Transportation without oil - what will it take?
We know that the world’s oil supply is a non-renewable resource - once used, gone forever, however long Earth’s future civilizations last.
We know we have consumed around half of the total global conventional reserves, and that following peak oil the second half will be more difficult to extract. That will either make it more expensive, as nations compete for the declining supply, or the inability of economies to cope with the price will kill off every attempt by the economy to grow, and cause semi-permanent depression.
We know that if it were possible to maintain the current rate of use of 32 billion barrels a year, the entire global reserve of conventional oil would be gone within thirty-five years. The entirety of Alberta’s 177 billion barrels of established oil sands reserves could extend our dependency for just six more years, if it was consumed at the same rate. It sounds like a lot, until you do the math.
We know that burning the oil is a prime cause of climate change, which poses such a threat to the present and future generations. The last time the world was 3 degrees warmer, which is where we’re heading, the sea level was 25 meters higher.
We know that burning the oil also causes air pollution and smog, contributing to cancer, heart and lung disease.
We know that extracting the oil sometimes destroys entire landscapes, ecosystems and habitats for wildlife, whether in Nigeria’s delta, the Gulf of Mexico, Alberta’s boreal forest or Ecuador’s Amazon rainforest.
We know that transporting the oil requires extensive pipelines that are vulnerable to leakage and sabotage, and shipment by sea that invariably sees tankers being wrecked and marine ecosystems devastated, whether by the force of nature or the folly of a ship’s captain.
We know that our dependency on oil has led to numerous wars and conflicts, will almost certainly continue until we find a way to manage without oil.
We also know that paying to import the oil is placing an enormous stress on most national economies, while a handful of oil exporting nations are becoming extraordinarily rich.
We know that we have to change, that this cannot go on. We are continuing blindly, from one oil-disaster to the next. In 2009, it was Australia’s turn, with an ocean oil-well leak off their northwest coast. In 2010, it was the fire and blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. In 2011, oil caused one of New Zealand’s worst maritime environmental disasters, as it spilled from a stranded cargo ship.
So back to my question – what will it take for the whole world to do transportation without oil?
Transportation uses 71% of the world’s oil. Cars and light trucks use some 60% of the oil, while air-travel and freight use 35%. They require quite different transitions, since the former involves a change to electricity, while the latter involves a change to a liquid fuel such as biofuel or hydrogen.
Step 1. Set a Clear Bold Goal
Step 1 is to set a hairy audacious goal such as a 100% reduction in the use of oil for transportation by 2030, with no loss of mobility. The benefits are enormous. We get to tackle a key cause of global warming, create resilience against peak oil and future price shocks, reduce and then eliminate the risk of oil pollution, end most air pollution and noise, significantly reduce traffic congestion, improve the economy of every nation that no longer needs to import oil, remove the threat of more conflicts and wars over oil, and to show the world that it’s possible.
Part 1: Cars and Light Trucks
Step 2: Shift 5% of the Trips to Walking
The reward will be more peaceful cities and towns, full of safe, attractive paths and sidewalks, and healthier, happier people. We can get there by analyzing each city or town as a series of 20-minute walking neighbourhoods, as Portland is doing, by creating new village centres where they are missing, and by using walkability audits to produce a close-grained analysis of the weaknesses and measures that are needed to remove barriers and obstacles. Throw in safe routes to school, attractive landscaping and public art, comfortable public seating and car-free city spaces, and they will come.
Step 3: Shift 15% of the Trips to Cycling
That may seem like a lot, but in Holland, 40% of all traffic movement is by bicycle. In Groningen, it’s 57% of all trips. To get there, we will need to invest in thousands of kilometres of new bike lanes and off-road routes, safe bicycle parking, and widen the culture that celebrates the bike. Electric bikes can eliminate hills and extend the distance that cyclists can cover, and cargo bikes, tricycles and city bike-sharing schemes will all play their part, as they do in many European cities.
Step 4: Shift 15% of the Trips to Transit and LRT
When the town of Hasselt, Belgium, made a change to free public transit, charging the cost to municipal taxes, they experienced a 13-fold increase in ridership, while eliminating the traffic congestion that had plagued the town. Bus rapid transit and light rapid transit are popular wherever they are installed. Every bus stop needs a decent shelter and an electronic timetable to tell you when the next bus is coming, as well as poetry and art by local people. Individual buses can operate all day using a fast-charge battery, as the Opbrid Arctic Whisper has shown in the Swedish city of Umea. Light rail transit can be powered electrically by overhead cables.
