A new vision for energy
Renewable Energy Society convenes in SW Colorado

Smaller renewable energy efforts, such as this solar array on top of the Smiley Building in Durango, are part of the new vision for energy, which was discussed recently at a conference in Montrose./Photo by Stephen Eginoire

by Allen Best

From the time of Ronald Reagan through the early 21st century, the belief that the future would resemble the present generally held true. No matter who was in the White House or the governor’s mansion, the prices of real estate rose and those of computers declined. And everything got bigger.

But speaker after speaker at a recent energy conference in Montrose challenged whether that maxim will hold true much longer. Instead of big coal-fired power plants, such as the Desert Rock Power Plant proposed just southwest of Durango, they described smaller efforts, such as harnessing falling water in mountain streams or even irrigation ditches.

At the conference – co-sponsored by the Colorado Renewable Energy Society and the Delta-Montrose Electric Association – speakers talked about improved efficiency, development of renewables, and risks to U.S. security from the existing energy infrastructure. The sum total was a call for an entirely new vision of how we produce and consume energy.

“We need to rethink the whole chain of what is possible,” said former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, said James Woolsey, who argued for dispersed energy sources backed by natural gas.

A sketchy future for oil was forecast. Several speakers, including Steve Andrews, co-founder of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas, said world oil production has already or will soon peak.

World oil demand sagged during the recession but has already snapped back into place at 86 million barrels per day – the same as July 2008, when U.S. gasoline prices peaked at $4 to $5 per gallon in the United State, he noted.

“Peak oil should not be viewed as a black swan,” said Andrews, alluding to the theory about high-impact, hard-to-predict and rare events. He and other analysts say we won’t run out of oil, but oil producers can no longer count on large increase in production to meet rising demand, particularly from rapidly industrializing nations of Asia.

Oil most commonly powers transportation. The United States, consuming 22 percent of the world’s total production, has 250 million vehicles. But the world fleet of 850 million cars has been expanding rapidly. Analysts now predict 2 billion cars as Chinese, Indians and others seek the same mobility that Americans have long enjoyed.

Can the United States gain energy independence from the world oil market? Some have pointed to the Baaken deposits of Montana and the Dakotas, but Andrews said he remains skeptical that production of the Baaken oil can be significantly expanded. It currently supplies about 1 percent of U.S. demand.

Unconventional sources, including corn ethanol and Colorado’s vast oil shale deposits, still have a fundamental

problem: Producing them takes almost as much energy as they provide. For example, the tar sands of Alberta, from which much of Colorado’s gasoline comes, requires one unit of energy to deliver three units. When the big oil fields were being discovered in the 1960s, one unit delivered 60 units of energy.

Renewables must be a factor, said Andrews, although both the timing and scale pose a formidable challenge. He foresees more belt-tightening and greater localization, similar to the way people lived 50 to 100 years ago.

And leading simpler, more local lives won’t be all bad, Andrews said.

Amory Lovins, the Snowmass-based energy visionary, also sees troubles ahead for oil supplies. “We’re ahead of schedule on peak oil,” he said.

To maneuver out of this tightening supply-and-demand pinch, Lovins calls for revamping our vehicle fleet to become more efficient and less thirsty.

“Why are we still buying this stuff, when it’s five times cheaper not to?” asked Lovins. He has long argued about the inherent inefficiencies of the internal-combustion engine, which delivers only 1 percent of energy to forward movement.

Instead, he foresees vehicle electrification, which more efficiently uses energy, and also development of much lighter vehicles using carbon-composite materials. He insists that the higher costs can be paid back with lower fuel prices in just one year.

“We must take the obesity out of vehicles,” he said.

As he has since his ground-breaking work in the 1970s, Lovins talked about both the need and great promise in locally originated electricity, called distributed energy. Ground-level innovation remains more important than too-often gridlocked federal policy, Lovins said.

Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, on the campaign trail as the Democratic candidate for governor, also talked about the need to rethink transportation fuels.

“You realize you’re not making more oil, you’re not making more gas. Maybe not this year, maybe not next year, but we will hit peak production of hydrocarbons,” said Hickenlooper, whose first career was as a petroleum geologist.

Had the event gone as organizers hoped, Hickenlooper’s comments would have been balanced by those of Scott McInnis, a candidate for the Republican gubernatorial nomination. Explaining that McInnis had a prior commitment, state legislator Bonnie Peterson vaguely represented his positions as being all of the above. All forms of energy will be needed, she said.

With greater precision, Hickenlooper said the same thing. He refused to rule out any option – including the potential for uranium processing mill in the Paradox Valley west of Telluride.

Hickenlooper outlined his position as science-based policy formation. He asserted that the risk to human health and the environment from mining and milling operations can be assessed. “This is the 21st century,” he said. But he also said that after spending hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer money in cleaning up old mining pollution, the state should ensure sufficient bonding in case things do go wrong.

Similarly, Hickenlooper promised to “irritate everybody” with his insistence that nothing in energy should be ruled out. But in the case of coal, he said, that means stripping it of its emissions of carbon, a key greenhouse gas. Money must be allocated to achieve that technology, he said, although he did not specify the sources.

“That being said, even coal isn’t going to last forever,” he added. “We need a 50- and 100-year vision.”

And Hickenlooper found a way to fault the controversial new regulations governing oil and gas ushered in by fellow Democrats. Citing a case from the Trinidad area, he argued for more flexibility in regulations governing the use of water from aquifers when drilling for natural gas.

No matter who gets elected, he will be a one-term politician, predicted Don Marostica, a former Republican state legislator who last year joined the Democratic administration of Gov. Bill Ritter.

Marostica, director of the state’s Office of Economic Development and International Trade, explained that state budget problems will intensify dramatically, requiring deeper budget cuts – including those to education. “You’re not going to make anybody happy,” he said.

That looming gloom aside, Marostica put a cheery face on the state’s economic development. He trumpeted the new businesses created in the evolving energy economy and predicted a surge of so-called “green” jobs in rural areas.

“It’s the rural communities that will pull us out of it, because they have the resources and they need the jobs,” he said.

In his 62 years, Marostica has seen considerable changes. He grew up on a dairy farm in northeastern Colorado and became a real estate developer along the Front Range. He sees vast changes ahead in the energy world.

“I see more changes in the next five years than those of us with gray hair have seen in our lifetimes,” he said. •

 

 

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