Bill Sharp is founder of Transition Centre, cofounder of Transition Town State College, and member of the Board of Pennsylvania Interfaith Power & Light. He has been involved in environmental issues since youth and has four decades of experience in project planning and management and community development. He has worked in government, higher education and private business. He is currently working on developing a New School of Living based on the educational principles of Ralph Borsodi. He was a member of the Public Information Forum task force that developed the Marcellus Shale Forum in April 2012. This article is a product of that project. Bill is also a member of the Board of PA IPL, and is an active member of the Baha’i community.
Marcellus Gas and Renewable Energy
Shale gas has been described as a “bridge technology.” Nobody really knows for sure how much gas there is or how long it will last. It is educated guesswork and not a little rhetoric. The safest estimate is 20-30 years. That is the bridge. It is a bridge to renewable energy. We’ve known we need renewable energy for 40 years. Is it reasonable to expect another chance if we wait 30 more years?
What is it you don’t understand about “Non-renewable?”
By definition a non-renewable resource is something we will run out off. The more we use gas to replace oil and coal, the quicker it will go. As we deplete these resources the cost will climb. Rising gas prices became a 2012 national campaign issue.
Some economists tell us not to worry; something else will take the place of oil and gas when we use it up. Nice idea but does that just happen or does someone have to do something to make it happen?
The US is the second largest user of energy and has nearly twice the per capita demand as many other developed countries. By second largest user, we are second to China and a fair part of China’s energy, and carbon footprint, goes to filling store shelves in the US.
We generate roughly 10% of our energy from renewable resources. The growth rate of renewable energy is about three percent per year. At this rate, in 30 years, renewable resources would still provide less than one-quarter of our energy at current levels of demand. We need to do far more than that.
Many countries have comprehensive renewable energy policies and plans. The US does not. A number of states do have ambitious renewable energy plans; for example, Texas, the iconic oil and gas state. Pennsylvania neighbors in Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey are developing offshore wind farms. The Rocky Mountain Institute, a nonprofit organization, last year published its own national energy plan in the book Reinventing Fire. Locally, Transition Town State College (www.transitiontownstatecollege.organd www.transitioncentre.org) is launching an Energy Action Plan project for Centre County, Pennsylvania. Over a hundred other Transition Towns are working in the same direction across the country.
Local renewable energy has a vast potential for securing our future, for creating businesses and jobs, for giving us a stronger sense of community and greater local self-reliance. We have tremendous resources in community organizations, business, government and colleges and universities. Let’s put them to work for our future.
Why do we need renewable energy?
There are two really vital reasons we must develop renewable energy and do it quickly:
- Climate Change
- End of cheap oil
Marcellus gas is methane – a vast reservoir of it. Methane is a greenhouse gas that, long term (100 years) is 25 times as powerful as carbon dioxide but short term 70 to 100 times as powerful. Gas exploitation could release huge quantities of this gas into the atmosphere.
The key to climate change is energy change. If we don’t dramatically change our energy economy, if we don’t stop burning carbon, climate change is, in a word, anticlimactic.
The real game changer is that we are running out of fossil fuels. Not fast enough, however. By the time we burn through the remaining reserves we will likely have irreversible climate change and that is a future for our children and grandchildren that we don’t want to think about.
Its running out of energy, without an alternative, that could bring our civilization down. That will happen well before the worst effects of climate change.
Best estimates are that we have burned through about half of the world’s petroleum reserve. What remains is the stuff that is harder to get like deep sea oil. It cost more to produce it so energy prices are rising. As buyers accept higher prices, more is produced. It is also more risky to produce, as the Gulf Deepwater Horizon spill demonstrated. Tar sand already is, and oil shale could potential become, egregious assaults on the natural environment.
In my book on self-sufficient communities, now on a publisher’s desk, I go into detail about the future of the oil industry. I asked the question about the reality of world oil reserves. For answers I searched the oil industry literature. I learned that one of the most important estimates of reserves is what the industry called the 3 Ps: Proven, Probably and Possible. Another way of describing these is: Proven, Unproven and Undiscovered. Most of what we call reserves are currently in the Unproven and Undiscovered categories.  Building A Self-Sufficient Community and Economy
Closely tied to the 3 Ps is the term “technically recoverable.” This term suggest that as technology improves so will the recoverable portion of the reserve. But closely tied to this idea is the term “economically.” The industry has to make more out of oil and gas than it cost to produce it. Thus as prices go up, they can exploit more difficult and more risky reserves. And, of course, they are making a huge profit.
