Looking backward and forward

George Santayana once wrote "Those who do not learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them." And so, like most academics, I am now searching back through files for the books written during the last Energy Crisis, now just over 25 years old. They had titles such as "Energy - The Next Twenty Years," which was the Ford Foundation report published in 1979. At that time there were also predictions as to how the energy mix would look, some 25 years from then, which is now. The Ford report, for example, listed seven realities that had to be addressed:

One: The world is not running out of energy.
Two: Middle East Oil holds great risks, bust is so valuable that the world will remain dependent on it for a long time.
Three: Higher energy costs cannot be avoided, but can be contained by letting prices rise to reflect them.
Four: Environmental effects of energy use are serious and hard to manage.
Five: Conservation is an essential "source" of energy in large quantities.
Six: Serious shocks and surprises are certain to occur.
Seven: Sound R & D policy is essential, but there is no simple "technical fix."

They then go on to develop those realities into policy recommendations. As I say I need to dig back through all those files and see how accurately some of those prophets have proven to be over the decades.

Prophecy at this time is a difficult task, as it was then, but already some realities are becoming evident that tailor the credibility of some of our current pundits. There have been those who, when prices went up last year, predicted that by this time they would have fallen back to $30 a barrel. There are those today that will have you believe that in a couple of years there will, again, be lots of oil, and the current prices are only temporary. There are also those who think that prices will only rise to $75 a barrel this year and perhaps crawl up to $100 next year. The first have been proved to have been too optimistic, the second are demonstrably likely to be too optimistic, and the third are probably overly optimistic.

A lot of different parts of the puzzle are going to have to come together to provide a secure path to our energy future. But the words of a couple of "old timers" cited in articles at The Energy Bulletin today are worth reading. One is from an old oil man, and the other refers to a story in Kos by an old coal miner.

At some later date there is much more to say about coal, nuclear and the other parts to our puzzle, but the thought to carry forward is the one expressed as the first reality of the Ford list. We are not running out of energy. Large fractions of our economy, outside of transportation, get their fuel from something other than oil, and that will still be there. In addition the rise in the price of fuel in general will make it easier to afford the remedial work that must be done environmentally to minimize the costs of these alternatives. And a lot of them can be reduced. As Devilstower points out mining in the US is now a relatively safe operation, and the technologies and practices now used here can be exported to Russia and China, modified where necessary, to bring the same standards to those mines.

On the other hand "Rome wasn't built in a day," and so constructing the solutions that ProfG just referred to will not help in the next three or more years. What may be also relevant there is that if we are peaking, then we really don't need a lot of new tankers and refineries since the current capacity may not be exceeded. Certainly, however, the refineries will need to be modified to deal with the different crudes and products but that is an existing plant mod, rather than the construction of new ones. As we plan for the future we need to be sure that we are solving the future issues, rather than fixing problems that have passed us by.
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One key to making this work is to figure out how to modify our society so that travel is reduced but communication and productivity are not. The internet should be pulled forward to this end, IMHO. But government has to provide some incentive for corporations to let us work at home. Fact is, most managers want you physically under their thumb just in case THEIR boss wants to know something. People still have trouble separating work product from time, and until that is accomplished, letting people telecommute will be difficult. But it would definitley help for conservation.

Another issue is the way electric companies buy and sell power. We are forced to "eat" the line losses as higher costs. Why not just make electricity more locally generated? That way, incentives can be given to companies based on their local wind/solar/wave/geothermal resources? The Feds controlling everything centrally has it's own "built-in" inefficiencies. One size does not fit all in electricity generation.

Perhaps the single biggest thing the Fedscould do is to give some decent tax credits for each and every single conservation item we employ. I mean from high mileage cars to solar water heaters to geothermal heat pumps. By simply mandating geothermal heat pumps in lieu of older, standard A/C units, I would bet the nation might drop electricity consumption several percentage points. But we need the upgrades to be a direct deduction from our income in order to make it attractive.

Just thinking out loud

In regard to where you work, a number of us already have small TV cameras attached to our computers and in two days will be able to handle group calls rather than one-on-one for very little money (the new Apple Tiger allows up to 4 to chat).

In regard to centralized rather than distributed generation of power, we are likely largely stuck with the situation that has evolved. Small localized power has both advantages and costs and each case is different.

Tax incentives are an easy way to encourage alternative approaches, but require the Feds to recognize the problems first.

If it's been twenty years since a refinery was built in the U.S. I wonder if the fabrication capacity even still exists to make a new one here. That kind of thing tends to vanish or gets outsourced if it's not used.

Regarding refineries, it will soon be clear that it isn't quantity but quality that is at issue. There will be less crude oil to refine in the future but a higher fraction of it will be sour. The resources would be better spent retrofitting existing facilities and working this thorny issue of regional blends. Building a lot more refineries at huge expense when there is good reason to believe that we won't have the volume of crude oil required to keep them profitable would seem to be folly.

I work from home, have done so for the past eight years. I build reporting systems and do business research for property/casualty insurance companies. All the work I do is done through the internet, connecting to servers and stand-alone computers in the corporate offices of my clients, where I build computer programs and systems to help with data reporting and data research. Maybe once every four months I'm required to drive several hundred km to attend afternoon meetings for a 'face-to-face' and get to know the people I work with again. (Sometimes I forget what my co-workers look like!).

In the old days, when I commuted daily, my car would see about 50,000 km per year. Now, 15,000 km is about the max, a lot of which is just local errands. So the energy savings are significant. The only downside is that I'm on-line pretty much 18 hours a day (the Peter Principle - work expands to fill the time available for its completion).

I've noticed that other workers in these companies now often work from home. Communication among us has not changed - we rely on the telephone to some extent, but e-mail is a very big factor. These corporate folks have been 'trained' to e-mail specs in detail, and I respond in kind. My reports are created in Excel or csv files and left on the main servers, and I simply direct them to the location.

We have conference calls when there are several people involved in a project (which I record using my computer) and to be honest, I think that productivity now for all of us is greater than when I used to commute to the office.

There is a 'learning curve' involved in the writing side and the telephone side, to learn to focus on what is important and what is not, in these calls and e-mails. But once the lessons are learned, productivity is so much greater. One needs to add the energy costs/savings into the productivity equation, and once done, the energy and time savings are very evident.

The biggest hurdle to this way of life is convincing the VP's of the benefits. In my case, my clients in the early stages were always after me to come in to see them. Now, they don't seem to care, mainly because they have seen the light - physical presence is a waste of time in my case - and partly because they have begun to work like I do and tele-commute from their home office.

This will be the wave of the future. Who needs to buy expensive clothes and put on make-up and drive all those miles, there and back, every day. Doesn't make much sense in the era of cheap phone, cheap internet, cheap computers.

The role of the home worker will expand, I am sure (after all I have that camera). But there is a potential down side in that you no longer have a presence and as much interfacing with the folk at the office. This can be a negative in terms of promotions and other such considerations. It speaks more to a different way of organizing companies, and only some jobs can be handled this way.
But it is the combination of little things that will provide a total answer not one single magic bullet.