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Electrification of transportation as a response to peaking of world oil production

With this commentary, Light Rail Now initiates a series we're calling Electrification 101 – a discussion aimed at informing transportation professionals, decisionmakers, and the public at large of the value and advantages of electrifying transportation operations, and the electrification of public transport systems in particular. This commentary, the first article in our series, has been slightly adapted from a professional paper prepared by the author.

Alan S. Drake is an engineer, former accountant, and professional researcher based in New Orleans.

NOTE: The tally of U.S. electric trolleybus systems, earlier stated as three, has been corrected to four.

The imminent peaking of global oil production and its potential impact is triggering concern at the highest levels of many countries, including the United States. Policymakers and the public in general are searching for timely and appropriate responses to "Peak Oil", and this paper highlights an under-appreciated option.

U.S. DOE study

Recently, the US Department of Energy (DOE) commissioned a study on the prospect of peaking oil production, particularly with a view to evaluating possible responses and effects. This study resulted in a report, Peaking of World Oil Production: Impacts, Mitigation, & Risk Management, by Robert L. Hirsch (Project Leader), Roger Bezdek, and Robert Wendling, published in February 2005.

The report is available online at the following URL:

As the DOE study authors note,

The peaking of world oil production presents the U.S. and the world with an unprecedented risk management problem. As peaking is approached, liquid fuel prices and price volatility will increase dramatically, and, without timely mitigation, the economic, social, and political costs will be unprecedented. Viable mitigation options exist on both the supply and demand sides, but to have substantial impact, they must be initiated more than a decade in advance of peaking.

The DOE study authors make a number of very cogent points. For example,

Oil Peaking Could Cost the U.S. Economy Dearly Over the past century the development of the U.S. economy and lifestyle has been fundamentally shaped by the availability of abundant, low-cost oil. Oil scarcity and several-fold oil price increases due to world oil production peaking could have dramatic impacts. The decade after the onset of world oil peaking may resemble the period after the 1973-74 oil embargo, and the economic loss to the United States could be measured on a trillion-dollar scale. Aggressive, appropriately timed fuel efficiency and substitute fuel production could provide substantial mitigation. Oil Peaking Presents a Unique Challenge The world has never faced a problem like this. Without massive mitigation more than a decade before the fact, the problem will be pervasive and will not be temporary. Previous energy transitions (wood to coal and coal to oil) were gradual and evolutionary; oil peaking will be abrupt and revolutionary.

However, the authors' conclusions with respect to energy alternatives for transportation seem quite narrow and limited.

For example, they emphasize that "The Problem is Liquid Fuels" and point out that "Under business-as-usual conditions, world oil demand will continue to grow, increasing approximately two percent per year for the next few decades. This growth will be driven primarily by the transportation sector." Yet they also note that, because "The economic and physical lifetimes of existing transportation equipment are measured on decade time-scales", the "turnover rates" are low, and, therefore, "rapid changeover in transportation end-use equipment is inherently impossible." Thus, "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."

In other words, the report gives short shrift to the possibility of electrifying transportation and no consideration at all is given to the effects of building more urban rail.

In the late summer/early fall of 2005, motor fuel shortages, mainly associated with Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma, caused massive traffic jams at service stations. Similar scenes, comparable or worse than those in 1973 and 1979, may result from a sudden interruption of oil imports. Electrified transportation, where available, would supply an invaluable alternative. Switzerland survived a six-year complete oil embargo during World War II with electrified transportation.

Transportation electrification offers valuable response

My own view is that the electrification of transportation is a natural and highly efficient response to the problem of "Peaking of World Oil Production" (hereafter cited simply as "Peak Oil"). Furthermore, substantial oil substitution can be effected within 10 to 12 years by a combination of market forces, government action to facilitate the quick and efficient realization of these market forces, and transforming the means that government uses to promote and provide transportation. The DOE report completely overlooks this possibility.

The technology for electrification of transportation is extremely well proven and widely used (more so outside the US) and, from an energy BTU/joule point-of-view, highly efficient. Well-established modes of electrified transportation in use today provide many more freight ton-miles/BTU and passenger-miles per BTU than the competing rubber-tired, oil-burning transportation alternatives.

The ratio in energy efficiency is so great, especially when electrified rail is substituted for "18 wheeler" tractor trailers and single-occupancy vehicles (SOVs), that minimal, if any, expansion of the national electricity grid will be required to reduce U.S. national oil consumption by 10%, or about two million barrels per day.

Electrified transportation is also much more environmentally benign as well. Central power plants are more efficient thermodynamically and their emissions can be more easily controlled. Electric motors are dramatically more efficient than internal combustion engines.

