Suburban Oil

There are replacements for oil for use in cars, such as biofuels, or electricity generated by solar, wind, or nuclear power. However, these alternatives are currently more expensive. It seems to me that the only one which is likely to become cheaper is solar power, but the average home can’t collect enough solar power to drive a car a significant distance. Oil is millions of years of solar power compressed into a fluid. Nothing we know of today can equal that in terms of massive energy output for low energy input, because nothing we know of today has that initial energy investment already built in.

U.S. suburbs and exurbs were designed for cheap personal transportation. What is going to happen to them, assuming I’m right that transportation will become inexorably more expensive? Few people are going to want to move a place where transportation becomes a big part of their budget. Inevitably housing prices in the suburbs will fall. People will move to the cities, or at least to places with high-efficiency rail connections to the cities. In other words, the U.S. will start to look more like Europe.

Housing prices are falling right now in the U.S., just as gasoline prices are rising. It is possible that housing prices in the suburbs will never recover. We’ve seen that before in some cities, like Detroit. I expect that we’ll start to see blighted suburban neighborhoods–blighted in the sense of houses being abandoned as the owners can not find a buyer. It’s not all bad–at least it should increase forest cover over time, which will help somewhat with our carbon dioxide problem.

This is long-term. In the short term people will move to more fuel-efficient cars. In the long term, though, gasoline prices are going steadily upward, and while I see replacements on the horizon I don’t see them at the same price.


  1. etbe said,

    May 20, 2008 @ 2:41 am

    It seems that the average amount of solar radiation is 342W/m^2, that means you might get as much as 200W/m^2 from a solar PV system (averaged out over the entire day). If you devoted 20m^2 of roof space to solar PV then you would get 96KWh per day, which means 20KWh for running household stuff and 76KWh for charging a car.

    I believe that current models of the Prius only have batteries to store about 10KWh, modified versions such as the Prius+ may have significantly more batteries, but it seems that they can be fully charged by solar power in less than a day.

    As for increasing forest cover, if we don’t decrease CO2 production soon significant areas of current cities will be under water. Until recently every city that mattered had a river or sea port so they tend not to be far above water level…

  2. Ian Lance Taylor said,

    May 20, 2008 @ 8:28 pm

    Thanks for the calculations. 20 m^2 is quite a bit of roof, and of course some people live in apartments. But, you’re right: it may be more feasible than I thought.

    It will be interesting to see what happens if the sea levels do rise. People will presumably build dikes around big cities in the first world.

  3. etbe said,

    May 20, 2008 @ 9:03 pm

    As the sea level rises (it has already started, look at what’s happening at the north pole) some cities will build dikes. It will be easy in northern Europe where they already have practice (consider the Netherlands) and their government systems are capable of dealing with such things. The US government demonstrated it’s utter incompetence at building dikes in New Orleans – both before and after Katrina!

    The issue is whether small areas of cities will be under water or large areas.

    20m^2 of solar panels would fit on the roof of my house wish space left over for solar hot water. Of my friends in the US who I have visited, most of them seem to have houses bigger than mine.

    Not that you need to restrict yourself to roof space for solar panels. Some recent developments may make it feasible to use wind power in some urban areas too.

  4. rdb said,

    May 21, 2008 @ 12:28 am

    Assuming you’re in an area with good insolation and have a short commute (UltraCommuter
    from sunny Brisbane.

    PAMVEC is a spreadsheet-based parametric vehicle modelling and design tool used for the analysis of advanced vehicle technologies such as hybrid-electric, battery and fuel cell-powertrains.

  5. rdb said,

    May 21, 2008 @ 12:30 am

    UltraCommuter link

  6. ncm said,

    May 21, 2008 @ 1:22 am

    The most cost-efficient solar power conversion available at present is “linear fresnel reflector” thermal: . Ausra’s fifty-person factory in Las Vegas is producing 700MW of generating capacity per year; of course there’s nothing to prevent it scaling up with demand. Solar power can be collected wherever it’s most convenient and transported cheaply anywhere else, and even stored as raw heat to operate turbines at night. So, there’s no need to retrofit houses with solar panels.

    There are plenty of reasons to abandon suburbia, even if the cost of fuel isn’t first among them.

  7. fche said,

    May 21, 2008 @ 9:23 am

    Personally, I hope more people abandon city core, and rely on telecommunications and decentralized physical service systems to get by.

  8. etbe said,

    May 21, 2008 @ 4:07 pm

    fche: Of course telecommuting relies on large-scale reliable power. Not only does the office need power, but the homes of all the employees and the communications networks between. Hurricanes can really mess up communications links (much of which are above ground) so if the environment is not stable then it’s not going to work well.

    ncm: I think that distributing the generating capacity has the potential to make a more resilient network.

    Incidentally are you advocating greater population density in urban areas or wide dispersal?

  9. ncm said,

    May 21, 2008 @ 9:08 pm

    etbe: Me? Wide dispersal makes people dependent on mass media, thus more readily propagandized. It’s no accident that rural areas of the U.S. favored Bush, twice. However, extreme population density makes people crazy. So, I favor population centers 200K – 2M.

    It’s been noted that the wind power extractable from the restricted airspace above a nuclear power station matches the power being generated there. (See ; Google is an investor.)

  10. Ian Lance Taylor said,

    May 21, 2008 @ 9:54 pm

    I think it’s possible to envision a decentralized population with local power generation via solar or wind and with radio/wireless communication for network access. I do think that it encourages a certain social isolation, and communicating only with people with whom one agrees, and thus to more extreme positions.

    It’s hard to see how everybody in the world could live that way. I expect that there are too many people to have low density in all the nice places to live.

  11. etbe said,

    May 22, 2008 @ 3:52 am

    I don’t believe that wide dispersal has to make people dependent on mass media. I think that it might be a combination of habits learned while young (in terms of watching TV and reading newspapers) and lack of other communication. I believe that people who are

  12. etbe said,

    May 23, 2008 @ 12:43 am

    Continuing the truncated comment:

    I believe that people who are less than 21 today have a lot less interest in what happens on TV and a lot more interest in what happens on the net – which includes blogs. There are good and bad aspects to this, having significant portions of the population vote according to the blogs that the read might not be a great thing, but it would surely be better than Fox News…

  13. etbe said,

    May 23, 2008 @ 12:50 am

    The above web site (advertised on this page by google) promotes “Brown’s Gas”, at the top of the page they have a picture (in the style of a road sign) depicting someone being sodomised by a petrol pump.

    It’s mildly amusing, I can’t imagine anyone being enticed to buy a product by such an advert – but then no intelligent person would buy into the Brown’s Gas foolishness anyway.

  14. Ian Lance Taylor said,

    May 25, 2008 @ 8:39 am

    Using water for gas is getting energy from something that is readily available and cheap. Sort of like solar power. Maybe people should use some of the water-for-gas language when advertising solar power.

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