Vail Valley Voices: Expensive energy era looms
November 20, 2012
Local prosperity will be required in order to survive the ongoing paradigm change – a change from from unlimited cheap energy to scarce, expensive energy.
Since energy is simply the power needed to get work done over time, everything will follow the energy. Local areas with basic resources, such as local energy reserves, local food and goods-production capability, will find themselves with higher standards of living for more people than areas lacking basic resources.
There’s nothing new about this concept. Oil and the oil-mined coal-powered electric grid have allowed reality to be ignored for 100 years by most people as the grid construct of civilization overtook and masked the need for local, regional and national production surpluses.
Mass global trade became a “normal” construct and expectation, with the whole construct based on exponential oil and other fossil energy development that prior to 1900 was unheard of and inconceivable at mass scales.
Eagle County and our neighboring areas have access and infrastructure to deliver locally produced Garfield and Mesa County natural gas. This is a very, very fortunate situation, since it means we can keep the heat on in the winter and if the need arises, generate considerable baseload electricity locally using gas turbines.
We’ve also got what’s left of the 1899 Shoshone hydro power plant, which can energize some 15,000 homes, though it requires outside grid power to operate now. Before the flooding of the 1990s, which caused millions of dollars in damage to this facility, Shoshone could “black start,” or operate independently of the outside world. This capability was abandoned by the owner during its reconstruction.
Additionally, there are many additional but untapped small hydroelectric sites in our region.
There are still very useable coal resources within the region, and railroad access to these coal mines. Unfortunately, coal mining today is a diesel-powered activity, so cost and availability of diesel in the future may become problematic to local and regional coal operators.
Eagle County’s railroad tracks are a priceless resource. We’re very fortunate that the federal government has required Union Pacific railroad to maintain, though at marginal and minimal levels, the railroad right of way from Dotsero to Pueblo. This line connects to an alternate eastbound line and westbound railroad service at Dotsero, as well as Leadville and points east.
Given Glenwood Springs’ long history of capitalizing on imported wealth – tourism to its hot spring via rail access for over 100 years – easy and comfortable access to Eagle County via existing heavy rail rights of way could be inexpensively restarted, since the rail and roadbed is still in place.
Rail will serve this area’s tourism and general supply requirements far more in the future, as costs of high altitude highway maintenance increase while the federal and state revenues needed to provide it decline due to fewer miles are driven by the public because of increased fuel costs, falling conventional auto and truck sales and withering roadway transportation maintenance revenues.
Eagle County enjoys an annual average insolation of 5.5kWh per day per square meter, making it one of the best areas in the country to deploy solar electricity and water heating, though performance varies considerably with seasonal snow, which must be removed for optimal performance. The cold winter climate enhances solar PV electric power production while degrading solar heating performance, but the sun is an excellent resource locally, when properly and sensibly harvested.
While mostly unexplored, “hot rock” geothermal power is available in some areas of the county for possible use in binary electricity generation.
Historically, our local area produced both protein and vegetable food stocks, though the climate limits variation in breeds produced.
To maintain local population levels, large investment in local warehousing facilities served by rail will be required for fuel, food and materials as just in time highway delivery fades due to increasing costs.
Unfortunately, some of the most desirable land that could be used for such warehousing has been allocated to development of “pre-tight-energy paradigm” enterprises.
The area’s former greatest conventional, tourism-based assets are all intangible. Clean air, the appearance of clean water, low population density (which may be a liability in the future), scenic vistas all require 100 percent import of all basic energy and supplies to commoditize.
Mass population leisure time, unknown before cheap oil energy freed mass populations from the daily work of survival, has been the basis of intangible asset rental. In the coming years, the concept of $10,000 vacation weeks in freezing cold climates will probably be seen as folly.
Mass recreation opportunities requiring copious surplus energy and wealth have been a direct product of the cheap, plentiful oil era. Diversions such as downhill skiing, mountain biking, scenic rafting, etc., will not survive as the basis of mass employment locally since in the future the general population simply won’t have access to surplus energy, wealth or free time at the per capita levels our generation has enjoyed.
What about hunting? It has been, revenue-wise, a bigger business than skiing. State wildlife officials estimate that just under 42,000 elk live in the northwest corner of Eagle County, near the communities of Sweetwater and Burns. With a population of 25,000 people, we’d decimate the resource if everybody had to go eat one. And if push really comes to shove, recreational hunting by out-of-towners will probably be met with resistance from local populations.
Eagle County’s planners, if such intangibles remain as a basis in our local economy, must focus on a smaller sector of the global wealthy elite to a greater degree than ever, if this is possible.
Competition among resorts for this shrinking demographic will become fierce. Fortunately, since this area may still have heat and lights, it may remain on the A list, though local energy costs will escalate rapidly and become more of a concern to the required service worker base population.
Given the county’s abject lack of local mineral resources (besides gypsum rock) and lack of overland regional water transportation required for movement of heavy and or bulky goods, the development of traditional heavy manufacturing locally is not feasible beyond the capability of future heavy rail capacity to export.
Some boutique products, such as small low-head hydro power turbines, could be assembled and used to harvest the considerable untapped power sources in the region. The raw materials would by necessity have to be imported – penstock pipe, steel, bearing assemblies, shaft stock, etc. – but the railway presence would make such hardware import possible for low-tech manufacturing endeavors.
A lack of deployed large-scale non-fossil-fuel electricity supplies and constriction on actual broadband Internet capability eliminates development of large scale computer-based industry such as data center or call-processing businesses, though a loyal work force would be available.
Broadband fiber Internet could be expanded, using the railroad or federal highway rights of way as a backbone physical paths. True broadband backbone service might support smaller Internet-based business alternatives to tourism until global energy problems reduce demand for even these types of activities.
Costs of such expansion would need to be justified before the fact or subsidized by government economic opportunity programs. Competition for such businesses will remain global, since IT costs to and from places like India, with its much lower wage rates, using in-place undersea fiber are lower than the costs required for expansion of such networks over land, especially local land.
In coming years, local prosperity requirements for all communities, large or small, will become paramount to local survival. Local resources of energy, materials, agriculture potential and labor will determine a location’s overall prosperity.
Eagle County’s local economic resources are limited, but can be used to give advantage to remaining residents if they are recognized, developed and, in some cases, preserved for local use (local and regional natural gas, for example, which until a decade or so ago was not exported into the U.S. national market via pipelines).
The construct of local prosperity is fundamental to the new, tight-energy era we’ve arrived upon. This should be a topic of discussion locally and regionally by citizens, as well as local government,Esp in light of the changing conditions our area and the developed world now faces.
Bill Sepmeier is a longtime local who now lives on Sweetwater Creek.