Your browser does not support modern web standards implemented on our site
Therefore the page you accessed might not appear as it should.
See for more information.

Whatcom Watch Bird Logo

Past Issues

Whatcom Watch Online
Whatcom County Energy Descent
- Part 10

July 2007

Fossil Fuels at Peak

Whatcom County Energy Descent
- Part 10

by John Rawlins

John Rawlins has a B.S. in physics and a Ph.D. in nuclear physics. He retired in 1995 from the Westinghouse Hanford Co. at the Hanford site in Eastern Washington. Currently, he teaches physics and astronomy at Whatcom Community College.

Part 10

Consider Electric Vehicles for Transport

If you want to invest a little pre-collapse wealth in a non-fossil fuel alternative, think about electric bicycles, electric scooters and electric cars. The e-bikes are in the price range $500–$1,000; the scooters are in the range $1,500–$3,000; a 30 mph e-car with a range of 30–40 miles costs around $10,000; and a higher speed e-car might cost around $25,000–$30,000.

Of course, the more battery power you consume, the more electricity you’ll need to recharge each night. Two shops in Bellingham sell some e-bikes and e-scooters:

•Urbano Moto, 1999 Iowa Street

•Chispa, 103 Harris.

The most economical e-car I know of is the Chinese-made ZAP Xebra sedan (please, not the striped one):

One Bellinghamster (thank you, Phil; see article on facing page) who bought one of these got it from a dealer in Grant's Pass, Oregon: The dealer will ship vehicles to Washington when it gets three or more orders.

A higher end e-car (single occupant, so technically a motorcycle) capable of highway speed and 30-mile range is the U.S.-made Myers Motors NmG (no more gas). A Salem, Oregon, dealer sells these (as well as the ZAP):

I am seriously considering a ZAP for my next vehicle, which would give me a bad-weather option for getting around; it also has room for a passenger and some groceries. I already have an e-scooter and an e-bike conversion, along with a normal bike for general commuting/exercise and use on the transit buses.

I am personally not the least interested in repeating the experiences of the 1970s — long gas station lines, rationed buying and every other day access to pumps. That’s why I like electric options rather than a gasoline powered scooter.

Electric vehicles, especially the lower-priced ones that require only a normal 120-volt outlet for recharging, make good sense in the Pacific Northwest (PNW) region, with its relatively good future outlook for hydro-electricity. The main vulnerability of hydropower is from possible future surprises associated with climate change.

Current predictions for the PNW region are for roughly the same level of total precipitation, with less in the form of snow and more in the form of rain. The region will likely experience lower water flows in the early fall months and more high-discharge runoff in the spring as the local climate begins to warm:

This is the one region in the U.S. with a relatively good long-term outlook for electric supply. Even so, several natural gas peaking power generators are part of our local electricity mix (about 10-15 percent), and the long-term future of natural gas is not at all clear. It is in decline countrywide and at the North American continent scale and can go into steep decline with little warning.

Deal With Heating Systems Now

Speaking of natural gas, we can expect relatively rapid inflation in natural gas bills, even here in the PNW. There will probably be serious shortages in the rest of the country the next cold winter — which could be the next one if La Nina conditions develop and persist:

I just learned about a new natural gas pipeline that will connect the West with the Midwest, called the Rockies Express (REX) (thank you, Clare). This major pipeline will begin delivering gas from the Rockies (which now supplies around half of PNW gas) in 2008. From then on, we will be increasingly vulnerable to natural gas price hikes such as those recently experienced in the rest of the country.

If you heat with natural gas, consider switching to electric if your gas unit fails. Otherwise, look into smaller electric room heaters — either the wall strip type or movable units. You can also generally segregate unused parts of your home in the winter and use only two or three heated rooms.

Learn to live with a lower temperature setting, and look into a computer-driven controller that turns the thermostat really low (but above freezing) at night and during the daytime when you’re not at home. If you live in a very old home, check the insulation and upgrade if possible. If you have some wood supply and live in the county, consider an airtight, low-emission wood stove, and purchase a new one that meets the Washington wood stove emission standards.

If you plan to build or purchase another home, consider a much smaller home than the typical American McEnergyEater, which is no more than an under-used motel. Some close friends that I play music with live in a small house and are almost always thinking about expansion. I keep telling them how lucky they are to have such low heating bills.

Perhaps a small, well-insulated house with good sound insulation for some rooms is a good solution if you live with someone — especially a musician. If you live in a large house with only one other person, consider asking others to share your space and help with the work around the place, including food growing.

Passive Solar Heating

A surprisingly good investment in the PNW is passive solar heating — of space and water. A greenhouse on the south side of the house, connected to the house, can provide a significant solar heat boost for your home, as well as the ability to extend the food-growing season.

A rooftop unit for passive solar water heating can replace much of your water heating requirements with an up-front cost of $2,000–$3,000 with a payback time of less than 10 years. For 10 times the cost, and much longer payback times, consider solar photovoltaic (PV) panels for electricity production.

If you elect to pursue solar PV, you will first want to reduce your overall electricity consumption to as low a level as possible, because anything you do will probably be cheaper than solar PV.

Eliminate all those ghost loads (gadgets that use trickle charges when turned “off”), get high-efficiency appliances that are as small as you can live with, line-dry your washed clothing, switch to higher efficiency lighting, install motion detectors in all rooms to turn off lights when nobody is present, and replace the electric water heater with in-line heaters (and use passive solar heating as above).

Only after taking all steps possible will you know how many solar panels you need for break-even on a year-round basis. Most people would probably opt for the net-metering choice, which requires conversion of the direct current from the PV panels to alternating current that your house uses. In the net metering mode, if the home use is less than the PV-generated electricity, the utility gets excess power from your house and the utility meter actually runs backward — and vice versa when the house uses more than it generates.

