Sunday Train: In Worrying News, Non-Petroleum in Transport Hits 60-year High

The US Energy Information Administration released a story last week which sounded like good news: Nonpetroleum Share of Transportation Energy at Highest Level Since 1954. "Since 1954" means, since before I was born or, as hard as it is to wrap my brain around, a period spanning six decades.

So, surely this is good news? Well, if you have glanced at their accompanying chart, no, not so much. A more descriptive headline would be, "US transport continues to be addicted to petroleum as its primary energy source". And digging into the US EIA numbers reveals that the situation is even more grave than the chart to the right would make you think.

Digging into the numbers

The change in the chart above is a change from 4% to about 8.8% of transport energy being provided by the "non-petroleum" sector. And here is where the optimist rushes in to say that we shouldn't focus on the level of the shares of petroleum and non-petroleum use, nor should we focus on the rate of decline in the share of petroleum use, but instead we should focus on the rate of increase in the share of non-petroleum use. After all, from 4% to 8.8% is more than double, in 14 years. If we can push "just a little bit harder", why, we could hope to double in a decade. And then we have 4% to 8% to 16% to 32% to 64% to 100% ... forty years to a petroleum free transport system.

The chart above breaks out the "non-petroleum transport" sector, and here is where we see that most of this increase is illusory. This chart reveals what lies behind that growth since the turn of the century from about 4% to 8.8%. And what lies behind it is primarily ethanol, and secondarily an increase in natural gas pipeline transportation.

Now, almost all ethanol produced in the US is ethanol from corn. And ethanol from corn is not a sustainable, renewable source of energy. Not only do we produce corn in the US in a substantially non-sustainable process of mining legacy topsoils, we also produce corn in a very energy intensive way, relying on nitrogen rich artificial fertilizers based on ammonia, with natural gas as the primary feedstock for ammonia production. And the ethanol production and distillation from corn is itself an energy intensive process. There is a debate whether or not corn ethanol is a net energy producer at all, but even if it is (and granting that only for purposes of argument), it is still primarily a conduit for the energy used in production of the ethanol, which is primarily fossil fuels.

{As a side note, I would observe that it is known how to produce cellulosic ethanol from non-food feedstocks ... its just not clear whether its possible to do so on a commercially viable basis. Robert Rapier, author of the R-Squared Energy Column, has referred to commercial cellulosic ethanol as a unicorn. He has received pushback on the basis of cellulosic ethanol actually existing, when it was the commercialization of cellulosic ethanol that he was referring to as something fantasized about but never actually seen in the real world. It might also be compared to a magic flying carpet ... both carpets and cellulosic ethanol clearly exist, but magic flying of carpets and commercialization of cellulosic ethanol appear to be quite a bit rarer.}

So a shift to corn-ethanol is not actually substantial progress toward sustainably powered transportation. Not only is it infeasible to rely on ethanol to continue doubling the "nonpetroleum share", but doing so would not actually be solving the problem of petroleum addiction, it would just be replacing it with substantial problems of natural gas and corn monoculture addictions.

The second largest source is in natural gas distribution, where a natural gas pipeline is, naturally, powered by natural gas, and leakages from the pipeline system are also accounted as energy consumed in transport ... but in either case this is simply a symptom of the increasing natural gas consumption, and is neither sustainable, renewable transport nor, indeed, anything that can replace the bulk of transport energy.

So despite the positive spin in the US EIA headline, the heavy lifting on solving our transport system's addiction to petroleum lies entirely ahead of us.

A Sustainable Grid as a "solved problem", Transport as the "next problem to solve"

Last month, I listened to an provocative Energy Gang podcast that began with an interview with Michael Liebreich, founder of Bloomberg New Energy Finance, with the podcast itself given the provocative title, "Why Renewables Can't Be Stopped".

The gist of Michael Liebreich's argument is that the basic outline of the coming Decarbonized Electricity sector is already in place. Wind will continue to be rolled out. Solar PV will continue to be rolled out. (In high-value sites, Solar CSP with thermal storage will roll out). A renewable energy penetration of 20% wind and 10% solar PV is already on the cards, under status quo conditions, and by the time we have reached that level, the urgency on taking action on climate change will have reached a tipping point where we will be in a position to take the steps required to move toward a fully decarbonized grid.

He is not arguing that all of the details are worked out ... but rather that the evolution of the system is already sufficiently clear that questions revolve around how fast we can do it and what are the most effective ways to do it, and not around whether or not it is possible to do it. It is, in his view, not only clearly possible but, in fact, clearly already happening. It will be a forty year project in implementing the changeover ... but he argues that unlike where we stood in 2005, we know the broad outlines of where we are going to end up.

But in the other big slices of GHG-emitting energy use, Transport and Home Heating and Cooling, he argues that we are still in the position that Sustainable Electricity was in at the turn of the century.

