Advice to President Obama (#7): Main Street is the Answer to Oil Dependency

This article is one of a series of articles offering energy advice to President Obama and his administration.

Dear President Obama,

In many ways, you are the first modern urban president, and I would like you to embrace this throughout your Presidency in your policies and your public image. Instead of living on a ranch or an unattached suburban house, you chose to live in a townhouse in a dense, diverse and mixed use area of a thriving metropolis. You’ve also lived in Cambridge Mass., New York and now Washington DC, three walkable cities with good mass transit and mixed use development.

You’ve also visited countless small towns in southern Illinois in your run for the Senate and later throughout the country in your run for the Presidency. These cities and small towns helped shape your world views. You have seen the mix of the impoverished with the working and middle class as well as the wealthy elites all within a few square miles. You’ve seen cities and small towns at their best and at their worst. You've walked down thriving main streets and dead ones.

Your electoral victory in many ways was based on your ability to rack-up large majorities in our nation’s more urban areas, even Omaha where you snagged an unprecedented extra electoral vote from Nebraska. And your success as a President, in reviving the nation’s economy, making our society more environmentally sustainable and reducing our nation’s dependence on fossil fuels, will largely rest on the success or failure of your urban and small town agenda.

Per capita CO2e emissions of select cities and
the United States - Source is NYC Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory

Why is the Urban and Small Town Agenda so Important?

America’s history has largely been driven by a primary urge to expand into new frontiers and put them to “productive” use. However, this type of single use growth away from cities and small towns into the hinterland has now reached its limits. The run-up in demand for oil over the last few decades has largely been driven by the outward expansion of people into the hinterland into larger houses while our industrial demand has fallen. This precipitated the explosion in energy costs that led to the current financial crisis. Many of the families forced into foreclosure lived in new residential-only developments that force people to drive long distances to everything--their jobs, their children’s schools or even to buy a quart of milk. This type of development cannot be sustained; in fact, the answer to our economic troubles rests in reversing this process.

Focusing efforts at building economic growth on mixed use development in walkable small towns and urban areas is the better alternative to trying to prop-up the exurban single-use residential model of development. Every person that chooses to live in an urban city or small town reduces our nation’s dependence on oil because they tend to drive less miles per year, and they tend to live in smaller residences. These gains get magnified considerably if there is good mass transit available.

Any other improvement in efficiency--in vehicle miles per gallon, in percentage of electricity from renewables, in greener building practices, etc-–might be more than washed away by the voracious energy inputs necessary to support growth in the exurban lifestyle.

Similarly, any gains in environmental protection of wildlife habitat and more sustainable agricultural practices might be washed away by the extensive land use requirements necessary in any new waves of exurban development.

How can Small Towns and Urban Areas be Helped by the Federal Government?

In many ways, the best way to help cities and small towns is to stop subsidizing development on their margins that sap them of their vitality.

First, the Federal government needs to outline a new philosophy of investment in infrastructure that emphasizes a “Fix/replace it first” policy. For instance, instead of using federal dollars to build any new roads to new areas for development, the emphasis should be on keeping the current road network merely in a state of good repair based on the amount of current traffic on those roads. By severely limiting the paving of new roads, we can protect more natural habitats and good farmland from development.

While politicians love to make monuments by doing something “new”, we can’t afford to keep spreading out. While fixing something that already exists is not very sexy from a political standpoint, these are the infrastructure investments that pay bigger dividends later and prevent further degrading of quality and even disasters like bridge collapses. This policy should apply to every type of investment in infrastructure and public services. If folks want to live spread out in the hinterland and not produce agriculture goods, they should not be subsidized by the national government by building them new roads and other infrastructure.

Second, the federal government can redirect transportation funding formulas from highways and airports into a new effort to build an intercity passenger rail network and urban mass transit networks to connect as many cities and small towns as possible. In the same way that the Eisenhower administration built the interstate highways system, your administration has an opportunity to create a national passenger rail network. Passenger rail service to a town or city is the foundation of building a local mass transit hub and mixed use downtown area with shops, residents, cultural attractions and offices. The best way to help Main Street economically is to place a rail station and a mass transit hub within walking distance. Electrifying the rail system would magnify the impact in reducing oil dependency.

Lastly, the federal government should use its influence over mortgage lending practices with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to put extra restrictions (higher downpayments, greater income/asset requirements) on lending for any new residential developments that are not in a mixed use setting. This would be a more accurate reflection of the unaccounted costs of having to maintain two cars and drive 20-30k miles a year. This would help steer land use policies back to the more efficient urban and small town context and away from the McMansions in the exurbs. Agricultural policy is also a major factor in land use issues, but I’ll leave it to others to write to you about that topic.

If you can get Main Street urban and small town policies (particularly around transportation and land use) headed in the right direction, reducing oil consumption and carbon emissions will not seem like much of a trade-off to most Americans.

One of the big problems I see with all the proposals to deal with our present situation is how to make the switch to lower consumption of oil and other carbon based fuels. For example, just mandating that the automobile companies build more fuel efficient cars won't actually induce people to go out and buy them in large numbers. In order to promote such a massive shift in consumer purchase preferences, large increases in the price of fuel at the pump would be required. The same might also apply to other transport modes, such as air travel.

I think that the only reasonable alternative is an comprehensive program to ration transport fuels. A major component of this would be the ability to trade allocations thru a white market. This approach would leave the basic cost of fuel at the market price, what ever that might be. With the idea that future fuel availability would be less and less each year, this direct impact on the consumer would foster a large increase in fuel efficient vehicles, with many fewer gas guzzlers purchased. Those who still wanted or needed the large vehicles for what ever purpose could still purchase them, but would pay extra for the fuel to drive them.

A rationing system would not add to the already crushing problems due to the financial meltdown, since the price of fuel to most people would likely remain at a minimum. The inflationary impact resulting from the imposition of large taxes, such as are applied in Europe but which have not been seen in the U.S., would suppressed. The public would be able to see a clearly defined future to work towards, something which did not result from last summer's large upward spike in oil prices and subsequent crash back below the price seen at the beginning of the year.

Of course, it would not be easy to implement rationing and the average American would likely find the concept abhorrent. Sad to say, such bitter medicine may be the only way out of our dilemma...

E. Swanson

I share your desire to making consuming oil more expensive to the end user to help include the societal costs of their consumption, but I would prefer if government would simply tax it like they do in Europe. This could be used to increase the rail and urban mass transit networks that would provide alternatives to millions more people.

I couldn't agree more. Rationing is the only way around Jeavon's Paradox.

Nice post Glenn. Possibly a graduated fuel tax would be a good first step. All fuel purchases recorded on your fuel card, the tax increasing with consumption. Cash sales could still be allowed but would be at a very high tax rate. Lots to play with here, work vehicle and other classes, fuel card trading market, and on, could quickly turn into a real morass. But we have that in reality so what the heck.

Of course I live in the farthest out exburb (actually the suburban bush) in the USA so lets not let any of this happen until I get top dollar for my house ;)

Very interesting comparison between the various cities of the world.

However, it looks like the Obama stimulus plan has almost nothing to do with the changes the oil drum readers would like to see. Probably the so called stimulus will put the stake through the heart of this country's financial system and woe to all of us. It doesn't appear that Obama gets it, despite the great rhetoric in the acceptance speech a couple weeks ago.

Thanks for some worthwhile ideas to discuss!

I especially like your "fix/replace it first" policy. We haven't paid much attention to keeping things fixed, only adding new.

I am reminded of a woman I knew who had financial difficulties. She found it expensive to keep her old car fixed, so she bought a new car, and was easily able to find someone to finance it. It is always easier to "sell" the idea of something new and better. It is harder to thing about taking better care of what we have. Europe has managed this much better than we have.

Re: fixing the car. I think that had to do with labor arbitrage. It's cheaper to pay a guy in Mexico to build a new car than a guy in USA to fix an old one.

A friend of mine had an alternator that was beginning to fail. She told me that she took it to a mechanic and they quoted her something over $400 to fix it. I almost shat myself. I told her to drop by the local auto parts store, tell them what kind of car she had and that she needed an alternator, then come over to my place. It was $60 for the part after the "core" charge was refunded, and it took me a whole 15 minutes to put in.

I don't *want* to live in Houston. I intend to relocate eventually, but it's nontrivial when you have family and two careers to consider and coordinate. I try to make the most of it and live in a townhouse on a light rail line, which I take to work. So we're a one car household. But I'd like to be a zero car household someday.

