Welcome. I am the author of Universal Time, a sci-fi urban comedy;
Beaufort 1849, an historical novel set in antebellum South Carolina;
and Pearl City Control Theory, a comedy of manners set in present-day San Francisco.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Pluses and Minuses of Electric Bikes

Wild for e-bikes (The Economist)
Electric-assist bicycles are outselling electric cars. This is happening by a small margin in the US and by a huge margin in Europe, 62 to1. Worldwide last year (taking into the account the Chinese) the ratio of electric bikes sold to electric cars was 244 to 1. In China there are now more e-bikes on the road than all cars (electric or regular) put together.

I think this is great. E-bikes take far less energy and materials to produce than electric cars, they need far smaller batteries, and they consume far less energy per mile of travel. Of course the energy per mile required varies depending on how much the rider pedals, but even if the rider doesn’t pedal at all, the amount of mass being moved is roughly 7% of the mass of the same rider in a small car. Electric assist bikes require 40 – 70 BTUs of energy per mile while a small electric car requires 1200. (An average internal-combustion-powered car requires over 4000 BTUs per mile.)

Easier to bike in heels than walk in them. (Currietech.com)
Most states legally limit e-bikes to top speeds of 20 mph. Many e-bikes are limited through their electric controllers to 15 mph. Though some people worry about crazy, unlicensed e-bike riders, any two-wheeler that can go 30mph on flats without pedaling is not an e-bike—it’s an electric scooter. It is easy to create legislation that limits all e-bikes sold in a given state to top speeds of 15 mph, slower than your average twenty-something regular bicyclist. If your state hasn’t done this, your legislators should get to work.

My husband and I both have electric-assist bikes. They are great for zipping up and down the rather large hill we live on. We don’t ride them much because we enjoy riding our regular bikes more, but for grocery shopping my bike with an Xtracycle attachment cannot be beat. (It can carry five bags of groceries. Uphill. With no sweat.) It also on occasion transports children, even large, teen-sized ones.

Goddess-like SUV of bikes

My husband uses his electric bike to dash to the store or to pick up Chinese takeout on a day when he’s already biked a ton and wants to take it easy. (Again, we live on a big, big hill.) Having the two e-bikes and a membership in a carshare program gave us the confidence to drop down from two cars to one, a step that, at this point, has saved us tens of thousands of dollars. While access to carshare has proven handy, after four years we find we use our e-bikes a hundred times more.

An electric-assist fundamentally helps you fight gravity. Riding an electric-assist bike means you are guaranteed not to arrive sweaty at your destination. It makes transporting heavy things easy. It takes you up hills without panting. I find the boost in acceleration also allows me to spend less time in intersections, places bicyclists are most at risk. And when you’re just feeling tired and/or lazy, an electric-assist bike can keep you out of your car because, except in a full downpour, it’s truly as easy as driving. For short trips it’s usually faster. Plus, an e-bike is fun the same way riding a bike is fun, especially if you can ride on quiet streets away from car traffic.  When you have the motor on, it makes a quiet hum and you feel as if a gentle hand is pushing you along. On it you breathe fresh air, you see the sky, trees and birds, you experience your city or town in a different way. It offers a far richer sensory experience than being inside any car does.

But there are drawbacks. After four years riding an electric-assist bicycle, I think I’m qualified to enumerate them.

