Thinking About an Oil-Free World

If you’ve ever watched a kid learn to ride a bicycle, you’ve got a small sense of what the world will face over the next 20 to 30 years. That’s the time period within which the training wheels of crude oil will come off the modern world, moving from its place as our single, very primary energy source, to a geological remnant that’s no longer economically or environmentally feasible to extract and burn to power our lives. In the same way that every kid wobbles, swerves and falls as they learn to ride a bicycle on their own, the world is in for some interesting times as it learns to function without the hydrocarbon support system that’s made everything so much easier for the last 100 years. How these changes will affect your home are ideas worth thinking about. In fact, the sooner you think about them, the better.

Oil makes the world go around

Thinking About an Oil-Free WorldIf you’re skeptical that the end of the oil age is not only in sight but affecting you right now, read Jeff Rubin’s book Your World is About to Get Smaller. Rubin is a Toronto economist who presents so much hard evidence that crude oil supplies are dwindling that 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 rather how much foresight and ingenuity we’ll exercise redesigning the Canadian economy so it isn’t utterly linked to the price of the gasoline, diesel and jet fuel that most every home, job, meal and industrial process depends on.

Although your home may or may not use crude oil products directly, the end of the oil age will still redefine what constitutes an efficient 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 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?

Alternative energy technologies

It’s been estimated that our individual share of the energy used for transportation, heating, manufacturing and agriculture would require 100 human slaves working around the clock for every Canadian citizen in the country. That’s a slave population of more than 3 billion people. Crude oil has made this energy relatively easy to come by so far in mechanical form, but make no mistake. None of the alternative energy technologies on the horizon right now currently offer even the promise of the easily obtainable, highly concentrated, and simply portable energy source that crude oil has offered until now. Do you expect to see alternatives that will be as effective as crude oil? I wouldn’t bet on it. Here’re some questions to consider when thinking why…

  • If crude-free energy technologies were as cheap, easy and convenient to use as the crude oil that powers us now, how come $100 a barrel oil hasn’t been enough to electrify all trucks delivering goods to your neighbourhood stores?
  • How come fleets of jetliners aren’t flying on bio-fuels?
  • Why are so few Canadian homes heated by the sun?

Alternative energy technologies like these and others will take over from the oil-based ones we depend on now, but only in the context of using much less energy per person than we do today.

Electricity is cleaner than it used to be

Electricity is an interesting case in point. It has the potential to be one of the big turn-around stories of the energy world. That’s because electricity isn’t a source of energy, but rather just one form of it. And depending on how electricity is oil furnacegenerated, it can either be a very dirty and unsustainable option, or a remarkably green and sustainable way to make things happen. The move to encourage electricity generated by wind and photovoltaics begins to change everything about the way you need to look at electricity as a home energy option. That said, it’s also important to realize that all the windmills and photovoltaic installations you see cropping up in the countryside are only happening because of massive government subsidies that pay producers as much as 1000% more than current market prices for 20 years to produce alternative electricity. I doubt electric power will ever get very cheap, but at least the electrons will keep on flowing as long as the sun shines and wind blows.

Best homes of the future

So what will the most desirable homes of the future look like? They’ll probably be quite a bit smaller than the average right now, and they’ll be built for much greater efficiency than today. Optimal locations will be closer to sources of food production, closer to sources of bio-fuels and closer to public transportation. Desirable homes will also be part of communities designed around the assumption of travel by foot and bicycle, not on the current idea that everyone will jump into one of their two cars whenever they leave home.

In many ways I’m looking forward to the end of oil. As empowering as it has been to have such a potent, portable energy source at our disposal, there’s no arguing that oil-powered economies have serious downsides. Besides the environmental implications of adding 30-odd gigatonnes of new carbon into the atmosphere each year, cheap and ultra-easy mobility can dilute our experiences of local community while separating physical exercise from the act of everyday living. In the same way that training wheels do make it easier to learn to ride a bike, I suspect our world will be better when we finally learn to live without depending on the black stuff from down below.

Posted on August 8th, 2011

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