Alternative energy sources and technological innovation: not only the basic elements of modern industrial civilization, but also the fundamental components of future living spaces and architecture.
100: the Boiling Point for Oil?
The new leap in crude oil prices to 100 dollars a barrel, the dramatic consequences of climate change, the need to cut carbon dioxide emissions on one side. The relentless thirst for energy among the (now former) emerging countries, driven by the laws of globalization and their inhabitants’demand for greater real wealth on the other. If we were to draw up an energy balance sheet for the planet, the obvious conclusion would be that simplistic models of energy sources replacement are no solution to a problem with so many variables. Since oil’s physical and economic characteristics mean it will continue to be the “king-maker” of the economy, proposals for a rapid and substantial replacement of fossil fuel in energy processes belong to the realms of utopia. The econometric models that have been predicting a downturn in demand for oil in response to rising prices have been proved wrong: although crude prices have tripled in the last four years, demand has continued to race ahead and, before long (by 2012 according to the OECD’s International Energy Agency), will be outstripping supply at an ever faster pace. Even the psychological threshold of 100 dollars/barrel (comparable, in real terms, with the values of the oil crisis in the 1980s) will fail to provide an effective barrier. Nor should we forget that, in addition to its intrinsic value, oil is a commodity with an active derivatives market (crude futures are wealth creators, independently of physical oil prices), and a sensitive geo-political factor.
Looking at the question purely in terms of residual oil reserves is not a solution, irrespective of the quantification of available deposits or crude oil recovery rates (steady, in any case, at around 30%). If the new emerging regions continue to grow at current rates, Chindia (and after them the African nations) will not take long to reach the consumption levels that so far have been a privilege of the developed nations. In other words, China, too, will move from today’s two barrels/year per inhabitant to Europe’s 16 barrels (not to mention the USA’s 26 barrels). A preliminary sign came recently when China’s Petrochina ousted US corporation ExxonMobil from its throne as the world’s energy number one, in terms of capitalization.
The die is cast for oil, however, if we can successfully maintain a consumption-target strategy. Perhaps the energy question deserves a broader-based analysis: not only on the need for diversification of possible, growth-compatible sources, but above all on ways to change consumption in favor of complex, integrated solutions that lower total use. In this edition of arcVision, EU commissioner Andris Piebalgs looks at the Community’s ambitious 20-20-2020 pledge (20% fewer emissions, 20% of renewable energy by 2020 in Europe), while analysts Nariman Behravesh and Emilio Rossi believe oil still has a long life expectancy. According to Leonardo Maugeri, the reason why fossil fuels continue to account for more than 80% of world energy consumption is so solid that it overshadow seven the brightest expectations regarding alternative sources, and Alberto Clò says possibilities for crude oil are still significant, provided we resume investment in output and distribution. And twenty years after the Chernobyl disaster, nuclear energy is once again a possible alternative, with advocates like Luis E. Echávarri. The debate could not be more topical as the timeframe for a solution tightens.
On a wider level, the debate over energy’s fundamental role in today’s industrial societies involves the quality of life and, inevitably, the architecture and housing sciences. Increasingly, the issues facing building architecture require specialist solutions developed by interdisciplinary groups. The Projects section of this edition looks at possible future interaction between energy consumption and the construction industry. What is the foundation for an effective relationship between energy saving andarchitectural quality?