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Easy to be complacent about energy until it's too late

Our Vancouver correspondent: When you have a lot of hydro energy, complacency can obscure the need for much more dramatic steps toward sustainable energy.

The Olympics burned brightly in Vancouver, but seem to have failed to do much to create sustainable economic development.

The Olympics burned brightly in Vancouver, but seem to have failed to do much to create sustainable economic development. Duncan Rawlinson/Wikimedia Commons

David Suzuki warns us about complacency with the story of the pond where the lily pad population doubles every week. Starting with one plant, a corner of the pond starts filling up. But the week before the lily pads smother the whole pond, half the water is still open, so choking from overcrowding still seems a long way off.

That's an apt metaphor to illustrate a report recently released by two highly respected United Kingdom institutions: Lloyd’s of London and Chatham House Royal Institute of International Affairs. The report dives headfirst into the doomsday pool by predicting "catastrophic consequences" for businesses that fail to prepare for a world of increasing oil scarcity, higher oil prices, and disrupted energy supplies. They're all on the way, says the report, because of soaring energy demand in China and India (40 percent growth projected in the next two decades in China), constraints on production resulting from the BP oil spill, and moves to cut carbon dioxide emissions to slow down global warming (and mitigate floods like the one now ravaging Pakistan).

"Companies which are able to take advantage of this new energy reality will increase both their resilience and competitiveness. Failure to do so could lead to expensive and potentially catastrophic consequences," says the report. "Even before we reach peak oil, we could witness an oil supply crunch because of increased Asian demand. Major new investment in energy takes 10-15 years from the initial investment to first production, and to date we have not seen the amount of new projects that would supply the projected increase in demand."

Anthony Frogatt, a senior research fellow at Chatham House, points out that every three years another Saudi Arabia worth of oil has be to discovered and exploited just to maintain the current level of world output. "We are heading towards a global oil supply crunch and price spike," he concludes.

"Businesses can no longer rely on low cost traditional energy sources. As a result, “energy-intensive businesses that don’t find efficiencies will be uncompetitive in the near future," he predicts. "Businesses have to move away from a just-in-time approach to one that builds in resilience. In an energy-insecure world, resilience is a key factor."

Three current Metro Vancouver issues resonate in this scenario, clouded by B.C.'s access to plentiful green hydro and oceans of natural gas. The first is the debate over the proposed incinerator for the Lower Mainland. Nowhere in the discussion is anyone seriously advocating the importance of reducing our dependence on fossil fuels — as in burning residual waste with the goal of generating energy, rather than simply finding an alternative to land-filling.

The second is the province’s decision to bet the house on tourism as our economic saviour. The over-budget, under-target massive new convention centre is just a part of the much bigger spending on the Winter Olympics. The latest economic assessment shows that economic gains to date from the Olympics are negligible.

Traffic through the Vancouver airport was actually down in February 2010. All tourism is dependent on discretionary consumption of fossil fuels, no matter how green our hotel rooms might be. That future is far from secure.

Finally, there’s our shortage of regional funding for transportation alternatives to cars. While widening the Trans-Canada highway east of Vancouver and building the new multi-billion-dollar Port Mann Bridge are in full swing, funding for non-fossil-fuel transport is stalled and slipping backward. TransLink doesn’t even have a budget to add the buses that will be needed to accommodate all the post-secondary students getting new U-passes.

The Chatham House/Lloyd's report quotes from a U.S. Department of Energy report predicting economic chaos from declining oil production, and recommending a crash program to overhaul the transportation system. Richard Ward, chief executive of Lloyd's, warns that the failure of the Copenhagen climate change talks has seduced some businesses into thinking they can go back to business-as-usual.


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Sep 9, 9:10 a.m. Inappropriate

Abundant hydro energy probably does create complacency, but Mr. Ladner should give his utility (B.C. Hydro) credit for several years of a remarkable marginal cost program aimed directly at promoting efficiency among the big users in the Province - something Seattle's similarly-situated electricity provider has not considered.

Posted Thu, Sep 9, 12:28 p.m. Inappropriate

Seattle's overall electricity and water use has been flat for the last 10 years. That's no mean feat either. However the coming tough oil crisis is not about keeping current rates of consumption but active decreases. That's going to be transformational. In order to sustain our cities, we need to look at why we use our energy. Transportation is a big issue. And building more LIGHT Rail is not enough. People are going to have to live closer to work, or else telecommute in order to keep a similar standard of living. Food is going to have to be grown closer to the city.

