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Life after (peak) oil

Rethinking priorities and kicking the fuel habit

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Oil no longer springs up from the ground like it does in the opening credits of The Beverly Hillbillies or in the halcyon 1900s of There Will Be Blood. And according to proponents of Peak Oil theory, which was seemingly confirmed in the early 1970s by the rapid drop-off in domestic oil production, the fuel crisis is bound to get worse. But the emergency arrives sooner than when the last drop of oil in the earth puffs out a tailpipe; in fact, it may be starting already.

More than 50 years ago, geologist M. King Hubbert theorized that the rate of petroleum extraction follows a recognizable bell-shaped curve. When the top of the curve is reached, approximately half of the world's oil has been extracted. More important, the maximum rate of extraction has been reached: After hitting the Hubbert Peak, you will never extract as much oil in a given year ever again.

What's worse, you've picked all the low-hanging fruit, the oil nearest the surface and in the largest fields. What's left in the ground after hitting the peak is harder to extract and more expensive to refine. There's oil in the ocean and in the tar sands, and there will be for decades—but from now on we'll have to dig farther and deeper.

Worse still, the demand for oil tends only to increase. Given that the world economy depends on the availability of cheap gasoline to fuel economic expansion, a relatively small shortfall in demand would mean the difference between continued growth and a deep worldwide recession.

Worst of all, from a climate change perspective we've already burned too much oil anyway. What remains to "drill, baby, drill," however much there is, will only add to the growing carbon crisis.

How close are we to Peak Oil? Too close for comfort, according to the best predictions, with some of the world's biggest oil fields already showing signs of depletion. We're entering the post-carbon world, one that has varyingly been depicted in science fiction either as an ecological Utopia or, more commonly, a dystopian Road Warrior apocalypse.

For those in North Carolina who take the Hubbert Peak seriously, and who see it as occurring not only within their lifetimes but in the next few years, neither future seems likely. Rather, they are preparing for a world without oil by steeling themselves for something in the middle, a world after cheap gasoline and the conveniences that come with it.

When Stephen and Rebekah Hren learned about Peak Oil, they geared up for the apocalypse. "Like most people do when they understand the gravity of the situation," Stephen says, "we had a Peak Oil freak out." They bought 10 acres of farmland about 30 miles north of Durham, built an off-the-grid house with solar power and passive solar heating—a "hideout," Stephen calls it now—and waited for the end to come. And waited, and waited.

"After two years we thought, 'Maybe this isn't such a good thing,'" Rebekah remembers. "We're way out in the middle of nowhere and gas is going to get more and more expensive. It became obvious to us that we couldn't really feed ourselves if it came right down to it. We were always going to need support from a community, and we were in no kind of a community at all."

This epiphany was the impetus for the founding of NC Powerdown (, a group that meets about once a month to discuss the transition to a post-oil economy in the context of community activism and shared resources. Rebekah explains the thinking behind the group: "NC Powerdown can do a couple of things. It can publicize peak oil, and it can also be a skill-sharing group and a resource base for people with ideas about how to transition to a lower fuel economy and lifestyle."

"A lot of people at NC Powerdown had the same thought we had: 'Oh, I need to get my acres and grow all my own food," Stephen adds. "We were passing them the other way and saying 'No, no, no, don't do that.' There's no way to get through this transition to lower oil supplies without having a community network—a support network."

And so, as they recount in their recent book, The Carbon-Free Home, the Hrens decided they needed to move back to a city. They sold their country hideout and moved to Durham, citing its transportation, community and culture as pluses for the low-energy, environmentally friendly lifestyle. They bought an older 1930s home on Trinity Avenue to retrofit and refurbish, possessing the necessary carpentry and electrician skills to do much of the work themselves.

"If you want to be energy efficient and have a green house, you don't have to build a new one out in the country," Rebekah says "You can take the house you're living in now and make it energy efficient."

In fact, they went one step further. As the title of the book suggests, the Hrens' house is (almost) carbon-free. "That's another reason why we moved to the city—to be an example," Rebekah says. "We're on a super-busy street, and people walk by all the time and ask about our garden and ask about the solar panels and ask about the house. And it's why we wrote the book.

"We're not saying, obviously, that everybody should try to [live completely carbon-free]... We'll obviously use fossil fuels for some things; you just have to use them wisely. It was sort of a radical approach to see if we could do it."

Click for larger image • The Hrens' house also has a large garden with vegetables, nuts and berries, as well as a solar cooker (right). They collect 1,000 gallons of rain water in several tanks. - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE

If you walk into the Hrens' house in mid-summer, the only noticeable difference between their home and a carbon-producing one might be their lack of air conditioning. They opt for window shades instead, even though they could run an air conditioner within their carbon budget if they chose. The house uses solar panels for electricity, with a battery capacity lasting approximately four days; a display in the kitchen provides instant feedback about energy usage. They have more than enough power for their needs. Water in the Hrens' house is heated by a solar heating unit on the roof, which is partially covered by plants for additional insulation and garden space.

Other innovations require no capital improvements at all, like using a clothesline instead of a dryer. Other improvements, like better insulation, eventually pay for themselves. At some point, the Hrens will be able to sell their surplus energy back to the grid and get a check from Duke Power every month, though currently the costs of the setup and a $25 monthly surcharge make this expensive.

Most of the landscaping on the property is edible, with more plants grown indoors in a screened-in porch that doubles as a greenhouse in the winter. This summer you could find watermelon, figs, spinach, rhubarb, artichokes, tomatoes, peppers and eggplant decorating the property. A metal roof is designed to help capture rainwater. Gray water—wastewater from dishwashing, laundry and bathing—is also recycled.

Stephen admits they've cribbed many of their ideas from environmental books written in the 1970s, the last time a significant energy shock rocked the country. But other ideas are just common sense protocols that have been ignored in an age when energy was so cheap it didn't even make sense to properly insulate houses.

This, he says, is why the United States finds itself at a significant disadvantage when compared to a modernizing power like China; there, the infrastructure for solar power and solar water heating is more standard because there is a shorter legacy of fossil-fuel dependence.

What motivates the Hrens, too, seems to be a spirit of the '70s, or even earlier: activism in community investment. Initially, "we both had a post Peak Oil knowledge depression," Rebekah says. "And I think a lot of people go through that. I mean, it's pretty shocking. Obviously, it seems like future generations will lack the sort of comforts and much of the lifestyle that we have, and just wondering what can go on in the future can make you really depressed—but the more you do, and the more active you are, and the more you get connected in your community, the better it makes you feel. We're both a lot more positive now than we were about a year ago."

Stephen adds: "Our quality of life could be way better. Our health could be much improved, if we're eating local food, our economies could be much more resilient, if we were walking more, if we were biking more. But it also could go the other way. So you just have to kind of push it along towards the good goal. Definitely, success is by no means assured. Failure, as a society, is still a very real possibility—but you just gotta do what you can."

Click for larger image • Piedmont Biofuel's industrial production location in Pittsboro features storage tanks in the fuel depot. - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE

"My feeling is that we're sitting here at the end of Homo hydrocarbonus—it's the end of Hydrocarbon Man," Lyle Estill says. "Fortunately, at Piedmont, we have sort of a front row seat. It's kind of fun."

Estill, president of Piedmont Biofuels (, is on the company's Pittsboro campus, which has been making biodiesel on an industrial scale for two years.

It began as a garage project in Estill's back yard. An eco-friendly hobby for one grew into a community of around six, then a co-op. "One of our members said, 'Hey, I've got an abandoned doublewide that I was going to bulldoze, but you can have it if you like. Three years for a dollar.' Something like that. So we moved in."

The 10-gallon batches of fuel grew to 75, and the membership of the co-op grew to its current level of 600. "It's the largest biodiesel co-op in America, by some accounts," Estill says with some pride.

