Friday, June 19, 2009

Preparing for Life Without Oil ... on Helium.com

I wrote an article last night for this web site. The topic was "Preparing for Life Without Oil", and I wrote my article, because after reading the other articles, I felt a different perspective was needed.

This morning, my article is the top article (1 out of 5 ... but I'll take it ;), and I received an email response from someone who read my article who said, "Well written and good read. I have heard it said that a 100 square mile solar farm in Arizona or Nevada would supply entire US demand for electricity, also supposedly we are only ten years from usable fusion plants. Keep the faith."

First off, it was very cool to get a response. As I said in Phelan's comment section, *the* reason I continue to blog is the comments I get. It's how I know that someone is reading my drivel ... er, commentary :), and really, blogging is kind of like having a conversation. Without comments, I'm just talking to myself ... which I don't mind, so much, but sometimes it's good to hear another voice, too. You know?

I loved getting the feedback, but at the same time, I feel like I need to address what he said ... and I don't know how to send it directly to him. So, dear readers of Home Is, you'll have to suffer through it ;).

I would love nothing more than to be comforted by the knowledge that a 64,000 acre solar farm had been constructed in the southwest that would allow me to continue living my happy, fully-powered life. There are just a few problems with believing in this possibility.

First is the cost. If a solar array to power my home costs $20,000 (and that's using an average of 19 kWh per day - slightly less than the average US household), how much more would a system that is four times the land area of Maine's largest city cost? The US is, essentially, bankrupt, and if we're not bankrupt, we do owe so much money that it has become difficult for us to find places that will lend money to us, and the citzenry is tapped out. We, the People, don't have any more to give to our government for spending. So, the question is, who would pay to have this magnificent example of modern technological innovation built way out there in the desert?

The second problem has to do with delivery. From Flagstaff, Arizona to where I live in *southern* Maine is almost 3000 miles. Currently, my power comes from a number of different sources, including a nuclear power plant, a hydro power plant and MERC, which is a garbage incineration plant - all of which are located in Maine. Frankly, if we lose fossil fuels, Maine will still have *some* power, with or without the system proposed in the southwest, because we generate a small portion of our own power, BUT (... and there's always a "but", isn't there?), the issue is, how will they maintain all of those thousands and thousands of power lines? We already lose power, on average, once a year for an extended period (more than twenty-four hours) during winter storms. With more severe weather predicted as our global climate changes, the likelihood of weather-related power outages increases, especially when the power delivery system has to travel over such a great distance.

The third problem has to do with maintaining the power plant, itself, and without cheap oil to make the panels and manufacture the batteries, I just don't see how something that enormous can be maintained. It would be 64000 ACRES, or 100 SQUARE MILES. Without our "modern" way of getting from one end of the farm to the next quickly, it could take days ... or even weeks, to fix a problem.

The final issue has to do with vulnerability. If the US is wholly powered with a single system of shiny solar panels (like a beacon in the desert, perhaps?), how likely is it that we'd end up in the dark sooner rather than later? Without going into a paranoid diatribe about "terrorists", the reality is that it is possible. The old adage about putting all of the eggs in one basket comes to mind.

Based on a lot of years of reading about alternatives, the best and only option I've found is to *use less* so that we don't need *as much*, which means that we will need to do a lot more stuff by hand than we've become accustomed to doing.

Frankly, that doesn't sound so bad to me.

And I wonder why so many other people have a death-grip on their appliances.

In case you're interested, here's the article:

Better, more informed writers than I have tackled the issue of Peak Oil preparedness. In fact, volumes have been written on the topic, and whole web sites devoted to helping others understand the myriad of changes that will occur as oil becomes more scarce and more expensive.

Having spent the better part of three years reading these sorts of materials, one fact has remained constant, and that is that there are no alternative energy sources that can take the place of cheap oil, and further, I have come to fully understand that technology will not save us.

The fact is that we are headed for a life in which we do not have access to as much energy as we have become accustomed to having. While it would be nice to think that I could still have my computer on all day, and use my electric stove, and enjoy my electric washing machine, and be able to plug my electric car into the outlet outside so that I can drive my children to their dance recitals, the fact is that all of the current technologies we have to generate electricity are heavily dependent on oil, and further, they are not as efficient or as cheap as oil.

When I first heard about peak oil and energy depletion, I figured we could just throw a couple of solar panels up on the roof and continuing living our charmed lives that is, until I did some research.

The first hurdle was the cost. To completely replace grid power, I would have to generate 18 to 20 kWh per day, and to be clear, my family uses about half the US average for electricity. A system that size would cost about $20,000. I could (have) financed it, but it would have cost more than I am currently paying for electricity.