1)   Riding an electric-assist bike provides less exercise than a regular bike. This is why I began to ride mine less and less. Let’s be clear—an electric-assist bike provides way, way, way more exercise than driving a car (which basically requires zero.) And it does depend on how much you pedal. But I estimate on my electric bike I get two-thirds less exercise than on my regular one. I pedal constantly on my electric bike and use the motor only when I’m fighting gravity—going up a hill or accelerating from a stop. I can generally keep my quite heavy bike in motion on the flats without the motor at all. Still, it is fighting gravity on a bicycle that requires the effort and provides the exercise. So when you use a motor instead of your own effort for this, it just doesn’t have the same exercise effect.
Gorgeous but not cheap (Faraday Porteur)
An electric-assist bike is four to five times the cost of a regular bike. For $500 you can get a pretty nice regular bike. A decent electric bike that won’t fall apart in a year will cost more between $1500 and $3000. Both kinds of bikes will require yearly maintenance—a bicycle around $50 - 100, an e-bike around $100 -150? (Depends how many miles you put on your bike as to how much maintenance you will need.) On my bike, after the second year my controller shorted out and I needed a new one. (Part of this may be due to the fact that my bike was creatively created out of a kit and may have been more prone to shorting due to bad San Francisco pavement than a better-designed bike.) That cost me $300. After year 3, I needed a new battery. That cost me $800. The good news is in those three years, battery technology improved, and I got a bigger, more powerful battery that was roughly the same size and weight of my previous battery. My husband also had to replace the battery on his electric bike after three years. Better battery technology in the future may extend battery life, but I would say right now count on replacing the battery every three years. The good news is that brushless electric motors tend to have very little go wrong and should last a long, long time.
3)   Electric-assist bikes are heavier than regular bikes. My electric-assist is a whopping 80 lbs, but that’s because I have a heavier-than-average bicycle with an Xtracycle attachment on it. Most e-bikes are 40 to 50 lbs while regular bikes weigh 25 – 30 lbs. This means you cannot carry an e-bike easily up a set of stairs, onto trains, hoist it onto the top of a two-tier bike rack, or put it on a bike carrier on the back of your car. (My husband’s ebike does fold up and fits in the rear of our hatchback car.) Though I don’t like to carry my regular bike up and down flights of stairs, I can do it. With an e-bike there’s no way.
4)   The bigger the investment, the more worry about it being stolen. However, right now it is far easier to fence regular bikes than e-bikes, so I would say regular bikes are more vulnerable for the time being.
Bike that bridge
5)   You cannot go infinitely far on an electric bike before you run out of juice. My bike has a range of 10 – 11 miles. Most e-bikes have a range of 15 – 20. (Their published, theoretical ranges may be higher than what you experience in reality, and certainly higher than what you will experience after a year of use!) On a regular bike, I’ve been known to go 44 miles in a day, though this is certainly not usual for me. However, even if I just want to go from my house in San Francisco to Sausalito for brunch, taking an e-bike is not an option unless I want to also bring the charger and then go hunt/beg for an electrical outlet.
(Mark Markovich, BikePortland.org)
Some regular bike riders resent electric-assist bikes. (This is less true if you are older and they figure you have an excuse.) When I ride my regular bike, I have a twinge of this—just sheer envy as the person on an e-bike pulls away from the green light faster than me. Rather than feel grateful the person is not spitting out poisonous exhaust fumes or mashing me into a pulp as they turn right without looking, I feel resentment that the rider is cheating on the communal fight against gravity. This is silly. Anyone on a regular bike has much in common with someone an e-bike. Both are equally vulnerable to car traffic, both have every reason to want good bicycle infrastructure, and both are transporting themselves in ways that don’t damage the environment.

For us aging boomers
In general, if you are in decent health, under 65 and live somewhere without big hills, I would say an e-bike isn’t worth the extra cost and hassle. Regular bikes are very easy to ride except on steep hills, and, if you go slowly enough, take no more exertion (or sweat) than a pleasant walk. However, if right now you are limited from riding a bicycle due to health issues, hills, or you really cannot arrive at your destination with even a drop of perspiration, then an electric-assist bike might really be great for you. If balance or other issues prevent you from riding a bicycle, an electric-assist three-wheeler might open up the world in a way you never thought possible. Read this review from an amputee.

Forty percent of all trips made in the US are under two miles in length. Currently Americans drive 2/3rds of all trips under two miles. (American even drive 60% of trips under 1 mile!) Two miles on an e-bike takes ten minutes. Unless you live on a 55 mph highway, two miles in your car probably takes between eight minutes and twelve. Seriously. Time it next time from your house to the store and see how long it takes. (Include parking time.) For short trips, an e-bike is as fast and convenient as a car.

The world is changing. Gasoline will get more expensive, and energy in general will be getting more expensive per BTU for reasons I describe here. More and more communities are building bike lanes and bike paths. Cities are getting denser and so driving a car in them will only get more difficult (as I describe here.) Climate change means we can’t keep burning fossil fuels. An electric bicycle can be the way you address all these issues, get more exercise, and improve your health to boot. Plus, if you can replace car trips or even downsize a car by relying on an e-bike instead, you will save a great deal of money--$5000-$8000 per year (this is after factoring in e-bike costs). And if there is a gasoline shortage for any reason, you are home free.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Disappearing Urban Car (Why Successful Cities Will Be Largely Car-free by the End of 2015)

In Part One of this series, It’s the Energy!, we examined how US per capita total energy consumption has been dropping and will drop further over the next three years. In addition, I proposed that US oil energy use will somehow drop 32% by the end of 2015 without car mileage improving or gas prices rising much above $5 a gallon.

