Energy Scarcity

Petroleum has been the driver of human productive capacity for more than 100 years, helping humankind achieve great productivity... but we may now be reaching a point where world demand will soon be surpassing world supply. This is energy scarcity, often referred to as Peak Oil.

Oil has the highest energy leverage of any resource; it now delivers about 75 times the energy needed to extract it. Most of the technology and products developed and produced in the 20th century were either powered or manufactured with oil.

However, many leading oil geologists now argue that the world is quickly reaching the point where total world consumption of oil will soon outstrip the production rate of oil world-wide.

Today, no one seriously disputes that the production of accessible petroleum reserves will max out sometime between now and the year 2020. The world will then face energy descent—an increasingly widening gap between oil production and demand - and energy transition - the emergence of potentially new forms of energy to replace or substitute for oil, such as shale gas and synthetic oil.

The size and growth of the energy gap will be exaggerated by continuing urban and industrial development in China and India. As low cost manufacturers with a combined population of 2.5 billion — including many middle class aspirants —China and India will compete fiercely with traditional petroleum consumers in Europe and North America.

There is still significant debate as to the economic impacts of Energy Scarcity. Critics of Peak Oil such as Vaclav Smil assert that even as oil production capacity decreases, other types of fuel will be available take oil's place. For example, even though oil is now the primary fuel for transportation, as oil prices rise as international oil supplies peak, transportation will simply begin to transition to electric power sources supplied through the burning of coal or natural gas. However, irrespective of the availability of substitute fuels, Peak Oil proponents such as Richard Heinberg argue that the increasing cost of oil will necessarily induce price pressures on both transportation and food production, which will in turn produce economic and social stresses on cities. The question is therefore not whether there will be future stress, but rather, at what level, and how quickly will the price pressures occur.

Potential Energy Scarcity Impacts:

  • Much higher cost of oil and all fuels

  • Cars become a less affordable means of mass transportation

  • Much greater need for pubic mass transportation

  • Re-localization of agriculture / food production

  • Re-localization of manufacturing

  • Transformation and/or death of suburbs

Why is energy scarcity so central to the Resilient City idea?

Energy Scarcity is central to the discussion of resilience because oil and other fossil fuels both power our cities, and also figure heavily in producing the resources that build and run them. Construction, manufacturing, food production, transportation and many other services are all heavily oil-dependant.

So rising oil prices on the downward slope of the peak oil curve could produce huge stresses on urban and national economies. Learning how to live with less oil, while finding non-carbon replacements for the energy that it provides, and the products derived from it, will be the key challenge for cities worldwide in the 21st century, and is a central theme of creating more resilient cities.

Architects, engineers and urban planners now have an opportunity to begin to develop urban planning and building design strategies for successfully transitioning from carbon to post-carbon cities. This is an enormous challenge to our professions, but one that we must take up.

More about energy scarcity and peak oil at the Post Carbon Institute >>