For advice from local residents who have invested in solar power, the Bellingham chapter of Solar Washington meets every second Wednesday in the Fireplace Room in the Fairhaven Library from 7 – 9 p.m.:

Educate for Sustainable Living Skills

If you teach in our educational system, whether K-12 or college, nothing will be more important to our young people’s future than learning to live sustainably, with emphasis on organic, sustainable food production. Set up food-growing areas on campus that illustrate permaculture and bio-intensive growing, and have the students do the planning, maintenance, harvest and help with food preservation and preparation.

Get the school cafeteria to use only locally grown food to support the small organic growers in the area. Develop summer programs connecting students with small local organic farmers who are interested in developing future small farmers (and who could use some help).

Insist that all teachers include sustainable living instruction in all courses, and lobby for a highly focused two-year curriculum at the high school and/or college levels. Connect students with the budding local Food Not Lawns group to help city and county residents plant food in place of grass.

Richard Heinberg, one of the world's foremost peak oil educators and research fellow of Post Carbon Institute, estimated in a recent interview that one out of every six people in the U.S. will need training in science-based sustainable small farming techniques over the next 20–30 years to meet our food production requirements.

For Whatcom County that would translate to between 1,000–1,500 new students each year entering a two-year science-based sustainable living curriculum. If true, this represents a stunning challenge for area high schools and/or colleges — as well as a welcome challenge for schools that may otherwise lose their sense of purpose (and students) in a nation suffering from stagflation or economic collapse.

Regions that limit the wealth leaving their community in the form of dollars for food, fuel, automobiles, clothing and other stuff will be the most successful in the future. Re-localizing means keeping wealth, including valuable humans, in the community. We can even do better than that by joining a local time-dollar bartering organization such as Bellingham’s Fourth Corner Exchange:

Convert Large Farms to Small Organic Farms

An implicit need in a county re-localization effort will be converting today’s large farms to groups of small, sustainable, organic farms over the next few decades. We desperately need to prevent loss or degradation of the good growing soils in the area, and to facilitate this transition as circumstances allow.

Farmers, investors, local residents and all government agencies need to start an on-going discussion about how to make that transition occur in an equitable fashion. Whatcom County needs to change from importing 90 percent of its food supply to growing 90 percent of its food supply over the next few decades — and the sooner the better for the long-term area economy.

Meanwhile, cast your vote for locally grown produce by purchasing locally grown food to the maximum extent possible. If demand increases because of our food choices, so will local production. That is the only way to weather a prolonged crisis in our “just-in-time-food-supply” in the longer term. Strategists refer to this approach as “security of food supply.”

Higher Gasoline Prices Ahead

Finally, I’ll close with a quick review of what I’ve gleaned about rising gasoline prices across the U.S. and in our region over the past few months. If you compare the oil price chart ( with the gasoline price chart ( you’ll notice anomalously high gasoline prices during the last four months (as of early June).

The consensus at The Oil Drum ( among the insider specialists is that the U.S. is suffering from a long-term shortage of oil refining capacity at the same time as we continue trying to use more gasoline. In addition, we are now importing about 10 percent of our gasoline from Europe, the Virgin Islands and elsewhere, and that supply is declining and likely to decline even more for several reasons. Hence, the high gasoline price.

The expectations are that:

•we may experience record high gasoline prices in the very near future and deep into the summer because of this refining capacity problem;

•this time next year we’ll probably be feeling the pain from the worldwide peak in oil production, combined with even more pain from rapidly declining oil imports.

In Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and other relatively poor oil exporting countries, gasoline prices are artificially low (as much as 10 times below global market price) so that residents can afford to drive cars. As a result, they are driving more, which in turns means they are exporting less and less oil, all at the same time that total oil is declining in many of the same countries.

That’s the primary cause of the relatively high decline rate of the world oil export market, and, short of much stronger pressure from importing countries, there appears to be no way to reverse that trend.

Here in the PNW, Alaskan crude oil accounts for about two-thirds of Washington refineries’ oil, and about one-third comes from other countries. Washington refineries supply almost all of Washington state gasoline, about 90 percent of Oregon gasoline and an undisclosed amount of California gasoline. Since Alaskan oil production is in decline, the PNW region is in a similar gasoline supply position as the rest of the nation. The only difference is that the bulk of our transport fuel is of Alaskan origin.

The Portland Peak Oil Task Force plan envisions the need to reduce oil and natural gas consumption by 50 percent over the next 25 years, or by about 2030. Dr. James Hansen, NASA's lead climate scientist, has advised that the U.S. needs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (which means fossil fuel burning) by 80 percent as of 2050, or risk extremely dangerous climate change.

By 2050, the U.S. could well be facing an 80 percent decline in oil and natural gas because of peak oil anyway. It seems reasonable to blend these two suggestions, and develop a plan for 50 percent reduction of all fossil fuel use by 2030, followed by continued reduction to 80 percent in 2050. This represents an extremely rapid and dramatic collapse by any historic standards and will prove to be the ultimate test for humans in all of recorded history.

Even if there is a prolonged, all-out effort to convert agriculture everywhere to small-scale, local, organic, sustainable growing methods, it is hard to conceive that world population can remain anywhere near 6.6 billion — especially with the other sword of human-caused climate change ready to surprise us at any time.

Perhaps the greatest lesson we need to learn is to control and even reduce our total population, rather than await the usually crueler process of natural evolution. However, that topic would be the source of another series of articles, by another author, and in all likelihood in retrospect — several decades from now.

For a fascinating article on the subject of population decline (with or without planning) to a sustainable level, see the following: §

Next Month: What About Nuclear Power?

Back to Top of Story