How could this possibly happen?

Reduction of per capita oil consumption will occur through extensions of trends that are already in progress, if we have the eyes to see them. Below is the pertinent list. I will * the trends already happening in the US, and I will # the ones I currently see happening all around me, especially in San Francisco, but also in the greater Bay Area.

1. Gas consumption will decline because vehicle miles traveled (VMT) per person will drop. *
  2. Vehicle miles traveled will drop somewhat due to lower VMT/vehicle, but more due to fewer vehicles per person. *

3.     Improved fuel economy of the US vehicle fleet will not factor into reduced oil use much at all. Though it may seem extraordinary, per the EIA, average fuel economy of all classes of vehicles in the US (cars, SUVs, heavy trucks—you name it!) has gone down the last three years, not up, even with gas prices doubling. As a nation we appear utterly incapable of driving fuel-efficient cars. *

4.    Average age of cars will continue to increase. (It's currently close to 11.3 years for cars and light trucks. That's up from 11.1 in 2012.) As real incomes decline for the bottom 80%, and car-related expenses increase as a percentage of household expenditures, few will be able to afford an electric or any other kind of new car. The price of used cars will rise and become prohibitive for many. (Between 2007 and 2012, the average price of a used car rose 33% to $8,495. The average price of a new car the same period rose 9%, to 30,545.) *
5.    Even if multitudes could afford electric cars, no more than 10% of the US vehicle fleet will be electric by 2015 because not enough additional electricity will be available nor will the US electrical grid be capable of delivering it if it were. Electric cars make up less than ½ of a percent of vehicles in the US right now. * (See note about electric cars at end of post.)
6.  Vehicle miles traveled will decline and vehicles per person will decline because people, especially those under 35 (a generation that has declining realhousehold income and heavy student loan debt), will move to cities where they can live well without a car or with limited car use.  *
7.     Millenials, the generation born between 1978 and 1995, are already the generation least likely to own cars or even be licensed to drive. (This trend will accelerate.) This generation is also the one most concerned about climate change, possibly because they are certain to suffer its impacts. By the end of 2015, Millennials will constitute 36% of eligible voters and one third of actual voters. Their values, needs and desires will take precedence. *
8.   Cities that currently have at least a core area with population density over 10,000/sq mile and some sort of light rail and bicycle infrastructure will attract most of those who wish to live well without a car. Sprawling cities and cities where the only form of transit is buses will attract comparatively fewer. Cities where car-driving is mandatory will likely lose population. *
9.     Housing values will hold up better in cities and towns with access to light rail than those without. *
10. People moving to cities where they can live well without a car will cause the population density in those cities to rise by 20 – 30% in a very short span of time. This will happen through creation of new housing, more people living per household, and current housing creatively offering more housing. (Garages and in-law units turned into apartments, etc.) *

