Life Without Oil

Life Without Oil: Why We Must Shift to a New Energy FutureA gradual contraction into more sustainable patterns of resource use is not the norm for a society that is exploiting the environment. The norm is a last-ditch effort to maintain outward displays of power, and then a sudden, and dramatic, collapse.”   That’s one of the foreboding statements with which Steve Hallett and John Wright punctuate their preview of past civilisations in the opening section of their book Life Without Oil: Why We Must Shift to a New Energy Future.

They consider we are at the peak of oil production and that we’re not facing that reality. There are late flurries to extend the discovery of further oil.  Deep sea drilling, the exploitation of the Alberta tar sands and oil shale extraction are among them, the latter two causing horrendous environmental damage. But all they will produce is a temporary delay of the decline. The authors judge that around 2015 oil production will show a clear and convincing decline, and the world will be at the beginning of the end of what they call the petroleum interval. It’s an interval that will have occupied a couple of centuries in the long history of humanity. Oil has enabled the construction of a monumental global civilisation in which we have become dependent on the increased productivity and efficiencies of scale it can provide. As it diminishes and disappears we require an energy transition which the book considers we are not geared to make in good time. We therefore face a long global economic contraction as the price of oil escalates, a sequence of economic slumps which will continue until fundamental problems of energy availability, food production, water supply and population control are sufficiently well corrected.

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Brownlee’s energy strategy: dig and burn

The newly released Draft NZ Energy Strategy (PDF, web) is a winding back of the clock from the substantial statement released under the previous government only three years ago. When announcing early in his term as Minister that a new strategy was required Gerry Brownlee complained of the old one:

“You need only read the foreword of the NZES. “Sustainability” and “sustainable” are mentioned thirteen times, “greenhouse gas” is mentioned four times, and “climate change” is mentioned three times. That is all very good, but security of supply rates only one mention. Affordability is not touched on at all. Nor is economic growth.”

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Electric cars take over

I recently watched the video of a TED talk by Shai Agassi. It dates from a year ago. I’m late catching up. But there may well be other readers who haven’t caught up with him either, so I’ll report my experience. He jumps straight to the point in his opening sentence: “So how would you run a whole country without oil?”

Agassi doesn’t intend his question to be hypothetical or far off. He’s talking about the near future.  And he considers the answer lies in electricity, preferably renewable, as a fuel for vehicles. Not a few vehicles, but 99% of them.  And cars as good as any that we have today, preferably more convenient and affordable. There’s no need to wait for further technological development. We have all we need already.

You can listen to his talk below. He sets out a compelling case, and an optimistic one. He is founder and CEO of Better Place, a company that works with governments, businesses and utility companies to accelerate the transition to sustainable transportation. Their website repays attention.  I’ll extract a few items from it here.

Electricity-powered transportation fits very well with the development of renewable energy sources.  Better Place accepts fully the imperative to stop the burning of fossil fuels.:

The economics of renewables create an extraordinary opportunity for transportation.  But the economics of transportation also create an extraordinary opportunity for renewables.

First, an electric vehicle (EV) system can take advantage of underutilized electricity, reducing oil consumption and providing resources for renewable development provided the EV system is complemented with a “smart grid” that optimally manages the flow of available electricity. Second, EVs can alleviate the problems of intermittency, unpredictability and off-peak generation that have hindered the progress of renewable energy in the past. Third, because EVs offer energy efficiency up to three times greater than that of gasoline-powered vehicles, EVs reduce the overall burden on energy resources.

The transition is already under way:

The electric car is becoming inevitable.  Nearly every major automaker has an active program to develop and introduce EVs, ultimately providing the consumer a broad range of options.  Better Place is currently working with the Renault-Nissan Alliance, which will be among the first to introduce EVs, and is also in discussion with major auto manufacturers around the world.

These electric vehicles will be distinctive in more respects than their zero tailpipe emissions.  EVs inherently provide instant torque, delivering smooth, seamless acceleration.  EVs also offer ultra-quiet operation.  And since these cars typically have half the moving parts of their gas combustion engine counterparts,  lower maintenance costs are expected.  All this means that in the coming decade, EVs will be at the center of mainstream personal transportation. (my italics)

The lithium-ion batteries are adequate to the task, and some of the details are discussed here on the website.  On performance:

Now, a 24 kWh lithium-ion battery (about 200 kg) in a competitively priced medium-sized sedan provides a range of about 160 kilometers on a single charge.

But EVs will need the same freedom to go anywhere that drivers of combustion engine cars enjoy today. That means battery switch stations:

At Better Place battery switch stations, drivers enter a lane and the station takes over from there. The car proceeds along a conveyor while the automated switch platform below the vehicle aligns under the battery, washes the underbody, initiates the battery release process and lowers the battery from the vehicle. The depleted battery is placed onto a storage rack for charging, monitoring and preparation for the another vehicle. A fully-charged battery is then lifted into the waiting car. The switch process takes less time than a stop at the gas station and the driver and passengers may remain in the car throughout.

Battery charging provision at places such as homes, offices and public areas is important to broad adoption of EVs. Better Place develops, installs and manages large networks of charge spots that will aim to give consumers the convenience and services they need to confidently make the transition to EVs.

I’m in no position to comment on the feasibility of what Agassi proposes. But I see he was considered worthy of inclusion in Time’s 100 most influential people list in2009. And I certainly enjoyed the buoyancy of his talk and of the website.  I took pleasure from some of the comments of a featured guest blog on the site from Gary Kendall of Sustainability:

A great indicator that disruptive innovations are nearing the all-important tipping point is when powerful incumbents start peddling nonsense masquerading as facts, to sow doubt about the viability of the emerging technology or business model… By scrambling to erect roadblocks to new market entrants that threaten their hegemony, oligopolies are only doing what comes naturally to an organism under attack by an existential threat. And if your job is to find, extract, refine, distribute and sell liquid fuels, then electric cars certainly qualify…

“You EV guys are very well meaning – and we wish you well – but until the world stops burning coal, allow motor manufacturers to continue tinkering with incremental efficiency gains while we drill, baby, spill!”.

Back in New Zealand I ponder a vehicle fleet powered by electricity from wind farms or wave power. Bad news for petrol stations and perhaps for oil companies undertaking the expense of deep sea drilling operations. Perhaps food for thought for the Minister of Energy?  Or is that expecting a bit much?

Straight Up

“I joined the new media because the old media have failed us. They have utterly failed to face unpleasant facts.” So writes Joseph Romm of blogging, in his new book Straight Up, a themed selection from the thousands of posts on his widely respected blog It’s as direct, lively and unequivocal as its title suggests. Romm, an admirer of George Orwell, knows how to express himself with admirable clarity and to satisfy what he describes as “a great hunger out there for the bluntest possible talk”.

The “status quo media” receive a drubbing. Romm is critical of their giving the same credence to a handful of US scientists, most receiving funds from the fossil fuel industry, as they give to hundreds of the world’s leading climate scientists. Senior political reporters are writing more and more pieces as the issue becomes political; most know little about global warming and haven’t bothered to educate themselves. They stick with the “horse-race perspective”, measuring only who is up and who is down. In one post he criticises even Andy Revkin of the New York Times for suggesting that catastrophe is a marginal possibility and that campaigners for carbon dioxide curbs are suppressing the uncertainty in their picture. Revkin, says Romm, should know that catastrophe is not at the edge of the debate. The Washington Post he accuses of publishing unmitigated tabloid nonsense on climate change.

On the science Romm considers that the IPCC 2007 summary report underestimated likely climate impacts by not giving sufficient weight to positive feedbacks that accelerate warming and by assuming there would be aggressive action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The book includes a stunning post written in March 2009, where he reports on more recent scientific literature. Under five headings he relentlessly lists the evidence that points to catastrophic impacts this century under business-as-usual conditions — temperature rise of 5-7 degrees, sea level rise of 5 feet or more, dust-bowlification in the Southwest US, high loss of species on land and sea, and likely further unexpected impacts difficult to foresee. So we must stabilise at 450 ppm or below, or risk humanity’s self-destruction. The cost of action is maybe 0.12 percent of GDP per year or a little higher if we aim for 350 ppm. This is the reality that the scientific community and environmentalists and progressives need to start articulating cogently.

The solution is clean energy, a strong focus of Romm’s blogging. For a number of years in the mid-1990s he worked in the Department of Energy on energy efficiency and renewable energy. He considers that the US has all the clean energy technology it needs to start reducing emissions aggressively and cost effectively now. Deployment is the key. Electricity efficiency is high on his list. He points to McKinsey’s estimate that one third of the US greenhouse gas reductions by 2030 could come from electricity efficiency and be achieved at negative marginal costs. California is a model: if all America adopted their energy efficiency policies the country would never have to build another polluting power plant. Concentrated solar power is the technology on which Romm places most hope, because it generates primary energy in the form of heat which can be stored 20 to 100 times more cheaply than electricity –and with far greater efficiency. If all the renewable technologies that are commercial or nearly commercial today are deployed they will be enough to see the US through to 2050. He emphasises the steadily declining cost curve, due to economies of scale and the manufacturing learning curve.

As peak oil approaches it’s crucial that we avoid the strategy preferred by most in the oil industry of ramping up unconventional oil. Oil from tar sands and shale will make global warming worse. Coal to diesel will be catastrophic. The way forward for vehicle transport is better fuel economy standards and a move to plug-in hybrids which he discusses in some detail.

Romm has two key questions for the US. Will they voluntarily give up fossil fuels before they are forced to do so after it is too late to stop the catastrophe? When they do give them up will they be a global leader in the new technologies, or will they have been overtaken by other countries, especially China?

Romm was an advocate of the “flawed” Waxman-Markey climate bill which finally made it through the House of Representatives in June 2009. How can his climate politics realism be reconciled with his climate science realism? He replies that the bill was the only game in town and its passing a staggering achievement. It didn’t do enough, but it began a process and established a framework that can be strengthened over time as the science warrants. His political realism is also on view in his optimistic take on the result of Copenhagen. High level negotiations by the senior leaders of the big emitters seems to him a more likely way forward than the consensus process of the UN.

In right-wing US circles politics and climate disinformation have become entangled. Romm sees the conservative think tanks, media pundits and politicians as driving the disinformation campaign. He observes that while they can stop the country from taking the necessary action to avert catastrophe, they can’t actually stop the climate from changing. And some of the congressional conservatives are pushing policies that will lead to unimaginable planetary horror. Why? A post on a Krauthammer article in the Washington Post finds the heart of US conservatives’ hatred of climate science in the fact that it requires action by government, which is the same as socialism (except when it comes to government action on behalf of the nuclear and fossil fuel industries).

Misinformation has had a field day in the US. In part this is due to the organised campaign and the repeated broadcast of its messages by conservative pundits and politicians like George Will and Rush Limbaugh and Sen. James Inhofe. The “balanced” presentation favoured by the media hasn’t helped. But there are messaging failures from progressives in general and scientists in particular. Romm strongly opposes the notion that the impacts of global warming should be downplayed in communication to the public. Doing that would amount to unilateral disarmament in the battle to have the public understand what will happen if we continue on the path of unrestricted greenhouse gas emissions. People need to know the truth.  However he considers that some of the simple rules of rhetoric need to be better used in getting the message across. He identifies three of them as simple language, frequent repetition, and skilful use of figures of speech, especially metaphor and irony. The posts discussing better techniques of communicating the science are well worth attention and clearly underly his own practice.

Romm’s industry as a blogger is phenomenal, as anyone who follows Climate Progress will know. The selection of posts that he has chosen for this book testify that quantity doesn’t rule out quality. They have translated well to the printed page. Many of them repay close reader attention and together they serve to highlight the major themes which guide his work. The urgency displayed in his 2007 book Hell and High Water is undiminished.

[Available from Fishpond (NZ),, Book Depository (UK)]

The King will come

Sir David King, former chief scientific adviser to the UK government, has not retired into quiet obscurity since leaving that position. He co-authored the book The Hot Topic (reviewed here) in 2008 and works as director of the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment at Oxford, which addresses the major environmental threats and opportunities facing the world. He’s written two articles in recent days which seemed to me worthy of mention. Yesterday in New Scientisthe urged readers not to despair despite the apparent lack of progress at the recent Bonn talks.

He acknowledges that there’s reason for gloom at the failure of December’s Copenhagen summit to come up with a successor to Kyoto — failure which he puts down to a combination of serious organisational issues and glaring, often naïve, political errors. He describes the end result as “the victory of unambitious realpolitik over correct, but wishful, thinking.” But some positives resulted.

First,  climate change now has the full attention of the world. “The anger of poorer nations is a powerful and lucid expression of their full appreciation of the scale of the problem.” Second, we realise that a single collective leap won’t bring a successor to Kyoto. Third, we now have global agreement to avoid a dangerous 2 degree temperature rise and deforestation is now part of agreements.

However, the main reason for his optimism is that he sees alternative ways to regulate carbon through national and regional commitments to emissions trading.

He points to the European Union whose Emission Trading System is the largest of its kind in the world. If the US introduces its own version, Mexico’s president is keen to join and wants to see Canada sign up too, forming a North American trading group. Another emissions trading market may emerge among the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Harmonising such parallel markets would be a challenge, especially for international trade policy, but co-ordinating across a small number of commodity markets is likely to be easier than across a large number of sovereign states. There is the issue of regional schemes initially leading to industries in different parts of the world paying different prices for emitting carbon and thus giving an advantage to manufacturers in regions where the price of polluting is low. King’s reply is that high-price countries would impose tariffs on imports from low-price regions to level things up. He has said elsewhere that if this causes trouble with the WTO it also presents an opportunity for the WTO to step in and “persuade nations to get their act together”.

He is sceptical about attempts to create multibillion-dollar funds to help poorer nations adapt to climate change, since he’s not sure that the pledges of the developed world are credible. A better approach in his view would be to extend existing trading schemes to these nations.

“This would encourage them to develop lower-carbon economies and generate income through taxes on high-carbon imports. It would also unify emissions trading, overtaking troubled efforts to devise a global trading scheme with a single carbon dioxide price. Regardless of the details of the mechanism, it is plain that one of the central challenges for climate policy is to find a credible way to meet the concerns of the poorest countries while offering the right development incentives.”

Add to these factors the increasing confidence of the growing economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China, and King sees hope ahead by the time of the meeting in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 2012, the 20th anniversary of the Earth Summit in the same city that started the Kyoto process.

“We are all custodians of a global commons, and we have moral responsibility to future generations to curb our greenhouse emissions. I am optimistic that Rio can deliver.”

On Sunday, King wrote in the Observer about the different but closely related question of oil supply and demand, under the heading We must abandon oil before it’s too late. In the context of the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster he presses the point that demand for oil may outstrip supply sooner than people realise. Analysis undertaken at Oxford suggests that the IEA is overestimating the reserves in fields yet to be developed by some 30%. He expects oil prices to rise very considerably soon to be more than $100 a barrel, peaking at $130 a barrel by 2015.

The effect of this on importing countries will be harsh, especially on developing countries.  King is scientific adviser to the Rwandan president, Paul Kagame, and has recommended that the country do all it can to decouple its currently rapidly growing economy from oil.

Kicking the oil habit is increasingly necessary for economic reasons, but when added to the imperative to reduce carbon emissions and prevent dangerous climate change he considers the case for change is overwhelming.

He briefly sketches the kind of measures that will need to be taken. The efficiency of transport will need to be increased by reducing air friction, improving engines and running smaller, lighter vehicles. Alternative fuels will be important, moving from petrol to new generations of biofuels, hydrogen fuel cells and electric vehicles. We will also need to go beyond the designs of the vehicles and fuels and look at changing urban design, at building and improving mass transportation systems, and changing the ways that people drive.

His organisation is holding a World Forum on Enterprise and the Environment between 27-29 June in Oxford on the theme of low carbon mobility. There’s an interesting short video clip launching the forum here.

[Wishbone Ash]