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We're at the end of economic growth as we know it.  Not everyone has realized this yet, but it has arrived nevertheless.

A few weeks ago I discussed why this is the case and what some of the impacts might be.  Today I'm going to talk about one of the many important aspects of our lives we're going to have to rethink: transportation.  (In future weeks I'll talk about food, energy, etc.  Also, I'm not an expert in any of these - just someone interested in understanding and discussing the issues we face.)

Transportation and energy today.

Our transportation system uses oil.  Or maybe it's better to say it is oil.  Currently we get over 95% of the energy used for transportation of all kinds from oil.

Just as a breakdown, let's look at the energy inputs today:

  • Cars, trucks: Oil
  • Buses: Oil, Natural gas, Electricity
  • Planes: Oil
  • Trains: Oil, Electricity

Buses and trains that use electricity are indirectly using, for the most part, natural gas and coal, which provide the vast majority of our electricity.  This sort of dependency on fossil fuels - setting aside climate change for the moment - would be okay, if there weren't an issue with the availability of these fuels, particularly liquid fuels.

Choke points and common remedies.

We face near-term oil peaking and depletion as I discussed in previous diaries, and so the availability of oil, and thus transportation fuels, is going to steadily go down in the near future.  Having a transport system so dependent upon a single energy source is a huge vulnerability.

Natural gas.
In recent years there's been a push by the industry and by politicians to hail natural gas as a clean, new alternative to oil.  The hailed source of natural gas is the recently-popular approach of hydraulic fracturing in which underground rock is broken apart under high pressure to release natural gas trapped inside.  But the problems with this miracle alternative are numerous.  First, the obvious environmental impacts are horrendous as documented in the must-watch documentary Gasland.  Second, but less obvious, are the indirect impacts including the fact that fracking may leak so much natural gas that the process is worse than using coal from a climate perspective.  Third, natural gas drilling, like a lot of things these days, is driven in part by a speculative bubble, in which Wall Street favors "booked reserves" (natural gas that can be claimed to be under the ground at some well) rather than whether those booked reserves are profitable, leading to perverse incentives in which companies will drill unproductive wells to book reserves (here's a bit more from an oil/gas industry veteran).  Fourth, there may simply be not enough natural gas there to be a viable alternative in the long term.  This study goes through many of the infrequently-discussed issues with natural gas.

Electric cars.
So, if natural gas isn't the answer, what is?  Well often people discuss electric cars as an "alternative".  However, electricity has to be generated in some way, and currently we get over 85% of our electricity from fossil fuels or nuclear, neither of which are long term options.  Setting aside the limits of switching to alternatives for generation (the issues of which are discussed in David Fridley's great article on the Nine Challenges of Alternative Energy), we'd still have to produce and sell the electric cars enough to make a dent.  Recent reports say 1/3 of car sales will be electric by 2020.  The problem is such reports don't discuss that sales is not the same as the base of cars actually being used, and ignores trucks and other vehicles.  (Nor do they discuss the limits of rare earth elements, or economic issues relating to peak oil, but let's ignore that for now.)  With roughly 800 million internal-combustion engine vehicles out there, and with meager goals in industrialized countries of having at most a couple of million electric cars on the road by 2020, it's clear that even in a decade we'll be far away from the electric car future so often seen as an answer.

So it seems we're stuck with the installed base of cars and trucks and planes and trains for now.  And they run on liquid fuels.  So the next best bet is to devise an alternative source of liquid fuel: biofuel.  Today we produce a fair amount of corn ethanol that's used as a gasoline additive, but it yields zero net energy, meaning that it takes roughly as much energy in inputs as it yields as a fuel once produced (its inputs are natural gas for fertilizer and the oil-powered agriculture system to grow the corn, for processing corn into ethanol, and for transporting the ethanol to distribution points).  Making ethanol from sugarcane, as they do in Brazil, is more efficient, though it still doesn't scale to the levels it'd need to in order to power all our vehicles.  Bioengineered algae is under development as a third generation biofuel, but it's still not viable, and even if it were, it would require vast areas of land for production.

Other alternatives.
Since our rail system is largely diesel (and inter-city rail is sparse and poorly maintained), the much-needed transition to using rail isn't happening at the rate we need.  And it's unlikely we're going to switch to using wood-gas cars anytime soon.

Rethinking objectives.
Maybe instead of doing what we do, let's do different things, or fewer things, or smaller things.  Maybe it isn't a great idea to hurl a ton of metal using ancient stored sunlight in order to move a person that weighs a tenth of that.  Maybe we should stop thinking about ways to run all our cars on some magical new alternative fuel source or technology, and instead think about other options for meeting our transportation needs (not wants).

In the not-so-distant future, air travel and long-distance road trips are likely to be luxuries that very few people will be able to afford, and in the more distant future any oil-based travel may be out of reach for most people.  The rest of us will need to look to other options.


When looking at transportation alternatives, we should consider their efficiency in moving people or cargo.  This graph (from Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air) shows how efficient various modes of transport are in terms of person-miles per gallon of gasoline:

As it shows, bicycling and walking are the most efficient ways of getting around, though electric trains are also very efficient.  We're all going to be doing a lot more walking and/or biking.  (I've been meaning to get a bike trailer so I can move larger things without a car.)  It's also important to enact bike and pedestrian friendly civic design policies, and though I think in the long run these are inevitable, the sooner the better.

It's absolutely essential we invest more in both long-distance high speed rail but just as importantly local and regional electric metro / light rail, but these are long-term, large-scale projects that at the moment there seems to be little appetite for either at the federal or state level.

Within cities today's diesel-based bus systems can be retrofitted in many ways.  A good option is to electrify bus systems, but to make using them more speedy, we should dedicate lanes on the road for buses.

There aren't many good options for air travel - no energy source that we know of has the energy density of oil.  So we're stuck with using oil for planes, though I think it's likely that since we won't ever really run out of oil (though it will become prohibitively expensive), planes will still be used by those who can afford them and for essential services.

Finally, for those on a coast or along a navigable waterway, a sailboat might not be a bad option (Orlov has written extensively about this).

Until next time...

Originally posted to barath on Sun Jun 05, 2011 at 08:47 AM PDT.

Also republished by Sunday Train.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Thanks for posting these diaries (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    barath, JayinPortland, ashowboat

    I consider most of our political discourse these days to be insane in light of these realities.

    All this ridiculous argument about how much the economy needs stimulus, who is going to win the 2012 election, etc etc is ludicrous to me.

    The questions we should be asking are more like "how can we keep emergency services running in 20 years?" and "How are we going to run the economy on 1/5 of the oil?"

    (-5.50,-6.67): Left Libertarian
    Leadership doesn't mean taking a straw poll and then just throwing up your hands. -Jyrinx

    by Sparhawk on Sun Jun 05, 2011 at 09:12:23 AM PDT

    •  Thanks! (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Sparhawk, JayinPortland, ashowboat

      The gap between the scale of the issues we face and our collective discourse is huge.

      I was reminded of that looking at what dominated not only the news but Daily Kos in the past week.

      Those questions you pose are exactly what we need to be discussing.  (Maybe we should make a big list?)

      •  I literally have difficulty... (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        barath, JayinPortland, ashowboat

        ...reading all the piffle that passes for news (not just here of course, in fact, DKos is better than most). It's like the biggest case of mass delusion in history.

        "How could those idiots be so stupid?" is going to be a common refrain, I'm sure, by our descendants who survive the next fifty years, like how we think of medieval medicine. The horrific scale of waste and overpopulation is hard to see because we've never known anything else, but the numbers don't lie...

        (-5.50,-6.67): Left Libertarian
        Leadership doesn't mean taking a straw poll and then just throwing up your hands. -Jyrinx

        by Sparhawk on Sun Jun 05, 2011 at 09:30:42 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  How can we change the discourse? (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Sparhawk, JayinPortland

          I've been struggling with that question a lot.  It's the reason I decided to start writing these diaries, because I figure if there's any major blog that these topics would break through at it'd be here.

          •  We can't, sadly (2+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            barath, JayinPortland

            Most of the conversations around here revolve around how we can return to the hyper consumptive lifestyle we all enjoyed prior to 2007 or so. They aren't phrased that way, but the result is the same. It is going to take some serious impacts to make people think about these issues, and by then it will be too late and handled in a crisis mode by people that don't truly understand what is going on or why.

            But yeah, I'm totally interested in working with you and perhaps others to raise awareness.

            (-5.50,-6.67): Left Libertarian
            Leadership doesn't mean taking a straw poll and then just throwing up your hands. -Jyrinx

            by Sparhawk on Sun Jun 05, 2011 at 09:48:56 AM PDT

            [ Parent ]

            •  Growth growth growth. (2+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              JayinPortland, Sparhawk

              Yup, it's a difficult one - most discussions here are about the "right" way of achieving economic growth (e.g. economic stimulus, raising taxes on the wealthy, etc.) rather than the "wrong" ways (e.g. tax cuts, corporate giveaways, etc.).  Rarely is the discussion about whether growth should be our objective or even if it's still achievable.

