The ongoing oil disaster in the Gulf has renewed discussion about our dependence on oil and what to do about it. It's very easy to say we should "stop drilling" and "switch to clean energy". At some point, it will be absolutely necessary, and the sooner we start preparing for it, the better. But what does that entail? What logistics are involved, and what other products are we going to have to modify to get away from oil?
People look to electricity as a solution. Wind and solar energy are green, right? With electricity, we can get away from gasoline cars, and coal-fired power plants. But let's look at these realistically:
First, there's infrastructure. We need places to put wind turbines where it's almost always windy. We need places of unobstructed sunlight to put solar panels. And then we need to get the electricity from these places to where it's needed. These all entail large construction projects that will take time. These all involve dedicating large swathes of land (at least for the solar panels). And in a lot of cases, they involve NIMBY objections
to the construction. Solar cells also generally require cadmium
(as do certain batteries), which is not an abundant mineral and must be mined
. Newer technology may make this less of a problem, but there is still the issue for both solar and wind that the devices to capture the energy must be fabricated, delivered to the site, installed, and maintained. This will require a financial commitment, likely to come from the federal government.
The second aspect of this is cars. We already have electric cars, but how practical are they for widespread use? They can be easily charged by people that have a garage or park in the driveway. What about people that live in apartments (arguably greener than houses), especially high-rises? This would require apartment buildings to install charging stations for the tenant to use. The biggest problem, of course, is the length of time required to recharge the car's batteries. It makes venturing more than 50-60 miles from home impractical. Who wants to buy a car that they can only drive a limited number of miles per day? It makes car-based vacations impossible (or at least highly impractical). People with enough money to have a "commuting" car, and a gas car for other stuff can go this route, but it will certainly dissuade others.
Once an electric car that can be recharged in 3-5 minutes is introduced, though, you will see gas stations everywhere putting in charging stations. At that point, the gas-powered car will quickly become a relic. Until then, though, they will not be going away soon.
The other unspoken problem of moving away from petroleum, though, is all of the other products
that make use of the refined oil, including jet fuel, propane, and the very roads we drive on:
Everything made of plastic comes from oil. Certainly some of that can be reformulated to use vegetable oil instead, but that means growing a lot more vegetation to produce the oil required to replace the products from petroleum. This means lots of farmland (and irrigation water) being allocated just for "disposable" consumer products.
It also means people changing their habits. It means going back to wax paper and jars instead of plastic wrap and tupperware... rubber instead of plastic where flex is required... metal, wood, and glass for product shells and delivery containers. Factories everywhere will need to be retooled.
And yes, WILL is the correct word here, because eventually it must happen because eventually we WILL run out of oil. The sooner we start transitioning, the better. But the key word is "transition", because this will require decades to complete. It's a long road to travel; the sooner we get started on the journey, the better.