Biodiesel, primarily distilled from discarded oil and grease from restaurants, is an eco-friendly reuse of a waste product: B100, a fuel that is 100 percent biodiesel, can be used in any diesel engine without retrofitting.

For $50 a year, co-op members can fill up their car at any of the co-op's eight locations in the Triangle. Most of these people, Estill says, have no connection with the production itself. "Most members, you know, they work in RTP, they live in Durham, they just want to pull up, fill up with fuel and drive. They don't really care how you made it, you know, how late you struggled into the night."

This is one of biodiesel's strengths as a solution to the energy crisis: For better or worse, it doesn't require people to radically change the way they live.

Yet in a world with gas stations on every street corner, co-op membership is limited to what Estill calls the "narrow fringe." "What makes you hardcore? First, go find a diesel, and that's not easy, because there's not a lot of choice in passenger diesel in the world, in America anyway. You go buy your membership—that costs you $50 a year. And you're also paying—I think today it's $5.25—higher than the price of petroleum diesel. There's nothing we could do to make it harder for you to buy fuel, except maybe to ask a skill-testing question before you fill up."

When, in 2004, the group discovered an abandoned industrial plant in Pittsboro and realized they could make biodiesel on an industrial scale, they decided to try to dent that world of the non-hardcore. In doing so, they made the psychic leap from co-op to capitalism. In addition to individuals, their customers now include oil companies that mix their biodiesel with regular petroleum to create blends.

The new production apparatus and market gives their biodiesel a wider reach. "Down at the co-op, they make a few thousand gallons a month. We make 4,000 gallons of fuel every day, seven days a week. So they might do 25,000 gallons in a year; we do a million gallons a year. Big difference in scale."

Nonetheless, there's no small element of psychic compromise in their new mission. For one, the efficiency of biodiesel as a recycled fuel has been dramatically reduced, as the bulk of the fuel being consumed by the industrial plant's customers is still petroleum-based. "They take 100 percent bio, they mix it in with petroleum and call it B20—that's 20 percent bio and 80 percent petroleum—and they put it out at the gas station on the corner, and they have a press release, and the mayor comes out, and Triangle Green Cities gives them a prize," Estill says.

Companies even make B2—just 2 percent biofuels, compared to the B100 used by co-op members.

As you might expect from the founder of a biofuels collective, Estill is fairly critical of capitalism's exploitation of the environment and is no big fan of the oil companies. "This idea of a greed-powered, shareholder-return, the-only-reason-I-would-do-anything-is-to-line-my-own-pocket system, well, it's nuts, and it's not working, and it got us into this mess."

And yet the switch to industrial production has introduced precisely this logic into his life. "What we have to do is balance our principles with our reality," he admits. "This place is powered with other people's money; we have shareholders that are expecting us to make a profit."

It took two years and a lot of "other people's money" to even build the plant; the first fuel came off the line in fall 2006, and only last spring did they turn a monthly profit—their first. "We made a profit, once. It took us 40 months in the darkness and we got our first profit in May 2008."

Of those shareholders, Estill says, "they're patient. Most of them work here, and most of them are desperately hoping we can figure this out, otherwise they've lost a ton of money. They're not beating down our door looking for dividends, but they are saying, 'We need economic viability for this to stay standing.' And that's the way I often phrase it to the group: It's a 12-round fight. We may be back in our corner with a cut over our eye, but it's only Round 4 and we haven't lost yet. We're not knocked out. So we're still standing and we're still going."

Estill and the others at Piedmont Biofuels have attempted to keep the co-operative ethos alive in their work at the plant. "We're a bunch of sustainable energy freaks, and we've sort of adhered to the co-op mission, which is to lead the grassroots in sustainability. We're sort of a platform for North Carolina. We've got solar, we've got all this other stuff."

Other projects on site include hydroponic lettuce and other vegetables, vericomposting (compost piles tended by worms), and a biodiversity project founded and funded by an anonymous donor to protect endangered native flora that is threatened by the Triangle's rapid development and suburbanization.

Most important, though, is the co-op's educational mission. In addition to a close relationship with the biofuels program at Central Carolina Community College, the campus is frequently visited by both the casually curious and would-be biofuel magnates. "We do a ton of tours. We have thousands of visitors every year, and I suppose at the end of the day that probably is our value. It's demonstrative."

With nearly a half-million dollars in state and federal grants, Piedmont Biofuels is a pilot project for biodiesel production nationwide. "Someone referred to this as the most exciting renewable energy project on the eastern seaboard, and that one stuck," says Estill, author of Small is Possible: Life in a Local Economy and Biodiesel Power: The Passion, the People, and the Politics of the Next Renewable Fuel.

Biodiesel is not without its critics, among them, the Hrens. "It's impossible not to admire them, whereas at the same time, we can get a little frustrated with their focus on car culture," Rebecca says.

Yet, it's interesting that in their private lives, the founders and workers of Piedmont Biofuels share this very same desire to live outside the logic of oil-fueled consumer culture.

"Missionwise, we preach conservation more than anything else," Estill says. "A lot of our fuelmakers don't drive—they walk to work, they bike. Fuel is way too precious to burn in your car."

Geoffrey Stone uses this catchment system to reclaim rain water at Earthaven Ecovillage. - PHOTO BY JON WELCH
  • Photo by Jon Welch
  • Geoffrey Stone uses this catchment system to reclaim rain water at Earthaven Ecovillage.

The foundational moment of Utopia, in the Sir Thomas More novel that coined the term, was removal, the digging of a trench between the nation and the mainland that turned a well-connected peninsula into an island. It's in that spirit that it's so hard to find Earthaven Ecovillage ( even when you're looking for it. It is built on a wooded mountain on the outskirts of the small town of Black Mountain, N.C., and the winding roads are unpaved, leading to a main road the residents named "Another Way." But despite its relative isolation, the 15-year-old ecovillage—one of the largest communities of its kind in America—suggests itself as a model for an alternative way of life that is off the grid and outside the consumer assumptions of American society.

"The founders of Earthaven could see the handwriting on the wall years ago," says Chuck Marsh, one of the founders. "I've really seen it since I was a college student in the early '70s, when it became apparent that the military-industrial complex was doing serious damage to the planet, to communities, to society in general.

"So we could see that there's going to be a time in which, as oil supplies dwindled, as the gap between rich and poor widened, as the climate changed, as we were faced with environmental and economic catastrophes—maybe challenges would be a better word—it would be necessary for groups of people to have experience in local autonomy and self-reliance."

The land for the community was purchased in 1994 by about a dozen founders, of whom less than five currently live on the site. To join the group, would-be members must pay a $4,000 joining fee and lease (for 99 years) a plot of land for between $10,000 and $20,000. To help meet costs, the membership fee serves another purpose: to help filter out those people who might not stick with the Earthaven way of life. "Everyone comes with a certain innocence and a certain naïveté and a certain idealism," Marsh says. "What really makes a member is a certain perseverance through thick and thin.

"There are 10,000 reasons not to do this," he says, laughing, "and only a few very good reasons to do it. It's not something for a person who has a challenge with commitment."

There are approximately 60 members of Earthaven, between 30 and 50 of whom are living on the land at any given time along with another two or three dozen interns, apprentices and potential members. Lifestyles in the community vary significantly: There are apartment buildings alongside trailers alongside mud huts alongside homes that would not look out of place on any suburban cul-de-sac. The entire community is off the grid. The only electricity is generated from solar paneling and a device called a Pelton Wheel that generates hydroelectric power from water pressure. Some of the people in the community even choose to forgo electricity in their homes entirely.

Much of the community's food is locally grown according to the principles of permaculture, a term coined by two Australian naturalists in the 1970s to describe a life led in balance with nature. What cannot be grown in Earthaven is purchased, whenever possible, from the local community. Permaculture draws its name from the combination of two words, permanent and agriculture, and suggests the sort of sustainable futurity that is central to life in Earthaven. "I personally have a contract with future generations to leave as abundant and healthy a world behind as I can," Marsh explains. "Humans can actually create more abundance than was there when they entered it, which is actually contrary to what most environmentalists and most Americans believe. If you get really clear on your mission and focus your efforts, you can actually leave the planet a healthier place because of your presence here."

In addition to campsites for visitors, an internship program, and an education series on the principles of sustainable agriculture, Earthaven offers public tours Saturdays at 10 a.m. and by appointment. These tours are somewhat strange for everyone involved: strange for the residents, who become something like animals in a zoo, and strange for visitors, who may be unaccustomed to the lifestyle or the openness with which the ecovillagers are willing to share their lives.

On one tour, a recent transplant from the Triangle, Martha Harris, formerly a 20-year resident of Chapel Hill, took a break from building a fire near her large organic garden to show visitors inside her home. At first glance the house could be anywhere; it's only upon hearing her talk that you begin to draw distinctions between the way homes are built inside Earthaven and outside.

The watchword is forethought. Take, for instance, the windows: Because of the tilt of the earth, the angle of the sun is different in summer and winter. A carefully measured awning can completely shade the interior in summer but allow maximum light and passive solar heating in winter. The tin roof and radiant-floor heating allow for heating and cooling efficiency in both winter and summer, with the tin roof doubling as part of a system for capturing rainwater for use in irrigation.

"We wanted to change our life to one that included living off-grid and learning to grow and raise our own food," Harris says. "Our decision was motivated by our awareness of environmental degradation, Peak Oil, and likely economic problems. We wanted to be part of an ecovillage due to the impracticality of striving for sustainability on our own."

Marsh's nursery, which has grown into one of Earthaven's most successful cottage industries, Useful Plants Nursery, does business along the East Coast through its Web site, Like Earthaven, this, too, is a model in two senses: The Useful Plant Nursery and the principles it practices are a model for growers on the outside—one of the products offered is "Living System Design," a consulting service for the eco-conscious. But the nursery also serves as a type of entrepreneurial model for a community still struggling, at times, to gain economic self-sufficiency.

Unlike other ecovillages, Earthaven is not income-sharing, so residents must find work either within the community or outside. The success of Useful Plants stands as one possible answer to this other problem of sustainability.

Marsh sometimes frames his political and economic arguments for Earthaven in terms of what he calls "blueberry economics": "If you make a $20 investment in a blueberry plant, and you take care of it and tend it, by the time that plant is 12 years old it's probably yielded close to $1,000 worth of fruit.

"Where else are you going to turn a $20 investment into $1,000? Nothing else is going to give you that rate of return that I'm aware of."

Not that it's always so easy. "In some ways Earthaven has kind of taken the hard road," Marsh says. "This has not been the easy road; this is kind of a 'live on the edge, out there at the edge of culture' approach. We don't really expect everybody else to do it."

Nor, he hastens to add, would it be necessary for everyone to live an off-the-grid lifestyle to start healing the planet. "It's relatively easy to plow up your lawn and plant a vegetable garden, plant an apple tree, and start meeting some of your own needs. It's not that complicated, and there are good examples everywhere." (Some of Marsh's edible plants now thrive on the Hrens' front lawn in Durham.)

"There are real simple acts that we can take in our own homes," Marsh says. "Turn the damn thermostat down in the wintertime, turn it up in the summer. Look at the vernacular architecture in the region that you live and you'll find architectural models for living without air conditioning: breezeways, high ceilings, ceiling fans, porches. Get off the energy tit."

Still, contrary to the more apocalyptic, even survivalist stereotype that sometimes accompanies the ecovillage lifestyle, Marsh considers himself an optimist in his life and work. "Planting a plant is a hopeful act. Planting a tree or a bush is actually a hopeful act for the world—a gift to future generations. It's like Martin Luther said: 'Even if the world were going to end tomorrow, I'd plant a tree today.'"

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