11. Car-enthusiast baby boomers will die off and will be replaced each year in the adult ranks by Millennials who would rather go without a car than without their cell phone or computer. * (There are already 6.5 million more 20 – 35 year olds than there are 60+ year olds.)
12. Owning a car will increase poverty in households with incomes under $20K and cause severe financial stress in households with incomes between 20-30K. # (There will actually be a term for this, “Car-Induced Poverty.”)
13. More people each year will choose smaller living space, a walkable community and the ability to be car-free over larger living quarters in a car-dependent, long-commute suburb. #
14. Car-free individuals and households will have more disposable income to spend in their local economy. (84% of car-related expenditures leave the local economy. One-to-five-year-old cars cost $9100/year to own and operate. Even a ten-year-old car costs $4-6000/year, depending on location.) *
15. Car-free people are more inclined than car drivers to shop locally, improving local economies of car-light cities and neighborhoods. #
16. Car-light city neighborhoods will have a more vibrant local economy than car intensive neighborhoods, with more foot traffic, less crime, and busier stores, cafes, and restaurants. #
17. Malls and strip malls accessible only by car will continue to fare poorly due to the dropping disposable income of their customer base as well as from losing market share to on-line shopping. Vacancy rates at strip malls and shopping malls only accessible by car will continue to rise. Many will close altogether. *
18. In suburbs and cities that are car-based and far removed from dense population centers housing values will drop, crime rates will rise, and city governments will be hard-pressed to provide basic community services such as police and fire. #
19. As car ownership levels decline, taxis, car-sharing, transit, and trains will replace many urban car trips. In addition many novel forms of ride-sharing will spring up. #
San Francisco Corporate shuttle map (Stamen.com)
20. As car ownership levels decline and city densities increase, large employers not located in dense cities will offer free corporate buses to shuttle city-living employees to and from work. #  (Quite a few of these roll past my front door each day.)
21. As city densities increase, bike and walking will replace many car trips. #  (Though public transit is more energy efficient than private cars, the greatest drop in transportation energy consumption occurs when people live close enough to goods and services to make these trips by foot or bike.) #
22. As cities grow in density, they will offer convenient bikeshare stations to increase trips by bicycle. In addition many small and medium-sized deliveries will be made by electric-assist bicycle. * (Because each transit trip is subsidized 20 – 75%, cities will have huge incentives to encourage biking and walking. Both lower health care costs, take little space, and cost governments almost almost nothing.)
23. People who strongly value a car-dependent lifestyle will move to the suburbs where housing is cheaper and driving is less difficult. (The money they save on housing they will spend on their car.) #
24. People who are happy to live without cars will move to cities and take their place. # (Right now it is already often cheaper for moderate income renters to live in expensive cities without a car than in cheaper places with one.)
25. People living in cities will live in less square footage that they have to heat and light, so their non-transportation energy consumption will also be lower. *
26. As cities grow in density, there will be even less space available for cars and car-related infrastructure. #
Used to sell autos here.  (sf.curbed.com)
27. As demand for city living increases, space-consuming car infrastructure (such as parking lots, gas stations, auto dealerships, auto repair shops, even freeways and parking garages) will be replaced with multi-story housing over ground floor retail. #
28. As cities grow in density, initially there will be increased car congestion, increased pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities from cars, increased difficulty parking, and increased driver resentment of other modes of transportation. Increased road congestion will slow surface-level transit down, increasing frustration of transit riders and increasing transit costs. Increased use of transit will make transit more crowded and unpleasant. This will be temporary. #
29. As cities grow in density, there will be a period of intense conflict between car-driving baby boomers and non-car driving millennials over use of roads and other public space.  # # #
30. As cities grow in density, eventually demand for wider sidewalks, bike lanes and transit-only lanes will force cities to convert car parking and car travel lanes to other transportation uses. Cities (and regions with transit) will also inevitably respond to increased transit demand by expanding transit both in terms of hours (running later at night), frequency, and capacity. #
Car space into human space (SF Planning Dept.)
31. As cities grow in density, demand for public open space will force cities to convert car parking and street space into pedestrian plazas and parklets. #
32. As cities grow in density, eventually they will severely discourage (through reduced parking, high parking prices and general PR campaigns) people from suburbs bringing cars to the city.  (At first this will just be apparent during “special” events.) #
33. As cities grow in density, it will make less sense to facilitate cars cutting through the city center on their way to some place else. #
34. As cities grow in density, eventually they will regulate parking stringently in high congestion areas so as to discourage car use in and to those destinations. #
35. Not only car-light cities will prosper, but also towns that have still have some sort of main street with shops and a fair amount of housing within walking distance may also regain prominence, especially if they are on some kind of rail line. Towns with no demographic center (but consist of sprawl laced with car-dependent shopping malls and strip malls) and are connected to other towns/cities only by freeway, will whither. #

This is not to say all people will move to cities. By no means. The vast majority will stay where they are. Some people will perhaps sell their little-used third car, some might cancel the annual road trip. Some may start commuting by transit to work but that option is unavailable right now to many.  By far most Americans will continue to lead the car-based lifestyle that's been integral to US culture for the past 50 years. However, if even 2% of our population wants to live a car-free lifestyle, it will send density in the cities where this is possible shooting skywards. The cities in the US likely to enjoy this kind of success are few. They are ones that already have a population density of at least 10,000 – 15,000/sq mile in some part of their urban core, and also already have some kind of rail/light rail infrastructure. (Bike infrastructure is quick to build, rail less so.) In Europe this would describe almost every city over 200K in population, but in the US I would guess it includes maybe only a dozen. These are the ones that will blossom impressively by the end of 2015. Their scarcity is why it will happen so quickly.

