Peak Oil is You

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Page added on April 27, 2011

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Sharon Astyk: It Isn’t Gridcrash that Makes the Lights Go Out


A lot of us worry about extended power outages, and for good reason – they are incredibly disruptive to large areas. The more one knows about our extant outdated electric grid with its weak infrastructure, the more this sort of thing is worrisome. I certainly do think that there are some compelling reasons to worry about the ability of the existing grid to satisfy the needs of a society that, because of oil and gas depletion and carbon reduction, is moving more and more of its energy burden to electricity.

Many of the proposals to clean up carbon involve changing the source of energy away from oil to either nuclear energy or coal plants with scrubbers and sequestration (I will have more to say about the problems of carbon sequestration from coal plants in another post – I am less sanguine than many people that we can actually do this). In many proposals we would begin powering our transportation with electric cars, buses and trains, replacing oil with electricity, etc…

While I have my doubts about whether we will ever do all of these things, if we did, it -would certainly place enormous pressure on the grid, and require enormous investments in infrastructure. It is no big deal to recharge a few thousand electric cars – if everyone had one, this would be something of an issue. But regardless, I think it is also possible that we could accomplish this, or that we could fail to convert our infrastructure quickly enough (this is an enormous economic undertaking) thus overburdening the grid and leading to widespread power disruptions. I officially take no strong position here.

But what I do have a strong opinion on (you knew there had to be something ) is this: I think most of us ought to be preparing for a life without electricity, regardless of whether we are concerned about natural or structural disruptions in the electrical grid.

I believe this for purely practical reasons. Peak oil and climate change, for most of us, will be less about geopolitics and large scale infrastructure crisis than it will be about what I call (riffing on Freud) ordinary human poverty. That is, we’re going to be poorer, many of us much, much poorer.

Even economists who dismiss peak oil acknowledge that significant oil shocks of any kind – caused either by depletion or by political crisis, would cause a major economic crisis. We know from the Stern report (which almost certainly understated things) that the impact of unchecked climate change (we don’t have any other kind) may rise over this century to up to 20% of world GDP total. The things that many of us (by no means all) have been able to be certain of – a certain kind of stability and comfort, are going to go away.

The economic problems created by oil depletion and climate change are likely to create a serious, and deep economic crisis, much more serious than anything we’ve seen in my lifetime. During the last depression, 29% of American schoolchildren suffered some form of malnutrition. Herbert Hoover famously said, “at least no one has starved” only to be caught out as cases of starvation appeared around the nation and mothers in cities rioted because they had nothing for their children to eat. The classic image of stockbrokers selling apples on the street and bread lines going around the block doesn’t even quite convey how desperately poor many people were. It is not unlikely this view of our past is part of our future.

One of the useful things about having been crazily poor for some years during college and graduate school (living illegally in school buildings, apartments with no hot water, eviction notices, no phone, no power, etc…), which is not something I generally remember with fondness, is that it gives me some experience with what living poor is like. And one of the things it is like is never being able to pay all your bills.

So you play bill roulette. You pay the one with the most urgent exclamation points and potent threats first, and then you pay the next one. And you can go on like this for some time. But it is very hard to maintain when you don’t have enough money to meet your basic expenses. And eventually, you get caught out – the check bounces, the next payment doesn’t arrive in time, you have an unexpected crisis, or the bill collectors threaten you into paying out of order, and something happens.

This isn’t just my experience – in the years I volunteered with various poverty abatement programs, I saw thousands of people in the same situation. And when you let one of the balls fall, the next step is to set you back even further. Because getting your vehicle back from the impound, or your phone turned back on, or contesting your eviction, or whatever is expensive. Those things cost money you don’t have, and you end up further behind.

Peak oil and climate change will hit most of us where it hurts – in our jobs, our pocketbooks, in the homes where we won’t be able to make the rent or mortgage payment, in our health because we’ll no longer be able to afford routine care, in our choices – instead of “vacation fund or 401K, we’ll be wondering “shoes or groceries.” Add in that we can expect the price of electricity to rise – carbon sequestration is expensive, nuclear power is expensive initially and dealing with its wastes is very expensive, investment in renewables is not cheap either – we can expect the price of our electricity to rise steadily.

So whether or not we ever have rolling blackouts again or grid failure, lots of us will be having our power turned off. And since electricity for the most part runs luxury items (although we are not accustomed to thinking of them as luxuries) like refrigeration and lights, if it comes down to hard choices like “food or electric,” “lights or medicine” we should all recognize that electricity is not essential to (most) human life, and prepare to function well and comfortably without it.

Now private renewable energy is an option for some people. But the systems are expensive and somewhat complicated, and in the northern part of the country, we can expect periods where there isn’t enough sun to run our solar systems. I am not trying to discourage anyone who can afford it from investing in renewable energy systems, in fact, quite the contrary. But the process of adapting our homes to operate on less is a large and expensive one. In a nation with a minimal total savings rate, enormous quantites of mortgage and credit card debt, and a shaky currency, a lot of us, probably a majority, aren’t going to be able to go solar, and probably shouldn’t, because it really doesn’t return the most bang for our bucks.

If you have $2000 to spend, you could choose between several things. For that money, you coul add significant insulation to your leaky house, make or purchase insulating curtains for all windows, and buy four solar lanterns, a couple of battery powered lanterns, a solar battery charger and some rechargeable batteries. The rechargeable batteries and the lanterns would provide you with light and music for your existing CD player or MP3 player, and the insulation and curtains would provide a lifetime reduction in your heating and cooling needs. Or, for that same $2000, you could get a battery backup solar system that sat on your roof, and run four lights and a CD player. I know which one I would choose.