The second hurdle is the longevity of a solar system. Or rather the lack, thereof. The life-expectancy of a PV system is about ten years. Our $20,000 system would not even be paid off when it needed to be replaced.

The third hurdle is the dependability of the system (or, again, lack thereof). Without a storage system, i.e. batteries, there would be a lot of times during the year when I just didn't have any power. Not to mention that batteries need to be maintained and replaced, as well, and also, the manufacture of batteries is highly dependent on - you guessed it - cheap oil.

We have these technologies now, because until 2008, oil was still relatively cheap in the United States (although in Germany in 1995, gasoline cost over $1 per litre, which works out to about $3 per gallon), but most of them are
still too costly for the average American to afford, and without cheap oil to manufacture these alternatives, in the face of energy depletion, there's little hope that all of us will be able to maintain what James Kunstler affectionately refers to as our "happy motoring lifestyle."

In the end, I decided that my best option was to take my chances with the grid, and in the meantime, instead of spending all of my money trying to maintain my unsustainable lifestyle, my dollars would be better spent in trying to reduce my own, personal, dependence on oil.

Admittedly, however, coming up with alternatives for all of the things for which we use electricity is quite daunting, but with very few exceptions, anything we use power for has a low-energy alternative.

The hardest appliance to consider alternatives for was our refrigerator. A good root cellar can do as good (if not better) a job of preserving most things. In fact, a lot of what we believe needs to be refrigerated, doesn't. Many of the things we keep in the freezer (like meat) are better preserved in another way. Dried meat certainly has an important place in the history of man, and canning is an art that definitely needs to make a comeback.

Other appliances, like the clothes washer and dishwasher can be replaced with a little bit of time and elbow grease, and it just doesn't make any sense to waste electricity drying clothes when a clothesline is both cheaper and more environmentally friendly.

The problem is that we, as a country, have invested billions of dollars in building an infrastructure that can not be sustained without cheap energy, but there is no comparable replacement for oil. It is very likely that in the very near future we will find ourselves with much less - much less of everything that is currently part of our oil-driven society - and it is in our best interest to start thinking of ways we can personally reduce the impact. As one peak oil author says, the lower our energy needs, the shorter a distance we will fall when the crash comes. If we're accustomed to using very little energy, when we have none, it won't be such a hardship, but if everything we do every day is saturated in oil, when that resource becomes scarce, we'll be in a world of hurt.

4 comments:

  1. This is why I consider myself in power down mode rather than replacing unsustainable practices.

    I'm still toying with letting go of the frig but not this year. I don't have a dishwasher, washing machine or dryer but I do have a spin dry which uses far less electricity than a clothing dryer but still takes a ton of water out of clothing. I could just use a wringer but honestly the spin dry is FAST and less dangerous.

    My two biggest electrical appliance hogs are the hot water heater currently located in our freezing cold basement and the kitchen range. I'd dearly love to change both of them out for power down types but it's hard to choose and the funds just aren't there right now.

    I found out that my electricity rate which is already very expensive (.175 cents KW) is scheduled to nearly double by 2012. I need to find solutions before then because I won't be able to afford that kind of a bill.

    Tough times might be what gets me off my keister and living frig free.

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  2. You're right, diversification is where it's at. I was saddened and somewhat amused at the statement of "where my energy comes from" statement that the Electric/Gas company is required to put into our statements once a year. Oooo....like .0000003% of my electricity comes from a hamster running on a wheel in Pennsylvania. The diversification is pathetic.

    One thing I would like to know more about--why is solar energy equipping so darn expensive. Is the technology really that new? Or is it perhaps a conspiracy by Big Power to keep diversification down?

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  3. none of the "alternatives" produces significant amounts of energy (especially when compared with the energy it takes to manufacture the alternative hardware -- like getting a more fuel efficient vehicle and all the manufacturing energy in that . . . blahblah) but it seems to me that people will always find it more attractive to forward a moveon e-mail about dirty energy than to actually use less themselves.

    speaking of which, my FIL gave me old National Geographics recently -- recently old ones -- and there was an article about three families trying to use less energy. All failed miserably. Yet not one thought or sentence was given in the article to changing lifestyles enough to not require cross country trips to visit family, or five people driving in different directions to work every day. And this from people aware of the problem and looking at the possibility of using less. . . .

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  4. disseminated power sources. solar on most of our homes would be nice. i say use up the rest of the fossil fuel to create the solar panels. can you think of a better use for it? once it's gone at least we'll have something for it;)

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