Even in a proven reserve, rarely can more than one-third of the oil be extracted with current technology at current prices.
We (the world) are burning 84 million barrels of oil per day, or some 30-32 billion barrels per year. The new fields the industry brags about, with a few hundreds of million barrels, will each supply merely additional weeks or months of world oil demand. They, of course, can’t be developed that fast so it takes a huge exploration effort to stay even.  32 billion barrels is roughly 1.2 cubic miles in volume.
The scarcity of oil, and the rising price we pay, has encouraged the oil industry to begin to develop what is called “unconventional” reserves. These include the tar sands being developed in Canada (and elsewhere) and related issues such as the Keystone Pipeline controversy. It has also pushed the industry in the direction of offshore (and very deep-sea) oil, heavy oil, shale gas and oil shale.
The 100 years supply of shale gas is a myth. Even the experts tell us the figures are too hard to understand, too complex, too many unverified numbers. Maybe there is as much as we would like to believe. Maybe we could recover it all. Maybe we could do so at affordable costs. Maybe we can do so without causing environmental disasters on an unprecedented scale. Maybe not.
Just days after Obama’s 2012 State of the Union statement on energy development, when he used the 100 year figure for gas reserves, the US Department of Energy, Energy Information Administration (EIA), downgraded it’s estimates of “Unproven” shale gas reserves, down two-thirds for Marcellus shale.
The current EIA proven US shale gas reserves would last eleven years at present rates of consumption. Current unproven reserves only another six. It’s grade school arithmetic. The rest is simply guesswork and not a little hype.
How long that gas will last also depends on how much more of it we use. The greater the demand, the shorter the time we will have gas to burn. We are not going to build a gas energy economy. The gas will be depleted before we could get the infrastructure in place.
Let me add this note: What the experts say, what the industry says, what the government says, is not what you and I need to know. If, and I stress this IF, we are to consider ourselves a democratic society, and if we believe that a free market is a place where we make rational and informed decisions, then we, and I’m talking about you and me, not the experts, must have a fair estimate of what is going on and a voice about our future.
What will be the consequences for our economy, for our civilization, if we run out of fuel?
Think about that for a moment.
That will likely happen long before Manhattan goes the way of Atlantis; long before sea level rises inundate our major coastal cities. If we don’t solve our energy crisis I’m not sure how we will continue to maintain those cities anyway.
Two things in our lives depend on cheap energy. Let me stress the word cheap.
- Our global food supply. It is energy intensive.
We have run out of cheap oil. Energy has become and will increasingly be a big part of our economy. Without enough energy we cannot maintain this economy. However, even minor reductions in energy use, planned or not, will have a profound impact on our own and the global economy.
A renewable energy future
Enough of the bad news. Let’s get down to business: Building a new energy economy — A renewable, sustainable, energy economy.
We must learn to live within our means, not on Mother Nature’s savings account. We must develop a solar energy budget.
Let’s face it: Fossil fuels are a bank deposit of solar energy and we have foolishly squandered that legacy. But there is more solar income pouring in every day. Every hour more energy reaches the surface of our planet that we can use in a year. A lot of it goes into rechargeable batteries called wind and hydrology. More of it goes into another battery called the biosphere: living growing things. Biomass charged the battery we are currently drawing on for fossil fuels. But megatons more of this potential bioenergy is stored every day.
Our food is one means we have learned to capture solar energy. We built this thing we call civilization by learning how to capture solar energy as food energy. Until the fossil age farmers had to grow more calories of food than they and their animals consumed growing it. Since the oil age we have learned to turn fossil fuels into food. Today it takes six to ten calories of fossil fuel energy to produce one calorie of the food on our lunch menu.
The Green Revolution that saved the developing world from famine was all about converting oil into food. No cheap oil — No cheap food. Let’s not even think about running out of oil.
We are, by the way, also facing a peak food moment. Population continues to grow. The land we need to grow food on continues to decline. We have reached or passed the point of diminishing return on food production technologies. Need I mention that we are now using cropland to grow fuel?
How are we going to reverse that trend?
