jump to navigation

1. Building the Renewable Electron Economy as Solution to the Oil Crisis

(originally published August 4, 2008)

Lines formed at gas stations during the 1973 OPEC oil embargo

Lines formed at gas stations during the 1973 OPEC oil embargo. In the near future, rationing is more likely to take the form of high prices rather than through limits on consumption.

This is the first in a short series on how we can build an energy future based on our best science and no longer critically dependent upon exhaustible and polluting fossil fuels.

Too often, discussions of our future energy system simply reflect the current array of political forces in Washington or the novelty-hungry attention of the media and not the long-term viability of technologies and proposed solutions. As the price of oil is the most pressing issue from a short-term perspective, I am starting this series of policy briefs with how the energy used in transport on land can be transferred from liquid fossil fuels to cleanly generated electricity; in the second part I will address how we can create the conditions for powering the grid in the post-fossil fuel era.

Oil Supply: Speculation and Long-Term Trends

We can all now agree that it has been the ultimate in shortsightedness to continue building a society founded upon burning ever increasing amounts of easily exhaustible resources. Not only is it highly visible petroleum at the pump but, behind the scenes, the vital energy for agriculture and freight transport that now depend upon the output of oil wells, mostly located abroad. In the US in particular, we have had a twenty-five year hiatus in facing this reality through political, cultural and corporate resistance to change, which means that Americans are starting the race far behind the starting line. In addition, as it turns out, the burning of these fossil resources alters the global climate and creates local pollution and health problems. There are other ills and challenges in our world but currently fossil fuel addiction is one of the most pressing but also, fortunately, soluble problems.

Open Outcry Futures Trading

Talk of a speculative bubble in oil is a distraction from the fundamental reality of a widening gap between increasing transport energy demand and static or dwindling supply of liquid hydrocarbons. Those who put their faith in speculation as the driver of punitively high oil prices come from two divergent camps. Some are wedded to the energy status quo by a conservative, jaded view of energy alternatives and function as defenders of the fossil fuel energy industry establishment (the business commentator Larry Kudlow comes to mind). A more surprising group are populists and left-leaning analysts who always use the formula “qui bono” (who benefits) to locate the responsible parties for any social ill. These critics of oil companies and oil sheiks continue to promote the illusion of an endlessly abundant and forgiving Nature, which is despoiled not by our combined global thirst for energy but solely by a thin layer of greedy profiteers, who can be punished or pushed aside thereby making the problem go away. We can safely expect oil to continue to climb in price even if we are now currently in a period where emotions have driven prices higher than actual supplies would warrant as some continue to profit from the price run-up.

Beyond speculation, suggestions that we can drill and refine our way out of the inevitable decline of oil that we have known for a long time to be in finite supply anyway, function as populist pandering or as short-term profit-maximizing calculus by parts of the oil industry. Members of the latter group, in a profits-over-ethics mode, would like us to continue to depend on oil as long as it is profitable for oil producers, which will be the case until a fundamental break with petroleum use in transportation is organized; obviously scarcer but more expensive oil will continue to be a cash cow unless a new post-oil transport system has been built. There is fundamental conflict between backward-looking portions of the petroleum industry and the general health of our economy and environment, a conflict which must be decisively resolved by policymakers and the voting and buying public in favor of new, cleaner energy sources in the next few years.

On the other hand, realistically, oil production and supply will need to remain a concern for a few more decades, yielding a very delicate but extremely important political challenge. On the political side, Republican Presidential candidate John McCain has relied on common wishes that more domestic oil production through offshore drilling will somehow eliminate or significantly soften the inevitable price spiral upward. Such drilling will only have an impact 10 years hence at a point when worldwide demand will have still further outstripped supply and prices will be in a comparative sense stratospheric. Not quite drawing a clear political front on this issue, Barack Obama has lately been attempting to accommodate the popular appeal of offshore drilling by suggesting that new drilling would support energy alternatives.

