Monday, April 09, 2007

Welsh Town Prepares for Peak-Oil.

I wrote an article entitled "Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT), and Sustainable Living in a Small Community," which I posted on 2-3-07, following a very pleasant trip to the beautiful coastal town of Aberstywyth, in west Wales, last month, set on a bay surrounded by hills. On looking down from a hill, over the town and the bay, I felt reminded of Under Milk Wood, by Dylan Thomas, and his description of the Welsh (of whom I am one!) indeed living in a small community. (The population of "Aber" is about 20,000, half of whom are students and staff from the university). The essence of CAT (which is located fairly nearby) is sustainable living, and progress made by pioneers - it is fair to call them that, in the spirit of a salute) -during the past three decades has resulted in a community that uses probably less than one tenth the energy that we normally do, and achieved through a combination of energy-efficiency, conservation and generating electricity from entirely renewable resources; albeit with a trade-system involving the national grid. Please take a look at that article for further details and my immediate impressions. However, the inspiration for the present posting is my reading that the Welsh town of Lampeter has begun its own transition to a life without oil.

There are no two ways about it. The age of cheap oil is coming to its own natural conclusion. We have used just over one trillion barrels of oil, since the first commercial oil-well was sunk in Pennsylvania in 1859, and we have just under one trillion barrels of oil left in known reserves. According to the famous analysis made in 1956 by M.King Hubbert, that point of "half-empty" (and we are very likely a little less than that) coincides with the peak of oil-production. It is probably only enhanced methods of oil recovery that have obscured this fact, and their consequence is that we have been able to continue draining the wells at a more rapid rate than without them. The upshot is that the remaining oil will be mostly not of the "sweet" (low sulphur) "light" (low viscosity) kind, but "heavy oil" and will be consequently harder to purify and refine. Indeed, it will be more effectively burned in Diesel engines, rather than spark-ignition engines which have been developed to use gasoline rather than fuel-oil.

In Lampeter was held the largest public meeting that anybody could recall, at an attendance over 450 from a total population of 4,500. The motivation for the meeting was to turn Lampeter into a Transition Town, one of a growing network of towns that have decided to prepare for the post-oil era before government intervention happens. Rob Hopkins, the coordinator of the Transition Town movement, describes himself as an "early topper", meaning that he thinks that peak oil will happen within the next five years. I am probably a "very early topper", believing that it has already happened really, but our technology has disguised the fact. Once the point of maximum production is reached, then oil supplies worldwide will plummet, over a period of 10 years say, but by then civilization will have collapsed, unless we decide and act now to maintain societal integrity. At the very least, a community of moderate size (Lampeter?) must be able to feed and fuel itself. I have suggested before that society might be best served by forming small "pods" which are supplied by local farms and other means that do not depend on long-distance transport. Complete isolation would be a very bad and retrograde consequence, and instead I envisage that such pods can cooperate through a national grid of communication and electric power provision - rather according to the CAT model. I am not suggesting for a moment that we can power ourselves down to their laudable level, but that might not be necessary. The main avoidable consumer of energy is transportation, which uses 33% of the UK's total energy, and all of that from oil. It is clear this will be cut inevitably, and perhaps by 80% in 10 - 15 years.

Hopkins said that he tended to believe those with no vested interest in believing that peak oil would not come for 20 - 30 years, as some "the late toppers" do, mostly in or working for the oil industry. I agree. To believe them means doing nothing, and that would be a disaster. Even if they are right, we will simply preserve our precious reserve of oil for longer by taking action now, and what is wrong with that? It would be by far the better option than assuming business as usual and suddenly running out of oil, with nothing else in its place. Mad Max! Anarchy!

As I have detailed here, none of the other "solutions" work out when you do the math. The Hydrogen Economy is a ridiculous idea on the scale required to meet current demand for oil. Running all the nations cars on hydrogen would need maybe 67 Sizewell B nuclear power stations or a wind farm covering south west England. Biofuels are a "no-no" too, since it would take many times more arable land than there is in the whole of the UK mainland to produce enough of any of them; meaning that even if we were to stop growing food altogether and turn the land over to biofuel crop production we are still well short of current demand. The UK farming system has evolved into a mechanism that "turns oil into food." It is reliant on the highly energy-demanding manufacture of artificial fertilizers, the use of plastics and other materials that owe their genesis to oil, and extensive transportation networks that carry food over long distances to supply supermarkets etc. I acknowledge there is a growth in "farmers markets" even in urban areas, but their scale remains small, and it is local farming that we will need finally, once the means to fuel an extensive food-distribution network has gone.

As I wrote recently, the one glimmer of hope regarding alternative oil-provision lies in making it from algae, but although optimistic, the technology has not been tested on the very large scale, and not over a long enough timescale to give confidence that we could rely on it in the future. If it proves we can, then that should be seen as a considerable bonus, but we still need to change how we use energy and how much of it we do use - that is, use less! I think there should be a national experiment run to produce one million tonnes of biodiesel from algae, to see if and how easily it can be done. This would require fabricating ponds to grow the algae in, covering an area of only about 10,000 hectares (100 square kilometers), and is far less than that required to grow crops (e.g. soya) for the same purpose, which would require around one million hectares (10,000 km^2). The further advantage of algae is that the ponds could be placed anywhere, not competing with food-crops for arable land.

George Monbiot (journalist and Guardian columnist) lives near Lampeter and also attended the meeting. He thinks that the end of oil is not nigh but "nigh-ish", and that we may have another 10 - 30 years. If we continue to extract our remaining trillion barrels of oil at current rates (and we won't be able to), it will all be used in 30 years, so I think the upper end of that range is rather too optimistic. Even if it is 10 years, we are still in trouble if we don't get a new act running and sharply at that. Mr Monbiot is more concerned about CO2 emissions and global warming, but I think that depletion of resources will get us before climate change does.

In part, the agency for change in Lampeter has been driven by a group of local farmers, and both Patrick Holden (Director of the Soil Association) and Peter Segger, who first supplied the mass demand for organic foods through supermarkets, farm neighbouring land and have decided that the future rests in selling more of that produce locally rather than hauling it over long distances. Indeed, it doesn't look good for supermarkets, unless they too can be provided for by local farms. In a further step toward local sustainability, Holden has invested in sinking around a kilometer of pipes under a field to draw heat for his house. This is one technology I saw demonstrated at CAT.

I am reminded once more of the experience of Cuba, who's population were forced practically overnight to undergo a transition from an oil-based economy to a localised sustainable economy. This was a consequence of the collapse of communism and the USSR, which resulted in the sudden loss of regular "presents" of Russian oil, fertilizers etc. which they had received in return for being a particular communist sentinel, guarding its regime against the US. Cuba uses far less energy per person than the US, and much of its economy works at the "local" level. It's ailing leader, Fidel Castro, has been outspoken in his criticism of the US drive toward biofuels particularly corn-ethanol, which he does not perceive as being "sustainable". There are many who accord with his sentiments.

The run-down to the lower oil economy should be undertaken with care and deliberation. It should also be done with a sense of optimism; that a brave new world will be found at the end of the journey. Otherwise, there will be more wars and strife to garner what resources of oil there remain, and even after all that, we will simply be in the same position we would have been in anyway, but having wasted much energy and precious resource on the way. Planning, peace and cooperation are the only way forward, but I suspect that old conundrum "Human Nature" will provide its regular obstruction to the true path!

Related Reading.,,329771279-110373,00.html
Article: "Pioneering Welsh town begins the transition to a life without oil," by Felicity Lawrence.

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