Weaning the world off oil

As the world watches, thousands of barrels of oil continue to spill into the Gulf of Mexico. This ecological nightmare has raised many questions about the safety of oil production and raised the already hot-button issue about whether oil consumption really is the best way for the world to be getting its energy.

Can we really kick the habit?

As the world watches, thousands of barrels of oil continue to spill into the Gulf of Mexico.

This ecological nightmare has raised many questions about the safety of oil production and raised the already hot-button issue about whether oil consumption really is the best way for the world to acquire its energy.

Tom Rand is a Toronto-based venture capitalist and supports clean technology as a viable replacement for oil.

Tom Rand is a Toronto-based green technology supporter who wears many hats. He holds the position of practice lead, cleantech and physical sciences at the MaRS Discovery District  in Toronto — a not-for-profit company that helps fund science-related research. He also runs a venture capitalist business,  VCi Green Funds, which invests in companies developing emission-reduction technologies.

Rand recently published the book Kick the Fossil Fuel Habit: 10 Clean Technologies to Save our World. This book lays out how renewable technologies work, why they can realistically replace oil as an energy source within a single lifetime and what that would mean for the world.

Rand spoke with CBC News in June while taking a break from promoting his book in Europe about why the world should kick its oil addiction — and why he thinks it's possible.

Why should people care about weaning the world off of oil right now?

Well, there are a lot of reasons. Climate change, for me, is the big long game changer. We're very late to the game. I understand what's happening with climate science, that it's extremely dangerous and that's reason enough.

However, there are other reasons. If you think about the Gulf of Mexico you see a pretty acute problem.

We are sticking giant straws down through a mile of water to grab pockets of oil big enough to ruin the Gulf but so small that they couldn't run the economy for a day.

In Canada, we're also melting tar, which is just backwards.

We're at the bottom of the barrel. We've gotten ourselves into a very significant issue that we need to begin engineering our way out of.

And, of course, there is another reason, which is the third industrial revolution, which is what some call "low carbon energy."

There are enough reasons to kick the habit that, whatever your constituency and whatever your point of view, I think now that we can get a general consensus amongst the population that we need a considerate effort to fix this.

You mention in your book that you were not 100 per cent certain when you started looking into renewable energy that it was realistic to switch within a short time. So, what was it that changed your mind to make you think that this change is possible within a lifetime?

I think a lot of the public shares my original point of view, which is that renewable energy is a bit like kids stuff with solar panels and so on; that it's not, really, the big time. 

In his book Kick the Fossil Fuel Habit, Tom Rand outlines 10 different green energies.

But I discovered that I was wrong. I mean, solar plants as big as coal plants can produce power 24 hours a day. Untapped resources like enhanced geothermal can power our entire civilization by themselves.

It turns out that the amount of energy available is absolutely stupendous and that the technology we have can mitigate the transfer of this energy. Solar plants produce power after the sun has gone down. Enhanced geothermal can produce power 24 hours a day.

We've already got this stuff and it really just surprised me at the level of maturity of the technology and the sheer scale at which we are already beginning to deploy these things.

It's capital, people, politics and behaviour that we need to change.

The engineer in me was completely convinced, overwhelmingly so, that 100 per cent of our energy is possible through renewable sources.

So I guess the point that I'm making is that it's not an impossibility, it's an engineering feat.

Is it realistic to say that we can completely get rid of our dependence on oil? Because we don't just use it for fuel, what about plastics and other petroleum-based products?

In theory, you could use halophyte-based biofuel grown in deserts around the world, irrigated by saltwater, for plastics production as well. But you might not need to.

The last thing we should be doing with the oil we've got in the ground is burning it. We have other solutions for the energy side of the equation.

We might want to save the oil we've got left in the ground for our petrochemical industry and have that convert later because plastics don't produce the CO2 that goes in the air, burning the fuel does.

So when I'm talking about irrigating the desert and growing helophytes, I'm talking about replacing the entire world's oil supply. All of it. Whether we're burning it or using it in our plastics factories, whatever.

But, you're right, there are two streams. We might want to just replace the stuff we use for energy and keep the stuff in the ground for our petrochemical industry.

Oil is a very valuable commodity and the fact that we're burning the stuff and we don't need to. It is pretty silly.

From an economic perspective, why does it make sense for companies to invest in energy from renewable resources?

Well, in terms of venture investments, where you're investing in companies who produce technology, the reason you might want to do that is that this is the next big industrial revolution and you might want to ride the train.

But the more challenging question is: how do we create market pull, which is the demand for these technologies? You know, we've got solar plants that produce power 24 hours a day, why aren't we putting up thousands of them?

That's the question: why? And it's an economic question. And the cost of technology is roughly added to the cost of capital. And who decides the cost of capital? Bankers.

That's why I think we need to intercede them in the markets. Because we, the world, we need a very fast change. We need these plants to go up in overtime. But that's not what the bankers will do and that's not what they're supposed to do.

We need a long-term price on carbon for sure but in the short term, we need to have a more proactive financial system to provide depth to this sector.

The cost of renewable energy is really the cost of debt.  If you're borrowing money at 20 per cent, it costs a whole lot to run a solar plant. If you borrow money at three per cent, it doesn't cost much.

So then, who needs to get on board to get the transition started?

A wind turbine feeds renewable electricity into the Ontario grid at the CNE grounds in Toronto. (J.P. Moczulski/Reuters)

The government.

I think industry is ready to step up. We need the right financial signals. We need carbon priced. We need the government to step in and backstop low-cost debt to the sector.

Carbon is ready to go but we need the government to step up.

I'll give you two examples:

  • The U.S. government back in the 1950s decided to spend a whole whack of dough building the interstate highway system. That formed the backbone of the American economy, which was driven by the automobile sector for 50 years. It created enormous wealth.
  • When universities and academic institutions in the military created a demand for the microchip in the 1970s that formed Silicon Valley. And again, that in itself created an enormous amount of wealth.

We're talking about the same thing with renewable energy. We're talking about the government stepping up to the plate and priming the pump in order to kick-start the third industrial revolution. And that is, "de-carboning" our economy.

It would be the largest infrastructure build in human history, which you can view as a daunting challenge or you can view as a massive economic opportunity that we all want to make sure Canada plays a role in.

What effect could the Gulf of Mexico oil spill have on getting the world off of oil and onto renewable energy?

First, we should use the engineering expertise that's drilling for oil in the ocean on land. You could drill pretty much anywhere on land in Canada and the United States about six kilometers down and find hot, dry rock. You can grab the heat out of that rock. It's called enhanced geothermal.

Enhanced geothermal is the holy grail of renewable energy. There is so much down there; there is 30,000 times our current energy needs available to us through enhanced geothermal.

My point is this: if we gave those energy companies a whack [of money] and moved them in the right direction and said, 'guys, why don't you spend your enormous amount of resources drilling for heat on land where the worst thing that's going to happen is that some of that heat will escape?'

If we did that, we would solve our energy problem and we would never have something happen again like what's happening in the Gulf.

What they're doing in the gulf, what a waste of expertise. Because if you could use that expertise here on land for enhanced geothermal and instead of an oil company, you were an energy company, we would solve this problem.

The question is: how do we make an oil company like BP into an energy company?

Maybe, just maybe, this spill in the Gulf will be the event that catalyzes that transformation.