There are three viable electrified modes available in the USA today: (1) urban rail – rapid/heavy rail, high-performance light rail transit (LRT), and streetcars, (2) electric trolleybuses, and (3) electrified inter-city railroad lines (predominantly freight, but with a passenger component).

The US could learn from the French "Grand Strategy" of using domestic nuclear and hydroelectric power to operate electrified inter-city transportation and urban rail. A majority of French towns of 250,000 or more are now getting at least one new tram line.

Orléans is one of a growing number of French cities to adopt an electric light rail tramway system as a major component of their public transport networks.
[Photo: N. Z. Adam, Mar. 2004]

In 1973, France emitted 89,563,000 metric tonnes of carbon from liquid fuels. In 2000, France emitted 58,626,000 tonnes of carbon from the same source, a 34.5% reduction. By contrast, the USA released 592,991,000 tonnes in 1973 and 607,204,000 tonnes in 2000, a 2.4% increase over the same time period. Further reductions are expected in French emissions and further increases are expected in the U.S. for 2005 totals.

Urban rail

The District of Columbia (i.e., the core of the Washington, DC urban area) provides a classic example of the partial transformation from private auto to electrified urban rail. In 1970, before the installation of a modern rail transit system, 4% of DC commuters used mass transportation, i.e., the city bus system. In 2000, in contrast, 38% used mass transportation, predominantly the Metro subway system. Today, that number may be over 40%. Further investments (a rail line to Dulles Airport, streetcar lines, and a Purple Line rail transit option are some of the major projects on the drawing board) and further oil price increases might be reasonably expected to increase that percentage significantly.

In Europe, Copenhagen is debating whether to go to a car-less inner city, allowing only delivery trucks, emergency vehicles and perhaps taxis. This suggests that the limits of "limited oil" urban living are quite high.

The Federal Transportation Administration (FTA) is currently implementing severe restrictions on plans for new electrified urban rail. For example, federal matching has declined from 80% to a maximum of 50% and even less with respect to some projects (e.g., only 20% in Seattle). Meanwhile, the bar has been raised for evaluating which systems will receive any funding.

Despite this, and in part out of frustration with the "federal process" and its delays, cities like San Diego and Los Angeles have built LRT lines without federal dollars; Denver in November 2004 passed a referendum committing local funds to major rail system expansion; and Salt Lake City is likely to have a referendum imminently on whether to triple the region's dedicated taxes in order to build out its 30-year plan in just ten years. In a more supportive environment, other cities would likely follow this example. Despite the bias of the FTA in favor of oil-burning "Bus Rapid Transit", there is a large existing backlog of urban rail plans with local funding for multiple lines in a number of large cities, including Miami, Dallas, Denver, Seattle, Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Salt Lake City, with single lines in many other cities. A ten-year crash program, building solely on existing "wish lists" with preliminary planning in place (some currently funded, some not), could transform well over a dozen cities, just as Washington, DC and San Francisco have been transformed since the 1973 Oil Embargo. And many more cities might well jump quickly on the bandwagon.

Two-car electric light rail transit train of Salt Lake City's TRAX system not only substitutes versatile electric propulsion for petroleum dependency, but also provides far greater peak capacity than private motor vehicles in this major arterial.
[Photo: L. Henry, Nov. 2003]

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. Giving 75% of the remainder to urban rail exclusively would finance much of what is needed.

The mere existence of urban rail creates its own ridership over time through Transit Oriented Development (TOD). This trend is likely to be tremendously accelerated in a "Peak Oil" environment. The sooner urban rail is in place (or even just under construction), the larger the TOD effect will be when the full effects of "Peak Oil" arrive.

A good example of TOD is the Pearl District in Portland, Oregon. A formerly largely unpopulated railroad freight yard and warehouse district, it is now served by streetcar and interurban-type light rail, has well over 10,000 residents, and is growing rapidly. The Pearl District has upscale incomes but low levels of vehicle ownership and very low levels of direct gasoline consumption. A peak build-out may house 50,000 people with associated businesses and nearby employment.

One secondary source of energy savings is based on the fact that TOD is more energy-efficient in providing services and moving goods. Postal workers can walk their routes, many police can walk or bicycle a beat, deliveries can be concentrated rather than spread out, and electric tramway (light rail) freight can even be used in some cases (e.g., Zürich and Dresden).

