Friday, March 25, 2011

High-Speed Raillery and Energy Mythology

Let's begin by pointing out that high-speed rail is not pollution free or energy independent. Au contraire!  High-speed rail is not a perpetual motion machine; it requires energy and lots of it.

The HSR promoters love to juxtapose your dirty, gas burning car with clean, super-fast electric trains whizzing across the countryside.  Or, even compare these slim, shiny streamlined trains to dirty, smoke-spewing Diesel locomotives.  Beware; you are being scammed.

The construction process they don't want you to even think about:

There appear to be no concerns among HSR promoters regarding the impact of the construction cycle.  In order to be really high-speed (200mph) requires more than a few track improvements on existing rail corridors. New dedicated tracks on their own special rail beds are required.  For the duration of construction, over hill and dale, through villages, cities and towns, there will be enormous energy consumption and an endless outpouring of Diesel fuel pollution from tens of thousands of pieces of motorized construction equipment. 

This will be true not only for the actual rail corridors, but for all the support structures, maintenance yards, train stations, power stations, parking garages, etc.  The rail corridors themselves will be elevated and sunk below ground, trenched, tunnelled and raised on high viaducts, all to keep the tracks as straight and level as possible. Doing all that is enormously energy-intensive and costly. 

A great deal of manufacturing, and therefore energy consumption will be required for such products as the rolling stock, track, electronics, and support equipment such as signalling, etc.  And pollution will be one of the major by-products. 

Then, there's the secondary construction cycle that creates greater urban population density with high-rise, high-density housing to provide the rail system with customers. The emphasis on transit oriented development and additional commercial construction radiating outward from train stations all weigh heavily on the energy consumption/air-pollution side of the equation.  It's a developers' dream.  And it will take many generations (if ever) to amortize all the pollution and CO2 that is generated but this construction process.

Energy consumption reduction; pollution production reduction assumptions:

To say that HSR will reduce energy consumption by removing people from their cars and from air carriers is either naive or intentional oversimplification.  To argue that HSR will create a whole new and desirable industry devoted to HSR suggests an inevitable concomitant increase in energy consumption on a grand scale. And, it is safe to say that whatever HSR related manufacturing within the US becomes involved, energy will be consumed and air will be contaminated.  As it happens, most of that manufacturing will continue to be overseas and those nations will endure the energy consumption and consequent pollution.

Currently, most of the CHSRA comparisons are based on full trains vs. one driver cars.  They also compare today's cars with trains running 10 year from now. How energy efficient do you suppose cars will be in ten years? The threat of permanent $100 per barrel oil will not decrease vehicle use and increase inter-city rail transit; it will create markets for and oblige far more energy efficient cars.

Additional threats come from the claims for huge population increases. California growth is projected to go from 38 million to 50 million by 2030. It need not be pointed out that more people will consume more energy, whether they stay at home, go to work, travel or don't travel.  By then, the HSR will be operating, but will all those new Californians be HSR riders?  That depends less on their numbers and more on their occupations and income levels.

Increasing transit capacity increases energy consumption regardless of modality. Absolute energy consumption reductions can occur only with either a smaller, rather than larger population, and a per capita energy consumption reduction.  That is, if each one of us travels less.  In that context, increasing transit capacity (as with HSR) is counter-productive.

Switching from automobiles to electric trains cannot be summed up as a simple energy reduction schema.  There are too many factors involved.  What would make a definitive difference in energy consumption is the absolute reduction in travel, per passenger mile, on any modality other than bike riding or walking. That's not going to happen.  

If electric trains are claimed to be the energy savers of the future, why are not resources, government and private, now being dedicated to the elimination of Diesel locomotive traction in the entire existing US rail system? Why not electrify all rail corridors and do it now?  Would that not be far more productive by every measure for employment, economic stimulus, environmental, etc.?  And the costs would be significantly lower. 

It is less energy consuming to fix what we now have than to abandon that and build something new. We do not hear such electrification demands from either the commercial freight rail operators or Amtrak.  Nor do we hear it from those regional commuter rail carriers still operating with Diesel.

Energy consumption and efficiencies:

The purpose of this blog entry is not to make a case for one kind of energy source over another. The purpose here is to suggest that HSR is not an energy saving solution, despite it being touted as such. If anything, it's part of the problem; not the solution. 

There is an elaborate equation which includes values for weight  (gross, net and tare), speed, energy, and time.  (Gross weight is the total of people and vehicle, whether car, train or aircraft. Tare is the weight only of the vehicle.  And gross weight is the combination of the two.)  What this means is that we need to ascertain the energy consumption for passenger miles; one passenger, one mile.  Comparing cars, planes and railroad trains is not meaningful unless they are compared with all, not just a selected few variables factored in.  

From an energy consumption point of view, it helps to think of passenger trains as very inefficient freight trains, since our personal combined weight (net) is disproportionately lighter than the tare (empty) weight of the train, when compared to a freight train.  The dazzling cost-effectiveness of freight rail does not translate over to passenger rail.

