Planning for an Oil-Free World

Last week I saw the highest posted gasoline prices in my life – $1.429 per litre – and the sight made me think of how I felt when my dad took the training wheels off my bike as a kid. It was scary because riding without them seem impossible. A much larger version of this scenario is happening across the world energy scene right now, and it should prompt you to think about your home and how you prepare it for the future.

Sometime, over the next 20 or 30 years, the training wheels of crude oil will come off our world, and the planning we do today will determine if we ride off happily down the road, or wobble, fall and skin our knees. Sure, a commodity like oil will never disappear completely from the earth, but growing scarcity, rising demand, and the difficulty of extracting oil from ever more challenging locations will drive crude oil to become economically and environmentally impossible. This has already been going on for some time now, and it’s why gas costs 16 times more than when I was a kid in the Trudeau years.

If you’re skeptical that the end of oil is not only in sight but affecting you right now, read Jeff Rubin’s book Why Your World is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller. Rubin is a Toronto economist and I’ve mentioned his book before because it presents so much hard evidence that crude oil supplies are dwindling. I can’t imagine how anyone could reasonably argue for anything else. The question isn’t if oil will become too scarce and expensive to be practical, but when.

Although your home may or may not use crude oil products directly, the end of the oil age will redefine everything about modern life – including what constitutes a desirable home. These revisions will also change what people feel are desirable residential locations, alter the mechanics of how you get around, and shrink the size of the physical community you connect with. And all of these issues boil down to more or less the same thing. How little energy can you use and still stay happy?

All this has probably got you thinking of the promise offered by alternative energy technologies, and that’s a good thing. To a point. What most people fail to realize is that neither solar, wind, biomass nor biofuels offer the promise of the easily obtainable, highly concentrated, and conveniently portable energy source that crude oil has been up until now. In the good old days, you drilled a hole in the ground, and oil came bubbling up. For every one unit of energy we put into the process of pumping and refining those rich reserves of oil that don’t exist anymore, we got 100 units of energy out. The Alberta tar sands, by comparison, yield only 3 or 4 units of energy out for every 1 unit of energy required to extract the oil from all that grit. Biofuel may offer a slightly better or worse pay-off, depending on how it’s made.

All this said, the end of oil is at least as much an opportunity as it is a challenge. In fact, I look forward to a world where the best houses are smaller and more efficient, organized into neighbourhoods built around the assumption that people will walk or bike places instead of drive cars everywhere. Optimal locations will be closer to sources of food production, closer to sources of bio-fuels and closer to public transportation. The best homes will also be part of communities instead of mere highway extensions. In the same way that training wheels make it easier to learn to ride a bike, I expect our world will be better when we finally learn to live without depending so completely on the black ooze from down below.

Posted on June 19th, 2012