Peak oil and YOUR city

A site called SustainLane trumpets the Cosmo-style headline Ten U.S. Cities Best Prepared for an Oil Crisis. The ranking draws on an eclectic (incorrect?) set of criteria: “recent city commute practices, metro area public transportation, sprawl, traffic congestion, local food and wireless network access.”

Honolulu was the first city that came to mind for me: they import a lot via ship, but in terms of many of life’s basic necessities (food, water, electricity) they’ve had the advantage of having had to think very hard about whether or not a local alternative is available before importing. Oh, and the perfect climate certainly helps: fresh food, solar electricity, and no HVAC year round.

Even though I live in the North, I have doubts about whether heating and air conditioning will be easily handled post-peak. Oil and natural gas prices are closely related, and cold cities pre-oil were filthy with coal or wood soot. The most technologically advanced solutions I’ve seen advanced — district cogenerated heating & cooling, with ground source heat pumps — still rely on natural gas.

On the other hand, electric heat is common in Canada, even though it’s the largest gas (and oil!) exporter to the USA. The province-owned hydroelectric systems apparently make it cost-effective, even in their bitter cold. Similarly, maybe the Pacific Northwest, with a mild climate and lots of salmon-killing hydroelectric capacity, might weather the storm well. That’s the deciding factor on why I strongly feel that Vancouver’s high rises, in particular, are quite sustainable: beyond the embodied energy of construction, the operation of elevators there will continue unimpeded long after oil.

On that subject, someone (I don’t remember who) tied the multistory industrial loft building’s rise and fall to energy costs. Lofts are from an era when on-site power & steam generation, usually through coal, was common, and refining oil into gasoline was almost unheard of. The multistory layout of lofts powered elevators or conveyor belts directly by angular momentum from the coal turbines, with little energy lost in converting that energy to electricity or moving it off-site. Those elevators often only moved product up; gravity usually brought product down. Industrial users switched en masse to horizontal production after gas made it cheaper to drive internal combustion engines across large factory/warehouse floors. (I wonder if someone could outfit a rooftop wind turbine with some kind of flywheel, thereby storing the angular momentum for use in an elevator. Hm.)

Any peak-oil situation will impact neither renewable electricity sources (fortunately) nor coal generation of electricity and steam (unfortunately). Energy uses which can easily switch to either of those two, and high-margin uses of petroleum (like plastics) will be able to adapt. Energy uses which are reliant upon liquid gasoline, particularly cars and trucks, will be hurt.

One thought on “Peak oil and YOUR city

  1. Hey WestNorth, I appreciate you linking to our SustainLane peak oil study. You’ve got some insightful things to say. I completely aagree that an oil crisis will not impact renewables nor coal resources. Yes, it’s the flow of the blood of the economy, the liquidity, the plasticitiy, the addiction to this blood, that will have to change, adapt…the energy use. Warren Karlenzig, director of the US City Rankings, just launched a blog on the sustainability of US cities. You should check it out:
    I’m sure you would have some insightful comments/ criticisms to make to him.

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