Friday, March 23, 2012

The Energy Omnivore’s Dilemma

Diversify and localize.--SS    

The Energy Omnivore’s Dilemma:

In 2011, the average American spent $732 to heat their home with natural gas.  In contrast, they spent $2,535 to heat their homes with oil.  Ouch!

This is a pretty good example of the effects of what is called a specialization strategy.  By specializing on the consumption of oil to heat their homes, these homeowners made themselves acutely vulnerable to changes in the price of oil.  So, when oil went up in 2007 due to attacks on oil production in Nigeria and increased demand in China, they paid the price for their specialization.

These oil heat customers are in no way unique.   Answer this question:   How many types of energy do you use?

It’s a good guess that the answer for most people is two.  Gasoline and electricity.  In northern climates it may be three.  There we tend to see more use of natural gas, oil, or wood for heating. Regardless, it’s pretty safe to make the claim that we are all somewhat specialized in how we consume energy.

It’s easy to understand why specialization is so popular.  It’s efficient.  It’s optimized.  However, it has a fatal drawback:  During periods of rapid change — economic to environmental — a specialized strategy to energy consumption can be extremely disadvantageous, particularly at the individual level.

For example, what if a war with Iran made heating oil too expensive to afford?  Or, what if corruption at the local power company led to weeks of blackouts?

The Energy Omnivore’s Dilemma

In a perfect world, we would be as omnivorous with energy consumption as we are with food.
If we were truly energy omnivores, we wouldn’t care much if oil prices spiked due to a war with Iran.  We’d simply switch to the less expensive and more plentiful alternative if some source of energy became too expensive or unavailable.

What’s required to be an energy omnivore?  The ability to:
  • produce a home’s electricity from a variety of fuels.
  • heat and cool a home with oil, wood, natural gas, passive solar, electricity, and geo-exchange.
  • power a vehicle with gasoline, natural gas, diesel, bio diesel, and electricity.

As you can see, this is a pretty extensive list.  It’s likely much more expensive to implement than most people can afford at the individual level.   Further, much of this omnivorous production might be best done at the community level rather than at the household/complex level.

Given the hurdles and complexities involved, let’s treat this list as a touchstone.  Something to guide our efforts over the long term.  We won’t get there overnight, but we’ll get there with some clever thinking and hard work.

Let me know what you think about it.

Your omnivorous analyst,
John Robb

PS:  Omnivorous food consumption has proven to be a very resilient energy strategy — it successfully kept homo sapiens out of Darwin’s abattoir when a more specialized/optimized strategy would have failed.  An omnivorous strategy shines during periods of stress and change, which is what we are headed into.

PPS:  Currently, centralized electricity production is relatively omnivorous.  It’s generated by  everything from nuclear power to solar to hydro to natural gas to oil to wind.  However, this production is both remote which makes it vulnerable to disruption and changes very slowly.  It also represents a very small portion of our total energy consumption (15%), a percentage that is unlikely to change given an inability to build new delivery infrastructure to meet demand growth.

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