Will the 21st century be plugged in or car-free?
A new book creates a future in which automobile and air travel are expensive and rare, forcing people to live more locally.
Tue, Jan 05, 2010 at 06:08 AM
FOOT POWER: Is this the commute of the future? Oil prices might make it a reality for everyone. (Photo: ZUMA Press)
Here’s a conundrum: High gas prices contribute to the recession by depressing economic activity, but when that recession gets going those same high prices go down because there’s less demand. What’s more, greenhouse gas emissions go down, too, not only because a lot of cars are off the road (Americans drove 100 billion fewer miles in 2008 than they did in 2007) but because we manufacture fewer goods.
And so, all the effort we’ve expended internationally on the Kyoto Protocol and its aftermath had far less effect on the global climate than the worldwide recession. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), those emissions are likely to decline 3 percent in 2009, and the financial crisis is the biggest reason. Three-quarters of the drop is due to reductions in industrial activity, with the rest coming from a switch to renewable energy and nukes.
The IEA also says that we’ll need to spend $400 billion a year on 350 new nuclear plants and 350,000 wind turbines if we’re going to avoid the worst effects of climate change. And the agency says that, by 2020, three-fifths of the cars on the road will have to use alternatives to gasoline.
This is all germane to the arguments in the provocative $20 a Gallon: How the Inevitable Rise in the Price of Gasoline Will Change Our Lives for the Better (Grand Central Publishing, $24.99), written by a staff writer at Forbes. Chris Steiner has closely read William Howard Kunstler’s The Long Emergency, and follows some of its arguments. He thinks our whole comfortable lifestyle in the U.S. is based on cheap petroleum, but that we’re on a crash course as climate change takes hold and oil peaks. With that as context, $20-a-gallon gas will force us to break our 100-year devil’s bargain with black gold.
Steiner scores a point with the story of Bill, a suburbanite of 2009 who wakes to the music from his hydrocarbon plastic clock radio, then rolls out of bed and puts his feet on nylon carpet made from petrochemicals. His kitchen cabinets are Corian bonded by petrochemicals, and he shaves with cream also made with oil. I could go on. Steiner does. Even solar panels are petrochemical-derived, unfortunately, and their price goes up as gas prices do.
Here’s a Steiner subhead: “Oil prices enabled the SUV to thrive, but they will ultimately bury the SUV in its grave.” That’s more or less true, but the SUV is already gasping without $20-a-gallon gasoline. Both Kunstler and Steiner see an inevitable progression whereby declining oil supply will keep chasing strong demand, pushing prices up so inexorably that eventually both automobile and air travel will become expensive and rare. The result is more localized living: People will walk to the food co-op. They’ll produce their own electricity from solar panels and get involved with their communities.
The 21st century version of Bill, who is now living in Brooklyn, hasn’t been in a plane for 15 years. He travels mostly by train (passing re-established farms producing food for New York City), and has never owned a car. His hot water and half his electricity come from the solar panels on the roof of his four-story apartment building.
OK, I’m as susceptible to this vision as anyone else, and I think books like this are useful, but I also don’t think world events will unfold quite this way. Yes, oil prices will go up and cause intense political and social conflict around the world, as well as continue to aggravate global warming. That could make the next few years rather fraught (particularly if the economy recovers and demand soars again).
That’s the bad stuff. The high cost of goods made from oil today is a huge problem. But long before $20-a-gallon gasoline descends, I think we’ll have electric cars able to recharge at two cents per mile. And we’ll also have a smart grid capable of delivering renewably generated electricity across the country without major load losses. That grid will even interact with our cars, borrowing electricity from their batteries and returning it in off-peak hours.
There are all kinds of countervailing pressures: Oil is a big subject. If we do start moving toward EVs, oil demand will drop, slowly but inexorably, and that will stabilize prices. And they’ve just made some major oil finds, which could also ease prices somewhat.
In some ways, even though it is only a few months old, Steiner’s book is already outdated. Writing about Shai Agassi’s Better Place — which is poised to wire Israel, Denmark, Australia and more for EVs — Steiner writes, “Agassi, at this point, is the only guy with a plan and with more than two nickels devoted to the cause.” But already Coulomb, ECOtality, Aerovironment and Project Get Ready are in the space, and more are to come. Iceland could become the first country with a national EV grid, and France just pledged a $2.2 billion investment in recharging networks.
I guess I don’t see an end to personal mobility anytime soon, and with people still in cars and trucks, Steiner’s scenario will be irreversibly altered, probably in ways we can’t really see yet. I do like Bill’s car-free lifestyle, though.
For more of Jim's auto musings, read his car blog everyday here on MNN.