Convenient car-free living takes a population density of roughly 20,000/sq mile. But this kind of density doesn’t have to mean towering apartment buildings! In my experience it means neighborhoods that are comprised of 2/3rds two and three story single-family row houses with small gardens in back, and 1/3rd 3-4 story apartment buildings and three-unit condo buildings. This housing generally surrounds a denser four or five block shopping street that is the neighborhood center. Most of the population in neighborhoods of this density is within a fifteen minute walk of the essential goods and services they need for everyday life. This seems to be a necessary (though perhaps not sufficient) condition for people to be car-free with ease.

So let’s get back to my rather astonishing claim, that by the end of 2015 successful cities will be largely car-free. What do I mean by a successful city?  I mean one with a vibrant economy filled with energetic, creative, healthy, employed people. Granted, if the US economy goes entirely down the tubes, not even car-free cities will be protected, but they have a much better chance than energy-slurping suburbs.

What do I mean by largely car-free? This gets trickier.  I define it as 90% of streets will have less than one car pass per minute. More than 50% of residents will not own a car, and less than 20% of households will own more than one car. (These numbers will vary by neighborhood given its proximity to the city’s density center. There will be more car ownership in the periphery than at the core.) There will be half the cars parked on the street that there are now. Most neighborhood shopping districts will have sidewalks wide enough to accommodate double the pedestrians they do now, and little space for cars beyond a few spots for the elderly and disabled. Neighborhood streets will have speed limits 20 mph or lower and so little traffic that parents won’t worry about children walking and biking to school. Few cars will travel to the downtown core because parking will be so expensive and transit more convenient. People commuting from outside the city will primarily take transit due to convenience, lower cost and lack of parking in the city. The people that have cars in the city will use them primarily for trips outside the city. 

You may think this is a quite stretch for these dozen cities by the end of 2015. You may doubt a prediction so fantastical could materialize anytime soon. I guess it depends on whether you think the host of trends I've delineated will more likely intensify or suddenly reverse themselves. We’ll see.

Even past 2015 not everyone is destined to live in a city. Some self-reliant types will be quite happy to hunker down in their rural outpost, perhaps only travelling to town once a week. These folks will no doubt rig up solar panels, convert their truck to run on biodiesel and do quite well. Others will be gainfully employed farming and will eventually come up with an electric truck to bring their goods to market. And market towns on rail lines should enjoy quite a renaissance. (As a general rule, if a town existed a hundred years ago, it probably has a reason to exist the next hundred.) Again, not even car-dependent suburbs will go away or transform by 2015. That will take at least a decade longer. But current trends already in place suggest that by 2015, many Americans, mostly the younger ones, will indeed learn to live more densely, to move long distances by rail, and to make short trips by bike and foot. And they will be happier, healthier and wealthier as a result.

Note about electric cars:
If all US vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in 2012 were magically converted into small electric car miles (no electric SUVs, trucks, or sedans!) these small electric cars would require roughly 1200 BTUs per mile. Multiplying this by 2012 US VMT gives us 3.53 quads of BTUs. But because there are so many BTU losses in electrical production and transmission, 11 or so quads of energy would have to be inputted into our electrical system to get those 3.53 out. If we want to mix larger electric cars/vans/trucks into the mix, we’ll have to add at least another 30%, putting us at 14 quads of BTUs. Given total US electricity production is currently around 40 quads of BTUs, this might not seem difficult. But our old, rickety, poorly maintained electrical grid cannot transmit 35% more electricity without serious upgrades which have not yet been speced out or funded, and so are unlikely to happen by 2015. In addition, as discussed in part 1, our use of natural gas and coal (combustion of both currently the main source of our electricity) will likely decline by 20% by 2015. This will put substantial pressure on electricity consumption even before we add in extra demand by electric cars. In addition, as diesel gets scarce there will be increased demand for electricity to power public transportation. Where is the electricity for personal cars to come from? We may well get to the point that anyone purchasing an electric car will need to verify that they’ve installed home solar panels capable of powering said car.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

(It's the Energy!) Why Successful Cities Will Be Largely Car-free by the End of 2015

I realize this is a big, big claim to make. But we will go through all the factors step by step and see that it is the logical conclusion after taking into account trends already under way all around us. These trends are sometimes obvious, sometimes less so,  but the impact they will have on demographics and energy use by 2015 are enormous. (Note: almost all the energy production data I will reference comes from the US Energy Information Administration.)