But first, why is it so hard to create a new energy economy? Especially for the US?
One reason, of course, is that it is expensive to do. The reason we didn’t do it 30 years ago is that, after the energy crisis of the 1970s, the cost of oil went down to less than $20 per barrel. Now that cost has risen closer to $100 and, year by year, climbing.
We are being conditioned to paying more for gas and heating oil. $4 a gallon gasoline doesn’t feel as bad as it did a few years ago. We are being far more stoic about it.
While the price of oil might drop significantly, the price of gasoline and heating oil seem not to drop at comparable rates. Energy industry profits are rising. Are the oil industries investing in renewables? Marginally. The profits are much greater in oil and gas and coal for that matter. They are putting their money where the payoff is.
Bottom line, however, is that the investments needed for renewable energy are simply not there. Renewable energy is not yet a profitable sector. We’ve seen too many, well-subsidized, renewable US industry bankruptcies of late. With the end of energy credits the incentive to invest in renewable energy is dropping to near zero. It just doesn’t make good business sense to invest in renewable energy.
At some other time we must explore the impact of our finance driven economy on development of new energy resources; but not in this article. It is something we need to know far more about. Just consider that some 40% of corporate profits are now derived from finance, not production. You can consider finance as a part of the service sector, but isn’t really. It is a vast, new industry that trades in imaginary products and serves its own interests.
Public funds? If this economy does not return to health there will be precious little for renewable energy development. Thirty years ago we had money to burn. We lost the opportunity. The political climate is also against it. For reasons impossible to fathom, conservative interests see renewable energy as some sort of socialist plot to destroy the country. And that is about the most anti-business, anti-capitalists attitude one can think of. This economy was built on energy and it could be rebuilt on sustainable energy.
While energy is a campaign issue this year, we still don’t have much of a national vision of our future other than increasing production of fossil fuels, the easy out. It is a strategy that readily available facts do not support. We simply do not have the reserves, by any standard of measure, to support our demand.
Again, the US does not have a comprehensive energy policy. It is the only major developed nation that does not. Other countries, like Germany for example, have ambitious alternative energy plans. And some US states have promising renewable energy plans.
Let me touch on Germany. It is something of a renewable energy poster child. In the last ten years Germany went from 6% to 20% renewable energy: twice that of the US. They invested billions of Euros. They created hundreds of thousands of jobs. Wind is by far the largest contributor to this growth but biomass and biogas are also strong. In fact, 27 European nations do have energy plans.
There is a lot to learn from what is going on in Europe, or China, for that matter. A number of smaller EC countries have both a larger share of renewables and even more ambitious goals than Germany. Smaller countries, however, can gain a deceptively larger share of renewable energies. We need to remember that the cost of gasoline in many European countries is twice that in the US. Some of the smaller EC countries simply cannot afford fossil fuels. For them renewable energy is a good investment. And as I will point out shortly, that is a good argument for some of our own poorer communities to pursue a renewable energy economy, a local energy economy.
Who you gonna call?
In April 2012 a Public Issues Forum on Marcellus Shale was held in State College, Pennsylvania. It was a six hour, full-day event. Seventy-five people attended. Renowned Climate scientist Dr. Richard Alley, PSU, gave a rousing keynote. A video of Dr. Alley’s talk and the session of one of the work groups can be found here. There were five breakout groups of fifteen people each. A great deal of comment was collected that is coming out as a report.  The Forum was sponsored by a local affiliate of the National Issues Forum: http://www.nifi.org/.
This Forum was a pilot. A local task force conducted an informal public survey and met several times to develop a guide book. This booklet provides information about the Marcellus Shale formation and its development. It also outlines issues and approaches to addressing public concerns. There were four issues explored including environmental, health and political issues. The concluding discussion was renewable energy: What do we do after Marcellus Shale runs out? That is the topic of this article.
Let’s look at the current US renewable energy program. Again, while the US has no comprehensive energy policy a number of states do. Once hopeful conservative Presidential aspirant, Rick Perry’s, oil and gas icon, the Republic of Texas, has a very ambitious one. They want to be the nation’s leader in wind energy, among other things. A wind turbine on a remote ranch is worth $10 – 15,000 a year to the landowner. And you can put a lot of them on a 10,000 acre ranch. Nobody has yet to complain about wind spill. Yes, there are some environmental issues with wind turbines.