Oilman T. Boone Pickens has become a fan of natural gas and wind

Oilman T. Boone Pickens has turned his attention to natural gas and wind

Natural gas with its lower carbon dioxide emissions per unit energy is occasionally touted as an “alternative” fuel but it too can easily be exhausted; in fact, production in natural gas wells tapers off very rapidly as compared to its solid and liquid fossil brethren, making price spikes and shortages all the more likely in a turn to natural gas. The stock-picker Jim Cramer praises natural gas as an investment and T. Boone Pickens, in his new heavily marketed energy plan, trumpets it as an automotive fuel, as we are sure to use more of this dwindling lower-carbon resource, but it is not a sustainable alternative to oil. Relying on natural gas as a climate or energy solution is the modern definition of a Faustian bargain: highly profitable for some but costly for most economic sectors, our society as a whole and our atmosphere.

Differentiating Short-Term and Long-Term Solutions

This is one of my fathers favorite jokes

Depending on oil has discouraged planning in the area of energy and transportation.

The impulse to jump on the natural gas or intensified oil exploration bandwagons will distract policymakers by confusing short-term and longer-term solutions. Fluctuations in supply of these hydrocarbons may create a temporary plateau in prices but no enduring relief. In the short-term, within the next two or three years, steps can be taken to ameliorate what may be, in the energy and transport areas, a grim period. It is here that I part company with some of the doom-and-gloom predictions about economic collapse that originate from some Peak Oil enthusiasts. While I agree with some of the more pessimistic predictions about oil and natural gas supply and pricing, there are short-term, rapidly deployable solutions at least for passenger travel and some freight that will soften the blow.

Effective short-term solutions include

  1. Fiscal support for intensified operations by existing public transport – Federal and state governments will need to help local and regional transit agencies to increase their schedules to serve more riders without raising ticket prices substantially.
  2. Development of Internet- and cellphone-based ride sharing businesses and services. Local development of van-pooling services also enabled by Internet and cellphone-networks.
  3. Development of transport centers or nodes for public transit and ride sharing with municipal and regional oversight to increase efficiency and security.
  4. Opening of lanes of local streets to lower speed vehicles including neighborhood electric vehicles, scooters and bicycles.
  5. Designating space or facilities in buses and trains for small freight hand trucks and bicycles.
  6. Development of transport demand study tools using the Internet to fine-tune and coordinate transport policy and new transportation businesses

These solutions will not provide the same level of spur-of- the-moment convenience as we might find in the recently past era of cheap fossil fuels and widespread personal vehicle ownership. The transport of medium and larger quantities of freight will also require more capital intensive, longer-term solutions. Nor will these short-term solutions provide the same utility of future innovations in electric vehicles and an EV public and quick-charging infrastructure. Some, used to traveling in their own personal space, will not avail themselves of these stopgap options until they feel more economic pain through still higher gas prices.

The Five Transport Energy Solutions and One Imperative

There are five fundamental options to move into a post-oil, post-natural gas energy world and one imperative:

  1. The Renewable Electron Economy: electric vehicles, stationary devices, and new electric transport infrastructure powered by electric generators using renewable energy and the associated energy storage challenge.
  2. The Nuclear Electron Economy: electric vehicles, stationary devices, and new electric transport infrastructure powered by electric generators using nuclear energy (with or without fuel reprocessing), with associated security risks, waste and dependence upon fissionable fuel supply.
  3. The Coal CCS Electron Economy: electric vehicles, devices and new electric transport infrastructure powered by electric generators using coal with carbon capture and sequestration, a technological “maybe” dependent upon coal supply.
  4. The Coal to Liquid (CTL) Transport Economy: converting coal to liquids (sometimes via the Fischer-Tropsch process), burned in internal combustion engines leading to climate disaster and resource exhaustion.
  5. The Biofuel Transport Economy: Aggressive expansion of unregulated biofuel production for land transport will almost certainly lead to ecological and social disaster. Biofuels, sustainably produced, especially from wastes, will have a niche in aviation and marine propulsion.

Sub-option for Solutions 1, 2 and 3: The Hydrogen Economy is parasitic on the Electron Economies, reducing net usable energy by two-thirds for the purpose of having a compact liquid/gaseous fuel extracted by energy-consuming electrolysis. A Hydrogen Economy therefore requires a 2 to 3 fold increase in the amount of and therefore the capital investment in the required clean electric infrastructure to support renewably produced hydrogen. (There are currently even more expensive renewable ways to extract hydrogen from water using very high concentrations of sunlight that do not use electricity as an intermediary).

Any of these five transport energy supply solutions will be made much more feasible if aggressive end-use efficiency measures are pursued in parallel; therefore the imperative of energy efficiency.

Narrowing the Field

To simplify matters, we can eliminate options “4” and “5” as the costs of climate, ecological, and social disaster outweigh the benefits of a supply of liquid fuel that is not petroleum-based. Analyses that only consider liquid fuels divert the debate , intentionally or unknowingly, from more promising solutions; it is astounding how some commentators can discuss these options as if a continued supply of liquid fuel for transport was somehow worth enormous ecological and human sacrifice.

Lamborghini easily converted this gas guzzling Gallardo to use biofuels.  Yet the ecology and economic effects of producing the fuel for such a car have been called into question by most studies.

Lamborghini easily converted this gas guzzling Gallardo to use ethanol yet producing biofuel from food crops for such a car has, in most analyses, shown more negative than positive ecological and economic effects .

Building on early optimism about biofuels from environmentalists, the biofuel lobby, unfortunately, has a great deal of influence in the United States. This is a truly tragic state of affairs in American politics, as many farmers and farm-state politicians have tied their political and economic hopes to this option. Biofuel mandates have pushed up the price of crops and created an incentive to plant and overplant corn as well as other potential biofuel crops. As fuel prices push up food prices, these prices are further elevated by the transfer of prime farmland from food production to fuel production. Without cutting biofuel incentives and mandates, there will be no countervailing influence to conserve the soil or return land to food production. Talk of cellulosic ethanol or other future innovations in biofuel production function currently as an entering wedge for the current unsustainable variety.

The only savior for biofuels is a rigorous eco-certification program that excludes the conversion of food crops to fuels, mandates soil and water conservation, and privileges the use of waste streams for fuel. Under such an international eco-certification program, biofuels will have a role as clean marine, aerospace and specialized land transport fuels.

Luckily, the coal-to-liquids option has few advocates and so far little political support. If however, petroleum prices continue to rise and so-called “skeptics” of global warming continue to be well represented in the US Government, there may be various support schemes for coal-to-liquid that are inserted into legislation. Unlike the biofuels solution, coal to liquids would “work” to move a large group of vehicles for a few decades not unlike our current vehicle fleet, but with enormous climate sacrifice as it represents an increase in carbon emissions over even the current sorry state of affairs.

In the next installment of this series, I will explore which of the three electron economy scenarios will predominate. As each scenario varies only in the manner in which electricity is supplied, i.e. generated, and not used, the below recommendations about how to create a secure post-oil transport system using electricity could apply to all three.

Getting Off Oil: A Three-Pronged Approach

Oil is far from an “evil” but an undervalued resource that has been squandered on tasks that could be much more efficiently achieved through the use of electric drive transport. Cheap oil has enabled individual and family mobility and autonomy at a low price but these uses now compete with more critical uses of oil in commerce, industry, and agriculture. As we shall see with greater investment in electric transport and infrastructure an equivalent level of mobility in most arenas can be achieved through electric drive transport. Electricity can be generated via a number of different methods, some of which are sustainable and have low or zero emissions.

  1. Electrified Rail and Roadways – In the last few months, decisions have been made in Washington to spend billions of dollars on bailing out financial institutions that made the wrong bets in the housing and housing securities markets in search of guaranteed or higher than average profits. To get off oil, we will need to make public and private investments in productive assets that
    This European high speed train receives its power through the overhead catenary wires.

    This European high speed train receives its power through the overhead catenary wires.

    enable transport to be powered by electricity, a much more durable and secure investment. Electrification of railways and key roadways, first in urban centers and then interurban roads, will allow trains, freight and large passenger vehicles to function independently of oil supply. As electric or dual mode locomotives on electrified rights of way are more capable than the majority locomotives in the US, the diesel electrics, fairly inexpensive sets of financial incentives may be sufficient to encourage private railways to electrify. Compared to the other electric options, electrification of rail and local roadways is the most highly developed and highest capacity electric transport option, though the least publicized in an age fixated on new technology. This option has slipped under the radar, as, for instance, Andy Grove, the Intel co-founder and now an advocate of the electrification of transportation, omitted to mention this option in his recent Washington Post editorial on the subject.

  2. Plug-in Hybrids/Extended Range Electric Vehicles – The most likely substitutes for small and medium sized vehicles used mostly for local trips but with some longer-distance usage are PHEVs/EREVs such as the upcoming Chevy Volt. In their simplest configuration, these vehicles will be driven by an electric motor that can propel the vehicle for as many as 40 to 60 miles on
    GMs Chevy Volt will be one of the first production Plug-In Hybrids which GM is calling an Extended Range Electric Vehicle or EREV

    GM's Chevy Volt will be one of the first production Plug-In Hybrids which GM is calling an "Extended Range Electric Vehicle" or EREV

    stored grid electricity (therefore the “plug-in” part) in a medium-sized battery and can switch seamlessly to using petroleum or other liquid fuels from its conventional fuel tank to run either a generator or small engine to propel the vehicle on longer trips. PHEVs will benefit from new generations of batteries that are more compact than lead acid; however a future revolution in battery and quick charge technology may narrow the scope of usefulness for PHEVs. Many auto manufacturers are now planning or actually developing PHEV models, including GM and Toyota. PHEVs in wide deployment could reduce petroleum usage by as much as 60 to 70%.

  3. Battery Electric Vehicles/Battery Exchange and Quick Charge Infrastructure – A new generation of battery electric vehicles are now being developed with lithium ion batteries that can have ranges of up to 250 miles or can completely recharge within 10 minutes. The Tesla Roadster, a high end sports car with a 225 mile range is just being delivered to customers; Tesla’s British competitor with a 160 mile range, the Lightning GT, will recharge in 10 minutes from a 480 volt outlet, making its recharge time approach liquid refueling times. Tesla, Renault-Nissan, and Mitsubishi are all planning
    The Introduction of the Tesla Roadster has sparked a revival of electric car projects by many major carmakers as well as by start ups.

    The Introduction of the Tesla Roadster has sparked a revival of interest in electric cars by many major carmakers as well as by start ups.

    mid-market or economy electric vehicles with varying ranges all using higher energy-to-weight ratio batteries than lead-acid batteries. Other makers are making short-range vehicles for lower speed city use with the older lead-acid battery technologies. Some are planning to build quick charge or battery swap infrastructure to allow electric vehicles to travel unrestrictedly with short charging or swap stops. As is, battery electrics with even traditional lead-acid batteries can do many important tasks that are now the province of petroleum-powered vehicles.

One of the strengths of this three-pronged approach is that it does not hang its hat on any one technology, distributing risk between three paths. Also by acknowledging the uses of existing battery technology and on-grid transport options, the plan doesn’t depend crucially on innovation in batteries or chargers and their manufacture yet also would take advantage of the opportunities offered by these technologies and their future path of development.

Towards the Post-Oil Society

The tripartite approach allows our society to cut oil demand and dependence substantially within a decade, much more quickly than a sole reliance on electrification of the autonomous vehicle fleet through sales of battery-electric and plug in hybrid vehicles. Combining these vehicles with the already well-proven and easily scalable technology of vehicles that use trolley poles or a pantograph to draw power from the grid while in motion, allows policy makers to take a leadership role when required to supplement the emerging market for personal or corporately owned electric vehicles. Most world leaders with a future orientation recognize a global energy crisis of enormous proportions where electric transport has a crucial role. In an under-publicized speech, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown already sees in electrification of transportation both a business opportunity for the UK and a more general solution to living in a post-oil world.

Advances in battery and ultracapacitor technology and manufacturing technologies are inevitable but the timing of their widespread adoption will substantially lag demand for them. Insistent demands by concerned consumers that Tesla Motors or another manufacturer create in the next few years a battery electric vehicle that is

The secretive Texas company EEStor is claiming that it will produce a revolutionary electric energy storage device, though it has continued to push out the timeline for actual commercialization.

The secretive Texas company EEStor is claiming that it will produce a revolutionary electric energy storage device, though it has continued to push out the timeline for commercialization.

priced at the level of gasoline powered economy cars are as of today wishful thinking. Batteries, however, will remain far more advanced and widely available than hydrogen and hydrogen fuel cells. Though hydrogen may have a future role, the focus on hydrogen by policymakers and automakers has functioned as a distraction from electric technology, the clear next generation in powering transport. Unfortunately commercial interests that a decade ago wanted to delay the emergence of electric transport, held onto hydrogen as the next thing to, seemingly, prolong the era of profitable petroleum powered vehicles.

The tripartite strategy allows policy makers to respond more immediately to the demand for oil alternatives by implementing programs that build out grid-powered transportation infrastructure for freight and passenger traffic using “off the shelf” technologies. Policymakers can create incentive packages, issue bonds or levy taxes for the necessary work to keep America moving. Incentives for private companies to invest in electric transport infrastructure can be designed. Beyond its easy scalability requiring few to no technical advances, powering vehicles directly from the grid is highly efficient because power is used directly after generation rather than diminished a fraction through charging and discharging a battery. Using that extra fraction of power for the convenience of storage is well worth it in many contexts but is not necessary for all transport tasks.

Building Electrified Rights of Way

There are now a number of plans emerging on a national, continental and local level to electrify transportation in part. Alan Drake, a contributor to a number of energy and transport websites, has devised a plan to electrify 36,000 miles of vital freight

Most of Americas rail freight is pulled by diesel electric locomotives along non electrified rights of way

Most of America's rail freight is moved by diesel locomotives on non-electrified tracks; with an electrified train system the energy of trains braking could be captured for use by other trains.

railways in the US and increase the speed of rail freight; higher speed freight allows an easier commingling of freight and passenger traffic on the rails. A high speed (electric) passenger rail line is now being proposed in California to link San Diego and Los Angeles with San Francisco and Sacramento. Public transit advocates have created visions of how various cities could be transformed with expanded subway or light rail networks, many of which unfortunately require larger per mile investments than simply electrifying existing rails and roadways.

Building of new heavy and lighter rail infrastructure is inevitable but a rapid start to electrification will work with existing rights of way, tracks and roadways. As an exercise, imagine your own local area or, as the America 2050 plan calls it your larger “megaregion” and visualize where are the highest traffic areas where we could rapidly transfer people and freight from petroleum dependent to electric transport.

An Example: Moving the Northern California Megaregion off of Oil

In the America 2050 plan, there are two California Megaregions with the Northern shown in Green

In the America 2050 plan, there are two California Megaregions with the Northern shown here in green, the Southern in ochre.

The Northern California megaregion, in which I live, extends over a huge square of land centered on one side on San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland, approximately 250 180 miles per side extending into northern Nevada. The size of this region and the sprawl within it has been enabled by cheap petroleum transport energy despite its foundations in the pre-oil era. On the other hand, Northern California is better prepared than many areas of the Western and Midwestern US to transition to an electricity-based transport system because of existing investments in concentrated freight and passenger transport and some denser core and corridor areas of residence and business. The transition will be more challenging for the “Arizona Sun Corridor”, the “Piedmont Atlantic” and the “Florida” megaregions with their still greater sprawl and dispersion of economic activity.

An inventory of existing electric transport assets in the Northern California megaregion yields the following:

  1. the highly successful regional BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) system, a 3rd-rail driven commuter rail system for which there have been several expansion plans, that are now again made more likely.
  2. Three light rail systems in the City of San Francisco, in the City of Sacramento and in the Santa Clara Valley around San Jose.
  3. A trolleybus system in the city of San Francisco
  4. The venerable San Francisco cable car

These electric transport assets are largely focused at the traditional center of the area San Francisco and are currently designed for passengers and their hand-carried freight. There are however multiple existing non-electrified rail assets in the region for passengers and freight running on freight companies rights of way. These include:

  1. the Caltrain commuter train on the Union Pacific right of way from San Francisco to San Jose and Gilroy
  2. the Capitol Corridor regional trains from Oakland to Sacramento
  3. the ACE train from San Jose to Stockton
  4. Amtrak service linking major centers in the megaregion as well as tying the megaregion to the Southern California and Cascadia megaregions to the north and south.
  5. Freight rail service on the many active railways on both major trunk and also spur lines throughout the region serving industrial and commercial customers.

Electrifying many of these existing routes would further insulate Northern California from dependence upon oil markets. In addtion, the region’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s rail plan, announced in 2007, recommends track expansion in addition to that needed by the statewide High Speed Rail proposal. In this plan are efforts to separate out where possible freight and passenger rail to allow each to proceed on its own most efficient schedule. Grade separating rail in densely populated areas is an additional expense that with higher traffic becomes an enormous boost in the quality of life and quality of rail service. While as of last year these recommendations may have seemed like pie in the sky to some, events in the oil markets have made such efforts an ever higher priority.

Less expensive per mile and more rapidly deployed are electrified roadway systems,

While the wealthy and tech-friendly Santa Clara Valley around San Jose will probably lead the nation in electric car purchases, building 4 or 5 new electrified rights of way for trolleybus or light rail will insulate more Valley residents and visitors from the vagaries of the oil markets

While the wealthy and tech-friendly Santa Clara Valley around San Jose will probably lead the nation in the adoption of private electric cars, building 5 or 6 new electrified rights of way for trolleybus or light rail will insulate the operations of the Valley's public transit authority from the oil markets.

now used with trolleybuses but capable of accommodating dual mode electric trucks outfitted with trolley poles or pantographs. Focusing on passenger traffic, the Northern California megaregion can supplement the railed systems of travel by building at least one electrified lane for trolleybus traffic on major thoroughfares, connecting with rail transport resources. A listing of these routes for the Northern California megaregion would extend perhaps to 50 major street routes of 10 to 30 miles in length and would supplement existing rail infrastructure. These trolleybus routes can either be operated as Bus Rapid Transit in a segregated lane or can commingle with other traffic, part of the flexible appeal of trolleybuses. In addition trolleybuses can operate in residential neighborhoods in the evening and at night without disturbing residents. Almost any bus route could be electrified, though it makes sense to start with the highest traffic routes.

Once any strategy of electrification is recognized as the primary means of powering ground transport, blue ribbon panels of technical, financial and transport analysts can be convened to determine what mix of rail and roadway electrification systems might best serve to fulfill our current and anticipated future transport needs. One of the priorities of the next Administration ought to be a study of long-distance roadway electrification versus the building out of electrified railway networks inclusive of the expense of improvement of existing railbeds and building new sets of parallel tracks in high traffic areas. Another factor involved in these studies would be the anticipated rate of improvement in mobile energy storage technologies and their manufacture.

PRT advocates believe that people will prefer traveling in private pods routed automatically to their selected destination station on the PRT network

PRT advocates believe that people will prefer traveling in private pods routed automatically to their selected destination station on the PRT network

Another electrified alternative is Personal Rapid Transit or PRT. Still an emerging concept, PRT may use either electrified rights of way or batteries in an automated system of electric “taxis” on guideways. A large PRT system would be unthinkable without advanced information technology and highly reliable automated controls. PRT advocates claim an overall lower environmental impact for their technology over traditional mass transit. PRT critics believe that no PRT system will be able to handle rush hour traffic volumes. The first true PRT system is being built for use at London’s Heathrow airport.

The grouping of shared and rent-able forms of transport around the main transport arteries and stations will further increase the utility and efficiency of the transport system. In France, there are free shared bicycle services clustered around transport hubs (Velib) and there are also proposals to introduce a shared electric car service with similar depots scattered around French cities. Van pool and ride-sharing services can grow based on determining where are the centers of transport demand and need.

Electrification of high traffic rights of way is one of the top priorities for both national security and energy security. Alan Drake, in focusing on the already-profitable freight business and rights of way, proposes that minimal federal incentives can stimulate large private investment in electrifying tracks owned by the large railway companies. Publicly owned rails or roadways would require debt financing or budgeting for construction directly from tax revenues for local, state or federal governments.

Promoting Battery and Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicles

Governments can play a key role in promoting electric vehicles by buying electric vehicles en masse and helping develop battery electric and plug-in hybrid electric fleets and fleet systems. With current technology, battery electric trucks could already function as postal delivery trucks. Beyond the gasoline hybrid, government service vehicles should be mandated to be electric or PHEV/EREVs with few exceptions. As is proposed in a recent bill in Congress, government can offer tax incentives or rebates to individuals and corporations for buying individual or fleets of electric vehicles. Government can also provide the test bed for developing quick-charge and battery swap systems, especially with fleet vehicles.

