Short Solutions to the Long Emergency

Guest Editorial: James Kunstler's clarion call ("The Long Emergency," El Dorado Sun, May 2005)
for decentralized, localized economies as a response to a possible societal collapse resulting
from unavailable and unaffordable oil makes sense. This is surely what our society should be
doing in any case if we're ever to approach anything like sustainability.

However, he seems strangely unaware of the numerous options we have to mitigate or sidestep the
doom-and-gloom scenario he labels the "Long Emergency." In particular, he's failed to do
his homework regarding the potential of renewable energy, biofuels, energy efficiency and smart-growth
policies to eliminate our need for fossil fuels over the next three decades.

Now, we all know that people don't usually elect to change unless they're forced
to by unusual circumstances. The good thing about sounding the alarm about "peak oil" is that it may
provide the strong kick in the pants that our society needs to get serious about reducing our oil dependency.
So those with a perspective akin to Kunstler's do serve a necessary purpose. However, I prefer to invest
my mental energy in human creativity rather than fall victim to fashionable fear mongering. I see peak oil
as "peak opportunity." And I believe numerous "short solutions" to the Long Emergency exist.

Kunstler claims that "no combination of alternative fuels will allow us
to run even a substantial fraction of our lives on it." Well, I have news for him. Germany already gets
25 percent of its electrical power from wind. Certain places in Denmark receive 100 percent of their electricity
from wind power. North Dakota alone has a large enough theoretical wind resource to supplant one-third
of the total U.S. electrical demand.

According to the American Wind Energy Association, six super-windy states in the Midwest
could provide 100 percent of our nation's electrical-generating demand.

The Union of Concerned Scientists notes that 100 square miles of Nevada could
produce 100 percent of U.S. electricity derived from solar energy. A Princeton University study concluded that
a solar/hydrogen plant one-quarter the size of New Mexico could displace all the energy the U.S. currently uses.

OK, so solar and wind make great electricity, but they don't provide an easy
substitute for oil to run our cars, which need liquid fuels like gasoline or diesel fuel, or gasoline and
diesel substitutes. Kunstler warns us that reaching peak oil production will plunge us into a period
of "potentially great instability, turbulence and hardship" and will result in a "permanent
depression." Sure, the Chinese are in a better position to snap up the oil in the Middle East.
And sure, oil deposits and natural gas supplies are finite.

Yes, we are nearly totally dependent on these fuels as the mainstay of our economy.
But that's now. We could, if we're willing to muster the political will, completely eliminate our need
for foreign oil ...

Here's how: We start with simple efficiency retrofits to existing vehicles.
These retrofits would include a new generation of high-efficiency spark plugs and mileage booster fuel additives.
Simultaneously, we increase production of hybrid vehicles. These initiatives taken together would enable us to
lop off 30 percent to 40 percent of our oil use rather quickly.

We would also immediately increase the use of biofuel blends in our national fuel supply.
A federal Renewable Fuels Standard would mandate a 20 percent blend of ethanol in our gasoline and require
50 percent to 80 percent biodiesel in our diesel fuel. (Brazil has used a 25 percent ethanol blend for years.)
Another 20 percent to 30 percent of our oil demand now goes away. And starting in 2008, we would require that all
new gasoline vehicles be designed as dual-fuel or "flex-fuel" vehicles that can run on 85 percent
ethanol or 100 percent gasoline or any combination of the two. Four million of these vehicles ply U.S. roads today.
It costs the manufacturer only about $200 to add flex-fuel capability to a new vehicle. We'd also need to legislate
mandates and incentives for the construction of additional biofuels-distribution infrastructure.

The fact is, biofuels are better for your car, better for the environment and better for
our national security. And you can buy them now in Santa Fe at the Amigo Mart Baca Street Biofuels Station at
1229 Cerrillos Road [Santa Fe, New Mexico -- and multiple other city/state locations]. Any vehicle can use
certain biofuel blends without modification. All gasoline vehicle manufacturers approve of at least the 10 percent
ethanol/90 percent gasoline blend defined as "E10." Any diesel can use the "B20"
(20 percent biodiesel/80 percent petroleum diesel) blend.