Step 5: Shift to 5% of the Trips to Teleworking
Support it by sophisticated community teleconferencing centres of the kind that Cisco Systems create. 5% may be a lot to ask, but in a North Carolina survey of teleworkers 56% found that it gave them more time, at less cost and less stress; 44% said it made them more productive, with greater job satisfaction, more trust, and less distraction, and 100% wanted to continue teleworking.
Step 6: Shift to 5% of the Trips to Ridesharing
Expand existing ride-sharing programs and real-time ride-sharing programs such as Avego, creating many new park-and ride facilities, and encouraging employers to provide guaranteed emergency trips home, cash-out incentives for parking spaces not used, and other green travel rewards.
Step 7: Encourage a Huge Expansion in Car Sharing
Expand existing car-share programs such as (in Vancouver) Modo, Zipcar and Car2Go, and peer-to-peer car sharing programs such as Relay Rides, in which people put their existing cars into a pool and earn up to $300 a month by renting them out. GM, Ford and Toyota are all preparing to make their new cars car-share ready, and there could be as many as 4.4 million car sharers by 2016. Car-sharers tend to do most of their trips by foot, bike or bus, so we can’t assign a percentage trip reduction, but car sharing is an important part of the transition since it enables people to have the best of both worlds.
Step 8: Create Strong Intermodal Connections
We need a smooth, seamless way to move from bike to bus, bus to train, and LRT to a safely parked bicycle or community bike, all supported by a single integrated transportation app and a single smart Travel Card, such as London’s Oyster Card.
Step 9: Embrace Smart Growth Designs
Taken together, these steps reduce the number of car-based trips by 45%, leaving 55% to be catered for.
Step 10: 50% of New Vehicles are Electric
Accelerate the market transition to fully electric vehicles, assuming a 50% shift, and support it with the organized roll-out of electric charging posts. The electric cars are coming, and drivers are loving them.
Step 11: 50% of New Vehicles are Hybrid Electric
The other 50% are hybrid vehicles that back up their electric drive with liquid fuel capacity for longer trips where recharging may prove a problem. In reality, people owning hybrid electric vehicles do 80% of their miles on the EV battery, achieving an 80% reduction in the use of oil.
When these steps are taken together, with a 45% shift away from cars, 50% of the cars going electric and the other 50% using a liquid fuel for 20% of their mileage, the reduction in the demand for oil comes to 95%. As soon as industry cracks the recharging problem, perhaps by using nano-materials to help lithium batteries charge 60 times faster, there will be no more need for the hybrids.
Step 12: Encourage Lightweight Design
A car that weighs 950 kg, such as the Evonik Elise EV, will go twice as far and use half as much energy as a car that weighs 2000 kg. The new Volkswagen XL1 1-litre diesel plug-in hybrid weighs in at 795 kg, using a variety of materials and methods to achieve it. When the new materials reach all cars and light trucks, the liquid fuel needed falls to 2.5% of what it was, which can be provided by biofuel or hydrogen (see below).
Step 13: Generate More Renewable Electricity
In Step 13 we do whatever it takes to ensure that there’s enough renewable energy coming into the grid to power the change. Electric vehicles use remarkably little energy, since they are four times more efficient by design than internal combustion engines. The conversion of a country’s entire transport fleet to electric drive would need a 10-15% increase in supply, which is less than could be saved by a nation-wide building efficiency program.
Globally, six different studies have concluded that a future powered by 100% renewables is possible. If we take solar alone, the numbers are on board, for a 1.5 kW PV system will produce 1,500 kWh a year even in cloudy and wet Vancouver, which is enough to drive 10,000 km in a car that consumes 15 kWh for 100 km. The cost is on our side, for a $1.5 kW system costing $12,000 today will cost $6,000 in a few years time, since solar prices are falling rapidly. A 5% mortgage on $12,000 will set you back by $70 as month, which is the same that you’ll pay for gas for a regular vehicle.
When the change from oil to electricity is considered in a larger economic context, the benefits are huge, since most money spent on oil leaves an economy immediately, whereas money spent on renewable electricity remains within the economy, stimulating more activity.
Step 14: Explore Parking Solutions
Step 14 brings forward a series of solutions such as ending free parking at shopping malls, increasing parking fees at hospitals and colleges where it sometimes costs as little as $2 a day, allowing parking ‘cash-out’ - the surrender of a guaranteed employment parking space in exchange for cash or green perks, increasing bike parking especially at transit stations, and providing free parking for car-share vehicles and 1⁄2 sized parking spots for Smart cars.
