Saturday, May 24, 2008

A Cubic Mile of Oil

This gas pump image was taken at a gas station in Shelburn, Indiana on September 11, 2001. On that eventful day I waited in a long line to get this precious fuel so I could get home after a bizarre day of speaking about green architecture at a conference where the shocked attendees all had other things on their minds.

I took the photo because it occurred to me that gas prices that high would change everything. Now that gas is back up to within $1.40 of that day's price, it is time to revisit that day's epiphany and explore why gas prices are so high now and where they may be going in the short term and the long term. How does the cost of oil impact other aspects of our lives? Finally, what are some potential strategies and solutions as we strive to go from brown to green, that is from the existing unsustainable situation to a preferred sustainable state?

A year ago, crude oil was selling for $66 per barrel (42 gallons per barrel). This week, it breezed past double that amount and regular gas prices rose above $4 per gallon at gas pumps around Indianapolis. According to the federal government, about 70% of the cost at the pump is directly related to the cost of crude oil. Crude oil prices are set by market forces, primarily by supply and demand, but also by more complex influences, such as the value of the dollar, instability in oil-producing states and also by less scientific factors such as market psychology, fear and rumor (the latter three provided the cost at the pump illustrated in Shelburn in 2001).

Demand for oil illustrates the degree to which the global economy and especially the U.S. economy is addicted to this non-renewable fossil fuel. According to IEEE Spectrum, annual consumption of oil world-wide is just over a cubic mile of oil.

The illustration at left gives you an idea of the volume of a cubic mile of oil by plopping down a 5,280-foot-tall tank on top of the famous square mile that is Downtown Indiapolis between North, South, East and West streets (that's six times the height of the 49-floor Chase Tower). Another way to picture that amount is to imagine a gallon of oil on every square foot of Indiana's 39,000 square miles. As the graphic illustrates, Americans make up only about 5% of the world population but consume almost a third of the world's crude oil, the majority of which is now imported. Oil production in the United States, once the world's largest producer, peaked in 1970 and we are currently importing at the rate of 13.6 million barrels a day, thereby exporting $1.7 billion dollars a day at $133/barrel. The top ten countries we import oil from are: Canada, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Venezuela, Nigeria, Iraq, Angola, Ecuador, Algeria and Brazil. Looking at that list, you may get a feel for the idea of energy security. By wasting energy, we are enriching other nations, including some that may not be counted as particularly friendly or stable. We are currently spending $200 million a day to try to stabilize Iraq, for example.

According to a Newsweek article, the weight of U.S. vehicles has increased by nearly a thousand pounds in the past 20 years and the average horsepower has climbed from 118 to 223. In the same time period, the average miles driven per household has jumped 42 percent, from 19,000 miles to 27,000 miles last year. The nationwide average drive time to work is 24.3 minutes or 100 hours per year, the equivalent to 2.5 weeks of vacation time, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The average gas mileage of "consumer road vehicles" in the U.S. is 17 miles per gallon, but there are over 50 models of automobiles that get more than twice that fuel efficiency and some get three times as much productivity per gallon of gas.

Each American uses the equivalent energy of 10 Chinese or 33 Indians, but that ratio is changing dramatically as those two most populous countries, over 3 billion people, get better at emulating our gas-fueled lifestyle. While U.S. oil consumption grew by 2.8% in 2004, demand in China grew by a staggering 15.8% and in India by 5.5%. Some experts believe part of the recent price surge has to do with China sucking up world diesel supplies to supplement their coal shortage and generate electricity for the provinces affected by the recent earthquake. I urge you to read The Elephant and the Dragon: The Rise of India and China and What if Means for All of Us, by Robin Meredith to learn how the largest economy in the world, the United States, and the fourth largest economy in the world, China, will reach parity by 2015. Another must read is the June issue of Fast Company's Special Report by Richard Behar, China in Africa about how China is scrambling to lock up energy supplies and natural resources. 

The other elephant in the room that is causing rising demand is population growth. World population will grow to 8 to 12 billion by the end of this century while the resources needed to sustain that growth, such as fertile soil, fisheries, fertilizer, oil, water and raw materials are leveling off or declining. As current emerging nations and their swelling populations clamor for a western lifestyle, including our diet and our cars, crude oil demand may dramatically increase, even as supply begins to peak and then decline. 

Typically, gas prices subside after the Memorial Day weekend, and that may happen this summer as well, but many analysts are predicting a continuing surge in liquid fuel prices. Analysts at Goldman Sachs have predicted crude oil prices will average $141 per barrel in the second half of the year. Earlier in May, a group of Goldman Sachs oil analysts raised the possibility of a "super-spike" in crude oil to $200 in the next year. Crude at $200/barrel would lead to gas at the pump in the $6 to $6.50 per gallon range. Because of our devalued dollar we are paying more for oil, which further increases our trade deficit, which further devalues our dollar.