I suspect that we are going to seriously regret paving over the Kent (Green River) valley. That was some of the most productive soil in the nation and now most of it is buried under asphalt.

But alarmist pieces of literature will be tossed into the dust pile of other alarmist screeds unless there is a note of positive information that people can act on. A few efficient light bulbs in the house while commendable are not going to be enough.

My suggestion is this: Move closer to work/school/services that you use. Buy a house that is small and yet "big enough". Even if the oil prices don't rise soon you'll be paid back in time not spent driving around.

Get a bicycle, electric if necessary, and use it to run short errands and possibly commute, especially during the nice weather of the summer. You'll lose weight, improve your heart rate & blood pressure and be generally healthier, save money. AND you'll cut your fossil footprint.

Buy locally. Help local farmers by supporting them. It's not possible for everything but every dollar you vote with encourages them to do the right thing. In fact plant a kitchen garden, nothing like fresh food off the porch.

Insulate your house. Turn down the thermostat, install solar tubes to light the inside of your house. Anything you do here to make the house more energy efficient will have long term paybacks.

Tear out that big lawn and plant things that don't require fossil fuel to maintain.

GaryP

Posted Thu, Sep 9, 4:07 p.m. Inappropriate

Good points in the article and GaryP's comments. But it should be remembered that many people simply can't afford to move closer to work, buy produce at farmer's markets, buy a house (for the kitchen garden — though Ernie managed to plant things on his windowsill [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M36TyN2TXrY] — replace those geraniums with some vegetables), insulate that house, or install solar tubes.

It's great advice, especially getting rid of the lawn, but it's advice only a certain segment of the population can follow.

What can the less fortunate do?

Posted Fri, Sep 10, 7:56 a.m. Inappropriate

The big one in this market-basket is "move closer to work". That's a problem that gets a lot easier to solve if you use long-term planning.

With the changes that are coming a lot of people will simply need to return to school and learn a new job. Whether that's a choice you embrace, or dread, you need to look down the road and see how much of that is in your future.

Another option is to work where you live. One way to do this is to know a variety of skills that a lot of people need on a part-time basis. Another way would be to become the most-skilled person for one task in your work-shed.

In any case, once you reach that bicycle commute, you'll be repaid by car expenses you don't have, and a state of good health that money can't buy.

What we really can't afford is to have people driving 30 miles to a job as a fast-food server. That policy involves so many subsidies, to build roads and pay for automobile wrecks, and so many costs, to the environment and the owner of the car, that it's bankrupting us.

Posted Fri, Sep 10, 9:17 a.m. Inappropriate

"What can the less fortunate do?"

These folks are going to be in a world of hurt. However the sooner they recognize this the sooner they can do something about it. Owning a house that is in the exhurbs is going to bankrupt them. So sell earlier, or change jobs, or get an education so that they can work closer to where they live.

It's not just folks working at fast food, its folks who work in construction and can "afford" the purchase price of a house at the distance of the city and then drive all around. In fact mass transit doesn't serve them well as often they have to bring lots of tools etc.

The result is that the cost of construction is going to rise.

GaryP

Posted Fri, Sep 10, 11:29 a.m. Inappropriate

Environmentalists fought for years to tear down the hydroelectric Elwha Dam. Now the work has started. But not to fear, Clallam county will buy replacement power from a coal plant.

Grays Harbor and Pacific Counties have some significant natural gas deposits, that will provide some resources for power.

Unfortunately, the politician induced FEAR of CO2 is forcing taxpayers to pay considerably more for wind ($5-7,000 per installed levelized kW), solar (~$16,000/installed levelized kW) and other schemes. And taxpayers are on the hook for billions of dollars of 'taxpayer backed' loans made by the Dept of Energy, many to companies with failed business models that can't survive without massive taxpayer subsidies?

This is a scandalous bankrupting of the American taxpayer.

Posted Fri, Sep 10, 11:33 a.m. Inappropriate

One simple solution to getting workers closer to their work is to change a simple FHA loan rule that prevents apartments over commercial space from getting FHA approval.

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