Every community in the U.S. could have what Santa Fe has now at Baca Street: the opportunity
for local drivers to switch to gasoline and diesel substitutes. Once we fully embrace renewable biofuels,
the Middle East becomes ancient history. We won't need their oil, so there's no reason to be there. We bring the
troops home and put them to work building a new "wealth creation" economy based on the production
of more biofuels and our new energy-efficient transportation system.

The fossil era is what Roy McAllister of the American Hydrogen Association terms
a "wealth depletion" economy. Around $170 billion of American money is siphoned off each year because
of our oil imports. This represents a massive loss of American jobs as well. If instead we switch to a renewable,
made-in-America fuels paradigm, we create a wealth-creation economy for ourselves that would have huge social,
political and economic benefits.

Kunstler says that "ethanol and biodiesel require more energy to make than they
give back." That's flat-out wrong. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, state-of-the-art corn
ethanol facilities produce 67 percent more energy than they use. Biodiesel production produces 200 percent to
350 percent more net energy that it uses.

But here's what Kunstler and others fail to mention: fossil fuels are actually net energy losers. The Department
of Agriculture calculates that production of gasoline results in a net energy loss of 25 percent, and diesel's
net loss is 17 percent. On the other hand, ethanol made with next-generation cellulosic gasification
technologies powered by renewable energy can achieve net energy gains of plus 300 percent to 600 percent.

Both the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) and the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC)
are bullish on biofuels. In his new book, Winning the Oil Endgame, RMI chief executive officer Amory Lovins suggests
we can completely kick the oil habit by 2020 by switching to more efficient vehicles and by using biofuels and
hydrogen. The NRDC report "Growing Energy: How Biofuels Can End America's Oil Dependence" says this about
biofuels: "Biofuels can be cost-competitive with gasoline and diesel and allow us to invest our energy dollars
at home. They can also slash global warming emissions, improve air quality, reduce soil erosion and expand
wildlife habitat."

A recent article in Newsweek noted that if you add a few more batteries to a Prius
and made it a flex-fuel vehicle that could use 85 percent ethanol, you'd get the equivalent of 300 to
500 miles per gallon of gasoline used. That's huge. The idea here is that most driving trips are less than
20 miles. A few more batteries in the Prius would allow you to get to work and back without using any
liquid fuels. If you charged the Prius using wind- or solar-generated power, you'd eliminate fossil fuels for
charging. Ex-Worldwatcher Lester Brown says that if all cars got the mileage of the Prius, we'd reduce our oil
consumption by 50 percent.

Gasification and similar technologies currently in prototype stages can cost-effectively
and cleanly make synthetic gas (syngas) or "green natural gas" and ethanol from just about
any cellulosic or hydrocarbon source. This means we can heat our homes or run our vehicles on animal
manures, agricultural waste, municipal solid waste (garbage), paper, plastic, old tires and wood chips.

We can also gasify lignite and coal into ethanol, diesel or syngas. No need to rely on underground natural
gas as our only gas option. And waiting in the wings are a variety of so-called zero-point energy technologies
that could supply us with unlimited electric and motive power. These technologies, though, won't see the
commercial light of day until the powers-that-be allow them to come forward.

Kunstler says we'll need nukes to keep the lights on. No way. We've got much better
alternatives. He waxes on about "masses of disentitled people" that will be forced into "quasi-feudal social relationships."

In my view, he is pandering to the kind of fear-based thinking in which the Bushites excel in administering
to our gullible public.

We need, instead, to be harnessing our full human ingenuity and moving ahead boldly, pedal to
the metal. Nothing less will suffice if we're to avoid the kind of dire circumstances Kunstler predicts.


Charles Bensinger is an author and co-founder of Renewable Energy Partners