The Illusion of Energy Scarcity
By Paul Hawken
There is a humorous Sufi story about the Mulla Nasrudin who is crawling on all fours late at night under a streetlight outside his house. A friend wanders by and asks him what he is doing and Nasrudin tells him he is looking for his lost house keys. After joining the fruitless search for some time, his friend turns to him and asks him exactly where he lost them. Nasrudin points to the backyard of the house. His friend is incredulous and wants to know why they have been searching in the front yard near the street. Nasrudin says: “Because this is where the light is.”
The purpose of Nasrudin tales is to reveal how the mind creates illusions, which then pass for reasonable behavior. In the U.S. there is the illusion du jour: We are running short of energy and need more. Not only has California hit the wall, but there are ominous warnings from New York City right across the country that we may have entered a new period of energy deficits with all the suffering that will entail: inflation, economic stagnation, and joblessness. Perish the thought; let’s drill for oil.
The proposals to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, though it is one of the world’s most climatically hostile locations, seem “reasonable” in this light. If it is scarcity that determines something’s value, then what is scarce is not oil or even energy, but the wisdom to use it wisely. If that wisdom could be found in an oil well or vein of coal, America would be the wisest country in the world. Instead, we are the most profligate with respect to energy use. How wasteful are we?
Imagine a water tank that supplies a growing town in an arid region. The water is filled by a well that draws from an aquifer, but the tank is old and leaky as are the pipes that carry the water into the hamlet. For every hundred gallons of water that goes into the tank, only two gallons gets to the village’s inhabitants. The rest is lost at the tank or on the way. With new houses being built and more families arriving, the town is running out of water, and people are complaining. The mayor proudly announces that he is going to dig a new well a thousand miles away and pump it across the desert to their water tank and calls on his city council to appropriate these needed funds so that the town does not suffer economically. Everyone applauds. He is a hero.
This is the way we deal with energy in the U.S.
We measure energy by how much work it can do. Calories, BTUs, kilowatt-hours; these are ways to indicate the amount of work a given amount of oil, gas, or electricity can accomplish. In the US, for every 100 units of energy that we introduce in our economic system, nearly 98 units are wasted. That’s right, we are 2% efficient. Building a pipeline in the fragile environment of the Arctic circle to deliver oil that will not arrive for another ten years from now and that would supply 180 days of total U.S. consumption will only do one thing: satisfy the Senators of Alaska and the CEOs of oil companies. It will do nothing for U.S. energy security.
What President Bush has completely overlooked are the proven alternatives that greatly increase the productivity with which energy is used. There are now a plethora of innovative productivity techniques that can reduce energy consumption fifty-fold greater than the purported supply of oil in ANWR, and they are cheaper, more effective, and create more jobs.
If the USGS estimates are correct, ANWR will provide about 292,000 barrels of oil or about 156,000 barrels of gasoline a day for 30 years starting in 2011. That would run about 2% of the cars in the U.S for three decades. Improving fleet mileage 0.4 mpg in our light vehicles would accomplish the same objective with the important exception that it would cost consumers less.
These savings are just the tip of the iceberg. U.S. fleet mileage is currently 24 mpg, a 20-year low. Hybrid electric cars now appearing in show rooms will triple that figure. Current models such as the Toyota Prius get 48-mpg city/highway combined. There are now over 350,000 on the road here and abroad. VW is already selling a car that gets 78-mpg and is said to have a 200-mpg car available in 2003. The Big Three are testing family sedans that will head for production in the next three years that exceed 70 mpg. Another way to think about this is that we can create the equivalent of about 30 Arctic Refuge oilfields in Detroit with good engineering. It takes bad politics to create only one.
Right behind hybrid electrics is an emerging fuel cell technology that will eventually run our cars on hydrogen, not oil. These cars, whose emissions are hot water vapor and oxygen, have an extraordinary secondary use: the are mobile power plants with 5- 10 times the total power output of all our nuclear and coal plants. Parked cars can feed electricity into the grid, thereby forever eliminating the need for dirty, large, centralized power plants.
In buildings, manufacturing, processing, and construction, similar savings abound. The mindset that made cars with one percent energy efficiency created our buildings and cities too. With relatively low-tech methods including new glazing, proper siting, efficient lighting, and passive heating and ventilation, we can create state-of-the-shelf, quiet, thermally comfortable buildings that are a visual delight. These buildings save 30-50% over conventionally built structures that are too hot, too cold, too drafty, too noisy, and not so great to work in. Integrating green buildings with new urbanist planning and layouts can further reduce traffic, noise, energy, and waste by equal amounts.
In industry, huge cost and energy savings can be attained as we shift away from the petrochemically dependent reactive chemistry that has produced a witch’s brew of compounds that permeate our environment with toxins. New enzymatic techniques not only promise safer compounds, but low-temperature manufacturing the can reduce energy cost by 90%. The possibilities for energy efficiency in all aspects of industry are almost overwhelming in their diversity and possibility. The good news is that these savings are made of tools, products and services that can be created everywhere in the US. They do not depend on oilfields, large capital outlays, or putting critical environments at risk.
President Bush’s energy policy will reward what a few Senators and oil executives want but not what the American people want. People are not clamoring for the destruction of a sensitive Arctic habitat, more greenhouse gases, climatic instability, or the wanton disregard of the traditional home of the Gwich’in people. What Americans want is security, jobs, stable prices, and an intelligent energy policy. Ignoring the leaky water tank on the hill cannot attain this. No system is 100% efficient. That is impossible according to physical laws. But America could have a goal of 10% efficiency, an objective that would allow robust economic growth while reducing overall energy use by two-thirds in the next twenty years, a goal that would lead us away from the oil age, an age whose end is inevitable. The oil age, including combustion processes, which threaten the very stability of life on earth, is ending, not because we are running out of oil, but because we have a better idea. The Stone Age never ran out of stones either. We are on the threshold of a profoundly different economy with respect to energy use. The continued governmental subsidy of coal and oil, whether in Alaska or Virginia or Kentucky or any other state whose Senators have seniority, is a sure-fire way to hobble America’s competitiveness.
We can continue to be the most profligate nation in the world with respect to energy, or we can begin to become the most brilliant and innovative. We lead in so many areas of technology. We can do it with energy too. Mark Twain said that you can’t see if your imagination is out of focus. To focus the imagination of a nation, a country that is economically strong and environmentally conservative requires just one quality: leadership.
Paul Hawken is an environmentalist, educator, lecturer, entrepreneur, journalist, and best-selling author. He is known around the world as one of the leading architects and proponents of corporate reform with respect to ecological practices. His writings and work have led companies to change their business philosophy to support environmental restoration. He serves as co-chair of TNS-International, a non-profit educational foundation that assists organizations and businesses in twelve countries in creating a long term commitment to environmental sustainability as a core part of their overall policy and practices.