Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Your Electric Bill

In the past few years you may have noticed your electric bill creeping up. In Hawaii, 85% of our electricity is currently generated from oil. As the price of oil has risen from $10 per barrel in 1998 to $100 today, so to have our electric bills. A large part of managing peak oil will be conserving electricity. At some point, government may make these choices for us, but for now here are some things you can do to reduce your electric bill.

1. Switch out all your lights to flourescents or compact flourescents. This may not make sense for lights that are constantly switching off and on, for those low watt incandescent may be better. Or, go with LEDs. The bulbs are very expensive, but they have a very long lifespan. Each one is rated for tens of thousands of hours and tens of thousands of switches. CFs can burn out quickly if you switch them off and on too much. You'll have to experiment with bulbs in your house to find which outlets are suited for which kind of light.

2. Unplug your TV, VCR, & DVD player when you're not using them. Even "off" they can suck up to 15 watts per hour. Better yet, put them on a master switch. If you find yourself forgetting, buy a wall timer. I've got one. I can set the power to turn on and off several times a day. If you know you only watch TV from 6 to 9, you can set it to only allow the TV/VCR on during those times. There's even a button you press if you want to watch off cycle that will auto shut off at the next end cycle.
3. How old are your A/C units? There may be much more efficient ones available.

4. Ditto for the fridge. How old is it?

5. Washer and dryer?

6. How old is your dishwasher? If you do, set an external timer and turn it off before the dry cycle. Mine hits the dry cycle at 44m, so I always set the stove timer, then pop the hot, wet dishes and let them air dry.

7. You may wish to install a new water heater/hot water storage tank. Compared to the water heaters of even 5 years ago, I've heard that the new ones let almost no heat escape and are much more efficient, but you'll have to do the research. Typically, I read that many electric appliances have been improving in efficiency at 5% per year, so find out what you've got, how old it is, and how much better newer models are. They could pay for themselves in a few years.

8. If possible, install a solar water heater on the roof. Heating water is about 40% of the average electric bill, so if you're paying $100 per month (and it sounds like you're close to that) that's almost a $40 per month savings. A new solar water heater is $1800 installed (including discounts, I think. The vendor will have the details) so that pays for itself in less than four years.

9. Hang your clothes out to dry. Electric dryers use vast amounts of electricity. I think it's something like 5% of the nationwide electrical usage.

10. Use electric fans (ceiling or floor) before turning on the A/C. Fans use much less electricity. When you sleep use a floor fan with a timer. These are quite common and cheap ($30 or so).

11. Switch out your tube TVs and computer monitors for LCD models. LCDs use less electricity, generate less heat, and take up less space too, which is important in space-challenged Hawaii. New LED backlight models are even more efficient.

12. Make your next computer purchase a lap top. They're designed to be efficient, and use much less electricity than desktop models.

13. If you play video games, buy a Nintendo Wii. It's got the lowest power video and CPU of the big three video game consoles (XBox 360 and PlayStation 3 being the other two). Interestingly, it's also been the best selling model the past two years making a mockery of the axiom "Graphics sell videogames."

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Relocalization and Hawaii

There has been a bit of a dust up going on around the peak oil blog community over the past couple of weeks over relocalization. Relocalization is the idea that food and other production will cease to be global and return to being done in the local communities where the items are consumed. Due to a scarcity of fuel, the high cost of transporting grapes from Chile, toys from China, and even corn in Iowa will make it feasible again to do this production regionally. Authors such as Richard Heinberg and James Kunstler postulate that in the future much production of goods will be done within 100 miles of where they’re used. This is in stark contrast with today where food for example travels thousands of miles before we eat it. We in Hawaii typically must add close to 3000 more miles to whatever the mainland average is.

