Dependence on cars boosts consumption of fossil fuel. Photo illustration: GO Transit; B. Smith
The issue of energy has been looming like a storm cloud on the horizon for
over 30 years. North American society's understanding of energy supply and demand
has been distorted, because we have had a virtually uninterrupted supply of
cheap energy for several generations. Cheap energy has powered the manufacturing,
automotive, home heating, agricultural and construction industries. In fact,
North American prosperity has been fuelled by an abundant supply of cheap energy.
The facts about oil supply, our primary energy source, have been known for
some time. The body of literature on oil supply is very compelling, but seldom
makes the bestseller list. What is really surprising is the silence from the
mainstream media and our elected officials about this enormous issue that has
been bearing down on us for decades. The amount of oil in the
earth has been estimated by international bodies to be 2 trillion barrels. In
the past 140 years since initial oil production in 1860, we have used half of
the world's supply, leaving approximately 1 trillion barrels. The current rate
of oil consumption is 27 billion barrels a year which, when you do the calculations,
leaves just 37 years of supply.
In addition to running out of our prime energy source by 2041, there are other
commonly asked questions to consider when planning for the future:
1. Isn't there still lots of oil left? The "low
hanging fruit" has already been picked: the remaining oil will be harder
and more dangerous to extract. When it costs a litre of oil to retrieve a
litre of oil, the economics of the situation will shut production down, leaving
the most difficult sources untapped. In the meantime, extraction costs will
continue to drive up prices.
2. Isn't this just another blip—remember the 1970s?
The estimate of 27 billion barrels per year is based on current demand;
this does not include the rising demands of the emerging industrial giants,
China and India, or the ever-increasing demands of developed nations. Their
initial demands have already sent prices higher and they are only starting
to develop. China's oil imports doubled from 1999 to 2004 and surged a further
40 percent in 2004 alone. Both China and India already have frequent brownouts
because of short supply and priorities given to industrial use. The irony
in China is that workers can afford air-conditioners for the first time, but
power is often not available to run them.
3. Why doesn't the U.S. increase its energy production?
When President Bush says that the United States must increase its energy
production, he does not mean that more should be pumped out of U.S. soil,
since this oil source has been dwindling for years. What he means is there
should be more refineries to process oil from "Somewhere Else."
Limited new oil and gas finds will occur, but on a small scale; there has
not been a major oil find since the 1960s. U.S. production peaked in 1970
and has been declining ever since. The world has been carefully mapped and
explored for fossil fuel for some time. Canada has already passed its peak
natural gas supply point, while the United States passed its back in 1973.
Supplies are being depleted and costs are steadily rising. Under Free Trade,
Canada exports two thirds of its gas stocks to the U.S. annually. To make
matters worse, 95 percent of nitrogenous fertilizer is made from natural gas.
The effects of declining fossil fuel supplies mean that the cost of food will
rise due to increased production, transportation and plastic packaging costs.
4. Why not just increase production and open the taps?
Oil pumping facilities worldwide are already working at maximum capacity to
keep up with demand. Saudi Arabia, the world's largest producer, is working
flat out to pump as much oil out of the ground as it can in order to meet
its U.S. commitments and the increasing demands of emerging economies. In
addition, increased use of fossil fuels will generate more climate-altering
carbon dioxide. As energy scientist Dan Kammen states, "We're running
out of atmosphere faster than we're running out of fossil fuels. The more
we diversify the better" (National Geographic, August 2005,
5. Why can't alternative energy sources replace current
oil supplies? Fossil fuels have met the growing demand for energy because
they concentrate millions of years of the sun's energy in the growing of plants
that became fossilized into a compact form. We will not find this type of
source again on this planet. The replacement of fossil fuels by alternatives
such as solar, wind, geothermal, biomass (wood, corn, alcohol), hydrogen and
nuclear fission is not yet a viable alternative. Even if we were to use all
of these sources combined, with present-day technologies they do not even
come close to providing the energy we derive from oil. To vastly expand solar,
wind, and nuclear sources, not counting planning and political delays, it
would take at least 40 years to match our present-day consumption of oil.
We must also anticipate that there are days when the sun does not shine and
the wind does not blow. And with nuclear waste already a serious storage problem,
this problem will only get worse. Estimated current supplies of uranium will
only last for another 50 years, so nuclear fission is far from renewable.
It should also be noted that free and clean energy from hydrogen is a misconception.
Hydrogen is not a source of energy; it has to be freed through the use of
electricity and at present it takes more energy than it gives back to do this.
While BMW is planning to launch a top-of-the-line 7 Series dual-fuel vehicle
(gasoline/hydrogen) in 2008, hydrogen filling stations have yet to appear.
