Category Archives: Transportation

Beware the coal powered electric car–or worse

electric_power_industry_net_generation_fuel-largeWas taking in an article titled Electric Cars are NOT Coal Powered Cars which features a huge pie chart showing that in 2009, 45% of US electricity was generated from coal. Not an auspicious start to an argument!

But it gets way better. He then goes on to “make a case” for why natural gas and nuclear are such “clean” forms of energy.

I had a chance to watch a documentary called Gasland which shows how people who live in communities being fracked are getting very sick, and the water is being poisoned.

Nuclear is even scarier. When I was in Japan I discovered that agriculture for *all of Northern Honshu* has been trashed, not just the areas that show elevated levels of radiation. Basically the buying public won’t trust the government that it’s safe (wonder why) and so they just won’t buy from that region. The farmers are devastated, leading to farmer suicides. Suddenly coal isn’t sounding so bad, is it?

Reality is that as a country, we’ve backed ourselves into a corner. Can’t imagine living without a car? The car and oil companies are at “mission accomplished” having killed commuter rail lines in the 1940’s (yes they were convicted, no nothing happened as a result) and given rise to suburbs and the need to have a car.

The only way around driving a “dirty fuel” car might be if you live somewhere very sunny, and have a lot of solar panels, then you might be able to come out net even with the grid, so you can feed the grid during the day, and then charge your car during the night. Of course then you have to factor in the power that went into making the solar panels (which is significant) but it’s probably the best thing around, besides not needing to drive.

More and more, I think the smart move is to “live local” where you can do your essential shopping by bike, your friends and entertainment are likewise nearby, and you can use public transit to get to work. Sure the public transit ends up using dirty fuel somewhere down the line, but it’s got to be much less per person than an individual car, be it electric or otherwise.

I’m looking hard at “going local.”

The United States can learn from Japanese energy habits

by Dick Johnson

I’m currently visiting Japan, which I get a chance to do roughly every year, and I’ve got sustainability on my mind. One of the things I love about travel is the opportunity to go far way, somewhere very different, and be able to compare habits and common practices that I otherwise wouldn’t think about. Since we are still in an age where traveling long distances is very convenient, and frankly costs relatively little money, I’m grateful for the opportunity.

Since the Japanese earthquake, tsunami, and related nuclear problems, energy policy has been a major discussion in Japan. Even before the earthquake, Japan did a number of things relatively well, at least compared to many other rich countries, in terms of energy. Here’s some of what I’ve noticed:

  • Energy is expensive here, so individuals are relatively careful it. Electricity, gasoline cost a lot.
  • In much of the country, driving is a relative luxury. Buses and trains are convenient, plentiful, affordable, and used widely.
  • Many people ride bikes, for instance to and frame the train station, or just around their neighborhood. It’s a normal thing to do, as opposed to just something that young people or poor people do.
  • Rooms are selectively heated.
  • It’s normal practice for plumbing intrusions in kitchens and bathrooms to be properly gasketed, to prevent heated air from escaping.

Since the earthquake, there’s been a big public company about 節電 or saving energy. I’ve noticed very politely worded signs in retail spaces explaining that even during business hours, all of the lights aren’t necessarily going to be turned on, because of the need to save energy. Apparently people are fine to go along with this, so it makes me wonder if it’ll become a permanent way of doing retail lighting.

A raging debate in Japan since the earthquakes has been about whether to restart the nuclear plants or not. The dilemma as I understand it is that in spite of the ways that Japan saves energy, it is a rich country that nonetheless is used to consuming a lot of energy, and so without nuclear, the difference needs to be made up in other ways.

I’ve heard people talk endlessly about the wonders of renewable energy, but I have to question just how sustainable most “renewable energy” is. A positive side of renewable energy, to me, is that it pushes people to be more away of where their energy is coming from. Frankly the bonanza that the fossil fuel age has become so normalized that pretty much everyone has forgotten the huge impact it’s had on the comfort of our lives.

