January 15, 2009

Maybe we've got this transport thing wrong?

Forgive me a bit of a Clarkson moment, but maybe all this third-runway, High Speed Train news is a mistake.

I’ve come to this conclusion for one reason: Look which mode of transport is seeing the greatest improvements in energy efficiency, and is closest to becoming CO2 neutral.

Tesla RoadsterIt’s the car.

Planes look likely to pump out greenhouse gases for another 100 years or so – there’s no realistic alternative to kerosene. Its high-altitude dispersion of those chemicals also makes them even more dangerous.

High Speed Trains run on electricity. Which comes from power stations. Most of this, in the UK, at the moment, means coal or gas. And if you think the future of electricity generation is totally green, well, just look at Kingsnorth.

Fast trains also use a lot of electricity. Existing cars are arguably about as green as high-speed trains which run on coal-supplied electricity.

So to cars… hydrogen models are a reality and electric ones are there as well (albeit with the same problems as trains.)

The next five years are likely to see enormous growth in the number of CO2-free cars being produced. While I wasn’t blown away by the new Prius (a measly 50mpg) there are models like the Tesla and the Bolt which might actually be the future.

Greenpeace would choke on their organic muesli, but maybe the long-term eco-friendly choice is to build better motorways with less congestion?


- 14 comments by 2 or more people Not publicly viewable

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  1. Steve

    I’m no eco-warrior, but it seems to me that the long term eco-friendly choice is to change the way we structure our lives to reduce our reliance on long distance daily commutes.

    Cars, Trains and planes all have their place, but its the things we do everyday that build up to become a problem. I’d like to see planners designing communities which offer places to work near where people live, and incentives to encourage people to live locally.

    I commute about 40 miles a day to work at the moment, and that’s not considered remotely high by most people in my office, but over a year that’s a lot of travel. I car share to try and reduce the impact, but a more sustainable approach would see me moving closer to work – I’d certainly like to do that if I could

    There are always going to be exceptions, people who need to travel vastly more than others for various reasons, but although modern transport has given us the opportunity to live in one place and work in another, it isn’t necessarily the best idea.

    15 Jan 2009, 15:39

  2. Robert O'Toole

    2-stroke direct injection with variable compression is the future. 2 companies to watch: Lotus (for cars) and Piaggio/Aprilia (bikes). Obviously bikes would be better, otherwise we just head for ever more locked grid-lock.

    15 Jan 2009, 16:45

  3. We seem to hear very little about hydrogen powered power stations right now. If a fuel cell can work in a car, then surely there is some sort of future for it to pump out clean electricity onto the National Grid. And, as that’s where the electric train network gets its power from, it would give a big fillip to the “train being greener than the car” argument.

    15 Jan 2009, 17:43

  4. Existing cars are arguably about as green as high-speed trains which run on coal-supplied electricity.

    I know this statement suits your overall argument, but how did you arrive at it? Electricity comes from fossil fuels, broadly, and cars use also use fossil fuels… but you haven’t stated any figures. “A lot” (however much bold text you use) of electricity doesn’t provide much basis for comparison. The energy consumption (in kWh equivalent or grams of CO2 equivalent) per passenger kilometre of high-speed trains is still a lot lower than the corresponding figure for cars. And I speak as a car enthusiast.

    Richard – the hydrogen generally has to come from electrolysis; it’s a little backward to use electricity to make hydrogen to feed fuel cells to generate electricity. Renewable energy, given it’s generally fairly “low density” in terms of power generated per area of land covered, could possibly be harnessed to generate and store hydrogen locally or transport it onwards (but there’s a lot of energy required to gassify/liquify and then pressurise the gas).

    15 Jan 2009, 17:59

  5. Hands up – I don’t have any figures.

    And that’s part of the problem. I don’t think a proper cost-benefit analysis of all the options has been done because everyone’s gotten a vested interest in one scheme over another (including the government.

    My statement’s based on the theory – which I can’t prove – that a Polo BlueMotion (72mpg) with four people in the car is greener than high-speed rail per passenger.

    I should also add I’ve just noticed there’s a problem with the Prius mpg figure – it’s the US mpg, which is different from our mpg. Typical! The new one’s probably closer to 60mpg (imperial).

    15 Jan 2009, 18:19

  6. Still no figures, but this article’s interesting (even if it contradicts my original argument).

    http://www.autoexpress.co.uk/news/autoexpressnews/228711/electric_cars_in_emissions_shock.html

    If electric cars produce more CO2 than petrol cars (because of where the fuel comes from), then what’s the CO2 per km of a train, divided by the number of passengers?

    15 Jan 2009, 18:24

  7. The energy consumption (in kWh equivalent or grams of CO2 equivalent) per passenger kilometre of high-speed trains is still a lot lower than the corresponding figure for cars. And I speak as a car enthusiast.

    Well you can look at this by doing a quick hand-calc. As an example of a HST, the TGV Atlantique has a capacity of 485 passengers and has a total power from the two power cars of 8,800kW (don’t have an actual figure for power consumption at 186mph but for simplicity I’m going to assume the sets at 100% capacity). This gives a figure of roughly 0.1kWh per passenger mile, or about 90g of CO2 per passenger mile (taking a figure for coal of about 900g/kWh, which is typical). Taking a specific gravity for diesel of about 0.85 and the average chemical formula for common diesel to be C12H23, a gallon of diesel weighs 3.86kg, which contains approximately 3.33kg of carbon which if fully combusted would release 12.2kg of carbon dioxide. Therefore a car burning diesel carrying 5 people would need to exceed about 27 miles to the gallon by my calculations (check: 27 miles releasing 12.2kg CO2 for 5 people equals 90gCO2/mile/passenger). Not a hard figure to beat I’d say, although I concede that this assumes both a full train and a full car; for most journeys the train load factor will be higher.

    We seem to hear very little about hydrogen powered power stations right now. If a fuel cell can work in a car, then surely there is some sort of future for it to pump out clean electricity onto the National Grid. And, as that’s where the electric train network gets its power from, it would give a big fillip to the “train being greener than the car” argument.

    A reasonable argument, until you ask where hydrogen comes from. Currently either methane (releasing CO2) or from electricity generation in the first place. So what does this achieve exactly?

    15 Jan 2009, 20:43

  8. A reasonable argument, until you ask where hydrogen comes from. Currently either methane (releasing CO2) or from electricity generation in the first place. So what does this achieve exactly?

    Problem is: you get nothing for free. Right now, it’s a question of getting it for less!

    16 Jan 2009, 09:34

  9. Ian

    I think the train vs car calculation is over-estimating the train emissions a bit – typical electricity generation from power stations is more like 450g/kWh (http://www.nef.org.uk/greencompany/co2calculator.htm or http://www.climatecare.org/) and trains don’t operate at full power all of the time (plus modern ones use regenerative breaking etc to save more energy). That puts the car figure at nearer to 60mpg for break-even based on a full car/train. I think trains tend to have a greater percentage occupancy than cars so in reality you probably need to achieve over 100mpg to be break even.

    That said, modern petrol engine cars are now claiming over 80mpg so they are getting there, and hydrogen fuel cell powered cars are certainly going to boom in the next few years, so I like the idea !

    16 Jan 2009, 11:07

  10. Hmmm. A very quick google search gave a figure of about 610g/kWh for the US as a “fleet average” in 1999 (see here). I did state that my estimates were working on coal, which is the most polluting in terms of CO2 out of all the main methods (about 900g/kWh vs about 700 for oil, natural gas has an energy content of around 250g/kWh so assuming 50% efficiency that’s 500g/kWh). Nuclear and renewables will bring these figures down a bit, but I still think that 450 is a “best example” plant rather than a fleet average. If you’ve got any information on regenerative braking on HST’s or power consumption at high speed I’d appreciate it, but I couldn’t find any (might be tempted to do a hand-calc later though). I can well believe that the rolling resistance of a 450 tonne train at 186MPH combined with the aerodynamic losses would require close to 100% of the power car output.

