The real solution to the energy crisis is not simply more alternative energy, to erect huge forests of wind mills, install solar panels on every roof top, and introduce hydrogen cells in every basement. While the answer to our energy crisis certainly includes alternative energy, we need a “whole systems solution” to not only energy but also to economics, agriculture, science, and politics.

 by Roar Ramesh Bjonnes

  Remember the old gasoline commercial, “I’ve got a tiger in my tank?” Remember the old novelty tiger tails that were available from Esso stations during that commercial’s hey days in the 1960s? If some of the world’s geological experts are right, the fuel tigers in our tanks of the future will soon be completely extinct. Just as extinct as dinosaurs. Just as extinct as that old gasoline commercial.

Deep down, we all know that. Even those driving expensive, gas guzzling SUVs know that fossil fuels are a limited commodity. Nevertheless, most of us behave as if this nonrenewable resource will always be with us. No further away than the next Shell or Arco station. But, according to some experts, it’s time to reconsider. There’s a fuel crisis looming on the earth’s smoggy horizon. The most pessimistic of them, such as geologist Colin Campbell, estimates that soon there will be no more oil. The world fuel supply, he claims, will peak by 2010 and be down to half that level by 2025-30. To top it off, huge price increases will hit us after the peak.

The not-so-pessimistic experts, such as those from the US Geological Survey, estimate that reserves discovered by 2030 could be twice as large as Campbell believes. John Edwards of the University of Colorado also belongs in the optimist camp. He predicts a global peak in oil production between 2030 and 2040. So, even according to the most optimistic data, a future oil crisis is just around the corner.

The experts do agree on one thing. The grand peak of oil production is going to occur when about half of the estimated ultimately recoverable reserves (EUR) of oil in the world have been produced. According to the World Resources Institute’s Program on Climate, Energy and Pollution the “great majority of these studies reflect a consensus among oil experts that the EUR for oil lie within the range of 1800 to 2,200 billion barrels.” And, writes, Jeremy Rifkin in his book The Hydrogen Economy, “the world has already consumed more than 875 billion barrels of the total.” So, put on your seatbelts. The Battle of Oil’s Armageddon may soon be upon us.

Hubbard’s Curve

How did the experts figure all this out? They employed the methodology of geo-physicist M. King Hubbart. His thesis is as simple and graceful as his bell-shaped curve. In the words of Jeremy Rifkin: [“Hubbart] argued that oil production starts at zero, rises, peaks, when half the estimated ultimately recoverable oil is produced, and then falls, all along a classic bell-shaped curve.” It sounds almost too simple, had it not been for Hubbart’s convincing track record.

In 1956, Hubbart wrote a now famous paper that predicted the peak and decline of US oil production. He predicted that US oil production would peak between 1965 and 1970. He was right. Production peaked in 1970, and the US lost its role as the largest oil producer in the world. Today, more than 60 percent of the recoverable oil in the US has been produced. And, writes Rifkin, “using the same model, Hubbart estimated in 1971 that the middle 80 percent of global oil production will be produced within fifty-eight to sixty-four years, or less than one lifetime.” If Hubbard’s right, our increasingly energy-hungry world will soon be on a slippery slide down his bell-shaped curve.

Oil and Geopolitics

Actor Viggo Mortensen, famed for his role in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, is clearly in disagreement with George Bush about the reason the US went to war in Iraq. The T-shirt he was wearing recently as a guest on the PBS talk show Charlie Rose said it all: NO MORE BLOOD FOR OIL. The war in Iraq, according to him, was not, as Bush claimed, about weapons of mass destruction and terrorism.

The oil experts may disagree about the timing of when the oil runs out, but they all agree that most of the remaining “black gold” in the world is located under hot sand dunes in the Persian Gulf. The five OPEC nations -- Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the UAE—are the world’s leading producers of oil. The most prominent user of oil, on the other hand, is the US. Although the US has only 5 percent of the world’s population, US consumers guzzle down a whopping 26 percent of this indispensable liquid annually. Surprisingly, though, the US imports a smaller percentage of oil from OPEC than it did 20 years ago. In the first 6 months of 2001, the US actually imported more from Canada than from Saudi Arabia. So, is Viggo Mortensen wrong? Not necessarily.

The Russian president, Valdimir V. Putin, said in October 2001, in a “timely” statement shortly after the World Trade Center attacks, that “Russia remains a reliable and predictable partner and supplier of oil.” In reality, experts agree that Russia’s elite status in the world’s oil market will be short-lived. According to the New York Times, we will, in the next few years, see a decline in oil production in Russia, the North Sea, the Alaskan north slope, the areas off the shores of West Africa, and other regions. The countries in the Middle East will therefore soon become owners of the biggest stock piles of barrels of oil around.

