Environment and Technology and Transportation, Distribution & Logistics

VOICES FROM THE INDUSTRY: It's high time for us to seek alternative energy sources

November 7, 2005

The Ghawar oil field is the jewel of the Saudi treasure chest.

Sometimes called "The King" because of its oil production, this field has yielded more than 55 billion barrels of oil since the early 1950s-more than half of all Saudi oil exports. Today, it still produces about 5 million barrels of oil each day, or about 6 percent of the world's daily supply of petroleum.

But all's not well at Ghawar. In August, The New York Times Magazine featured an article called "The Breaking Point." In the article, author Peter Maass questioned the ability of Ghawar and the other Saudi oil fields to meet the world's petroleum demands. The article offered both sides of the argument ("Yes, we can!" "No, you can't!") and asked some serious questions about the health of "The King."

Oil ministers and OPEC representatives offered vague arguments about vast reserves, but the facts certainly indicate that "Saudi Arabia clearly seems to be nearing its peak output and cannot materially grow its oil production."

Experts can debate all they want, but when oil companies' advertising campaigns talk about "beyond petroleum" and warn that "the era of easy oil is over," it's time to start listening-and doing something!

Katrina opened our eyes when prices at the pump hit $3. But less than two months later, with gas prices down to $2.50 or less again, we've fallen back to sleep. The news that home heating prices might double or triple this winter made us toss a little, but most of us just shrugged our shoulders as if there's nothing we can do.

But there is something we can do-and the sooner the better. As the Times article said, "The eventual and painful shift to different sources of energy-the start of the post-oil age-does not begin when the last drop of oil is sucked from under the Arabian Desert. It begins when the producers are unable to continue increasing their output to meet the rising demand. Crunch time comes before the last drop."

World demand for oil is forecast to grow by 40 percent-or about 115 billion barrels of oil-by 2020. Even without a terrorist act against a pipeline or a couple of Category 5 hurricanes, it's going to be hard to find the oil (or the experts to find the oil). "Crunch time" will be here well before 2020. I'll offer a scary quote (from the Department of Energy, no less): "The world has never faced a problem like this."

We in the design and construction business have to think differently about building. In the post-World War II era, we built more, bigger and as far from the crowd as we could. In the coming "post-oil age," however, all of the signs say "build better, build closer and build more efficiently." But this change will take coordinated efforts at the local and regional levels with informed and unselfish national leadership.

The U.S. Green Building Council has created the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Program. LEED guidelines have been created for all types of buildings and have now been proposed for neighborhood design (Google LEED-ND for more information).

When our developers follow these guidelines, we'll end up with the types of neighborhoods that many of us dream about or enjoy when we visit Western European cities. Walking to the corner Starbucks, riding a bike to school and walking to local shops is part of an energyefficient community. Transportation efficiency, school proximity and farmland preservation are just a few of the criteria...this is not about living in underground caves.

Check out www.ge.com/ecomaginationor www.bp.comto see what GE and BP Global are saying about alternative materials and energy sources. GE's Ecomagination site offers a perspective on options ranging from wind power to solar cells to locomotives to jet engines.

The message from the U.S. Green Building Council and companies like GE and BP is that we can balance our needs with smart energy sources and end up with terrific options for living better lives. We already have hybrid cars, and that technology will only get better.

Thanks to the Energy Department's "Million Solar Roofs" initiative, we'll soon have more "hybrid buildings," too. Solar panels will be added to gabled roofs, cutting electricity bills by about 60 percent. One large store, such as a Lowes or Home Depot, covered with photovoltaic cells, could provide power for about 485 homes. This seems to be a more effective service than just selling more caulking, insulation and weather-stripping.

Indiana is well behind other Midwestern states in the area of energy efficiency. For the most part, we use natural gas and electricity for our heating. We're somewhat self-sufficient-and affordable-because of the abundance of coal for our power plants. This doesn't mean we don't need to change, though. Up in Chicago, the mayor has mandated that all new public buildings achieve a minimum LEED rating. Here in Indiana, most people don't know LEED from lead.

The oil companies and the sheiks have said that additional profits and improved technology should be used to tap previously inaccessible oil reserves. We can choose to drive unsafely at any speed, or we can put science to work in our favor, not theirs.

It may or may not be twilight at Ghawar, but the shadows are lengthening every day.

Altemeyer is a founding principal of BSA LifeStructures, the Indianapolis-area's largest architectural firm. Views expressed here are the writer's.
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