Sunday, June 03, 2007

Road to nowhere?

Last week I attended a hearing on the transportation plan for my county for the year 2030. Similar plans are mandated by federal law for most localities in the United States. Though not explicit, the assumption behind our plan is that liquid fuels will remain cheap and abundant through 2030 and beyond. I suspect that most of the nation's transportation planners share this assumption and that therefore most of the country's transportation plans embrace it.

Below are comments I presented before my local transportation planning agency concerning its 2030 plan. I hope these comments will provide some ideas for those who want to comment on plans in their own locales. My planning agency goes by the rather strange name of Kalamazoo Area Transportation Study though a web search reveals that several agencies use this format for their names, for example, Chicago Area Transportation Study. Many also use the generic term for such agencies, metropolitan planning organization, tacked onto the name of the area covered by the plan, for example, Metropolitan Planning Organization for the Miami Urbanized Area. For a list of such agencies, check the Association of Metropolitan Planning Organizations website.

These planning organizations meet frequently and provide many opportunities for citizen input. Some jurisdictions may be beyond the comment period for their long-range plans; but, transportation planners are essentially planning all the time, so virtually any time would be appropriate to bring energy issues to their attention.

Below are the comments which I read before the Kalamazoo Area Transportation Study or KATS on March 29:

Good evening. My name is Kurt Cobb and I live in the city of Kalamazoo. I am neither a scientist nor an engineer. Rather, I am concerned citizen who also happens to write frequently about energy and environmental issues.

Transportation planners (like many of the rest of us) desperately want to know the one thing which they cannot know: the future. I understand that KATS is obliged by law to look out decades into the future and attempt to anticipate the transportation needs of this county. And, I understand that this plan will evolve over time as the future unfolds. I also understand that the planning process is necessary and useful for soliciting public input. None of us would be here today if we did not have something to comment on.

That said, history teaches us that the future is the domain of unexpected events and discredited predictions. In our technologically driven society, a forecaster predicting the outlines of our world 20 or even 10 years from now would, for example, have to know about all the inventions of the coming decade or two and their effect on society. This, of course, would mean that the forecaster would be very close to inventing all those inventions right now which means he or she would really be talking about the present and not the future.

Still, there are some things, such as our sprawling transportation infrastructure, which cannot be planned on a napkin the night before construction begins and so we must try to guess at a future whose outlines are beyond knowing with any specificity.

My aim this evening is not to comment on the details of the 2030 transportation plan, but rather to question one of its tacit and yet critical assumptions, namely, that liquid fuels will remain abundant and cheap through the year 2030. There are many reasons to believe that we cannot count on cheap, abundant liquid fuels in the decades to come. I will get to those in a moment.

First, let me say something about the asymmetry of the risks we face in transportation planning for this county or really for any place that relies on motorized transport. If the most optimistic predictions about the availability of liquid fuels in 2030 are realized, it is possible that this plan will not provide enough new roads to handle all of the traffic that will result. So, the risks are that the roads in Kalamazoo County would end up choked with cars and trucks for some time until additional roads could be built. However, if the most pessimistic predictions about the availability of liquid fuels are realized, we will be living in a completely different world. Instead of clogged highways and roads, we will find empty expanses of crumbling asphalt that may have limited use as bike paths or walkways, but which will have turned out to be a mammoth waste of resources in an energy-constrained world. The age of the private automobile will be over.

No one knows which of these two outcomes will occur or whether something in-between will result. But, it is clear by comparing the two most extreme scenarios that the risks we face are wildly asymmetrical, that is, one scenario would reveal the plan we have before us as a colossal planning failure while the other would demonstrate that it was somewhat inadequate, but not necessarily incorrect in its general direction.

This is why I would advocate that future plans incorporate an explicit energy supply forecast with lower and upper bounds. (Price is less relevant than supply since price merely rations supply and fluctuates based on immediate demand.) If this is done, the plan will in all likelihood have to include various plans based on various scenarios for energy availability. In this way, policymakers could determine the most prudent course based a range of outcomes rather than trying to do something which none of us can do: Predict the future precisely.

Now, let me say a few words about a why I believe we may not be able to count on cheap, abundant liquid fuels. I say liquid fuels because nearly all transportation worldwide runs on liquid fuels. There is a tiny, but increasing portion that runs on electricity and this type of energy may offer a path for replacing at least part of the liquid fuel I expect us to lose in the next couple of decades.

First, we must understand that 86 percent of the world's primary energy supply comes from fossil fuels: coal, natural gas and oil. (I say primary energy supply because electricity, for example, is an energy carrier and thus classed as a secondary energy supply and not an energy source.) Fossil fuels are made from organic material, much of it deposited hundreds of millions of years ago in seabeds and on land. They are continuously being made in the Earth's crust, but at rates that are so slow that this replenishment has no significance for humans living now or any time in the next several million years. In other words, fossil fuels are for all practical purposes finite.

What this means is that for all fossil fuel resources the world will reach a peak in the rate of production followed by an irreversible decline. No amount of effort, no price, no new technology will work to stop the decline although these things may help to moderate it. Surprisingly, this peak will occur even as huge reserves still lie in the ground. But it is the rate at which we can get them out of the ground that is crucial, for everything in society today depends on our ability to support economic growth by continuously increasing the rate of production of our primary energy sources, especially fossil fuels.

As it turns out, natural gas in North America appears to have peaked already at about 27 trillion cubic feet per year, running along a production plateau since about 1998. This is despite very high prices and unprecedented drilling efforts. And, a moratorium on development of the world's largest natural gas field in Qatar containing 14 percent of the world's reserves has called into question whether the growth in liquefied natural gas supplies will be sufficient to satisfy both North American and Asian demand growth. The idea that natural gas turned into liquid fuels will provide a significant substitute for declining fuels derived from petroleum should be regarded with considerable skepticism.