Public trickle charge locations at 110/220 volts, quick-charge stations at 480volts and battery exchange infrastructure are another area where local, state and national policy can make a difference. The standardization of public charge plugs, for instance, will allow electric vehicle manufacturers to make vehicles with a higher value to the end consumer, by allowing any vehicle to charge at any public charging station. Government and industry may also need to standardize the battery pack-to-vehicle interface to allow interoperability between more battery packs and more electric vehicles with battery pack exchange capability. Low-interest loans may also enable electric utilities and property owners to install an electric account-linked or pay-per-charge vehicle charging infrastructure of the near future in multifamily dwellings and paid parking structures.

Aviation, Marine and Special Use Fuels

The energy density (the energy content to weight ratio) and energy storage capacity of liquid hydrocarbons will remain for the foreseeable future vital for ships, aviation, remote environments and applications where the substantial heat byproduct of an internal combustion engine is desirable. In these contexts, petroleum products will continue to be dominant until we have developed ways to produce bio- or synthetic fuels that do not substantially interrupt food supplies, exhaust water supplies, or endanger the fertility of soils. Luckily, our use of petroleum as a transport fuel is driven five to one by on-land use, so we will reduce our petroleum demand and our greenhouse gas emissions by transitioning to the Renewable Electron Economy as rapidly as possible.

Concentrated and Smarter Settlement Patterns

Peak Oilers predict with steep rises in oil prices that suburbia will depopulate and collapse.

"Peak Oilers" predict with steep rises in oil prices that suburbia will depopulate and collapse.

Those who have long predicted a rapid escalation in oil prices with severe social and economic effects, when and if they turn to advocating solutions, suggest that ultimately a post-oil society will have a stronger community focus than the anomie of suburban and widely dispersed rural settlements. James Howard Kunstler, who envisions the collapse of suburbia after a catastrophic rise in oil prices, advocates for what might be called a new urbanism or smart growth, where people live in more tightly concentrated but humanely designed cities and towns.

There is however a contradictory current within the same group which suggests that people will need to become more self-reliant, growing their own food, preparing to become more self-sufficient autonomous units that do not require petroleum-based transportation to live. Such a current would suggest that people would use land in a more distributed manner, allowing for larger garden plots around living spaces perhaps leading to an new survivalist agrarianism.

The two contrasting scenarios proposed are based on two different notions of what is ultimately a more resource and energy efficient way to live: more concentrated settlement is built around more efficient consumption while somewhat more distributed settlement suggests that production and consumption should co-exist in the same space. It is unknown the degree to which one or the other of these visions will predominate in the near and medium-term futures.

The tripartite approach to electrifying transport concentrates some transport tasks along main electrified rights of way while leaving open the degree to which people and the machines they operate can range off of the grid using batteries or liquid fuels. Demand for transport and goods traffic along these main corridors will remain high even in times of crisis or in a theoretically more dispersed population of part-time farmers. Neither more efficient consumption nor a commingling of consumption and production is necessarily favored. I have explored in one installment of my series on the Renewable Electron Economy the possibility for farmers to use electricity to do many farming tasks that are now petroleum dependent.

In any case, it is premature to predict massive internal migrations and collapse of whole economies as oil prices continue to climb, especially if these three paths towards electrifying land transportation are pursued aggressively and effectively by government and industry in the next few years. Additionally short-term measures to increase the efficiency of our transport system as outlined above can be implemented rapidly by a combination of public agencies and private companies that recognize the opportunity to provide people with more effective and more efficient transport choices even in an era of more expensive energy.

Advertisements

Comments»

1. Cap and Trade: A Tangled Web… A Project-Based Alternative – Part 4 « Green Thoughts - November 5, 2009

[…] processes ranged from CSP with storage, internetworked wind powerwith hydroelectric storage, transport electrification, afforestation, to even voluntary (partial) veganism.  Eventually much celebrated technologies […]

2. The Gulf Oil Spill: the “Irruption of the Real” into the Political Imaginary « Green Thoughts - May 4, 2010

[…] assuming that going on a mad hunt for more oil deposits at this time in history is less Real than building an energy and transportation platform that is not based on an exhaustible resource.  I am also working within a framework that assumes […]

3. President Obama’s Persistent Cognitive and Strategic Error: Mistaking Inside-the-Beltway Reality for “Real” Reality « Politics 2100: Blogging as if the Future Mattered - June 26, 2011

[…] terms of our environment and assessments of the limits of fossil energy reserves, these remain excluded from sustained attention as they challenge us to remake our civilization, if […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: