weather, and even then a properly sized heat pump can still heat your house, just less efficiently during the coldest days. (It also helps to have your house well-sealed and insulated so it doesn’t take much energy to heat it in the first place.) The added benefit to heat pumps is that they also cool much more efficiently than air conditioners, reducing electricity consumption in the summer. For those who live close to a large supply of wood, high efficiency wood stoves will be valuable—they use half the wood of older models to provide the same amount of heat and produce 1/10 to 1/20 of the particulate matter. (Important to asthmatics and other people who value their lungs!) This means less chopping! Less hauling! Less stacking! If you have a house that already takes advantage of passive solar gain in the cold months, (generally through south facing windows onto to some kind of mass that will later radiate) well then, lucky you. Free heat!
|Passive can be active.|
Natural gas to heat water will be replaced by solar hot water, heat pump hot water heaters, or a combination of the two.
Natural gas used to generate electricity will be replaced by wind, solar and reduced consumption through energy efficiency.
Natural gas to make nitrogren-based fertilizer will be replaced by wind-powered electrolytic nitrogen-based fertilizer production, as well as by compost, worms, green manure, animal manure, crop rotation and other permaculture techniques.
|We don't have to starve.|
Coal and natural gas used to generate electricity to power standard air conditioning will be replaced by heat pumps, whole house fans, and ceiling fans that require much lower energy inputs.
Coal and natural gas used to create electricity to power second refrigerators will be replaced by nothing.
Electricity costs will rise (or Americans will get poorer) until it becomes too expensive to run a fifteen-year-old second refrigerator in the garage. When all those second refrigerators go away, that will be a good indication our energy is priced correctly because it will mean energy is no longer cheap enough to waste.
Oil (gasoline) used to power private vehicles will be replaced by public and private transit, bicycles, walking, and people choosing to live closer to jobs, goods and services.
|A veritable chariot|
retiring Boomers who all of the sudden don't "want" the hassle (and expense) of driving everywhere. Also, since Boomers are the biggest car-driving generation, as they die off, car use will die off as well. (Note: I am a tail-end boomer. I hope to be on an adult trike when I'm eighty.)
Oil (gasoline) used to power private vehicles will be replaced by electric cars for a small percentage of the population.
|In your future?|
Note: 96,000 electric plug-in cars of one kind or another were sold in the US in 2013. Cumulatively, the US has 170,000 electric cars on the road. Even if plug-in electric cars sales doubled every year for the next six years (and they don’t appear to be on that track for 2014--April year to date numbers are up only 20% over 2013 April YTD) that would mean by 2020 we would have roughly 13 million electric cars on the road out of a fleet of 250 million total cars. Which means only 5% of the US vehicle fleet would be electric. Even if every American household got by with one less car (while electric car sales doubled each year) by 2020 only 10% of the vastly reduced number of cars would be electric.
Oil (gasoline or diesel) used to power lawnmowers, chainsaws, snowblowers, leafblowers etc will be replaced by electric version of same, or by rakes, shovels, brooms, pushmowers, etc., or by not mowing the grass, cutting the wood, blowing the leaves and snow, etc. Note: chopped leaves make great mulch.
|Rubber meets road.|
Paved roads are hugely expensive, and right now much of them are largely financed by the federal government, which pays for them with debt. (The gas tax hasn't risen since 1993, but road repair prices sure have!) Coming soon, most roads/highways/freeways between towns/cities will be user-fee funded through tolls or a vehicle mileage tax. Since local roads will be the responsibility of cities/towns, the only ones that will be maintained are those where population density is high enough to pay for them. On the up side, the roads will be more bouncy. (This is actually great for joggers.)
|Ooh, a dome car!|
|We could do this.|
Oil (diesel) used to transport freight via trucking will be replaced by rail.
Already happening because per ton of cargo moved, rail uses one-fifth the energy of trucking. Demand for rail freight is growing by leaps and bounds. However, currently 40% of rail freight capacity is consumed by coal shipments. Take coal out of the picture and there’s lots of capacity to be had.
Oil (diesel) used to power rail will be replaced by electrified rail.
Electrified rail uses up to 2/3rds less energy than diesel rail. (So electrified rail uses 6-7% of the energy that diesel trucking does to move the same load.)
Oil (heating oil) used to heat homes will be replaced by heat pumps.
This substitution has been underway for years and is almost complete.
Oil (liquid petroleum gases) used to create plastics will somewhat be replaced by organic packaging materials and/or glass, metal, etc.