The first trend, the big kahuna of them all, although largely unpublicized, is that US energy consumption per person is dropping. And it’s going to drop more. Take all the BTUs of energy a country consumes (from whatever source—petroleum, coal, natural gas, nuclear, or renewables), add them all together, and divide by the population that year. For the US, we get:

Though there have been more downs than ups since 1973, per capita energy use (in red) in the US has been dropping rapidly since 2004. In 2012 we used 11% less energy per person than we did eight years ago. I’ve also included the subsets of oil btu/capita (blue) and transport oil btu/capita (green). Both measures were stable for much of the 1990s and have also been dropping since 2004. 2012 was another large drop for all three measures, 3% for each in one year.

How can this be?  We’re producing more oil in the US than ever, right? Well, the “oil” we’re producing contains ever-lessening amounts of energy because much of it isn’t actually oil, it’s natural gas liquids or ethanol or condensate that all have lower BTU content than crude. And we have a growing population, so each year it all gets divided over more people. As to total energy, our use of natural gas is rising, but not as much as our coal use is dropping.

But isn’t this good news? Doesn’t this mean we’re getting more efficient with our energy? Well, yes and no.

The US is a big gobbler of energy, one of the biggest in the world.  Here’s a chart of US and some comparison countries per capita BTU:

I used the 2012 US number because that makes us look better. For the other countries, 2011 is the latest data available.

Such wide variations in energy use! In general, countries that use below 100 BTUs/person having been increasing their energy use. (Some are so low, their use can only rise.) In general, countries above 100 BTUs/person have been dropping, except those that are net exporters of energy. Not only do energy exporters tend to use a lot of energy (though I didn't include them in the chart, Saudi Arabia consumes 335 btus/person! Qatar—642! UAE—711!) their usage is, amazingly enough, increasing! The countries showing declining energy use are primarily the high-consuming net energy importers such as the US (as well as much of the rest of industrialized world.) We have to admit this is a trend towards fairness—the energy gluttons get a little less each year, and the energy impoverished get a little more. The world is still a long, long way from any kind of energy parity.

So US energy use is falling a few percent each year. No problem. It certainly doesn’t mean the American way of life will change any time soon. But it’s not just energy use that is falling, it’s the energy available after we use all the energy to extract/make/capture the energy that counts. That is what is available to you, me and the guy behind the tree. What we might call society. And in the US, since the energy it takes to get our energy is increasing, the amount available for society is decreasing even more.

One way to tell is by looking at the percent of US energy consumed by the industrial sector. In 1973, this sector consumed 43% of all US energy. Then, as we offshored manufacturing, it dropped steadily until 2009. Now it is creeping back up, and it’s not because we’re making more cars than in 2007 (we’re not.) Roughly a quarter of all energy used by the industrial sector is used to extract and refine oil, coal and natural gas, and that percentage is creeping up because the EROEI (Energy Returned on Energy Invested--the ratio of the energy we gain from a source to the energy we expend to get that energy) of oil, coal and natural gas is falling. Long ago it took one barrel of oil to get 100. Now it takes one barrel of oil to get 10. This make sense—the easy-to-get stuff is what the energy companies went after first. As the easy stuff gets depleted, they go after the harder stuff, like offshore oil under a mile of water or tight oil that requires energy-intensive fracking. And this dropping EROEI phenomena is not only happening in the US, it’s happening all over the planet.

So from the American energy budget, 8.6% has to be subtracted because it goes into energy extraction and isn't available to society. This percent will increase each year as the EROEI of our fossil fuels sinks. In fact, when we take into account refining and extracting energy, the drop in US per capita energy use last year was 4% rather than 3%.