    Richard: You don’t get anything for free, but if you have to release CO2 to make hydrogen in the first place (by using methane or generated electricity) then is it really any more efficient? Certainly not with the latter I would have thought, don’t have much data on the former.

    16 Jan 2009, 13:47

  11. Ian

    I guess that proves how antiquated and inefficient the US power grid is! The first website i linked claims the current UK average is 537g/kWh, but that 430g/kWh should be considered as a value for future budgeting (I guess due to improvements happening now).

    The wikipedia article on regenerative breaking is quite informative and links to this article which suggests that regenerative breaking on the new Virgin Pendolino trains can save up to 17% energy.

    It also says that the eurostar and TGV don’t have the system, which is surprising since they claim to have a much lower CO2 emission than your calculation (not more than 40g/passenger/mile – see here ). My guess is that they don’t need to operate at full power the whole time the same way you don’t need to keep your foot hard down on the accelerator the whole time you are driving a car – on downhill sections they can coast under their own kinetic energy & gravity with minimal power usage.

    16 Jan 2009, 14:44

  12. Well until I got ill I was commuting about 160 miles per day in term time. I did this either by train or car. The M40 has at last one major accident a week involving lorries. The road is full of Audis doing 90+ being paid for by the company obviously. Try paying for your own car driving these miles and you take more care!

    Forget hi-speed trains I’m sure plenty of people at Warwick are familiar with the Cross Country services (not!) running through Leamington and Oxford. Trains on time and long enough to deal with passenger traffic without serious overcrowding would be a major improvement! Currently a Pendolino reaches Euston from Cov in about the same time as electric trains did in the late 1970s! Well great improvements in the West Coast Mainline clearly!

    Try travelling between Coventry, Leicester and Nottingham on the train (60 miles ish) – well don’t actually it takes hours. Lets start getting investment into a proper public transport infrastructure there is plenty of work to be done and real jobs to be created on a sustainable basis.

    Another thing would be to reconsider the organisation of coach travel on motorways to allow speedier transit inter-city so as to speak. This is down to planning and would take little infrastructural investment. It would reduce the inevitable motorway queues as well.

    I did sign to Greenpeace’s Emma Thompson thing on the third runway the other day and I particularly hate Clarkson. New paradigms of transport require urgent development which will create more time for people and genuinely start to reverse the disastrous global warming tendency.

    This requires living differently Chris, rather than indulging in the male fantasies which litter the discourse of car magazines (“muscular wheel arches” for example- Mazda 3 brochure). There is a predominant male fantasy about technological sublimes of which hi-speed hydro cars seems to be one. Eating your cake at the expense of everybody else is very Clarkson!

    Let’s pay attention to the critical work of Paul Virilio who did some interesting work on ‘Speed’ in relation to the growth of hypercapitalism. This is as much about getting personal priorities sorted as well as structural tendencies in advanced societies.

    21 Jan 2009, 08:19

  13. The Guardian’s Greenwash column has picked up from where we left off…

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/jan/22/greenwash-train-travel

    22 Jan 2009, 12:47

  14. This Guardian link is interesting. There does seem to be a bit of a calculation based on a “well-filled” short-haul versus a half full train. This correspondent mentions the “Voyager” trains which are the same as the trains through Cov / Leamington / Oxford. Well he must have travelled at midday or something because by Oxford at around 7.20 am that train is heaving and no seats! It was usually fairly empty at Coventry at 6.25 am.

    The correspondent isn’t allowing for the numbers standing – every day on my way back from Oxford to at least Birmingham! So these calculations don’t relate to the practical situation. On Fridays you had to fight for seats at Reading!

    Of course I agree much more attention should be paid to making trains more efficient but then one can say that about cars – who needs gas guzzlers: not GM nowadays :-).

    But the whole argument needs to relate to far better planning of transport in general and creating a built environment which is far more sustainable in terms of access to work and services. Nobody in their right mind wants to be commuting large distances.

    Hopefully far more work can be done over the web as broadband speeds improve.

    22 Jan 2009, 13:44


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