The whole thing started when Stuart Staniford, one of the editors at The Oil Drum posted this post, titled "The Fallacy of Reversibility." The article is long, and somewhat technical, but it comes down to this: as fuel gets scarce and expensive, big agriculture won't collapse and we won't return to local production. In fact, big ag will flourish:
I've argued in this piece that industrial agriculture is likely to be stronger and more profitable when oil prices are high, not weaker. So the reversalist future of local food production on smaller farms with higher labor input will not come to pass as a result of peak oil. The industrial agricultural sector owns most of the land, and will be in an excellent position to increase their land holdings as remaining subsistence farmers fail or consolidate in the face of high food prices. Industrial farmers will have no reason to sell out to improverished urban dwellers. Thus the industrialization of the land is not a reversible process any time soon - it is a fallacy to think so. The reversalists are expressing wishful thinking and nostalgia for the past, not a reasoned analysis of how the future is likely to play out. And urbanites worried about their future should not be looking to buy or rent a smallholding as a solution to their problems - industrial farmers are extremely efficient, and there is no way to compete with them except by becoming one.

I have a few comments about this. First, Stuart isn't postulating anything radical. When any given industry hits a downturn, consolidation occurs: smaller players fail since they don't have the resources to weather the storm. Bigger players buy them up at bargain prices. This will happen in farming, too, when skyrocketing fuel costs cause smaller farms to fail and they're absorbed by corporate agriculture. Second, Stuart isn't saying that this is how he'd like things to play out, he's just calling them like he's seeing them. Third, the agriculture industry consumes about 10% of the fossil fuels we consume to produce and bring the food to market, so we can cut back on a lot of other things and prioritize fuel use for food before big ag starts to feel the pinch. Fourth, Stuart says, "Thus the industrialization of the land is not a reversible process any time soon" but he fails to define "soon." Obviously at some point severe scarcity comes into play, and you just can't maintain 2000 mile supply chains any longer. It would be nice to see that timeline and scenario addressed. Fifth, it's too bad that Stuart labeled those advocating a return to localism a bit derisively as "reversalists" and expressed a bit of disdain for them. I think that both parties are right: Stuart in the short term, and Heinberg, in the long term.
Immediately a raging debate began in the comments. This comment by Jason Bradford did a good job of summing up the counter arguments: localism promotes food security, prevents soil depletion, maintains crop variability instead of monoculture, and is more sustainable long-term. An "official" response was posted a few days later by Sharon Astyk. Still more responses showed up on The Oil Drum and the Energy Bulletin here, here, and here. Dmitry Orlov gave another response here.

How does this affect Hawaii? Of any place on Earth, Hawaii is a prime candidate for relocalization. We need to be more self-sufficient because we are so isolated. We import 90% of both our food and our energy. Even though big ag may continue to do well for the next decade or so, the Hawaii government and other groups need to begin today to encourage more local production, especially of food.

Food security
Hawaii imports 90% of its food and over 90% of its energy. Promoting small scale organic farming will help Hawaii weather any shortages or interruptions. It has the added benefit of employing people who formerly worked in the shrinking tourist industry (when oil hits $200 per barrel, who will afford to fly here?). A strategic reserve of gasoline, diesel, and other essential supplies can be stored by the government and dispersed during an emergency. Already, we're seeing fuel supplies affect farming in remote places like North Dakota and South Africa. It's only a matter of time before it happens here. So, while in a perfect world of constant, perfectly declining energy sources, we would see big ag continue to operate, the world doesn't work that way, and it only takes a few missed tankers of fuel to ruin a harvest or a few missed shipments of food before Hawaiians start starving.

The transportation system of the entire world is based on diesel: cargo ships, train locomotives, and eighteen-wheelers all run on the stuff. As energy prices rise and energy becomes scarce there are two effects. The first is that because we import so much the price of Hawaii's food increases in proportion with the cost of fuel. This is already reflected in Hawaii's high prices compared to most of the US mainland. Now imagine living in a world where all food prices were doubled. The second effect is reliability. As fuel supplies dwindle scarcity results. It's entirely possible that food shipments from the mainland will be missed or delayed, causing panic buying and hoarding. This can be mitigated if much of our food were produced locally. It's a much easier task to get food from Hamakua to Honolulu (30m by truck, 100 by ship) than it is from Kansas (1500m by truck, 3000m by ship).