After World War II, many once-nice homes in older urban areas were boarded up and abandoned. Our nation and economy thrived despite this loss of housing capital. Therefore, there is no public policy imperative to support fuel-inefficient housing patterns "no matter what". Economic forces should be allowed to work out, with all governmental promotion and bias in support of TOD. Government programs and policies that previously favored and subsidized suburban sprawl should be quickly phased out.

Just how much of the USA's total transportation fuel used could be saved by a crash urban rail building program with an extremely supportive public policy (zoning, lending policies, gas taxes, etc.)?

Through an analysis based upon post-1973 experience in Washington, DC and the San Francisco Bay area, plus the impacts of much higher oil prices and supportive government policies, I think 5% is a reasonable goal in 12 years and 9% in 20 years. This implies a reduction in private automobile use by 8.3% and 15% respectively, with associated health, accident, and pollution benefits.

The residual automobile and SUV fleet could be simultaneously transformed with more fuel-efficient vehicles due to high oil prices, so the 5% and 9% savings in oil consumption from urban rail would be attained in addition to other oil consumption reductions due solely to higher prices.

The economic and social benefits from reduced automobile disabilities and deaths, plus reduced pollution, could well justify the investment in large scale electrified transportation on these grounds alone.

Electric trolleybuses

Several dozen U.S. cities once operated electric trolleybuses, but today only four currently remain (San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, and Dayton). However, the technology is very well-proven and a new opportunity is arising with the recent interest in hybrid buses (using fuel engines to charge batteries and run electric drive motors).

San Francisco Muni's electric trolleybuses on the Stockton line negotiate steep hill with ease.
[Photo: L. Henry, Nov. 2003]

A careful choice of internal operating voltage in a hybrid bus, combined with twin trolley poles and overhead wiring, would create a part-time electric trolleybus that can operate either off of grid power or off of its own diesel-electric engines/battery combination. Classic trolleybuses, operating only off grid power and their electric motors, are also likely to see a revival in a "Peak Oil" world. They are somewhat lighter and much simpler and cheaper than hybrids.

Demand for public transportation is likely to increase dramatically in a "Peak Oil" world. Even with expanded urban rail, the number and size of city buses operating are likely to increase significantly.

Increased use of hybrid buses and trolleybuses can allow bus liquid fuel demand to decrease, even at elevated service levels. The better economics of trolleybuses will allow public transit agencies to operate more service, with more passengers, without major increases in public subsidies.

Electrified intercity rail

The rail systems of Japan and the continental European Union (EU) are largely electrified, with the Russians in the midst of massive electrification. The Trans-Siberian Railway, from Moscow to the Pacific, one-sixth of the circumference of the globe, was fully electrified in 2002.

Electrification provides a variety of operational advantages. Lower fuel costs, faster acceleration (which means quicker trips and closer headways), lower capital and maintenance costs, and locomotives with substantially longer service lives are among these advantages. The Vice-President for Engineering at a locomotive manufacturer has assured me that the current U.S. fleet of diesel-electric locomotives could be easily rebuilt as all-electric locomotives, and that he would welcome the business.

Electrification of freight railway operations is widespread in Europe, including here in Germany, where an electric locomotive hauls a mixed freight through Cologne.
[Photo: Ian Leech, Sep. 2005]

The primary disadvantage in the USA is higher property taxes on electrified rail lines. This has outweighed the advantages of rail electrification so far in the U.S.

The US rail industry uses relatively little oil. This belies the rail industry's relatively large role in US transportation and its extreme energy efficiency. Freight rail carries 27.8% of the ton-miles with 220,000 barrels/day while trucks carry 32.1% of the freight miles with 2.07 million barrels/day (all 2002 data). Light commercial trucks consume another 300,000 barrels/day. This makes railroads more than eight times more fuel-efficient, as well as more labor-efficient than trucking.

It is apparent that the major oil savings can come from a modal shift from trucking to rail for intercity shipments rather than just reducing rail's oil consumption. A good, although limited, example is the cooperative endeavor between Norfolk Southern and Florida East Coast Railway. Trucks can load onto rail in Atlanta (via containers or roll-on trailers), and then be picked up for local delivery in Jacksonville, near Orlando, Ft. Lauderdale, or Miami (or vice versa). There are major labor and energy savings with this intermodal service.

A higher level of service speed and reliability than is typical for U.S. rail is required to make such inter-modal transfers competitive today. Increased investment (and perhaps better management) will be required to make this type of service the dominant form of long-distance freight movement in a "Peak Oil" world. Electrification of freight rail is only a part of what is needed to develop this modal shift. Other measures, such as restoring double-track service (where one track was removed perhaps for economy of maintenance and/or reduced property taxes), improved signaling and scheduling, building modal transfer points, etc., are also needed.

In a crash program, such a transformation is possible within a decade or so. A net saving of one million barrels/day between rail electrification and modal shift seems possible. Such electrification and modal shift would also serve a national strategic role in case of an oil supply interruption by transporting essential goods with minimal oil consumption, thereby extending the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

Semi-highspeed freight & passenger service

The following model for a workable and economic semi-high speed rail system has been developed based upon observations of EU and Japanese consumer behavior as well as an analysis of rail economics coupled with physics.

Electrified rail lines capable of top speeds of approximately 110 mph can attract a majority of traffic between city-pairs (both cities with urban rail) if they are within 175 to 250 miles. Such rail lines, unlike higher-speed lines, are also capable of carrying high-value, moderate-density freight as well. This type of freight is rarely shipped by rail today, but by express truck or air. Longer distances are better for freight, but will lose almost all of their passengers as distances lengthen.

Electric locomotive speeds Amtrak's train no. 190 through Rhode Island in electrified Northeast Corridor.
[Photo: LRN file]

One could extend the existing Amtrak Northeast Corridor southward from Washington, DC to Richmond-Charlotte-Charleston-Jacksonville-Orlando-Ft. Lauderdale-Miami with Charlotte-Atlanta and Orlando-Tampa spurs. Such a service could provide highspeed and reliable freight service along the U.S. East Coast and service a number of viable city-pairs with passenger service, provided each city has a viable urban rail system. Urban rail appears to be an essential requirement for significant intercity rail travel.

A San Francisco/Sacramento-San Jose-Bakersfield-Los Angeles-San Diego route also appears quite viable. An intra-Texas connection might be viable (if all cities build urban rail) as might a New York City-Buffalo (or Philadelphia-Pittsburgh)-Cleveland-Detroit-Chicago-St. Louis-Kansas City line.

It would appear that significant portions of such semi-high speed electrified rail connections could be built within a dozen years and all within 20 years. This service would attract traffic that existing freight railroads do not service. The business model and structure required to build and operate these new semi-high-speed rail lines would, of course, need to be developed in further analysis and discussion.

Immediate potential for electrification

The bottom line is this: The potential for electrification in transportation appears to be far more immediate, well-proven, and readily available than non-transportation experts such as Robert Hirsch seem to acknowledge. Of all the policy responses noted in his report, electrification of transportation appears to have the potential for the quickest, the most permanent, and the most profound impact with the best ancillary benefits for human health, land use, pollution, and Global Warming.

The economic and social benefits of reduced automobile disabilities and deaths, coupled with reduced air pollution, may justify the investment in electrified transportation on these grounds alone. Alternative responses to "Peak Oil" have ancillary costs in areas where electrification of transportation has ancillary benefits. Thus the totality of the costs and benefits for electrification of transportation is overwhelmingly positive versus other alternatives.

Necessity may require that all alternatives to conventional petroleum are pursued, but the most beneficial alternative – electrification of transportation – should be pursued most aggressively. Existing urban rail plans could be built out within a few years with appropriate federal and local funding. New urban rail lines beyond those currently planned could be planned and built within a decade. Heavily used city bus lines could be converted to trolley buses within a few years.

The technology to electrify the major freight rail lines is quite well-known and only requires the decision to devote the capital to electrifying and less than a decade for widespread implementation. The creation of a network of semi-highspeed rail lines will take longer, but well within the time frame for alternative liquid fuels to be developed in large quantity.

On the whole, it seems clear that electrification of transportation ought to be the leading economic and policy response to the advent of "Peak Oil".

Editorial Notes: Published with permission of the author, who hopes to have a slightly revised copy out soon. The article was first published in www.lightrailnow.org. The illustrations were selected & supplied by Lyndon Henry. The article was suggested by Jeffrey J. Brown, a frequent contributor to EB and The Oil Drum. He writes:
I recommend that all of the various Peak Oil groups unite behind the following two proposals, and I further recommend that we work on one or more joint conferences, for no later than the week after Labor Day, focused on these two proposals. (A) Abolish the Payroll (Social Security + Medicare) Tax and replace it with a retail energy tax, primarily a gasoline tax. www.energybulletin.net/13575.html (B) Electrification of Transportation as a Response to Peaking of World Oil Production www.lightrailnow.org/features/f_lrt_2005-02.htm [this article] What we are proposing with these two ideas is to remake the US transportation system, based on the European model, in a crash emergency program. Note that these two ideas will be strongly endorsed by those concerned about Global Warming. These are concrete, specific and positive proposals for action on all fronts.

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