Hurricane Katrina
Satellite image of Hurricane Katrina as it built into a category five storm that devastated New Orleans and much of the Gulf Coast of America. A similar economic hurricane is building over the horizon with even more lethal conseqences if we aren't properly prepared for it.

A Greener World - A Possible Dream

EV World editor's keynote address to opening of 2005 Kansas City Solar Home Tour

By Bill Moore

Thank you for extending me the opportunity of addressing this group. It's been a long time since I stood before an audience and shared my views on any topic and back then it was as a very young church pastor talking to his small congregation about a coming better world.

Ironically, I stand here again to talk about a better world, but not a millennial one ushered in by a triumphant Savior and his resurrected saints -- though that's a vision I know many of us cherish and pray for -- but one built by a world that has finally matured out of its millennial-long adolescence. It is a world that I often refer to in the opening introduction to my interviews on EV World as being one where "communities aren't just smart, their intelligent and sensible". I ask my readers and listeners to imagine a world "where all cars are green, bicycles rule and public transit is fast, frequent and fun. It's world where mobility is sustainable and accessible to everyone, where energy is clean and abundant, renewable and affordable".

So you see, thought it's been over twenty five years since I preached my last sermon, there's still a little of the evangelist left in me. Back then, I had been wrestling for several years with my personal dichotomy between preparing people's hearts for an earthly millennium, as we understood the scriptures, and preparing our minds and our hands. Eventually, I decided I wanted to get my hands dirty, if you will, and get down into the grit and grim of this world to try to make it a better place. Eventually, I started EV World and began my secular EV-angelism, using the vehicle (if you'll pardon the pun) of electric cars to address the larger issues facing our civilization.

While for some, it might seem a long and tenuous step between preaching the Gospels and writing about hybrids, and fuel cells and peak oil, in reality, there is much that unites them, philosophically.

Theologians have, for centuries, debated over the essential nature of man. While some argue man's nature is fundamentally evil as a result of the fall, humanist theologians and philosophers see it as innocent and childlike, corrupted only later in life. Both, however, saw it as redeemable. I am not here today to argue either way, but only to point out that it is also human nature to abuse and misuse, sometimes for the noblest of motives, and sometimes for the most base.

Take America's -- and the developed world's -- addiction to petroleum. If you're a reader of EV World you appreciated how this has become a dominate theme for us over the last few years as I awoke to the problem myself in the mid to late 90's. While I am old enough to remember gasoline rationing in the 1970s, as I began to minister to my first congregation scattered across the hills and hollows of southern West Virginia and Western Virginia, I -- like most Americans -- quickly moved on and forgot it.

But not entirely, in part because of a couple I met who had moved from New York as part of the "back-to-the-earth" movement inspired by magazines like Mother Earth News and Organic Gardening magazine. He was a successful chiropractor and she a former fashion model, now raising a houseful of very bright kids free from the influence of television. They introduced me to the idea of sustainable living and much of what that entails. And though my young wife and I and our two small children would move on in life, transferring next to Los Angeles, then to central Illinois and finally back home to Omaha, I never forgot them or what they helped me come to see and understand; that we have a responsibility to nurture and respect the "Eden" God has given us.

It would be nearly twenty years from the time I resolved to resign from the ministry to the time I decided to launch EV World. I would clean windows, work for an airline, write advertising copy, be published in Discover, Popular Science and Air&Space/Smithsonian, even briefly host a local cable television show on family finances. In 1993, I discovered the Internet, spending the next ten-plus years building and managing corporate websites, while writing software reviews for CNET and my old web site, Macware.com

Then one day in the summer of 1997, while waiting to talk to a banker, I found a two-page spread advertisement in Business Week magazine for, of all things, an electric bicycle. Curious, I wrote down the URL of the company and drove to my local library that had an ISDN connection -- remember in 1997 many of us were still using painfully slow 14.4 modems. Over the next hour or so of searching the Internet, I discovered an amazing world of electric cars and trucks and buses and bikes. The more I read, the more excited I became. The articles I had read in Mother Earth News all those years ago, started flooding back into my mind.

