Insights · March 30th, 2007
The other day someone wrote me to ask, “so what is beyond oil?â€ The answer, I replied, is pretty obviously a lot of things, which taken together will add up. First and foremost is rethinking and redesigning for more livable and sustainable community, particularly the retrofitting of cities and design of new communities for walking and less driving. In other words, designed for people first and cars second.
After that comes, immediately, a focus on conservation, higher mileage standards, encouraging all work places to figure how to assure that information workers work from home at least 20% of the time (no commuting a day a week). Deeper tax breaks for hybrid cars, and for the first electric cars.
Revise auto insurance so that rates go up as miles driven go up. There is a proposal here in Washington state for rates to go up if you drive during the low-efficiency peak times, and down if you drive in off-peak times.
Encourage a shift to plug-in electric cars. This means the need for more electricity, and thus the need for vastly more solar and wind energy. Perhaps some of this electricity will come from coal, but do that only if new plants are carbon neutral and replace inefficient and even dirtier old plants. (The often repeated promise that “we have 250 years of coalâ€ is misleading – this assumes coal is used at the current rate. If you assume increased use for electricity generation, the length of supply drops quickly.)
And then there is ethanol. In the U.S. we are using corn, in Brazil sugar from cane. The “energy inâ€ versus amount of “energy outâ€ for corn is not a good equation. Further, were the U.S. to attempt to replace a substantial portion of gasoline with ethanol it would take most of the corn crop to do it. People are planting more corn but corn prices have doubled (check out the negative impact this is having in Mexico, though NAFTA and free trade are having a bigger impact). Ethanol has many other problems. It carries only two-thirds the energy per volume than does gasoline. Because it mixes with water and is corrosive, it cannot be transported in the same pipelines as gasoline.
Technology Review this week interviewed researchers at BP, who believe that a form of biogas known as butanol is a better bet than ethanol. Fermented from plants in a similar fashion, it packs greater energy, in the high eighties compared to gasoline. Most important, it is less corrosive, does not mix with water as well, and thus can be transported in the same pipe with gasoline, a major advantage in terms of cost. Ethanol plants can be converted to butanol. It has the same issues regarding competition with food crops, as corn and sugar beets are the best feed stocks. But the greater efficiency of butanol as a fuel gives it an advantage. Researchers are working on cellulose as a feed stock (wood chips, corn stalks, etc.) in both cases, but are not there yet.
Will the change over at the end of cheap oil be gradual and evolutionary? Only if we start yesterday.