Book Review | When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation
Are renewable energies enough to maintain the trucking industry in order to maintain the... renewable energy industry? Hmm...
I left off last week's post – "Money Doesn't Grow on Trees, Industrial-Scale Renewable Energy Does" – by mentioning the existence of a rather excellent resource. By that I didn't mean an energy resource, but rather a book – a book that nonetheless gives a rather fine breakdown of our various energy resources and their applicability to a world in the midst of peak oil and declining EROI levels. That book would be When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation by systems analyst Alice J. Friedemann.
But before I get to the book, it's worth reiterating from said previous post the notion that just as the coal lobbies, nuclear lobbies, and all the other "dirty" fuel lobbies are wont to exaggerate and obfuscate the specifics of their energy resources, so too are lobbyists for the large-scale application of "renewable" energy sources more than willing to exaggerate, obfuscate, and even fudge the facts when it comes to conveying the benefits and advantages of their energy resources. And as I also pointed out, the latter is just as often the work of PR agencies and other marketeers, the goal effectively being anything but conveying a clear understanding of our current energy situation. Friedemann perfectly explains why this is (italics mine):
In business, ...analysis is essential to prevent bankruptcy. Yet when scientists find oil, coal, and natural gas production likely to peak within decades, rather than centuries, or that ethanol, solar photovoltaic, tar sands, oil shale, and other alternative energy resources have a low or even negative energy return on the energy invested, they are ignored and called pessimists, no matter how solid their findings. For every one of their peer-reviewed papers, there are thousands of positive press releases with breakthroughs that never pan out, and economists promising perpetual growth and energy independence. Optimism is more important than facts. And, it's essential for attracting investors.
So don't let a title like When Trucks Stop Running give you the impression that Friedemann's book is simply one about the energetic options for the trucking industry, since what it actually does is use trucks as an interesting starting point for how to understand the viability of the various energy options available to our declining industrial way of life.
While it was coal-powered trains and railroads that, as described, allowed for extensive inland settlements distant from shipping ports, it was cheap oil supplies after WWII that allowed for the even more distant and scattered suburbs – "truck towns" – thanks to the proliferation of diesel-powered trucks (ten million trucks in the U.S. alone), the millions upon millions of miles of road (4.1 million miles in the U.S. alone), and the just-in-time transport enabled by it all. With our industrial civilization now largely built around the continued operation of these trucks, Friedemann then explains that if our current way of life is to be maintained – and since supplies of various fossil fuels are finite and have begun, or are to soon begin, peaking – this suggests a turn towards renewables to power those trucks. But as is pointed out, renewables themselves are just as dependent on trucks as the rest of our modern, industrial civilization is: trucks are needed to transport massive wind turbine blades and the rest of their thousands of components (more than 8,000 in all), they're necessary to transport the cement needed for windmill sites, they're necessary to build and maintain the very roads they themselves travel on, and so forth.
The underlying question then becomes: How can the trucking system be adapted to run on alternative fuels in order to remain viable in a world of depleting fossil fuels of which said trucks rely on? Because if the trucking system can't be adapted, then there wouldn't be much reason for building out the large-scale windmill, solar photovoltaic, and all the other fandangle electricity generating ideas being hyped.
For starters, diesel-engine trucks can last decades, this implying a decades-long replacement time due to the billions of dollars already sunk in said trucks of which isn't going to be thrown away. Simultaneously, a chicken-and-egg problem exists of an aversion to buying alternative-fuel trucks due to the non-existence of fuelling stations, buttressed by an aversion to the building of alternative-fuel stations since the alternative-fuel trucks don't exist either.
What is ideally called for then is a "drop in fuel" – a fuel that utilizes the existing infrastructure and so works with the engines and pipeline systems we've currently got. But as Friedemann explains, ethanol and biodiesel can't travel in oil pipelines for a variety of reasons, one of these being the resultant corrosion of said pipelines. (Instead, ethanol will continue to travel by trains and trucks powered by twice-as-energy-dense... diesel.) Furthermore, hydrogen isn't a drop in fuel for the simple reason that it can't be used in existing engines, never mind that it would ruin existing oil and/or natural gas pipelines anyway. And although natural gas already has pipelines to be transported through, it can't be used in existing engines either.
In short, a drop in fuel doesn't exist.
That being the case, Friedemann proceeds to break down the three most notable alternatives to diesel-powered, internal-combustion-engine trucks: battery-powered trucks, hydrogen-powered trucks, and trucks running on a catenary system (an overhead wire system as used by trolleys/trams/streetcars).