Oil (gasoline) used to make drive-till-you-qualify McMansions sellable will be replaced by smaller homes in dense, walkable neighborhoods.
|Back to the future.|
Oil (diesel) used to bus children long distances to school will be replaced by children attending schools they can walk or bike to.
|Walking school bus.|
Oil (diesel) used to power farm equipment will be replaced by electrified farm equipment.
Oil (diesel) used to power heavy trucks (like buses and garbage trucks) that travel under 100 miles a day will be replaced by electric heavy trucks.
Oil (diesel and gasoline) used to transport goods the last few miles to their destination will be replaced by small electric trucks, electric vans and electric bicycles.
We’re already starting to see light items like pizzas, take out, and flowers delivered by bicycle. An electric bicycle can tote 500lbs even uphill. Freight delivered by rail will be unloaded by electric forklifts onto large electric trucks to warehouses that will later load onto small electric delivery trucks.
Oil (diesel) used to transport low-value, heavy items, especially liquids like soda pop and bottled water, will be replaced by nothing.
People will make their own soda and/or get a water filter. The good news is locally brewed beer will become quite economic. Perhaps even local soda fountains will spring up again.
Oil, electricity and natural gas used to dig up, transport, and process fossil fuels will be replaced by nothing.
How low can our EROEI ratios go? Some people believe it takes at least 6:1 to provide enough energy surplus for civilization to work. Right now EROEI is 6 or 7:1 for solar pv,18-20:1 for wind, and 5:1 for nuclear energy. (EROEI is rising for solar as the technology matures.) Tar sands and fracked tight oil both take a lot of energy to produce. Both have an EROEI around 5:1.
Oil (bunker fuel) used to power ships will be replaced by a combination of rigid sails, solar power, and hydrogen fuel cells.
It takes more energy to produce hydrogen as a stored fuel than you get from the fuel, so a hydrogen fuel cell is not a fuel source but rather just a big battery. But ships could load on enough hydrogen at ports to get them across the ocean in a reasonable amount of time. As fuel costs rise, there is also likely to be just less overseas shipping altogether as local production of goods will outweigh labor price arbitrage between rich and poor nations.
Oil and natural gas used to grow corn for ethanol won’t be replaced.
Oil and natural gas used to grow corn for animal feed and soda pop mostly won’t be replaced.
Oil and natural gas used to grow grains that are turned into processed food with little or no nutrition but that contain lots of obesity-making calories won’t be replaced.
|China added a record 12GW of solar capacity in 2013.|
Coal used to create electricity will be replaced by renewables.
This will happen even in China. The question is will it happen quickly enough. The US can hardly pressure/negotiate with China to reduce carbon emissions if we won't agree to do so ourselves. The good news is that China finally seems to be a teensy bit concerned that the air in Beijing is thick enough to cut with a fork and knife.
As outlined for natural gas, coal to generate electricity will be replaced in states with great sun and onshore wind first, states with offshore wind second, and states that love their coal industry last. Already the cost of shipping coal is higher than the cost of the coal itself for some states in the South. The cost of delivered coal nearly doubled between 2004 and 2011, and coal-burning power plants are under pressure because of the toxic substances and particulate matter they produce, as well as the greenhouse gases. The big coal burning states left are: PA, IL, IN, MI, OH, WI, IA, KS, MO, NE, ND, FL, GA, WV, AL, KY, TN, AR, OK, TX, AZ, CO, and WY. If you live in any of these 23 states, your electricity system has a lot of change ahead of it but the end result will be better for your lungs.
Coal, natural gas and oil used to power waste will not be replaced.
It would, of course, be quite expensive to replace all our current energy use with renewables over such a short time span. The good news is that we don’t have to—we only need to replace about half, since the rest of our energy consumption is largely waste in one form or another and much of it is easy to reduce. Admittedly waste is in the eye of the beholder, but other countries that arguably have higher standards of living than we do already manage to use half the energy per person as the US, showing that we have a great deal of energy fat we can burn off without much harm.
