Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Concerned about Energy? Read This.

Personally, I am very concerned about the fact that our society is based on a cheap and finite energy source: oil.

I strongly believe that we need to get off of fossil fuels; firstly, because of climate change, and secondly, because of peak oil (diminishing cheap supply coupled with a large increase in demand). Such a shift will require many changes to our current way of life and will have large economic consequences. I think these changes are inevitable, and in fact have probably already started. It will be better for us if we are prepared.

I quote from Dr. Jane O'Sullivan, an Australian agricultural scientist, who argues for an Australian carbon tax:

"When supply of oil and other fossil fuels no longer meets global demand, the price will rise steeply, as steeply as needed to get our demand back in line with supply. The fewer alternative options we have in place, the faster prices will rise and the deeper the economic recession they trigger. High fuel prices will translate into substantially higher prices for food, construction, transport and just about everything else.

That is, it will seem to us much the same as if we had an escalating carbon price. Except that the extra money we are spending won’t be collected by our government, to compensate households or to fund renewable energy or public transport so that we won’t need emissions-intensive options so much. We’ll have to pay the higher fuel price without compensation, and find the money ourselves to build the alternatives."

Well, at least BC's got a carbon tax. Although we do not funnel its proceeds into any publicly useful infrastructure or programs...

What's missing is a good public discussion about alternatives to oil. I've done a lot of reading on this topic, and have found that there is a lot of hype out there, especially concerning renewable energy sources. Many extravagant claims are made; unsurprising, since there's venture capital and government money to be had. Trying to get a realistic picture of what can really work is quite difficult, in no small part due to the apparent lack of basic math skills on the part of many reporters.  Most reports seem to indicate that "there's no problem", because some technological fix is imminent. The reality, as far as I can discern, is unfortunately rather different. For a rational summary of where we stand, here are two of the best sources I've seen:

1. a short, 24 page pamphlet from a US perspective: EnergyReport.pdf
2. a free book, from a UK perspective. You don't have to read the whole thing to get the idea: Sustainable Energy - Without the Hot Air. After you've read the book, you can play with the website to try to balance the UK's energy needs while sharply reducing its greenhouse gas emissions.
Read 'em over the summer. Maybe then y'all can help me think about the pros and cons of a waste-to-energy plant in New Westminster.

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