Why I don’t agree with James Kunstler about peak oil and the ‘end of suburbia’
The remarkably low fueling cost of the best current hybrids (like the Toyota Prius) and future plug-in hybrids are major reasons I don’t worry as much about peak oil as some do.
James Kunstler, for instance, argues in his 2005 book The Long Emergency (see Rolling Stone excerpt here) that after oil production peaks, suburbia “will become untenable” and “we will have to say farewell to easy motoring.” In Rolling Stone, Kunstler writes, “Suburbia will come to be regarded as the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world.” (No — that distinction probably belongs to China’s torrid love-affair with coal power.)
But suppose Kunstler is right about peak oil. Suppose oil hits $160 a barrel and gasoline goes to $5 dollars a gallon in, say, 2015. That price would still be lower than many Europeans pay today. You could just go out and buy the best hybrid and cut your fuel bill in half, back to current levels. Hardly the end of suburbia.
And suppose oil hit $280 a barrel and gasoline rose to $8 dollars a gallon in 2025. You would replace your hybrid with a plug-in hybrid, and those trips less than 30 miles that have made suburbia what it is today would actually cut your fuel bill by a factor of more than 10 — even if all the electricity were from zero-carbon sources like wind power — to far below what you are paying today. The extra cost of the vehicle would be paid for in fuel savings in well under five years.
I expect commercial plug-in hybrids to be available within a few years. And as battery technology improves and gasoline prices rise in the coming decade, plug-ins will become increasingly popular. Growing concern over global warming will only serve to accelerate the transition.
One thing Kunstler and I do agree on:
The widely touted “hydrogen economy” is a particularly cruel hoax. We are not going to replace the U.S. automobile and truck fleet with vehicles run on fuel cells.
But love it or hate it, suburbia won’t be destroyed by peak oil.