Here are the crude facts: There are forty super-giant fields of oil in the world, twenty six of those are in the Middle East. Most importantly, while many of the oil fields in Russia and the US are in decline, production from the black oceans of oil in the OPEC countries are still ascending Hubbart’s elegant curve.

The Iraq war was as much motivated by geopolitical positioning as the wish to fight terrorism, and surely more about the future control of crude oil than about finding Saddam’s destructive weapons. In other words, 9/11 created the political climate needed to go to war. Weapons of mass destruction were the pretext, and the long term goal was to secure access to oil.

No surprise there. Historically, oil and recent wars have had an unholy alliance. The airplanes of World War 1 was fueled by oil and thus, according to Lord Curzon, the “allied forces floated to victory upon a wave of oil.” Hitler, desperate for oil, invaded the Soviet Union during World War 2 in 1941. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor the same year was also motivated by the need for oil.

The future flow of money from the West to the Middle East and a reverse flow of oil will only heighten an already tense geopolitical situation. Some possible scenarios: The OPEC nations will not be able to meet the demand of oil needed to be pumped into Europe, the US and the rest of the world. Prices will soar, economies will shake. The Muslim countries may use oil as a political bargaining chip and suspend production to countries not supporting their political agenda. Such a scenario would be more likely if Muslim fundamentalists staged a successful coup in Saudi Arabia or other OPEC nations. The US military presence in the region could thus expand into a “permanent force,” which could turn into a prolonged war between the Muslim Middle East and the Christian West. In other words, more blood for the sake of oil. In the long run, it could lead to global economic meltdown {mospagebreak}

Fossil Fuel and the Heavens

Oil has primed the pumps of industrial civilization for a little more than 100 years. It has brought tremendous material progress and huge increases in wealth. It has also caused much damage. Not the least to the environment above and around us—to our air and atmosphere.

{mosgoogle}We all know that the burning of fossil fuels pollute. Just think smoggy cities. Just think global warming. But it may get worse. While we soon might be running out of oil, optimistic geologists and economists remind us that there are still plenty of fossil fuels left. These are the dirty ones: coal, tar sand, heavy oil, and oil shale. The use of dirty fuels in power plants and cars would increase the emission of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Global temperatures will rise, the sea level will rise. Much earlier than any of us would want to.

The US sits on the largest coal deposits in the world. Since the global instability after September 11, the US coal industry has gained support in Washington to increase production. Some experts even claim that these environmentally dirty deposits will last for 300 years. However, new research by Geologist Craig Hatfield shows that reserves would only last for about 64 years. Hatfield also notes that a ton of coal will yield little fuel to keep America’s SUVs running—only 5.5 barrels of crude per ton. In comparison, it would take two tons of tar sand to produce one barrel of oil.

On a global scale, it is estimated that these dirty fuels constitute one-third of the world’s total oil and gas reserves. But their use, however, would be costly to the global environment. Increased water use that would help increase water shortages and migration of sludge pollution in soil and groundwater, are just some of the environmental problems associated with mining and processing of tar sand and heavy oil.

Many environmental experts believe our atmosphere, and thus our climate, could become our worst calamity. Synthetic oil production from oil shale results in 39 percent more CO2 emissions than from producing crude oil. Producing the same from coal, results in 72 percent more CO2 emissions.

Worldwide annual emissions of carbon dioxide are expected to increase by 3.5 billion tons, or 50 percent, by the year 2020, according to Randy Broiles, an executive for ExxonMobil Corp. He also projects that global energy use will rise by 40 percent as the world population increases and economies grow. The use of such fuels will result in the speeding up of global warming. Fossil fuel civilization will be under airborne attack. Global warming may slowly cook us alive from above. Industrial society’s greatest asset will thus become its greatest threat.

Fossil Fuel and the Earth

We are literally eating fossil fuels. So proclaims Dale Allen Pheiffer, a science writer for From the Wilderness Publications. “However,” he writes, “due to the laws of thermodynamics, there is not a direct correspondence between energy inflow and outflow in agriculture. Along the way, there is a marked energy loss.” Jeremy Rifkin agrees. According to him, “modern agriculture has been the least productive form of agriculture in history.” (page 157) From a sustainable energy standpoint, that is.

The Green Revolution, with its enormous increases in the use of pesticides and fertilizers, resulted in a tremendous amount of food available for human consumption. However, the majority of energy it took to produce that extra food came from fossil fuels. Modern agriculture is so wasteful, in fact, that a modern, high-tech can of corn contains ten times less calories than it takes to produce. While a can of corn contains 270 calories, it takes a Mid-western farmer 2,790 calories of fossil fuel to power the machinery, produce the fertilizers and the pesticides to get that can of corn to the supermarket.

Ironically, the Green Revolution is not only bankrupt as an energy user, and therefore unsustainable, its enormous increase in production has not come close to fulfilling its promise: to alleviate world hunger. The Green Revolution’s supporters maintain, of course, that poverty and hunger is caused by the failure of traditional agriculture in the third world. But according to Frances Moore Lappe and Joseph Collins, the Green Revolution has instead destroyed the very foundation needed to create balance between population, local economies, and natural resources in the first place. So, while the Green Revolution increased the total availability of food in the world, modern society has failed to address the unequal access to food and food-producing resources. It is therefore unlikely that the anticipated Second Green Revolution—with its combined increase of fossil fuel agriculture and bio-technology—will do much better to alleviate hunger, decrease our dependency on fossil fuels, and to safeguard the environment.

The increased use of artificial fertilizer and pesticides has had tremendous negative effects on the environment. It depletes the native soil of nutrition and vital organisms and causes pesticide runoff into the groundwater. It is estimated that nitrite pollution caused by overuse of fertilizer now accounts for half of our water pollution. (page158)

In terms of energy use, one of the worst offenders of modern industrial farming is cattle production. Today, one-third of the world’s agricultural land has been converted from growing grain and vegetables to growing feed grain for cattle and other livestock. It takes about 260 gallons of fossil fuel to feed a family of four meat eaters annually. When that fuel is burned, it releases as much CO2 into the atmosphere as an average car releases in 6 months. (page 160)

So, as modern food consumers, we are literally gulping down fossil fuels by the gallons. In 1994, it took 400 gallons of oil annually to feed each American. Of that total, 31 percent was used to manufacture fertilizer, 19 percent went to the operation of field machinery, 16 percent for transportation, 13 percent for irrigation, and the rest for pesticide production, crop drying and to feed livestock.

Thus, if we consumed a largely vegetarian diet, transformed our highly centralized, fossil-fuel-dependent agricultural complex into a more sustainable and localized form of agriculture, we could easily cut down the fossil fuel consumed by food production in half. Instead of eating fossil fuels, we need to start consuming renewable energy from the sun.

The Ecology of Energy

The earth is a living organism. There is a symbiotic relationship between the flora and fauna of the earth and the atmosphere. This realization, although still controversial, is perhaps the most important scientific breakthrough of our time. This theory was first introduced in the book Biosfera in 1926 by Vladimir Vernadsky, and more recently expanded upon by James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis in the form of the Gaia hypothesis. They argued that the earth is a self-regulating living organism. Although this insight rings deeply true to many of us, it has been difficult for reductionist scientists to accept such a holistic concept of the earth.

One of the key insights to the Gaian theory is the relationship between oxygen and methane. When the oxygen in the atmosphere rise above a tolerable level, microscopic bacteria are “miraculously” triggered to start producing more methane. The increased methane is absorbed into the atmosphere, reducing the oxygen content until a steady balance is again reached. This constant feedback loop between small living creatures and the geochemical content and cycles act in an intricate union. This organic amalgamation is what maintains the Earth’s climate and environment as well as preserving the earth’s life. Regrettably, the massive increase in the burning of fossil fuel has now become a direct threat to this living organism.

The earth is also a finite organism, receiving its energy to create life through photosynthesis from the sun. Fossil fuels are a byproduct of photosynthesis. Over a hundred millions years ago, during the time of the dinosaurs, dead plant and animal matters decomposed and were deposited under deep layers of earth. These prehistoric basins, on land and in shallow waters, are what we today exploit to fuel our cars and homes with. But, as Hubbart’ curve pointed out, these deposits are quite finite, it is just a matter of time before we will run out of this precious black gold. This process of entropy is called the second law of thermodynamics, another important breakthrough of modern science.

The first law of thermodynamics states that all energy in the universe is constant. The second law states that all energy moves in one direction, from usable to unusable. If our use of energy is solely based on converting stored energy from the earth—whether coal, oil, or wood—the second law of thermodynamics will apply. The wood shortages of Middle Age Europe and the shortages of agricultural land during the Roman Empire are apt proofs of the increased entropy created when this law is ignored.

But what about Gaia, the living organism we live and breathe on? Does it not maintain a high level of energy, and does it not seem to defy the second law of thermodynamics and of entropy? Science teaches us that the laws of thermodynamics only apply within a thermodynamically "closed" system, in which no free energy can enter from outside the system. Whether the universe itself, for instance, is a thermodynamically closed system, is up for debate. Most scientists believe it is, and so its entropy inevitably increases. But according to Eastern mysticism, the “sun” that supplies the universe with free energy and thus ensures that it will never run down, only change its form, is Consciousness—the source of all energy, life and evolution.

Life on earth, however, is surely not a thermodynamically closed system--it is constantly receiving free energy in the form of sunlight and solar energy. Life on earth is capable of channeling this free energy to do work and thus to decrease entropy and actually move from disorder to a higher state of organization.

The evolution of life on earth does not violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics--it merely uses available free energy (the sun) to delay the inevitable thermal death of the solar system.

While the earth is using free energy from the sun to decrease its entropy, the solar system as a whole is experiencing increased entropy, and will inevitably die out as the sun uses up all its free energy and reaches heat death. But that will take a few billion years, quite a bit longer time than it will take to deplete the earth of fossil fuels.

Thus an alternative energy plan must, in part, utilize the sun’s free energy. Whenever that is not possible, we must utilize low entropy energy sources, such as hydroelectricity, geo-thermal energy, methane gas, ethanol, etc. In theory, if it was possible to tap into the core of the earth, we could have an unlimited supply of energy. Maybe there are other ways of supplying earth with unlimited energy, truly unlimited energy? Some scientists believe so, and they are in fact attempting to tap directly into consciousness itself and thus create zero sum energy.

The Ethics of Energy

Fossil fuels are high entropy energy sources. Their time on Hubbart’s curve is just about up. The case has been scientifically made. There is also an ethical dimension to this realization. The environmental crisis and globalization has made us painfully aware that our planet is a limited place, and, if we are to survive, we better share its resources. Those who realize this have grown from ethnocentrism and geocentrism to a worldcentric worldview. This is the pinnacle of our ethical worldview: this planet belongs to all of us—not just people, but plants and animals as well, and, if we are to survive and thrive together, we need to share and use the planet’s energy resources in a sustainable way for one and all.

As David Fleming writes, “In the heat of the coming oil shock, [these] Green ideals will be forged into hard economic truths, as the energy crisis devastates the global market.” In order to survive this predicament, we need to start using low entropy alternatives. We need to start depending on renewable energy. In fact, we should have started yesterday—no, long before yesterday.

Even though it is late, and the stakes are higher than ever before in human history, we have some advantages that people before us did not have.

For the ancient Romans, the end-time came at around 600 AD. The slow but brutal force of entropy, in the form of deforested land, eroded soil, and impoverished urban and rural areas played a large role in crushing this mighty empire into environmental, economic, and political defeat. Many experts believe that the Mayans experienced severe environmental limitations when their empire fell as well. And, during the Middle Ages, Europe suffered greatly due to lack of timber for fuel and for construction. Our ancient forefathers did not know what we know today—that the earth, our precious Gaia, is a small green island with limited physical resources. Neither did they have the eco-scientific insights and the eco-ethical values that are becoming more and more global in scope today.{mospagebreak}

The Alternative Energy Grid

We cannot think of an alternative energy economy without a renewable energy infrastructure consisting of solar panels, wind mills, bio-diesel, hydro, wave technology, methane, geothermal energy, hydrogen fuel cells, ethanol, and more. So, what have we achieved in this area, and where do we need to go?

{mosgoogle}In the year 2000, the renewable energy leader in the world was not Holland or Denmark—two countries well known for their large and highly visible wind farms—but the Philippines. This impoverished, tropical country of thousands of islands produces 23 percent of its total electricity needs from renewable sources. El Salvador, another third world country, is right behind at 22 percent, while Denmark’s production stands at 16 percent. In contrast, the US produces only 2 percent of its electricity needs from solar, wind and geothermal sources. This is slightly below the global average, which was 2.4 percent in 2000. (www.nationmaster.com)

Interestingly, so-called third world nations may emerge as the natural leaders in alternative energy. Because of the relative simplicity of their technology and infrastructure, they will not have to dismantle a large, outdated industrial complex. They can jump into the renewable economy virtually over night. They can switch from kerosene lamps, coal and oil to a decentralized, alternative energy economy virtually over night, and thus avoid the same environmental problems as the industrialized nations have caused.

Below are the main renewable energy sources available today:

Solar: Photovoltaic (PV) cells are the most common and well known source of alternative energy. Solar electric energy demand has grown consistently by 20-25% per annum over the past 20 years. This has been against a backdrop of rapidly declining costs and prices. This decline has been driven by a) increasing efficiency of solar cells b) manufacturing technology improvements, and c) economies of scale. Still, PV power is two to five times more expensive than electricity generated from fossil fuel. Japan is the nation with the most solar panels per capita today. Switzerland and Germany are following closely behind.

PV cells have proven to be well suited for a decentralized economy, especially in countries with abundant sun shine. Solar cells can generate at-point energy for homes, farms, and industry. Solar energy can also be produced in large scale regional plants using conventional electric grids. One such project is a $48 million solar project in the Philippines which will produce electricity for 400, 000 homes, sixty-nine irrigation systems and ninety-seven drinking eater systems. Another such mega-solar-project is planned by Enviromission in the Australian outback. This proposed solar tower will stand at a height of one kilometer and will cost one billion Australian dollars. It is thought that the structure could provide enough electricity for 200,000 homes and will save more than 700,000 tonnes of greenhouse gases.

Some optimistic solar experts believe that solar (and other renewable) energies will produce between one-third and one-half of all global energy needs by 2050. Other experts argue that such an output is simply not enough. Unless we radically change our lifestyle and economy over the next couple of decades, we will run out of fossil fuels and experience the worst energy crisis the world has ever seen.

Potential: Solar energy is “unlimited” and the perfect energy generator in a decentralized economy based on self-sufficiency. The future of solar energy is therefore undoubtedly bright.

Challenge: To produce radically more effective PV cells at lower cost, especially for the third world.

Wind: When sunshine is converted into energy through atmospheric circulation, we get strong winds that powers highly efficient wind mills. Indeed, wind is currently the most cost-effective form of renewable energy. The European Wind Association predicts that wind mills can produce 10 percent of global electricity needs by 2020. In some European countries, including Germany and Denmark, wind energy accounts for over 15 percent of generated electricity.

Jeremy Rifkin writes that “a study prepared by Germanischer Lloyd and Gerrad Hassan estimates that the wind-generating potential along the coastal regions of the Baltic and North Seas could produce enough wind to provide the electricity needs of the entire European continent.” Many developing countries have also tremendous potential to utilize wind energy. India is today the world’s fifth leading producer of wind energy. By 2030, India plan to produce an equivalent of 25 percent of current electricity needs.

Potential: Energy from wind mills have a huge global potential, especially in windy coastal areas and mountain regions.

Challenge: Wind mills can be noisy in urban areas, they kill birds, and some people find them aesthetically unattractive. As with solar energy, the main challenge for the wind energy industry is to construct more efficient wind mills.

Hydro: Hydroelectric power is a renewable source of energy which creates no pollution. Yet hydroelectric dams can be detrimental to the local fish population, such as salmon in the US Pacific Northwest. Hydroelectric dams also disturb the ecology when land is submerged. India’s widespread dam construction, for example, is controversial due to the displacement and consequent impoverishment of millions of people when replaced from their villages. Still, as in Norway, hydroelectricity can be harnessed from waterfalls and rivers without much damage to people or environment. Hydroelectric power can also be harnessed from small creeks and dams for at-point use in private homes or on farms.

Today, hydroelectric power is the largest generator of renewable electricity in the world. More than 20 countries receive over 90 percent of electric power from hydro plants. Bhutan and Paraguay are the world’s leaders with 100 percent production, and countries like Norway, Uganda and Zambia are not far behind with 99 percent of domestic electricity needs produced from hydro. Another 38 countries produce approximately 65 percent of electricity needs with hydro, and more than 40 countries produce around 35 percent.

Potential: Most of the large hydroelectric plants have already been built, so the main potential for the future will be in creating small, super-efficient generators for creeks and small dams.

Challenge: To create more efficient small generators for creeks and small dams. P. R. Sarkar has argued that it would be more effective in a decentralized economy to create small rather than large dams for local hydroelectric energy generation and irrigation.

Hydrogen: Hydrogen has been touted as the energy elixir of the future. Jeremy Rifkin’s bestselling book The Hydrogen Economy argues that “the harnessing of hydrogen and fuel cells will spawn a new economic revolution in the 21st century.” Hydrogen has undoubtedly great potential in creating a global source of sustainable energy. However, unlike fossil fuels or the sun, hydrogen is not a direct source of energy—it must be produced either by the use of fossil fuels or by renewable energy and then stored in fuel cells. Currently, natural gas is used to produce hydrogen via a steam-reforming process and a catalytic converter that strips away the hydrogen atoms.

Enter Hubbart’s curve: we may not have enough natural gas or oil past the year 2030 to produce large quantities of hydrogen. Electrolysis, a process that uses electricity to split hydrogen and oxygen atoms is thus the more sustainable alternative, since electricity can be produced with renewable sources. The next challenge is to produce more efficient fuel cells that can store ever larger quantities of hydrogen.

Currently, some 400 billion cubic meters of hydrogen are produced globally, the equivalent of about 10 percent of global oil production in 1999 (Rifkin, 182) In 1999, Iceland unveiled an ambitious plan of becoming the first hydrogen economy in the world. Iceland is rich in geothermal energy, which will be used to create hydrogen, and the plan is to run the entire country on hydrogen by 2020.

Potential: Hydrogen fuel cells have the potential to produce enough renewable energy to serve global needs far into the future. Fuel cells are currently two and a half times more efficient than combustion engines, and the only effluents produced are electricity, heat and pure distilled water. Fuel cells are perfect mini-power plants for a decentralized economy and could potentially be installed in homes, cooperatives, schools, stores, hospitals and on farms. Hydrogen cars

Challenge: Fuel cells are currently quite expensive. Creating hydrogen via electrolysis using renewable energy is still in its infancy. So the future of a sustainable hydrogen economy depends on creating cheap hydrogen using an ever-efficient grid of renewable sources such as sun, wind, hydro, and geothermal.

Waves: Over the last few decades viable schemes for harnessing energy from waves have emerged, mostly in the UK, Norway and Sweden. Ocean waves occur due to a transfer of energy from the sun that effect the motion of wind over the sea. Wave power devices absorb this energy to generate electricity. These floating generators can be fixed to the sea bed, offshore, or constructed at the sea’s edge on a suitable shoreline. It is estimated that wave energy could potentially produce up to 15 percent of UK’s domestic electricity needs, but this technology is still in its infancy. However, some Norwegian companies are planning to construct large wave plants in the Pacific Ocean.

Other renewable sources of energy: There are few more alternative sources of renewable energy with great potential in a localized, self-sufficient economy, including, bio-diesel from plant oil, methane gas from organic waste, and ethanol from corn.

Bio-diesel has significant environmental benefits in terms of decreased global warming impacts, reduced emissions, and greater energy independence. Various studies have estimated that the use of 1 kg of bio-diesel leads to the reduction of some 3 kg of CO2. Bio-diesel is extremely low in sulphur, and has high lubricity and fast biodegradability. (European Biodiesel Board, www.ebb-edu.org) With a few inexpensive adjustments, bio-diesel can be used by all diesel cars and trucks. It is becoming increasingly popular in Europe, where Germany produced 750 million gallons of bio-diesel in 2002. However, bio-diesel can never become the fuel of choice for the future. Some statistics from the US will illustrate this: The current use of diesel in the US is 40 billion gallons annually, while maximum production of bio-diesel by US farmers could never exceed more than 3.5 million gallon annually. (David Coltrain, Kansas Cooperative Development Center, paper presented at Risk and Profit Conference 2002, Kansas, USA)

Methane gas is produced in an anaerobic environment when organic matter, such as manure breaks down. Small local methane gas production facilities are already operating on dairy farms and in some cities of Europe where buses are fueled with methane gas.

Ethanol is used as an automotive fuel by itself and can be mixed with gasoline to form what has been called "gasohol." The most common blends contain 10% ethanol and 85% ethanol mixed with gasoline. Over 1 billion gallons of ethanol are blended with gasoline every year in the United States.

Of all renewable sources of energy, hydrogen holds the most promise of delivering cheap, nearly unlimited amounts of energy, but it also remains the most challenging to produce. However, it is unlikely any single or multiple source of alternative energy can solve our upcoming predicament. We better start preparing now. We better start before the fossil fuels decrease. We better start before gas prices and the lines to the gas pump dramatically increase—before modern civilization start sliding down Hubbart’s curve.

The New Energy Economy

In designing a new energy economy, we must first look at what went wrong. A) The most common criticism against classical capitalist economics is that natural resources are looked upon as a free lunch. B) The air and much of the commons are looked upon as a place to dump or release toxic waste, also largely for free. C) The law of entropy is not properly accounted for in economics or political planning. D) Progress has been measured in an increase in material welfare and profit, while the side-effects of such “progress” are often ignored.

 

  1. If we look at the fossil fuel economy, the oil (natural resources) has been virtually free for the taking by those who could profit from its exploitation. In some instances, such as in Venezuela, Norway and Mexico, oil production is mostly owned and operated by the government, however much of the oil production in the world is run by wealthy corporations with GNPs larger than many countries. The profit made by the sale of oil by corporations does not take into account the social and environmental costs offset by pollution. So, in the new energy economy, polluters must pay for the cost of pollution by cleaning up after themselves.

C) Fossil fuels are released into the air every time we drive our cars, fly an airplane or heat our houses. The social, environmental, health and economic costs of this pollution is not accounted for in economics. But, there is no free lunch; pollution costs. These costs must become part of a society’s economic accounting.

 

D) The law of entropy teaches us that many natural resources decrease with use over time. We must therefore create a low entropy economy, one that is based on maximum utilization and recycling of all resources in closed loop systems, and one that emphasizes an increase in non-material (low entropy) resources and activities, such as spirituality, sports, arts, literature, community and family gatherings, etc.

 

E) All material progress has certain side-effects. Even the production of solar energy produces toxins such as arsenic. All of these side-effects must be considered and solved through recycling or other means before releasing these new inventions into the market place. As environmentalist David Brower used to say: “All new inventions are guilty until proven innocent.” Thus all new inventions should be environmentally approved by a government body on the local, state or national level before entering the market.

 

One of Sarkar’s great contributions to the energy debate is his emphasis on true progress as being that which increases inner, spiritual well-being, and on a balanced use of material and non-material resources. In contrast, modern society’s concept of progress has been that which increases material well-being. However, as Sarkar notes, all material progress creates certain side-effects, or an increase in entropy. Thus one of the foundations of a new energy economy must also be a change of values, a new concept of progress. Secondly, the new energy economy must reorient itself by not just creating material welfare but by creating a balance between inner welfare and material welfare.{mospagebreak}

The Real Cause of the Energy Crisis

The Roman Empire did not fall simply because of lack of fuel or tillable land. There were political, military, economic and other reasons for the collapse. Likewise, the real cause of the upcoming energy crisis will not be lack of fossil fuels only. It will not be, as many alarmist experts claim, overpopulation. Neither will it be overconsumption. These are all symptoms of an imbalanced socioeconomic system. The real causes of these symptoms are more complex, more systemic. In large part, the main cause is due to a highly centralized economy and civilization not acting in accordance with the principles of ecology. In the words of Lester Brown: “Unfortunately, by failing to reflect the full costs of goods and services, the market provides misleading information to economic decision makers at all levels. This has created a distorted economy that is out of sync with the earth’s eco-system – an economy that is destroying its natural support systems.”

{mosgoogle}If we go deeper, however, we will realize that the energy crisis has not just objective causes. It also has subjective causes that reside within the human spirit itself. Our current predicament is deeply rooted in a failed vision, a failed worldview—one that favors short-term profit over long term planning, competition over cooperation, conspicuous consumption over spiritual contentment, and exploitation of the earth rather than balanced utilization.

The real solution to the energy crisis is not simply alternative energy: huge forests of wind mills, solar panels on every roof top, and hydrogen cells in every basement. The real solution certainly includes alternative energy, but can better be summed up as a “whole systems solution.” We need a whole new systems approach to economics, politics, culture, values, ethics, science, and yes, energy. Ted Trainer, author of The Simpler Way, writes that “the alternative is about ensuring a very high quality of life for all without anywhere near as much production, consumption, exporting, investment, resource use, environmental damage, work etc. as our present society involves.”

Designing the New Energy Society

How our society is structured and designed effects how people live, what type of transportation they use, how much energy they consume, it even effects the amount of pollution that spills into water ways and floats into the air. The design of modern society is highly centralized. The energy grid is centralized around a few power plants. People are centralized in overcrowded cities. The economy is centralized in large corporations. Even farming is centralized on large, highly specialized industrial farms, often thousands of miles away from where the consumers live.

In times of crisis, such as the recent power grid failure in the Eastern United States, we realize how inflexible, fragile, and energy inefficient such centralized systems are. However, modern society creates other disturbing, even absurd, trends often overlooked by the average consumer: It is estimated that 47 million pounds of butter is imported into the U.K. every year, while 49 million is exported. About as many millions of kilos of pork products leave Australia as enter. Not surprisingly, per capita use of fossil energy in North America--where thousands of gas guzzling trucks transports food thousands of miles back and forth across this vast continent--is five times the world average.

Thus, economist Ravi Batra notes in his book, The Myth of Free Trade, that one of the most important contributions of a decentralized economy would be huge reductions in both pollution and the use of energy. A prominent feature of an alternative energy society will therefore be its decentralized energy and transportation grid, a feature mimicking how nature’s bio-diverse web itself is organized. Indeed, alternative energy promoters stress the fact that alternative energy by design is decentralized. However, they often overlook the need to also restructure the entire economy in a decentralized fashion. This is of crucial importance.

Otherwise, profiteering by a few huge, largely Western, corporations will again dominate the entire world economy, including energy. At best, the rich in the North will have solar powered homes and drive BMW’s with hydrogen cells, but the people in the South will still be congested, polluted, poor, and exploited. At worst, we will fail to change our energy grid in time. Millions will starve to death. The rest will be at war over dwindling resources like water, food, and left over fossil fuels. Not a pretty scenario.

A decentralized (read: localized), largely cooperative economy is thus crucial in a new energy world. Jeremy Rifkin, a strong proponent of a hydrogen-based energy economy, writes: “Power companies are going to have to come to grips with the reality that millions of local entrepreneurs, generating electricity from fuel cells on-site, can produce more power more cheaply than can today’s giant power plants.” When users become producers of their own energy, Rifkin holds, the only remaining role for the power companies would be in the form of “virtual power plants” that manufacture and market fuel cells and coordinate the flow of energy. On a global scale, Rifkin believes that cooperatives are “the best organizational vehicles” for establishing the new grid of renewable energy. “With 730 million members in 100 countries, cooperatives could help lead the way into a hydrogen era by establishing distribution generation associations in thousands of communities,” Rifkin writes. (page 232, 233)

What emerges, then, is an alternative economic structure that is akin to P. R Sarkar’s three-tiered PROUT (Progressive Utilization Theory) economy, in which large and small, localized, worker-owned cooperatives serve as the cornerstone of the economy. At the bottom of this three-tiered pyramid, there are small, privately owned enterprises, while at the top there are key-industries owned by the local or state government and run on a no-profit-no-loss principle. Envision a future energy grid in which key industries produce fuel cells at very low cost, distribute the flow of energy where needed. Local cooperative enterprises will make everything from wind mills to solar panels to bio-diesel generators, and cooperatively and privately owned stores will sell alternative energy components to home owners.

Beyond Energy

The energy problem is not just a problem of energy; it is a problem endemic to our wasteful way of life, to corporate capitalism, to our reductionist and materialist worldview, to our lack of an ecological ethics, and, most importantly, lack of political leaders guided by perennial ethics and wisdom.

For some renewable energy experts, though, the goal is simple: create an abundance of cheap and clean energy from renewable sources to replace fossil fuel. Jeremy Rifkin claims that the hydrogen economy is the answer, and that it is “within sight.” Hydrogen, he writes, is abundant, it will soon be cheap to produce, and it will, by its very nature, decentralize and democratize the energy web and help shape a whole new society formed around bioregions. Paul Hawken and Amory Lovins, authors of Natural Capitalism, claims we need a new industrial revolution based on more energy efficient products, the elimination of waste, and on investing in natural capital. For others, the changes needed are much more complex and far-reaching: produce cheap and clean energy, yes, but, more importantly, to reorganize our whole economy and dramatically change our lifestyle and our worldview. Trainer, an advocate of this school of thought, claims there is no scientific, quick fix to this global problem. He promotes a dramatically new economy based on The Simpler Way: less luxury consumption, self-sufficient regions, local economic independence and cooperatives.

Sarkar’s PROUT (Progressive Utilization Theory) outlines such an emerging economy in more detail: a three-tiered, decentralized structure, global political cooperation, a guaranteed minimum living standard and a maximum income, an economy driven not by profit but by production for human needs, dynamic balance between economic output and environmental needs, maximum utilization of resources (closed loop industries, “cradle to cradle” industrial designs), international barter trade, and much more. In addition, Sarkar extends the spiritual perspective of traditional peoples, and the world’s mystical traditions, by maintaining that we all belong to Nature. Moreover, that Nature and the Pure Consciousness that created Her are inseparable. Thus, he declares, the Earth is the common inheritance of all: people, plants and animals. Energy, water, soil, sun light, therefore, does not belong to anyone—especially not to the rich, nor to the corporations. Thus a fundamental tenet of the new energy economy, according to Sarkar’s principles, is that these resources must be respectfully shared and appropriately utilized by all.

The ideas promoted by Rifkin, Sarkar, Trainer, Hawken and Lovins, although very different, are quite complimentary. Hydrogen must undoubtedly be part of the new economy; industrial innovation and investing in natural capital is important in order to keep the biosphere in tact; a simpler lifestyle is vital in order to reduce consumption and waste; a three-tiered restructuring of the economy is a radical new way to balance the ingenuity of individual enterprise with cooperation and collective human needs; finally, all this must be balanced with the welfare of nature.

An alternative energy society will thus consist of both high and low technology, both personal lifestyle/worldview changes as well as radical structural changes to the economy: non-polluting hydrogen cars and public transportation, walking and bicycling to work and for shopping, computer and machine parts that are 100 percent recyclable, locally produced food (even in urban areas), energy efficient houses made of local raw materials (wood, straw, sand, clay, glass) that produce more renewable energy than they use, a cooperative economy with less working hours, a dramatic reduction in consumerism, frugality and self-sufficiency, and more time for recreation, family, friends, spirituality, and fun.

All things considered, there is no quick fix. No amount of conspiratorial agitation will scare us into economic equity and environmental balance. Our best hope of averting a global energy crisis is to turn inward and to heed the wisdom and example of those who advocate and already live the radical and systemic changes that must take place in our economy, our lifestyle, and our energy consumption. At this crossroads, we are presented with a great opportunity for integral change. Whether we seize this opportunity or squander it, that is up to us.

Roar Ramesh Bjonnes is Marketing Director and co-founder of the Prama Institute. He has been an agronomist, freelance journalist and is currently a columnist for a Norwegian Newspaper and contributing editor for New Renaissance (www.ru.org). His articles have appeared in books, newspapers and magazines in the US and in Europe. He can be reached at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.