              I think it's possible that in the short term we can package together ideas that are worthwhile for transitioning to a low-energy future in a way that's politically palatable.  For example, what if a nationwide high-speed inter-city rail project were structured so that there had to be a stop in at least one city in every state?  That'd ensure that there'd be construction jobs for every state, and it'd be harder to vote against.  (Still, I don't think it'd pass, but it'd be worth a shot.)

  •  Meanwhile... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    ...flooding in North Dakota has shut down Amtrak's Empire Builder service here in Portland.  Yeah, we have a ways to go yet, don't we?

    Although the last one ran in 1958, we've still got some of the poles from the old electric trolley coach lines around town here, one of those lines ran in front of my building and the design of the intersection at the end of my street is still rounded extra-wide to allow for its turn.  Seattle, Vancouver and San Francisco still run them.

    This will be the most important thing we can do for right now, the sooner the better indeed -

    We're all going to be doing a lot more walking and/or biking.  (I've been meaning to get a bike trailer so I can move larger things without a car.)  It's also important to enact bike and pedestrian friendly civic design policies, and though I think in the long run these are inevitable, the sooner the better.
    •  That's something that amazes me... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      That in the early 1900s it was possible to go from Boston to Wisconsin riding electric trolleys, and yet now there are few cities that have such electric rail systems at all.

      I guess that could be a positive, because if it could be done in the early 1900s then surely we could do it now, but for some reason there's no rush to build back up the electric rail system.

      (I wonder if a modern version of National City Lines will spring up, though.)

      •  Great history... (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        barath, ashowboat

        ...of our electric bus network here, btw.

        but for some reason there's no rush to build back up the electric rail system.

        Yeah, there's surely a story somewhere in there about our politics and how the system makes it so such long-term projects can be talked about but not acted upon.  Hey, why use your own 'political capital' when it'll only benefit some other guy twenty or thirty years from now?  Feeling cynical these days.  Sigh...

  •  Great Diary!!! (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    JayinPortland, barath

    Your diary hits the nail on the head. Or whatever that saying is...

    You point out quite correctly that simply switching one energy source for another is unlikely to solve our problems.  So few folks understand this.  We have to change how we live.  People don't like even talking about this, little own doing this.  Especially us fat and lazy Americans.  However, the reality is that with some changes in how we live meeting our energy futures with clean sustainable energy is actually doable.

    While many of the changes needed will need to be made politically, there are many things us as individuals can do to demonstrate that these changes are not the end of our world or even the end to a high standard of living.

    Thanks again for so clearly pointing this out. I will be watching for your next diary!

    •  Thanks. (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      ashowboat, JayinPortland
      However, the reality is that with some changes in how we live meeting our energy futures with clean sustainable energy is actually doable.

      I think you're right that it's possible to meet our needs using alternative energy sources, though I think the amount of downscaling required to do so will be enormous.  As a rough estimate, I think we can maybe produce, in the near term, about 1/5 of the electricity and 1/10 of the transportation fuel we produce today using semi-sustainable alternatives.  That means we need to not only become way more efficient to fit within that budget, but also need to stop using energy for many of the things we use energy for.  That'll have downstream effects on the industries that depend upon that spending, etc.  (As an example, we won't be able to afford to fly for vacation much, so what happens to the airline and tourism industries?)

      •  I somewhat agree (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        barath, JayinPortland

        You are correct.  But I am the eternal optimist.  You are assuming that we have to do these things with the ideas and tools that we have at the moment.  My optimisim is that human creativity will come up with new ideas and tools that will help.

        But your overall point is correct. We will have to make some big changes.  And in the short term those big changes will have major impacts.  But human creativity can help minimize those impacts.

        For example, I am semi retired but spend about half time consulting in a scientific field.  In the past I have spent much of my work time traveling to my clients.  Now I have started using video conferencing for many of my visits and it has worked out great.  It saves my clients major money not having to pay my time and travel expenses, and I get to stay home and don't have the hassle of traveling all over the place.  The end result is that my travel energy needs have dropped in a major way, and I am still able to continue my business.

        •  Definitely (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          ashowboat, JayinPortland

          I guess the reason I assume we have to use the technology and ideas we have at the present is because the issues we face are near term - since we're basically at the limits to growth now, we need to make the changes now.  (And the Hirsch report said it'd take at minimum 20 years to mitigate the economic impact of peak oil.)

          That doesn't mean new ideas can't make a difference, but the difference they might make on the scale we need will be in decades...

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