It occurs to me that I am lucky to have the background that I do. Working in the trades provided me with important perspective on the lifestyle and concerns of the nonacademic, as well as a deep concern for the practicality of my work. My undergraduate degree included a broad factual education and instilled a respect for the proper framing of questions to produce a useful analysis of any problem. This background has left me with a nuanced understanding of issues like those included in the Post Carbon Reader, as well as an appreciation for the thoughtful analysis of the authors. However, I realize that the specifics are only useful for a thorough examination when directly applicable to current work. It is because of this reason, and not the usefulness or the accuracy of the text that I am choosing to use the work of Fridley, Hughes, and Lerch as a springboard for related ideas rather than as a source for direct discussion.
Throughout each of these readings, a single question persists: How will the built environment and the way we live within it be forced to adapt in response to the composition of future energy systems. It is clear that energy will not always be available in the quantity and quality that we currently expect, but I don’t believe that to be a bad thing. In an earlier post The Reintroduction of Complexity I touched on the negative results that can stem from the desire to impose order on the world. Current energy systems are another of these negative results- they are centralized, standardized, and simplified to make the process more manageable but result in fairly brittle systems subject to extreme disruption. The transition of infrastructure into a decentralized network of various solutions will add resiliency to the system and allow its elements to provide multiple beneficial effects.
As an example, Fridley states that land use is an issue for renewables because to replace a 1,000 megawatt coal-fired power plant would require 20-50 square kilometers of photovoltaic panels. If you don’t view power production as a centralized issue, this information can be an asset. Solar panels deployed throughout an urban area can be used as design elements for integration into new construction or retrofitting existing buildings. Additionally, power production is brought closer to the end user, which eliminates transmission losses. Though there are many issues to be solved to enable efficient transition to renewable energy sources, many of the solutions will involve design with an eye towards the integration of systems and uses.
In addition to the decentralization of infrastructure, the changing energy landscape will necessitate increasingly walkable and livable communities, a reevaluation of the importance and scope of public transit systems, and the recreation of local food systems. The rebirth of the walkable community and intelligent design of working public transit systems will go a long way towards reducing our need for high-density fuel sources. It will require a cultural shift in many places of the United States, which would be much easier to make by choice rather than by force. For more information on the agricultural impacts of reduced oil availability, Cuba provides an excellent case study. Although agriculture without petroleum requires a greater amount of labor in the field, it also provides a host of ecological benefits that aren’t generally taken into account. The nuances of this topic require independent discussion though, and I will link a past research paper about the topic at the bottom of this post for those who are interested in reading more.
With the dwindling availability of petroleum energy, it will be important for us to evaluate how we prioritize its use. The wisest use would likely be to use it for the construction of large scale infrastructure projects, to help us transition into a sustainable future. If we would like a bright future, adequate planning is important and perhaps best put in this quote from Kjell Aleklett (taken from Hughes):
“rosy forecasts may serve the immediate needs of bureaucrats and politicians but are a travesty when considering the consequences of the lost opportunity of time and capital in managing a transition to a more sustainable future.”
For more insight on past research that lies behind this post please feel free to read this paper written during my undergraduate degree concerning smallholder agricultural systems.