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The Future of Sustainable Transportation
Mike Millikin, 27 Feb 05

Every Sunday, Green Car Congress' Mike Millikin gives us an update on the week's sustainable mobility news. Green Car Congress is by far the best resource around for news and analysis covering the ongoing evolution of personal transportation. Take it away, Mike:

The world’s top two automakers see unsustainable congestion ahead. GM projects global growth in automobiles to some one billion cars by 2020. Toyota looks ahead to 2050 and sees some 3.25 billion.

We really have to ask ourselves, can the world sustain 1 billion automobiles?

—Larry Burns, GM VP of research and development and planning

When we examine world population trends together with projections of automobile market penetration in newly developing countries, the implications are startling. We may see a four- to five-fold increase of automobiles on the road worldwide by 2050. Our earth clearly doesn’t have the capacity to carry that burden.

—Bill Reinert, Toyota’s US national manager for advanced technology vehicles

There is increasingly open—and even outspoken—agreement about the need to move the current transportation system to a sustainable basis, i.e. off of its high-consumption dependency on petroleum.

The questions are how and how soon.

Although hydrogen remains the currently designated long-term successor to petroleum, numerous practical and strategic problems remain, not the least of which are how it can be affordably and cleanly created, safely stored, conveniently distributed and then widely used.

All automakers are working on hydrogen fuel cell programs—some have been for well more than a decade. Those that haven’t been are catching up.

After working with United Technology fuel cells for a number of years, Nissan announced this week the development of its own, in-house fuel cell stack. (GCC)

A few automakers, notably BMW and Ford, are also working with hydrogen-burning internal combustion engines as a bridge to fuel cells.

This week, for example, Ford announced it was bringing two hydrogen-fueled engines to the industrial market—one the V-10 engine it uses in its hydrogen shuttle bus (E-450), the other a new V-6. (GCC)

The short-term benefit of using hydrogen as an engine fuel, aside from delivering some cleaner-burning engines, is gaining valuable experience with hydrogen storage and refueling, and helping to support the beginnings of a hydrogen infrastructure.

By most current projections, however, hydrogen vehicles won’t come close to having a significant global impact in terms of volume by 2020.

That doesn’t mean that the work shouldn’t be done. Probably the one thing 99.9% of stakeholders agree on is that oil is finite, production of it will peak sometime in the next few decades, and the world needs an energy replacement. For hydrogen to play a significant role in decades to come means that the work needs to begin now.

(One of the primary needs in the hydrogen field is the development of clean and renewable means of producing the gas. Currently, most hydrogen is produced using natural gas, a hydrocarbon, through an energy-intensive process.)

But hydrogen is not a short-, or even medium-term solution. Its promise does not obviate the urgent need for taking sharp action now to reduce fuel consumption and emissions.

Data continues to accumulate pointing to the need for rapid large-scale change. Just this week:

  • Munich Re, the world’s largest reinsurer, issued its annual report on natural catastrophes, and concluded that global warming is leading not only to an increase in the frequency and intensity of exceptional weather events but also to new kinds of weather risks and greater loss potentials. The report makes very real the short term human and economic cost of climate change. (GCC)

  • Matthew Simmons, the energy investment banker who has become outspoken about the economic dangers of peak production, suggested in an interview with Aljazeera that the world may already have passed peak production of oil. (GCC)

  • Reports indicate that despite efforts taken to reduce pollution, including the introduction of CNG, air quality in Indian cities remains poor and, in some cases, worsening. (GCC)

  • A new study just released by the Clean Air Task Force (CATF) concludes that diesel fine particle emissions (PM2.5) from the US fleet directly contribute to the premature deaths of some 21,000 people in the US every year. (GCC)

There are numerous approaches, many of which, as we noted last week, are inter-related.

Improvements in materials and the ability to manage the actual process of combustion through more sophisticated electronic management will continue to allow the creation of more efficient clean combustion engines, with average reductions in fuel consumption of 10%–15% by 2013. (GCC)

Used in combination with hybrid powertrains, electronic vehicle systems, super-efficient automatic transmissions, and/or alternative fuels—especially renewable biofuels—these efficient engines could provide solid improvements in vehicular fuel efficiency and emissions reductions. Not at a WorldChanging level, not at a level that is ultimately sustainable, but much better than we have currently.

Hybrid technology—the combination of an internal combustion engine with a different power or motive machine (electric, hydraulic, compressed air) offers the most significant path to more substantial gains with the chance of widespread adoption.

“Hybrid” is a very generic term, however. On one end of the current spectrum you have the Honda Insight and Toyota Prius, with maximized fuel efficiency. On the other you have the GM Silverado, delivering about a 10% improvement, and taking the pickup to 18 mpg combined.

