Peak Oil

A Tankfull of Technology

By Ryan McGreal
Published April 26, 2006

A frequent rejoinder to anyone who tries to make peak oil a planning priority is this pervasive notion that somehow "technology" will address the energy shortfall.

I make my living as a programmer, so I'm not anti-technology by any means. However, I'm well aware that a "technology" is not a source of energy but a method of harnessing energy for application.

The crisis we face is not a shortage of technology but of energy itself. Throwing more technology at declining energy supplies might help to stretch the decline by making more efficient use of the energy that remains, but it will not put more energy into the ground, and that's the real problem.

Further, relying on technology alone to solve our problems on the supply side - rather than focusing on the demand side - can actually be counterproductive. For example, technology improvements in extracting North Sea oil have accelerated depletion without making more total energy available. The North Sea oilfield is now declining at about nine percent a year.

Now, technologies are evolving to harness other energy sources. Wind turbines, for example, are vastly more efficient at capturing wind energy than they were a hundred years ago and, at 5 to 7 cents per kilowatt-hour, are actually comparable in price to natural gas fired power generators.

Those new technologies will drive a much different economic model - specifically, one that turns around connection to the electricity grid. A necessary corrolary to leverage these new technologies is to develop a compact, diverse urban form that is close to energy-efficient transport modes (rail and shipping), not to develop segregated pockets of greenfield development far from each other, and certainly not around the airport.

You simply cannot fly an airplane on batteries or fuel cells. The number of energy conversions to move AC power into a fuel cell and then to the axle of a vehicle makes efficiency losses inevitable (the first and second laws of thermodynamics are inviolable). By contrast, shipping, rail, and grid-connected transit are all inherently far more efficient modes - more efficient by orders of magnitude, in fact.

One day, a successful future technology - say, nuclear fusion - might open up cheap, abundant energy again, but the most optimistic scenario puts that at least 40-50 years away, far too late to get us over the oil hump.

In the meantime, we will have to respond in the old-fashioned way: improving efficiencies, reducing waste, and learning to produce and harness energy from alternate sources via their attendant technologies - in other words, exactly what Richard Gilbert's report recommends.

I'd rather we do this in a proactive manner than have rationing imposed on us by punishing gas prices.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.

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By phantasm08037 (anonymous) | Posted April 27, 2006 at 21:40:38

A high price for the raw material harnessed to get the energy is the best start towards more efficient demand. There is no perfect solution. Surpressing prices or giving people money to mitigate the effect of the higher prices absolutely sends the wrong market signal. Tell me - wouldn't it make more sense for now to use the natural gas in hybrid cars and just about anything else to make electricity? How lazy and stupid can you get?

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