And from where I stand, I believe that this is a reasonably accurate sketch of where we stand now.

Seeds of Sustainable Transport

Transport involves both local and intercity transport of both passengers and freight. But in many ways, the trickiest part of the puzzle is the local transport of passengers. This is our largest slice of petroleum consumption, and the petroleum consumption that has the greatest built-in inertia.

Much of what stands in between where we are today and where we need to get to are the massive hidden subsidies, cross-subsidies (and often hidden cross-subsidies) of the petroleum addicted semi-private motor vehicle. Motorists often fantasize about their cars being "private vehicles", but of course are typically engaged in this fantasy while driving between a home or apartment parking place provided under a zoning mandate and another zoning mandated parking space on publicly subsidized roadways requiring policing support to both enforce driving rules and maintain some security of possession of their automobile for the 95% of the time that it is parked.

The autotopian vision of a petroleum free transport system involves some form of alternative energy source for the car. However, an autotopian vision also requires that even when we reach the point that most new cars sold are powered without gasoline, we will only slowly transition to petroleum independence over the normal life of the motor vehicle.

So Sunday Train has focused, and will continue to focus, on the establishment of both local common carrier transport, and Active Transport, both of which provide an alternative to possession of private motor vehicles, and which work more effectively in combination than either do alone. The less dependent we are on privately owned cars for local passenger transport, the more open we are to wholesale changes in the power supply system of our transport as a direct policy choice.

Changing from a system dominated by the privately owned automobile does not mean abandonment of self-powered individual transport vehicles. It is the private ownership that tends to collect all passenger transport on a single technology, creating a "one size fits all" system which is intrinsically inefficient in its use of energy and material.

And a battery-powered electric car is, after all, even less sustainable than a gasoline powered car during the 95% of the time that it is parked ... because the battery and electric engine is more material intensive than an internal combustion engine, and when it is sitting idle, it is not benefiting from the greater energy efficiency of that electric drive train. So systems that put the individual motor vehicle at the disposal of more than one person per day are a key part of leveraging the transition from gasoline to electric traction for individual motor vehicles. And since the per trip charge for a sustainable per-use system has to cover the entire "cost to own" the trip, it automatically tilts the playing field toward electric vehicles that are able to offer a lower total cost to own, even though they may have a higher up front purchase cost.

One strong benefit of per-trip use of individual motor vehicles is that it allows specialization. A relatively short trip to the grocery store on 35mph or lower roads does not required a highway-capable motor vehicle, and so catering to these kinds of trips does not have to charge the added cost of providing a highway capable motor vehicle for the task.

And at the same time, the easier it is to obtain the use of a private motor vehicle when it is most useful, the greater the opportunity that common carrier transport has to bid for the other trips. Stripping the subsidy away from cars still leaves the many of the "costs of ownership" as either genuine or psychological fixed costs, that are ignored when determining the "price" of driving the car somewhere.

So in addition to establishment of trunk public transport routes, and support for Active Transport throughout all of our neighborhoods, another part of the puzzle are systems for encouraging the use of per-trip private motor vehicles.

And here, just as in providing electrified rail for long-haul freight or high speed passenger trains for medium distance passenger transport, the problems to be solved are not primarily technical. Whether we have an "Uber" type system of sharing, community cooperative ownership of car sharing, or autotopian driverless cars providing sharing through driverless cabs ... the core challenge is changing the pattern of subsidies that we use to bribe people to own their own cars. Because a substantial part of the efficiencies of shared cars is the efficiencies in parking space, and so not charging people for the resources they consume by parking their own privately owned vehicle is an obstacle to commercialization of an important part of a sustainable 21st century transport system.

Conclusions and Conversations

I think that there is one point that bears bringing out from Michael Liebreich's argument. That is that if his thesis about where we stand with a Decarbonized Electric Grid is correct, then Transport in 2015 being in a position similar to the Sustainable Grid in 2005 is ultimately encouraging. We did see Windpower move from being an "energy of the future" to being among the least expensive sources of electrical energy, even competing against implicitly subsidized coal and natural gas getting their permission to emit CO2 for free. We did see Solar PV energy move into the mainstream. We did get to the point where Michael Liebreich could claim that we know where we are heading and in broad terms how we will get there ... even if all of the details have not yet been worked out.

So if we press ahead in the fight for Sustainable Transport, there is every reason to be encouraged that we may be able to achieve the same status for Sustainable Transport in the decade ahead.





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I hope everyone had a good Memorial Day weekend ...

BruceMcF's picture

... as we honor fallen warriors, including those who fell in George Bush's wars to free up Iraqi oil reserves for the balance sheets of Big Oil.

One reason we honor fallen warriors is to remind ourselves of the gravity of the role of the civilian leadership of the country to ensure that they do not die in vain ... a task that the civilian leadership has failed at in spectacular fashion since the turn of the Century.

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