We Can Do This The Hard Way, or The REALLY Hard Way

Richard Heinberg, senior fellow at the Post Carbon Institute, spoke to a full house of Portlanders on the 22nd of February, updating Illahee’s 2006 series on peak oil. If you were expecting good news, you were disappointed. Most of us know world oil production has leveled off the past three years. This plateau preceded the recession, so forget the economic argument that it’s demand-driven. It’s just geological reality.

So what’s new in the peak energy world? A couple of things.

First, we’re headed toward peak everything. Peak gas will follow peak oil.  Then it’s on to peak coal sometime between 2025 and 2030. If we decide to go for nuclear power, well there’s only so much uranium in the ground, so that will peak sometime this century as well. Unless Bill Gates is right about using the more common uranium 238.

Second, if you look at all the potential energy resources (fossil and renewable), no combination of them provides a magic bullet. Either there just isn’t enough, or it’s in the wrong place, or it costs too much to extract, or it provides an inconvenient form of energy. Bottom line, you need to get at least five units of energy from a resource for every one unit of energy you use to extract and deliver that resource, and make a buck. Fossil fuels easily do that right now. Wind, solar and other renewables are borderline. And some fuels, like ethanol, just plain fail. Heinberg’s favorite “energy bridge:” conservation.

Third, as we ride down the back side of the peak energy curve, we’ll need to replace a lot of fossil fuel with renewables very quickly, just to keep civilization running. But we’re unlikely to scale up industrially to do the job.  We’re busy investing in other things, like military and social programs, and the national deficit. And private investment is about an order of magnitude too small at this point to do the job.  Maybe that will change.

Then there’s the Goldilocks dilemma. Cutting to the chase, energy needs to be priced high enough to attract investment, but not too high to depress the economy.  Sounds like simple supply and demand. But with a master resource like energy, it’s a more acute problem. When a master resource is in tight supply and there’s no replacement, you get price spikes. We’ve seen this in oil and natural gas. Have these spikes caused recessions? There’s a clear historical correlation, but causation is harder to prove. Heinberg made a good case that energy volatility at least contributes to recessions.

So, what to do? Your “remembered self” likely came away with a bottom line of: bad news, more bad news, economic collapse, enjoy the simple things (that’s all you’ll have). In other words, get ready for a rough transition. And in that spirit, Heinberg introduced the Transition movement. Hundreds of towns all over the planet are preparing for a post carbon world. It looks like a wrenching future if you’re used to going to the mall, or hopping on a plane to Vegas whenever you want.

But before getting to Transition, Heinberg briefly outlined a quadrant of possible responses to peak energy: top down, bottom up, planning, triage. Transition is basically bottom up / planning. Here’s the important thing that may have slipped through: Heinberg allowed that all four approaches will play a role in getting us to a post carbon future. Clearly the triage option is the REALLY hard way. But we can avoid that.

In conversations with various energy and community leaders while he was in Portland, Heinberg sounded hopeful and upbeat. So if you came away from this talk thinking we’re in for rough times, well you’re probably right. But know that the guy who gave you a low grade, long term ulcer is pretty bullish on our future.

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