A lot of the states in the Great Plains are capitalizing on their wind energy. They have plenty of it.
California already has vast acreage of wind farms. They are also building solar, photovoltaic, passive solar and geothermal plants.
In the Northeast, Marcellus shale poster child’s (Pennsylvania) neighbors Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey, have plans for offshore wind farms. There is enough wind energy offshore along the Atlantic to provide all the electrical power required for the entire US east of the Mississippi. It makes abundant sense for Pennsylvania, which has very little interest in renewable energy development, largely due to the dominance of shale gas interests, to invest in offshore wind resources. Gas enthusiasts don’t even want to talk about it. They want the investment capital for drilling and pipelines. Other offshore resource potentially include tidal and ocean currents. This natural, renewable energy potential is enormous.
There are also numerous rivers running into the Atlantic. Do these rivers have hydro-electric potential? Yes, and you don’t even have to build a dam. One of the emerging technologies is in-stream water turbines. You can place these things in a continuous chain anywhere there is enough water to cover them. And yes, you could build low dams on shallow rivers, just a few feet, and capture even greater energy that way. Low dams are relatively inexpensive and have less environmental impact.
Will to Power
There is a different way of seeing Will to Power than the philosopher Nietzsche did.
The question is: Who is responsible for our energy future? The short answer is that you and I are responsible for the future of our community and that includes the energy we use
Increasingly thoughtful men and women are realizing that only local communities can shape their own destiny. That has become increasingly evident in this weak economy and contentious political environment. Many communities already have a good start but we have yet to develop a truly systematic model for building sustainable communities.
A couple of resources I find useful in understanding creating a renewable energy economy and the community effort needed to achieve that. The first is the Rocky Mountain Institute/Amory Lovins Reinventing Fire. A review of this book can be found on the Transition Centre blog. Reinventing Fire has a lot of great ideas about a business-driven transformation of the US economy – to move away from both fossil fuels and nuclear energy to a renewable economy. It is a grand vision. It needs practical expression.
The Transition Companion is the second generation handbook for the Transition Towns movement. The movement was founded in 2005 in the UK and the model has been formally adopted, as of this post, 428 communities worldwide in 34 countries, 117 and counting in the US (first in 2008).
Transition Towns is a grassroots community development model. While not prescriptive, the model is a best practice for mobilizing a community to achieve greater energy independence, food security and local self-reliance. It both allows the community to adapt to change and makes the most of doing so by building stronger social capital. One of the most attractive features of this model is that the vision is, first of all obtainable — not utopian, and second, a place people would like to live.
The TT model is founded on the issues related to climate change, to the idea that we are running out of oil, and the realization that these factors are having a serious impact the wellbeing of our communities now and in the near and distant future. We have the option of trying to ride it out or taking our destiny in our own hands.
The primary objective of the Transition Town model is to develop a community Energy Action Plan. The EAP is a practical means to achieve greater local energy independence. Energy is not just fuel and electricity but food, material goods and even waste products: It is virtually everything that is happening within a community. It is social energy, organizational energy, communications energy, creative energy; it is mental, emotional and muscle energy.  Also called an “Energy Descent Action Plan.”
The Transition Town model is a grassroots community enterprise. It starts with an initiating group forming that begins to develop local interest in the TT model. The selling point of this model is that it is a “best practice.” This model is the product of thousands of people working in scores of communities to create greater local resilience. The reason it is so attractive is that it is simple, coherent, has a pleasing aesthetic, and seeks to restore the heart and soul of our humanity.
The EAP is something the community has to develop. It is not something you bring in experts to do. How to do it is found in The Transition Companion, Transition in Action and a growing collection of books that have come from the movement.
Transition Centrewas formed with the primary mission of promoting the Transition Town model. It also has a mission of creating a design for a community energy ecology: an architecture of sustainability. This model asks: How can you define sustainability if you don’t know what you are consuming? The TC model explores the energy and materials that go into a community, what it is consuming, the way it consumes these resource and the products and waste products that come out of the community ecosystem.  Products are tradable. Ideally there should be no net waste.
Interfaith Power & Light
An important but often neglected component of community development is the local faith community. Religious associations are a source of community organization and they are also the source of our standards of moral, correct, behavior. Interfaith Power & Light has, in ten years, grown to 39 state organizations, each an independent entity. Its mission is to engage the faith community in issues related to climate change. IPLs encourage congregations to improve energy efficiency, provide public education about climate change and energy, advocate sound public environmental policy and work to increase community solidarity. Increasingly Transition Towns and IPL are sharing common ground and beginning to form a working partnership. GreenFaith, in New Jersey, is also an excellent model of mobilizing people of faith to address environmental issues.  http://interfaithpowerandlight.org/  The author is a member of the board of Pennsylvania Interfaith Power & Light, www.paipl.org.  http://greenfaith.org/
IPLs work to get faith-based organizations involved to reduce their energy consumption. That reduces carbon footprint and it also reduces cost. We’ve got to take that to a much higher level. We have to see energy and climate as a moral issue; as a matter of choice, of free will, and of good will. A church with a high carbon footprint must ask itself if it is being a good steward of God’s Good Earth. A moral commitment means we must be informed and responsive to deteriorating environmental conditions. It also means that we must take steps to reduce our impact on people elsewhere in the world.
Whatever else we do we must, must, must, reduce our energy consumption. The US uses nearly twice the per capita energy as many other developed nations like Germany, the UK and Japan. We burn a quarter of the world’s oil.
This is where the rubber meets the road. All the vision and ideals in the world will not change the way we live, our behavior. We have to change our habits and control this addiction to oil; and for that matter mass consumption.
It’s hard to do. The economist and politicians will tell you first and foremost that we can’t cut consumption. The only healthy economy is a growing economy, they insist. It is very real that even a small reduction in our energy use would dramatically affect the economy. My position is that those reductions will be mandated by changing economic conditions and by the growing scarcity and cost of oil. We can either wait until we have to bite the bullet or take matters in hand here and now.
A “sustainable economy” is an oxymoron. Our world economy is not sustainable. Population continues to rise geometrically while croplands decline and water supplies diminish; natural resources are consumed and waste products accumulate. We are heading for a crash. If we do nothing, this bubble is sure to burst.
After a lifetime of social and economic development, education and business, the only way I can see to change our future is in our local community, one community at a time. My community, your community, all of our communities.
The Last Shall Be First
I mentioned earlier that a sustainable economy makes good sense for poorer countries and communities. Economically distressed communities across the US are in fact the potential fertile ground for a renewable future.
The term “Forgotten Cities” was coined by the MIT School of Architecture and Planning,Department of Urban Studies and Planning in 2007 (download report by clicking here). The subtitle of the report is “Innovative Revitalization Coalitionsin America’s Older Small Cities.” In brief, these are small cities that have been left behind by globalization, that have lost manufacturing jobs which were the life-blood of the community. Many of these communities are now impoverished, run down and bankrupt. Many are fighting back and they are fertile ground for sustainable local economies.
The MIT report is only part of the story. It is a story that has been in play in the US for decades. What makes it particularly imperative today is that the global economy, the economy that drained the vitality of local economies, seems to be running its course. Equally, we are finding that Federal and state programs are ineffective, poorly funded, and far too detached from the life of communities they purport to serve.
There are 150 US communities on the MIT Forgotten Cities list. These cities are little more than symbolic of the forgotten backwater of our country. Twenty-one, however, are in the state I live in (Pennsylvania) and 39 others are in adjoining states. Within Pennsylvania seven of these Forgotten Cities are “distressed” municipalities – communities that have gone into bankruptcy. There are another 14 distressed municipalities in Pennsylvania that are not on the Forgotten Cities list. Trips down back roads in this and many other states are little more than a travelogue of vacant storefronts, rusting factories and homes falling into disrepair. While politicians may brag about marginal (albeit admittedly troubled and halting) recovery of the national economy, that recovery does not trickle down in any dependable manner to the Forgotten and Distressed Cities.
We need an approach that actually works in the place we live. How then do these communities organize to solve their own problems, restore economic security and that strong sense of community that makes a town or a city the place we want t life and pass on to our children?
Our approach, our model, is not a romantic regression but it does seek to resurrect values that we find in our history and in sociology and psychology: values that make us more fully human, more alive, give us a sense of meaning, connection and purpose.
- It is not anti-technology but seeks to define an appropriate technology.
- It is not anti-trade but seeks to restore essential vitality to local economies.
- It is a model of sustainability in the sense of a community purposefully planning and managing its own affairs.
- It is not anti-capital. Indeed it is the hallmark of a free and open market.
- It is not antidemocratic, not socialistic, but local democracy incarnate.
No, it’s not going to be easy. You might even define it as Mission Impossible. It is going to be challenging. What else have you got to do?
Our national economy was built on energy. Those distressed and forgotten communities were built on energy and industry. There is no reason not to rebuild those economies around a renewable, sustainable model. If we send our jobs offshore where labor is cheap, then we must create new industries at home where we are desperate for work.
I will wrap up with three ideas about how to start local economic recovery and community building: First, local foods. That is where many of them are starting.
Our civilization was founded on agriculture, on food energy. As the cost of energy rises, so does the cost of food. As population increases, as climate changes, there will be increasing scarcities of food and water and land.
A century ago economist Henry George, at a time when there was still an agrarian America, said that land plus labor equal wealth. That is still true. Much of America is blessed with abundant land and forest. A lot of it has been developed, built over. A lot of it is fallow. A lot of it has been exhausted. Vacant land, and there is a lot of it in post-industrial communities, both inside and adjacent to towns and cities, can be used to grow food. It can be restored with practices like permaculture. Idle workers are often willing to work that land, to produce food and cash income. The official unemployment figure is only a fraction of the people who are without work or who can find only part-time employment. Places like Detroit and Milwaukee and many other cities that have lost industry and population are already creating new gardens on an impressive scale. So are smaller towns like Burlington Vermont. We do not have to start from scratch. The movement is already well under way.
How to form the local community food enterprise is what Transition Towns is all about. The Transition Town model inevitably concentrates on dramatically increasing the amount of food grown and consumed locally. It provides a model, a best practice, for creating the social capital and local organization to mobilize changes. I have to point out that it takes something more than a home and garden way of seeing things to do this. It is an enterprise level undertaking. It requires local entrepreneurship, and local capital. Local food is not only a source of tasty and healthful foods but is just good business. Creating this local food economy takes work. It requires community organization. It requires vision, will and no small measure of courage. It is a win-win game.  Transition Town founder Rob Hopkins started his career learning to develop greater local food security.
The second approach is to reclaim the abandoned built downtown environments. It is more cost and energy efficient to reclaim old buildings than to build new ones. Our buildings, commercial and residential, use a huge amount of energy. It takes a huge amount of energy to construct a building. If a structure of existing buildings is sound they may be reclaimed. Old factories, warehouses, stores and offices are being reclaimed for compact dwelling spaces with shops and offices within walking distance or connected by public transportation. Such places can become communities, develop an ambiance of closeness, of place, where people like to be, with people they know, living life at a pace that is livable and with all the things that make life really worthwhile.
Third, local renewable energy: Where to start. First of all is a dramatic reduction in energy use. Then we need to look at how to replace current fossil fuel energy resources with local renewable resources. Photovoltaic arrays and wind turbines are expensive. They require huge financial investments. Passive solar, however, is more readily achievable, especially if installed at an economy of scale and with local investments. Reclaimed urban blocks, apartments, schools, hospitals, governments, shops and manufacturers, need far more efficient heating. Solar energy can be readily collective by passive systems and stored in bulk, underground tanks. Passive solar systems do not use increasingly scarce rare earth elements. We need to learn to make them inexpensively with minimal use of metals. There is decent return on investment with these systems and savings can be reinvested. The cost of these systems can be spread across a neighborhood or community
Energy is the common denominator of our life. From the food we eat to the energy we use in homes, offices and transportation, we are part of an energy ecology and an energy economy.
A renewable energy economy is achievable. It is a moral imperative: We have no choice. Lacking the political will, at the national and state levels, to achieve this new economy, we can and must build it at the local level.
But bottom line is not about profit and loss. It is about building strong communities ready and able to adapt to the challenges that will define the decades to come. Our consumer economy has shaped, indeed distorted, our lives. We should see the opportunity, the pressing need, to rebuild our energy economy as an opportunity to rebuild our communities and thus to create a lifestyle that is both desirable and attainable.
A Renewable Energy Future
William Henry Sharp
Transition Town State College/Transition Centre
Pennsylvania Interfaith Power & Light