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Time's up

Time's almost up

A leading energy economist in the International Energy Agency reported today, in an interview with The Independent, that the world’s oil supply has been depleting almost twice as fast as their 2007 projection, and that an energy supply crisis is looming in the next five years that will choke off any economic recovery.

“We have to leave oil before oil leaves us,” said Dr. Fatih Birol of the IEA. “The earlier we start, the better, because all of our economic and social system is based on oil, so to change from that will take a lot of time and a lot of money and we should take this issue very seriously,” he said.

It’s been over two years now since the World Without Oil game got people to collectively imagine our next oil crisis, and prepare for this day. For a video tour of your near future, try the official WWO videos by Kalwithoutoil. To see the full WWO archive, go here. Or for your own little refresher course in how to survive an oil crisis, review our WWO lesson plans? Photo by Napalm filled tires

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Portugal plugs itself in

Portugal plugs itself in

Glad to read this article in the Global Post about Portugal’s commitment to electric cars. The government plans to have 100 electric-car stations operational by the end of the year and 1300 on line by the end of next year. As the article notes, Portugal is Western Europe’s poorest nation, which perhaps gives impetus to its quest to shake off the shackles of energy dependence. Photo by Seuss in NC

Rollercoaster time again

Rollercoaster time again

An article in the WSJ thinks maybe not, and I agree. As noted in a NYT article last month, OPEC has succeeded in cutting production and stabilizing prices. As the price of oil climbs steadily back up to the level that held when we played the World Without Oil game, even in the face of a global recession and shaky demand, one has to wonder if we played it and now it’s time to live it…

Fear is a lack of imagination

Fear is a lack of imagination

Elizabeth Kolbert created an evocative image in a recent New Yorker editorial: she described the auto executives in Washington as men with explosives strapped to their chests, bringing nothing to the table but the promise that if forced to suffer, they won’t suffer alone.

Imagine, instead, that an auto executive had come to Washington armed with a vision – such as a new line of ultraefficient cars leveraging carbon-fiber technology a la Amory Lovins.

We are having a crisis – the Econaclypse, the Great Decession, call it what you will – and like the Great Depression it will define an entire generation. But it really is a crisis of imagination, not of economics. Wendell Berry:

We are involved now in a profound failure of imagination. Most of us cannot imagine the wheat beyond the bread, or the farmer beyond the wheat, or the farm beyond the farmer, or the history beyond the farm. Most people cannot imagine the forest and the forest economy that produced their houses and furniture and paper, or the landscapes, the streams and the weather that fill their pitchers and bathtubs and swimmingpools with water. Most people appear to assume that when they have paid their money for these things they have entirely met their obligations. An excerpt from “In the Presence of Fear” by Wendell Berry

This is important, so I’m going to say it again: We are in a crisis because too many people have lacked a certain kind of imagination. We all know that everything exists in an ecosystem, but it’s possible to pretend that it doesn’t, or that the system will be able to suck up whatever abuse you happen to do to it. The people who made the sub-prime epidemic happen did not imagine that they were destroying the ecosystem of credit. The people who made gas guzzlers did not imagine that they were destroying the ecosystem of energy evolution.

Now, however, those connections have been made clear. Now the thing we cannot afford is for people to strap on their unimagination like bodybelts of explosives and demand that the unimagined consequences of their destructive actions be allowed to continue. What they are failing to see is that their terrorist demand – for life not to change – is impossible. And what they are failing to imagine is that change can create a better life, both for them and the entire ecosystem they live in.

This is why serious games such as World Without Oil and Superstruct are such an important development. These games get at the root of the problem: they encourage imagination and the massive building and sharing of future visions. They put our collective intelligence to work on figuring out what’s happening, what’s possible and what’s fair. And they open-source this vision so that anyone can understand and participate. Wouldn’t it be grand if the legacy of our current economic crisis is not survival, but leadership in imagining how we can all make the future better? Photo by brndnprkns via Flickr.

The stability of oil supply takes another hit

The stability of oil supply takes another hit

The all-out war in Georgia finally moved from page 14A to the front page in my local paper today: about time. But the story leaves out entirely one of the most important elements of the conflict: the oil factor. The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan Pipeline runs from Azerbaijan to Turkey through Georgia and, with a one-million-barrels-per day capacity, is a key provider of energy for the EU and the United States. In fact, along with the sister Baku-Supsa Pipeline, it’s the sole supply link for oil resources in this area that wasn’t controlled by Russia or Iran.

Bonus points for you if you recognize the destruction of this pipeline as the world-shattering MacGuffin in the James Bond movie The World Is Not Enough.