Now let’s consider the oil we import. In 2012, the US imported substantially less oil than in previous years. Good news! This is due, in part, to our producing more domestic oil, but also because we dropped our total oil per person, as we have ever since 2004. Still, in 2012 we imported 16.2 quadrillion BTUs of oil, or 45% of the all the oil energy we consumed. Now as oil-importers, we’re not concerned with the amount of oil the world produces, but, rather, how much oil is available for export. (Also, how much of that “oil” is actually crude, the high BTU stuff we want to buy.) The oil in the world available for export is shrinking, for three reasons: 1) Oil EROEI is dropping in other countries since they, too, went after the easy-to-obtain oil first; 2) the consumption of oil in oil-exporting countries is on the rise due to population growth in those countries and the demands for a higher energy lifestyle; and 3) a growing percentage of “oil” produced by oil exporters is natural gas liquids, not crude. The oil available globally for export increased by 1/2 of a percent between 2011 and 2012, and this was with record high world prices for oil. Moreover, this ½ of a percent was entirely due to Libya coming back on line with their oil production after their hiatus due to revolution. If Libya had produced as much oil in 2011 as it did in 2012, oil available for export in 2012 would have dropped by 1.4% compared to 2011. 

By 2015, due mostly to depletion but also due to rising consumption, quite a few countries will be leaving the elite oil-exporters club. They will include Denmark, Yemen, Syria, Cameroon, Congo (Kinshasha), Ivory Coast, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea and Argentina. Brazil flirted briefly with being in the club from 2008- 2011 but left the club in 2012. Vietnam left the club in 2011, Egypt in 2010, the UK in 2006, Indonesia in 2004, Tunisia in 2000. (Remember, once a country leaves this club, it almost never goes back. Instead it generally joins our club, the oil-importing one, a club that is getting crowded and competitive!)

After examining production and consumption statistics of each oil-exporting country and conservatively extrapolating out current trends, (see this post for what's going on in Europe right now) I project that in 2015 there will be 11 percent less crude oil available on the world market for export than in 2012. Here is the breakdown by continent. Remember, exports = production - internal consumption.

World Oil Available for Export (Years 2011, 2012 and 2015 Projection)(thousand barrels/day)

Reason for change
North America
(Mexico drop)
Central/S America
(Venezuela and Ecuador drop)

(Denmark and Norway drop)

(Azerbaijan, Kazahstan and Russia drop)
Middle East

(Iran rise, rest drop)

(Libya and Sudan rise, Algeria, Angola, Nigeria drop)
(Brunei drop)



No big deal, you might say. That’s only 4.6 or so million barrels less of oil a day. There will still be 39.5 million available! (90% of it will be crude.) But we must consider who besides us will want that 39.5 million barrels/day.

If we extrapolate past oil imports and population growth rates, we get 2012 oil import consumption that will turn into 2015 oil import demand along these lines (million barrels/day):

China   5.6-->6.5
India    2.5-->2.9
Africa  1.6-->2.5
Asia/Oceana  12.2-->14.5
Europe  12.5-->12.0
Cen/S America  1.4-->2.5
Mexico/Canada 0-->0

Total 35.8 (2012) --> 40.9 (2015)

This total oil import demand of 40.9 is just a little over the 39.5 million barrels/day of world oil exports predicted. Not too bad. Seems like it should just about work out.

Wait a minute! We forgot the US! Last year we imported 7.45 million barrels of crude oil per day! Where is that 7.45 going to come from? Which countries and/or continents are going to slash their oil budget so we can get ours?

This is the time to remember that most of the world is using far less oil per person than we are, and they use the oil they do get far more productively. Also remember that Asia has very little oil of its own and must import almost all they use. Our 7.45 million barrels of imported oil is going to drop, by my estimate to 3.3 million barrels/day, and not through a miraculous improvement in the gas mileage of the American fleet of cars. Which country or continent will make do with less to give us our 3.3 million barrels, I can only speculate. The world price of oil may rise a little to make this redistribution happen, but for reasons I discuss later, I don’t think it’ll have to rise too far, maybe only to $5 a gallon to get the US to drop its consumption the necessary amount.

There are other energy headwinds facing us, too. Energy from domestic oil, while not taking the same nosedive as imported oil, is likely to contract due to declining EROEI, higher levels of condensate and NGLs in our oil supply, and the high depletion rate of fracked wells. (The Red Queen effect.) While I would like to think ethanol’s nonsensical EROEI will doom it, it is more likely Midwest drought that will make the ethanol mandate go away, maybe as early as this summer, but at least by 2014. (Ethanol right now is 17% cheaper per volume than gasoline, but has 34% less energy. In addition, it takes as much fossil fuel energy to produce as it replaces. As soon as the mandate goes away, corn-based ethanol goes away.)

