Archive for the 'coal' Category

Heat or Eat - An Expanding Crisis

Sharon February 12th, 2008

Well now, listen people let me tell you some news
I’ll sing a song called the crude oil blues
We’re low on heat .n all
We’re low on gas
And I’m so cold I’m about to freeze my A..self

We got the crude oil blues
Cause the winter time sure gets cold to the bottom of my shoes
Well my hands are shakin’ and my knees are weak
But it ain’t because of loveIt’s from lack of heat

I’m gonna tell you a story anout this drunk I know
He kept his basement full of homemade brew
But the winter got so bad it screwed up the boy’s thinkin
‘He got so cold he had to burn all his drinkin’

He’s got the crude oil blues
He said the wintertime can sure get cold to the bottom of your shoes
He said, burnin’ this booze just destroys my soul
But there’s one thing about it honey
When you’re cold, you’re cold - Jerry Reed “Crude Oil Blues”

If you’ve been following the situation in Tajikistan, you know that we’re seeing an acute variation on a crisis that is occurring in a number of cold places all over the world, including the US. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/7239279.stm.

“The crisis has already gone far beyond power supplies, affecting every sphere of this impoverished and fragile society.

Humanitarian agencies say hundreds of thousands of people are suffering from severe food shortages.

“People are spending all they have on trying to keep warm, and they don’t have enough money to buy food,” says Zlatan Milisic, the country director for the UN’s World Food”

When it happens here in America (thankfully less often) we call it “Heat or Eat” and this fall the Boston Globe reported on rising cases of children suffering from malnutrition in winter because their parents cannot afford to feed them and keep them warm. Now this is nothing new, but the tripling of heating oil prices (the Northeast uses almost all the country’s heating oil) and rising natural gas prices have increased the severity of the problem: http://www.boston.com/news/globe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2007/10/21/the_heat_or_eat_dilemma/

“Federal research shows that while both rich and poor families increase their expenditures on home fuel during the winter, poor families offset this cost through decreasing food purchases, with an average 10 percent decrease in caloric intake. Parents know that children can freeze to death more quickly than they starve to death, and so most decrease food purchases first to pay for heat. Many inevitably sacrifice on both fronts, living with food scarcity while heating their homes with cooking stoves and space heaters, both of which dramatically increase the risk of fires, burns, and carbon monoxide poisoning.

These untenable choices wreak havoc on the health of children. Babies and toddlers lose body heat more rapidly than older children and adults because of their higher surface area-to-mass ratio. When babies’ bodies have to divert already-scarce calories to maintain body heat, cold and hunger intertwine to jeopardize their health and growth as well as their future ability to learn and relate to others.

The health effects of energy insecurity surface in emergency rooms at hospitals like Boston Medical Center during the cold of winter. Medical researchers found a 30 percent increase in the number of underweight infants and toddlers in the BMC emergency room in the three months after the coldest months compared with the rest of the year.”

While thankfully America’s poor are not in the situation of the Takjiki people, it is also true that both parties are early victims of a dilemma that is likely to hit more and more of us, in both rich and poor nations - the conflict between meeting energy needs and food needs.

Thus far, biofuels have rightly drawn most of the attention in explorations of the link between energy and hunger, but they aren’t the only such link. And heating energy is likely to be a particularly acute such interface, as both natural gas and oil supplies destabilize and rise in price.

Richard Heinberg’s recent essay on the coming crisis over natural gas supplies that the US and Canada face http://www.energybulletin.net/40035.html suggests that a crisis point in heating energy could come upon us fairly quickly. The vast majority of Americans heat with natural gas, and a disruption in the Canadian supply is likely to send prices skyrocketing, and potentially, show up as actual shortages in some regions, although whether of the US or Canada is not clear:

“From a Canadian perspective there are some problems with the arrangement, though. First is the fact that Canada’s production of natural gas and conventional oil is declining. Second is that Canada uses lots of oil and gas domestically: 70 percent of Canadians heat their homes with gas, and Canadians drive cars more and further than just about anyone else. The problem is likely to come first with natural gas; as production declines, there will come a point when there isn’t enough to fill domestic needs and continue to export (roughly 60 percent of Canada’s gas now goes to the US).

That point is not decades in the future, it is fairly imminent.”

A recent article observed that because of global warming issues, more and more new electrical plants are turning to natural gas. Given that the North American (and many regions of the world) gas situation is quite acute, such a rush to natural gas is likely only to raise prices and push heating energy costs even higher, and possibly impact availability. http://www.thestar.com/Business/article/301621

It is hard not to come to the conclusion, then that we in Northern regions face a heating crisis, and probably within a few years. And since we live in a society that practices cost rationing even for the most basic needs, that means that poor people in cold places will be increasingly priced out of heating energy. Or they will be priced out of food, as they futily stop eating in order to try and keep warm.

Meanwhile, natural gas based fertilizer prices will continue to rise along with the commodity, as more and more competition for gas ensues, further boosting the price of food, and making the heat or eat problem even more acute.

And what choices do we have as an alternative? Wood heating could be a decent option in many places, although not in urban centers where particulate emissions costs would be greater than the benefits. There is just barely enough wood in the US to warm the northern houses without losing forests, if carefully and sustainably managed, we all get used to colder temperatures and if we insulate as best we can, but we’d find ourselves with virtually no wood for building or paper making or any other use. Anything other than absolutely perfect management would result in deforestation - and something less than perfect management is far more likely than the alternative. Rising wood prices could give us the absolute incentive to deforest the landscape of the US, vastly increasing the consequences of climate change, topsoil loss, desertification and turning our country into the blasted landscape of post-apocalyptic novels.

We could grow more corn, this time to be burned in corn stoves, further accellerating global warming with artificial nitrogen and further putting pressure on food prices, pushing more of the world’s population into hunger.

Electrification of heating is probably a necessity, particular in population centers, but right now, as we transfer more electric load to heating, that means more coal or nuclear plants, since no renewable build out can meet that need - we risk warming the planet more seriously in order to keep ourselves warm.

Or we can accept the current model, pricing people out and letting them starve and freeze - or see mass migration to already water stressed and overpopulated but warmer areas. The truth is that our energy problems *ARE* our food problems - the longer we view the two as distinct, the worse our problems will be. They cannot be seperated from one another.

We need some better choices than this - and the first step in such better choices would be taking up seriously the larger questions of where our heating fuel is going to come from. From there, we need to ask how our resources are best spent - and one of the ways in which they would be best spent would be in a massive reinsulation of American homes to require minimal heating fuel. If we’re going to build anything out, it should be this - or rather, we should build them in - new levels of insulation and warmth. This will be as necessary in the South as it is in the North, as rising heat waves and failing electrical supplies raise heat deaths.

The Community Solution is working on this http://www.communitysolution.org/. At this point, the plan is simply too expensive to be applied in many houses without massive national subsidies that are at this point unlikely to be forthcoming. So the other thing we need is a plan for ordinary, poor people to keep warm (or cool), without destroying the planet and without starving to death.

Sharon