Organic Farming
Chemical fertilizers and pesticides are all produced from oil and natural gas. As those products become more expensive and less available, we'll have to move to a method of farming that is less reliant on fossil fuels to produce foods. As fossil fuels become scarce their use will have to be prioritized for transport and possibly refrigeration. That means organic farming. Organic farming fits in with Hawaii's emphasis on nature and the environment. It's healthier. And it produces the same amount of crops on average over time as fossil fuel-based agriculture.

We may have nothing to trade for food at some point. The backbones of our economy are tourism and luxury agricultural items (Kona coffee, mac nuts, fresh pineapples, etc.). In a world where energy is both expensive and scarce, both tourism and luxury agriculture will collapse, especially 3000 miles from the nearest market. We will have to produce for ourselves, if we want to eat.

Global Warming
As global warming becomes more severe, one of the consequences is the desertification of formerly productive farmland through prolonged drought. I saw a computer simulation (although I was unable to find the original link, this article describes the phenomenon) where by 2050, the deserts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas had crept north almost to the Canadian border. The simulation postulated that almost no crops would be able to be produced the bread basket of the US. Most of the North American food production would have to be moved to Canada where there was still rainfall. If the US cannot produce food, there won't be much to send us. The effects of global warming are milder at the tropical latitudes, so we shouldn't see as much change as mainland of the US.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Rate vs. Reserves

There's a great article over at Peak Opportunity called, Peak Oil: Why is it so difficult to Explain/Understand? which puts a fly in the ointment of all those claiming that we have so much oil in the ground that we won't reach world peak production until at least 2030 and won't see significant decreases in our lifetimes. Apparently, it's not about how much oil we have in the ground (the reserves) it's about how much and how quickly that oil can be processed and brought to market (the rate).

The maximum production RATE for a given field or group of fields in not arbitrary! In other words, it can’t just be anything you want it to be! For instance, if a field has RESERVES of say 10 million barrels, the maximum RATE might be several thousand barrels per day, but it could never be 1 million barrels per day.

Why? OK, here is the key take-away:

Due to the physics of the flow of oil through rock, a field’s (or a country’s, or the world’s) maximum oil production RATE is not arbitrary but is dependent on the RESERVES:
  • SIZE (how big is the field in terms of area and thickness?)
  • AGE (is the field newly discovered/produced, or is has it been producing for 40 years?)
  • QUALITY (how well does the oil flow through the rock?)
  • All of the world’s largest oil fields – Ghawar, Cantarell, Burgan and Daquing - have excellent SIZE and excellent QUALITY ... but their AGE is old! Hence, all of these (except possibly Ghawar) are in decline (their RATE is declining each day).
  • The Athabasca tar sands, on the other hand, have excellent SIZE, they are essentially “new” in AGE (relatively little compared to the RESERVES has been produced so far), but they have the very poorest QUALITY – the oil is so thick it won’t flow and must be melted with heat, dissolved with solvents or mined.

The whole article is very informative. In case you missed the link at the top, you can find the full article here.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Japan is Much Better Prepared for Peak Oil than we are.

I went to Japan for vacation in fall 2007 to visit my wife’s family. Having been immersed in peak oil stories for the past year, this time when I went I viewed the country through that lens. Japan and Hawaii are somewhat comparable in that they are both volcanic island chains with high population densities. I came home realizing how much better prepared to weather declining oil supplies Japan is than we are.

Half the oil per person:
Japan uses about half the oil per person that we do, while maintaining a similar lifestyle to us in the US. They have cars, ipods, TVs, computers, mobile phones, office jobs, and all the other things that make life “modern.” Of course, it’s not exactly the same as here. Houses tend to be smaller, refrigerators & washer/dryers are smaller, and fewer people own cars, although getting around is absolutely no problem with the excellent public transportation system. When oil gets scarce, people will hang their wash (many still do), bike more (every Japanese person owns a bicycle), shop locally, garden more, and generally make do in an infrastructure already designed to promote conservation.