Natural gas production is likely to fall slightly due to high well decline rates, falling EROEI, and to the boom and bust nature of the industry that is causing current natural gas production to lose money. (Natural gas needs to be at $5-$6 per 1000 cubic feet to break even. The current price is $4.) There are only 1/4th the natural gas rigs drilling wells as there were four years ago. I figure we’ll see declines in energy from natural gas until well into 2015 unless the US gets really serious about getting rid of coal. This would cause natural gas prices to shoot up and drilling to begin again in earnest.

Right now I project coal to only decline at its current rate of about 10% per year, though its EROEI will be creeping up as well. However, the second China gets serious about its terrible air pollution and decides to cut back its coal burning, it will be in China’s best interest to put intense pressure on all coal-using countries to address the impact of coal on climate change. If China turns this corner before 2015, our coal use could decline 20 or 30% per year.

Let’s hope drought doesn’t permanently put our hydroelectric in decline and that all our nuclear stays on line. (I am not a big fan of nuclear power and don’t endorse expanding it, but for now, I would say we need what we’ve got.) If we build out solar and wind only at the rate we’ve been the last few years, we won’t have installed enough to make much difference to our energy picture by 2015.

Putting this all together with a mild 0.7 percent US population annual growth rate, by 2015 we get an overall BTU/capita rate (in million of BTUs) of 239 (a 21% drop), a BTU/capita after mining/refining of 217 (a 25% drop), and an oil BTU/capita of 24 (a 32% drop.) 

What could make BTU/capita fall even more dramatically over the next three years?

1)   A hurricane destroys much of the refining and oil-drilling infrastructure in the Gulf of Mexico.
2)   Revolution in Iraq, or Libya, or Nigeria takes a couple million barrels of oil/day off line.
3)   Revolution in Mexico as their oil exports decline and a huge source of national income goes away.  This would take half a million (and falling) barrels of oil/day off line, but that’s half a million barrels that right now are pretty much dedicated to us. (Not to mention all the other ramifications of instability in Mexico.)
4)   Venezuela falls apart and takes 1.5 million barrels oil/day off line.
5)   Revolution in Saudi Arabia takes 8 million barrels/day off line.
6)   Drought in Canada severely reduces tar sand production.
7)   Drought in US severely reduces fracking production. (Tar sands and fracking use lots of water.)
8)   A climate disaster of biblical proportions frightens world governments (including China) to end coal use and begin to limit oil use.
9)   Enough mild but costly climate disasters (on the order of Hurricane Sandy last November) occur that governments begin to negotiate a real climate treaty with carbon emission limitations for each country.
10)An earthquake in the US takes out a major nuclear reactor, creating nuclear contamination severe enough we would be panicked into shutting down all US nuclear reactors.

Granted, none of these are highly probable (although Iraq and Libya have already had their turns off line.) But when you put enough low probability events together, the odds of at least one occurring start getting good. And remember, we will have a 32% drop in oil energy without any of the above occurring. With any of the above, the change will be on the order of shock and awe.

What could keep US btu/capita from falling by 2015? 
1)   A new Saudi Arabia could be found to add 8 million barrels of oil to the world export pool. (Highly unlikely.)
2)   We could build out wind, geothermal and solar at 50 times the rate we are today, which would come close to producing enough BTUs to replace the fossil fuel ones we’re going to lose. (Possible, but unlikely.)
3)   A tidal wave could swallow half of Asia, which will allow us to scoop up their share of oil consumption. Or maybe a meteor could take out Europe. Or . . . or . . .
4)   That’s about it.

I know some people have their hopes pinned on thorium as the wonder nuclear pill the world just needs to swallow. I’ll just point out that not a single thorium prototype reactor has been built in the US, nor have any full-scale thorium reactors been designed and approved. Nor have any communities in the US agreed to host one. So it is impossible that even a single full scale thorium reactor will be on line by 2015, much less the 200 or so we would need to make a material difference to our near-term energy scenario.

So what does this mean for cities? We’ll look at that in part 2 of this post, The Disappearing Urban Car.