Electrification of Transportation

As the preceding article here notes, electrification of home heating is possible in an efficient manner with geothermal sources, and has a number of advantages. As oil becomes more expensive and less available, the same issues encourage moving our transportation modes toward electric vehicles, where possible. Light Rail Now recently featured an interesting article, Electrification of Transportation as a Response to Peaking of World Oil Production which goes into this in further depth, particularly focusing on rail transportation where electrification is already heavily used. 

Alan Drake's article particularly notes some text from the Hirsch report that seems to ignore the possibilities of electric transport altogether:

"Motor vehicles, aircraft, trains, and ships simply have no ready alternative to liquid fuels. Non-hydrocarbon based energy sources, such as solar, wind, photovoltaics, nuclear power, geothermal, fusion, etc. produce electricity, not liquid fuels, so their widespread use in transportation is at best decades away."

Drake notes that in fact, electric transport is already in use in the US in three modes and could be quickly expanded:

  1. urban rail (light and heavy)
  2. electric trolleybuses
  3. inter-city railroad lines

Many US cities have been expanding rail systems, despite low and declining levels of federal support. Drake suggests a 10-15 year crash program to greatly reduce our oil dependency through rail development, and notes:

Much, perhaps all, of such a crash program could be financed with existing federal motor fuel taxes. Currently, under the latest federal authorization, mass transit of all types gets 18% of federal motor fuel tax revenues.

Urban rail also encourages development that takes advantage of it (just as highway development encourages suburbs) - referred to as "transit oriented development", this also provides for the kinds of housing that allow local services within walking distance, further reducing local transportation requirements.

Electric trolleybuses, particularly hybrids that can leave the grid for long stretches, could greatly reduce liquid fuel needs in our bus systems; a number of cities are already working on implementing and expanding these systems.

For freight transport, rail systems even now are about eight times as efficient as trucks; they are also much more amenable to electrification. Higher speed lines could attract much greater levels of both freight and passenger traffic; obviously, capital investment would be needed for electrification and other enhancements of existing track and adding new track, but the investment required for substantial improvement in the US is on a viable scale.

Beyond these traditional rail systems with which we have considerable experience, electrification of transportation can also apply to automobiles via plug-in hybrids, and fully electric vehicles. Would personal passenger vehicles capable of drawing from a public grid similar to trolleybuses be feasible?

The potential for improvement here is very large; Drake suggests "electrification of transportation ought to be the leading economic and policy response to the advent of "Peak Oil"." Well, perhaps electrification of home heating (through geothermal heat exchange) should be on the list too, but moving as much of our energy use to electric as possible is going to be a key factor in avoiding hardship in the coming transition.

Created: 2006-01-05 06:36:35 by Arthur Smith