The Energy Futurist

The revolution will be bottom-up

Posting in Cities

How will we respond to the Great Contraction? Columnist Chris Nelder argues that Americans must face energy challenges on their own.

How will we respond to the Great Contraction? Are our leaders ready to provide solutions from the top down, or will we be left to face the challenges on our own?

The answer is self-evident.

For four decades straight, the government has utterly failed to reduce our energy consumption, or transition to renewables to any significant degree. We're as dependent on foreign oil as we've ever been, the modest recent uptick in domestic unconventional oil production notwithstanding. The only policy answer to climate change is to stifle carbon emissions, without building a clean energy substitute for coal. Totally lacking the vision for real transportation solutions, like transitioning to rail, our leaders offer instead a box of band-aids for roads and bridges and an unwavering commitment to keeping 240 million cars and trucks running on them. They would rather socialize an unlimited amount of private losses than wrestle an out-of-control financial system back onto solid ground. They do not have the initiative to rebuild the infrastructure that's now crumbling all around us. Their primary approach to budgeting is to cut programs that actually benefit the public while keeping the money flowing to the military-industrial complex, exactly as President Eisenhower warned us. These spineless toadies will continue to wheedle and wriggle out of taking real action on all of our really big challenges in order to protect the interests of their big-business donors. Their record is clear; we should have no illusions about it.

If we are on our own then, the only real solutions now are what you and your neighbors can do with your own resources. Solutions that are already unfolding, if a bit hard to see. To find them, we have to look a little closer.

Food

Farmers markets are growing a rapid rate, far outpacing the growth in food consumption overall. This reflects a well-established trend toward healthier, organic food as consumer awareness grows about the health hazards of mass-produced, packaged, and prepared foods. Organic food sales in the U.S. have grown at the rate of about 20 percent per year since 1990. But it also reflects consumers looking for ways to stretch their food budgets as the gap between real incomes and real food prices continues to widen.

Source: US Department of Agriculture

It also may reflect a growing consumer awareness that with 7 to 10 calories of fossil fuels (mainly natural-gas based fertilizers and diesel) embedded in every calorie of food that makes it to our tables, local food production is a key and crucially necessary pathway to meaningfully reducing our dependence on fossil fuels. Three decades from now, when the world supply of oil will likely be one-third lower than it is today, we'll need to be eating local if we want to eat at all. To accomplish the massive transition away from the mass-produced, centralized, monoculture status quo—where all the grain comes from the Midwest, and over half the hogs from just four states—to a new topography of distributed, diversified food production, we have to start supporting local food now. The forward-thinking portion of the population (however small) knows this and is acting accordingly.

That data is easy to get. What's not easy to find out is how many families have planted a garden and fruit trees, and maybe started a small chicken coop, since the financial crisis of 2008. Harder still would be detecting how much market share direct barter has taken away from grocery stores, yet it is surely happening as more people grow their own food.

Transportation

It should be no surprise that transportation in the U.S. ended its growth trajectory, flattened out, and began trending down as oil prices broke away from their sub-$40/bbl norms in 2005 and leapt into the $100/bbl era we're in today. (For those who are new to the topic, this happened because the growth era of cheap conventional crude oil supply ended, and the world began turning to expensive, difficult, unconventional oil supplies.) Vehicle miles traveled are still declining, with lower lows and lower highs showing up in the seasonal data.

Source: US Bureau of Transportation Statistics

For a more direct signal of how the average person is getting around, as distinct from commercial miles traveled, we can look to personal transportation spending. However you want to measure that, it remains in a declining trend, and is now tens of billions of dollars lower than it was in 2005.

Source: US Bureau of Transportation Statistics

What that data doesn't tell us is whether people are simply traveling less—for surely, those who lost their jobs since 2005 are—or whether they are increasingly opting for the most personal sort of transportation: walking and biking. Consider the sales of new cars and trucks versus sales of new bicycles with 20" or larger wheels:

Source: US Bureau of Transportation Statistics and the National Bicycle Dealers Association

Both fell sharply in the economic crash of 2008, but bicycle sales held up considerably better, and actually exceeded vehicle sales in 2009.

What the data still can't tell us are the miles traveled by bicycle or on foot, and how much of that traffic constitutes an enduring shift away from fuel-burning transportation. Anecdotally, I have seen many more people in my own social circles biking more and driving less, but that's hard to quantify and not necessarily statistically significant. There is also some data, albeit more suggestive than firmly indicative, showing that more people are moving out of the suburbs and into city centers where they can do their daily rounds on foot or two wheels. If this is indeed a structural shift, we should see bicycle sales hold firm around 11 million per year, if not rise above vehicle sales again as we move into the era of net oil supply decline circa 2014.

For a final point, data released this week by the automotive research firm R.L. Polk & Co. showed that the average age of the US vehicle fleet has reached a record high 10.8 years. Market pundits who are still stuck in a mental paradigm of Normal have used that data to make a bullish case for future vehicle sales, since many people normally replace vehicles once they're more than 10 years old. But we're no longer in Normal. Instead, I would argue that millions of people simply can't afford a new car payment anymore and have no choice but to try to keep their old cars running. I would argue that the 276 percent increase in AutoZone's stock (AZO) since the beginning of 2006 is no accident, and that its straight-line growth since the beginning of 2010 indicates that we have entered a new era of older vehicles. By 2015, I would not be surprised at all if the average fleet age had crept up to 11 or 12 years.

Energy

Detecting personal energy transitions is a considerably more difficult task. I was not able to find non-proprietary U.S. data on lighting, insulation and window retrofits, excluding new construction. That doesn't appear to be category that public data agencies track. It's also a notoriously difficult sector to scale. I have several friends who are professionally employed in the energy efficiency sector, and they have all bemoaned how difficult it is to build a scalable business around it. If it's not scalable, then it's virtually impossible to raise the startup capital needed to expand one's business. That's why improving the efficiency of our built environment, which should be our number one national priority if we really want to reduce our consumption of fossil fuels, continues to languish.

We do have data on the U.S. retrofit market for solar PV, though, and it has remained remarkably strong. While utility-scale PV installations are finally posting very significant growth, installations on homes and commercial buildings still outpace the utility-scale sector.

Source: Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA)

Source: Greentech Media Research and SEIA

Grid-connected PV installations in the third quarter of 2011 were 140 percent higher than the same quarter in 2010, a quarterly installation record. More capacity was added in that quarter than in all of 2009. For a year in which the S&P 500 index ended exactly where it began, unemployment continued to be painfully high, and the overall economy failed to show real recovery, this is nothing short of remarkable. Granted, it was partially the result of state and federal incentive programs, some of which expired at the end of the year. And rapidly-falling module prices helped a great deal. But it was also the result of solar installers developing creative financing offers that allow homeowners and commercial building owners to install PV on their properties with zero money down, and amortize the system payments comfortably on their regular utility bills. With the financing hurdle out of the way, those who wanted be a part of the solution were able to do so at a very low cost. Starting around 2008, the way to the renewable energy revolution was rather quietly paved, and tens of thousands of people started down it. And that's just the grid-connected market. The off-grid market is still growing nicely, but again, the data to prove it is very hard to come by.

There is no doubt that our progress could be far faster if we had a feed-in tariff (FiT). Thanks to its FiT, Germany installed nearly twice as much PV in the month of December as the U.S. did in all of 2011, at roughly half the price. But even in the absence of such strong federal leadership, individual Americans are still finding a way to get the job done.

Build your own lifeboat

As I speculated in my 2012 outlook, our path into the Great Contraction will be decline by default. That much is, I think, more or less inevitable in the absence of effective leadership. But as we progress down that curve in the aggregate, there will be pockets of America that are climbing up the curves of sustainability and long-term economic viability because they took action, individually and as communities.

That's why I selected the rather dull, but hopefully provocative photo at the top of this article. I shot that out the windshield while driving home after Christmas. This tiny little wind-powered oasis, the only gas station along a 100-mile stretch of old Route 66 in the Mojave Desert of California, sits next to an active freight rail line. If you're looking for a model of sustainability in America, then look at that. While overextended major population centers struggle to maintain order and keep the food and fuel flowing as they descend into the zombie apocalypse, this little spot could survive just fine. The future of that rail line is bright, because it efficiently transports important mining products from various operations out there in the desert. As long as the wind blows across the Mojave, these rugged individuals can pump a little ground water, grow a little food, and keep hanging on, thank you very much.

So don’t fret if your leadership is failing you. You can't keep your country from sinking, but you can build a lifeboat. (And if your country doesn't sink, you'll still be an important part of the solution.) It's only hard to see that it's already happening because the renewables revolution will not be televised. It's modest, uninteresting to venture capitalists and Silicon Valley wunderkinds, under the radar, and bottom-up. The revolution is now, in your house, on your time, and on your dime. But you don't start building a lifeboat when the water's up to your knees, and as you can probably feel, your toes are already wet. Get busy.

Photo: Chris Nelder

Chris Nelder

Columnist (Energy)

Chris Nelder is an energy analyst and consultant who has written about energy and investing for more than a decade. He is the author of two books on energy and investing, Profit from the Peak and Investing in Renewable Energy, and has appeared on BBC TV, Fox Business, CNN national radio, Australian Broadcasting Corp., CBS radio and France 24. He is based in California. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure