Practical Tools To Speed Up the Transition Away from Petroleum

It is human nature to resist change when such a change involves anything else but known and desired results. We see evidence of this all around us, even in the U.S. Congress. When it comes to getting off of petroleum-based fuels, Congress has dragged its feet for decades. While special interest money no doubt also encouraged this foot dragging, we have now reached a point where the world is in an undeniable oil crisis.

According to statistics from the Wall Street Journal, the price of crude oil has increased 95% in the last year alone. No matter where you stand on the environmental issues related to oil, the peak oil theory, dependence on foreign sources for oil, military conflicts to secure the supply of oil, etc., it is clear that the supply of oil cannot any longer keep up with the demand. The rapidly escalating price of oil is a straightforward indicator of this fact.

Those who have taken the time to investigate the world oil situation (I recommend Richard Heinberg’s The Party’s Over) will come to the conclusion that we must get off of oil and we must do this rapidly. Unlike other major energy transitions, such as wood-to-coal and coal-to-oil, moving from oil to alternatives will be forced and rapid. In addition, there is no single substitute for oil to which the world can move en masse and this makes the transition more complicated and difficult.

There are in fact eleven commercially available alternative fuels that can substitute for petroleum-based fuels. These include electricity, hydrogen, ethanol, butanol, biodiesel, straight vegetable oil, dimethyl either, biomethane, propane, natural gas, and synthetic liquid fuel.

One way that we can overcome the resistance to change mentioned above, a way that we can encourage the transition to these — often cost-competitive — alternative fuels, is to show management that there are actually many proven tools that can be used to assist with the transition. The approach we take should undoubtedly involve three major initiatives, all of which are complimentary and all of which should best be pursued simultaneously. We must be pushing conservation of petroleum-based fuels, we must be increasing the efficiency of vehicles still using petroleum-based fuels and we must also be rapidly transitioning to alternative fuels.

Efforts to conserve should involve the provision of incentives to use public transportation, carpools, vanpools and car-sharing. Organizations should also encourage telecommuting, computer-based training, Internet conferencing tools, as well as adopt policies that discourage business travel unless it’s absolutely necessary.

Organizations should also encourage workers to move closer to the workplace and bike and/or walk to work. In addition, organizations should adopt staggered working hours to allow workers to avoid traffic jams where fuel would be consumed needlessly. A compressed workweek should also be encouraged to reduce the total number of miles driven.

The internal systems within organizations should also be changed to create new incentives to conserve fuel. One of these recommended incentive systems involves a charge-back accounting system, where departments are charged for the fuel consumed on their behalf. Modern information systems such as trip routing and scheduling systems and computer-assisted satellite navigation systems, should also be deployed to reduce the miles driven to achieve specific business objectives.

Efforts to retrofit existing vehicles that still burn gasoline and petro-diesel fuel, so that they are much more efficient, should also be pursued. When a variety of new technologies are deployed, it is now possible to create vehicles that get well over 100 mpg of gasoline. Plug-in hybrids one of many possibilities. Individually these new technologies can increase the efficiency of vehicles 5-10%, but collectively they increase efficiency dramatically. These technologies include hybrid electric systems, self-inflating tire systems, nitrogen tire inflation, low-energy tires, reduced truck idling electric power systems, speed limiters, direct injection systems, electric water pumps, adaptive cruise control, continuously variable transmissions and idle start/stop systems.

In addition, procedural and policy initiatives taken inside an organization can substantially improve the efficiency of vehicles that still run on petroleum-based fuels. These include adopting regular, strict maintenance schedules for existing vehicles and adopting strict energy-efficiency policies for purchasing, renting, and leasing vehicles.

The use of short-term rentals as opposed to purchases of infrequently used vehicles can also reduce costs and fuel use. Shifting a supply and distribution transportation system so that it relies on local carriers and less oil-dependent carriers can also produce substantial savings as well as lessen an organization’s dependence on petroleum. Other internal policies, such as mandatory use of the most efficient vehicle available, can also substantially reduce fuel consumption and send an important message to workers.

The transition to alternatives can also be accomplished with many existing management tools and techniques. For example, an oil-dependency inventory can be conducted to identify all those internal business processes that are dependent on petroleum-based fuels. Using this analysis, a business impact analysis (BIA) can then be performed in order to determine what would happen in various future scenarios. Such a BIA can reveal the likely results if the cost of petroleum were to increase 50%, 100%, or even 250% beyond current levels and also examine what would happen if petroleum-based fuels were unavailable or if they were rationed. This information can then be used to clearly show top management why alternative fuels are now both necessary and essential.

Other tools, such as the triple bottom line (TBL or 3BL), can be used to help make a case for moving to alternative fuels. Now adopted as a standard by the United Nations, this approach goes beyond traditional financial accounting, by examining people, planet and profit, in order to come up with a means for fully measuring success in an organization. The TBL approach can be used to examine projects — such as the transition to alternative fuels — as well as to provide an annual report to shareholders, the public, government regulatory agencies, business partners and other constituencies.

Many other proven management tools and techniques can assist with the transition to alternative fuels. These include business-interruption-related contingency planning techniques. While much work, such as the inventory of petroleum dependencies mentioned above, needs to be accomplished before a credible petroleum shortage contingency plan can be developed, well-known techniques for validating the completeness and workability of such a plan are now available. With these validation techniques, an organization can make sure, via testing, that its employees are able to work from home, rather than coming into the office, in the event that petroleum-based fuels are not available (as happened in the 1970s during the Arab oil embargo). Such a contingency planning effort should also tie in with existing crisis management systems, so that management will be able to quickly coordinate staff, communicate with outsiders, and make necessary decisions.

Management within today’s organizations needs to see the big picture, to understand that we can and must now make the transition away from petroleum. It is time that we all confronted the myth that it is too difficult, too costly or somehow impractical to convert to alternative fuels. We have the alternative fuel vehicle technology, we have the transition tools and techniques, now we just need the management awareness and commitment to seriously begin the transition process within business firms, government agencies and non-profit organizations.

Charles Cresson Wood is an alternative fuels management consultant with Post-Petroleum Transportation, in Sausalito, California. His most recent book is Kicking The Gasoline & Petro-Diesel Habit: A Business Manager’s Blueprint For Action. You can contact him, and learn more about the book, through www.kickingthegasoline.com.

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