Friday, September 07, 2007

What Can We Do About Peak Oil?

As individuals, there's virtually nothing we can do about Peak Oil, i.e. the depletion of liquid and gas hydrocarbons. But there is plenty we can do as individuals to prepare for much higher energy prices.
I asked astute reader Vera K. to describe her family's preparations, which cover quite a bit of the spectrum of possible conservation actions:

"We've done a lot of things to change our lifestyle in the last three years but Peak Oil wasn't the original intent. Our changes in lifestyle came about because we were interested in being environmentally (and to a reduced extent) socially conscious individuals. We were originally inspired by this Audubon article a friend sent us back in 2003:

GREEN HOUSE Feeling helpless to do anything about global warming? Find out how one family cut their own personal greenhouse-gas emissions by 65 percent--and how you can do the same.

I'd heard about Peak Oil 3 years ago but found it much too scary to cope with. About 18 months ago (I'm not sure what tipped it off) I started to think about Peak Oil again I expect that most of my preparations are good up to a point like dealing with energy rationing, but if Peak Oil were to result in a societal breakdown we'd need a plan B which I don't have yet.

Anyway, what we did in the last two years is:

1) Choose our home location carefully to reduce / eliminate driving. We picked a small 1,200 SF house on the subway line in the middle of a very dense urban neighbourhood with many amenities in walking distance instead of a 2,800 SF suburban house. It's only 30 minutes to travel the 11 km (6 miles) to my current job.

2) Choose jobs that did not require us to drive to get to work, nor require us to maintain a private vehicle for job-related trips. My husband has always worked downtown but I had a suburban job for 3 years that required me to maintain a private vehicle to drive FOR work (at their beck and call!) as well as a location that required me to drive TO work.

3) Choose a house, not a condo, that we could make many energy-related improvements to. While new condos are becoming increasingly energy-efficient I still had some issues with them -- such as a 1,200 SF condo costing AS MUCH as my 1,200 SF house with 4200 SF lot only 3 minutes walk away. I also wanted an old house (built with solid masonry, solid true-dimensional lumber, plaster and quality workmanship) not a new one that's often slapped up in six months with chipboard, drywall, vinyl siding, etc.

4) Insulated and air-sealed the house (I still have more of that to do)

5) Replaced the 25-year-old mechanicals with high-efficiency furnace, a/c, water tank, washer, dryer.

6) practiced gardening for food on a small 4'x8' plot. I'd like to expand this next year, but the sunniest place is actually our FRONT yard....I really ought not to care what the neighbours think...

Psychologically, we think hard about whether we need to buy something to meet a need versus another creative and cheap (or free!) solution...use less...share (freecycling) more. Living on one income and saving the other one. We could afford a much bigger, more central and luxurious home on our two professional salaries, but jobs are uncertain these days. I believe this latter choice has made us feel so much more secure, resourceful and ready to face the world.

What we want to do next is:

7) insulate and air-seal our basement, now that our housemate has moved out of the suite

8) Install rain barrels to water our garden, and make plumbing changes to divert yet more gray water to the garden.

9) replace my 2-year-old rental 50 gallon hot water tank with a European-style instantaneous hot water heater, now that I have a bit more cash.

10) Consider purchasing a plug-in hybrid electric car when it becomes commercially available, since when/if the fertilizer hits the fan and gasoline is rationed, you might not be able to buy it for any reasonable sum of money. If gas rationing were not an issue my 7-year old Oldsmobile could probably last another 10 years with our meagre driving.

11) Get a wood stove as a redundant source of heat if the gas supply went low or (more likely) the electricity went out for the fan and electronic ignition.

Solar PV cells and a wind turbine are not really cost effective at this time other than for "show" since at our latitude, hours of sunshine the PV cell isn't the first choice (yet) and a wind turbine probably won't fly in my high density residential neighbourhood.

If society were to go through massive upheaval including random or even general breakdown of social order, what we've done will of course not be adequate. Hunkering down on 10 to 100 acres in a rural area with ammunition, a supply of food, farmland and fresh water would be the best thing. Will it happen in Canada? I pray not. But the urban riots have already happened in the U.S. - who are we to think we're better than that?

The Details on our specific situation:

1) Choice of location may be more difficult for some of your readers to do simply because of the "fear of the inner city". Toronto is one of those cities where it's (for now) safe and desirable to live a highly urban, as opposed to suburban lifestyle. In fact, most inner city neighbourhoods are very expensive and those that are not have become quite gentrified. It's the old suburbs that are "decaying" though by no means like that of most major American centres. I say this not to be prideful or to cast aspersion on our American friends, but to point out that we might have a bit of an advantage in our "Peak Oil preparation" in choice of location.

Our suburbs are trying very hard though. They got the express bus system running in the York Region (see and the suburbs are denser than what I saw in Washington D.C. or in Los Angeles County, but the neighbourhoods are STILL not inherently walkable.

2) This is getting more difficult since more jobs are created in our suburban area than in the city of Toronto proper. Also Toronto has a messed up tax situation where the business taxes are quite a bit higher than in the surrounding suburbs, so companies have compelling reasons to relocate.

3) There are debates as to what's more environmentally friendly -- higher density condo = less land impact, but they require a lot of energy to operate (elevators, booster pumps for water, etc.) During the 2003 blackout, a condo unit or apartment more than 4 stories up was seriously disadvantaged -- not only did you have to walk up those flights, the city water pressure could only push water up to the 4th or 5th storey. A poor colleague of mine had to carry two buckets of water up 30 stories since his wife had recently had a baby and they needed water.....

4) We had crappy insulation in our knee-wall attics, so I ripped out the old fibreglass and had an installer put in spray-applied insulation. Got R21. I'd like more insulation but I'd then need to put in rigid insulation board. Regardless, the difference has been immense. We changed four windows, one door, air-sealed the old milk-box. We still have to do the basement walls and ground floor joist-to-wall space.

5) If I'd thought about it sooner, I would have looked into ground-source heat pumps instead of a gas furnace. If I had a bit more money I would have installed an instantaneous hot water heater as opposed to the 50 gallon tank right then. But the tank is a rental, so it may go yet.

6) Unbelievably, the greater Toronto area imports about 85% of its food even though it's sited in the midst of the richest farmland in Canada. The best climate, the best soils, all being paved over. Of course the wheat and grains would come from elsewhere in Canada but the extent of California fruit, Chilean grapes, Argentinian oranges, Chinese pears and packaged snacks is just shocking, if you'd ever stop to think of it."

Vera, you set an excellent standard for all of us. Thank you for inspiring us with such a detailed description of what can be done to reduce energy costs/consumption.

Thank you, Jennifer G., ($7) for your very generous donation to this humble site. I am greatly honored by your support and readership. All contributors are listed below in acknowledgement of my gratitude.

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