While it might be possible to get a battery-powered remote-control Tonka truck with a cute little Tesla sticker on it, the battery-powered trucks that matter are the massive ones that can haul 30 tons of cargo or pour cement, generally weighing more than 40 times your average car. Problem is, the amount of batteries needed to allow a truck like this to travel an appreciable distance results in a significant dent in available cargo space, which is then made even worse by the decreased amount of payload a truck can carry due to the sheer weight of the batteries themselves. This doesn't make for economical transport, and nor does it help that the advancement of batteries is bumping up against physical and thermodynamic limits (as Friedemann has explained on her blog, Energy Skeptic). But supposing you've got the money to burn (and/or have made some key donations to people in the right government departments and/or positions) and wack it all together anyway, the inherent limitations to the energy density of batteries not only dictates the need for more frequent stops, but for prolonged stops of several hours in order to recharge the batteries. As if that weren't bad enough, battery-powered trucks have many performance issues, such as mediocre acceleration and problems driving up steep hills, shoddy performance in subzero temperatures, declining range as batteries degrade, and simply cost much more than a conventional diesel truck. As a result, the battery-powered trucks currently in use are heavily subsidized by governments and exist in the form of smaller-sized hybrids used for garbage pickup since this allows them to utilize all the stopping and starting to recharge their batteries. In other words, they aren't even the type of truck that hauls large loads and travels for long distances without stopping.
As should go without saying, hydrogen isn't a fossil fuel we mine from the ground but rather an intermediary of sorts that other energies (such as from wind, solar, etc.) can be transferred over to for storage or other means of usage. In other words, hydrogen isn't an energy source but more like a battery, and since it takes an enormous amount of energy to split hydrogen from water (water which must be very pure), 96% of H2 is derived from natural gas. In effect, hydrogen has an abysmal efficiency rate due to the multiple stages where energy is lost – liquification, hydrogen re-forming, fuel cell efficiency, etc. On top of all this, hydrogen-powered trucks are so horrible at acceleration that they actually require a secondary propulsion system – batteries – which results in a single truck costing more than a million dollars each – in comparison to the $100,000 or so for a diesel truck.
Problems quickly appear here due to the frequency of trucks travelling on the system – once every few seconds versus trolley/tram/streetcar systems in which passenger vehicles generally come once every ten minutes or so. This puts a significant strain on the system due to the enormously large loads of electricity that must pass through the overhead wires. Moreover, the tens of thousands of trucks that would travel on a single system each weigh twice as much as one of the few hundred trolleys/trams/streetcars on an urban transit system and so require much more energy to move. Then there's the massive overhead costs to install such a system over tens of thousands of kilometres (at several million dollars per kilometre) and the abhorrent amounts of electricity that tens of thousands of trucks would necessitate, compounded by the fact that catenary enabled trucks also require an added battery or fuel cell system for those times when trucks need to drive off the catenary system towards a delivery/pick-up point (or simply overtake another vehicle), or for those times that the power goes out and one doesn't want the highways to turn into McParking lots.
And that's all supposing that there's even enough energy in the first place to charge those batteries, or to be a feedstock for the hydrogen fuel cells, or to power the overhead catenary system. Because while being a slim and easy-to-read 131-page book, When Trucks Stop Running also gives a barrel-by-barrel, kilowatt-by-kilowatt account of why none of our fossil fuel energy sources – not oil, not coal-to-liquids, not natural gas, not even any of their combination – are capable of maintaining the trucking system and thus our current industrial way of life. Likewise, the book also conveys why no amount or combination of renewable energies are enough to maintain a trucking system which is needed to maintain a... renewable energy system. And sorry, Friedemann also explains why energy storage systems are a crapshoot as well.
In effect, you aren't going to find much in When Trucks Stop Running to help sell your favourite brand of snake oil in order to prop up your Madison Avenue lifestyle. Otherwise, it's an excellent read.
That all being so, Friedemann suggests in summation that rather than waste the fossil fuels we've got left on attempting to build out systems that won't have much of a shelf life, we'd be much better off using that fossil energy to convert away from industrial agriculture, to build passive solar houses and buildings, maintain and upgrade domestic waterway transportation infrastructure as well as other low-energy systems.
Regardless, no PR agency, or energy lobbyist, or charlatan is going to be content with letting Friedemann get away with the last word here. For as was mentioned in the passage of hers I quoted earlier:
[W]hen scientists find [uncomfortable facts], they are ignored and called pessimists, no matter how solid their findings. For every one of their peer-reviewed papers, there are thousands of positive press releases with breakthroughs that never pan out...
And you know what that means, right?
Elon Musk just announced the unveiling of the Tesla Semi truck!! And it's "Seriously next level"!!
Okay, okay, I don't mean to say that the latest MuskMobile will "never pan out", just that Concordes generally necessitate too much energy to make them viable without significant subsidies of one sort or another. And that isn't to say that there's anything inherently wrong with subsidies either, just that while Friedemann also points out that "it is energy, not money, that fuels society", it is also energy, not money, that fuels subsidies (money is after all a proxy for energy, as I've previously written).
In other words, using energy to subsidize energy probably isn't much of a viable long-term plan, but it can certainly score you the starring role as the latest messiah in this age of optimism being valued over facts.