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Friday, March 27, 2009

Predictions for a low energy economy

As sources of petroleum energy peak and fall (oil and natural gas) over the next few decades, we'll see much higher costs for many of the things we take for granted, particularly transportation, heating fuel and shipping of goods.

Sure, we'll be replacing current sources of petroleum-based energy with coal (hopefully minimally or as cleanly as possible), some nuclear (although the time it will take to get nuclear up and running is long), more wind, etc. the overall effect is that we will have less total energy available. Or, at the very least, it won't be anywhere near as cheap as we've had it the last few decades.

So, what kind of future will we have and what kind of jobs will be considered valuable? I'm going to take a stab at a few predictions and explain why:

Transportation: Most of us won't be able to afford increased gas prices when we are sliding quickly down the oil slope, so alternative forms of transportation will be key. Many areas will have invested in public transportation such as alternative fuel buses, light rail or other forms of rail. But, I also bet there will be an increased interest in riding bikes to get around (particularly those modified for hauling like an Xtracycle). Being a bus driver will lose some of its stigma and there will be increased demand for people with bicycle maintenance skills.

Food: The benefits of fast food (i.e. cheap, subsidized food) will be a thing of the past as the true costs of growing and transporting food is revealed. A stronger focus on locally grown food, with its cheaper transportation costs, will be in effect and people will more likely be eating seasonally because of reduced costs. Having skills and knowledge of growing food in suburban and/or urban settings will be valuable as more people will return to backyard food growing to save money. Inexpensive meat (cheap, corn and grain fed animals) will go away and people will return to eating meat less as the focus of a meal, but as a small constituent of it.

Goods and services: When cheap oil prices disappear, cheap goods (toys, clothes, electronics) from overseas will all but cease to exist. There will be a higher demand for quality products that are well made and actually have replacement parts. More people will rely on second-hand items over buying new because of increased costs and a return to trading or bartering or just plain sharing skills with neighbors will increase. Supporting local businesses will be key in keeping a strong local economy and ensuring that interruptions in supply are minimal. Knowing how to repair large and small appliances, sewing clothes, wood working and other crafts will be valuable skills to have.

Rural-style medicine: The cost of health care and pharmaceuticals will increase and access to services and their plastic-dependent goods will be harder to come by (think IV bags, tubing, etc.). There will be a higher value placed on knowing basic techniques and we'll most likely see quite a drop in elective surgery (cosmetic and otherwise). I think we'll probably see a return to more general practice family doctors and a higher emphasis will be placed on nurses and nurse practitioners for primary care.

Education: I don't see dramatic changes in the way we educate elementary and secondary students. Most likely the biggest changes will be less options for transportation, limited school choices and a decrease in special education services. If energy costs are truly an issue a compact school week may be instituted to reduce the number of days the building is heated and extracurricular type classes (art, music, library, PE) will be eliminated to focus on core subjects.

This may be more important where winters are very cold, but a shifting of school schedules to spring, summer and fall to eliminate heating costs may be considered. With a decrease in standard of living, we may see a decrease in population rates, so less students may be going through the system and schools will close in some areas if that is the case. Few people will be able to afford an advanced education and we may see a shift more towards trade schools, akin to the school system in Britain. Being an educator will still be highly valued, we'll just need less of them, or in different fields.

Travel and entertainment: The costs to travel will increase exorbitantly unless some miraculous energy source is discovered. Only the wealthy will be able to afford air travel and the rest of us will rely on rail for extended vacations. The majority will take vacations within the region where they live and staycations will be more of the norm. I think there will be less travel and tourism overall, but local economies will still benefit from local travelers.

Mainstream entertainment will change in that the days of the big budget blockbusters may become so unaffordable that we'll see a majority of small, budget films. And a lot less of them. I think the demand for entertainment will still remain high, but the outlets will more likely turn to cheaper forms like socializing or going to community events. I don't see a huge decrease in demand for organized sports however today's high paid athletes will be a thing of the past.

How do you see life in a low energy economy, where oil resources are less available and those that do exist are extremely expensive? Do you think alternative forms of energy (wind, solar, hydro, etc.) will "save" us or will they only slightly slow down our collision course with a low energy economy?

26 comments:

ruchi said...