The efficient hydrogen-powered car is still to be produced, although some
fuel cell buses are running in Europe on hydrogen from renewable sources.
We must also keep in mind that the electricity to create hydrogen must be
produced by hydroelectric, coal-burning or nuclear plants and that significant
safety issues regarding the explosive nature of hydrogen storage need to be
addressed—remember the Hindenburg?
It has been projected that if we were to implement radical change tomorrow
with energy-efficient vehicles, buildings and systems oil dependency in the
U.S. could drop to zero by 2050. The catch here is that current oil supplies
are forecast to last only 30 to 40 more years and this is at today's current
consumption rates without factoring in rapidly increasing demand from China
Do we really get it? Energy is topical now because of increased oil prices
due to hurricanes: supply-side economics has made the front pages. The cost
of oil has been news before and then gone away—remember the 1970s? Sport
utility vehicles are still a dominant factor in the automotive industry in spite
of rising costs; and the list of conveniences such as wine fridges and power-wash
systems in the weekend flyers testifies to our complete, mistaken, belief that
cheap energy will be there to run them. Let's not kid ourselves; when Chevron,
one of the world's largest oil refiners, runs a two-page advertisement at the
beginning of the September 2005 issue of Scientific American saying.
"It took us 125 years to use the first trillion barrels of oil. We'll use
the next trillion in 30 years," we know the word is definitely out.
Why, when given all of the facts, do we react only when the problem is upon
us? One answer would be that the problem is so enormous. Without clear solutions,
there is a form of mass denial. No politician will risk being the doomsayer.
A second answer is that until people actually experience the cost of energy
increase in their wallet, they won't take it seriously. Witness the the significant
downward sales drop post-Katrina and Rita. And yet the cost of oil was already
rising steadily with these facts on the table long before these two hurricanes
While this may sound like the harbinger of a new Dark Age, there are things
we can and must do to ameliorate the coming problems. We need to understand
that the next 25 years for planning will be very different from the last. Planners
are in a unique position to help mobilize ideas and resources to start addressing
the scope of such enormous change. Planners are supposed to see the big picture
and understand ways of protecting the "public good." It is not enough
to simply defer to other specialists in the hope that they will find the solution.
No one has a solution at present. For example, planners in the past were often
focused on policy documents and the creation of land-use diagrams to guide future
development. Newly built communities frequently fell well short of everybody's
expectations. The details of built form were left to other specialists who had
other interests and lacked the broader context of societal needs. More recently,
where planners play key roles in the design and development of new communities
by direct participation and through the organization of multidisciplinary teams
which transfer essential design ideas into enforcement policies, we have seen
a marked improvement.
As planners we have already heard about the importance and need for designing
our living areas in compact and diverse ways so that we can reduce energy demand,
support transit and provide employment opportunities close to mixed-use communities.
While much of the energy issue is tied to international dynamics, many of the
solutions lie in changing our habits at home. Some municipalities have tentatively
started to implement these ideas while many others are still debating the very
need to make changes. City areas are going to have their share of problems,
but it is lower-density, postwar suburbs that are going to shoulder the burden
of these changes. If municipalities have not already started to address these
basic steps, it means that the chances of success are diminished and a reactive
response can only try to catch up to the problem. The implications of running
out of cheap energy, coinciding with major public health issues and an aging
population go well beyond our previous expectations of responding to societal
change and needs. Planners must start thinking and planning for new imperatives.
The Urban Land Institute in conjunction with Pricewaterhouse Coopers has just
published its 2006 Emerging Trends in Real Estate for the U.S. market.
This annual publication is the gold standard in real estate predictions. It
is written primarily for bankers, investors and financiers as well as developers
and builders. Seven key trends for the next four years are:
Focus on Infill: sprawl and traffic reach a crisis stage;
places without mass transit struggle; transit-oriented development gains momentum
to expand light rail and reduce car dependence; boomers and echo boomers will
continue to dictate trends toward more infill.
More Suburban Mixed Use: urban town centres will be the
rage; big-lot housing becomes a thing of the past; people want to live in
places where they can shop, work and play.
Greater Energy Efficiency: an extended period of sticker
shock at the pump and jaw-dropping utility bills would change behaviours and
demand for both home and commercial owners, reinforcing move-back-in and town
centre trends; developers will need to stress more "green" development
and rehab as tenants resist higher electricity and heating tabs.
These items are all new to the top seven list.
The depletion of cheap energy is giving rise to ideas of how to reduce demand,
encourage alternative energy sources, rank the success of innovative approaches
and educate the public so that they can make more informed choices and ask for
appropriate action. Planners are probably aware of the recent initiative in
energy conservation through "Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design"
(LEED) as a ranking system of efficiencies for buildings. While this is an important
step, it should go beyond the building and be applied to entire community areas.
Performance is rated in terms of smart growth, urbanism and green building.
The energy savings in a well-designed community can promote efficiencies in
* Energy: reducing need and improving alternatives. Use
the full range of alternatives and reintroduce smaller power generators such
as the hydro facilities that used to operate throughout Ontario.
* Building Design: go beyond R-2000 to incorporate new efficiencies
through orientation, solar gain and landscape design.
* Water: conservation measures, greywater reuse, building
and landscaping options, including zeriscaping.
* Transportation: improve live/work relationships, reduce
distance demand, support transit, pedestrian networks, compact multi-use streets
and reduce impervious pavement areas.
* Storm Water Management: capture roof runoff, maximize
on-site infiltration, increase parkland natural elements, create storm water
corridors, preserve natural topography and integrate storm water facilities
in open space areas.
* Urban Design: build upon smart growth initiatives, integrate
mixed uses through higher density with greater urban character, better utilize
natural systems, improve live-work relationships, improve and support transit
as alternatives to auto use, increase community uses within a 5-minute walk,
provide options and packages in buildings and landscaping that promote energy
conservation and biodiversity, enhance natural traffic calming and define
neighbourhoods with clear centres and edges.
Only through a holistic approach of sustainable practices can longer-term savings
be realized while at the same time creating livable and environmentally responsible
places that are cherished and cared for by their residents.
A community-based LEED review would be judged on four categories:
1. Location efficiency
2. Environmental preservation
3. Compact, complete and connected neighbourhoods (urban
4. Resource efficiency.
The broader approach of testing the efficiencies of energy-smart communities
gives planners and community builders the information they need to make wise
choices and set the new standards and policies that will become more necessary
as the increasing cost of energy continues to change the needs of society. With
education about the facts, homeowners may one day opt for the $5,000 upgrade
to install solar panels instead of granite counter tops.
Some would say that the solutions to energy shortages lie in today's proven
technologies such as "clean coal" and nuclear sources. While these
technologies may help to address the needs, significant challenges remain.
It may be that smaller steps using alternative sources such as solar, wind,
geothermal and biomass are necessary; each has significant planning impacts.
For example, passive solar collection will require specific alignment of all
new street and block configurations, as well as a return to more traditional
forms of energy saving designs. Wind generators in Europe produce 35,000 megawatts
of power, but those in North America produce only 7,000 megawatts. Locations
for wind turbines are already hotly contested in Ontario, even though it is
one of the cheapest alternative energy sources. Geothermal can add up to $10,000
per unit on a multistorey building. Biomass production, such as wood and corn,
means increasing farm production well beyond today's current levels. It has
been estimated that if ethanol from biomass were used instead of oil to power
the vehicles in the world today, it would require doubling the amount of land
Reducing the demand for energy is one of the best means of saving fossil fuels.
It is a fact that 5 percent of electrical power is wasted just on keeping electrical
devices like computers on standby. It is also a fact that only 10 percent of
original fuel energy (coal) consumed by a power plant reaches the end-user because
of mechanical and electrical delivery loss. The savings which could be generated
by shutting off unnecessary equipment when not in use actually means a significant
reduction in fuel consumption back at the production source.
It has taken 150 years of cheap energy to fuel the world's economy to its present
level. In that time the world's population has multiplied to 6 billion with
75 percent of its population living in urban areas. Our dependence on cheap
energy from oil is four times greater than all alternative sources put together
and we only have 30 or so years of it left. There is no question that we need
to start seeking new solutions now. There is no silver bullet and miracles are
rare. We need to accept the facts as they are and think long and hard now about
our choices in the, very near, future.
Dan Leeming, MCIP, RPP, is a partner with the Planning Partnership.
Dan is a frequent contributor to the Ontario Planning Journal. This is the first
of three articles.
Congress for New Urbanism, Natural Resources Defence Council, US Green Building
Council, LEED for Neighbourhood Developments Rating System, Preliminary
Draft, September 2005.
Kunstler, James H., The Long Emergency, New York: Atlantic Monthly
Lovins, Amory B. More profit with less carbon, Scientific American,
Special Issue: Crossroads for Planet Earth, September 2005, 74-83.
National Geographic, After Oil: Powering the Future, August 2005.
New Urban News, 10(5), July/August 2005.
Scientific American, Special Issue: Crossroads for Planet Earth, September
Urban Land Institute, 2006 Emerging Trends in Real Estate, Pricewaterhouse
Coopers, October 2005.