But anyway, yes, there's already a massive shift in public consciousness back towards cities. The government should encourage this to the maximum extent possible by encouraging mixed-use zoning (at least Houston is avant-garde in this respect...), shorter setbacks, revising parking requirements... and most importantly, massive investment in both intra- and inter-city rail. As the graph in the post illustrates, this is the most proven way to lower CO2 emissions. Even France as an entire nation has ~6MT/capita*year of CO2 because of good urban design and nuclear power.

Owning a car isn't that much of a problem but using it is. Someone on the Drum claimed that W. Europeans own cars at the same rate as Americans but use them half as much. I have neighbors who put on 40,000 miles/yr just going to work 75 miles away in Des Moines. There are no jobs for them any closer. The small town concept would only work if there are enough living wage jobs for their residents in those small towns.

"But anyway, yes, there's already a massive shift in public consciousness back towards cities. "

--That is a bit strong.

Nice transportation graph that makes the point. Let's fix what we have vs building new and add a carbon tax to account for externalities, reduce price volatility and provide for improved market feedback.

I live in a town with just over 5000 people in an area of about 2 sq miles which computes to about 10 people per hectare. This puts us at the Houston end of the scale. I don't have specific numbers for transportation energy per capita within the city limits, but studies have been done at the County level and a god awful 60% of energy consumption is for transportation, chiefly private auto. Sorry to report that the majority of the population here live in rural suburbia--vast subdivisions in ready to burn 2nd and 3rd growth forests with little water security and a single, steep, windy road to get a burger or a video.

This is in a region that is considered highly aware of the various issues, and those with good conscious are commonly heard saying that we need to get off oil, consume less, etc. But I don't see a lot of fellow bike riders. Neighbors tend to drive a few blocks to go shopping. I did a survey and only a handful of kids ride bikes or walk to school.

At the populous level, morality doesn't seem to cut it. We are addicted to the lifestyle and I think you are right Glenn, only if we are forced to pay or the supplies are cut off will it make a serious difference. Just look at recent VMT data with respect to purchasing power of the American consumer.

Meanwhile, local politicians, the same ones who pledged to reduce greenhouse gases, are struggling to build more freeways and expand water supplies so more houses can be built in the hinterlands. Going broke might be the best thing that happens to America.

When I talk to people about using a bike for transportation needs rather than recreation, the primary negative is safety. They don't feel safe riding on streets with the cars, and any available bike paths don't go where they need to go.

Part of my bike commute is in the bike lane (the place where all of the glass and crap comes to rest) of a busy 6 lane urban street. The car traffic can be a bit intimidating, but paying attention and anticipating what a car might do (esp. turns) has kept me out of trouble so far.

I have a suggestion that will probably never come to pass here in California - give more room on the streets to bikes so people feel safe using their bikes and can get to their destination by a direct route - the "build it and they will come" method.

The trend is that bicycling becomes safer as more people do it.

Studies have been quoted to me (mainly from abroad) that doubling cycling results in a constant or declining rate of absolute deaths (x2 volume, same # of deaths = 1/2 the individual risk).

The solution is clearly more cyclists !

Best Hopes for Better Public Health,


Americans who cycle to work live an average 12 years longer due to better fitness. Subtract 2 years for more accidents and a net +10 years.

Yes, Alan is right on. Safety is a function of the number of cyclists. The more, the safer.

Bike lanes per se are not always good. Some of us generally prefer riding as *vehicles* in the traffic. The problem is numbers. More numbers makes the cyclist an expected rather than an unexpected encounter.

And the less ice, the safer, too.

cfm in Gray, ME

Ice is one thing we don't have to worry about in my area of California!

I don't have the guts to ride as a vehicle most of the time, as it would probably result in being run down or cut off along with the expected gestures from the driver(s). I do take the lane when approaching a traffic light to prevent drivers from cutting me off with a right turn, however.

And I agree - there's safety in numbers. I do everything I can to increase the numbers, with leading by example being the foremost.

And the less ice, the safer, too.

And since ice is usually combined with dilute concentrations of ethanol (for biological combustion) in New Orleans, I would have to agree.

Happy Mardi Gras !


We need to do everything in our power to reduce our dependence on foreign oil.We have so much available to use such as wind and solar as well as technologies to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. There could be no better investment in than to invest in energy independence. Create clean cheap energy,create millions of BADLY needed new green jobs, and reduce our dependence on foreign oil.The high cost of fuel this past year did serious damage to our society and economy. Record numbers of jobs and homes have been lost due to the direct impact on our economy.Oil is finite.We are using it globally at the rate of 2 X faster than new oil is being discovered. Added to the strain on our supplies foreign countries are bursting in populations and becoming modern.China and India alone are expected to add another 3 million vehicles to their highways in the next 2 decades. I just read a fantastic book called The Manhattan Project of 2009 Energy Independence Now by Jeff Wilson.Great Book!