Cars aren't the only things affected by the end of Cheap Oil. American Airlines, due to a 50% increase in jet fuel costs over the past year, plans to charge for baggage. Airline stocks are plummeting, flights and employees are being trimmed as jet fuel prices soar. Petroleum is used in the manufacture of thousands of products including plastics, fertilizers, fibers and asphalt. Products are shipped on planes, ships, river barges, trains and trucks using petroleum. Our globalized economy relies on cheap fuel to make it possible for us to purchase Fiji water or Fiji apples from the other side of the globe at a cost that makes local products manufactured with local labor non-competitive. Cheap fuel has made possible the suburbanization of America, the export of manufacturing jobs to China, and the success of transportation-dependent enterprises like Wal-Mart.

High fuel costs create inflation pressure across the entire spectrum. Diesel costs have risen faster than gas costs which has a huge impact on the trucking and construction industries that rely on diesel-powered vehicles. Reed Construction Data reported that asphalt costs are up by 13% from the first of the year and that steel suppliers "have been burning up the fax wires announcing huge price increases and canceling previous quotes." Any commodity that is made with high fuel energy inputs, such as steel, or has high petroleum content, such as asphalt and plastic, are seeing increased costs that will be passed along to consumers. Petroleum costs dramatically effect food costs by impacting the cost of producing, fertilizing, processing and shipping the world's food supply. Recent food riots in Niger, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Yemen and Mexico point to the vulnerability felt more intensely by the poor of the world, who pay a larger part of their income for food and fuel.

At some point, all this inflation in prices will slow the global economy to the point where demand will be decreased and prices will fall, at least that has been the typical pattern. There's growing evidence, however, for another more fundamental pattern that will have much more significant impact long term. Just as oil production in the United States peaked in 1970, world oil production will likely peak and begin to decline at some point in the near future (if it hasn't already). Oil is a finite fossil resource, not a limitless resource. If you haven't yet heard of Peak Oil, it is worth your time to investigate this coming phenomenon. As world oil supply peaks and begins to decline, it is likely to have a dramatic impact on your daily life. A quick primer on Peak Oil is available at the Indiana Energy Conference Web Page. Another quick reference is provided by the City of Bloomington, Indiana Peak Oil Task Force or the Portland, Oregon Peak Oil Task Force. For a lengthier take on peak oil, consider this Peak Oil book list and the blog: The Oil Drum.

Consider how your life would be different if gas climbed above $6 per gallon in the next year and then just stayed there or kept climbing. How would you respond? How would that effect your job, your commute, your budget, and your lifestyle? As I stood there at the pump in Shelburn in 2001, I had the epiphany that everything had changed. In reality, it hadn't, but it may have been a premonition. How would you respond to that degree of change, especially if it was permanent? When the cubic mile of oil begins to decline and demand continues to grow, we will all be faced with some difficult decisions. No current technology exists to replace the energy density in all that oil in the amounts we are currently consuming, as the IEEE Spectrum article points out with a number of comparisons.

While this may sound like doom and gloom, there are some silver linings to this fundamental change in the way we use energy and a wealth of opportunities for people who are looking ahead. There are some obvious responses to consider and these will be subjects for future posts:

Denial - this is most common response to dramatic change, exemplified in this instance by politicians who offer to cut fuel taxes or divert contributions to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, two actions that work against a long-term solution and would have very little impact in the short term.
Anger - this is another common response, equally unproductive, exemplified by tirades against the oil companies or gas station owners, when the real solution rests with the person you see in the mirror in the morning.
Conservation - this is perhaps the most proactive, least expensive, most productive and most profitable response. This is one response that will generate new jobs and new industries that thrive on new clean energy technology. This is also the easiest one to pull off in most cases. Carpooling, taking the bus, walking, biking, eliminating unnecessary trips or buying more fuel efficient vehicles all fall into this category. Moving closer to work or locating in a well-designed smart development are other ways to participate in this response. If everyone drove a vehicle that got 34 miles per gallon, we wouldn't be importing oil.
Alternative Fuels - this is one of those clean tech opportunities that will lift the tide of investment in fuels like cellulosic ethanol and biodiesel from algae grown with municipal sewage and other alternative fuels under development. The problem with this scenario it that we are nowhere near producing enough alternative fuel to make a serious dent in the cubic mile of oil and ramping up new technology often takes 20 years or more. We need to get serious about alternative fuels by shifting at least some of the current subsidies from oil companies to alternative energy research and development. 