God only knows why, but one day I decided I'd start an online "magazine" and taking my cue from PC and MacWorld, I called it EV World, the hope being that someday when there were dozens of electric car models available and millions on the road, I could start a real, print magazine by the same name. I am still waiting, but the tide -- driven most recently on hurricane force winds -- is starting to turn. You still can't buy a highway-capable battery electric car, but you can buy a gasoline-electric one, and as time progresses, the electric-side of the equation is destined to increase, while the fossil-fuel side will decline.

And in that decline, we are faced with two choices. One is a cleaner, safer, more just and equitable world founded on a transformational shift in cultural values and technologies in harmony with the cycles of nature. The other is a world that descends into the darkest period in human history; one -- dare I say it? -- of apocalyptic proportions where people and cultures and nations fight for the last drops of oil before the lamps go out. The first choice rides on the wings of a redefined personal values, while the second exploits cultural biases and human fears.

Allow me to illustrate what I mean. You would have to be living in a yurt in Mongolia -- and probably not even there -- to have escaped the news about Hurricane Katrina -- and then Rita -- and what they did to the U.S. Gulf Coast. I see those hurricanes and the government's response as a metaphor for a much larger and far more destructive storm that is slowly building strength just over the horizon. That hurricane is an economic one called "peak oil".

Now if you're not familiar with the concept of "peak oil" allow me a moment to explain. Peak oil is that point in human history when mankind's demand for petroleum exceeds our ability to extract it. By most estimates, the earth was endowed with some 3 trillion barrels of petroleum, an extremely large percentage of it in the Middle East. Sometime in the next few years -- no one knows exactly when, but estimates range from later this year out to sometime after 2030 -- mankind will have extracted and used half of that inheritance… the easy half.

What does that mean? It means that we no longer can expect or assume to always produce more oil to meet growing demand. Economics 101 tells you that when demand exceeds supply, the price goes up. Eventually, the price gets so high that consumers turn to cheaper alternatives, and we see that starting to happen now with booming sales of hybrids and even motor scooters, as well as the rapid expansion of biofuel production. Even a couple of car companies -- in Japan, of course -- are planning to reintroduce electric cars. It also means that the cost of living in and commuting from suburbia and exurbia are looking less appealing. Kansas City is a good example. Look at the boom in downtown loft development and the revitalization of old neighborhoods. At $3 a gallon, walking, cycling or motor scootering to work is beginning to look very appealing.

What happens when the price of gasoline climbs to $4 a gallon, as some analysts are now predicting? CIBC World Markets, a Canadian economic research firm, recently issued oil price projections that should be a real wake-up call to everyone. They are projecting that a barrel of oil will average $84 in 2006 and $93 in 2007, possibly topping out in the fourth quarter at $100.

It's easy to assume that these are only temporary aberrations like the oil crises of thirty years ago. High crude oil prices will stimulate more discovery and production, foster the development of alternatives and, as a result, decrease demand and force down prices. That time-tested-and-true scenario is looking increasing unlikely as China and India's economies continue to grow, along with their demand for oil Last year China surpassed Japan as the world's number two oil importer, behind the United States. Even now, China and India are engaged in the systematic pursuit of more oil and energy contracts with Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Venezuela, Russia, and Canada, in direct competition with the United States, in some cases.

Permit me to put this in perspective for you. China has some 1.3 billion people, India 1.1 billion. The Economist once reckoned that if the population of just China were to achieve a lifestyle comparable to the United States, it would require the resources of four planet Earths. The Global Footprint Network calculated that the average person in India utilized the resources of the planet equivalent to just 0.7 hectares or about 2 acres. In China, it is 1.8 hectares or 4.4 acres, which is the global average. A Japanese citizen uses 4.3, a Canadian 6.4, an Australian 7.7. We American's utilize the equivalent of 9.5 hectares or nearly 24 acres per person. Only the United Arab Emirates use more at 9.9 hectares.

Now the West -- and that includes Japan -- happens to use those resources a bit more efficiently than do the Chinese. The Chinese estimate that they waste between 25 and 75% of the fuel they consume. Where a typical Japanese car will consume 1.1 tons of fuel annually, a Chinese car consumes 2.28 tons, over twice as much. This is why Toyota will beginning building its Prius in China first and why that nation is aggressively pushing the development of more energy efficient technologies.

Here's another projection for you. The Chinese are forecast to have 130 million cars on the road by 2020, with oil imports hitting 450 million tons. That's over 3 billion barrels annually, or roughly one-tenth total world production, assuming production can stay at 84 million barrels a day worldwide. But it won't.

ChevronTexaco's production in the second quarter of 2005 is down 6% from last year. ExxonMobil is down 5%; Shell 3%; Conoco 3%; and Total 1%. Meridian International Research is forecasting that world oil production will fall to 82 MB/D by 2010 and to 65 MB/D by 2020. Even the 800-pound gorilla in the room, Saudi Arabia, is likely to be unable to sustain its current rate of production at about 9 MB/D, much less increase it to 12 or 15 MB/D.

When I interviewed Matthew Simmons, the author of Twilight in the Desert, in late July, I learned an interesting bit of information about oil fields in general, and U.S. fields in particular. Like many American's, "donkey pumps" are, for me at least, synonymous with oil fields. You've got them down in south central Kansas. They slowly nod up and down, pulling up -- and here's the surprising part -- on average just 2.2 barrels of oil a day. That's it.

"Donkey pumps" are -- in effect -- the tombstones of a dying oil field on life-support. There are no donkey pumps in Saudi Arabia. That's the good news. But it is taking more and more water injection into their giant fields to maintain reservoir pressure and at some point, the pumps will have to go in. From that point on, the world's swing producer, who has helped cushion oil prices all these years won't be able to any longer.

So, here's this gigantic, category 5 economic hurricane slowly spinning up just over the horizon and like New Orleans, despite the warnings -- some dating back to secret Senate hearings in 1974 -- we are doing little of prepare for it.

The new Energy Policy Act is a prime example of this. With most of the funding being allocated to fossil fuel subsidies and tax breaks, it is more a reflection of faith in the status quo than a sober assessment of the magnitude of the storm bearing down on us. Yes, there's funding there for hybrid cars and hydrogen and energy efficient windows and solar panels, but compared to the scope of the problem, its a levee designed for a category 1 or 2 storm, at best. It's an entire nation whistling past a graveyard.

When the storm hits -- not if -- like Hurricane Katrina, there will be no realistic plan in place to quickly, effectively, equitably manage its aftermath. When the realization finally does sink in, the response is liable to be heavy-handed, hastily ill-conceived and -- based on past experience -- unjustly tilted to benefit the rich at the expense of the poor and middle class.

But let's say, the peak oil pessismists are wrong and the Saudis, ExxonMobil, Daniel Yergin and the Energy Information Agency, among others, are right. There's plenty of oil and gas and long before they run out, we'll have shifted to something else even less carbon-intensive like hydrogen. Can we expect the future to be a continuation of the present, only bigger and better?

Let talk about hydrogen for a moment. It is the most abundant element in the universe. It's everywhere, from the water we drink -- H2O -- to the hydrocarbons (gasoline, diesel, methane, propane, coal, etc.) that we burn. The problem is, it takes energy to liberate it from its atomic bounds, lots of it. In fact, it takes more energy to make it, in some cases, than you get from it; making it a losing proposition compared to other alternatives. If you have a problem with the energy ratio of ethanol, you'll really have one with hydrogen.

It is also difficult to store and contains only a fraction of the BTU energy content of gasoline by volume. A fuel cell car using hydrogen can travel upwards of 45-50 miles on a liter of hydrogen, but that liter takes up so much space that it is only practical to carry two and at most three liters, resulting in ranges of a hundred or so miles, depending on the pressure limits of the storage tank, which are usually compressed to 5,000 psi. 10,000 psi tanks can increase the range to a couple hundred miles.

Making the hydrogen, storing it, distributing it and using it pose significant technological challenges, especially in transportation applications. Still, it is worth pursuing, but it may be 20-30 years before hydrogen makes a serious impact on oil dependency and climate change, itself a powerful typhoon building in the distance.

We may not have the luxury of passing this problem on to the next generation, so let me offer you a vision of the future as I see it, with this caveat that it depends on us doing all the right things at the right time. It's a vision also rooted in a metaphor, this one a solar home.

