Snohomish County residents stand at the threshold of perhaps as great a change in the way we live and work as earlier residents faced a century ago. The force driving this change will be the end of low-cost fossil fuels.
Many of us have read about the concept of “peak oil.” U.S. oil production peaked in 1970 and world oil production seems to have peaked at the end of 2006. Every one of us is now experiencing its effects. Similarly, U.S. natural gas production has peaked and is going through depletion. As a result, natural gas prices have tripled in the last decade.
What has not been discussed until very recently is the fact that the coal industry cannot keep pace with worldwide demand, nor can it handle future energy needs. In the Eastern United States, whole mountains are being removed to reach seams 10 feet thick. High sulfur (low grade) coal in Montana and Wyoming is getting more expensive as mining operations go deeper and the surface material removed to expose the coal gets thicker and more hazardous.
To get a better picture of where we were two generations ago vs. where we will be in less than a generation, consider this: in the 1950s the ratio of energy returned in coal-burning power plants to energy spent in coal mining, transporting and processing was 30 to 1. This same ratio is now down to about 3 to 1. In the next 10 to 15 years, for the United States and much of the world, this ratio will be 1 to 1 and coal will no longer be a viable source of power.
This is already the case in Germany. By necessity the German people have turned to renewable sources of energy. German politicians have wisely decided to listen and act decisively. In Germany the Green Party has halted the construction of nuclear power plants and set timetables for phasing out nuclear power. German voters have chosen to create powerful incentives for renewable energy. As a result, even though Germany gets less sunlight than we get in the Puget Sound, Germany now has more than half the world’s solar electric power production.
Our federal government has chosen a very different path. For decades nearly all energy subsidies have gone to nonrenewable energy industries (coal, oil, natural gas and nuclear power). Currently 93 percent of federal energy subsidies go to these four industries while 6 percent goes to wind power and less than 1 percent goes to the solar power industry.
How does this relate to us here in Washington? Puget Sound Energy, the largest utility in our state, gets 36 percent of its energy from coal and 19 percent from natural gas. Our Snohomish County PUD gets 6 percent of its power from coal, 2 percent from natural gas and 9 percent from nuclear generation. However, coal depletion is going to put added pressure on an already over-stretched utility grid. Rising petroleum and coal costs will also greatly increase the cost of manufacturing and transporting cement, copper and steel. This will mean the cost of maintaining and replacing all types of infrastructure (pipes, roads, dams, power plants and substations, for example) will become even more costly.
Throw in human-induced climate changes and we have the recipe for a prolonged crisis. This winter was an exceptional season for snow accumulation. However, the overall trend likely will be an escalating loss of snow pack and hence reduced hydroelectric power potential.
I believe solutions to a host of emerging crises stemming from fossil fuel depletion will come at the individual and community level. We will choose to live closer to work, use mass transit, walk and bike more. We will retrofit our homes and businesses to become more fuel efficient. We will produce more of our energy where we need it — where we live and work.
If you would like to begin to produce power in your home, you can start with a solar thermal preheat system that will reduce your water heating energy needs by 60 to 70 percent annually for about the same cost as a newer used car. For those ready to make a long term investment in your home or business, most lenders now see real value in solar energy systems and many have green loan programs. Many utilities have conservation loan programs and grants for residential and commercial solar power systems.
We stand at a threshold. Our common future is one with lower per capita energy usage but greater use of renewable energy. How soon we get there is up to us.
Eric Teegarden of Brier, who ran for the Snohomish County PUD Commission in 2006, works for a Seattle company that sells residential and commercial solar-power systems. He’ll conduct solar-power seminars at the Everett Home and Garden Show at 2 p.m. today and Sunday. The show is at Comcast Arena at Everett Events Center.