Unfortunately, the short term trend in hybrid design seems to be to maintain, or even slightly increase, the power of a hybrid model compared to its conventional sibling, while only slightly reducing fuel consumption.

The best shot at medium-term sustainability could very well be a plug-in hybrid. Such a car would rely more on its batteries and other energy store and less on its combustion engine. By plugging into the grid at night and recharging (assuming the appropriate development in battery technology), a plug-in could satisfy a large percentage of driving need as an electric vehicle, turning to its combustion engine only for longer-range travel or for recharging during the day.

This week, AFS Trinity, a vendor of flywheel energy systems, released its concept for a flywheel plug-in hybrid that could deliver 250 mpg in a passenger car, and 200 mpg in an SUV. (GCC)

Separately, Altair Nanotechnologies announced a breakthrough in electrode technology for Lithium Ion batteries that could support batteries with much higher power and dramatically reduced recharging times—great for a vehicle application.

The plug-in hybrid architecture could use clean, downsized combustion engines (diesel, direct injection gasoline or future HCCI) burning alternative fuels or biofuels. The key would be downsizing the engine, and relying on improvements in electric motors and energy storage to allow most driving in electric mode.

That does leave aside the larger question of how power is generated for the grid.

Making such a medium-term shift in time to avert a larger economic or environmental disaster will depend in large part on shorter-term policy and consumer attitude and choices.

In other selected news this week:

  • Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection is adding 21 Ford Escape Hybrids to its fleet. With that addition, some 20% of the DEP fleet will be hybrids or alternative fuel vehicles. (GCC)

  • San Francisco’s Yellow Cab Co-op added ten Escape Hybrids to its fleet. (GCC)

  • The US EPA is awarding $1.6 million to 18 grantees for projects to demonstrate effective emissions reduction strategies for diesel fleets. (GCC)

  • The Maryland legislature is again considering adopting California’s LEV-II program. (GCC)

  • The government of Canada, in its 2005 Budget Plan, outlined its intention to get a 25% reduction in fuel consumption from automakers, and indicated that it would consider a feebate carrot-and-stick approach to encouraging consumer purchasing of efficient vehicles. (GCC)

  • The use of CNG as a vehicle fuel in Pakistan is accelerating. (GCC)

  • Italy is hiking its fuel tax to fund the purchase of cleaner buses. (GCC)

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The most immediate problem felt by people with respect to cars isn't that oil is running out or that the air is polluted -- it's congestion. You can clean up the fuel supply, but if you don't put a brake on the number of vehicles being driven around, then you're really only addressing a small part of the overall impact.

Posted by: Joseph Willemssen on 27 Feb 05

In response to Joseph's comment - Is the problem the number of cars, or the means by which they are routed - i.e. people making decisions based on inadequate knowledge of routes and traffic conditions? Perhaps as technologies like pinpoint GPS, smart-dust networks, and so on evolve, the promlem of congestion will resolve itself. The traditional vision of auto-pilot cars and managed traffic depended on hugely expensive infrastructure investments - like embedded transponders and so on - GPS navigation, collision avoidance, and lane sensing technologies suggestion that we are most of the way there already, and merely need to bring together multiple existing technologies in a well integrated fashion. The lane sensing is an interesting one - its a Nissan product, announced last week (IIRC) that will actually steer your car back into its lane if you are weaving or wandering in an inattentive state. It is deactivated by having your turn signal on - indicating that you're switching lanes. Cool!

Imagine the optimization potential - set up algorithims to optimize your daily commute on the dimensions of travel time and fuel economy, and rock and roll...

Posted by: Rod Edwards on 27 Feb 05

Ron, I think the advances you mention will temper the problems, but as long as you have high levels of auto dependence and high numbers of miles driven per year, along with increasing population and increasing use of automobiles in developing economies, the problems can't be solved that way.

We've already got technologies which allow people to choose alternate routes, but there's no alternative road capacity that they can utilize to relieve it elsewhere.

It's not an issue of absolute capacity limits (ie, there's a lot of arable land in the world that has yet to be paved over), but rather a matter of capacity limits in specific places which we commonly call "bottlenecks".

Seattle, for example, has pretty decent public transit resources for a Western US city of its size, but you've got bottlenecks under the convention center and crossing water which simply can't be built out of without some sort of extraordinary effort. In San Francisco, the water limits throughput as well, but as a much more dense city, they also have more cars per unit of space.

The ultimate irony of congestion is that as soon as you solve it, it unsolves itself. Build a new road, and eventually it will fill up -- especially if it's trying to relieve existing congestion pressure.

If we're eventually going to a system where people aren't even driving, it doesn't make much sense to be moving them around in two ton vehicles that are 16 feet long and 6 feet wide, with lots of rolling resistance and air resistance. But if we're still going to have some degree of driver control, we'll still be stuck with the realities of physics and human reaction times, which limit the amount of throughput for a given corridor.

Posted by: Joseph Willemssen on 27 Feb 05

Finally, and from the auto industry at that, someone utters the simple truth that relying on the private automobile as our principal form of transportation is unsustainable. Period. I agree with Joseph: We could all be driving 120 mpg hybrid turbodiesels fueled with biodiesel and the crippling urban problems resulting from designing cities around the automobile rather than human beings (and other creatures, for that matter) would remain.

The proper solution for urban areas IMO is efficient mass transit supplemented by the most fuel-efficient, and only truly sustainable transportation device ever invented, the bicycle. It would take about 15 bicyles to occupy the footprint of a single typical SUV (usually occupied only by the driver), for example.

But this will require a huge cultural and personal change, especially in North America.

Already emergency health services in major cities are phasing in EMT's on bicycles because it is the only way they can route through urban gridlock to reach trauma victims in time to save their lives. The ambulences get stuck in traffic.

As we reach peak oil and now even some Republicans give choking acceptance of the reality of climate change, we still seem to be reluctant to discuss that the coming energy and resource crunch will require many, if not most of us to give up our cars. That, to quote Ross Perot, is the crazy aunt in the attic.

Posted by: John Baxter on 27 Feb 05

I fully documented my own thoughts on this discussion over at my own blog (
but here they are pasted in part...

An article by Jamais Cascio over at WorldChanging got me thinking about the Jetson-esque auto-piloted smart car concept. The article discuses another article (from Green Car Congress) about the sustainability of increasing numbers of automobiles on the road. Cascio discusses a number of technologies that are coming online which offer partial fixes to the dual problems of oil dependency and solutions - things like plug-in hybrids, ICE engines that burn hydrogen, and so on.

One piece that I think is missing, however, is the notion of optimization - that is to say, optimizing the use of our existing road infrastructure to maximize the mileage of the current generation of vehicles using it. It was a comment on World Changing, from Joseph Willemssen, that got me thinking, actually - Joseph pointed out that a large part of the impact of increasing numbers of cars comes from congestion. This is where the Jetsons come into it - if traffic could be managed algorithmically to maximize the aggregate mileage of all of the cars in the system (with applied constraints on minimum and maximum speed and travel time), I think that it could lead to significant savings in fuel consumption and pollution output. Consider how much gas would be used in a smooth flowing, managed transportation network, compared to today's system of chaos and gridlock, and stop-and-go traffic.


My overall point, is that the auto-pilot car and managed transportation grid are not as far off as one might think. Certainly there's a great deal of work to be done before these technologies could be integrated in a safe and reliable way, but its an order of magnitude easier to extrapolate these existing technologies and link them together with software, than it is to tear up every road-bed in every urban center to implant transponder lines.

Now - my secondary point to this is that while we should be looking for ways to transition to more sustainable means of transportation, shifting the paradigm is a long-term endeavour, and we should be trying to get creative with what we've got in the meantime. Commenters on WorldChaning (Joseph W. and John Baxter) were quick to point out that the automobile isn't sustainable, regardless of whether its fueled by gas, hydrogen, or whatever. John B. points out, for instance, how bicycles are a truly sustainable alternative (in physical and eco-footprint), and Joseph W. points out that solutions to traffic congestion immediately unsolve themselves by becoming congested in turn. The agreed upon point is that cities should be designed around people not cars, and that cars are too resource intensive to allow for sustainability as their numbers continue to grow. I'm not sure if agree that cars are unsustainable, but I'll save that for another discussion. Regardless of their long-term sustainability, however, something like the managed transportation grid could help address short-term problems.

Posted by: Rod Edwards on 27 Feb 05

"The lane sensing is an interesting one - its a Nissan product, announced last week (IIRC) that will actually steer your car back into its lane if you are weaving or wandering in an inattentive state. It is deactivated by having your turn signal on - indicating that you're switching lanes. Cool!"

Lane sensing is an attenuated form of a system I bought at the start of the month. It responds to road conditions (road quality, traffic, as well as the actions of other road users), and performs basic route planning (ie, lane changes, breaking, etc). Although it's limited to using pre-planned routes, it's cheap, and remarkably easy to use. Even those who aren't able to operate a car due to age or medical reasons, can use it without any kind of certification. The vehicles themselves produce low per-capita emissions.

It should be pretty obvious that I'm talking about public transit.

Forget cars. Wrapping yourself in a tonne of plastic and steel is so 1880s. Public transit is quick, easy to use, cheap, and a well developed technology.

Posted by: nobody on 27 Feb 05

Rod, just to clarify: I did not write this post, Mike Millikin did. I simply pasted it in.

Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 27 Feb 05

Forget about traffic flow optimization. Sure, it's one of the sustainability limits to car use, but unless standardized-hour workdays are eliminated, you'll never be able to get more than a factor of.. (rough guess) two, maybe three if you're miraculously good. We're talking about automobile use intreasing by factors of a hundred in cities that are not yet rich & industrialized. At that point traffic flow optimization is lost in the noise, you just need to build bigger roads. Ever noticed how large a portion of the American urban landscape is roads, especially freeways? Ever notice that's not the case in most cities overseas, not even in Europe?

And don't forget the other large problem, building sufficient parking. For every one car, you need two parking spaces--the origin & destination. That causes massive amounts of wasted land in high-value areas. Sure, you can build big multi-storey lots, even underground ones, but only if you're willing to bulldoze and rebuild significant fractions of your city.

The ultimate limits to car growth are not fuel, and not traffic. We'll hit those limits first, but we'll find clever ways to circumvent them. The ultimate limits to car growth are land-use limits. And guess what? Good land use -- good urban planning -- reduces or eliminates the need for cars anyway.

Posted by: Jeremy Faludi on 28 Feb 05

A friend did an interesting study in Europe about 10 years ago. He looked at medium-size cities that had successfully reduced car dependence and increased use of light rail and bicycles. It wasn't enough to offer alternatives to autos; one also needed to make autos less convenient. In other words, don't add a bike lane - take a car lane and convert it to a bike lane. Don't just put in a trolly downtown - make parking expensive and difficult. Don't provide carpool lanes - slowly redevelop suburbs into dense settlements with jobs there. Perhaps we shouldn't try to solve auto congestion problems. Perhaps we should work to make alternatives to the auto more attractive.

Posted by: David Foley on 28 Feb 05

Is the title of this blog "World Preservation Of The Status Quo With Cosmetic Changes?"

Playing devil's advocate here.

The assumptions seem to be:

a) we'll be able to preserve our "drive-in utopia" indefinitely;

b) switching from gasoline to alternative fuels means we can accommodate legions of future motorists;

c) fancy new traffic control systems will eliminate the "problems" in our current system.

Now, maybe you've all become inured to it, but our drive-in, paved-over, multilane suburban nightmare is still gonna be a nightmare whether the cars run on electricity, water, or good intentions. The question that's not being asked here is, how do we continue motoring indefinitely, but *should we be motoring at all?*

No-one seems to ask the basic question, if we get rid of gasoline, is there enough energy available from alternate sources to keep our energy-intensive drive-in, suburban lifestyles floating? Short answer: No.

So why aren't we asking, "How are we going to live in a low-energy world?"

High-tech navigation systems are all well and good, but, we never seem to challenge the assumptions that everyone must own their own car: it's taken as a tenet of free-market religious dogma. We never challenge the assumption that we need to drive incredible distances every day to accomplish basic tasks and errands that, by rights, we should be able to do with a few minutes' walk.

If the US did not import oil from Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Venezuela and other countries, its own domestic reserves would last precisely 4 years with current demand.

I haven't even raised the issues of our petroleum and gas-dependent agriculture and food supply chains. I don't care if I can't drive to the mall again; I do care about eating.

If there truly is to be something "world changing," it will mean rejecting a lot of things that we take as dogma -- the idea of infinite market growth, the idea that we somehow live disconnected from our biosphere, and certainly the idea that there must be a technological, as opposed to social and behavioural, fix for our problems.

Posted by: aj on 28 Feb 05

If I can express a contrarian opinion without getting lambasted, I'd like to say that given our cultural, economic, and infrastructure ties to the autombile, my position is that the best way to deal with its problems is by iterative, incremental change, over a realistic time horizon. That means keeping an open mind to new ideas that work with our current transportation systems, as we work towards a more sustainable future.

While it may be very 1880's to drive a car (?), I'd say its more typical of that era to suggest solutions to problems without consideration for the social, economic, political, and technological factors that got us to where we are, and that will be taking us forward.

Posted by: Rod Edwards on 28 Feb 05

I think we need to change our viewpoint on this... Why do need cars?? ... to get to and from work, to shop for goods, to attend meetings, to get the kids to school, to go on a vacation etc..

In other words we want to get cars to perform a service for us. Maybe we need to continue work on lessening/replacing the need to use cars for these

Posted by: Joe Deely on 28 Feb 05

I agree, Rod.

Posted by: Joseph Willemssen on 28 Feb 05

I recall an entry discussing the benefit of greening the larger vehicles of society has a greater effect than doing the same to compact cars.

It occured to me that limos should be an ideal vehicle to improve, with solar roof panels &/or hybrid tech. If you're the one being driven, then all the better for your image, which is one of the things that all people associate with vehicles ('how do I look?'). It addresses the temporary tech needed before they roll out the hydro-limo.