As for oil, peak projections range from 2005, meaning, of course, that it's already happened, to 2037, an estimate provided by the U. S. Energy Information Administration and the one most often cited by the optimists. But the EIA estimate should be taken with a grain of salt. This is the same agency that missed the peak in American domestic oil production in 1970 and predicted growing supplies of natural gas throughout this decade. No matter what date you believe world peak oil production will occur--and there is going to be a peak and then a decline at some point--perhaps more important than any exacting prognostication as to the time of the peak is an evaluation of what it would take to make up our deficit in liquid fuels after the peak.

It turns out that the U. S. Department of Energy has already undertaken such a study, and it makes for sobering reading. Commonly referred to as the Hirsch Report after its principal author, Robert Hirsch, the report concludes the following: It will take a crash program to develop alternative fuels and implement conservation measures starting 20 years in advance of the peak to avoid significant societal and economic disruptions resulting from a shortfall in liquid fuel volumes. This is regardless of when the peak occurs. So, even if the optimists are right, we have little time left to start making the transition, and, of course, changing our transportation system to accommodate these new realities.

Let me cover briefly various panaceas that are currently being offered. First, there are known methods for turning coal into liquid fuels, and we are said to have a 250-year supply of coal in the United States. These methods are very carbon intensive and therefore have implications for global warming. But I'm not going to address that issue here, though I believe any intelligent energy supply forecast will have to take into account the near certainty of carbon emission limits. But setting aside the global warming implications, is there really that much coal left? A new independent study produced by the German-based Energy Working Group tells us, for instance, that Chinese coal reserve data hasn't been updated since 1992 even though 20 percent of those reserves have presumably been produced. This is no small matter since China is supposed to have one of the largest coal reserves in the world. There are similar anomalies all over the globe including the curious fact that while annual coal tonnage in the U. S. continues to climb, the total energy content of that coal has been declining since 1998.

Second, biofuels are often touted as a replacement for gasoline and diesel. Even if all the corn grown in the United States were converted to ethanol, it would supply only 7 percent of our liquid fuel needs. Only if all the arable land in North America were put under oilseed cultivation could we fuel the North American vehicle fleet with the much vaunted biodiesel. In other words, we could drive, but we couldn't eat. (Here I'm assuming, of course, that the entire fleet has been converted to diesel.) But, there are serious questions about whether both of these biofuels are actually energy losers, that is, they require more energy to produce than they return which would make them a drain on our current fossil fuel resources.

Third, the words "hydrogen economy" are now frequently heard from the lips of politicians and policymakers. Alas, hydrogen is not an energy source. There are no hydrogen mines. There are currently two ways to make hydrogen: strip it from natural gas which is already in short supply or make it through the electrolysis of water. And, that means, of course, that you need another energy source to make the electricity which in turn means that hydrogen is an energy loser. In addition, there are huge problems with storage and transport. But, beyond this is something that may have escaped your notice. All the talk earlier this decade about hydrogen cars has quieted down considerably as major carmakers have either drastically scaled back their research or abandoned it altogether. The major reason: the technological hurdles are much larger than anyone had assumed.

This leaves us for the moment with electricity. I believe we must begin a serious effort to electrify our transportation system and save what dwindling liquid fuels we will have for only three purposes: emergency vehicles, rural transport and farm machinery.

While hybrid cars are a start and plug-in hybrids may become commonplace within the next several years, I believe we will need to go far beyond the private automobile. After all, half of the energy that a car will ever use has already been used by the first time you take it for drive. In an energy-constrained world, it seems doubtful that we will be able to provide private automobile transportation to the masses, even if it is electrically powered. We will instead need to electrify our public transportation system and vastly expand it. We desperately need to expand greatly our intercity passenger rail service and add to our freight rail service while electrifying both. We need to bring more electrified rapid transit to our cities similar to the SkyTrain system found in Vancouver.

The electricity we will need will have to come from wind and solar, and possibly some nuclear, if we are to avoid the catastrophic consequences of global warming. Fortunately for us, Lake Michigan is one of the greatest wind resources in the world and large, state-of-the-art wind turbines placed inland from the lake and near major electrical infrastructure have the potential to power much of the Midwest.

If we move forward with the electrification of transportation, and it later turns out that liquid fuels are in ample supply, I think there will be many advantages and few disadvantages to having done so. On the other hand, if we are passing into the post-petroleum age, we will be obliged, in my view, to replace the notion of consumer preference--which is clearly an artifact of the oil age--with the notion of societal necessity.

This is only a cursory look at the problem of liquid fuel supplies and one possible solution, the electrification of transport. But, I hope it will stimulate the curiosity of the people who plan our transportation system to examine energy issues more closely as they proceed with their very important work.

Thank you.


zibal said...

Interesting speech. Did you have any feedback from the audience? How did people react to it?

Kurt Cobb said...

Sadly, I was the only member of the public making a comment on the plan. Besides me there were a few municipal officials, but they made no comments.(I suspect any comments were submitted in writing.) I got a respectful hearing, but no questions from the committee. I think this was, in part, because the public hearing was included in a regular meeting and I think committee members wanted to get down to other business. But I know two people on the committee and they do understand what I'm talking about. The executive director of KATS was also interested in what I had to say based on a phone conversation I had prior to the meeting. The head of the public transit agency who was in attendance asked for a copy of my comments.