Part 2: Air Travel and Freight
Air travel and freight use 35% of the oil for transport, but it’s a harder challenge to design the transition off oil.
Step 15: Solutions for Trucking
There are electric trucks made by Smith Electric Vehicles and other companies running around in many European cities, and in Holland there’s the electric Cargo-Hopper, with a 3 tonne max and a 60 km range, but these are designed for local urban deliveries; they are not the 40-tonne 18-wheelers that roam the world’s roads, carrying freight from one distant city to another.
For the big rigs, super-efficient designs can save up to 35% of the fuel, with vehicles achieving 9 mpg instead of 6.5. Electric plug-in facilities at truck stops to eliminate idling can save a further 8%. Slowing down to 60 or 55 mph saves a further 8%. Careful planning to avoid ‘empty miles’ shipping can save 5-15% of the fuel. Taken together, the Rocky Mountain Institute’s major new work Reinventing Fire: Bold Business Solutions for the New Energy Era found that these innovations could reduce the need for oil by 60% - but an increase in demand could wipe out all the gains, leaving us back where we started. For a long-term solution, therefore, must widen our vision. As coal is phased out and taken off the rails that will free up 48% of rail cargo space for other freight uses. Biofuel and/or hydrogen are possibilities, as is the overhead electrification of long-distance trucking routes, combined with electric power for shorter trips away from electrified highways. Another possible solution is high-speed freight tubes, 2-3 metres across, coated with solar skin and powered by electricity, that zip from Vancouver to San Diego in five hours. It might seem very sci-fi, but in 1994 US Federal Highway Administration thought enough of the idea to commission a study that is now gathering dust.
Step 16: Solutions for Rail
Railways are easier, since they can be powered by electricity. Europe started investing in high-speed trains 20 years ago, and now they have a very impressive continental network. In Sweden, a train has been running on biogas between Linkoping and Vastervik on the southeast coast since 2005. It just needs investment, and belief.
Step 17: Solutions for Shipping
The challenge here is the same as it is for trucking. Shipping uses 2.5% of the world’s oil, and while there are designs for future ships that use a combination of solar, wave, wind and hydrogen energy, no-one has come near actually making one, because of the investment involved. Slowing down from 25 to 20 knots saves 50% of the oil, and slowing from a more normal 23.5 to 20 knots saves 25%. The use of SkySails on boats travelling at 10 knots can save 20%, and the use of Ecospeed coating and underwater cleaning can save 20%. Even regular annual underwater propeller polishing will save 2%. The use of cleaner fuels instead of dirty bunker oil would also reduce the emission of black carbon, which is a powerful global warming agent, but as with the trucking, increased demand could wipe out all these gains. Thus, we are back to the need for some kind of liquid fuel.
Step 18: Solutions for Flying
Same story. Flying uses 8% of the world’s oil, and while the latest designs boast that they are 20% more efficient, increased demand could wipe out the gains. At the 2011 Paris Airshow, the model of a concept plane called the EADS VoltAir lithium-air battery aircraft using superconducting electric motors was on display, claiming to be able to reach Mach 4, travelling from Paris – Tokyo in 2.5 hours. Various airlines have experimented with biofuels made from jatropha, coconut, babassu nuts, camelina oilseed and algae, and found no technical problems, so the mainstream airline industry is looking down that route.
Step 19: Alternative Fuel Solutions
If we rule out direct biofuel crops because they are so unsustainable, biofuel for long-distance trucks, ships and planes can still be made from farm and forest wastes, sewage and urban organic wastes, cultivated algae using waste CO2, cultivated seaweed, and carbon monoxide derived from industrial wastes. Green hydrogen is also a possibility, if there’s a surplus of green electricity to make it. Green methanol made from hydrogen and waste CO2 is another possibility – but most waste CO2 comes from burning coal, oil or gas.
The New Zealand company Lanzatech is using a microbial process that ferments industrial waste gases and converts them into ethanol, and they claim that if 65% of world’s steel mills were retrofitted with LanzaTech and all waste gases were used, it could produce 30 billion gallons of ethanol a year, yielding 15 billion gallons of jet fuel, enough for 19% of current global aviation fuel.
