October 9, 2005

Looking forward to the economy of the 2010s

Unlike Dryden's 1968 General Plan or the currently proposed Comprehensive Plan, both of which looked at the recent past and projected change (and responses to change) based on more of the same, another plan for Tompkins County considers a future in which one key variable has changed substantially.

I wondered last year what $3.00 gas would do to Dryden, and then I saw it actually appear here. (It shot up another 50¢ before coming back to the $2.97 on that sign.) Now, looking at increasing demand for oil with few signs of new discoveries to match, I'm wondering whether in the long term the steady price of gas might be $5.00, or $6.00, or worse. Natural gas prices are skyrocketing as well, and while the world has natural gas, it's not nearly as easy to transport as oil, and North American stocks aren't growing to keep up with demand.

A friend of mine - who lived on Scofield Road in the 1980s - moved back to Tompkins County recently, and is looking at these questions in detail. Jon Bosak is also the "Father of XML," the computing field where I spent the last few years of my career, and has spent the last many years 'herding cats' in various standards processes. The Terms of Reference echo rules that have worked for Jon in past work. He's started work on the Tompkins County Relocalization Plan, which states in its project document that it plans to:

research and document an emergency plan for relocalizing the production and distribution of essential goods and services in Tompkins County in response to an economic crisis precipitated by an irreversible, perpetually increasing rise in the price of oil.

Part 1, the Overview, looks at energy issues, most of which are far away from Dryden, but which affect everything from the cost of driving from here to Lansing to the cost and availability of groceries in the store and the price of fuel for winter heat. It sets out the reasons why we may want to start finding our goods closer to home - 'relocalizing' the economy - than we presently do.

Part 2, Research Areas, lays out a variety of potential issues that severe increases in the cost of fossil fuels could create, as well as some options for addressing them in Tompkins County. While it's hard to say that this document is filled with sunny optimism, it definitely proposes to make full use of Tompkins County's natural advantages (and there are many) as well as address our problems. The list of Research Areas includes:

Part 3, The Long-Term Outlook, looks further into the future and its uncertainties. There are many possible options further out, and the report concludes that:

For us in Tompkins County as in the rest of the country, the long-term future will depend on which set of analysts are correct - the ones who predict an ascetic but still recognizably industrial future after a period of great economic pain and disruption, or the more pessimistic ones who can't make the estimated amount of energy we have left accomplish the large-scale replacement of our energy infrastructure under any set of economic assumptions....

Hopefully the reduction in consumption and change in lifestyles brought about by high oil and transportation prices over the next fifteen years or so will extend the time available in which to solve these longer-term challenges. Whether the County needs to develop relocalization plans for the longer term should become clear well before the end of the time period addressed by the short-term relocalization plan.

It's also interesting to note that there are already some local projects which depend to some extent on increasing transportation costs. Finger Lakes Fresh, the hydroponic greenhouse across from NYSEG, makes a lot of sense as gas prices increase, as the Journal reported last month:

It was long-distance distribution and the ever increasing cost of fuel that first prompted Cornell University researchers, about 15 years ago, to look into a system that could grow produce year round, even in the northeast's harsh climes. Thursday's gas price hikes, where, locally, a gallon of unleaded went at least as high as $3.29, illustrated precisely the situation these hydroponics were intended to offset.

"The idea was to substitute electricity for diesel fuel because electricity comes from many sources," said Louis Albright, a Newfield native and Cornell professor.

And do I expect this all to happen? I'm hardly certain, but definitely glad to see someone thinking about what to do if it does. The current spike in gasoline and natural gas prices has me thinking about energy conservation more than usual, and wondering how far this all will go.

Posted by simon at October 9, 2005 3:53 PM in ,
Note on photos