Advanced Fuel-efficient Vehicles
- lightweight, aerodynamic, hybrid and plug-in electric vehicles can offer part of the solution. Introduction of several plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) in 2010 from major manufacturers, including Toyota, General Motors (Chevy Volt pictured) and Ford promises to change the landscape and offers the opportunity for the "smart garage" concept to take hold which provides potential synergy with wind and solar power to interface with the electrical grid in an intelligent manner that makes all three technologies more viable. The batteries in plug-in hybrids, for example, can be used to store power generated by wind turbines to help level peak loads on the grid. Conventional hybrid cars passed 3% market share in March and Toyota sold it's millionth Prius.
Mass transit - many communities don't offer a viable alternative to personal transportation because they were designed during the automobile-centric suburban sprawl age and mass transit just isn't feasible any time soon. In Indianapolis, plans are afoot to start commuter rail service from the Northeast quadrant to Downtown using vintage trains at a fraction of the cost for an all-new system. A massive shift in emphasis is needed away from funding highways toward funding mass transit and transit oriented development (TOD) to provide the density necessary to make mass transit viable. 
Localization - globalization depends on cheap fuel to transport the goods manufactured in China to be sold in the United States, for example. As fuel costs and transportation costs climb, a greater emphasis on local and regional trade will become more common, as will a return to local labor and local manufacturing. This is particularly apparent in the growing Local Foods (consumed by locovores) and Slow Foods movements.
Smart Development - walkable neighborhoods and cities are coming back where cars are optional but sidewalks are mandatory. Property values are beginning to increase closer to urban cores and decrease in proportion to commuting distance to the core. A good introduction to this topic can be gleaned from, Surburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream,  by Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck. Another, more current read on the topic from the Urban Land Institute is Growing Cooler: The Evidence on Urban Development and Climate Change, which documents how key changes in land development patterns could help reduce vehicle use and greenhouse emissions. 
Sustainable Agriculture - modern agribusiness is petroleum intensive including the fuel consumed manufacturing and transporting the high-horsepower tractors, to keep them running, to make the fertilizer and spread it, to plow the fields and plant the crops, to keep them cultivated and irrigated, to harvest the crops, dry the grain and transport it to market. Sustainable agriculture attempts to mimic more diverse natural systems and reduce the need for intervention with power equipment.
Green Buildings - While buildings may not be considered to be gas guzzlers, they are among the worst offenders in terms of wasting energy and resources and offer a large part of the solution. Green buildings use materials and energy more wisely and are less dependent on fossil fuels. Buildings can be designed today to use a third less energy without increasing the initial cost. Off-the-shelf technology is available to design buildings that make as much energy as they use, including the energy required to make their components, ship them to the site and erect the buildings. LEED Platinum buildings, net-zero-energy buildings and Living Buildings are relatively rare now, but they point the way to standard building design of the 21st Century. 

Please stay tuned to this blog as we take a closer look at each of these areas and drill down into the details to move from brown to green. Your comments and ideas for future posts are appreciated. 

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

LEED 2009 Open for Public Comments

The U.S. Green Building Council has released LEED 2009 for public comment. You don't have to be a member of the organization to participate. The goal of the US Green Building Council's LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Building Rating System is to transform the built environment by providing a tool to measure building performance. Since its launch in 2000, LEED has been applied to over 10,000 projects and over 3.5 billion square feet of buildings.

Designed by committees of volunteers and technical experts from many disciplines, LEED has been a balancing act between doing too much to be widely accepted and doing too little to make a difference. It is criticized for being too tough and expensive and for being too easy and not going far enough to fix the monumental problems we are facing in this generation.

One of the reasons LEED is so popular, however, is the fact that it is a living, growing, dynamic system that continues to evolve and improve. Each new rendition addresses old issues and creates new ones and the growing legions of USGBC members around the world pitch in and point to the goals for the next version. Growth in LEED membership has been exponential and the annual Greenbuild Conferences have become perhaps too popular as they have doubled in attendance each year. The USGBC Indiana Chapter grew from 80 to 232 members in 2007.

If you are not a member of USGBC, consider joining one of the fastest growing non-profit groups in the world. Or, you can feel free to read the latest version and comment on what you think is too tough or not tough enough.