Could there ever be enough biofuel to meet the world’s non-electric travel needs? The six studies mentioned earlier certainly think so. For the US, the Rocky Mountain Institute has estimated that with 84% total fuel-saving from all the above solutions, the demand for an oil-substitute would fall to 3.1 million barrels a day. To supply this, a 2005 USDA-DOE analysis concluded that US farmland could sustainably provide enough dry collectable biomass wastes to produce 3 million barrels a day of biofuel, and another study showed that forest wastes could yield 1.3 million barrels a day. There’s a lot more work needed for each nation, however, to craft national sustainable biofuel solutions that do not strip the goodness out forest and farmland by not returning organic wastes to the soil.
Step 20: Strengthen Local Economies
Is it really sustainable to ship so much stuff around the world in such large quantities? Do we really need to, or it is simply the low price of transport that makes it competitively advantageous? Building stronger local economies through ‘Local First’ and similar campaigns is one way in which we can reduce the volume that needs to be shipped, while creating more local jobs and a more resilient, sustainable future.
Step 21: Embrace Integrated Transportation Governance
We need the governance of cycling, transit, rail, LRT and highways investments to be under one democratically elected integrated government unit. It makes no sense to have different bodies deciding on investments in highways, bike lanes and transit. They need a single integrated cost benefit analysis, to come to a rational, sustainable decision. In Victoria, BC, the $24 million of federal money that was spent on a new airport highway interchange that nobody needed could have bought 240 km of separated bike lanes.
· A new traffic lane costs $300,000-$500,000 per km, and can carry 800 vehicles per hour
· A new striped 1.5 metre bike lane costs $5,000 - $10,000 per km, and can carry 2,000 trips per hour, making it 75 to 250 times more cost-effective
· A new bike lane that requires road widening costs $35,000 - $150,000 per km, making it 5 to 35 times more cost-effective.
· A separated bike lane costs $100,000 per km, making it 7 to 12 times more cost-effective
Source: Ministry of Transportation of Ontario, Ontario Bikeways Planning and Design Guidelines, pg. 8-34, March 1996. More detailed cost estimates.
Step 22: Find New Sources of Revenue
How will we pay for the new bike lanes, buses and high-speed rail? We should gather income from the remaining oil to invest in the future without oil, using both gas taxes and carbon taxes. We should also use feebates, with a fee on inefficient vehicles supporting a rebate on efficient ones. We should use the income from road tolls, and public benefit charges on our utility bills to finance the all-important transition. And we should remember the benefits, and the disasters avoided, by doing so.
In Victoria, BC, the Malahat highway connects Victoria to up-Island, following a windy, mountainous route and causing major congestion as the highway approaches Victoria. With 30,000 vehicles a day, a $2 one-way toll would bring in $60,000 a day, or some $15 million a year, in comparison to the current Malahat bus budget of $850,000 a year.
The daily revenue of $60k from tolls would support 300 luxury coaches carrying 12,000 people a day, (based on a round trip fare of $5) enabling the coaches to travel a variety of local routes at either end, picking up and delivering people close to their homes. The average 40 minute journey would allow commuters and other offf-peak travellers to relax, read, work or do emails, with comfortable seating, tables and refreshments, instead of sitting in their cars feeling frustrated.
Step 23: Build Strong Grassroots Activism
In the world of politics and change, nothing really happens until there’s an organized group of citizens doing the research, arguing the case, and pushing to make it happen. Creating an organized transition off oil is essential for a host of reasons, and yet no elected politicians in North America are standing up to champion it yet, with all the benefits it will bring. So grassroots citizens groups must lead the way – as they did to end slavery, to win the vote for women, to end child labour, to win civil rights for all citizens, to overcome the prejudice against gay people. This is one part of the larger task for the 21st century, which is to reshape the whole global economy so that it is in harmony with nature.
It will be easy to poke holes in this approach. Each of the 23 steps could be expanded into an essay or a book – and many already have. There will doubtless be flaws in my reasoning, and gaps that could be filled, but these should not divert us from the big question: how can we meet our transportation needs in a future without oil? If we do not want the tar sands, and we do not want the pipelines, thius is the practical questin we need to address.
- Guy Dauncey, March 21, 2012 (Updated on April 11th 2012)
 An NRDC analysis put the operating cost of an inter-city bus at $428 US per trip over 150 miles. The average distance of the Malahat commute would be 100 km, or 60 miles, but let’s go with $400. If 40 passengers each pay $5 for a return ticket, that reduces the cost to $200 per return trip. $60k would therefore support 300 coaches a day, carrying 12,000 people.