I hope you're wrong about some of your predictions, Crunchy. And not because your predictions don't sound appealing. I would love to live in a world where almost everyone took public transit. I just know that I am not everyone.

So here's the thing. In my opinion, and I admit, I know less about peak oil than you do, by the time we actually get to a point where we're desperately trying to conserve oil, we will have reached the tipping point for climate change.

If your predictions come true, that will mean we will have failed to really develop renewable energy techniques. And if we've failed to develop renewable energy techniques, that probably means that we're locked into 4 degrees of warming, maybe even more.

Because here's the thing. I don't think people will give up their cars and other stuff until they absolutely HAVE to. That means that unless we get serious about renewables, we'll continue to spew vasts amounts of carbon into the atmosphere until the oil gage really does start to hit the E.

Some of your predictions will come true, in my opinion, even with a lot of investment in renewables: for example with food. I think meat will get more expensive as global demand for meat rises, and Americans who are used to eating meat twice a day might start to find it unaffordable.

But some of your predictions should be avoided if we are able to shift to renewable energy. And like I said, I think if we can't shift to renewable energy, peak oil isn't going to be so much the problem so much as you know ... whole island nations being underwater.

I don't know if that made any sense ... I'm a little braindead.

organicneedle said...

It is really so hard to predict these things. So many problems to solve at once...which will determine significant change? I always wonder if we will see more pioneer-like life, people seeking out land to grow their own foods...or if we will see more cities sprouting up to reduce transportation needs.

In any case, I definitely think we will see an increase in biking. Here in NYC, which is not a very bike friendly city, we have already seen a 35% increase.

I see the opposite for advanced education. As the solutions for our country and planet require more and more research and technology, I see us maybe taking on a different approach...free college education. It will certainly be in the best interest of the country.

Farmer's Daughter said...

I think your prediction about the change in school calendar is unlikely to happen. Afterall, the calendar is originally based on the growing season, and a low energy society will result in a stronger reliance on locally grown food. In my area, that means small family farms. If the calendar were to change, I would expect to see farming families withdraw their children from school during the growing seasons, or older children dropping out of school altogether.

My family used to keep us home rarely, but the busiest days on our farm were days we had off for summer vacation.

I'd like to hear Sharon's take on it.

Carmen said...

I find these types of impacts much more plausible than the "environmental apocalypse" in the earlier post.

These risks are not far-fetched and we need to begin mitigating them now. What role will technology play in this? More efficient and safe plastic recycling? More efficient battery technology?

I hope these types of discussions really inspire the youth of today to make these solutions their careers!

P.S. My word verification was "worry" - ironic.

m martin said...

I predict that medicine will change even more dramatically than your prediction. I think, based on current trends, we will move to a society that highly values preventative medicine since it is cheaper long term and more effective. I personally think this will be fantastic and combined with healthier diets and stronger community connections, Americans will be much better off.

Chris said...

Unfortunately I think that people will only be persuaded to use less when there is less. Then it will be too late to make easy changes, only hard ones will be left.

Peak Oil Hausfrau said...

I think many of your predictions are very likely, at least in the early stages of peak oil adaptation. I think this could come in the next 5 years, just as easily as the financial crisis "snuck up" on many Americans - one year ago, who would have predicted where we are today? Well, many of the people on the peak oil / LATOC websites did. But to everyone else, it seems like suddenly, everything has changed.

I think it also is likely that the electric grid may become more unreliable, and electricity more expensive. Needed maintenance will not be done due to a lack of money and expensive oil. Parts manufacturers may be going out of business.

Increased costs of fuels (which generally rise in tandem with oil) will be passed along to the consumer. When things break (think tornadoes, overloaded grid), they may take a long time to get fixed.

I hope that we are able to get a solar/wind network in place to support what we might consider the "minimum" quality of life - health clinics, for instance. I don't think that renewable energy is going to be able to let us keep consuming at our current insane levels. I think we will see more micro solar - solar battery chargers, solar ovens, solar laptops, etc.

Crunchy Chicken said...

Abbie - You are right, it is unlikely that schools would change their schedule in areas where farming is heavy, the impact would be too great. Most of my predictions were based on urban areas since ~70% of Americans live in urban areas. So, for densely populated areas, like the Seattle Public School system, this would be feasible.

Bucky said...

