(January 9, 2014) With energy becoming abundant, we’ll be heating our sidewalks and bringing back large cars – all part of a new Age of Plenty.
By Lawrence Solomon, published by the National Post on January 9, 2014
Lifestyles changed radically following the OPEC oil crises of 1974 and 1979. Gas guzzling behemoths gave way to energy-saving compacts, thermostats cranked downward in winter and upward in summer, failing to reuse hotel towels became a misdemeanor and just about everything consuming energy – which is just about everything – was tweaked if not transformed in earnest bids to save money and save the planet.
Those days of paying homage to deprivation climaxed last decade with Earth Hour and the passage of light bulb-banning legislation, all amid fears over climate change and peak oil. Now people keep their lights on during Earth Hour, opinion polls show the public discounts global warming fears and peak oil concerns seem distant, given revolutions in shale oil, shale gas, and methane hydrates that promise to gusher in an epoch of endless energy.
With energy surpluses slashing the cost of fuel – natural gas prices have more than halved – the stage is set for another radical transformation in lifestyles over the coming decades. Today’s guilt at consuming resources could turn to glee as we find new uses to soak up energy surpluses, keeping us comfortable and our economies humming.
“Heated sidewalks: Iceland has them, Saskatoon wants them,” read a CBC story last month. “Imagine a city with snow-free sidewalks all winter long without having to be plowed or shovelled. This isn’t a magical land — it’s Iceland, and the City of Saskatoon is looking towards it and a few other Scandinavian countries for inspiration.”
Edmonton is too, and other cities may join them. Toronto city staff speculates that heated sidewalks might only double the cost of sidewalks, an amount that many would be only too glad to pay, and that some in the private sector are already paying.
As the Chicago Tribune put it in an article that surveyed prestige Chicago properties that boast heated sidewalks, there are a blizzard of benefits: “No shoveling. No snow-melt pellets. No piling snow around the parking meters. No stepping over those piles to get from a curbside car onto the sidewalk. No paying trucks to cart snow away after a big snowfall. No lawsuits for failing to clear the walk.” It might have added that more inviting sidewalks increase sales for downtown retailers, particularly when ice makes walking treacherous, and that reducing the need for salt helps protect our vehicles and our footwear.
As energy costs decline and city unionized-labour costs increase, the economic case for heated sidewalks becomes compelling. As it is, many affluent homeowners already heat sidewalks, footpaths, driveways, and other outdoor entrance areas that they control. As with other “luxuries” once considered the preserve of the rich – these include indoor plumbing, hot water, and cable television – heated sidewalks could well become common amenities in the cold climate areas of the world.
While plentiful energy will facilitate the entry of some innovations, it will facilitate the exit of others. The Blue Box and other uneconomic government recycling programs are among those that have lost their raison d’etre. The Blue Box concept took off after recycling was backed by Environment Canada in response to the OPEC energy embargo. By the 1980s, Ontario municipalities had begun full-scale Blue Box programs, determined to do their share to delay the day that the world exhausted its store of ever-diminishing resources. Taxpayers went along with the programs despite their high cost and the hassle of sorting and storing material for recycling.
We now know those concerns of yesteryear weren’t valid. In the 1970s, governments believed that the world would be running out of petroleum in a few decades. Today, those few decades later, our known energy reserves – not only of oil but also of gas and coal – have grown to last one to three centuries.
The truly at-risk resources today are time – as in the requirement that we numbingly sort and store our garbage separately — and money – as in the diminishing share of our paycheques that the taxman allows householders to keep. Recycling programs not only put more garbage trucks on the road and triple or quadruple the cost of garbage disposal, they are typically frauds that only pretend to recycle. As repeatedly revealed over the years, much of what we think we’re recycling actually goes to the landfill. Worse, the government’s uneconomic, mandatory recycling programs displaced efficient recycling by the private sector that not only cost residents nothing in time and taxes but also may have done better at saving resources.
In the post-OPEC, resource-rich world we are entering, look for a phase out of uneconomic wind and solar technologies, just as uneconomic nuclear power is being phased out. Look for long hot showers and SUVs to lose their stigma. Look for energy-related fertilizer costs to drop, and food surpluses to grow. And look for a new post-alarmist Age of Plenty as we harness energy for our comfort, convenience and quality of life.
Lawrence Solomon is the executive director of Energy Probe.