One April a few years ago, we went up to the White Mountains for some spring skiing. While there we stayed at the Joe Dodge Lodge which is run by the Appalachian Mountain Club.
After dinner we explored the lodge. In the lodge library was a collection of the AMC’s Appalachia Journal that went back to the 1930s. After a minute I grabbed the June 1973 issue of Appalachia, that was the month I graduated high school, so I was old enough at that time to have some idea of what was going on in the world. While at the same time it was long enough ago that much had changed. Paging through the journal I came across an article about building an oil pipeline in Alaska. This looked interesting so I grabbed a comfy chair and started reading.
I don’t recall the authors name but I recall his thoughts on the topic. While he was an environmentalist at heart and felt that a pipeline would damage the environment, he was for building the pipeline. His reasoning was that we needed Alaskan oil to provide a bridge that would give the U.S. time to make a complete transition to renewable energy sources. The pipeline was built a few years later and there have been amazing changes in technology since 1973 but we are not close to any sort of transition to renewable energy. Let’s take a look back to that time and try to understand the author’s thinking and how things ended up so differently from what he hoped.
Black and white TVs were still common place in 1973. I had rare digital clock radio from the previous Christmas, however it was mechanical digital that flipped little tabs with numbers on them, not anything we would see today. AM only table top radios that used vacuum tubes were still around, though transistor radios were replacing them. Telephones were black and had dials. The Apple 1 computer was still 3 years away.
It cost me 39.9 cents per gallon to fill up my 1965 VW beetle. Toyota and Datsun (now called Nissan) had joined VW in offering small cars that got good gas mileage to the American driver. U.S. oil production was slowing from the peak it hit in 1970 but oil consumption was still rising, so U.S. oil imports were increasing, making the country vulnerable to supply issues. I remember the long gas lines and the price of gasoline doubling in 1974. This was repeated again in 1979.
Jumping to the present day we see that technology has changed an amazing amount since the 1970s but we are even more dependent on oil then we were back in the 1970s and much more dependent on imported oil then we were back then. Currently we use about 16,000,000 barrels of oil a day, over 6,000,000 of which are imported.
With all this amazing technology, you would think that we’d have replaced oil with some renewable power source, but we don’t appeared close to doing anything of the sort. Why not?
Oil has incredible energy density that we can’t find in any other power source. A typical solar panel that we see on someones roof will produce about 200 watts of electric power when the sun is directly above it. It would take 4 of those panels to drive an electric motor that could produce 1 horsepower. My old underpowered 1965 VW beetle’s engine could produce about 30 horsepower. So it would take about 120 of the same solar panel in full direct sunlight to power an electric motor that could match the 30 horsepower output of my 1965 beetle’s engine. That number of solar panels would take up over 1800 square feet (a square about 42 feet on each side) and would weigh about 2 tons (the beetle only weighed about 1600 pounds). In that area you could fit about 27 beetles. Of course a modern SUV engine can produce about 10 times the horsepower that the beetle’s engine could and producing that kind of power with solar would require an array area that is getting up towards a ½ acre.
These calculations are what an engineer often refers to as a back of the napkin calculation. They are not precise but provide ballpark numbers that act as a sanity check against totally unrealistic claims. I recently heard an economist predict that we’ll stop using oil in the near future because it will be totally replaced by renewable energy sources like wind and solar. Clearly that won’t happen unless people make major changes in how they are transported because renewable energy is not capable of powering anything like our current cars and trucks.
There is more to it than just that, but that is a major reason why the Alaska pipeline has not provided a bridge to a renewable energy future. By the end of the 1970s Americans were the most receptive they’ve been, during my lifetime, to the realities of living on a finite planet and the need for lifestyle changes to accommodate that reality. But since then the country has been on a different course that will make the necessary adjustments required by our finite planet much more difficult to swallow.
When I was young my hero’s were athletes such as Jean Beliveau, Muhammad Ali and Roberto Clemente. Now in my 60s, I don’t have hero’s like that anymore, but there is one person that comes close. That is Geoff Lawton. I admire the tireless work that Geoff does promoting permaculture around the world and have tremendous respect for the manner in which he does it, turning every negative into a positive, never letting his ego get in the way, always wishing for his students to exceed their teacher. If you care about the world that we leave to future generations, you should pay attention to Geoff Lawton, sign up for his emails, you’ll get a chance to see many free videos of permaculture in actions around the world and also get his Friday Five. His video “Greening the Desert” is a must see classic, that got many people interested in permaculture.