As oil production goes into decline, we must transform the way we move people and goods.
By Ryan McGreal
Published January 18, 2008
Richard Gilbert discussing Transport Revolutions
Richard Gilbert occupies a special place among urbanists and environmentalists in Hamilton. The author of Hamilton: The Electric City [PDF], Gilbert recommended to City Council that Hamilton prepare for oil depletion by making energy production and conservation it's Economic Development Plan A.
Based on the research into peak oil that he conducted for his report, Gilbert began work on a new book (with coauthor Anthony Perl) about transforming our transportation systems for a post-carbon economy, titled Transport Revolutions: Moving People and Freight Without Oil. (Watch for an RTH review in an upcoming issue.)
Gilbert was in Hamilton on January 10 to talk about the book in a seminar organized by Hamiltonians for Progressive Development (HPD), followed by a panel discussion with Chris Harrison from Vermeulen Hind Architects, Nicholas Kevlahan from Hamilton Light Rail, Lynda Lukasic from Environment Hamilton, and Scott Stewart from the city department of Public Works.
The panel (from left): Nicholas Kevlahan, Chris Harrison, Lynda Lukasic, and Scott Stewart
Globally, 95 percent of transport relies on oil (and transport accounts for 60 percent of total oil consumption). Economists have estimated that a four percent shortfall in oil production could cause a 177 percent incraese in crude oil prices, so transportation is highly vulnerable to production declines.
In fact, Gilbert argued that peak oil is a more pressing, more compelling issue than climate change. He cited three arguments: the evidence for peak oil is stronger, its arrival is more imminent (most projections place the peak between now and 2012), and the message is more appealing.
I think Gilbert downplayed the strength and robustness of the evidence for climate change, possibly because he's simply more familiar with the case for peak oil. He sounded rather defensive when he made his argument (perhaps anticipating a backlash from a room full of environmentalists), and seemed to have a hard time moving past it.
However, his other two points are harder to dispute. As he put it, insulating oneself from very high gas prices is "a more compelling argument than protecting yourself from a warmer winter."
Gilbert tossed out some estimates about the economic effects of oil production declines, but cautioned that such projections are "fanciful" because "the economics of scarcity at this level are not well developed."
As an aside, he noted that so far, gasoline prices have risen much more slowly than crude oil prices, which have risen fivefold since 2000. This is ironically because of high gas taxes, which make up a large proportion of the pump price and mute the increase in the oil price component of the total.
Gilbert reviewed some possible alternative fuel sources and dismissed most as impractical:
Biofuels: they compete with food for land, deplete the soil, and have very limited applicability outside of ethanol from sugarcane in tropical countries.
Natural Gas: North American production is already past its peak, it's very hard to move between continents, and methods for converting it to gasoline are not very effective.
Hydrogen: Basically a non-starter. It's highly inefficient (80 percent loss) and suffers from serious technical obstacles.
Electricity: He caled this "a perfect transport fuel", aside from the problem of on-board storage. Electric motors are six times more energy efficient than internal combustion engines and have maximum torque at the lowest speeds (the reverse is true of engines).
Compared to electricity, the only advantage of internal combustion is the very high energy density and portability of its fuel. A gasoline tank is a hundred times more energy dense than an equivalent battery.
After factoring in the higher efficiency of an electric motor, internal combustion can still move its vehicle 17 times the distance on a full tank.
However, in every other respect, electric motors are superior. In addition to higher energy efficiency and high torque, electric motors are quiet, produce no pollution at the tailpipe, and can use regenerative braking to recover energy lost to deceleration for further efficieny gains.
Electric motors function best when they are connected to an electricity grid and do not have to carry their energy source around with them.
Another advantage of the grid is that any energy source can be converted to electricity, so the energy distribution system will not have to be rebuilt every time the fuel source changes.
The book focuses on the USA and China as the toughest economies to change in the industrialized and developing world, respectively, because they are the biggest consumers and will require the most effort to transform.
Gilbert recommended the following:
1. Increase use of electric motors where feasible, i.e. on land: more rail freight, more intracity rail, more commuter rail, and more intercity rail.
He pointed out that New York City singlehandedly accounts for one third of American passenger rail.
2. Increase use of rail and water for goods transport rather than trucking.
3. Increase collectively managed transport in place of personally managed transport (i.e. public transit in place of personal automobiles).
Discussing the issue of air transport, Gilbert noted that no breakthroughs in air transport fuels are on the horizon to replace the high energy kerosene used today.
He believes air transport will shift toward fewer flights with much larger airplanes (like the Airbus A380) and will focus mainly on intercontinental flights, with high speed rail replacing most intracontinental flights.
"Aviation will have a future," he argued, "but it will be a different future" than the way the business operates today.
He maintains that we need to stop investing in airports and spend our money on rail instead.
Gilbert argued that it's better to plan for a "soft landing" by acting to reduce oil dependence than to do nothing and react to higher prices.
The latter may well produce a "hard landing" characterized by disrupted supply chains, acute shortages, and economic depression and even, possibly, total collapse.
However, he insisted that he is an "optimist" and that a soft landing is achievable if we start now and act quickly.
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