The limo owners obviously save on gas because most limos sit idle; the fate of most fleet cars. Advertising is a no-brainer. Celebs, politicals, etc. are gonna boast. The social panache of being like the rich person in this situation would also have a positive effect. I wanna be like Mike. Eco-bling!
Make It happen, geeks!

My other idea to bring the paradoxical together is:
Pimp my Ride/Monster Garage meets Worldchanging innovation. Who wouldn't want to see a carismatic person lead an unintiated Chris Everyman or celebrity car owner make his car greener & cooler. Biodiesel, hybridization, fuel cells, fuel efficiency assisting/monitoring software (Why don't cars have this?), etc. Advertisement possiblities are limitless. Maybe even establish a franchise to convert people's cars (as seen on TV) nationwide. Hack social norms from within! The ball is rolling.

PS: Alex Steffen, great meeting you at PopTech! Geeks CAN throw an impromptu party.

PPS: green + geeks = greeks?

Posted by: Sega Songha on 28 Feb 05

Mass transit is far from fuel efficient. The average bus will only get a 10th to a 20th the milage of a car and yet many of them even in heavy traffic areas dont carry even 7 people much of the time. To compound the problem a bus wont go by the best route to where your going most times so your even farther in the hole.

Light rail? Do you have any idea how heavy even a light rail car is? That costs alot of energy... alot.

All mass transit does is compact the space needed to move people from a to b while costing alot more energy and money to get them there in the process. If you think end of oil is bad for cars think about busses and rail and where they are gona get the energy to run em?

As for bikes... until murderers and muggers and such are greatly curbed do you REALY think biking will ever be popular in all that many places?

The fact is in 2030 2050 and 2070 there will be someone selling me fuel of some sort and someone selling me a car that runs on it. Yes there will be more cars there will also be more roads and larger roads and more cities too. That is the future. Some cities will be nice to walk and bike in in spots and some wont. Concidering what weather is likely to be like by then...

Posted by: wintermane on 28 Feb 05

Pimp my Ride/Monster Garage meets Worldchanging innovation. Who wouldn't want to see a carismatic person lead an unintiated Chris Everyman or celebrity car owner make his car greener & cooler.

That's a brilliant idea!

Someone get me the phone number for the Discovery Channel!

Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 28 Feb 05

The fact is in... 2070 there will be someone selling me fuel of some sort and someone selling me a car that runs on it.

Want to bet?

Posted by: Joseph Willemssen on 28 Feb 05

Heh note I didnt say what the cost of the car or fuel would be:)

I expect the cost of cars wont go up too much as long as fuel cell tech makes a few more generational improvements.

The reason for that is when they shove the fuel cell in they will take the transmission and old engine out and those are VERY expensive parts. I expect a fuel cell stack could cost 2000 bucks and yet still wind up in a same cost as gas car car because of that.

Posted by: wintermane on 28 Feb 05

Wintermane, my belief is that cars will be a niche technology by 2070, much like trains are now.

Posted by: Joseph Willemssen on 28 Feb 05

Murderers and muggers stop you from biking? Where do you live -- on an island of pirates? Why not consider moving to a more bike and pedestrian friendly Portland, or Montreal --- or anywhere in Europe, really?

Take a leap of faith with me for a sec here people?

People see "the streets" as unsafe because they are empty. They are too wide. They were made this way for, and by, the automobile. They were not always like this (Ask your grandparents, or great-grandparents, if you got them.)

Before the automobile, people walked, rode bicycles, took horse-drawn cabs or if they were wealthy and/or farmers, had their own carriages. Inside cities there were streetcars, between cities were railways, and between continents, there were passenger ships.

Cities not bent to the will of the car mean lively pedestrian streets with shops and workplaces (and people living above the shops). More people means "eyes on the street," which means safer streets.

Take a leap of imagination for one second. In the days before cars, how do you think people worked and shopped, travelled, got their kids to school, and went to meetings?

They walked to work, or took public transportation, or biked. Many times they lived where they worked - either working from the home, or living above their own shop, or what have you. Their kids walked to school. (With eyes on the street, you can worry less about your kids, too.)

A whole lot of unnecessary travel is going to go out the window. Personal videoconferencing is cheap nowadays, and email replaces a lot. In any case, the far-flung, globalized economy we have now is going to shrink down to webs of local economies, by necessity, in a low-energy world.

It is eminently possible that our vaunted industrial economy will simply not have enough energy to continue in its present form; it will most likely revert to a new sort of 'techno agrarianism.'

That's what all the signs seem to be pointing to. We just aren't going to have Jetson-style flying cars. The future, ironically, is going to look a lot like the past...with Internet access.

Posted by: aj on 28 Feb 05

It is eminently possible that our vaunted industrial economy will simply not have enough energy to continue in its present form; it will most likely revert to a new sort of 'techno agrarianism.'

That's what all the signs seem to be pointing to. We just aren't going to have Jetson-style flying cars. The future, ironically, is going to look a lot like the past...with Internet access.

So will I take a horse-drawn carriage from New York to Los Angeles? A sailboat from Seattle to Tokyo?

Posted by: Joseph Willemssen on 28 Feb 05

Joseph -- well, stranger things have happened.

One of Columbia Journalism Review's "Project Censored" stories of 2005 is Cuba's organic revolution; this was their response to drastically slashed oil imports since the fall of the Soviet Union. At one stroke, they lost something like 80% of their oil inputs; I think it makes an interesting case study for any oil-dependent Western society.

The Cubans, with some outside help from Australian permaculture experts, had to come up with some very practical solutions quickly to avoid starvation.

They de-collectivized farming, allowing people to set up micro-businesses, worker-owned farms of both collective and capitalist bent, practically mandatory carpooling (for those that still drive), imported millions of bicycles, came up with "ad hoc" intercity public transit solutions like converted trucks and 18-wheelers. People really don't commute or travel long distances unthinkingly; they tend to live locally.

The agriculture, which used to be 100% 'green revolution' fossil fuel fertilizer-based, has now switched to organic, sustainable practices. The crops are all mostly for local consumption, not export. What little oil they import now is used mostly for electricity generation. Since this obviates the use of tractors or other mechanical farm equipment, they started a crash-breeding program for oxen (which don't damage the soil as much), and yes, there is a lot of manual farm labour.

Cuba put a great deal of stock in education - it has a fraction of the region's population, but about 11% of its scientists and it still "exports" doctors to other countries. They're building up a lot of practical knowledge about permaculture and energy-efficient, low-tech and local solutions to living.

There's a group called The Community Solution in the States, that is evolving 'intentional communities,' essentially agrarian villages, as a response to our quite probably low-energy future. They recently held the first-ever conference on Peak Oil; the speeches and presentations are all available here ( -- in particular, check out Pat Murphy's presentation "Low-Energy Lifestyle: Lessons from Cuba," from which the above facts are derived.

It may be shocking to people that have grown up in First World luxury, but a compromise in our lifestyles is unavoidable. Life will go on, it may even be better and we may end up healthier from all that walking and biking; it will certainly be different.

All of that to say, we should not expect to be able to continue our 100-year trend of unfettered personal mobility- and all of its complementary trends like urban sprawl and low-density living. It means we need to construct our towns and cities differently, and arrange our lives differently. Some people will complain. Some might even get violent as they see what they thought as a "right" taken away from them - cheap cars, cheap gas, cheap steak, cheap flights -- but in fact this is all just plain simple economics at work. In fact, at least in Western societies, oil and gas have been underpriced relative to their true cost and the externalized costs they place on society.

Posted by: aj on 1 Mar 05

AJ - your technoagrarian future is appealing - its nice to imagine a world of widely scattered pastoral villages and techno arcologies, perhaps linked with mag-lev trains, and every body participating in a global interactive commons of art, media, business, and so on via the Internet.

However, I don't think your taking into account that that the future will likely be quite rich with energy - be it solar, fusion, microwave from space, hydrogen or whatever. Your scenario suggests that were going to reach (or have already reached) aggregate peak energy production. The only area in which this even may be true (subject to debate) is oil. And, contrary to your vision, I think the death of oil will spur long-defferred innovation in other areas of energy production, as opposed to the return to our pastoral roots that you see.

Posted by: Rod Edwards on 1 Mar 05

Rod, I prefer your scenario, really -- I just don't see it happening without some "big ifs" coming true:

- Apollo Project style crash research to convert the infrastructure of, well, everything. We'd need to spend as much as we do now on defense, for instance. If peak oil causes major economic instability, there simply may not be the cash to do this.

-it takes energy to replace the infrastructure, too. If our resources of cheap energy become too expensive, sustainable projects may stall.

- we need real breakthroughs in energy efficiency across the board --especially the biggest and easiest one: reducing demand. Realistically, renewables will not meet the bottomless energy appetite we have today; they will work only if we drastically reduce that demand, as estimated by many researchers, to about 20-25% of what we use now.

I'm doubtful of hydrogen for many reasons, despite Amory Lovin's pooh-poohing of the naysayers:

One, in a low-energy future, are we even going to be able to generate enough primary energy to crack hydrogen on the scale some people imagine (as an oil replacement)? Not really without increasing generating capacity by 400% or more, which, once again, requires intense investment. Overall, the energy return on energy invested is just not really there.

There are some biotech solutions that look interesting (modified bacteria), but capacity remains to be seen; I'm sure hydrogen will have its place for locally produced and stored needs, but I doubt it will become the large-scale replacement everyone thinks it will be.

Secondly, there are some real problems with producing hydrogen, period. Free hydrogen in nature just doesn't exist: it leaks; it evaporates; it is highly reactive, particularly with oxygen. Someone pointed out that it would only take a few "big hydrogen spills," or alternately, years of cumulative leakage, to seriously damage the ozone layer even further.

I'm not proposing agrarian communities as some sort of pastoral vision; in a low-energy future, it is what we will have to do to simply survive. You know, to grow food, because we won't be shipping lettuce 3000 miles anymore! On top of that, without oil-based fertilizer inputs we won't be growing loads of grain for cattle feed; we'll likely be eating a lot less meat. Think less Logan's Run, and more 3rd world..

Agrarian communities (such as those proposed by The Community Solution) are calculated by crop yields, hours per day, and number of people needed to do the work - they estimate so many people per number of square hectares can be sustainably supported. Even in cities, I expect people will put in some hours per day working in gardens and greenhouses.

A low-energy future really doesn't contain whiz-bang things like maglev trains and whatnot - maybe if we can produce them inexpensively and with very high efficiency, as a replacement for things like the I-95 corridor for instance. But generally, in a situation of potential energy scarcity, we have to consider the fact that these things may not be built at all, and that we will be living our lives very, very locally - within 100km radii.

It does contain concepts like "re-ruralization," where swathes of city land are interspersed with cultivated land, to bring human settlements and agriculture closer together, to minimize distance from farm to table. (

In the Pat Murphy powerpoint, they show this happening right in Havana: their equivalent of the National Mall has been turned into organic farms.

Posted by: aj on 1 Mar 05

AQctauly this is where amaerica is in the clear. We have all the hydrogen we will need for more then a hundred years in an easy source called coal.

For power gen we will use clean coal power plants. You can tell we will by just how much money is being inveested in that tech.

We will generate hydrogen from coal to power our cars and trucks.

This WONT provide all the power but then we wont need to because any fuel cell car is also an electric car and so will by 2030 be plugin hybrid design. That means massively less fuel use.

We only need the hydrogen for extended range driving and as such the amount needed and the allowable cost of it are very different than for gas.

Now do you understand why hydrogen is workable?

Posted by: wintermane on 1 Mar 05

clean coal


Posted by: Joseph Willemssen on 1 Mar 05

clean coal doesnt have to be clean it just has to be clean enough. The fact is we will burn it when we need to clean or not might as well spend some money on making it cleaner before we need it.

When the time comes we will burn it all to keep the lights on.

Posted by: wintermane on 1 Mar 05

"When the time comes we will burn it all to keep the lights on." - wintermane

Is that the future you want?

Many comments in this thread make forecasts of what the future will bring - as if the future were something "out there" to be predicted. But what if the future (subject to the laws of physics, of course) is something "in here" to be created?

Posted by: David Foley on 1 Mar 05

Wintermane, I'm starting to think you have stock in coal companies.

Here is a brief quote from David Goodstein, author of “Out of Gas: The End of the Age of Oil," interviewed in Newsweek, republished at

"It’s possible for us to revert either to natural gas or to coal or both. Among consequences are the increasing global climate change. But another consequence is, let us suppose you tried to substitute coal for oil. Natural gas is a good substitute and it will last for a while but it will have its own peak one or two decades after oil, so it’s only a temporary solution. If you turn to coal, we’re now using twice as much energy from oil as we are from coal. So if you want to liquefy coal as a substitute for oil in transportation—which is its most important application—you would have to mine coal at a rate that’s many, many times at the rate of what we’re doing now. But the conversion process is very inefficient. So you’d have to mine much more than that. If you put that together with the growing world population and the fact that the rest of the world wants to increase its standard of living, you realize that the estimates that say we have hundreds of years worth of coal in the ground are wrong by a factor of ten or more. So we will run out of all fossil fuels. Coal will peak just like any natural resource. We will reach the peak for all fossil fuels by the end of the century."

He also goes on to say:

"Nuclear is an alternative, but remember you’re not going to have any nuclear cars and nuclear airplanes. Nuclear is not a substitute for oil. There’s a lot of talk about hydrogen because of the president’s initiative—the governor of California has also announced an initiative. I think what people don’t understand about hydrogen is that it is not a source of energy. You have to use energy to make hydrogen—it’s just a way of storing and transporting energy. And with today’s economics and today’s technology, it takes the equivalent of six gallons of gasoline to make enough hydrogen to replace one gallon of gasoline." (emphasis mine)

Put it this way: According to 2000 DOE statistics ( about 10% of all households use fuel oil for heat, and 55% use natural gas.

Switching the infrastructure alone from gas and oil to coal-generated electricity is going to be an enormous cost. Who's going to pay for that? On top of that, will there be any mandated energy efficiency requirements (or efficiency tax credits?)