I generally think that Madame Crunchusta is spot on in most of her predictions for the future. The fog in her crystal ball has lifted for the moment and she sees all.

(Tell me Great Godess of the Future Vision -- can I expect money and love anytime soon?)

Still, I've got to address one of the things in the post. You all know that I've got to find something, don't you?

Regarding getting nuclear and renewables up and running, the fact is that they will never be able to replace petroleum as an energy source to power our present level of consumption.

It is basic science. Let's look at the EROEI. Energy Returned On Energy Invested.

Fossil fuels have a very high but rapidly declining EROEI. A barrel of oil today has and EROEI of about 30. That means that for every 1 unit of energy you expend to produce the energy you get about 30 units of equivalent back. Fifty years ago a barrel of oil had an EROEI of 70. Was a time when you could just punch a hole in the ground and the black gold just came a bubblin' up. Beverly Hillbillies and all that. Now we need to expend more energy to get the same barrel up out of the ground so the return is less. And the return gets less and less every year as we deplete the easy oil. As the peak oil nay-sayers point out, there is plenty of oil in the ground, and it is true. But at some point, you spend more energy getting it out than you get in burning it so it is a net loss of energy.

Unfortunately, that is the case with almost every other form of energy today. Nuclear energy is a net energy loser. We spend huge amounts of fossil fuel energy to mine and refine and transport nuclear fuel. The electricity we get back is less than the energy we spend to produce. Same thing with hydrogen. It takes more energy to produce hydrogen than we get from burning it. It is a net energy loser.

Other forms of renewables such as wind and solar are a net energy gain right now, but only because of the huge energy gain from petroleum. It takes a lot of oil energy to make those big ass windmills. Same for solar. The EROEI for wind and solar is less than 7. Drastically different than 30. Think about that. (Full disclosure -- I'm in the middle of a move so my numbers are approx and what I can remember since my books are already packed up. But I'm in the ballpark if not exact. The EROEI differential is HUGE regarding oil/coal and any other form of energy.)

Technology MAY help with this, but it is doubtful that we will ever see the same sorts of EROEI that we get from oil.

The one bright tech spot on the horizon is nanotechnology. It may bring some interesting energy opportunities. Who knows at this point. But we can't count on it.

Our energy future is going to be drastically dismal. Too many people competing for increasingly scarce and increasingly less productive resources.

And that is my dark, doomsday moment for the day. I promise to be happy and bright in future comments.

Anonymous said...

How about the very near future of energy COSTS if the president's new Cap & Trade plan is implemented? It's probably going to feel like peak oil much sooner than we begin experiencing a severe oil shortage, if it is indeed true that everyone's electric bills will go up by about $200/month and natural gas will nearly double in cost (not to mention the proposed gasoline tax). :/ I suppose it'll be good practice?

Sharlene said...

But Crunchy- when do you predict these these things happening?

Bucky said...

Anon, you've been watching too much Fox News. People who regularly annoint themselves with a mixture of Texas light crude and aborted baby's blood when they take a break from screwing their whores to denounce gay marriage and global climate change.

Ain't no way your monthly energy bills would suddenly go up by $200/month under Obama's cap/trade proposal.

Not, perhaps, that they shouldn't, but that's a different discussion.

That sort of sudden increase would be political suicide and Obama, for all his faults, isn't politically stupid.

I'm not sure that cap/trade is the right way to go, but it is a start. The environmental impact of our energy gluttony needs to be priced into the system.

Still, the $200 figure is pure right-wing political fear mongering.

Relax.

And use less.

Anonymous said...

Bucky,

Common sense--not Fox News--tells me that taxing companies beyond what they're used to will result in increase costs for consumers. The obvious solution is to quit consuming altogether, and perhaps I'm a weak person for still using electricity and having a job that requires use of a car. At the same time, you tell me to "use less."

I already relegate our household to "one lamp only" at night, and I bike rather than drive within town. No air conditioning. No electronics other than a radio. We grow and/or locally source as much of our food as we can. I make my own medicine and re-use everything. If I can't re-use it, I give it to someone who can. I'm not sure how much less I can use. But thanks for the advice.

Bucky said...

Anon, Anon, Anon.

You seem uncommonly sensical. You've reduced your carbon footprint to almost nothing. Good for you!

I've got to do more to meet your standard.

You rock!