Mixed use living arrangements:
Most residential and commercial spaces are in the same block or even building. In the cities, condos sit on top of all types of stores, but especially convenience stores where one can buy food and sundries and pay bills. In the countryside, village houses often use the front room as a shop of some kind: barber, beer seller, fishmonger, etc. while the back (or top) is where the family lives. Of course this was, and in many places still is, the standard all over the world for all of human history. Only in the last 50 years have the single building shop/residence been replaced by Wal-Mart. Getting what you need from these shops is easy on foot or via bicycle. What suburbs do exist are walkable and convenient. My father-in-law lives in one. It’s all houses and no stores, but vending machines (for beverages, beer, and sadly, cigarettes) are a five minute walk. The store is a ten minute walk.

Excellent public transportation:
Japan’s public transportation system is one of the best in the world. Trains are clean, fast, plentiful, and on time. Some cities, like Nagasaki, still have electrified street cars. Downtowns in larger cities are clean, vibrant, and alive, with underground walkways to facilitate pedestrian traffic between bus and train terminals. Buses snake off from train stations out to less populated areas. Some of these are electrified, but most are not. However, installing electric buses during oil scarcity could be fairly easily accomplished and economically viable due to the high population densities. In Hawaii, all of our transportation is oil-dependent. And our light rail system isn’t supposed to come online until 2020, if it ever does.

High efficiency vehicles:
First, Japan discourages car ownership by providing barriers to ownership. It costs $3000 or so to get a drivers license, and taxes, registration, and the dreaded shakken (safety inspection) can cost an owner a couple of extra thousand per year. Top that with high gasoline taxes and highway tolls, and owning a car becomes a much greater expense than the cost of the machine. Cars in Japan get almost double the fuel economy of their American counterparts (I read 45 mpg, but I can't find the link) and this efficiency is realized largely without hybrids. Part of this is accomplished through the promotion of “K-cars” (keijidosha, or “light car”). These cars have only a 660 cc engine, thus get great MPG. The government offers lots of breaks on the taxes and shakken for k-cars, and so they are more affordable. By contrast, Oahu passed the million car mark last year, and many of these are large, inefficient SUVs which fall under the light truck CAFE standards required to average only 21 mpg.

Food production:
Japan used to have a law that prohibited building on farmland, so that Japan could maintain self sufficiency in food production. I don’t know if this law is still on the books, but it appears so. The demarcation line between the city and countryside is sharp. One moment you’ll be driving by beige, ten-story condominiums (called “mansions”), and the next moment you’ll be driving by rice fields. Most cities are surrounded by farmland, and Japan kept subsidies on rice and other products in place to keep farmers in business. The Japanese pay some of the highest prices for rice and other food in the world. While the average age of farmers is very high, the infrastructure is still there. If peak oil results in the loss of a lot of city jobs, there are farms nearby that will need manual laborers, and the higher price of food will encourage this. The food won’t have to go far, either, to find its way to hungry mouths. Hawaii, by contrast imports over 90% of its food.

Another benefit is that the Japanese have kept their traditional diet made mostly from whole foods. Sushi, gobo, daikon, tsukemono, yamaimo, and many other foods are easy to prepare from vegetables and fish by hand from unprocessed ingredients. In an energy scarce world, processed foods will be the exception, and the Japanese won’t have to relearn how to make and eat traditional food. Assuming we could even grow enough to feed ourselves in Hawaii, would we be able to make sweet potatoes, pineapple, papaya, and poi dietary mainstays?

Shrinking population:
Japan’s population is shrinking, and is expected to fall from a current 120 million today down to 90 million by 2050. As oil and gas become scarce, food production will become more difficult, and a smaller population will be easier to feed. While this issue is currently viewed by the government as a negative (the growth model is the only model), I believe that this will definitely be viewed as a benefit during the lean years.

“The nail that sticks up gets hammered down”:
Japanese society is very orderly. Crime rates are among the lowest in the world. The Japanese people, for the most part, follow both the law and societal rules. While these rules have been described as oppressive, it has long been the case in Japan where people have been living in close quarters for centuries, and these rules create personal space and avoid conflict. Having such customs in place when times get tough will serve as a bulwark against chaos. In America, with our emphasis on individuality, where we’re so sure about our rights, and where the number of guns in private hands is the same as the population of the country, we’ll be lucky to avoid a blood bath when gas and food rationing begin.

Japan is far from a perfect country. Much product distribution is done via diesel truck. Japan, like America, has bought into globalization and imports billions in cheap foreign-made goods each year. Even with population shrinkage, the population is still far above the pre-industrial level of 20 million or so. The vast majority of the population goes about their daily business and pleasure completely unaware that peak oil is looming around the corner.

However, I was heartened the other day to read this article about how the Japanese government is aiming to install 30% of households with solar power. While I personally think they need a more aggressive program, it’s certainly a good start, and much more than we are doing here in Hawaii, with our favorable latitude and hundreds of sunny days per year:

I was also surprised at the number and types of people aware and concerned about global warming. I talked to three different people about it, each of whom had brought the issue up without prompting from me. A rental car salesman, a hotel worker, and a gas station attendant I talked to all made comments about it during our conversations. I can only hope that peak oil soon rises to the same level of consciousness.

UDPATE 1/22/08: I came across this article about how Japan is only 27% self sufficient in producing grain. I guess they weren't maintaining that old law about not building on farmland, or perhaps their population simply outstripped their ability to produce. 27% is the lowest rate in the world for a nation, but it is still better than the 10% or so self sufficiency Hawaii has.

Article here.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

What is peak oil and how does it affect Hawaii?

Oil is a finite resource. There haven’t been any large discoveries of oil deposits since the 1970s. Known deposits have been drilled and pumped relentlessly. Many of these deposits have been pumped so much that they no longer produce the same amount of oil as they initially did. Their production reached a maximum output, or “peak,” then began to decline. The term “peak oil” refers to the point at which oil production begins to decline for a given well, field, region, country, or the world. Many experts believe that the world-wide peak has either begun or will occur in a few years.

As demand continues to rise, oil production is failing to keep up. On the contrary, oil production has been stagnant for the past few years, and we appear to be currently at or near peak production. The disparity between supply and demand will cause prices to go up sharply. We’re already at $100 per barrel up from a little over $10 per barrel in 1998. Oil prices will continue to rise affecting the price of all other goods and services, since oil is used to create or transport almost every product consumed or used by human beings on this planet. There really aren’t any substitutes for oil as a raw material in many products and as an engine fuel for many machines.

Hawaii’s food, electricity, transportation, and economy are more dependent on oil than any other state. This state is unique in that over 90% of our energy and 90% of our food are imported in freighters that run on oil. About 80% of our electricity in the state is produced by burning diesel. Another 15% is from burning coal, which is mined and shipped here using oil-driven machinery and ships. We are the most isolated place on the planet, separated from any continent by over 3000 miles. The mainstay of our economy, tourism, is completely dependent on cheap oil in the form of jet fuel to remain viable. More than any other state, we are completely and utterly dependent on oil for economic prosperity. Before supplies get much more expensive, and shortages occur, we need to have alternatives in place. Failure to take action will lead to job loss, poverty, and hunger of large portions of the population here.

I’ve given a brief description of peak oil, but others have done it much better than I ever could. Here are some links which describe the phenomenon in more detail.

The Energy Bulletin has a great explanation:

The detailed and refined explanation at The Oil Drum is has a FAQ-style set up with excellent charts:

Wikipedia is a bit dry, but is fairly comprehensive and has some good charts: