Story last updated at 1:26 PM on Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Homer in good shape to tackle energy volatility, says expert


About 7 p.m. Monday as author Daniel Lerch waited to give a talk on his book, "Post Carbon Cities: Planning for Energy Uncertainty," Lerch and about 30 people there to listen to him faced a more pressing uncertainty: Would the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center security guard assigned to open the expensive federal building show up with a key?

Eventually, entrance was obtained, but no one was on hand to get a PowerPoint computer projector working -- or even turn on the lights in the bathrooms. An off-duty staff person got things going, but even then, Lerch's remote computer control proved fickle.

That incident symbolized the point of Lerch's talk: We have come to rely on complex technology in our lives, and if something once assumed to be reliable -- whether a person showing up with a key or a steady source of energy -- fails, then society itself can unravel.

Lerch, of Portland, Ore., is program manager of the Post Carbon Cities Program and part of the California-based Post Carbon Institute. He was the keynote speaker at the Alaska Renewable Energy Fair held Aug. 9 in Anchorage and also addressed the Homer City Council at its work session Monday afternoon. (See related story, "Council considers oil prices, energy conservation issues," by Aaron Selbig.) He visited Homer at the invitation of Sustainable Homer, a grassroots organization that advocates for reducing energy consumption and relying more on locally produced goods.

In talking about future energy supplies, economists talk about the idea of peak oil -- the time when energy demand exceeds energy supply.

"The maximum point of global oil production after which we never get beyond the high point," Lerch said.

Petroleum economists have predicted that peak will come in 2020, 2030 or even as soon as 2012. Predicting peak oil is tricky.

"You don't know you've hit that maximum point until 20 years after it," Lerch said.

For conventional oil -- "Beverly Hillbillies oil," Lerch called it, the kind that bubbles out of the ground or is cheap and easily accessible -- discoveries peaked in the late 1960s. We're filling in the gap between supply and demand with what's left of conventional oil and new discoveries in unconventional oil, like that in deep offshore basins or in oil sands.

"This is oil difficult to discover, often difficult to produce," he said. "We cannot drill our way out of these problems."

Another problem -- and a better way of looking at the issue of energy supply -- is supply volatility. How much oil and natural gas will be available? How much will it cost? It's not only that oil and natural gas will be expensive, but knowing future costs.

"We face uncertainty," Lerch said. "It's not just about the price of gasoline. How do we adjust to this new future?"

Our world economy has been based on the assumptions that oil is going to be available and affordable.

"Without those assumptions, it becomes difficult to make any sort of plans," he said.

Related to energy uncertainty and peak oil is the issue of global climate change.

"They're the two sides of a vise grip," Lerch said, paraphrasing Bill McKibben, author of "Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future."

Responding to peak oil and global climate change involve many of the same strategies, he said: creating more sustainable communities by reducing energy consumption, using more local resources, using alternative energy and recycling more.

"Both are urgent. Both are essential. Both interact with each other," Lerch said.

Local governments can address energy uncertainty -- indeed, should address it, Lerch said.

"What is it going to be like two years from now?" Lerch said cities should be asking.

It's a question a city with a tourist economy like Homer should ask. Will high gas prices reduce the number of Lower 49 and international tourists? Will Alaskans who can't make long trips Outside come to Homer and make up for possible declines in other visitors?

"Maybe it will be better, maybe it will be worse," Lerch said.

Solutions to the problem should involve local government, businesses, planners -- everyone possible. Cities have different problems, different solutions and different resources.

"There's no silver bullet out there, but there are many silver BBs," Lerch said.

Lerch said cities should rethink things like land-use and transportation planning -- how to develop housing and businesses that don't require bigger and more roads. Cities should plan for fundamental changes.

Most of all, though, cities should build a sense of community. "Homer of all places has a very solid identity. We need to take pride in that," said Kyra Wagner of Sustainable Homer.

"This speaks to the idea of community resilience," Lerch said.

Cities with a strong sense of community and that are resilient can prepare for big, long-term changes, he said.

"Why do they have resilience?" Lerch asked. "They know each other. This is one of the cheapest and easiest things to do."

Places like Homer with a wealth of natural resources are in a good position to ride out potential catastrophic changes, Lerch said.

"If we can reduce consumption and produce locally, we might get through the next couple of decades with a minimum of hardship," he said.

"Post Carbon Cities" is available through the Post Carbon Institute Web site

Michael Armstrong can be reached at