He discounts natural gas as a long-term solution, and with good reason, for it suffers from most of the same reserve problems as oil, compounded by problems of getting it from the field to the user. But he does undervalue it as a “bridge” supply, a form of energy that might be used to help us make the transition to the next source. And the scarcity of bridge power is crucial to many of his assumptions about whether we will have enough energy to build the next generation of sources.
He is doubtful about solar power, too, pointing out that the infrastructure to obtain it, as it exists today, relies on the petroleum economy in a number of ways, not least for the plastic that goes into batteries and photovoltaic-cell arrays. Ditto for wind turbines, which require a fair amount of machinery, currently petroleum based, for their installation. Objections like this – where Kunstler asks, could we survive on the output of this source alone? – are raised frequently and are certainly the weakest point in his argument.
Meanwhile, many knowledgeable optimists have yet to dismiss the potential of either solar or wind: companies like GE and Boeing have been making major investments in solar energies for years, even renewing interest in and work on once marginalized technologies like the Stirling engine, which could run on concentrated solar heat. Wind, too, has turned some corporate heads: Goldman Sachs, for instance, recently acquired Houston-based Zilkha Renewable Energy, which builds wind farms. Still, as Kunstler points out, solar and wind are very inefficient compared with burning petroleum products and possibly unsuited to running a public transportation network, much less the car-based system we have now.
Coal is already producing about half of our electricity, and though most agree that it is in good supply, Kunstler is dubious about the numbers. The environmental cost of burning it is also, as Kunstler notes, extreme: beyond coal’s contribution to global warming and other, more local forms of air pollution, it is hard to dismiss the large-scale leveling of landscapes. As for synthesizing oil from coal or, for that matter, extracting it from shale and tar sands, it can happen; but the high cost and the limited return on the energy invested are not likely to allow anything like the enormous economic expansion of the last century. Nor, given the likely outcome of continued global warming, should we be overly encouraging of coal conversion. But neither does this mean that the slow-moving work on clean coal will never bear fruit.
Kunstler is skeptical, too, about hydroelectric power – which is much cleaner – on the grounds that we will not be able to maintain the infrastructure for building dams without our cheap oil. And though hydroelectric power meets about 10 percent of our electricity needs today, Kunstler believes that room for growth is limited, as many of the best dam sites are already taken. Again, Kunstler is assuming the worst case. It is quite possible, for instance, that we will build and maintain dams with equipment that runs on expensive oil, if we can, or with some kind of coal-powered steam shovel, if we must.