My vision of our culture's future shares a number of distinctive attributes associated with a solar home.

While it is as old as ancient Greece and as new as tomorrow, it's still a hard sell to a world raised inside the artificial bubble of cheap energy the last one hundred years.

If Hurricane Katrina has taught us anything, it's that you can't mess with Mother Nature. Whether you attribute the hurricane to global warming or not is immaterial. The "big one" brought on all the devastation everyone had warned about. For three hundred years, New Orleans has fought the forces of nature erecting miles of levees and scores of giant pumps to keep the city, which is gradually sinking, dry. If city planners are wise, they will realize that it is ultimately futile to fight the river and the sea and will find a way to co-exist. Ultimately, it will cost less in capital, resources, manpower and lives.

Increasingly, the rising cost of energy is going to compel us to look more to local and regional resources and solutions, and not just in terms of building materials. If you're familiar with the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) program, you'll appreciate that it offers points for materials that are acquired from sources within a few hundred miles of the project. The new National Park Service regional headquarters in Omaha used limestone quarried, I believe here in Missouri. But this is still the exception, rather than the rule. Since its inception in 2000, some 1,400 commercial projects have been certified to LEED standards. This is estimated to grow to a total 5000 certified buildings by 2007. While encouraging, the nearly 600 buildings that will go up that year, representing some 78,000 square feet, will be just 20 percent of the commercial space that will be erected in 2007.

This also applies to food. The days of enjoying fresh fruits and vegetables out of season, from far away Central and South America are likely to gradually fade into a pleasant memory, replaced by locally grown produce raised in winter hot-houses heated by low-grade waste heat from your local power plant, foundry or brick kiln. Long-haul trucks will see their loads increasingly riding the rails, perhaps as express trains rolling through the night from California's central valley. Trains are simply more energy efficient over the long-haul than trucks and river barges more than trains. We may even see the re-establishment of regional cuisines.

When you sit down to plan a solar home, or a culture, you'll very quickly realize that building a zero energy home requires prioritization, adaptation and compromise. You figure out what you need and what you can afford and work from there. I know a couple of Hollywood celebrities who have relatively large, residential solar installations, enough to power their homes and even recharge their electric cars. I am happy for them and that's the ideal I want to shoot for, but I also have to be practical. I might only be able to afford a few hundred watts of PV or a simple solar water heater, at first. But it's a start.

When I visited China last, my host took me deep into the countryside north of Beijing, into a secluded valley surrounded on three sides by the Great Wall. We passed simple brick farm houses built, I am guessing, from the ruins of the Wall. On top of their tiled roofs were simple, thermosiphon solar hot water heaters. There are 1000 solar water heater manufacturers in China and 35 million units in operation. Even one of the communal villages we stopped at -- which was being converted into a rural retreat -- were passive solar-oriented.

The beauty of this future is its infinite diversity, just like nature. We pretend to be a diverse culture, but we are, in fact, very monolithic and becoming ever more so. From our fashionable faux-front homes, picked out of a builder's catalog and showing little regard for their climatic milieu, to our copycat strip malls, one subdivision pretty well looks like another whether you're in Lansing, Lawrence, or Las Vegas. I even saw a new subdivision going up north of Beijing in 2002 that could have been in Orlando or Phoenix.

There is, of course, a very real, albeit short-term economic imperative at work here. Mass-produced, cookie-cutter tract homes are cheaper to build than custom homes, making the American dream, as we currently define it, within the reach of more young families. But is the American dream of the 1950's still tenable? Will it be 15, 20 or 30 years from now?

The accelerating trend in loft conversions and the revitalization of downtowns like the Power & Light District here in Kansas City and the Old Market in Omaha, suggest that there's a new vision gradually emerging of the America dream, one free of the incumberances of suburban homeownership, one that celebrates community instead of privacy, free time over open space. Where an inventory of one's friendships exceeds that of one's possessions.

This phenomenon, at least here in Missouri, is made possible -- in no small part -- by an imaginative property tax moratorium, which while it appears to be somewhat offset by the association fees I've seen, suggests creative and dare I say, farsighted thinking on the part of your state legislature. It will take similar thoughtfulness and insight in order transition from the petroleum age to whatever lies beyond, starting with a serious reappraisal of zoning laws and transit plans.

