The theme of this month’s publication, When Cities Drive Energy Transition, is that we’ve reached the point in energy transition when cities are about to take over, as the world economy shifts its weight from liquid fossil fuels to electrical power. This is not the end of oil as a key input to many industrial processes by any means.
There were a number of promised changes to developed world oil demand, touted just five years ago, that frankly seemed wishful and unimportant at the time. They included increased MPG in existing cars and trucks, the onset of electric vehicles, the transition to NG powered engines, the resurrection of public transport, growth in renewables, and migration of workers back to the urban core. These factors have banded together now, however, and collectively have shown up five years later as a serious, serious impediment to oil demand growth, especially in the United States. No, sales of Teslas alone have not shifted the trajectory of US oil demand growth. But as the marquis EV, Tesla is a proxy for the amazing set of new conditions now blunting the US economy’s return to oil-based consumerism. As the economy stabilizes, the US populace finds it can take a train on a restored commuter line in Boston; Bus Rapid Transit in Los Angeles; a streetcar in Charlotte; or new bikeways in Indianapolis. Meanwhile, a surge of solar power capacity along with already cheap electricity rates is restoring economic competitiveness to many American cities, as the US economy tilts from consumer-importer to producer exporter. Is it any wonder that California gasoline sales, therefore, have never recovered from the crash?
Cities seem to have the required critical mass of people to be the real drivers of renewable energy substitution. Countries seem to be too large to manage effectively in this way. Does this mean a new economic and political model for growth is emerging in our cities?