Peak Oil – Peak Opportunity?

Possibility and public policies can harness renewable energy technologies for a bright future

“Alternative” fuels are nothing new. In fact, they were the mainstream power source a century ago. Rudolph Diesel built his engine to run on peanut oil. Henry Ford designed the Model T to run on ethanol. Wind delivered a significant source of power in the last century. Cheap gasoline (and Prohibition, since ethanol is just grain alcohol) made impractical the early use of what we now call alternative energy sources.

With the growing concern that the global oil production has peaked, making hydrocarbon resources more difficult and more expensive to recover, researchers, policy-makers, and concerned individuals are examining discarded concepts and discovering viable, sustainable energy sources that can never be depleted. From water to wind, from plants to sunlight, they are developing technologies that actually can eliminate this country’s need to import oil.

Oil Independence by 2035
In a thorough, creative strategy developed in part with funds from the Pentagon, the Rocky Mountain Institute argues that we can achieve energy independence by 2035 through increased vehicle efficiency, creative business models and public policy, competitive biofuels, and saved natural gas. Winning the Oil Endgame: Innovation for Profits, Jobs, and Security outlines a four-step integrated process:

  • Develop advanced composite or lightweight-steel materials that can nearly double the efficiency of today’s popular hybrid-electric cars and light trucks while improving their efficiency and performance. The improved efficiency will effectively reduce the cost of gasoline to 56 cents a gallon. Thus, the vehicle’s total extra cost is repaid from fuel savings in about three years.
  • Apply creative business models and public policies to speed the profitable adoption of super-efficient light vehicles, heavy trucks, and airplanes.
  • Provide another 25 percent of U.S. oil needs by a major domestic biofuels industry.
  • Use well-established, highly profitable efficiency techniques to save half the projected 2025 use of natural gas, then substitute part of the saved gas for oil.

The study asserts that an investment of $180 billion over the next 10 years to eliminate oil dependence and revitalize strategic industries can save $70 billion, net, every year by 2025.

The Benefit of Biofuels
For a couple hundred dollars, a diesel car can be converted to run on 100 percent vegetable oil. Many innovative folks have caught on to this win-win situation and pick up used vegetable oil from their local restaurant, saving the restaurant an oil disposal fee.

Of course, while we may eat a lot of French fries, we probably can’t count on enough reclaimed grease to move America. But the benefit of biofuels points to possibility for cheaper fuel and cleaner air. While corn grain yields only slightly more fuel than the hydrocarbons needed to produce the fuel, cellulose fuels from sugar cane and switchgrass may prove more viable. An acre of corn can generate 354 gallons of fuel. But an acre of sugar cane produces 662 gallons and an acre of fast-growing switchgrass yields 1150 gallons.

Parking Cars
While driving farther on less fuel for less money and with cleaner emissions is a significant goal, mass transit must still be a focus to reduce our consumption of fossil fuels.

Lester Brown has been called “one of the world’s most influential thinkers.” He founded the Earth Policy Institute to provide a vision and a road map for achieving an environmentally sustainable economy. In Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble , Brown outlines well-researched solutions that require replacing the fossil fuel-based, automobile-centered, throwaway economy with one that is powered by renewable sources of energy, that has a much more diversified transport system, and that reuses and recycles virtually everything.

He encourages the redesign of urban transport systems from single-occupant automobiles to a more diverse bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly system that would include light-rail systems and buses. Imagine, as he suggests, cites where parking lots are turned into parks and people reap the health benefits of increased walking and biking.

Another rapid transit innovation could bring Disney’s Tomorrowland to every town today – but with your own private mass transit vehicle. The Sky Web Express takes three to six people in monorail cars on a private, non-stop journey at 30 miles per hour to any station in the network. There are no fixed routes; passengers travel directly to their destination without stopping. Because the stations are off-line, there is no waiting; passengers walk up, buy a ticket to their destination, climb into a waiting car, and go! There is even room to store bikes for travel from the station to your final destination.

Building Technologies
Houses and office buildings consume more energy than cars. According to the Department of Energy, residential and commercial buildings account for 40 percent of total energy consumption in this country, versus 28 percent for the transportation sector. Some of the most exciting technologies being developed will allow us to reduce our energy consumption when we get out of our cars.

In one hour, the sun delivers more energy to the earth than we can use in a year. Photovoltaic panels covering just one-tenth of the state of Nevada could meet the U.S. energy demand. Corporations are tapping into the sun’s energy now, harvesting its power and even selling the excess back to electric companies. And the technology is becoming more viable and affordable for home energy use, even in areas that are not noted for an abundance of year-round sunlight.

Improvements in technology and design have made wind power competitive with natural gas, electricity, and coal. It can supply electricity for heating, cooling, cooking, and powering automobiles. According to Lester Brown, our rich endowment of low-cost wind energy suggests that wind could emerge as the centerpiece of the new energy economy. It is clean, and, of course, it never runs out. Three wind-rich states – North Dakota, Kansas, and Texas – have enough wind to power the entire country; the challenge is distribution.

Nearly everywhere on earth, eight feet below the surface, the temperature is cool and steady: between 50 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Geothermal technology taps into this steady temperature to heat and cool buildings. Antifreeze moves through tubing laid in a trench and brings the moderating temperature into the home, making it cooler in summer and warmer in winter. Geothermal energy is inexhaustible and will last as long as the earth itself.

The technology revolution our times is in harnessing renewable energy and pioneering transportation solutions. Solar, wind, water, geothermal heat, and plant biofuels offer essentially limitless resources. And they can be harnessed now. Innovations like those proposed by the Rocky Mountain Institute present solutions that can improve our economy while eliminating our dependence on foreign oil.

“Even given the extraordinarily challenging situation we face, there is much to be upbeat about,” says Brown. “First, virtually all the destructive environmental trends are of our own making. All the problems we face can be dealt with using existing technologies. And almost everything we need to do to move the world economy onto an environmentally sustainable path has been done in one or more countries.”

The challenge is grave: our economy relies on cheap energy. The possibility is great, however, that our economy and our civilization can weather an impending crisis of the demise of the petroleum age. Numerous potentials exist for the creation of a new economy based on renewable energy sources. Technologies are being developed that can increase home and vehicle energy efficiencies dramatically. Around the planet, solutions are moving humanity into a clean, renewable future. And that is very good news.

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