Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Some consequences of energy depletion

Many people accept the likelihood of peak oil and climate change, but haven't quite thought through all its implications. Here are five things that I think are likely results:

- Mode shift: In the past four years, the price of gasoline has already gotten high enough relative to income that driving is unaffordable for a larger segment of the population. This trend will only continue. Biodiesel, electric cars and hydrofracking will only postpone it.

- Depopulation of sprawl: The housing market collapsed in 2007 because people could no longer afford to "drive 'til you qualify." The commercial real estate market collapsed right after because employers didn't want to be dependent on workers driving in from miles around. Most of suburban America is unsustainable at a gasoline price of five dollars a gallon, and an even bigger chunk is unsustainable at ten dollars a gallon. The recession has cut gas prices and commute times, and people have started creeping back into the subdivisions, but any recovery will send them back into more urban areas.

- Survival of cities: We have had concentrated population centers for thousands of years, and we will continue to do so. Even if the total population declines, there will still be trade and industry. Expensive energy will make the 3,000 mile Caesar salad an expensive rarity (if it survives at all), but just as the Romans traded with the Chinese, so will future Americans. These goods may not be transported by plane, diesel ship and truck, but by electric ship and rail (if we're lucky) or sailing ship, canal boat and horse (if we're not). Whatever the conveyance, there will continue to be a need for transfer, storage and distribution centers, and that means cities. They may not be as big as they are now, but we're not all going to be blacksmithing and raising goats.

- Rust belt resurgence: Shortages of energy and water will make it difficult if not impossible to live in areas that depend on air conditioning for survival, like those around Phoenix and Houston. People will move to cooler cities that are nodes in water and rail transportation networks. That means the same "Rust Belt" cities that their parents mocked: Milwaukee, Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Buffalo and Springfield.

- Capital shortage: When energy, transportation and asphalt (which is made out of oil) are expensive, it will be hard to build any new infrastructure. We may be able to build some things, but that ability depends in part on how quickly we deplete the supply of fossil fuels and uranium that we have left, and how quickly we build alternatives to harness renewable energy.

- A vicious cycle of transportation inadequacy: The cost of any infrastructure project also depends on how well the transportation system is functioning when you need to transport supplies for the new infrastructure. Let's say you want to rebuild an abandoned rail line, like the old Air Line through Connecticut. If you can get the supplies 90% of the way by rail or boat, that's great. But if you need to spend exorbitant amounts the fuel to carry the supplies by truck across potholed roads, that's going to add to the cost.

Any that I missed?


Matthew said...

Any particular links related to "depopulation of sprawl"? I'm interested in trying to figure out if and when the costs of gasoline make driving unaffordable.

Also, suppose fully electric cars do become practical. Perhaps they are automatically driven cars that can safely run from some kind of trolley wires, instead of batteries, at times. Is this still just "pushing off the inevitable" or a totally new option?

jarod213 said...

I wrote a paper on the subject. There are a lot of journal articles and research papers emerging that focus on this topic. Large-lot, single-family homes begin to become unaffordable at $4/gal. That's the current threshold. We're there right now. Those homes are also declining fastest in value. Smaller homes that are nearer to transit are maintaining their value, and even appreciating in this market.

George K said...

Last time I checked, electric ships and water don't mix. Just sayin'...

In any case, cities in warmer climates would probably still be able to survive. I mean cities (such as those of the Aztecs and Incas) have survived for hundreds of years without the use of air conditioning. You'll just see a different demographic populating those cities (for instance, I was born in Peru, so I love the heat)

As far as having large houses go, if you think about it: If nobody in the neighborhood owned a car, you could actually have decent transit service and still have reasonably large houses (keep in mind that the population density will still go up because space isn't being used for roads). You can't have McMansions, but you could have cottages and maybe even ranch-style homes (but 2 or 3 stories rather than one) on reasonably large plots of land and the people will have good transit service.

For instance, I live near Richmond Avenue in Staten Island, and the area consists of a lot of townhouses and 2-story ranch homes (the population density is around 15,000 per square mile). The buses that run through the neighborhood run reasonably frequent (less than every 10 minutes for the most part) and get at least a seated load for most of the day. Imagine if everybody had to use transit how much better the service would be.

Jonathan said...

The shining example of someone who understands the VCTI and did something about it is Janette Sadik-Khan. The Observer article about her a couple weeks back took care to mention that she built the Harper Street Asphalt Plant in Corona, Queens.


New York City can continue to fill potholes in its increasingly lumpy roads only by building its own asphalt plants and avoiding the fuel-dependent cost of shipping asphalt in from out of the city, as well as the cost of carting away the old asphalt to the plant.

Bearing in mind what you say, the plant is probably the most important achievement of her tenure, far more important to New York City's transportation needs than a bunch of federally funded bike lanes.

arcady said...

@George K: Trolley boats existed, and used to be more common on various canal systems.

@capn: I don't think the 3000 mile Caesar salad is going anywhere. It takes about as much energy to ship it 3000 miles as it does for its purchaser to drive to the store and take it back to their house. Getting food across the country is surprisingly energy efficient, compared to moving it across the "last mile" from store to house. And even compared to growing the food locally in heated greenhouses and the like.

fbfree said...

I wholeheartedly disagree that air conditioning will make sun-belt cities too expensive to habitate. Less energy goes into cooling buildings in the sun belt than into heating buildings further north. The main difference is that A/C generally requires all its energy to come off the electrical grid while most heating is from fuel burnt on site.

In fact, the opposite of your statement is true. The high cost of heating continental homes will require either smaller much higher efficiency structures, or a move south and towards the coasts.

Adirondacker12800 said...

Blacksmithing, unless you happen to live on top of an iron ore mine and have a large supply of charcoal ( or coal if must ) requires a complex web of commerce. You'd spend a lot of your time mining ore, making charcoal and refining pig iron. Things like penicillin and flu vaccine don't fall out of the sky.