The End of Cheap Energy
By Cam Mather
I recently had the chance to talk to one of my daughter’s housemates at her University of Toronto Co-op house. He had just written his Masters paper for Political Science on Peak Oil. I’ve tried to keep all this peak oil stuff from my daughters, but apparently they are exposed to it anyway. It seems to be pretty much out there, and is being discussed more and more in the mainstream media.
I believe part of his thesis was that with peak oil we would see a shift in power structures. Large centralized power structures, i.e. The American Empire, require abundant cheap energy to fuel them. This is Jared Diamond’s theory in his book “Collapse” – that the cause of the collapse of most empires is energy related. Thomas Homer Dixon discussed this a lot in his book “The Upside of Down” using the Roman Empire as his case study. I don’t generally think of those empires as having “energy”, since they didn’t have access to petroleum, but they had “solar” energy, which grew food such as grain, which fed their armies. So it seems it often all comes down to energy.
In “Thriving During Challenging Times” I build the case for how much energy individuals in developed countries use and therefore how dependent on it we’ve become. I think my ability to understand the impact of energy has been enhanced by living off the electricity grid. It’s easy to talk about it from what you’ve read in books, but for the last 12 years my life has centered on energy. I need it to heat my house, to heat my water and cook my food, and power all the appliances that I use which are the same appliances that other families in North America have. The difference is there is no pipeline line delivering natural gas to my house or utility lines bringing electricity. I have to make it myself. And it’s really, really tough to make even close to what the average North American family uses.
This is because the energy that we use is very “energy dense”. I was thinking about this as I discussed the master’s thesis with my daughter’s housemate. He was cooking his breakfast at the time. I watched as he turned on the gas burner before he picked up a pot and filled it with water, and then finally put it on the stove. In my house the gas wouldn’t get turned on until the pot full of water was ready and waiting on the stovetop. As he spoke of peak oil and it’s ramifications for the future I got the strong sense that even after all of his research, he couldn’t conceptualize how much energy he was using to make his breakfast.
Perhaps if he had to have solar panels on his roof to produce the electrical equivalent of how much natural gas he was using it would help. It’s not until you have to spend thousands of dollars on photovoltaic panels that you can really “get” how lucky we are to have had access to things like gas and oil. It also gives you an appreciation for the sort of dislocation that our society would experience if we started to run out of these fuels. We would require a massive, World War II like mobilization to avert some pretty negative consequences.
This is what would happen on a societal level, but it doesn’t mean you have to sit and wait for it to happen to you. You can grab a copy of “The Renewable Energy Handbook” and start making your home more energy independent. You can also begin to accept that peak oil is going to have a profound change on your life. A decrease in liquid hydrocarbons, or the gas and diesel that we put in to our gas tanks, is probably going to have the biggest effect. They are very energy dense, and we simply won’t be able to have the same mobility with ethanol or even electric cars. It’s just not going to be the same. The sooner you get those solar panels on your roof and start getting a handle on what you can do with them, the better prepared you’ll be.