Making oil obsolete

Our prolific use of oil to fuel transportation is the basis of the current energy crisis. Our economic system is based on huge investments in roads, cars, buildings and centralized electrical systems. The decline in western oil fields such as in the North Sea has reignited a global struggle for the control of oil and natural gas.

A member of the British Parliament commented to us that being at the end of the Russian natural gas pipeline was not her preferred energy future. Russia’s recent cutoff of natural gas to the Ukraine underscores her point. Some believe it signaled what Russia might do if these countries support U.S. actions to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities.

In Latin America, Venezuela is using its oil supply to challenge U.S. energy policy. Bolivia intends to challenge international control of their natural gas supplies. Adding to the turmoil in the Middle East and the Caspian Basin creates a dismal world picture.

After years of resisting attempts to increase gas mileage or transition to hybrid vehicles, U.S. car and light truck manufacturers are making moves to embrace hybrid technology. While these steps are welcome, Amory Lovins and others have proposed energy pathways that can make petroleum use obsolete. They claim it can be done profitably without any curtailment of car and truck use.

These energy optimists point out that our energy crisis is not on the supply side. It stems from our excessive demand, which can be curtailed through the widespread application of existing technologies.

Timely actions could alleviate many of today’s energy concerns. Lovins reminds us that within six months, Detroit stopped producing 4 million cars per year and started producing the tanks and aircraft used to win WWII. He reminds us that we cut our oil use by more than 17 percent between 1977 and 1985. More recently, Californians dramatically cut their electrical consumption over a few months’ time when faced with impending shortages.

It has proven costly to secure and defend our existing energy supplies. Efficiency and energy alternatives have been ignored; dismissive claims regarding them have been widely accepted rather than challenged.

According to Lovins, the key to curtailing oil dependence lies in dramatically reducing the weight of new vehicles including hybrids so cars travel 92 miles per gallon and light trucks 66. Using new steel alloys that are stronger and lighter or composite material with carbon fibers, vehicles can be lighter, stronger, safer and larger and still very fuel efficient.

Advanced designs can ensure safety and reduce aerodynamic drag and rolling resistance to improve vehicle efficiency. Two simple design changes illustrate the point. If the underside of our vehicles were just as smooth as the top, energy used to push aside air would be substantially reduced. If the high, flat front of light trucks were redesigned, their mileage could also be improved.

The 18-wheeled trucks increasingly relied on to ship goods across the continent could nearly double their mileage through design and material changes. Lovins argues they could approach 12 miles per gallon.

Midsize trucks, which dominate the local delivery market, are already improving mileage by switching to hybrid powertrains. Greater gains are possible if manufacturers also improve their designs and switch to lightweight materials.

Since the proposed changes will take time, they will not protect us from any sudden, major disruptions in energy supplies. Such disruptions require different responses. A return to 55-mile-per-hour speed limits, four-day work and school weeks, carpooling and increased use of mass transit would all help. As New Yorkers recently demonstrated, walking and biking to work, school and shopping is always an option.

Our political system relies on crisis and fear to gain public support for the actions our leaders wish to take. As we look at various proposed energy futures, it is important to remember our energy future is still about choice and not fate. The efficiency option could dramatically reduce demand and attendant costs and risks associated with any frenetic effort to increase supplies.

While it is not a time for complacency, it is also not a time for panic.

Reference: Amory Lovins et. al., Winning the Oil Endgame, Snowmass, Colo.: Rocky Mountain Institute, 2005.

From the Jan. 11-17, 2006, issue

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