Regarding HSR, energy costs are non-trivial. Running a high-speed electric train is not like turning on a light bulb on and off.   Switching from oil based fuels to electric power is not a transfer from high costs to free energy. It's merely a transfer of the energy source from the vehicle to a remote location.  HSR consumes power plotted on a steep upward curve related to speed. (Just as with your car.) Speed costs.  More speed costs more.  A lot more. 

Electric energy, even as one third in the US is produced by coal, will cost ever more into the future, not less.  Alternative fuels continue to be in an emerging developmental state, and even if fully developed will never constitute more than 20% of all available energy, at least for many generations. It's insufficient to compare Diesel fuel consumption with electric consumption without the use of "full-cost accounting." 

HSR is being promoted as long term and for its capacity to reduce more energy intensive modalities like driving and flying.  But that equation omits factors such as the projected ridership loads which are highly inflated in order to "sell" this program, but in reality are far less, as we can observe world-wide. 

The bottom line here is that HSR won't solve our energy crisis.  If anything, it will contribute to it. 

The Desire to Meet Energy Demand Is Hampered by Weak Political Will

March 24, 2011 
By Katherine Tweed

By 2050, there’s going to be a whole lot more people who will be living in cities and shopping for cars. A recent report by HSBC, “Energy in 2050: Will fuel constraints thwart our growth projections?” outlines the overwhelming energy needs of the global market if nothing changes in coming decades, and then what has to happen to lessen the pain of the transition to a new energy economy.

The first 30 or so pages of the report elicit a heavy sigh. The authors, led by HSBC lead climate analyst Nick Robins, note that we live in a constrained energy world, where demand is growing as traditional fossil fuels are limited, either due to the price of extraction, or, just as importantly, due to political issues and carbon concerns. 

Essentially, it points out the obvious. A billion cars coming on the roads. A potential doubling of energy consumption. With the turmoil in the Middle East and the recent tragedy in Japan, newspaper headlines offer far more vivid examples of the energy-constrained and tumultuous world than a report can ever outline.

While the basis of the study is well-worn territory, the authors do eventually move into solutions, which are centered on government action (with a side order of energy efficiency).

The authors’ conclusions are not earth shattering, but rather a call to arms on the legislative front. “ What we can say is that leaving the change to market forces could be extremely disruptive,” they wrote, “making the transition to our 2050 world very bumpy.”

Some of the suggestions include:

- End (or lessen) subsidies for fossil fuels. The emerging world spent $321 billion on coal, oil, gas and electricity subsidies in 2009, according to IEA figures. In the U.S, $2.7 billion goes to oil subsidies annually. Despite agreements by the G-20 in 2009 to phase out inefficient fossil fuels subsidies, the authors note that no action has been taken.

- Carbon pricing. “Of course nobody likes to pay for something that has historically been free,” the authors write. So true. However, they point to carbon trading gaining ground in India and South Africa despite the fact that carbon pricing is essentially dead in the U.S. federal landscape.

- Efficiency regulation. From clean energy portfolio standards to higher fuel efficiency and stricter building standards, regulation is needed to slash energy use. However, the study didn't address regulations that would affect already existing buildings and transportation.

The report is Pollyannaish in its suggestions, because, realistically, these changes to government policy have been kicked around for the past few years, and in some cases decades, with little to no movement.

Carbon pricing is just not happening in today’s political climate, at least not in the U.S. No one is ending subsidies for fossil fuels, despite the benefits. While cities like San Francisco are including energy information in the point of sale of buildings, the rest of the nation is far from monetizing energy usage in such a way. It also calls transportation "low hanging fruit," but it will be many years before electric vehicles make up a notable portion of cars on the road, and the political fights over high-speed rail raise questions about just how low this fruit is hanging.

Despite disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, continuing tragedy in Japan and upheaval in the Middle East, there is still limited political will to truly move to a clean energy economy. Even the Department of Energy’s research arm, ARPA-E could be facing budget constraints, despite the fact it's funding just the sort of technology that could provide energy security down the road.

HSBC points to Denmark as a model of moving to a more balanced, efficient energy economy. It is a wonderful example, and one that Toronto is trying to model. The problem, as pointed out by Toronto Hydro’s CEO Anthony Haines, is that Danish residents pay approximately $0.37 per kWh. The U.S. average is more like $0.11, and Toronto currently comes in at $0.07. Good luck making that argument during an election year.

What HSBC didn’t discuss was security -- energy security, national security, and economic security -- and how all of those issues cross party lines and could be the rhetoric that will push for legislative changes. This reporter thinks that the rhetoric of security is not loud enough to spur actions (operative word: action) that support domestic, clean energy. Currently ARPA-E is partnering with the Department of Defense to fund some projects, such as grid-level storage and new fuels. The intelligent folks at ARPA-E know that when it becomes an issue of security, the dollars continue to flow.

“The repeated shocks of economic turbulence from an unsustainable energy system may be the only way to push policy in the right direction,” the authors wrote. Oh, really? Because despite decades of economic turbulence from the current energy system, little has changed. What would have been more welcome in this report, rather than mastering the obvious, would have been suggestions of what will actually move the conversation forward when it comes to energy -- because so far the “massive collective government foresight” that HSBC analysts are calling for is still a dream.
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