A negative side of renewable energy is that it’s generally a misnomer. For instance it takes serious amounts of energy, particularly high temperatures, to make a solar PV panel. I’ve heard in fact that the energy you put into making solar panel is roughly equal to what you eventually get out of it. So a solar PV panel is like a battery–put in fossil fuels, get out electricity via solar power. Not a bad idea, but not exactly renewable, either.

So what am I saying? An extreme form of conservation, to the point of re-engineering how pretty much everything is done, to the point where non-renewables are (practically?) never used is getting to be the only workable basis for a renewable society. I see a particular potential in Japan to be a leader in pioneering, or perhaps rediscovering, what this would look like.

For now, I see a handful of critical policies that Japan is following, that are on the right track:

  • Everything to do with individual driving is expensive. Gasoline, licensing, parking, toll roads, and on and on. $7/gallon gas anyone?
  • Massive investment in public transportation. If you want a mind blowing experience, go to Shinjuku station during the morning rush hour and watch train after train after train packed full of people go by. Wow there are so many people. Now imagine all of those people driving to work instead! All of that metal, that gasoline, the asphalt for the roads which would wear down, the increased air pollution.
  • Although the population of Japan is declining, I have yet to hear of a panicked government plan to somehow increase the population. It’s been pointed out that the Japanese society of the Edo period sustainably supported 30M people, without fossil fuels of course.
  • There are real actions being taken, real discussions happening, about saving energy. It’s not just a “nice to have” but people are really looking hard at it.
  • Japan has for many years looked at alternatives, including nuclear. Granted, it’s become apparent that nuclear is much more dangerous than previously thought, but in any case Japan appears less delusional about energy than the United States. Let’s just hope nobody finds shale oil under Japan’s agricultural land.

At the same time, Japan is no utopia of energy usage! Many visitors here notice:

  • Retail packaging is overdone. Yes the slice of cake you just bought is   wrapped, and then wrapped again, and then put in a box, and then wrapped, and then put in a bag, and looks amazing. But what for, and at what cost?
  • Gadget overload–there really is a gadget for everything here. Yes the US has been a big market for a lot of these gadgets. And Japan has more of them, and they are niftier. It is alluring.
  • Consumerism to the hilt. The advertising here is very, very well done, in your face, and relentless. It’s even easier here to buy things you don’t really need. I wonder how private debt is here? I do note lots of ads on the train for pay-day loan type products, at very high interest rates.
  • A throw-away culture. I don’t know if it still happens, but I know it used to be common for people to put their perfectly functional, relatively new, electronics out on the curb, to give away so they could make room for the newest and greatest.

Now having said all of this, my gut tells me that the “island nation” mentality of Japan is going to be an important asset as times change in the coming decades. The ability to pull together, to change direction as a nation relatively quickly, along with the current trend of declining population, could really make a difference for Japan getting to a sustainable state, much more quickly than other countries.

The truck of the future is…the train

Jim Hansen of the Master Resource Report this week included a story about a cement factory in West Virginia that bought 1.25 mile extension–and a 205 foot bridge over a highway–to link the factory with two major train lines.

Now get this–it’ll remove 24,000 trucks from the road. And apparently rail can move 1 ton of freight 469 miles on a gallon of fuel. Granted, that number comes from the Association of American Railroads. But even if they are off 10x, I bet they are still ahead of trucking. Yikes.

I haven’t looked around on the ground, but I’m guessing that if I go to where the freight rail depots are in the San Francisco Bay Area (are there any?) I’ll see lots of weeds and decay. Seems to me that this train-centric spots will go back to being  relevant–and lively–in the forseeable future.

I’ll add as well that if you’re in a business that involves shipping your product long distances, get ahead of the game and consider what changes you’d need to make to do a lot of that shipping by rail. Or even better, start doing some of your shipping now via rail, so that you have the time to ramp-up at your own pace. I believe the ability to leverage rail will be a big competitive price advantage.