Clean coal is "clean" because the output has dramatically less sulfur and mercury...NOT any less carbon dioxide. I really don't want to bet the fate of the planet's weather systems on some unproven magic pixie dust technology, like so-called carbon sequestration. Increasing CO2 output by 70% is really not a "good deal" in my book.


On top of that, sure, we can burn all the coal we want for electricity, but coal does not replace all of the biggest uses of petroleum and natural gas at a cheap enough cost, namely for transportation, pesticides, agricultural fertilizers and chemical feedstocks for plastics, manufacturing, pharmaceuticals and the like.

The use of farm equipment, irrigation, pesticides, and fertilizers in so-called industrial agriculture have ruined a lot of land. We need to preserve as much arable land as possible. That is why I don't encourage this fantasia of "driving everywhere forever" because it will only encourage continued sprawl.

Everything I've posted so far has been based on objective scientific data, from official sources, and the trends are pretty much agreed on by everyone, including those in the energy industry. The dilemma of 'alternative fuels' in an era of unchecked energy consumption is akin to switching your horse midstream while trying to eat it, too.

Posted by: aj on 1 Mar 05

"And with today’s economics and today’s technology, it takes the equivalent of six gallons of gasoline to make enough hydrogen to replace one gallon of gasoline."

The key words there are "equivalent" and "with today's economics and today's technology".

We are not lacking in energy but rather in ways to use it effectively. There is no way we are going to regress to some sort of agrarian society.

Posted by: Joseph Willemssen on 1 Mar 05

I guess its a bad thing to say but ever since I figured it out in the 80s ive been very happy im gona be alive when all heck breaks loose. Im looking forward to whatever future the changes to come forges because its gona be a wild and deadly ride and the future for once realy will be nothing like the present. I unless I get hit by a bus or something will likely live through the most drastic and amasing changes to happen maybe this or any century. And that while rather painful is also gona be impressive to live through... if I do manage to live through it of course;/

What more could you ask for in a life?

Posted by: wintermane on 1 Mar 05

I think even by 2020 cars will be radicaly different from todays models. By the time the crunch realy hits hard many cars will be flexable enough in fuel to just sidestep oils plunge into old age and swap on the fly to other by then hopefuly not to spendy fuels including hydrogen.

I do expect coal and nuke to provide HUGE amounts of power in 2030. No I dont think its a BAD thing because I know already with near certainty that violent climate change is inevitable and was so before I was born. We basicaly already threw the switch back in the 60s and once it fully clicks off wich should be about NOW its not something we can flip back in our or our great great great great grandkids lifetimes.

We just have to live with the fact the world is gona change around us in rather wild and nasty ways.

As for what all this has to do with future transportation... the car companies want to take the environmental issues out of the car industry so they all are backing hydrogen. Then it wont be the cars but the places where the hydrogen is made that will be the issue. From the car makers point of view its a very good goal to shoot for.

Posted by: wintermane on 2 Mar 05

Agreed, Joseph! Wintermane - here's hoping your apolocalyptic visions never materialize.

Posted by: Rod Edwards on 2 Mar 05

volkswagen brought out a golf a few years ago which automatically cut the motor when stopped or free-wheeling, and automatically fired up again when you pressed the gas pedal.

the sheer amount of pollution this would save worldwide if it were as normal an accessory as a transmission, and the lowered consequent human suffering and costs just boggle the mind.

it was discontinued due to lack of interest.

yet the ship of humanity has been commandeered by pirates, hell-bent on heading for the biggest maelstrom history has ever seen, thinking we'll fly over that and make it to fantasy island, where they hope to squeeze the last drops of dishonest profit from the natural resources, safe behind gated communities while the proles outside fight over crumbs, and beg to join the squires' private army, just to eat.

this site gives me hope, it should be required reading for all students of all ages.

how can some people be so wise, while others are so blind?

Posted by: Michael Dunkley on 3 Mar 05

Uh michael the reason back then that stop start didnt get much interest was it tore the engine apart rapidly and because it actauly caused more pollution it also didnt save much gas either. Now its come back because they can build a car that can stop start without ripping the engine apart and they have pollution controls that work even on the first seconds of startup.

Tech does come in handy some times.

Posted by: wintermane on 3 Mar 05

I always wondered why trucks have rear ends with hypo-gears and not trans axles. A lot of buses have trans axles in them. By reversing this configuration and using it in a semi a 25% fuel saving and power increase could be achieved. I think there has to be a lot of incremental changes to get the average person off the couch. As long as they has beer, potatoes chips and hockey there will be no riots. When most people are sending less than 3% of there income on auto fuel its only a faint blimp on the radar screen but 10 to 15% maybe. The only other thing to do is to fight the vested interested heavy energy use brainwashing. Hummers and hypo-gears be gone. I don't see the need for them on the scale that we are producing them.

Posted by: Cameron Dell on 3 Nov 05



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