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Thursday, July 22, 2010

At Least I Can Walk To Work, Part 2

OK, I may have overreacted before. I was really pretty depressed there for a couple of days. I even started seriously considering buying a gun to have in the house "just in case". I think I've calmed down a bit. For one thing, I couldn't stay in that state without going literally mad.

As a counter to the depressing doomsaying of James Kunstler I found Peak Oil Debunked, which seems to be a reasonably thoughtful counter to the most extreme of the Peak Oil predictions. It cheered me up a bit, although I found a number of the arguments therein to be not entirely convincing or accurate-but-missing-the-point, especially as regards agriculture. Peak Oil Debunked (POD) isn't actually debunking the notion of peak, just trying to counter the most extreme doomsday prognosticating, which is good. POD isn't saying there is no peak, just that the results of it can't be as extreme as Kunstler and other Peak Oil doomsayers are predicting.

But it's hard to see how a serious contraction of resources, especially food (and by extension, capital for investment), isn't inevitable in the relatively short term. That can't play out well. Our current recession has to be a taste of what's to come--there just isn't going to be the level of energy input needed to pull us out the way WWII did for the Great Depression, so even if the contraction is slow it will still be a contraction and that will be hard on everyone who is even a little overextended or otherwise dependent on continued growth, which may be all of us, even those of us who have eliminated our debt and have a little cash set aside.

We're starting to see practical electric vehicles coming on line, but does that help if it keeps us from replacing the suburbs with more dense towns and villages? If we aren't building trains at the same time we're building wind farms, I fear we're missing the point. Why can't I take a 300kph train from Austin to Houston or Austin to Dallas?

On the other hand, it's going to be a long time before we can electrify air travel, barring some unexpected miracle in electricity storage density and planes can't run on coal, so I think we're not far away from seeing air travel severely curtailed. The answer to my train question is "because I can fly Austin to Dallas on SWA for $100.00"--what motivation does any private enterprise have in building that train and what motivation does the State of Texas have, given it's millions in the hole just now? None. But I think that economic picture has to change soon (within the next decade).

But in many ways Kunstler's arguments are about financial chaos as a side effect of inevitable contraction and that seems much scarier and more likely than simply running out of fuel for cars. We're already in a situation where credit is hard to get. It won't matter how many electric cars GM or Toyota builds if nobody can get a loan to buy them.

So I don't know. It seems likely that market forces will tend to reduce consumption as prices increase, mitigating at least the immediate effects of fall-off in supplies. As the Peak Oil Debunked blog points out, there is a lot of room for conservation in the U.S. For myself, I could almost entirely eliminate the use of my car for things like getting groceries, the pharmacy, going out to eat, as long as I was willing to eat the time cost. We live within walking distance of all the essential services we need. But Austin, like most U.S. cities, doesn't provide the level of public transport needed to make more far-flung trips convenient, must less pleasant. I could shave a couple of kWhs a day from my electricity use if I really had to. But my house is already very energy efficient so it would be about using less A/C and putting all the wall warts on switches and that sort of thing, stuff for which we currently have no economic incentive in the face of the inconvenience and discomfort. I'd rather just invest in more solar panels as long as I have the cash to do so.

Let's say oil supplies tighten significantly over the next two years and bus ridership goes up--Austin's transit agency is already in serious budget trouble and would have a hard time reacting to a surge in ridership (as they did in 2008). While we finally have a (largely pointless) light rail system, it would take a remarkable effort to put in a more comprehensive trolly or Portland-style light rail system in less than 5 years given public demand for it.

[I say our light rail system is pointless because it essentially serves one suburb of Austin, making it convenient for people who work downtown and live in Cedar Park to get to work. The train doesn't go anywhere else interesting and doesn't usefully serve anyone south of down town. Ridership has been a fraction of projections and of capacity. Small surprise. Now if there was a train that went from downtown to the airport and that came south to at least Ben White on Congress that would help a lot. I know of no plans along those lines.]

So is there anything actionable out of this new-found appreciation for peak oil and the inevitable contraction in our economy and life styles? Thanks to a recent inheritance I have some cash available. Should I buy a Volt? Expand my PV system? Buy gold? Put by a year's worth of rice and canned goods? Buy Treasury bonds? Fill my garage with machine tools? Buy a shotgun?

For now I think I'm going to take the following actions:

1. Put my name down on the list for the Chevy Volt. Austin is one of four launch cities.
2. Travel with my family as much as we can before air travel becomes a thing of the past for all but the richest humans.
3. Put in the rain water cistern we had to cut from our original house construction project (the rain capture plumbing is in place).
4. Think seriously about expanding the PV system, although I'm hesitant to do so too quickly as new PV technology is developing rapidly.
5. Avoid taking on any new debt--we are currently free of consumer debt and I'd like to keep it that way.
6. Continue to reduce our expectations, as a family, of what "enough" means, and try to teach my daughter that things are not what life is about.

I'm going to keep tracking opinion and bloviation in the Peak Oil space--it's entertaining if nothing else.

More as it develops....


Blogger Outis said...

If you're not already a vegetarian, you could also eat less meat:

Raising all the meat we eat takes copious amounts of fossil fuels. Getting your protein from lentils is far more energy efficient than getting it from beef/chicken/pork.

1:39 AM  
Blogger Eliot Kimber said...

I am not a vegatarian and I admit that eating less meat (or at least meat I didn't raise myself) would be an appropriate thing to do. That's probably one of the harder changes for us to make voluntarily, but of course a change we would make once large-scale beef production in particular became economically prohibitive.

On the other hand, if the midwest is depopulated we could see restored herds of bison and free-range cattle....

8:31 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Eliot, one comment about the light rail system.

While Austin's system is not terribly useful now, adding the infrastructure for a light rail system is an important and expensive part of it. Once that's in place, it's easier and cheaper to add to it.

It's like a CMS. Roll out your pilot project, which is dang hard and expensive. Add projects as the economics make sense. That barrier is much lower now, though, since much of the hardest work (including training) is already done.

I see light rail as the first step to inter-urban rail. You're right, though, the economics of air travel (including all the government subsidies) make it difficult to make an economic case for it now.

2:10 PM  
Blogger Eliot Kimber said...

Yes, getting the basic infrastructure for rail in place is important, but a lot of people are still wondering what drove the decision for the initial route--I suspect it was largely driven by existing tracks.

The whole Austin light rail story is pretty sad. After years of just barely losing, we finally just barely passed a light rail bond package and the Cap Metro proceeded to mismanage it practically into the ground. The system is more than two years late and is not currently wining many converts to light rail.

Consider it in sharp contrast to both Dallas and Houston, which have useful (if limited) light rail systems.

Now if Cap Metro would put a line up Mopac between South Austin and Fry's way up north, we'd have something useful :-)

2:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

An electric car is not much of a solution if the electricity comes from a coal-burning or nuclear-powered generating station.

2:58 PM  
Blogger Eliot Kimber said...

I have a PV system on my house, so if I charge during the day, the car is effectively solar powered.

But you are correct, without a refocus of power generation from coal and natural gas, electic vehicles don't, by themselves, solve the problem. But they do at least allow the possibility of a solution since the coal can be replaced.

Austin, TX is also in the forefront of cities pursuing alternative energy sources, including wind from West Texas and a to-be-built solar farm, as well as subsidizing home solar systems like ours. Not that it's a complete solution or more than a fraction of the electricity generated from coal in Texas, but it's something.

7:18 PM  
Blogger Outis said...

My understanding is that pluggable hybrids that charge overnight use "off-peak" power. The generators are designed to server peak capacity and aren't "turned off" at night. So even if they electric car is being charged from coal generated electricity, it's still better if the charging happens overnight.

Using an electric car adds a level of indirection between the car and how the power is generated, so as more efficient means become available, you can switch to them.

7:36 PM  

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