Expert: "Peak oil" will force changes
By Rob Zaleski
Optimist that he is, Greg Pahl actually sees an upside to the latest jump in fuel prices: the growing realization among Americans that the gas crisis isn't going away.
"And those who do think this is a temporary anomaly are dreaming," the author and renewable energy expert said in a phone interview from his home in Weybridge, Vt. "They don't understand what we're getting into here. This is just the beginning."
Indeed, Pahl maintains that the most critical -- and under-reported -- issue facing the world right now is that we're approaching the time of "peak oil," the historic moment when world oil production and reserves begin to decline.
Pahl, who will give a speech on the subject at 7 p.m. June 20 at the Madison Public Library, points out that nobody -- not even oil company moguls -- knows precisely when that moment will occur.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration continues to predict that oil production will peak around 2037. "But almost nobody takes that seriously anymore," Pahl says.
Geophysicist and author Ken Defeyes, meanwhile, believes that we already hit the peak oil moment in December 2005 and that we're on the down slide.
"Those are the two extremes," Pahl says. "But the growing consensus is that it's probably going to happen in the next five years."
Yes, that's frightening, Pahl says. And it's even more worrisome, he says, that it's occurring at the same time we're faced with the growing threat of global warming.
"And you really can't talk about one without talking about the other because they are very much interconnected," he says.
So how can Pahl be an optimist?
Because "if we take action right now at all levels -- local, state, federal and even global, for that matter -- I think we can probably get through this thing reasonably well," he says.
But that's a huge "if," he quickly adds, because "most Americans tend to be relatively uneducated or unsophisticated in their knowledge of energy issues." Moreover, the Bush Administration has virtually ignored the threat, he notes. And Congress hasn't been much better.
Fortunately, we do have some options, says Pahl, whose new book, "The Citizen-Powered Energy Handbook," points out that many of the renewable energy systems and technologies we need already exist and are waiting to be rediscovered "if only we have the will, the courage and the wisdom to use them."
Some strategies are obvious -- like adding insulation to your home, switching to compact, fluorescent light bulbs and energy-efficient appliances, and trading in your gas-sucking SUV for a hybrid or other fuel-efficient vehicle.
But that's not enough, Pahl maintains.
"In order to make this kind of quantum leap in shifting toward renewables, we need to think beyond the individual households," he says. More specifically, ordinary citizens need to urge elected officials to develop many of the same "Community Supported Energy" strategies that are now commonplace throughout Europe.
For instance, a community on or near water might reinvest in hydro-electric power, while a community where wind is prevalent might pursue wind farms.
"That's actually very popular in Minnesota, where community- or farm-owned wind really has started to take off," he says. "But that's only because Minnesota made a conscious decision a number of years ago to encourage this sort of thing."
It also means getting people to buy from local merchants and encouraging the development of small-scale businesses of one kind or another -- especially those that provide necessities of life.
When you do those things, Pahl says, you're simultaneously boosting the local economy. And when that happens, communities discover that "the political divide begins to disappear. You get people from the right and the left and the middle all sitting down at the table and agreeing that rebuilding and strengthening the local economy -- which in many cases has been decimated by globalization -- makes a lot of sense."
It's even more important, he says, that "local people get involved in their own projects. It's not like having some large, faceless corporation come in and try to impose a big project -- which the community may or may not want."
None of this will eliminate the challenges we'll face after we reach "peak oil," Pahl says. But, as his book emphasizes, it will ease some of the pain as we transition into a more sustainable future.