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Ramp renewables but energy efficiency first

by 2 Sep 2010Cartoons, Energy bridging0 comments

It doesn’t seem cheap.

Mahurangi motorway

Stop the Motorway #3: Loyal supporters of public transport typically find buses are relegated to any road other than the motorway. Meantime, there is nothing to prevent park and ride being pushed through to Pūhoi. cartoon Majorlook Productions

Filling the tank seems to cost a prince’s ransom, particularly for older folk who can remember doing it prior to the first oil shock.

For a decade before 1973, four dollars would fill the tank of a Mini.

But the oil shocks to date are nothing to those in the pipeline. This is because half the fossil fuel legacy of 300‍ ‍million years has been guzzled in a single century.

For glass half full folks, this might not sound too serious.

But the half already gobbled, was the low‑hanging fruit. Oil is now increasingly expensive and damaging to extract, as spectacularly demonstrated in the Gulf of Mexico.

As reserves have become more expensive to recover, the cost of oil has risen, peaking at US$140 a barrel before global economic downturn. This drives up the prices of almost everything, and most concerningly of food—in the United States it typically takes one kilogram of oil to produce a kilogram of food.

Although enormous reserves of oil and gas remain, long before they are used, the cost of extraction will rise to the point where it will exceed the energy value of the fuel.

This fact, one would think, would be earnestly exercising the world’s economists.

West Texas Intermediate 1998-2014

See No Peak Oil: The New Zealand Treasury apparently sees no nasty surprises, this side of 2014. chart New Zealand Treasury

But no, due to an obdurate economics ‘science’, the cost of energy is simply left out of conventional economic modelling. As Robert U Ayres and Ed Ayres put it

Perhaps the oil embargo of 1973, when oil prices skyrocketed and economic output fell, should have been a warning that one of the key assumptions of mainstream economists—that economic growth would continue indefinitely, regardless of the price of energy—might be mistaken. But the alarm was quickly forgotten when the price of oil fell again.

Meantime in Aotearoa, Minister of Transport Steven Joyce seriously imagines that it is rational to plan, in 2010, to plan to build a motorway to Wellsford. Mind, Mr Joyce is not much assisted by the New Zealand Treasury, which only forecasts the likely price of fuel a few years ahead—hear no peak oil, speak no peak oil.

Before planning for the proposed motorway is complete, the price of oil per barrel is likely to be back over US$140 a barrel, and climbing. And long before construction could be completed, even to Warkworth, the cost of fuel and construction will soar.

The consistency with which capitalists show a determination to not make money is curious. A National-led government, one would imagine, would be driven to demonstrate its economics prowess by building a profitable economy. Building a motorway is about as smart as blowing a redundancy package on a Maserati.

Rather than aiding and abetting more and more folk to commute ever-greater distances from the metropolis, Mr Joyce could be leading the revamping of the NZ Transport Agency to make it responsible for an energy efficient, integrated transportation system, including rail.

Energy efficiency is the new low‑hanging fruit—efficiency worldwide is at an incredibly low level: 13% in the United States; 20% in Japan. Energy efficiency might not be as exciting as developing new technologies or installing vast wind farms, but as Dr Robert Ayres states

The energy economy of the industrial world is so deeply dependent on fossil fuels that even the fastest conceivable growth of wind, solar, and other renewable-energy industries cannot substantially replace oil, coal, and natural gas for at least several decades.

Had global oil production peaked in 1970, when it did on cue in the United States, the world would be a very different place today. It would also be a place much less threatened by anthropogenic global warming.

Instead, the world faces the double-whammy of the urgent need to do energy differently, and on a mammoth scale, just when rapidly dwindling energy supplies are set to become unprecedentedly expensive.

To paraphrase Philip Bolger, imaginary Maseratis and motorways are almost a much fun as real Maseratis and motorways.

And much cheaper for all concerned.

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