Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Ecology, Energy Shortage and Infrastructural Future

Although research should be value-free in my opinion, the choice of my research items had and has everything to do with my world view. So, some clarification might be given in advance, so a reader can decide whether it is of any interest to him or her. 
First of all a typical example of an ecological project. A Nature Policy plan for the Netherlands had been published, its main goal being to connect our scattered nature areas by some sort of 'nature infrastructure'. It was called the Ecological Main Structure. However, implementation fell short for a couple of years.
Then, Rijkswaterstaat asked me to 'have a look at it'. When I studied the Nature Plan I was surprised to read that this particular ínfrastructure, consisting of nature connection zones, should be situated along roads. I considered it far better to concentrate these along water bodies, the Netherlands are actually covered with. So, I started using (1) the rough connectivity arrows of the Plan, (2) our advanced Faculty Geographical Information System, and (3) the official water maps, to meticulously design this new structure across the country.
The outcomes, presented to the Heads of the Regional Water Systems of Rijkswaterstaat, were met with enthousiasm, and now it did not take long for implementation to start. The Goverment forwarded the money needed, and the original scope of 25 years is mostly behind us by now, presenting its results clearly to everyone in the Dutch landscape.
Another major issue cocerns the availability of energy. The world with its fast growing population moves towards energy shortage, and the consequences should be considered. As no one wants to do with less, the question is how to provide the same quality of life, with less available energy. The economic rationale dictates - if goods become scarce, they will be more costly. So we will see less trade and freight, less bulk transport, more specialization, shorter distances to work, (alternative) energy sources, such as coal and uranium, and reduced energy consumption. Still, differences in energy consumption can be expected according to incomes. But the majority will one way or the other feel the consequences, if only at the work place, influencing production. Those old enough to have done with less in the past will probably adapt more easily, and suffer less as a consequence. Also those who have experienced existence in remote places, or on board long distance sailing boats. They know how to deal with sparse circumstances. 
Let us consider some major amenities - enough food and drink, temperature and moisture comfort at home as well as in the work place, comfortable transport, and comfortable tools to perform one's daily activities. Major infrastructure and machinery can hardly be reduced upon, as mass food and drink have to be produced and distributed for a long time to come. The world growing population is likely to live, more and more in urban areas, and in need of equal or even better nourishment. So, the energy demand of our already efficient food producing system will have to stay at least at the current level, if we do not want people to starve or trigger food wars. In a way it is an iron ration, that cannot be fiddled with. 
Comfort at home and in the work environment has been improved through central heating and air conditioning. Even to a high level of redundancy. In the past heating was often reduced to one room, and the entire family, often quite large, would concentrate there and do all what was needed. In a way this pattern might return. But, very local electrical heating of clothes, chairs and beds may make a difference in comfort in the future. However, cooling will have to be achieved by better building systems, as energy-related cooling will have to be reduced substantially.
As stated, heavy transport will remain, although better regulated by clearing houses, to minimize empty or partly loaded trucks. Heavy machinery in agriculture stays indispensable for mass food production. However, in the realm of personal transport, major changes can be expected without peril. Development of far more efficient transport, through far less weight of vehicles, even including pedaling for health reasons, is already outgrowing its infancy. Related construction of separate high tech infrastructure, to offer safe and competitive opportunities, is likely to develop much further, as I originally advocated in the Province of Noord-Brabant in its project 2030.