A hundred dollars a barrel. A barrel! Energy is unbelievably cheap.
That’s about six million BTUs. One point seven megawatt hours. With that $100 barrel you can power your laptop for two years. You can ship hundreds of pounds of bananas from Guatemala. You can microwave a hundred and two thousand cups of tea to steaming warmth. You can power the digital clock on your microwave for seven million years!
It’s not that energy is too expensive. It’s that it’s too cheap. It’s made us ridiculously lazy.
As a consequence of our laziness and our wealth, our demand for energy is inelastic.
It’s a consequence of the cheapness of energy that poor people in America need cars. In the past, we had to house them in little hovels behind the rich people’s houses, which was bad for morale (among the rich people especially). For this marginal gain and others like it we clog the highways and twist the world’s culture and politics into knots. We can manage that only because energy is so cheap, and the transition is only a problem as it becomes slightly less cheap.
Once it settles down to a realistic true cost, probably three to five times what it costs today, we can all do just fine, assuming we stop making the wrong choices at every turn.
John Mashey, on John Fleck’s blog, comes up with a link to the efficiency of big trucks. We see an estimate of how many ton-miles of cargo you can carry on a gallon of fuel in a big rig. The answer is about 200. So how much does it cost to carry a tomato from California to Maine?
It’s about 3000 miles. It’s about 1/4000 of a ton. So its about 3/4 of a ton mile. OK, make it a nice big juicy tomato. It’s a ton-mile. So that costs about 1/200 of a gallon of fuel, or about a penny and a half.
Suppose the price of fuel triples. Your tomato will cost almost an extra nickel. Big deal.
This idea that we need to shop for locally grown vegetables for energy reasons is simply innumerate.
Energy is very very very cheap, and once it is only very, very cheap (one less very) it will still be not a big environmental impact or cost to move a tomato across the continent. You are going to expend about as much energy cooking the tomato sauce as you did shipping the tomato.
Suppose you drive twenty miles round trip to the farmer’s market to pick up a half dozen locally grown tomatos. That’s 2 pounds of tomatos and one gallon of gas, or about 50 cents per tomato. Your per-mile efficiency was 30,000 times less than the truck’s delivery was. In this realistic scenario you spent thirty times as much energy buying locally as I did walking or biking to the supermarket for an agribusiness tomato.
We may yet ruin our civilization out of rank stupidity, but the scenario where it will be so dramatically more expensive or more damaging to the environment to have a long distance tomato that we’ll have to give up on out-of-season tomatoes isn’t even worth worrying about. You might want to live closer to the market, though.
Energy’s real cost is not about money but about how we organize ourselves and our lives. How we grow the tomato counts and how we ship it ocuts for more than where we grow it and how far we ship it, though the latter is more visible. The unintended and obscured activities swamp the intended and obvious ones.
The big comeuppance comes when the auxiliary costs of all the various pokes and prods to the biosphere actually start interacting in a major way.
Not to minimize the effect on poor people here and abroad who have to stretch to get the energy they need, but peak oil is way, way, way overrated as a threat to the western way of life. The shifts we face will be costly, but not overwhelming, unless we persist in being stupid and ignorant about them.
Meanwhile, do your arithmetic. Buy global but walk to the market.
Update 4/15: This from comments to an interesting article on the Oil Drum site:
a US gallon Gasoline = 115,000 Btu
1000 Btu = 0.293 kWh
therefore a US gallon = 115 x 0.293 kWh = 33 kwh
Assume, at best, in an 8 hour working day you could get 100w continuous useful work from a man, ~0.8 kWh?
As a check, a normal man should consume ~ 2,500 kilocalories per day? (1 kilowatt hour = 859.6 kilocalories, so about a third converted to useful work seems reasonable?)
Therefore a US gallon contains the same amount of useful energy as 33/0.8 = 41 days or ~330 hours of human (slave?) labor!
In a barrel there would be 42 x 330 ~ 13,800 hours of manual labor.
13,800 hours of manual labor at $20 per hour is $267,600 per barrel.
So oil at $100/bbl is still quite a bargain.