As energy and food prices set new world records, what can we do at home to avert the crisis? Food prices are rising because corn is diverted from food production to producing ethanol for use as fuel in motor vehicles and is exacerbated by the recent flooding in the Mid West. Oil prices continue to escalate as demand for oil in developing countries increases and supply constraints, rising production costs, and limited refining capacity constrain the supply of oil. These factors continue to weigh against homeowners that will face escalating fuel bills to heat or cool their homes. There are some viable alternative energy solutions including wind and solar as well as home insulation that should offset the rising cost of energy. As far as food for fuel, we need to break our dependence on hydrocarbons which continues to impact our climate and weather and transfer our wealth to oil producing nations
Corn Prices have increased 264% since 2005. The rising price of corn used for ethanol is causing farmers to plant more corn and less production of other grains such as wheat or soy. Lower supply of grains is driving up food prices. Rising food prices is most debilitating to the poor, especially those in developing countries.
Figure 1 Corn Prices
Growing demand for oil and questions over Peak Oil suggesting even with oil prices rising to such an elevated level, production is rather anemic. According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA) , while oil prices increased 344% since 2001, oil production from OPEC is up only 1.2% over this same period.
Figure 2 Oil Prices
According to the EIA The demand for oil in China is growing at an 8.1% CAGR over the last five years. With demand for oil growing significantly in developing countries and despite production developments in Saudi Arabia and the 5-to-8 billion deepwater Tupi oil discovery in over Brazil The Tupi announcement in January 2008 is the world’s biggest oil find since a 12-billion-barrel field discovered in 2000 in Kazakhstan according the International Herald Tribune. These new oil discoveries are often in inhospitable areas or deep ocean environments, which makes extraction costly and difficult.
Figure 3 Rig Count and OPEC Oil Production
What can we do? . Forget drilling for more oil, electric vehicles and investment into alternative energy is the only way to avert this crisis. OPEC area drilling activity is up 48% since 1998 and yet, despite dramatically higher oil prices, up 5 fold since 1998, OPEC oil production increased only 11% over 1998.
Homeowners could begin to deploy energy saving and alternative energy systems. Wind and solar energy could help reduce some of the pain. As consumer embrace hybrids, electric, and fuel cell vehicles, wind and solar should begin to offer a stronger value proposition. Energy saving tips such as compact fluorescent bulbs, on-demand hot water heaters, and thicker home insulation products should help reduce heating and cooling costs.
According to the American Wind Energy Association AWEA a turbine owner should have at least a 10 mph average wind speed and be paying at least 10 cents per Kilowatt-hour (KWH) for electricity. There are electric utility and tax credits available in some areas. There are also questions regarding zoning restrictions, and whether to connect to batteries for energy storage, or directly to your electric utility. Consult the Wind Energy Resource Atlas of the United States Wind Resource Maps to get a better understanding of wind speeds in your area.
Cost wind systems will vary depending on model and installation costs will vary by your location. The Whisper 500 from Southwest Windpower offers electric production of 538 KWK/month at 12 mph (5.4 m/s). The system weighs 155 lb (70 kg) and has blade span of 15 feet (4.5 m) and must be mounted on a tower in cement. At 538 KWH per month, that is enough energy to cover the needs a modest house with conservative electric usage. Small wind systems can range from under $1,000 to over $20,000 with a payback period of approximately five years depending on wind resources and utility rates.
Solar photovoltaic (PV) panels cost an average of $4.80 per watt according to Solarbuzz which is about $0.24 per KWH over a 20 year life of the PV system. With an average output of approximately 10.6-watts/square foot (114 w/m^2), a five KW PV systems would cover 515 square feet (47.8 sq. meters) costing approximately $36,000 before credits and tax benefits and produce about 490 KWH per month. Of course installations costs are extra, but with PV production ramping and new PV suppliers entering the market we can expect costs to decline. Federal and local tax credits as well as selling unused electric to your local utility offers economic value on the margin.
The economic value is expected to increase as costs decline and electric rates increase and we can expect significantly higher utility rates in the near future. The economics of zero carbon emissions is not even measured as a benefit to the consumer. We are just beginning to see the cost impact of extreme weather and climate change.
Consumers should try to ameliorate the rising cost of energy by investing into solar and wind. There are several companies offering complete installation services. Among these include: Akeena Solar (AKNS) in California and The Solar Center in New Jersey.
The bottom line: energy and food prices are creating a crisis for consumers globally and there are several initiatives that could help minimize the pain. In addition, the erratic weather patterns around the world may be just a prelude to climate changes due to the impact of carbon dioxide on climate, which may cost us much more in the long run. Let’s stop the drain of wealth cause by oil and invest into clean and renewable energy solutions.