Localization and Carrying Capacity – reducing resource intensity

Localization and Carrying Capacity

 

By Chris Nelder
Friday, January 8th, 2010

………………..What is the true carrying capacity of America, if the San Joaquin Valley’s water problems persist? About one-fifth of California’s total electrical power demand is used to pump water; about four-fifths of the water pumped in California is used to irrigate agriculture.

The ability of the state to build sustainable power supply — like those turbines in Tehachapi — has direct implications on the nation’s food supply. Likewise, much of the population of Los Angeles could not exist without the massive pipeline system that brings the city water from the Colorado River.

How will the little mining towns of northwestern Arizona fare as fossil fuels decline? They’ll still be able to ship their minerals by rail along the freight tracks I paralleled on Route 66, but they’ll need to have alternate sources of revenue if peak oil quenches economic growth.

Supporting those proposed solar arrays and grid connections could mean the difference between thriving and shrinking, which explains why in a parched, windswept, and sun-baked land like Mohave County, the need for local water and energy supply is urgent enough to override the usual political bent and make strange bedfellows of Republicans and renewable energy advocates. Such alliances will become more common in a century of decline. Necessity wins over ideology every time.

In the Bay Area where I live, the last few years has seen an increasing incidence of water main breaks and exploding transformers, sewage spills, bridges becoming unsafe, and roads becoming more patch and pothole than pavement, as its aging infrastructure crumbles and fails. Governor Schwarzenegger went begging the federal government this week for financial aid, and proposed privatizing prisons in an effort to close a budget gap that now runs into the hundreds of billions. A downgrade of the state’s debt rating seems inevitable for a state that is too big to not fail. Where will the revenue come from to fix all this, and keep the water flowing to the San Joaquin Valley, plus build out a new renewable energy and rail infrastructure?

Arizona’s in only slightly better shape. A week before Christmas, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer told her cabinet to slash spending sharply and push criminal alien prisoners back onto the Feds as quickly as possible, as she faces the prospect of borrowing $700 million a month to stay operational, and a looming 2011 fiscal year deficit of $3.4 billion. Solar power could be a massive financial boon to the state, but popular support has been sluggish and the leadership has been slow to understand the energy-water nexus. The solar potential of Arizona is far greater with photovoltaics and air-cooled CSP than water-cooled CSP.

The food production of the San Joaquin; the wind turbines in Tehachapi; the oil fields of Kern County; the solar resource of Arizona; the water resources of the Rockies that sustain its dense low desert populations… these all depend in one fashion or another on a complex, interconnected infrastructure of commerce powered by cheap fossil fuels.

No one has even begun to seriously add up the costs of transitioning it to renewable power and rail transport. The tab will run into the double-digit trillions for the state of California alone. If the state fails — and I think it could — then where will the investment come from? Can we still imagine a debt-based federal infrastructure spending program that would utterly dwarf the New Deal? If not, then the transition will be financed and built from the bottom up… or not at all.

I’m still betting that trillions of dollars will be spent over the coming decades to cut waste, build more wind turbines and solar plants, erect a long distance HVDC transmission grid, implement a smart grid with micro-islanding capabilities, stimulate a rail renaissance, and try to keep the American machine humming.

That’s why I call it “the greatest investment event of the century.” The investment opportunity in the Southwest is absolutely staggering, if the capital can be found.

But should those efforts prove too little, too late — and by my count, we’re already 30 years too late — the long-term fate of individual communities will be largely decided by what they do in the next two decades. What they have at the end of that period may be what they’ll have to live with for many decades afterward. The resources they depend on today may be stranded.

My family may indeed fall back on the old cross-cut saw to cut our firewood. The Tehachapi locals may have power, but struggle to maintain food supply. The mining towns of Arizona may wish they’d done more to deploy solar, especially water-pumping solar systems, when the getting was good.

Communities that localize their supplies of food, water, and energy, with a sharp eye on local carrying capacity (which is to say, those who have the ability to disconnect from the complex systems around them and be self-sufficient), could have a reasonably good future. Those that don’t may find themselves following the deer of the Kaibab Plateau.

The question for investors is this: Fifty years from now, will Route 66 be a blasted wasteland of ghost towns, a Mad Max relic of the fossil fuel age… or a string of small, self-sufficient oases, each with their own solar arrays, wind turbines, backyard gardens, and railroad depots?

I’ll have more to say on that subject next week when I write for Green Chip Stocks.

Until next time,

full story at http://www.energyandcapital.com/articles/can-the-southwest-go-local/1048?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+eacfeed+%28Energy+and+Capital%29&utm_content=Google+Feedfetcher

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