News reports in the U.S. seem to downplay the oil angle, probably in hopes of maintaining the recent slide in oil prices. But the threat is very real – not just that hostilities will damage the B-T-C pipeline (which is already shut down for the moment due to PKK insurgency last week in Turkey), but that Russia will seize control of the pipeline and use it as a tool to control prices and exert power over the West. Indeed, that may be a prime reason for the Russian attack on Georgia. As noted in earlier posts, in the World Without Oil game, players predicted aggressive moves such as this by the new petropowers to consolidate their energy control…. As with Iraq, if oil is not the #1 reason given for invasion, it will be a faithful and constant #2. Photo by YourLocalDave via Flickr.

It's all in your mind

It's all in your mind

Recent comments by prominent figures (such as Phil Gramm) that the U.S. credit crisis, oil crisis, recession etc. are “psychological” have generated significant backlash (Gramm lost his job, for example). The World Without Oil game has a unique insight into this, actually.

It’s been well known that a sudden sharp increase in fuel prices would have a significant negative impact. Securing America’s Future Energy (SAFE) established this in a series of “wargame” simulations, as just one example. These top-down analyses generate outcomes such as “1 to 2 million unemployed people.” OK, fine. But do they actually produce anything of value for us, the common people? What if I don’t want to be included in that statistic? The top-down view has no wisdom for you beyond “suck it up.”

Whereas World Without Oil takes the bottom-up view, and is full of ways for a person to avoid becoming a statistic. It’s gathered hundreds of ideas expressed in over 1500 different ways, all focused on practical actions that people can take. I think any person that spends an hour or two exploring the WWO archive will come away better prepared for our oil-poor future. This is what WWO was all about – that by “playing it people wouldn’t have to live it.”

So, yeah, the problem is psychological. Policymakers who can only look from the top down are psychologically unable to see the value of a crowdsourced, collectively intelligent, bottom-up view such as WWO. They don’t truly understand the problem, and thus disconnect themselves from the solutions or any hope of meaningful individual action.

“When exactly was it that the U.S. became a can’t-do society? It wasn’t at the very beginning when 13 ragamuffin colonies went to war against the world’s mightiest empire. It wasn’t during World War II when Japan and Nazi Germany had to be fought simultaneously. It wasn’t in the postwar period that gave us the Marshall Plan and a robust G.I. Bill and the interstate highway system and the space program and the civil rights movement and the women’s movement and the greatest society the world had ever known.

“When was it? Now we can’t even lift New Orleans off its knees.”

When indeed? From an Op-Ed piece by Bob Herbert, sent my way by WWO friend Cathy. Herbert is referring to Al Gore’s challenge for the U.S. to get 100% of our electricity from clean sources in ten years – or put another way, to begin to catch up to the sort of energy independence that Brazil enjoys right now and Sweden will have in a few years.

Can-do power

Can-do power

Herbert is anticipating howls of protest about the “cost” of Gore’s plan – and sure enough, everyone with a stake in the present energy system is screaming “impossible.” But Cathy also alerted me to this: Texas Approves a $4.93 Billion Wind-Power Project (Midwest wind power is a key element in Gore’s plan).

As Cathy notes, “I favor decentralized power (or shall I call it democratic power 😉 , like roof mounted solar and wind – so there isn’t a need for the transmission line – but at least it is wind.” True that – as talked about at length in World Without Oil. It’s not perfect – but: is it a sign of the return of the can-do nation? Photo by jurvetson via Flickr.

Inspiration this morning in a national press release from Germany:

Pedal power to the people

Pedal power to the people

Stuttgart to Launch Electric Bike Share

With gas prices climbing and the threats associated with global warming becoming more apparent, more and more commuters think two wheels look better than four…

The city of Stuttgart has announced plans to rent electric scooters from locations around the city. The idea injects an electric jolt into the bike-sharing programs like Paris’ popular Vélib’.

The city’s government has inked a deal with British firm Ultra Motor to provide the moped-like vehicles. It hopes to have around 1,200 such vehicles ready for rental and covered charging stations located every 500-600 feet around the city in about less than a year.

The LEVs can travel up to 37 miles before needing a charge – which takes about 15 minutes – and have been especially engineered to travel up steep hills.

Interested users will be able to buy a monthly LEV subscription for 15 euros ($24), which will provide them with rides up to 30 minutes, a fraction of the price for a monthly Stuttgart train pass.

I believe the LEVs are combination pedal-electric: that is, you can pedal yourself as much or as little as you want.

More info on the LEV Share program here – coming soon to more cities in Europe. We need to welcome initiatives like these and consider them for American cities, which take oil-burning vehicles off the road and help us make the transition into a more electric-powered and efficiency-oriented (i.e., more sustainable) transportation mindset. First, of course, we have to start making riding two-wheelers safer by cutting back on the car-first design of almost all our streets… Europe has a 30-year or so head start on us on this. Photo by JS North via Flickr.

People in the U.S. are starting to talk about drilling again – in ANWR, off the coasts, anywhere – and that always makes me think of Frank Sinatra. Or more precisely, his performance as a heroin addict in the movie The Man With The Golden Arm.

Oil AddictionPeople who want to drill for more oil are like the addict who in desperation steals his child’s piggy bank to get a fix. This is almost a perfect analogy. Except that the addict who steals his child’s money to get a fix actually gets the fix. People who push for more drilling probably won’t. If they would only examine the reality of that future:

1. No oil will actually be produced for about 10 years.

2. When it is produced, it will be sold at market rate to the highest bidder.

3. When it is produced, it will be a trickle meandering through a mostly dry riverbed. The world will be running on 20% to 50% less oil than it is today, and the new oil won’t even offset the continuing slide.

So the perfect analogy would be the drug addict who steals his child’s piggy bank to pay a runner who will go off for ten years then return with a tiny bag of dope which he will sell to the person who can best afford his astronomical price. Someone who can afford to pay multiple times what we are paying now.

So I can understand why owners of private jets are all for drilling, because they have a huge sum invested in their jets and you’ll never fly a jet on alternative power. And of course Big Oil is pushing for it (played by Darrin McGavin in the movie). But for the average person, drilling makes no sense. But then, neither does addiction.

"You Know It's Not Good For You. You'll Cut Back Someday."Alert reader Cathy sent me the link to this article by Damien Cave which begins: “Higher fuel prices are forcing cities across the country to cut public services, limit driving by employees and expand public transportation in what has become a sprawling movement to conserve energy.” The article goes on to cite that 90% of 132 cities surveyed are altering operations in response to higher fuel costs. This forced cutback in public services was a big item in the WWO game: almost every service a city offers consumes fuel, and cities draw up their budgets in advance, so sudden increases catch them flatfooted (as we’re seeing now).

But the article goes on to quote the mayors at the conference: “some of them also acknowledged that higher gasoline prices could eventually make their cities bigger, better and richer.” The mayors are reporting transit use is up, the movement to resettle pedestrian-friendly downtown is accelerating, and new interest in bike lanes.

In Newsweek, Robert J Samuelson acknowledges that the equivalent of Peak Oil is here – demand has outstripped supply – and quotes economist Jeffrey Rubin of CIBC World Markets as saying that this will help U.S. manufacturing: no longer can jobs go overseas with such impunity. Relocalization works for manufacturing as well as food. Indeed, I’ve already read of a case where IKEA moved a manufacturing plant to the U.S. for this reason – it was cheaper to build bookcases here than to ship them in from elsewhere.

Samuelson can’t see past the current infrastructure, unfortunately, but the Economist can. In their most recent issue, entitled “The Future of Energy,” the editors cite this “failure of imagination” as the key to our problem with energy. They put forward instead ideas for “a world where, at one level, things will have changed beyond recognition, but at another will have stayed comfortably the same, and may even have got better.”

What patently doesn’t work is to cling to a wasteful system that’s loaded with problems and is incontrovertibly beginning the decline of its useful life. To quote the out-of-game “addiction” teaser for World Without Oil: “You know that it’s bad for you. You’ll cut back someday.” More drilling and more wars are the addict’s groping for one more fix: they solve nothing and don’t change the fundamental forces at work.

The ed4wb.org logo“We hear a lot of chatter about the price of gas these days. Most of it is just complaining and finger pointing. The few ‘solutions’ bandied around seem to have to do with biofuels and drilling for oil in new locations –- both problematic in their own ways. How can we get people to start thinking out of the box and looking at other alternatives? Seems like the following approach to involving and engaging people with important issues could be used in a lot of other educational contexts.” — The Education for Wellbeing site, talking about the World Without Oil game archive and our Lesson Plans for high school teachers.

by DigitalHowie via FlickrI’m mulling this morning over the similarities between the subprime mortgage crisis and the high fuel price crisis. Both strike me as little garden paths that the unwary were led along, by people willing to make a buck over the inability of others to visualize the future.

In both cases, people were sold a dream of the unaffordable made affordable, and sold the products that go with it: big new homes in the suburbs and plush low-mpg vehicles to make their long commutes comfortable. Now however the payment rates are being radically readjusted and the balloon payments are coming due. The purveyors of this dream – the subprime lenders of U.S. energy policy, the oil and auto companies and others aided and abetted by a subprime administration – are escaping with their gains and leaving people made destitute by their deception.

What’s needed is action that materially reduces our dependence on oil forever – higher fuel efficiency, plug-in hybrids, alternative energy. Solutions such as drilling for more oil are merely a continuation of the cruel deception. For starters, it will take about 10 years for any new well to actually produce any oil – no help whatsoever to those being squeezed hard right now by high fuel prices. But the main point is: more oil, from any source, amounts to no more than taking out a second mortgage on a subprime energy policy, something that only puts the inevitable foreclosure off another year or two.

Photo by DigitalHowie via Flickr. Click through for his narrative that sounds eerily like World Without Oil. All rights reserved by DigitalHowie.

as gas prices climb over $4“A top Ford Motor Co. executive urged the government to make a greater commitment to the development of plug-in hybrids on Wednesday… Mark Fields, Ford’s President of the Americas, said at a conference on plug-in hybrids that bold incentives are needed to speed up the development of advanced batteries that are key to the green vehicles….’This is a race we absolutely must win,’ Fields said,” then went on to say, ‘It seems clear that a business case will not evolve, in the near term, without support from Washington.’ Hunh?

Meanwhile, in an adjacent article, Toyota’s president Katsuaki Watanabe demonstrated a plug-in hybrid car, with a next-generation lithium-ion battery, at the Tokyo Environmental Forum. Toyota said its plug-in hybrid should be in the U.S. market by 2010; last year, Ford estimated its time to market at 5-10 years, or presumably never, if the government doesn’t help them out. Perhaps, if Ford had diverted one-tenth of its marketing budget for SUVs to hybrid research over the last 5 years, it wouldn’t be in such an embarrassing palm-out situation today? Bold never quits, but apparently it’s not above whining. And cutting pay and jobs; Mark Fields announced a 15% cut for white-collar workers last week. More reverberations of WWO themes, from AP articles on Thursday.

Warning symbol showing a fuel gauge on E“Oil prices raise cost of making range of goods . . . Hard choices all over . . . profits suffer, prices rise, workers’ hours are cut . . . airlines, shippers and car owners are no longer the only ones being squeezed . . . companies that make hard goods are watching their costs skyrocket . . . unpleasant choices . . . the sense that many companies may be hitting a wall is palpable . . . cutting jobs at an accelerating pace . . . more dire action may be in store . . . since last spring, the average profits of the nation’s corporations have declined at an annual rate of nearly 6 percent . . . ‘starting to be confronted with unprecedented price increases’ . . . ‘these surges in energy prices are just one surge too many’ for companies to handle. More news that sounds eerily like World Without Oil, from a front-page above-the-fold article today in the New York Times.

As seen in SwedenEverywhere I go in Sweden, I see messages about energy. Car ads list fuel types first, car names second. Car magazines splash “Diesel Sport!” on the cover. New buildings have huge banners on them touting their green designs.

Even the toilets have their message. I encountered one that has a Stop button – stop flushing, that is. Another had a dual flush button – one for a big flush, one for a small. Which may seem puzzling for a country that doesn’t have much of a water problem, until I remembered that moving water around is one of the prime energy drain (so to speak). Back in California, it is the state’s single biggest energy use, for example.

The Tunnelbana – the subway – works like a dream. It’s pleasant to ride and efficient. And it’s growing: the land around my hotel is all torn up for a new spur line to be added.

The thing is, Sweden has a plan – it wants to wean itself off petroenergy by 2015. And the first step is to make efficiency a priority. This bus advertisement (at right) really summed up the attitude: whereas in the US it would probably read “Get more X for less money!” here in Sweden it reads “Get more X for less energy!”  That is a profoundly different mindset, and one that the World Without Oil game is helping to promote.

Here they are again: real-life headlines that look as though they come right out of World Without Oil. I don’t want to see headlines like these. The question is: is the WWO game helping people adjust to the new economic reality they describe? And – is the game helping to create other realities as well?

Recent Headlines Ripped from WWO

James Howard Kunstler on the Colbert Report.The Colbert Report takes on James Howard Kunstler, who is the John the Baptist figure of peak oil – a voice that’s been crying in the wilderness for a long time, that is. For all the talk about Kunstler’s new book, “World Made By Hand – A Novel,” nobody seems to be talking about it as a fictional work – as with the World Without Oil game, it’s a veneer of fiction painted on a cold hard potential reality. Watch the Colbert report segment.

photo by Lex in the City, via Flickr. Thanks Lex!An article by John Wilen in the Business section today talks about how airlines are slowing down to save fuel. Meanwhile, Gary Richards, our local reporter on commute and traffic, advises his readers to stop whining about fuel prices and slow down – by his calculation, dropping one’s speed from 75 to 60 mph is like paying 30 cents less per gallon at the pump.

These articles bring out another finding of the World Without Oil game – that oil = speed. Americans consume an inordinate amount of oil largely because we don’t like to wait – for the bus or the train, for example, or for that cool new weight machine we ordered online. 747s fly everywhere loaded with cargo that could be sent vastly more efficiently by boat or train.

But of course, paradoxically, we also don’t like to be forced to rush all the bloody time. WWO people were quick to pick up on this silver lining to the dark cloud. Here, listen as Avantgame explains it in a phone call from Berkeley – recorded during Week 17 of the Oil Crisis of 2007. Or download the MP3:

The Upside to Slowing Down, by Avantgame

Photo by Lex in the City via Flickr.

Suddenly everyone’s talking about it: rice rationing in the USA. Coming seemingly from nowhere, although that’s just a bit of American myopia. The faulty rationales behind food-based fuel have been apparent to some from the start, and WWO player GailTheActuary laid them out pretty clearly in this post back during the game. But it’s still strange to see this sort of unintuited ramification of oil addiction burst onto the scene – it’s in eerie parallel to the World Without Oil game itself, when this sort of thing occurred every day. As we approach the first anniversary of the start of the oil shock, it’s preja-vu all over again. (Thanks Marie)

The WWO Lesson Plans have only been out for a week or two, but some early-adopter teachers are already putting them to use in their high school classrooms. . . and industrious students are blogging, commenting, and posting videos like this one and this one. Cool!

The Electrifying Th!nk Car In keeping with the day, no bad news such as the new highest ever price for oil. Just good news such as the new electric car coming to the U.S. from Norway (named the Th!nk, more on that in a moment) and ESolar’s announcement that it has raised $130 million to make and install 33 megawatts of small prefabbed solar-thermal power plants in California. The smaller plants can be situated closer to where the power is consumed, thereby cutting transmission waste. Converting transportation energy from oil to electric is a big step forward in sustainability and resiliency, as electricity can be a renewable resource.

If the name “Th!nk” sounds familiar, this is why: it’s a Ford car, one they killed in 2002, citing lack of demand. Here’s a news report from 2002.

Was this not a game? Was World Without Oil indeed a look at the shape of things to come?

This article by Jacob Adelman in today’s paper tells of farmers in America who have seen the cost of fertilizer jump 20% a week in recent weeks. “We’ll get four or five price increases in a single day,” says a fertilizer distributor. In 50 years in the business, “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

“It’s like there’s no end in sight. It’s very scary,” one farmer says. The cause? Competition for fertilizer from China, India and other rapidly growing countries – and the rising cost of petroleum energy, which in turn is diverting natural gas from fertilizer manufacture into (more profitable) use as fuel. As we’ve already seen with corn-based ethanol, our demand for energy won’t stop even if it means less food for the table.

Instability growing as food prices jumpAnd make no mistake, there is less food for the table. “Global food prices surged 57 percent last month from a year earlier, according to the United Nations, and the World Bank warns civil disturbances may be triggered in 33 countries,” reports Bloomberg.com.

“Recent weeks have seen Philippine authorities scramble to augment rice stocks in the country, Indonesian officials warn of possible social unrest due to skyrocketing prices for basic foodstuffs, irate Egyptians protesting bread shortages, and international food aid programs unable to buy enough goods to meet their food distribution targets for vulnerable populations,” Voice of America reports. “This is the world’s big story,” said Jeffrey Sachs, director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, reports CNN.

Doesn’t this sound like WWO? The alarming dependence we have on oil in order to grow our food was one of the major themes of the World Without Oil alternate reality game, and explored in depth by our players. We use oil to plant our food, to fertilize and pesticide it, to harvest it, refrigerate it and transport it great distances. We use oil to truck in its pollinators and pump in its water. Irrigation lines, row cover, and other essentials of the farm trade are made from oil. In the game, when the price of oil jumped up and its availability went down, the price and availability of food inexorably followed.

What to do? Get educated, especially about local sources of food. One of the WWO Lesson Plans can help.

Meanwhile, oil hit $117 a barrel, and experts say oil prices may remain high even if demand begins to fall. Photo by mattlemmon via Flickr.

It was the world's first serious alternate reality game, a cooperative pre-imagining of a global oil crisis. Over 1900 players collaborated in May 2007 to chronicle the oil crisis with their own personal blog posts, videos, images and voicemails. The game ended after simulating the first 32 weeks of the oil shock, but its effects continue, as game designers analyze its unique gameplay and we all watch the continuing drama with global oil prices and supply.