Kicking the Fossil Fuel Habit


Tom’s funny YouTube Video.

We’ve hit the bottom of the global oil barrel. Rigs far out at sea stick giant straws through more than a mile of sea-water to pierce pockets of oil so small they couldn’t keep the economy running for a day. Accidents aside, it’s impressive expertise – but peak oil and climate change dictate that it’s a losing game. The larger tragedy revealed by the BP spill is that we lack the imagination to re-direct that expertise and capital to safer, cleaner sources of energy.

It’s a myth we need fossil fuels. We just haven’t decided to kick the habit.

Instead of drilling for oil at sea, we could be drilling for heat here on land. Drill a few miles down pretty much anywhere, and you reach hot, dry rock. Enhanced geothermal (EGS) is the art of fracturing that rock, and tapping the heat for energy. It works 24/7. The guys from google are really into EGS.

EGS isn’t just theoretical; in fact, there are operating EGS plants in France and Germany, and lots of drilling has started in Australia.

But EGS is just one of many clean and renewable sources of energy that can reliably power our civilization.

Solar thermal energy plants that rival coal plants in size now produce power long after the sun goes down, by storing some of that heat in a giant thermos. Wind power is reliable when wind farms from across the continent are connected together. That’s because the wind is always blowing somewhere, just not always at the same place. Bio-fuels are tricky since they compete with arable land for food – but we can grow halophytes (plants that love salt-water) in the desert. Tidal power runs like clockwork, and hydro power has already proven itself. An energy internet covering the continent will tie these sources together.

But to give clean energy a fair shake, we need to invest at levels we normally reserve for fossil fuels. We’re kidding ourselves if we think we can escape peak oil or move the needle on carbon emissions for anything less than trillions of dollars. Spending that much may sound absurd. But what’s the cost of the Iraq war? According to economist Joseph Stiglitz, it’s about $3 trillion. The liquidity injected to save North American banks was more than three times that much.

So what do we get for a trillion dollars of clean energy? In my recent book, Kick the Fossil Fuel Habit, I answer that question for 10 clean technologies. The answers may surprise you. A trillion dollars of EGS, for example, could replace all North American coal infrastructure. A trillion invested in halophyte bio-fuel production could replace half global oil supplies. No kidding.

But to spark this massive green investment, we need to intervene in the marketplace. Financial and business managers are conservative; you don’t get fired for doing today what you did yesterday, if you didn’t get fired yesterday! Oil companies do not yet see themselves as energy companies, and we need to force their hand. Cap-and-trade and an escalating price on carbon emissions are clear requirements to shift the economic incentives away from fuel that burns.

But most important is getting low-cost capital to the sector. The cost of clean energy is almost entirely dependent on the cost of capital. The sun, wind and heat of the Earth are free. The technology to harness them is not. There are ways to produce that capital – I’ve written before about government-backed Green Bonds as one suggestion – we just need to decide we want to do so.

It might sound daunting, but we’ve done this sort of thing before, and it creates wealth over the long term. The U.S. interstate highway system was funded by the federal government in the 1950s. That paved the way for the auto sector to fuel the North American economy for almost half a century. Silicon Valley was founded on military and academic support of the microchip processor. Neither of these bonanzas would have happened without government intervention.

We’ll eventually kick our fossil fuel habit. We have no choice. If peak oil doesn’t dictate the terms and timing, then climate change will force our hand. We may still have time to transition gracefully to a low-carbon economy, but only if we act quickly and decisively.

We can kick our fossil fuel habit. We do not need oil and coal to keep the lights on. We do not need to stick giant straws into the deep sea to pierce the last remaining pockets of oil. We just need energy. And that can be found anywhere.

Tom Rand (B.A.Sc., M.Sc., M.A., Ph.D., P.Eng.) is Cleantech Lead Advisor at MaRS Discovery District; a venture capitalist; co-developer of Planet Traveler, North America’s greenest hotel; and author of Kick the Fossil Fuel Habit: 10 Clean Technologies to Save Our World.

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