Let me illustrate the importance of good mass transit and its connection to community growth. Over the objection of conservatives legislators in Minnesota and with the help of $334 million in federal funds, the $775 million Hiawatha light rail corridor commenced service in June of last year. After one year of service, ridership averages nearly 20,000 a day, 61 percent over original projections. 57 percent of its riders use light rail at least five days a week.

Perhaps even more compelling, The Metro Council forecasts 7,150 new housing units, more than 19 million sq. ft. of new commercial space, and up to 68,000 new jobs will be located along the Hiawatha line by year 2020 . The talk in Minneapolis isn't anymore about whether or not light rail should have been built, but where to build the next line.

Here's another interesting commentary of the impact of fuel prices on community planning. London, Ontario in Canada is now experiencing rush hour traffic jams. No, not on its streets and thoroughfares. On its 60 km-long bike path system, where 5000 people are now jostling for room on the 3 meter wide path. But this pales compared to the 10,000 kilometers of dedicated bike lanes and paths in the Netherlands and the 40,000 kilometers in Germany. I couldn't even find an official figure for the US.

My wife and I drove down from Omaha earlier this summer to visit family and to inspect some of the modern homes being built in the Hilltop district, as well as visiting some of the loft projects. I was delighted to see how an area that just three years ago was used to dump and burn abandoned cars is being given a new lease on life. It's close proximity to the downtown district makes it a natural candidate for revitalization, as are many of the older neighborhoods surrounding the town core. But this also presents a significant challenge to community officials and planners, because many of these neighborhoods represent the only affordable housing many can find. How do you breath new life into an old neighborhood while not dislocating the poor, the elderly, the disadvantaged and the immigrant? I don't have an answer, other than to ask that people are treated fairly and justly.

I should probably take a moment to talk about the steps we've taken, personally, to adjust to a post-petroleum world. We live in a home that was build in the mid 1970s. Since buying it in 1994, we've replaced all the windows, save the front picture window, with energy-efficiency casement windows. We've increased the insulation in the attic to 12 inches and we've replaced the old, inefficient furnace and air conditioner with a high-efficiency heat pump. I am working with a company that is developing an affordable storage forward appliance that will help reduce the peak electrical load demand of our home by utilizing overnight surplus electric power. We think the device will pay for itself in less than five years and it'll help keep the power company from having to build more power plants, which in Nebraska, means coal and nuclear -- both unpleasant options -- and increasingly, wind power. At some point, we want to add solar, probably starting with thermal for preheating our hot water.

Besides owning a Honda Insight hybrid, I ride my electric bicycle a lot more these days, running errands to the store, the bank and the post office. And most recently I finally replaced my old gasoline lawnmower for a far quieter, easier-to-use cordless electric one built by Black and Decker.

Our dream is to someday build a zero energy home that produces its own energy -- or nearly so --- from its own solar footprint. And I think it needs to be located in an area like the Hilltop neighborhood rather than out in Exurbia. This will require a combination of cost breakthroughs, enlightened community policies and a commitment to the future in a timeframe that most people in America have difficulty comprehending. The idea of generational homes is simply unknown in a country where the average length of home ownership is just 8 years. Typically, if the ROI of any home improvement can't be justified in terms of increasing the home's resale value or paying for itself in other cost savings in less than 8 years, there's little incentive to make the improvement. So, more than just improvements in technology, I think we need quantum improvements in our collective mind set. A critically important vehicle (again, pardon my pun) for doing this is the solar home tour. It underscores not only the practical but also the possible.

Thank you to each and every one of you for having the courage of your convictions to show the rest of us that another way is possible. Together we can work towards building a better world where all cars are green, bicycles rule, and transit and fast, frequent and fun. A world where energy is clean, abundant, renewable and affordable. That's a world I think we all would love to help rehab, not just by praying for it -- though that‘s important -- but by joining hands and hearts as a community, as a country, as a world in believing it's not only desirable, it's also possible.

Thank you.

Times Article Viewed: 18939
Published: 02-Oct-2005


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