Energy Peril

Renewable City

A Comprehensive Guide to an Urban Revolution

By Peter Droege

Published in 2006 by Wiley-Academy

As China and India increase their rates of car ownership, the amount of oil they use is going up at a staggering pace. There are now nine personal vehicles per 1,000 eligible drivers in China and 11 for every 1,000 in India, compared with 1,148 for every thousand Americans, according to the Nov. 5 New Yorker Magazine. Given fast-rising prosperity, those figures will skyrocket.

If car ownership in India and China rose to just half of American levels, the two countries would burn through 100 million additional barrels of oil a day. Were they to match US consumption levels, they would require an extra 200 million a day, which would put an unbearable strain on world resources, draining away crude supplies very quickly, not to mention drastically driving up the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Cities, according to Peter Droege, are not mere agglomerations of individuals for commercial and societal purposes. From Babylon to Beijing, they are creatures of their energy regimes, “shaped by methods and tools founded on biomass, animal strength and human power augmented by the forces of the wind and sun.” Three quarters of the world’s total energy consumption, Droege writes, is urban-based.

The Chairman of the World Council for Renewable Energy for the Asia Pacific region and an academician at universities in Newcastle, Australia, and Beijing, Droege has aspired to write what he calls “a manual for a revolution in the making,” a guide to move the world away from fossil fuel and nuclear power and other forms of what he terms unsustainable energy generation.

If Droege is right, over the next few years the changing dynamics of energy are going to mean cities will have to redefine themselves. As he points out, the energy age – the age in which coal, crude oil and natural gas powered the planet – comprises perhaps 1 percent of the history of urban living, which amounts to about 10,000 years.

Given the skyrocketing pace of car ownership, and with no feasible alternative on the horizon, the energy age based on fossil fuels seems headed towards its end. Fossil fuels – coal, oil and natural gas – supply 85 percent of the world’s commercial energy supply.

Droege’s answer is contained in a new book, “The Renewable City.” With the Middle East increasingly unstable and nuclear power “a curious yet frightening engineering antiquity, the 20th century’s great dead-end technology,” the solution, he says, is a massive, city-wide shift to renewable energy – clean wind, water, solar and biofuel-based power, which he believes is capable of replacing fossil fuels and nuclear power within five decades.

It isn’t quite that easy. The world’s ability to scale up to meet energy demand is questionable, no matter what Al Gore and Peter Droege say. There is some scope for energy conservation – California, for instance, in the wake of the 1971 energy crisis when OPEC cut back on production after the Gulf War, actually kept its energy levels stagnant for several years despite a vastly increasing population and rising income levels. Today California uses less energy per capita than any other US state, holding its energy consumption essentially flat while per-person energy use in the US overall has risen by 50 percent.

Renewable energy, Droege writes, is the only answer. But finding alternative sources is difficult. China is now importing 50 percent of its energy needs and is pushing harder perhaps than any other country for alternative energy resources. The country’s installed wind power capacity is expected to reach 10 million kilowatts by 2010, but that is a drop in the bucket. It used nearly 2.5 billion tons of coal equivalents in 2006 even though it has set a goal of reducing its energy intensity – per capita use – by 20 percent by 2010.

As to water power, China’s leadership has acknowledged that the massive Three Gorges Dam, which was expected to produce 22,500 megawatts of power when completed, is an environmental disaster.

The Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gases, which Droege says goes neither far enough nor fast enough, already appears to have set goals that most of the industrial world cannot meet – and the United States, which has cost the world eight years of inactivity on global warming under the petroleum-compromised Bush administration, hasn’t even tried.

What Droege does in this thoughtful book is to concentrate the mind considerably on what is going to happen under the twin swords of global warming and the end of the fossil fuel era. But unfortunately, he makes it sound like it is going to be a lot easier than it actually will be. Four years ago, people were scoffing when the end of US$30 a barrel oil was predicted. Today it has hit US$96 and may well go over US$100, especially if the truculent Bush administration isn’t kidding about bombing Iran. If that happens, then the industrialized world is going to have to learn very quickly how to develop renewable energy, and even more quickly how to conserve it.