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Global warming might make rails sing again

Crawford Kilian, The Tyee
Not long ago, my wife and I went from Vancouver to Ottawa on Via Rail. The three-day first stage of our journey was on Via’s Silver and Blue service: individual roomettes, superb food, and endless hours in a dome car. The second stage, from Toronto to Ottawa, was on a regular train taking four hours.

Via’s Silver and Blue dining car.

I’d taken short train trips before — in Canada, the U.S., and China — but nothing this long. Yes, the romance of the rails was a factor: the last spike, Gordon Lightfoot, even Murder on the Orient Express. How many British films and TV shows take place on trains? How many of our ancestors rode swaying across the Prairies to take possession of their own quarter section?

Compounding that romantic feeling was an anxious sense that flying can’t last. A generation has grown up accustomed to cheap airfares and frequent flights. But our sudden understanding of global warming has made us more than nervous. Jet after jet dumps greenhouse gases at 38,000 feet — the equivalent of what each passenger might emit in a year of routine highway driving.

George Monbiot, in his book Heat, confesses he can find no solution for air travel as a contributor to global warming. Other transportation systems can reduce their emissions, but airliners are locked into burning kerosene at high altitudes. At least one airline, Ryanair, reports a slowdown in ticket sales thanks to media condemnation of low-cost air travel as an environmental problem.

Train travel nostalgia trip?

So could we go back to train travel for business trips, tourism, and family reunions? Could we hand air travel over to the minorities: the very rich, the very powerful, and the military?

It wouldn’t be easy.
(5 September 2007)

EU Climate Flight Plans ‘Deluded’

BBC News
European Union proposals to reduce the climate impact of flying will not work, a report concludes.

The EU plans to include aviation in its Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS).

But analysts at the Tyndall Centre, a prestigious UK climate research body, say this will have minimal effect without a major rise in carbon prices.0904 06

Friends of the Earth (FoE) which funded the study wants mandatory efficiency goals for aircraft, tax on aviation fuel and curbs on airport expansion.

“We delude ourselves if we believe the proposed framing of the EU ETS is in keeping with the EU’s own and repeated commitment to limit climate change to a 2C (3.6F) rise,” said Kevin Anderson, director of the Tyndall Centre’s energy programme.

“The current aviation ETS proposal must be significantly strengthened so as to drive down emission growth rates and force the adoption of more efficient aircraft technologies and operation.”

The ETS began operating in 2005. Current plans call for inclusion of flights within Europe by 2011, extending a year later to all flights originating or ending on the continent.

Tyndall and FoE believe this would be too late. By 2012, they say, carbon emissions from aviation will have increased by at least 25%.

Another criticism is that the current price of carbon is too low to make any impact on flying.
(4 September 2007)
Also at Common Dreams.

Technical issues stall hydrogen vehicles

Brett Clanton, Houston Chronicle
A few years ago, it looked like we would all be driving pollution-free hydrogen-powered vehicles someday very soon. The signs, after all, were everywhere.

Automakers debuted concept vehicles with fuel cells under the hood. Investors poured money into hydrogen startups. News stories abounded about the new “hydrogen economy.” Even President Bush, in his 2003 State of the Union message, said babies born in 2003 should be in hydrogen cars by the time they hit driving age.

But today, four years after that prediction, big technical challenges remain in using hydrogen to power passenger vehicles on a wide scale. These range from storing it safely aboard a car to producing it from something other than the fossil fuels it is supposed to replace.

That reality has caused hydrogen to lose some of its public momentum. And it is starting to make some predictions of when hydrogen cars could be in showrooms appear overly optimistic.

But hydrogen research is still making progress on many fronts, say oil companies, automakers, government officials and analysts.
(5 September 2007)
Hasn’t this been the same story for decades? -BA

Get plug-in cars on the road

W. Tom Sawyer Jr., Portland Press-Herald (Maine)
The underused electrical capacity in the Northeast could be harnessed to power clean transportation.

A recent development from California brings us Mainers an opportunity to combine our frugal Yankee spirit with the fast-paced innovations of corporate America. A partnership between Ford Motor Company and utility provider Southern California Edison (SCE) could have far-reaching effects, and do a great deal of good for Maine along the way.

Ford and SCE announced last week a combined effort to examine the possibility of mass-produced plug-in hybrid cars running off of the nation’s existing electrical grid. No extraordinary hydrogen delivery infrastructure needed here. Such an effort by these two forward-thinking corporations could revolutionize not only the auto industry and carbon emission norms, but also our existing electric power supply infrastructure.

I’ve been tooling around in an all-electric GEM (golf cart on steroids) car for several years; but find its 25 mph top end and 25-mile range between charge-ups problematic for anything but joy rides around Mount Desert Island. I’m also limited to operating on roads posted at 35 mph and lower with a “low-speed vehicle” plate.

A plug-in hybrid vehicle is one that can fill up at the gas station and also plug in to an electrical source. The vehicle’s gas tank serves as a secondary source of fuel, while the car runs almost entirely off of its electric supply until that supply runs out (at which point you just plug it in again).

Plug-in hybrids could easily be expected to get over 100 miles per gallon of gasoline, and owners would do most of their refueling at home where the equivalent cost of electricity is about $1 per gallon.

Unlike my little GEM car, it’s not hard to imagine Ford-SCE making plug-in hybrids on a large scale. Gas prices, while not becoming totally inconsequential, would matter much less to the average consumer. Pollution would decrease substantially.

…It would seem the biggest barrier to this goal lies in the creation of enough renewable electricity to power all those vehicles. Not so!

This seemingly formidable barrier is barely even a speed bump when looking at Maine’s power supply that relies on our water, wind and biomass renewable resources.

Aha! It turns out there is excess capacity in Maine’s electrical grid, to the point that all we need is to harness that excess. And how do we do that?

Simple, just plug the vehicles in at night. Just like my lawnmower, weed-whacker, portable drill and even my camera.

Each night across the Northeast, there is a large percentage of renewable power generation capacity that sits idle. This means there is a large amount of unused and under-used capacity in the existing electrical grid.
(2 September 2007)
Contributor David Emanuel writes:

I’ll never understand the optimism of such articles but they are all the rage in Peak circles these days so if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

The idea that the “biggest barrier” for “making plug-in hybrids commonplace” is “the creation of enough renewable electricity” would be laughable if it weren’t so absurd and, quite frankly, offensive.

Folks like me will never be able to afford to simply stop driving our jalopies to play with the latest and greatest green-washed fashion. Which is primarily why I disagree with this article of faith. It speaks in grand, sweeping terms with large numbers as if our entire country is a financially secure, hot-swappable computer device.

And somehow it escapes the author/politician — who loves powering his cars, lawnmower, weed-wacker, portable drill and camera (talk about “frugal Yankee spirit”) by any means necessary — that we are not going to consume our way out of what is now being called, somewhat clumsily, Peak Everything.

These kinds of solutions will work on the micro level but not the macro. And, as always, only for those who can afford to pay to play.

And don’t get me started on nuclear power!