Energy Uncertainty and Community Resilience


More and more analysts agree that we will pass the maximum point of global oil production – or “peak oil” – within the next few years*, with no viable substitute resource in place. Governments and businesses across the world are racing to find technological and geopolitical responses to this potential economic and social disaster.

A systems thinking frame suggests that the problem posed by peak oil is not simply a matter of declining oil supplies. The larger problem is that our social and economic systems are so overdependent on oil that they lack resilience against oil decline. A systems thinking frame also suggests that some of the most important decisions for improving our resilience can only be made at the level of local communities, and not at the level of national governments or transnational corporations.

What does it mean for our social-economic system to lack resilience against peak oil? The shift in transportation behavior driven by surging oil prices earlier this year highlights some examples. Millions of commuters shifted to public transit, but decades of government funding that prioritized highways and car-dependent suburbs have left most of our transit systems unable to properly serve the new demand. The airline industry quickly hiked fares and cut service, threateningeconomic hardship for many cities and businesses that have grown dependent on cheap air travel.

In short, our social-economic system risks serious disruption because literally millions of households and businesses are locked into land use and transportation patterns that depend on a cheap and constant supply of oil.

Brian Walker’s “resilience thinking” framework describes some of the key characteristics of resilient systems: diversity, variability, modularity, and feedbacks. These characteristics suggest that resilience in our social and economic systems will rest largely in qualities found at the local level. Indeed, our system of local government already exhibits these qualities in many ways, with 35,000+ town, city and county governments and 45,000+ school, utility and other special districts all locally created and locally controlled. Each of these local agencies is attuned to local needs and resources, and each can experiment with its own way of solving problems.

Not surprisingly, the first and most important characteristics for resilience against peak oil have already begun to surface at the local level. Of all the things communities can do to increase their resilience, by far the two most important are to (a) reduce overall energy consumption and (b) produce more energy locally. Consumption reduction has obvious benefits for resilience: the less energy we need to accomplish something, whether traveling five miles or producing five widgets, the more easily we can absorb a price increase or supply interruption of that energy. An essential part of reducing consumption is designing and retrofitting our buildings for greater energy efficiency, which architects and developers are increasingly doing thanks in part to programs like Energy Star, LEED certifications and the 2030 Challenge.

Local energy production is almost as straightforward a prospect. With existing technology it’s quite possible to aggregate renewably-produced electricity from community-owned wind turbines, rooftop solar arrays and larger power plants. Germany has been a leader in“distributed” solar power, and efforts in North American cities — from tiny Sebastopol, California, to Toronto, Ontario — are finding success with distributed production as well. It’s also quite possible to collectively heat buildings from central plants powered by local energy sources like biomass and solar. Centralized district heating systems are increasingly common in Scandinavia, often using combined heat and power (CHP) plants.

In most cases, the barriers to reducing consumption and producing locally are things we can change by choice: policy and habit. Of course, building resilience requires more than simply changing our consumption and production patterns. What we ultimately need to do is rethink our established patterns of community provisioning, transportation, land use, social services, regional commerce and just about every other aspect of our modern world. Here are just a few examples of the ways that cities are building resilience holistically, whether in response to peak oil or simply as part of an ingrained sense of sustainability:

Peak Oil Task Forces
Starting with San Francisco in April 2006, more than ten local governments in the United States have set up an official task force or committee on peak oil to identify local vulnerabilities and make recommendations for local responses. The model for many of these efforts has been the Portland (Oregon) Peak Oil Task Force, the recommendations of which included establishing a goal of reducing community-wide oil consumption by 50% over 25 years, supporting land use patterns that reduce transportation needs, and expanding local food production and processing.

Peak oil task forces have been established in communities large and small, liberal and conservative. Spokane, in rural eastern Washington, was the first U.S. city to establish a task force addressing both peak oil and global warming. The Canadian cities of Burnaby, British Columbia, and Hamilton, Ontario, have conducted internal reports, and further afield, the cities of Bristol (UK) and Brisbane (Australia) have established peak oil task forces of their own.

Transportation and Land Use
Many cities in Western Europe are known for their pedestrian environment, their efficient public transport or their bicycle infrastructure. Freiburg, in southwestern Germany, has long been recognized for a comprehensive approach to transportation and land use that goes far beyond mere regulations. Decades ago, the city closed off downtown streets to cars and widened them to make way for streetcars and pedestrians. More recently, the local government partnered with a community group to redevelop an old army barracksinto a 4,700-inhabitant energy-efficient and car-free neighborhood.

Local Energy
The towns of Güssing in Austria and Växjö in Sweden have recently won accolades for their innovative approaches to developing local energy sources. Växjö has reduced its CO2 emissions 30% below 1993 levels largely by building a 100 MW plant that also supplies over 90% of the town with heating and hot water – all from wood chip waste salvaged from the local timber industry. For its part, Güssing has cut its CO2 levels over 90% from 1995 levels by reinventing itself as a hub for renewable energy innovation. Thanks to investing early and providing both government leadership and support for the local energy industry, Güssing is now home to 50 companies producing energy and fuels from all manner of renewable sources.

In just the last few years, an exciting new systems-oriented model for urban planning has made its way to the United States. The eco-municipality model, which arose in Sweden in the 1980s, brings the system sustainability framework of The Natural Step and a priority for public involvement to community planning processes. It’s only one of a handful of such approaches, however. If we are to truly build the resilience of all our communities against the coming changes in the global oil supply, urban planners and policymakers will need to turn aggressively to more systems-informed approaches to community governance and development.

* Thanks to the recent steep decline in oil prices and the steadily-worsening world financial crisis, investment in unconventional oil production has plummeted – leading some analysts to observe that 2008 could end up being the year global oil production peaked.