If you are familiar with LEED, this is a good time to get a preview of changes in store for the next version. Some of the changes you'll see in LEED 2009 include:

  • Greater credit alignment and harmony among the various flavors of LEED for different building types. Prerequisites will become more standardized allowing credits to become more specialized to fit a larger spectrum of building types.
  • Set schedule for development of future versions. Expect a more predictable cycle of changes more like building code adoptions. (LEED is not code, however, it is a voluntary rating system).
  • Environmental/human impact credit weightings have been changed to more accurately reflect the true potential of various strategies to positively or negatively impact the environment or human health as revealed by scientific research and feedback from expert members.
  • Recognition of regional differences regarding which credits may be the most critical. For example, water efficiency may be more of a factor in Phoenix than in Seattle. Project teams may select bonus points based on a project's location.

If you want to learn more about LEED 2009, USGBC will be hosting a series of LEED 2009 Webinars. The first two begin Thursday, May 22 at 11 AM -12 PM and 1 PM to 2 PM EST.

Or, you can read through and comment on the documents. The public comment period ends at 5 PM Pacific time on June 22.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Electric Airplanes Take Flight

Is it possible to be a practicing environmentalist and also a practicing private pilot? My own answer to that question lately has been, no, but I have been searching for an alternative to the typical aviation fuel guzzlers so I can get back up in the atmosphere without destroying it. One alternative that is flying now is a self-powered electric glider, the Taurus Electro. Slovenian glider manufacturer Pipistrel mated a 48 horsepower electric motor to their Taurus self-powered glider to create the new aircraft (the former model is gas-powered). The lithium-polymer battery pack weighs 101 pounds and provides enough power to climb to 6,000 feet at a climb rate of 560 feet per minute. The battery pack recharges about as quickly as a cell phone and the Taurus Electro offers the same performance as the gasoline-powered Taurus. Priced 33% more than a Tesla Electric Roadster, it will sell for around $133,000 and will begin deliveries later this year to an exclusive few.

While making 4-hour drives to meetings in Indiana, Illinois and Kentucky I often wonder wistfully when a plane might be invented that would get me there quicker and with less fuel than my Prius consumes. If I took the current model Taurus Electro, a trip of that length would only be possible if I folded the prop into the fuselage and caught some updrafts along the way. But there is an active effort to encourage the development of more practical electric aircraft, including some that would recharge themselves via photovoltaics while parked at the landing strip. Boeing has also tested a Dimona hybrid fuel cell/lithium-ion battery electric motor-glider that is also a two-seater.

The CAFE Foundation is promoting Personal Air Vehicles or PAVs and offering prize money for the first aircraft that can fly 100 miles per hour and get 100 miles per gallon.

Pipistrel makes a light sport plane called the Virus that is automobile gas powered that can fly over a thousand miles at 170 mph while getting 50 miles per gallon. This plane took top honors at a recent CAFE Foundation PAV Competition sponsored by NASA. That beats the Prius. With continuing advances in battery technology, lighter composite aircraft, smaller and more powerful electric motors, affordable fuel cells, and ultra capacitors there appears to be a future for low-impact personal air vehicles. Stay tuned!

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Change the World in 888 days.

Just 888 days to 10/20/2010!

No, you didn't miss anything. As far as I know, nothing significant has been planned for ten twenty twenty ten, but it is time to start. It is a decadent date that doesn't happen very often (OK, once in history). Those of us with ten toes and ten fingers (and twenty digits) should all get together and do something with all those base ten appendages to solve a big problem. Your next chance at base-ten symmetry comes at 20/20/2020, which would be really be special, but, alas, we only have 12 months. There's 10/10/2020, but it lacks symmetry. 

No, I think there is something special about that day in late October, just over two years from now. What will you be doing? What could you be doing? What could we all be doing together?

Join me in planning that special day and spread the word! 

Watch this spot in the next twenty days and send me your best ten ideas. When there are 777 days until 10202010, this idea will be global!

Thursday, May 8, 2008


As 2008 dawned on a snowy Indiana, zero megawatts of utility scale wind power were in place, but the year could end with 630 megawatts cranking away, all in Benton County. That is enough power to run 190,000 homes. The first 1.5 Megawatt GE turbines started spinning up in April.

According to Ryan Brown, Project Manager with Horizon Wind Energy, "Indiana is going to see a lot of wind power built in the coming 5 years as all of the top wind industry development companies are working in the state."

More than 2000 Megawatts of wind power are in some stage of development which would lease over 100,000 acres of farmland, which remains farmland after the giant turbines go up. A great web site with photos and more information can be found at

If you want to get in on the action or learn more about it, check out the WIndiana 2008 Conference coming to Indianapolis June 17 and 18. This conference is a project of the Indiana
Wind Working Group and will offer an opportunity for Indiana manufacturers and other businesses to explore the potential to profit from this new cleantech industry. Day two of the conference will also have a track to explore small wind energy systems for small-scale wind development for businesses, communities, farms and homes.