How to Live without Oil; New Energy Sources and Efficiency Could Make Petroleum Obsolete

By Lovins, Amory B. | Newsweek, August 8, 2005 | Go to article overview

How to Live without Oil; New Energy Sources and Efficiency Could Make Petroleum Obsolete


Lovins, Amory B., Newsweek


Byline: Amory B. Lovins

In 1850, most homes in the United States were lit by lamps that burned whale oil. As demand rose, supply dwindled--whales became shy and scarce--and prices for whale oil climbed. Then alternative fuels such as smokeless, odorless coal-kerosene began to sweep the market. By 1859, when Edwin Drake struck oil in Pennsylvania, five sixths of all whale-oil lamps had switched to the new fuels. The astonished whalers, who hadn't heeded the competition, ran out of customers before they ran out of whales.

Oil may now be poised to repeat that history. With prices exceeding $50 a barrel, the world's oil habit now costs $4 billion a day. Some experts warn that output will soon peak and prices will reach $100, but nobody really knows for sure (94 percent of reserves are owned by governments, which generally keep the data secret). Fortunately, it doesn't matter: With cheap oil-saving technologies and alternative fuels already at our disposal, the sooner we get off oil, the sooner we'll start making bigger profits.

That's right--profits. The conventional wisdom is that $50-a-barrel oil has made alternatives to fossil fuels economically viable. But the truth is that they were viable back when oil was $25 a barrel. The arguments in favor of phasing out oil have now merely become overwhelming.

That's true everywhere--but nowhere more so than in America, the world's biggest oil consumer. It's entirely possible to cut projected U.S. oil consumption in half by 2025, and eliminate it completely by 2050, without compromising rapid economic growth. Demand could be halved simply by using oil twice as efficiently over several decades; the other half could be replaced with saved natural gas and advanced biofuels. According to a U.S. policy analysis we published last year at Rocky Mountain Institute ("Winning the Oil Endgame"), the cost of these changes would average $15 a barrel. Even if, as the U.S. government forecasts, oil comes down in price by 2025 to $26 a barrel, the net saving in the United States would still be $70 billion a year, and the rest of the world would benefit proportionally. Burgeoning economies like China and India have the most to lose from falling into a U.S.-style oil trap, and the biggest opportunity to avoid it by making their vehicles, buildings and factories efficient from scratch.

Doubling oil efficiency wouldn't be hard. A backlog of powerful ways to save and substitute for oil, amassed since the 1973 oil embargo, remains mostly untapped, even in the most energy-efficient countries. Automakers for instance could profitably increase fuel mileage to 66 mpg (3.6L/100km) for light trucks and 92 mpg (2.6L/100km) for cars. Doing so would cost an extra $2,550 for a midsize SUV, but would pay for itself in fuel savings in two years in the United States and in one year in Europe.

This would require combining hybrid-electric propulsion with new lightweight steels or, in a few years, carbon composite parts that absorb six to 12 times more crash energy per kilogram. …

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