Post oil: Glimpses of life after fossil fuel
Contentious debates about "peak oil" aside, imagining how the world looks post oil is increasingly easy as alternatives to fossil fuel develop rapidly.
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Letting computers or other robotic devices command the steering wheel could save a lot of energy. But, adds Tucker, "[You're] driving a car, and in a lane next to you is a robotically driven car? There would be some ... barriers to that."Skip to next paragraph
The creepiness of rolling up next to a car without a driver suggests an even bigger change: an alternative highway system in the sky. "The same drone technology that the US military is using in Afghanistan could be put to use here to transport goods," Tucker says.
Whimsical as it may sound, Tucker's alternative highway gets at the other problem for oil substitutes and other alternatives: infrastructure. The kind of energy used isn't simply about what sources are available. It's about complicated systems built around energy already discovered.
"It's daunting to think about how you would start" an infrastructure change, says Ms. Jaffe. The incentive to face that challenge varies as oil prices fluctuate and alternative energies go in and out of vogue.
"In 2011, we're on track to spend a half a trillion dollars on gasoline alone at the pump," says Margonelli. "That's ... about $100 billion more than we spent on gasoline last year.... If you can come in with something that upsets the primacy of oil, there's huge market opportunity."
But alternatives markets can crash. Three US solar panel companies declared bankruptcy this year, due in large part to cheap Chinese competition and cuts to alternative energy subsidies in Europe. Even accepted alternative energies can face sudden setbacks. While much of Europe runs on nuclear power, this year's nuclear disaster in Japan prompted Germany and Switzerland to call off their nuclear programs, and Italy and Poland to reconsider plans to invest in the technology.
Overcoming inertia on alternative energy is about something else: the loony factor. "If you were the guy at Xerox 30 years ago who had this idea about e-mail or the Internet, you would've sounded crazy," Jaffe says.
Margonelli thinks progress toward a post-oil world will also be about something a bit more old-fashioned than vision or creativity. "Going after energy has this whole sort of patriotic, future-focused side to it: the feeling, which is in many ways a patriotic feeling, of needing to leave our children a world that's better off than what we found."