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Winter in the Northeast… After the Oil Age

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MARCH 21, 2008. The calendar says spring is here, twelve hours of sunlight, seed catalogues, almost empty woodshed. Outside, Mother Nature will have none of it. The temperature is about 20 degrees, winds gusting to 45, and the landscape looks like Al Gore’s Greenland that fled global warming. Our farm is incased in two to twelve feet of white tank armor. Our fifty-year old John Deere 430 crawler uses a gallon or two of the finite liquid “good stuff” just to find the drive way out to a town road which looks like a white canyon (photo to left).

We have had record-breaking snow exceeding 200 inches so far in some parts of Maine. The forecast is for no let up in sight. One hundred and fifty gallons of heating oil at $3.50 per gallon (about $500 worth) may last six weeks in any old Maine house unless the thermostat is set below 65 degrees or the living area is substantially downsized. [see Strategy to Make Big Old House Comfortable] Weatherization will help, but most Mainers can’t afford it. As oil prices continue to rise any efficiency-improvement savings will soon be lost to increased fuel costs.

A back-of-the-envelope calculation shows 10 to 20 gallons of diesel fuel is lost forever for every mile of ten-foot snow banks on each side of the road. This “piled-up energy” just melts away in the spring. In this setting, as a peak oil author and lecturer, I sit comfortably by the wood stove and send my best wishes and a few thoughts to my fellow peaknicks in sunny California. How did our ancestors survive in New England or any part of northern U.S. before fossil fuels? How will we (most of us will still be here) and our descendants survive after oil, coal, and natural gas are too expensive and someday gone? There is not time or infrastructure to tie into the “fracked-gas” bonanza. We, in the short oil age, are getting by only by using huge amounts of liquid fossil energy for warmth and transportation. The agri-business pipeline keeps the supermarket stocked with energy-intensive food and packaging that most Mainers can’t afford. Three thousand miles is a long way for lettuce to travel from California, but don’t stop, we’re hooked on it.

[Editor's Note: This entire essay is available to download as a .pff in RESOURCES at bottom of page]

FOOD is the basic pre requisite for survival of any species. We’ll continue on that subject first. The summer growing season in New England is short, precarious, and intense. How many bushels of tomatoes do you want? Obviously storage is the secret. Without transport fuel, local food production will have to be adequate for each community for the entire year. Without tractors and commercial fertilizer, it will take many more local farmers to feed their own family first, then their animals, save some seeds, and have a little left for the non-food-producing bodies in town. All of the lost skills will have to be revived and instead of one or two farms in the community growing sweet corn for tourists, one farm family might provide the thousands of pounds of food required year-around for five non-farm families. This assumes some type of farm power is available as bio-fuels, animal power or solar-electric.

This was done before oil and could be done again, PROVIDED the numbers ratio of consumers to producers is drastically reduced. Unfortunately, there are far too many forks now eating expensive, fossil fueled pies. Even if we move toward localized communities, we will have to respect negative population growth because old timers who will still be here have to eat just as additional newcomers. Certainly, there will be considerable disruption of oil-age habits and a reallocation of land use and ownership. Rural New England is in better shape than the rest of the country for most of these issues. At least much of the land is still here, water is plentiful, and many of the old farms are still intact, ready to go to work again, but only if we learn the rules and follow them.

How about the city folk? Even if excess food was available beyond that required for subsistence local communities, there will not be the transport energy to move it to the cities, and remember, each farmer will only be able to feed a few non-farm families. Another un-addressed question: What do urban consumers pay in return for the critical food? Paper money does not feed work horses or tractors with no fuel.

More “food for thought”: In the pre-industrial days, our ancestors were still in something of a balance with nature’s carrying capacity. With a little luck and availability of guns and bullets, a rural family could hope to supplement their diet with wild game. This recourse is now hopelessly lost because of over-hunting and the mobility of the oil age.

SHELTER SPACE will be less of a problem, manifested already as a surplus housing phenomenon. We’re clearly at, or past, peak oil and therefore peak growth. There’ll be plenty of roofs available especially for an already declining rural population. Our 150 year-old farmhouse was here before the oil age and will be here after, complete with the “three-holer” in back of the barn and a gravity-fed water system. There will certainly not be time, energy, or dollars available to build new energy-efficient homes featured in the “green” magazines. Surplus housing stock is especially prevalent in rural community centers and towns. All the local jobs are gone because of easy transportation and foreign competition. Left are the wealthy suburbs, dependent on service economies and old
assets. Without retirees and second homes, who will be left to be “serviced” without a local food and manufacturing base. Especially problematic in New England is the contraction of the forest-product economic sector due to the end of growth and new construction. In the post-oil age, if you’re not in the food or fuel business you may be superfluous. The problem with housing will be keeping warm rather than having enough space. In fact, it is inevitable that people will have to move closer to each other before burning the furniture.

PUBLIC BUILDINGS will soon get much colder. Are libraries more essential than town halls, or hospitals more than schools? These decisions are coming. Bio-mass answers like firewood, wood-chips or pellets are totally dependent on liquid fossil fuels for felling (chain saws), forwarding (skidders) to the landing, reducing to convenient form (processors, splitters, chippers, pellet extruders), delivery (trucks, diesel or gas), and storage with proper control of moisture content. In addition, a harvest of more than about one cord per year (annual growth) per acre is not sustainable in the long term even if we were to leverage remaining liquid fuel energy to access annual biomass photosynthesis.

HOME HEATING is already a serious problem especially as people try to continue their fossil-fueled habits of living in huge spaces. This will just not work in the future. A thousand square feet per person is fine in the summer months. Air conditioning is not necessary in the northern climes. However, from October to May, as the average temperature begins to drift below fifty-five degrees, previously stored and concentrated energy becomes necessary. Natural gas is not available and oil will soon be too expensive. Hydro, coal, and nuclear will be available as electricity, but much more valuable for the transition to a fledgling solar-electric economy than for inefficient heating of homes or hot water. Solar-thermal heating and geothermal are excellent supplements and can save considerable fuel, but they are capital intensive and do not entirely eliminate the need for grid tie or previously-stored back-up in the winter months. Our best recourse will be to hunker down, add layers, and get cozy with more bodies in less heated space, just like the old days.

TRANSPORTATION will be the toughest nut of all. Without petro-fuels, we will have to revert to muscle power. Without horses or dog sleds we are left with human effort. Besides, what would be the fuel (food) for the animals? Utility-scale electric power will only work for mass transport using an overhead wire as a “long extension cord”. A very few electric cars may work in the California winter providing the wealth, energy, and infrastructure become available. In the colder climates, however, batteries store less energy when cold and it takes considerable energy just to make-up the loss due to battery self-discharge. The extra power (and energy) required to plow through snow, light the way, and keep the occupants warm are not available from batteries, lithium or lead-acid. And remember, from the beginning of this paper, how will the roads be cleared without diesel fuel making “snow-energy” banks?

So what are we left with? In Maine and the other colder states, minimal electric, personal transportation and agricultural power could work in the warmer months and light-snow years. I have driven my solar-PV-charged MG on Christmas and New Years Day. My biggest concern is, how my batteries can be recycled as they slowly deteriorate or become discharged and frozen? We will desperately need local lead-acid battery recycling facilities. This is not rocket science or totally health hazardous. Our farm and many others used lead pipes safely for hundreds of years as long as the flow is continuous.

The only answer I have for when the snow gets deep is to get out the skis or snow shoes. From over 70 years of personal experience, cross country skiing is very do-able even pulling substantial loads of up to 100 pounds on sled. The sliding friction is very low and the exercise is great. Ten miles would be a trip of several hours, as long as there are plenty of calories waiting for refueling. The few individuals with a horse and sleigh would be in great demand if the snow was packed or rolled by horsepower as in the old days. At least, if we started to plan now, we could have low-energy LED lighting, electronic communication, water pumps, freezers, and home entertainment undreamed of by our forefathers (as long as we have PV and local facilities for battery recycling).

FAST FORWARD TO DECEMBER 22, 2011. We’ve just had our warmest November on record. The woods and fields are brown and unfrozen. As a skier and farmer, I feel intimately in tune with the weather and seasons. In my opinion after 34 years in Maine (and growing up in Western Massachusetts) the weather is highly variable from year to year, but I honestly don’t see major changes. I remember before snow making 60 years ago, there were some winters we barely skied on grass and rocks. We couldn’t practice for racing because the snow was too thin. A few turns and our edges were trashed. As a high-schooler on a farm, I grew Golden Bantam sweet corn for retail and the seasons then, at a higher elevation in the Berkshires, seem to be much the same as now in Maine.

Although recent summers may have seemed colder and wetter, this appears contrary to global warming. My point is, the intimately related subject (to fossil fuel consumption) of climate change may actually help with the crops, snow removal, and heating problems. There is some confusion whether Maine is actually getting warmer from green house gases, or colder (per Lou McNally, our TV weather personality, in his talk at our Common Ground Fair) because of changing Atlantic currents. Either way, it’s inevitable we’ll soon have plenty of frozen precipitation. Chances are we’ll be buried again in a few months, as at the beginning of this paper. It’s no small wonder the main-stream public is not concerned about climate change. A little global warming would be a gift for the Mainers paying for heating oil. Somewhere in New England, the climate may actually improve because of greenhouse gases. Certainly, two-hundred years ago, the seasons were warm and encouraging enough for the settlers to build stone walls around their farms. As the arctic thaws, the glaciers melt, and the sea level starts to rise (all facts), New Englanders don’t feel the global warming as they do the prices of fuel and groceries. This may have a heretical sound to a progressive reader. My point is, we’re chasing the wrong demon and would be much more accurate and effective by focusing on energy, peak oil, population, and what life will be someday with diminished liquid fuels.

For further reading see www.solarcarandtractor.com

John Howe


.PDF Document:   Winter in Maine

Comments on "Winter in the Northeast… After the Oil Age"

  1. OEIC default avatar David Hauber March 01, 2012 at 8:16 am

    This is a great article. I have lived in the Northeast for 60 years and have never seen a Winter this warm. The good news is that it will take less fuel to heat our houses.  The bad news it that it will be more expensive to cool our Mcmansions in the Summer.
    I’m a big fan of biomass but there just isn’t enough to feed our hunger for energy.  If you look at the graph on the Energy Conservation article on the home page it shows a time when we relied on wood for energy.  We destroyed the forests of the Northeast and it barely shows up as a blip on the graph of historical energy consumption in the US.

  2. OEIC default avatar smorton March 01, 2012 at 12:52 pm

    My mother lived in NH for over 30 years and brought a little known fact to my attention.  NH was 80% clear cut at the turn of the century both for fuel and wood to build Boston and the likes.  Today it has reforested itself but it took 100 years.  Obviously with that time scale, wood as a ‘solar collector’ will never suffice at today’s energy demands.  How we live today will have to change whether we actively pursue that change or let nature takes its own course.

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