--Square feet of living space per person drop from 1000 back to 500
--Vehicle miles traveled per capita drop from 9400 to 4000
--Vehicles per household drop from 1.86 to .56
--the percent of households with one or fewer vehicles will climb from 40% to 90%
--areas with more than 50 days/year of +105 temps or thirty days/year of +115 temps largely abandoned
--many coastal areas that have already experienced flooding due to storm surges largely abandoned or repurposed to wetlands and/or barrier islands
--most current trucks, SUVs and vans become recycled steel
--LED street lamps and bulbs
--elimination of most paid storage/self-storage units
--smaller refrigerators (16 cubic feet or less)
--resurgence of preserving, pickling and canning
--trips under a mile routinely walked
--trips under three miles routinely walked/biked/taken by transit
--3/4ths of all trips will be under three miles
--90% of trips by means other than personal car
--less in the way of imported foods
--seasonal, locally produced fruits and vegetables
--home and community food gardens (see great Guerilla Gardening video below!)
--home and community food gardens (see great Guerilla Gardening video below!)
--truck farms and greenhouses again outside every major city
--food waste reduced from 40% to 5%
--much less beef consumed and less meat in general
--elimination of surface parking lots from most cities
--most strip malls abandoned or redeveloped with housing, ground floor retail and no parking lot
--most things in your home that now say “Made in China” produced locally (and cost twice as much) or not available at all
--resurgence of intergenerational households
--most fast food, if it exists, will be local. National chains will dry up due to economics and distribution problems.
--Few ultra low cost national retail chains for the same reason.
--more small businesses and small business owners
--more repair shops for things we now throw away when they get old/break (watches, shoes, appliances)
|Almost a lost art.|
--30% of US population employed in manufacturing or agriculture (up from 16.5% now)
--9% of population employed in retail or food services (down from 17% now)
--5% of population employed in healthcare (down from 10% now)
--small towns connected by rail to larger population centers doing quite well
--fewer second homes/vacation homes or even separate retirement communities
--Las Vegas? It could disappear, or it could be retained as the one insane, ridiculously extravagant, energy-guzzling reminder of what we once were. (Nevada has little water but it does have excellent solar.) I’ll let you decide.
--much less in the way of cheap plastic stuff from China
--3/4ths reduction in non-nutritional calories consumed
--1/2 reduction in money spent on health care (not through Obamacare—real healthcare reform is still ahead of us)
--2/3rds reduction in money spent on higher education
--3/4ths reduction in golf courses (they will make excellent spots for local permaculture)
--1/2 reduction in money spent on defense
--1/2 reduction on money spent by the federal government overall
So by 2020 most people reading this article today will have a different form of space and water heating, will not use a personal car for most trips, will live within five miles of some kind of light or heavy rail (either by moving or by rail extending to them), will live within three miles of a store(s) that provide most of their provisions, and will grow some of their own food. They will get on a plane no more than once a year, if that. Some of their transportation will be powered by a lithium ion battery. Half will have solar PV and/or solar hot water panels on their rooftops. Sounds like a lot of change indeed.
|300K RVs=how many solar panels?|
And then there's all the money we spend on health care--close to 20% of every dollar spent in America! It is a hellacious amount of money, and all we have to show for it is a population of whom 70% are in chronic poor health. If we simply designed thirty minutes of walking into daily life and junk food disappeared, we could cut health care spending in half, people wouldn't need 2/3rds of the medical procedures, test or drugs they take, and Americans would be a great deal happier and healthier than they are today.
|This is insane.|
I know that most Americans (98%?) will think what I’m talking about here is nuts. Americans will never agree to such lifestyle changes so they simply won’t happen. Somehow someone will figure something out (!), and our energy-slurping, carbon-spewing way of life will continue blithely on. To those folks, I am an off-the-charts doomer whose negativity is at best un-American and possibly dangerous. I should stop ruminating on these matters and dose myself heavily with Xanax.
A small (<1?) percent of the population who, through examination of the data, have become fatalistic about peak oil and/or climate change will think I
am far too optimistic. From their perspective there is no way to achieve a civilization that operates within the planet’s ability to sustain us, or even if there might be, energy will run out and/or the climate will clobber us before we can develop it. These folks are certain near-term extinction, or at least total societal collapse and massive depopulation, is a done deal. Baked in the cake. Therefore it's not worth any effort to prevent what can't be prevented. Compared to these folks, I am a pie-in-the-sky rainbow and unicorn fantasist who should realize all her ideas about how to produce enough renewable energy to power a civilization are futile, perky, and annoying. But no one can be 100% certain that human beings face extinction in the next fifty years regardless of what we do now. Given the stakes--societal collapse and billions of deaths, many of people who haven't even been born yet--we all have a moral obligation to at least try to avert the worst, even if we believe the probability of success is very slight.
Note: if you want to understand more about oil price dynamics, this video is a great investment of your time: