Peak Fuel Report Offers Sober Assessment of San Francisco’s Energy Future

Somewhere amid the budget drama of the last several weeks, a peak oil and natural gas report (PDF) Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi called "a really big deal" got lost in the shuffle. So, when the Peak Oil Preparedness Task Force showed up before the Board of Supervisors Government Audit and Oversight Committee today, neither the committee’s members nor the public were quite ready.

The report itself, which is already available online, is hard-hitting,
bold, and important enough that Mirkarimi planned to reschedule a
proper public hearing for August or September.

energy.use.jpgEnergy use by source in San Francisco. Image: Peak Oil Preparedness Task Force report

Peak oil and peak natural gas are "not as much science fiction as people think," said Mirkarimi, who, along with his fellow committee members, Supervisors Eric Mar and Sophie Maxwell, originally called for the formation of the task force in order to complete the report.

Jeanne-Marie Rosenmeier, the chair, hoped the public will come ready to discuss the full presentation. "Because it’s 125 pages long, it’s hard to ask people to read that big a report," said Rosenmeier. "But I think it has a lot of good data in it that tells us something about how San Francisco uses energy, and it casts a real light on what our options are going forward, not just for peak oil but also in terms of climate change. I think everybody should read it and take notes and come with questions and comments." Peak Oil Preparedness Task Force report.

The report is broken into seven sections: economy, energy, food, architecture and buildings, infrastructure, societal functioning, and transportation. The latter category, transportation, is particularly important to the report, since automobile use accounts for 45 percent of total energy use in San Francisco.

It offers a stiff set of recommendations for reducing transportation-related energy use: converting to electrical vehicles alone, it says, won’t make much of a dent.

Citing a recent study, the report notes that, "given current capacity, California’s electric grid would be unable to handle the conversion of more than 15 percent of the current automobile stock to electric vehicles."

While "it is tempting to believe that, because these alternatives would be similar to current transportation patterns, the City should focus on encouraging residents to switch from one sort of auto to another more sustainable type," the report says, "This would be a mistake and would send a mixed message. Hybrid vehicles lessen, but do not eliminate the need, for fossil fuels. Even hybrids that manage to get 50 to 60 miles per gallon will be costly to fuel if the price of gasoline rises to $8, $10, or $15 per gallon (or beyond)."

First among the report’s transportation recommendations is to "fund the expansion of Muni’s capacity and routes ahead of an expected demand surge." Sustainable development advocates will also be pleased to see "smart land-use planning" high up on the list, as well as encouragement of bicycling and severe limits on the construction of new parking spots.

Rosenmeier was confident the report, or at least its subject matter, would catch people’s attention. "The good thing about peak oil is that it’s not optional," said Rosenmeier. In contrast to climate change, Rosenmeier said peak oil and natural gas will force behavior change in the near term. "When you’re talking about something that’s going to happen, there’s not going to be enough oil, gas prices will be six dollars a gallon, ten dollars a gallon, when you talk about that, then it changes your perspective a little bit," said Rosenmeier. "So, it’s not optional, it’s gonna happen."

Check out the full report as a PDF, including the complete set of transportation recommendations. We’ll have a further preview once the final date for the special hearing is set.

  • MrMission

    Hmmm, only 1% of the City uses bicycles — there is a reason for that. Unfortunately bicycle fanatics are unable to comprehend what it is (hint: it is not a lack of bike lanes).
    The statement that the current electrical grid could only handle a conversion of 15% of cars to elctricity seems a bit silly; maybe the answer is to focus on upgrading the electric grid (I know that is rather obvious, but apparently the people writing the report did not consider that a possibility).
    Oh, and peak oil probaby is largely science fiction.

  • Aaron B.

    I thought it was 6% bicycle trips, last time it was checked? I’ve seen conflicting reports.

    And yes, MrMission, what is that reason, exactly? I’m guessing you’re not going to say “danger from automobile-dominated streets”.

    And what are you basing your assumption that “peak oil probably is largely science fiction”? Do you know something that we don’t about oil being renewable..? I’d love to believe it’s not real, convince me.

  • marcos

    The electricity grid in San Francisco is owned by Pacific Gas and Electric.

    How would MrMission suggest that we compel PG&E to rebuild their grid?

    Unpleasant natural conditions, wind, hills and cold discourage many from regularly bicycling in San Francisco.

    Economics are based on scarcity of resources. Petroleum is a finite resource. Is the suggestion that the economic forces which have caused the US to intervene around the world to secure cheap petroleum will magically evaporate (like gasoline in the Texas sun) once the increasing population has a harder time coming across dwindling petroleum reserves?


  • Aaron B.

    Ah, yes, I read the Transportation section, and i think everyone should note this part:

    “A more recent survey by SFMTA found that 6% of all vehicle trips in the city (not counting pedestrian trips) were made by bicycle. More importantly, the number of bicycle trips is climbing rapidly, up 25% between 2007 and 2008.”

    So, bikes are 6% of vehicular trips and growing.

    And, MrMission, as they and many others have pointed out, “Requiring no fuel and able to make use of roads yet also be brought onto some public transit, bicycles are versatile and efficient. With simple modifications such as headlights, reflectors, and panniers, bicycles can be made suitable for a number of trip purposes, including commuting, shopping, and travel to and from social and cultural events.”

    In addition, bicycles increase health & relieve stress, make the streets safer for everyone, are extremely low-cost, don’t emit air pollution or greenhouse gases, and can sometimes actually be faster than car travel in the city. Oh, did I mention they’re fun?

    So maybe it’s actually the benefits that non-bicyclists aren’t getting, rather than what the “bicycle fanatics are unable to comprehend”? Why don’t you try going on the panhandle tomorrow morning during the rush-hour commute and calling all those riders “fanatics”?

  • MikeD

    The electricity grid figure seems wrong. Most electric cars will charge at night, when the electric grid is not maxed out. Also, in the report has only a single line, and the link in the source citation doesn’t work.

    Anyway, there will be transmission upgrades. PG&E will be fine with building more infrastructure because they get a guaranteed rate of return on that investment. Consumers will pay for it, though in this case at least some of that investment is necessary.

    Also switching to electric power for vehicles (personal cars and more buses being powered by wires rather than fuel) is a good idea because fuel vehicles lock in current efficiencies and emissions profiles, but electric vehicles take advantage of the new technologies and changing fuel mix in electric production that will become greener and more efficient over time.

  • Michael Rhodes

    @MikeD, it does appear the link for the source is dead. I’ve added a direct link in the post to a live copy of the PHEV source.

  • There will be spare electric power as the factories, plazas, and offices close due to the Peak Oil global recession ( ). The problem is this, and we already see in happening in California:

    With increasing costs for gasoline and diesel, along with declining taxes and declining gasoline tax revenues, states and local governments will eventually have to cut staff and curtail highway maintenance. Eventually, gasoline stations will close, and state and local highway workers won’t be able to get to work. We are facing the collapse of the highways that depend on diesel and gasoline powered trucks for bridge maintenance, culvert cleaning to avoid road washouts, snow plowing, and roadbed and surface repair. When the highways fail, so will the power grid, as highways carry the parts, large transformers, steel for pylons, and high tension cables from great distances. With the highways out, there will be no food coming from far away, and without the power grid virtually nothing modern works, including home heating, pumping of gasoline and diesel, airports, communications, and automated building systems.

    It is time to focus on Peak Oil preparation and surviving Peak Oil.

  • ZA

    Mode share for bikes in SF is about 6%. Weather and topography are not the key limiting factors, because countries (Nordic) with cities of similar or larger size with worse weather and similar topography typically achieve 25-30% mode share. How they got to those fractions is instructive: through facility provision.

    It is therefore appropriate for would-be cyclists in SF to complain about perceptions of risk to injury and theft, and need for investment. To complain about hills generally and the weather – well, that’s just whiny (though I will always whine about Liberty Hill, myself).

  • marcos

    @ZA, I did not say that environmental factors were key, just that they exist and are barriers.

    What nordic countries have cities with residential districts clustered amongst multiple hills, up from the job centers and frequent 15-30mph onshore flows?

    I didn’t even mention rain.

    As far as peak oil goes, human beings cannot prepare for transition strategies so long as there is a small amount of powerful forces vested into the crumbling system. We will hit the wall at speed rather than course correct based on knowledge of an impending crash.


  • Chris

    Hi from Seattle. As for hills, we’re about as bad, rain, worse. But the bike mode share is growing really fast. No numbers, but it’s obvious on my commute every day. Bikes are coming, like it or not.

    Strange reading the comments here. I see the same emotional dynamic on blogs here in Seattle. There’s a sizeable percentage of commenters (and people generally) who are, I don’t know why, really angry at and resentful of bikes and bikers. [No, I don’t accept their common claim that bikers are irresponsible maniacs terrorizing streets. I refute it thusly: try using a crosswalk on a busy street at rush hour. Cyclists are bad?] I have my own theories about this (class, political and sexual – yes, that’s right, sexual) but still, it clearly runs deep in American society. And it seems (round here anyway) to be getting worse as the bike share grows. Lots of confrontation & aggro on the road, nasty fights over land use, trails, bike lanes, etc.

    Of course, what’s massively growing in Seattle is Metro use. But… funny… there’s all these budget and route cuts just as ridership is exploding… odd that…

    But YAY! We have a new light rail! That goes… somewhere… to somewhere… I’ve never actually seen it.

    @marcos – yeah, we’re gonna hit the wall at speed. It’s a shame but there it is.

  • Could someone give a link or citation to the report that claims that 6% of trips in SF were by bike? Wasn’t that the survey that was conducted on Bike to Work Day?

  • ZA

    @Marcos – my comment about ‘key’ is to acknowledge that topography and weather are factors for people, but probably not actually the decisive ones given the conditions more people ride in more frequently elsewhere.

    @Rob Anderson – … which tracks change over time. Also, the 2008 Market St & Van Ness BTWD surveys were validated by SFMTA.

    and more here:

  • ZA

    @ Marcos

    re- hitting the wall

    (I hit send too soon!) Yeah, you’re probably right, but at least it’s a pretty simple matter to push all the derelict cars for collection after the oil’s run out, and paint-stripe the legacy roads for all the alternatives. People are going to want to keep moving, and we’ll just have to live the repurposed life.

    Incidentally, a lot of folks here might find this interesting – the analysis the shows how little fuel economy has improved in over 80 years of automotive “innovation.”

  • @Clifford – and I thought I was a doom and gloomer.

    If it gets that bad, my theory of getting some arable land, solar panels, solar hot water, solid graywater recycling, propane heat with electric heat backup, won’t do me any good. I’ll need a whole lot of guns.

  • thegreasybear

    @ MrMission and Rob Anderson:

    On page 13 of the SFMTA State of Cycling report, you’ll discover:

    *Nearly 16% of phone survey respondents reported bicycling an average of two or more days per week for all trip purposes

    *Approximately 6% of all trips in San Francisco are completed by bicycle

    *It is estimated that there are approximately 128,000 bicycle trips made each day in San Francisco

  • bm

    I’d like to think that the few upsides of Peak Oil will be experiencing Rob Anderson on a bicycle.

  • Steven Weiss

    Some simple fact-checking shows this is totally wrong! I actually read the study, which cites another study that I looked at, to make the claim that the grid couldn’t handle the load of more than 15 % of Evs. Well, the study says the exact opposite!! Here’s the very first paragraph:

    The current U.S. electric grid has spare generation and transmission capacity at night….the current spare capacity could generate and deliver the necessary energy to power the majority of the U.S. light-duty vehicle fleet, if that fleet consisted of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs).

    The study went on to look at San Diego Gas and Electric, assuming EVERY SINGLE HOUSEHOLD had an electric vehicle which it plugged in at night. Result was no need for new infrastructure. The fact is that the current electric system has huge amounts of capacity available during off-peak hours when most people are asleep. Doesn’t anyone do any fact-checking anymore?

  • marcos

    @ZA, the cages which enclose internal combustion vehicles will be the next generation’s affordable housing.

    I don’t know if we will ever know if there is one single, limiting factor to bicycling in San Francisco.


  • Aaron B.

    @ bm: lol

  • Seven

    In the SF City Survey 2009, only 4% of respondents say they commute by bicycle. More than 10 times that many say they use public transit.

    One other interesting tidbit, “Bicycle usage is highest among White residents, college graduates, those under 30 and those likely to move out of the City.”

    For the source, see page 3-5 at this link:

  • @Seven translation – Mission hipsters. But they count just the same…

  • ZA

    @Marcos – We may never know, but let’s remove each barrier and see where we end up…my money is on something really rather nice for most people.

    On a parallel issue, there’s an interesting logic to the RV Park as perpetual temporary community. Time to restore the buffalo trail? Time will tell.

  • Zachary Moitoza

    Policy planners need to read Tom Blees’ new “Prescription for the Planet.” It talks about a technology developed from 1984-1994 that completely solves all the problems associated with conventional nuclear power plants: waste, cost, safety, proliferation, finite fuel supply. Known as the Integral Fast Reactor, the reactor could provide unlimited clean energy, cheap, while contributing nothing to proliferation. If a thousand of these plants were built, we would have a meltdown once every 400,000 years. The reactor utilizes uranium resources more efficiently by a factor of 160. A lifetime supply of electricity could be supplied to a family of four– for home space heating, appliances, cooking, manufacture, trade, and electric or boron cars– by a piece of uranium the size of a golf ball.

  • bm

    Weighing in on peak oil vs. grid etc.

    Ideas around upgrading and switching to the grid to match not only our current transportation needs, but the also the future growth in the consumption of energy and goods which Western societies’ economies are reliant upon, is just another one of those “techno fix” fantasies. It would require enormous financial and material investment, not only in the grid itself, but also the conversion of a huge fleet of vehicles from gas to electric. Besides, the grid is just a way of delivering energy, but does not address the question where our future abundant, cheap energy will come from?

    Shifting / reducing our energy use is often described as a project that would be akin to World War II. Since in general the world economy is contracting right now with no end in sight, CA is almost-defaulting, the U.S. government is printing lots of new money to bail out Wall Street and Obama is busy having beer with cops to make a good impression in the MSM (stay tuned for the Susan Boyle story!), I have a hard time seeing how this huge, concerted effort could be done. Our political and civic landscape is much too trivialized, scattered and self-centered. Remember, this is the nation that after 9/11 was told that the best way to help defeat the terrorists is to keep shopping….

    Peak Oil theory doesn’t say that we will run out of fossil fuels anytime soon. It says that after the peak, production will increasingly become difficult and that net extraction rates will start to decline. This is true whether we use the grid or oil tankers to deliver the energy to ourselves.

    Alternative energy sources will not be able to make up for the gap between demand and supply. This will make energy prices rise, which will inevitably have a huge ripple effect through the world economy causing repeated crashes, since much of it has been based on the assumption of constant growth, after being sold on it by the Greenspans of the world. But this constant growth can’t be maintained without cheap, abundant energy.

    So far, no alternative has emerged that can satisfy our hunger for energy, and is not subject to peak theories. Which is why many peak oil experts advocate the return to a simpler (but arguably richer) way of life, one that uses less energy, one that is more locally based, and emphasizes durability of goods over throw-away, marketing-driven, consumer culture and car-based suburban sprawl.

  • bm

    @Zachary, uranium is also subject to a peak and eventual decline of production. I see that you are advocating a more efficient use of uranium. But have you heard of the Jeavons paradox?

    “The Jevons Paradox (sometimes called the Jevons effect) is the proposition that technological progress that increases the efficiency with which a resource is used, tends to increase (rather than decrease) the rate of consumption of that resource”

    Which means, that if we start using uranium more efficiently, it will lead to an explosion in our usage of uranium, actually hastening its peak. And then what? This effect has been observed in every form of energy we use.

  • Zachary Moitoza

    @bm, yes I am very much aware of Jevons, and am aware that we will use more nuclear power in the future (although not necessarily more uranium). The way it works is that 99.3% of the uranium is U-238 and 0.7% is U-235, so you are basically just using U-238 as fuel (which is vastly more abundant) rather than U-235 as fuel (which is rare). The Integral fast reactor, in terms of thermal efficiency, is 40% efficient compared to 35% efficient in light water reactors. The Jevons Paradox refers more to the thermal efficiency.

    When M. King Hubbert predicted U.S. peak oil in 1956, he named his speech “nuclear energy and the Fossil Fuels.” When you use the uranium 160 times as efficiently, you can use exponentially more abundant low-grade ores. For example, uranium exists in granite at 5ppm. If you use it in the Integral Fast Reactor, granite has 15 times the energy density of coal! It is clear that by using the lower-grade ores in fast reactors, uranium exists in unlimited quantities:

    In fact, uranium can be extracted from seawater for $200 a pound– the energy equivalent of gasoline at $0.01 a gallon. Based upon geologic erosion and uplift, rivers flush 32,000 tons of uranium into seawater a year. The world currently uses 67,000 tons of uranium a year for 16% of its electricity. However, if we used the 32,000 tons a year of renewable uranium in fast reactors, we could power the world many times over for billions of years.

  • Zachary Moitoza

    Here is some more information for perusal. This document is only 1 page, and appeared in a physics journal in 1983. It argues that there is enough uranium to provide twice the 1983 global world energy use rate for five billion years.

  • ZA

    @ Zachary Moitoza –

    I have no doubt that forms of nuclear power will play a part in future, but I think it’s a mistake to attribute any single solution a “silver bullet” status.

    Fundamentally, we’re not in a technological problem, but a human one – therefore it behooves us all to consider the human dimension carefully. I don’t think there is any part of the Bay Area that would welcome a new liquid-sodium reactor (which is its own serious technical problem). All the safety assurances and waste-management arguments are meaningless to the (Wo)Man in the Street. Moreover, if DOE were to pursue one of their own accord in any of their Bay Area facilities, the political protest would be so sharp as to lead to a moratorium that would only hurt R&D.

    Also, I think you miss the larger lesson of Jevon’s Paradox. Besides the increase in consumption efficiency promotes (especially when the given technology is so disconnected from the (Wo)man on the Street*), the response in promoting alternative substitutes to the primary fuel also meant slowing technical development of the legacy fuels. Consider how many ‘grandfathered’ coal plants we have in use because of the larger shift to alternatives. This can be considered good and bad. Locally, it’s been a good thing for Hunters Point residents to remove that 80+ year old power plant. Why it took so long is an interesting question to ponder.

    *Finding technologies that connect people directly with the solutions to their problems is a key pillar to our future success. Bicycles, Complete Streets, enriched local communities through gardens and events … these are all very tangible solutions with immediate feedback to the participants. It eliminates whole rafts of technological and non-neighbor mediation between problem and solution. It is both harder and easier to achieve and sustain than a “magical” power supply solution.

  • Zachary Moitoza

    I don’t disagree with you, at least not entirely. Recently, mayor Gavin Newsome argued that San Francisco could be powered using “wave” energy. It will be interesting to see how things play out. Will things get so bad that even in the bay area people start begging for nuclear power? As the saying goes, “all truth passes through three stages”…

  • Ah, peak oil, one of my favorite subjects. The International Energy Agency is predicting the world supply of oil is set to decrease 6% a year for the foreseeable future due to peaking fields around the world, and that’s taking into account putting into production all oil discovered but yet to be pumped. (Check out the for further info.)

    Although with our current economic debacle gasoline consumption has dropped slightly below supply, looking at the depletion curves of Mexico, Venezuela and the North Sea, as well as the current low price of oil (which has caused an enormous number of drilling projects to be canceled or postponed,) I’m predicting in the next nine to twelve months we’ll bump up right against the supply curve and have ourselves a nice little gasoline shortage. (Two weeks?) It will do us a world of good.


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