And I do understand that when living in a society that is structured around the auto, it is necessary to have an auto to function. Hate it, but get it. I've got one myself.

Still ... $200/month? You've got nothing to worry about with your one light bulb existence. Perhaps if you were relaxing in your superheated mega olympic-sized swimming pool in the backyard of your 60,000 sf McMansion while your outdoor lights illuminate the neighborhood with the white hot intensity of a thousand burning incandescent suns...

But sounds as if you have nothing to worry about. So why spread the irrational cap'n trade fear? It's pure crap.

For too long American consumers have been getting a free ride on the real cost of our energy consumption. If we are going to have a ::cough, cough:: free market economy, then all the costs need to be accounted for. And the environmental cost is enormous and needs to be included in the price of our energy delusions/decisions.

But, Anon, your energy austere existence isn't in danger of Obama's carbon cap and trade legislation taking $200 worth of food from your children's mouths anytime soon.

Fret not.

Their little bellies will be full as they drift off to sleep in the candle-lit darkness.

And don't worry about using less. You already get the extra double plus gold star.

Bucky said...

Oh, Anon, you say that your sensible commoness tells you that increasing costs to companies with a carbon tax will necessarily result in a cost increase to consumers.

Perhaps.

But my common sensibleness tells me that perhaps companies might first think about reducing the billions of dollars they pay to their short-sighted executives before they decide to raise costs to consumers.

But what do I know? I'm not smart enough to get paid more every time I pass gas than most people on the planet make in a year.

Anonymous said...

Bucky,

I wasn't asking for a gold star, nor sarcastic praise. The reason I live the way I do is twofold--I'm an underpaid community college teacher who can't AFFORD high energy bills, and, of course, I care as much as the next guy (well, at least in this circle) about my energy usage and consumption of "stuff." The possibility that Cap and Trade (while a good idea in THEORY) might result in higher energy costs makes me angry. It feels like punishment for a lifestyle I'm trying very hard to not live. But maybe you're right. Maybe I have nothing to worry about. I suppose time will tell.

I don't have children to feed, but that's because I've never wanted any, not because I'm looking for another gold star.

I'd like to think we're all doing the best we can, but that's too naive. A lot of people out there are doing NOTHING...and I can't fathom living in a world where we start lacking in things people can't "live" without.

I'm not a "liberal." I'm not a "conservative." If I aligned closely with anyone, I guess I'd have to identify as a libertarian. I've quit looking for anything wholly good to come out of government control.

Crunchy Chicken said...

Sharlene - I see us start transitioning to this sort of economy in the next 10 years. We are due for a huge spike in oil prices that most likely will occur in the next year. I would imagine that in 25 years (depending on a number of factors: climate change, politics, etc.) we'll be living low energy lifestyles.

Buckster - As for your first comment, I completely agree with everything you state regarding our future energy sources, I just didn't go into it in the post.

We have so many nuclear facilities that need to be replaced that it would be years/decades before getting any additional nuclear power online. Don't get me started on hydrogen again. I've already bitched about how stupid it is.

And you're right, as oil becomes less cheap to obtain, building out alternative energy sources becomes, in some cases, not worth the cost and, in other cases (e.g. high energy input for manufacturing), completely unfeasible.

Anyway, that's why the title of the post was "low energy economy" and not "green energy economy".

Lyanda said...

After journeying in Tanzania where only 10% of dwellings have power, I think you are very much on the mark. I just put some thoughts about how our travels influenced our laundry practices on my Seattle-based blog, The Tangled Nest.

http://thetanglednest.com/2009/03/a-subterranean-clothesline-thinking-outside-of-the-dryer/

Bucky said...

Anon:

I'll try to step away from the sarcasm. Difficult for me, but I'll promise to try.

Really I will. Promise.

Damn, there I go again.

Old habits are hard to break.

Okay. I agree with your statement that most people are doing NOTHING. That's true enough.

I do have a problem, however with your notion that "I can't fathom living in a world where we start lacking in things people can't "live" without."

I'm afraid that you better start fathoming it soon, Anon (what's up with the Anon anyway), because it's about to happen. Fathom it or not, the "American Way of Life" is in for a rude awakening. The AWOL was never sustainable in the first place and is increasingly only attainable from the wide-scale destruction of the environment and the lives of people who don't live in the Western world.

You identify as a Libertarian, which I had already realized. I appreciate the Libertarian approach to things. Only problem is that Libertarianism doesn't take into account the "neighborhood effect" of individual actions. The L crowd wants to be left alone to do their own thing. On their own property.

Sounds good. But you L'ers forget that what you do on your own time on your own property has an impact on me. It's all well and good to claim a right to dump toxic mercury into the stream on your property, Anon, but that stream flows down into my property and pollutes and kills my livestock, not to mention my children. We need laws to force you Libers to remember that you don't live in an isolated Randian world, as much as you might like that.

Damn, sarcasm seeping through.

The Cap and Trade carbon tax is just a system to try to fully account for the cost of everyone's pollution.

Bucky said...

Crunchybunchy:

I know that you know.

And I hope that you know that I know that you know.

Because I know that you know that I know that you know that I know that you know.

Know?

Anyway, you are so right about the low energy vs. the green energy knowledge.

Whenever I talk to people here in the energy capital of the USofA I always hear the same thing.

I know that you know what I'm talking about.

They think that technology will come to our rescue and save the energy day.

Tada!

Mighty MegaVolt in a cape swooping down to power our air conditioners and electric cars and all of that.

I know you know what I'm talking about because you know too many people like this. I know that.

People who imagine that we will somehow, technomagically, be able to keep using as much energy as we want.

But we both know that isn't going to happen.

We are in for a world of hurt.

And you know, I think that it is going to get ugly.

I know that I promised to be Bucky of Sunnybrook Farm in my comments today but damn, I guess that isn't going to happen.

I'll take off the straw bonnet with the blue gingham ribbon and just sit here and fume for a bit.

Because you know, I know that our energy future isn't that bright and we both know that most people don't know that and aren't doing anything to plan for that and when the fan gets hit by the shit it just isn't going to be pretty for any of us.

And you know, I know that I promised to be, like, you know, positive and all.

But fuck that.

Crunchy Chicken said...

Buckaroni - I know that tomorrow is your birthday. And you know that I know that. But, that's no reason to go off of your meds :)

And, really, "Bucky of Sunnybrook Farm" is just a figment of your imagination anyway. With or without the hat.

And, yes, I may be called a paranoid extremist and I hope I'm totally wrong. But, I don't think that is the case with energy, I tend to be one of the least doomerlicious of the Peak Oil peeps.

Bucky said...

Damn.

Meds.

I knew I was forgetting something.

Thanks for reminding me.

And I don't think you are paranoid or one of the extremist doom-a-looma peeps.

You are actually very noid, not para, and help to give us all hope.

Loving you!

I'm far more doomer than you when it comes to energy issues.

But then I mostly just sit here and brood about it all and you actually do something to change the world and make a difference.

Damn you with your "let's do something make the world a better place" attitude.

Why can't you just let me be cranky today?

I want to be low energy this afternoon.

Low energy and cranky.

Crunchy Chicken said...

Ruchi - We all know about your love affair with public transportation!

Yeah that whole peak oil -> climate change is a bit of a sticky point, isn't it? As we near peak oil, we'll see more coal, more environmentally unfriendly methods of extracting what oil is left in the ground and a higher increase in CO2 emissions as a result.

But, on the happy side, we'll have access to all that oil under the polar ice caps once they've melted away and don't present as much of a pesky drilling problem!

Bucky said...

Heh, DrillaCrucnhy.

You make fun but I actually know energy execs here in Houston that are excited about being able to drill in places that were previously too hostile.

Global warming = more drilling opportunities.

Ugh.

Anonymous said...

Crunchy,
You say so much of this as though it were a bad thing. As one of those people who has long said that the way we are living is unsustainable, and bad for both us and the planet, I say "Bring it on!" We know by now that Americans will never start using less energy because it's the right thing to do for the planet, but they will if it costs them a lot of money.

Robj98168 said...

I am hoping that we dont fail on the alternative forms of energy- My wish is to see elecrtic cars be the norm, solar and wind energy be the norm, even in the hydro-electric Northwest. And I hope I dont see a shortened school week. I have to put up with brats when they are on vacation- I'll be damned if I put up with them extra time during the week (My curmudgeon statement for the day)
PS ROMEO Says thank you

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