For those who are way ahead of the game, and already have their insulation and everything else they need, great, and if you have money to spend on your house, you don’t need my advice as to how to use it. But for the rest of us, solar panels on your roof or a wind generator in your yard is probably not the best use of your money (if you have the right spot for microhydro, you might have a better deal, and I’m envious). Because if you triage your life, and think about what is most important, it will be making sure you can live as comfortably as possible and as securely as possible, while, in hard times, needing to buy as few things as possible.

In addition, solar systems generally cannot heat houses, run conventional refrigerators (the kind they can run are usually well
above $1000, and the cost of the system to run them is quite significant as well), run toasters, electric stoves or, except with the largest systems, air conditioning. So you will still have many needs unmet, after you’ve invested thousands and thousands of dollars in your private RE system. That is, you’d have to buy the solar panels, and still buy the woodstove, the insulation, etc…

If you are like us, that’s just out the question economically. We can’t afford to preserve electricity at all costs when there are so many more urgent needs, and both household wind and household solar are not totally reliable where I live. We’d have to have non-electric backups for the times when the skies were cloudy or the wind wasn’t blowing – or we’d need a generator, which is also pricey, depends on outside gas and produces a lot of carbon. We cannot afford to do both, and I think that’s true of many or most people. There’s also the issue of mobility – like it or not, in economic hard times some of us will lose our houses, or having family combine housing with them. It is not very hard to pick up your solar crank radio, or to pack your hand-washing machine. It is something of a bigger project to get the solar panels unwired from your house and moved. It is not impossible and again, I:value private renewable energy – but I think it is a luxury of the financially secure, and should come *after* the rest.

For those of us who need the most bang for our buck, we need to prioritize. Electricity is nice – I’m very fond of it. But most of us should have homes that function well without it, just in case. And non-electric, human powered solutions, and stand-alone renewables (that is, things like solar calculators, solar battery chargers, solar radios, etc… that are cheap, last a long time and can serve many of the functions we normally rely on wall plugs for), are overwhelmingly more reliable, cheaper and more secure than dependency on the grid or on house-sized renewable energy systems.

In the cold climates, we need water, heat, light, a source of food and some way to prepare it, and toileting and washing facilities. A means of keeping food cool is helpful too, but a bucket of water taken from the ground and a mason jar will keep your dinner overnight. Laundry facilities would be great, but if you don’t get to that, you can wash your clothes in a bucket, wring them through a mop wringer and hang them on a $2 clothesline. If you are prepared to scavenge, can build a lot of stuff and don’t require new things, all these needs can probably be fufilled for less than $2000. If you buy everything new, it might cost you 4K, depending on your circumstances. Even if you don’t own your home, many of these items are usable in rental housing, and a landlord might well let you install, say, rainwater cachement onto existing drains.

In the west, water is a bigger issue. Most of the rest of us can capture rainwater, but horribly, in some part of the west it is illegal to capture the rainwash off your roof. Very deep wells cannot be pumped manually. For you, solar direct pumps are probably the best option, or perhaps we will return to windmills. Changing the water laws so that you can collect your own rainwater would probably help, as has happened in cities like Denver.

In the hot states (an expanding number), cooling is a much bigger issue than heating. And while a lot can be done with good insulation, heavy curtains and shades, and a good solar attic fan, some people may still need air conditioning. In this case, if air conditioning is a life or death issue, house-attached solar might make sense. But for poor people, swamp coolers and battery powered fans, changes in lifestyle (do work in the early morning and evening), cool baths and showers and a change in pace will probably do it.

Our plan is to make our house functional and comfortable without electric power. That means a manual pump on our well, as well as (because I’m lazy and want water in my house) a cistern tank with a hand pump at my kitchen sink). We have two solar lanterns, two solar battery chargers, and a crank/solar radio for lighting and music (we consider music an essential). I can do my laundry in a bucket, but I’m coveting a James Handwasher and wringer. Refrigeration is already natural during the winter (we have an insulated area that stays plenty cold but does not freeze) and water based during the summer.

It will also mean changing the way we cook in warm weather, but that’s no tragedy – the planet is full of people without fridges, and they created some of the best cuisines on earth without them. We have a wood cookstove and a regular woodstove, and plenty of warm clothes and blankets for the unheated sleeping areas. We had a homemade outdoor masonry oven, but we’ll need to build a new one this year, which will be fun. I’ve got two homemade solar cookers, but am coveting a professionally made one, which will achieve higher temperatures. But I could get along with my homemade ones. Our baling-wire and glue composting toilet could be replaced with something new and pretty, but the original worked fine, the bucket was free and the commode bought at a yard sale for $5. We buy sawdust now and again, but could use old leaves. We’re reinsulating, which is not cheap, but we could, if necessary, just get used to the cold. It would not kill us. Homemade insulated curtains, tapestries or blankets hung over underinsulated walls, reusable bubble wrap on windows, even styrofoam insulation covered with bookshelves, and handmade draft dodgers would do the same job for much, much less money, as would moving more and faster and putting on more clothes. We should not confuse issues of comfort with issues of necessity.

Ultimately, we may turn the power off for other reasons than necessity. If our nation fails to cut its emissions, and our electricity is increasingly created by dirty coal, or by nuclear plants that endanger our communities, turning it all off may be the only possible way to avoid participating in the harm we’re doing. It is important to me that I keep in mind that electricity for private homes (I am not speaking here about electricity for hospitals and other public resources) is a luxury, not a necessity. It is probably difficult for most of us to get our minds around these facts, but it is true.

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