Last year alone in China close to 4 million cars were bought by its citizens. I think total car ownership in China is over 30 million, maybe nearing 35 million. By 2030 China will have more automobiles than the US if trends hold IMO.


This is about the first post since the last ice age (excepting Alan Drake's) that doesn't promote some sort of little-cabin-in-the-woods-with-mini-farm solution. Here we see that urban living is a very practical and resource-efficient way of life for people who aren't directly engaged in agriculture. Note the super-low figure for Moscow! I think the main reason the Moscow figure is so low, compared to Hong Kong, Singapore and Tokyo, is primarily because of recreational travel in those wealthy areas. If you subtracted air travel and recreational Sunday driving (a biggie in Japan at least), I bet those would also be rock-bottom.

What many Americans don't understand is that even the rural village is, traditionally, an urban space where one could live car-free.

I've been touting the benefits of urban living - dense, mixed use zoning, mass transit - as the more viable alternative than the head for the hills mentality. It's the most efficient way to live a modern, sustainable and high quality lifestyle.

OK, you and Alan Drake.

What people haven't really realized here yet is the "my little self-contained house and mini-farm" is not only the colonial/Jeffersonian ideal, it is the actual root fantasy of the suburbs!

Just as the solution to today's financial problems is not likely More Debt, the solution to today's suburbia problems is not More Suburbia.

Absolutely right. At least the Jeffersonian ideal included an actual farm (albeit relying on slave labor). Today's suburban population would need to put in a LOT of work and a lot less traveling around. It's going to look more like somewhere between Little House on the Praire (good-hard working, long walks into town) and the Grapes of Wrath (bad-land can't support people and escape to work elsewhere)

I talk to the folks here in Esperance, Western Australia. I tell them that I worry about how to feed the people of Perth. The attitude among rural folk is "Up yours, Jack my parachute is open." I anticipate that the feeling will be reciprocated. With social capital like that I will stick to my Yacht. I like the idea of my shark infested moat.

Building links between farmers and urban neighbors is very important. This is why Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs) and Farmer's Markets are so important.

Considering how much money people in urban areas tend to make compared to farmers I can imagine there's resentment. To supply people with the sustenance of their life and be treated like "dirt" is terrible. Hence, reciprocal feelings.

I lived in a small town not far from Minneapolis in the 1960's. I believe the energy consumption per person was much lower than would be the case for the same small town today.

This town had 400 people when we moved there in 1961 and 3200 when we moved from there nine years later. But, from grades one through six I walked or rode my bike to school (no bike lock required) which was one mile away, but occasionally got a ride from someone going that way. The town had a hardware store, lumber yard, furniture store, dental office, pharmacy, grocery store, two gas stations (did car repairs), three bars and two restaurants. It was somewhat of a commercial center for the area and also had a rail line with spurs to a couple industries. All around the town for five or more miles were farms, some of which supplied produce and meat to the grocery stores.

I know for several days my mom would never go beyond a mile from the house because everythig we needed was so close by. Once a week we would drive to a suburb of Minneapolis to go to a large shopping center or large grocery store, or maybe to the library or movie theater. My dad worked as a travelling salesman so he used a lot of energy in his work. Other families did have long commutes to work, but some also worked nearby in the local agricultural industry. Many families only had one car. If we did not drive to another major city (like Chicago or Milwaukee) we took a train. Not many people took airline trips.

Even well to do people in our town did not live in huge McMansions, although they had large lots. End result was lower per capita energy use in 1960's versus today.


And do you think that people were just as happy with their lives then as they are now?

From your graph Australain cities cover the same density range as US cities but have lower energy used for transportation. I can understand European cities that are x2-3 denser having only 50% of the energy use, but why the difference between US and Australian cities?.

One suggestion is the higher fuel prices in Australia encouraging more fuel efficient cars or less driving. If this is most of the explanation, then raising gasoline tax to Australian levels(>$1.20 a gallon) might be the cheapest solution, rather than trying to totally re-build infrastructure. At least vehicles are replaced much faster than homes or bridges.

If you want to get to the next level(European cities ) clearly you need suburban infilling, more mass transit and probably $4 a gallon fuel tax, or perhaps just the higher fuel tax would do the trick?

There is a lot of transportation energy consumption in the US that is pure waste - inefficient vehicles, single-use zoning and low fuel costs. And the sheer lack of mass transit in many areas of even the USA's largest cities is also a factor.

But yes, even without infill, higher gas prices, better fuel efficiency and better zoning would make an enormous difference for the US.

I agree that the difference with the Australian cities is one of the most interesting aspects of the consumption v. density graph. In the very short run, it seems to me that our target should be to figure out how to get where Australia is (i.e. move down on the y-axis), since it will take quite a while to move to the right on the x-axis. And I suspect that you have it right, Glenn--it's largely a matter of cutting what is pure waste.

Glenn -- I love your ideas, ans also many comments and suggestions added by others.

The planning is terrific. I wonder about this, though:

If you've read Margaret Atwood's "Oryx and Crake" you'll have some idea of the direction I think that our totalitarian democracy in the USA is headed. The volatility of human interactions and the consequences of global habitat destruction are likely, it seems to me, to foil so much of our plans.

I suppose this is no reason to just quit making plans, but I am trying to figure out how we might include planning for volatility as part of this?

I imagine the future this way: a world of slums near heavily-guarded walled Corporatist compounds -- virtual city-states unto themselves -- surrounded by mostly wasteland created by human conflict and the habitat destruction following a wild 130 years or so of exponential population growth and insatiable consumption.

These Corporatist Centers would be connected to some others by a few heavily secured trade routes. A la Oryx and Crake, the unifying Corporatist entity would be the Security Corporation -- quasi-private and very brutal -- think Blackwater.

I do not like this, by the way, but do not see much of a way around it.

I do think that much of surviving humanity will live mostly outside of any formal economy or else will exist as surfs or de facto slaves.

My guess is that our leadership is primarily pre-occupied with managing a deadly game of -- again, both global and domestic -- musical chairs to see who gets to live inside the walled Corporatist City States and who gets to either die or live a rather short and brutal life in a slum.

These ideas are great, but I guess that we will soon be left to try our best to survive without the well-organized or currency-funded help of government ... ?

Maybe I'm just too pessimistic.

Do you mean just like now first world(using military) to protect themselves from refugees and terrorists from third world?
I prefer Margret Atwood's "A handmaidens tale" world especially if I could be beavering away at ensuring the survival of the species.

We will know that we are at the bottom of the recession when job layoffs are no longer news worthy. Before you know whats happened people will forget that the world was going to end or become impatient for it to end and start spending again.

Well, Neil1947, I do mean that and more. Atwood was prescient with "The Handmaid's Tale" -- think of Bush-Cheney. "Oryx and Crake" picks up where Bush-Cheney supposedly left off.

Especially I mean that the difference between domestic USA and "the rest of the planet" will diminish. We will be more stratified economically and also we will be a police state without pretense.

Check out Chris Hedges article over on "It's Not Going to Be OK."

Hedges interviews 86-year-old scholar (and UC Berkeley and Princeton political philosopher) Sheldon Wolin, who describes the USA as "inverted totalitarianism."

Under Nazi, Soviet, or Chinese totalitarianism, economics was subject to political ideology. Under the "inverted totalitarianism" of the USA and the EU, politics is subject to economics.

As the economy collapses under the weight of its own corruption, we will not be able to afford "make work" and bread and circuses so much. As people become aware of the reality of their poverty, government will become more repressive at home as well as overseas.

Things will not recover, and Obama will not be able to challenge the military-industrial complex that comprises the heart and soul of the American Imperium.

Add to this the cascading effects of habitat destruction, and most people will clamour for a police state as a last chance for some kind of security.

I do think that the kinds of suggestions offered here are an antidote to the kind of future that is already nearly locked in.

We will see if enough people are willing to take the medicine -- and demand it -- but we are already pretty much locked out of the real political discussion, are we not?

but we are already pretty much locked out of the real political discussion, are we not?

Where do you get the "pretty much"? I'd say "entirely", at least on any issue of importance (to the complex). When's the last time you felt your government took any interest at all in your needs, or in fact in you at all, other than as a source to revenue?

The future's just been tested. In Iraq. Green Zone vs. Sadr City. Forget about it, you won't be able to afford the taxes.

The only way to live a non-oil# and low energy "modern existence" is either in a fairly dense city (1 to 3 stories will work a la New Orleans) or a small town where "everything" is within easy bicycle range/decent walking range. Train (freight & passenger) access is a definite plus.

As TSHTF, there will be a profound difference between using oil for convenience (many Europeans drive to work to save 12 minutes vs. the tram) and HAVING to drive to get food, to get to work, etc.

# No oil used directly and low oil indirectly

Non-oil transportation, low overall energy use and redundancy/resiliency are what will likely be needed to sustain something comparable to a modern existence (medical care for example).

I have long argued that Suburban (Exurban even worse) are going to 1) drag the rest of us down with their energy demands and 2) will (and should be) the first to be cut off (for rotating blackouts, water rationing, road repairs, etc.) because they use more of EVERYTHING per capita than urban and even rural areas.

Best Hopes for Investing in Urban Areas,


"Non-oil transportation, low overall energy use"

I agree that the world will have to live in a "#no oil used directly( burning?) world.
BUT why will the world have to be low overall energy use??

I can accept low FF because of the absence of oil, and AGW from coal. Many TODers seem to link PEAK OIL with LOW ENERGY. Even today in US, 38% of electricity is non FF and growing in absolute amount, approx 5,000 kWh non FF electricity per person per year.

With efficiency improvements in electrical appliances, lights, heat pumps, that 5,000kWh can go a long way towards providing a very high standard of living, including all types of electric transport( trams, rail and EV's). But why cannot this carbon free energy be increased by 100, 200%? Lots of solar, wind, hydro resources to expand all by 1000% in N America.

But why cannot this carbon free energy be increased by 100, 200%?

1) INCLUDING hydro, renewable electricity is about 10% of US grid. Without hydro, a bit more than 1%. Given a dearth of places to put new Grand Coulees, Niagara Falls, Hoover dams, etc. a 200% increase in non-hydro renewable energy is an extra 2% of USA consumption.

More small hydro is possible (and geothermal; west of Mississippi River) but not another 9% of USA demand.

We have already gotten most of the easy to get, good quality coal (some of those "good" mines are still open & producing, but very few good undeveloped sites). Peak coal energy may be behind us (tons up, BTUs down from peak) and new deposits will take still more energy to extract.

Peak coal in the UK was 1913. 13% of the coal mined that year was used to mine coal. Keeping USA per capita electricity consumption stable while expanding the "capitas" on a depleting resource base is not a viable strategy.

NG electrical generation is at risk in the medium term.

2) Time. Enough renewables + nukes to displace coal & NG, keep up with population growth and maintain per capita consumption levels is 25 years (crash) to 40 years (good policies, normal implementation) to XXX years.

More later,


But why cannot this carbon free energy be increased by 100, 200%?

You have expressed a common misconception about the prospects of replacing FF ( at least in generating electricity.
Just considering hydro, wind and solar( although nuclear and geothermal) also have considerable potential to be expanded in say 21 years( 2030).

1)Hydro( need to also consider Canada here because a lot of additional capacity in Canada will be exported to US. Presently US produces 30-35 GWa hydro and Canada 48GWa.

A DOE study published in 2006 showed that the US has a potential of 300GWa


The study is basically saying that there is a very substantial small hydro(1-30MW) potential in most US states(300GWa). Excluding federal lands, and remote locations and only harnessing 50% of stream flows without using dams, could have additional 100GWa production.
Large hydro also has considerable potential(30GWa) to be developed.
Canada also seems to have a lot of additional potential large and small hydro( 166GWs by another estimate).
How much can be developed by 2030?
Large hydro has 10-15 year lead times( similar to nuclear)but probably less technical risk. Small hydro envisioned in the above report doesn't require new dams, it required steel or concrete structures to divert stream flow up to 5 miles and return the water back to the stream through a small generator. They identified 5,400 potential small hydro sites within 1mile of existing infrastructure would allow 18GWa to be developed. Without a crash program it should be possible to develop 18GW small hydro and 15GWa large hydro in 21 years( a 100% increase). In Canada new large hydro capacity is being added or planned in Manitoba(5GW potential), Ontario( at Niagara 6GW?) and in Quebec(?% of present 30GWa), some of this due to long term contracts with US utilities.

Considering only better quality sites( >6.9m/sec at 80m) the US has potential x3 total energy use. Presently this is 25GW capacity( 8.8GWa, but growing at 30% over last 10 years.
If we project only a 10% growth rate in increased capacity(8.3GW in 2008) will be adding 24GW capacity by 2020 and even if that growth rate then stops will have 340GWcapacity (110GWa) by 2030. That could replace all of the NG generated electricity(75GWa).
This is about the range envisioned in the DOE "20% by 2030" study, which concluded no real resource limitations to do this. Actual US wind developed is where those projections expected the US to be in 2013. Obviously if rates of growth were to stay at 30% until 2020 the 340GW could be build much before 2030.
The potential in US southwest is certainly very very large but its difficult to know how quickly capacity could be built. Technical risks seem low.
I have very little expert knowledge of solar but it appears that CSP could add 1GWa per year fairly soon, so at least 15GWa would be a reasonable first guess for 2030 but it could be much higher if expected cost reductions occur as capacity is expanded.

So working from the 2009 FF free base of 100GWa nuclear, 35 GWa hydro( ignoring Canada's contribution) and 9GWa wind(abut 28% of today's electricity) we could have 70GWa hydro, 110Gwa wind, 15 GWa solar and at least 100GWa nuclear, for a total of 295Gwa non FF generated electricity. That works out at 1kWa per person( about 80% of today's consumption). If we can improve energy efficiency by 1-2% per year that should take care of expected population growth.

If we have 200 million EV's and expand rail and trams, by 2030 would need another 75GWa power. This will have to come from either burning NG, burning 33% of today's coal consumption, increasing nuclear,importing more from Canada or importing LNG. Possibly all five to some extent unless solar is expanded much faster than the assumptions I used.

I was at the USGS presentation at Hydropower conference of the potential of 17.x GW of small hydro in the USA. It was "top down" and ignored economics and practicality; it was meant to define an upper limit and NOT to define what was doable, or in what time frame.

My guess, walking out of the presentation and Q&A, was 2, maybe 3 GW of small hydro could actually be installed in the USA *IF* we had a radical reform of regulation, higher prices, etc. Capacity factor <50% average IMHO.

We could also get an 4% to 5% more MWh out of existing powerplants by better maintenance, modern turbines and adding small turbines for peak flow and low flow.

You ignore seasonality of wind, and the almost complete lack of viable wind or geothermal resource in the Southeast USA (solar PV, solar hot water, biomass and small hydro are the only decent prospects for that third of the US population), and "not enough wind" in a majority of states.

As for the rest, you are simply too radically optimistic. Murphy lives !

More later if I have time.


In Canada new large hydro capacity is being added or planned in Manitoba(5GW potential), Ontario( at Niagara 6GW?) and in Quebec(?% of present 30GWa), some of this due to long term contracts with US utilities.

Niagara, US & Canadian, is almost 6 GW combined. Developed a half century ago. A new 14 m diameter ! tunnel will reduce frictional losses for Ontario and allow spring flood water to be used instead of "spilled" over the Falls. % of time that any Canadian water will be spilled will shrink to 14% from ~40% (from memory) (the USA got some water that Canada could not use, so some loss of power for New York State). Ontario Hydro added <300 MW of new generation as part of the tunnel project.

Manitoba is trying to market about 5 GW of new capacity, sold 800 MW to Wisconsin, so 4.2 GW left.

Quebec is talking to Ontario about selling them new hydro. How much new hydro Quebec can develop is uncertain. Newfoundland & BC also have some potential for new hydro.

ALL GOOD !! but not nearly enough :-(


Hey there, Alan -- always appreciate your comments!

I think I've answered my own questions about the risks of voilatility while reading and then thinking while doing some sanding and restoration work on an old house today.

The kinds of suggestions that are made in this post --a nd affirmed and expanded upon by many who comment -- are worthwhile no matter the odds.

We roll up our sleeves and do the work -- who was it who said "hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up!" -- ???

To live into the future against the odds and to change the odds is really the only option we have at this point, eh?

And so we also hope that government and culture can be transformed in the process.

Old Professor Wolin noted that our totalitarianism is "inverted" -- political ideology has not so much determined economics as the other way around. As the multiple consequences of poorly designed economic ideology come home to batter us we had best already be well under way with making changes.

Best of luck there in New Orleans!

I am beginning to get traction in DC. Two levels away from influencing policy.

Best Hopes !