Transition Stroud

This is a shared history blog. Together we can write the history of our process of transition as it happens.

Thursday, 31 January 2008

Stroud Transitioner watches Parliamentary group on Peak Oil

JOTTINGS ON THE ALL PARTY PARLIAMENTARY GROUP MEETING ON PEAK OIL AND GAS (IN RELATION TO TRANSPORT) on 26 January 2008 - reproduced here by kind permission of the author, John Meadley.

The presentation was made by Canadian academics Richard Gilbert and Anthony Perl – a brief summary of the book (TRANSPORT REVOLUTIONS – Moving people and freight without oil) is on Key points that I picked up are:

Historically, there have been five major revolutions in transport:

· The introduction of the railways (I would add the canals but these were not important in the American context)
· The mass production of cars, followed by the almost total absence of car production in the US during WW2 – important because the US generated 75% of total car mileage in the world
· High speed trains
· Transatlantic (sea and then air) travel
· The expansion of air freight

Peak oil and the massive decline in personal travel will be the next revolution.

· Almost all transport (people and goods) is now fuelled by oil.
· Aviation will be the most affected by peak oil, as:
ü it is the least energy efficient
ü fuel is the largest % of operating cost of any form of transport and
ü (because aviation fuel is not taxed) an increase in oil price feeds directly (linear relationship) into operating costs.
· Rail transport is the least vulnerable to peak oil.

In 2004 key uses of oil were:

· 55% for transport
· 9% for feed stocks (e.g. plastics, tarmac, fertilisers etc) and this is what oil should be used for – not burnt!
· 8% for electricity

Of that used for transport 44% was petrol, 33% for diesel, 10% for aviation fuel and 7% for heavy oil (sea freight). Of the oil used in sea freight, 33% was used to transport oil around the world.

The peak of conventional/easily accessible oil will occur in the next 5 years. Taking into account all other significant options (including the tar sands of Canada – which are not only energy expensive to extract but also require huge volumes of water for processing – deep sea oil, polar oil and liquefied natural gas), this does not radically extend the timing of peak oil.

By 2025 they project a 35% shortfall of supply as against demand – reflecting exponentially increasing demand and a 17% decline in world oil production (over the current rate of production). Very little work has been done on oil price projections when levels of scarcity increase. Their own calculation is that when the shortfall is 15% the price of oil (in current terms) will rise by 550% - in today’s prices rising to US$320 per barrel (reflecting the average price and not the spikes).

Other options for generating energy are considered in the book:

· Hydrogen fuel cells, once considered to be the answer, are very inefficient and the leading company that has undertaken $0.5 billion pf research has now closed down its research operations. Using wind power as the source of electricity, the power available through a fuel cell is only 20% of that generated by the turbine. This compares with 90% efficiency when fed directly into the grid.

· Solar thermal (huge mirrors in the desert regions) is thought to be the major source of power, provided that the costs of distribution can be controlled. A 100 km radius of mirrors in the Californian desert would supply the entire electricity needs of the US.

· Marine, wind and biomass (using the whole plant to produce electricity is the most efficient) all have a role to play.

· Nuclear has a limited role (constrained by the supply of uranium)

· Conservation of energy clearly has a key role to play

The authors believe that electricity will be the main form of power for transport in the future, largely grid-based (vehicles linked to power lines but with batteries for overtaking and for travelling on local roads. Batteries are inefficient (if power is put into a battery rather than taking it straight from the grid then efficiency reduces by 20%), heavy, costly and polluting to produce and to dispose of and will therefore not be the main mechanism through which power is supplied. Electric vehicles with a small internal combustion (IC) engine for local mileages is also possible. ICs are pretty inefficient and produce a lot of heat. Electric-driven trucks are already in use in the mining and forestry industry, non-polluting, more efficient, better torque and able to take bigger loads up steeper roads. Electric motors are not only efficient but have a very long life. The only reservation raised was that they need copper and that production of copper may also peak. At the same time, copper is 100% recyclable and old engines can provide the copper for new ones.

A V-President of General Motors has publicly stated that electric vehicles are the future.

The authors see:

· An increase in electric powered vehicles
· More use of rail but not at high speeds (energy use increases significantly with speed)
· More use of shipping but at lower speeds. A ship at 30 knots uses 5 times the energy of one going at 20 knots. Germany has already developed sky sails that are flown around 200 metres above the ship where the winds are more consistent and can reduce fuel use by 30-50%. To make use of this, shipping will need to revert to the old trade routes (which were determined by the wind) than simply going where they want when they want.
· Personal transport will be increasingly on a collective basis – shared use of electric vehicles (bearing in mind that most cars are idle for 95% of the time)
· Within cities more walking, use of pods, cycling and electric powered public transport
· Inter-city mainly by train and bus – all electric powered
· Aviation – will be used only for long haul flights. The most efficient use of fuel is a large plane (e.g. Airbus 380) travelling for around 5,000 km. Therefore there will be fewer airports that are strategically based around the world – using ground transport (mainly rail) for the distances in between.
· There are huge gains to be made in the rationalisation of freight transport. 70% of the fuel cost of operating a lorry is just to move the lorry itself (its own weight and overcoming wind resistance) so Lorries operating at less than full are very inefficient.
· Continuing to build more roads and airports that do not fit into this pattern – which reflects the availability of oil – makes no sense.

There are huge political implications in these developments. China is now twice as dependent as the US on oil from the Middle East and is building up its military capacity to be able to operate overseas. Between 1985 and 2005, 500 million Chinese moved from the rural areas to the cities – the largest migration of people ever known.

Conflict around oil (as well as water but that is another subject) is likely and the next meeting of the All Party Group is jointly with the All Party Group on Foreign Affairs (28th February) is on “How we can avoid future oil wars”. China is already looking into solar thermal and use of its huge continental shelf for wind power.

The authors believe that the tipping points for crisis – and for people to recognise that peak oil is real and that how they live has to change – include:

· Saudi Arabia’s bluff that it still has huge oil reserves being called – since SA is always referred to as still having huge reserves and if that is exposed to be untrue then crisis will set in.
· The collapse of the aviation industry. IATA itself has said that if the price of oil exceeds $72 per barrel (that is the average price and not the spikes) then half of the aviation industry will go bankrupt.

This book makes projections and like any projections they are only as good as the data available and how it is used. However, this 370 page book is full of references – and even if it is only half right, then there is a lot of food for thought.

These notes reflect what I took away from the meeting and anyone wanting the full story needs to read the book.

John Meadley 29 January 2008


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