Oil Is a Magic Flounder!


It took Bill McKibben pointing it out to me (in his book Eaarth), but I finally understand that oil is a miracle. It gives wishes. It’s amazing.

I remember going to Europe when I was 20 on an ultra-cheap backpacking trip, stepping off the plane in Belgium and thinking This is crazy! I’m on the other side of the world! … on the average day, I probably travel farther from home than a lot of people for most of history traveled in their lives … I can tap on a few keys and magically answer nearly any question within moments (say what you will, but I think Wikipedia is probably one of the top ten things ever) … I can take a five-minute trip to the grocery store and for a pittance buy food from practically anywhere in the world …

And all of it is brought to us by oil! Not just oil, of course: coal and other fossil fuels help out, and these days even some renewable energy, but basically we’ve achieved the ability to do practically anything–from making realistic movies set on invented planets to landing on the moon to yogurt in squeeze tubes–thanks to the limitless energy made available by fossil fuels.

Except, of course, it’s not limitless, and there’s this tragic catch to it: this climate change problem. We’re so used to having a seemingly endless supply of fossil fuels, we think nothing of buying a stack of plastic plates and throwing them away after one use to languish in a dump for decades or centuries. We don’t mind using up massive amounts of jet fuel to travel to other continents just to sightsee. We toss away things we paid hundreds of dollars for a few years ago just because the new version 5 is out. We mostly just don’t get it.

Sorry, I’m starting to preach, and you don’t need preaching to: if you’re on this site reading this, you almost certainly get it already, that we’ve gotten used to the idea that things are cheap and easy and replaceable and will always be that way, even though our resources are getting a little thin and we’re making terrible, irreversible changes to our planet.

I’m starting to adjust to all this. I’m trying to revise my thoughts. For a recent meeting I was running where there was food, I went to the trouble of bringing all of the small plates and most of the forks from our kitchen rather than bringing paper plates and plasticware. They were a little heavy, but it turned out to be no big deal. When I sit down on our home computer, I’m no longer thinking “This is OK, but it’s a few years old–when can I justify getting a new one?” but rather “This works fine. How can I make it last?” Even though it’s stupidly late in the winter to be doing it, I finally went to the window at work that is so hard to open it’s physically painful and wrestled down the storm window. (I may be undoing that in a month, but at least in the meantime I won’t be wasting heat.) These are the changes I need to embrace: looking around me, realizing that we only have all the miracles we have because we’ve bought them with cheap energy we dug up, and doing the smart thing even when it’s inconvenient or not as nice or not what anyone else does.

Yet wonderfully, we don’t have to give all these things up. We can still have cars and movies and even, bless it, the Internet if we’re willing to make the changes to much more sustainable ways of living, producing, manufacturing, and powering. Fossil fuels have given us a huge leg up in infrastructure, manufacturing, and invention–Ironically, it’s fossil fuels that have made it possible for us to develop efficient wind turbines and solar panels and geothermal heating systems. When I say that oil is a miracle, I mean it–but knowing that it’s a miracle with a price, I really, really, really want to see us let go of it as quickly as possible by doing everything possible so that we can still benefit from everything meaningful our culture has achieved without paying the awful price that is beginning to come due.

I look around, and almost every human-made thing I see exists because of oil. We’re like the fisherman’s wife in the old fairy tale, who once she got what she wanted kept asking for more and more things until the magic flounder who granted the wishes in the first place took it all away again. Let’s be the smart people who never show up in these stories, the people who are delighted with what they have. We’ve had cheap, abundant energy now for generations, so much of it that it has yielded us the technology to create more cheap, abundant energy–but renewably this time. We have everything we need, provided we can just let the damn flounder alone.

Photo by Jason Rojas

A Cheap, Non-Polluting Heat Source? You’re Standing On It

winter house

What’s the cheapest, greenest heat alternative for a house, other than building it from the ground up for passive solar? Natural gas? Well, that’s cheaper and less dirty than oil, but no, definitely not. Wood pellets? Better, but they still require fossil fuel energy to manufacture. Cord wood? You’re getting warmer. Geothermal? Yes.

Your question about geothermal heat may be the same as mine was: how in the world are we supposed to get heat out of the ground? Doesn’t that require geysers or something? (OK, your question may not be as ignorant as mine was.) The answer is that no, there are no geysers involved. Here’s the thing: wherever you are in the world, if you dig down a bit below the frost line–say, around ten feet down–the earth is a constant 54 degrees Fahrenheit. Geothermal heating exchanges fluid in pipes between your house and that area underground to bring up the relative warmth.

Of course, 54 degree-fluid isn’t going to do much to thaw out your freezing toes on a cold day, but using a fairly efficient electrical condenser similar to what your refrigerator uses to create cold, a geothermal heating system can boost that temperature to be used as an efficient heating source for a home. How efficient? In the last few years, geothermal systems have improved to the point that modern ones use only about a third as much energy (to pump the fluid and run the condensers) as propane.

Here’s a video on how this works, though keep in mind that there are different kinds of geothermal heating systems

Not sold on geothermal yet? Well, did I mention that it also works as extremely cheap air conditioning, using the same apparatus and principles? And if you’re interested in going very, very green, you can generate some or all of the electricity used to run the pump and condenser with wind, solar, or another renewable source, which brings your non-renewable energy usage for heating and cooling down to nothing at all, as long as your electricity source can keep up. Contrast this with direct electric heat, which is pretty much the least efficient and usually most polluting heat source you could have.

Oh, and did I mention that the Federal government offers a 30% tax credit (that’s not a deduction–that’s a credit, i.e., money in your pocket) on qualifying geothermal systems?

So why isn’t everyone rushing out and getting geothermal heat? Unfortunately, these systems cost real money to install–apparently $20,000 is a good ballpark for a modest single-family home. Keep in mind that the government will pay 30% of that, which to my mind is a very sensible way to start addressing a very large part of the climate change problem (home heating). Even with that, though, it may take a decade for the system to pay for itself–yet in the long run, the cost savings are enormous, and of course the value of your home (if you own one) goes way up. Geothermal will also get cheaper and cheaper in comparison to almost all other options if over the coming years the price of fossil fuels goes up … which frankly seems more or less inevitable to me (more regulated + more rare = more expensive).

There was a good article on geothermal heating recently in my local electric co-op’s newsletter, although a piece elsewhere in the newsletter on the proposed wind power moratorium in Vermont is disturbingly complacent and ill-considered. (You can probably guess where I come down on that issue.)

Have any information or opinions pro or con on geothermal heat pumps? Please comment!

Photo by Denis Collette…!!!

What One Vermont Family Did to Massively Reduce Their Climate Change Impact

Jamison Ervin of Duxbury, Vermont put together a great presentation with photographs, sketches, and easy-to-understand financials (including return on investment) for how her family took advantage of a septic system problem to make radical changes in their impact on the environment through a family garden, solar electricity, and solar hot water. It’s fun, easy to follow, and very informative. Check it out here: http://www.vecan.net/index.php/one-vermonters-leap-to-energy-independence/

Ervin home

By the way, if you’re thinking “solar … in Vermont?”, I don’t blame you: after all, we’re ranked 47th among U.S. states in annual days of sunshine at 49% (compared to first-place Arizona, which gets nearly twice as much sunshine at 85%). Yet solar is becoming increasingly popular in Vermont, and as Ervin demonstrates, it’s quite cost-effective. Germany, possibly the most energy-progressive country in the world, already supplies more than a quarter of its energy needs through wind and solar, much of it in the form of small home solar installations–though these have been made more affordable by government policies on buying renewable energy from small producers. Vermont, with 23% renewables, doesn’t lag far behind.