Transportation Without Fuel

A comment made in response to this blog post: , specifically the following part:

In order for a new alternative fuel to truly fix our current predicament, it would need the following characteristics:

  1. Abundant – Available in huge quantities, to meet society’s ever-growing needs.
  2. Direct match for current oil or electricity – Needed to avoid the huge cost of building new infrastructure. Electricity needs to be non-intermittent, to avoid the cost of mitigating intermittency. We also need an oil substitute. This oil substitute theoretically might be generated using electricity to combine carbon dioxide and water to create a liquid fuel. Such substitution would require time and investment, however.
  3. Non-polluting – No carbon dioxide or air and water pollution.
  4. Inexpensive – Ideally no more than $20 or $30 barrel for oil equivalent; 4 cents/kWh electricity. Figure 15 shows wage growth has historically occurred primarily below when oil was below $30 barrel.
  5. Big energy gain in the process, since it is additional energy that society really needs – This generally goes with low price.
  6. Uses resources very sparingly, since these are depleting.
  7. Available now or very soon
  8. Self-financing – Ideally through boot-strapping–that is, generating its own cash flow for future investment because of very favorable economics.

Well, assuming that there isn’t any fuel alternative, which I think is a rather good assumption to make, the question then becomes: can we do without fuel? While the personal transportation angle will be cause for some concern, it is rather trivial (most people know how to use a bicycle, after all) compared to how commodities are transported. Put simply, there are four modes of transportation today: Plane, ship, train and truck. To do an analysis on those:

Plane: While some cargo is transported by air, the primary function is the long-way transportation of people in a short period of time. While the lack of this option has some serious consequences in the latter sense, not so much in the former. I’d say most on here would agree that the age of the air is past, airplanes are impractical without fuel. While in a better world airships could pick up some slack, they need to be lighter than air, and the two options in that area are unfeasible: hydrogen has a nasty tendency to burn, and helium is too scarce. Let’s not even get started on vacuum…

Ship: Here’s where it gets dicey. Not only is it the only way to transport commodities across water without planes, ships are also the blood vein of the current system as it’s the far and above cheapest way to do it. While canal transportation should still be OK, and in fact very good through cheap systems like electric lines or towing the boats, for transoceanic travel it’s much more difficult. Better materials and other technological goodies should make sailing ships much better than in the past, but as anyone even slightly acquainted with boats know, sail power is hopelessly slow compared to the combustion engine. There’s also the obvious disadvantage that these ships are not even on the drawing table.

Train: Many rail lines are already electrified, so while already today many commodities travel by train, it should be able to pick up a lot of the slack left by the others. How much it costs to expand the train net will factor into how much it can be expanded, and for some countries which have the shame of not having looked after their train infrastructure very well (looking at you, US…) the cost of upgrading it will also be a factor.

Trucks: While long-distance cargoes by truck will probably be dead, they could be critical for transporting commodities “the last kilometer” as trains and ships will obviously not be able to transport things to exactly where they’re needed. Battery-driven trucks are prohibitively expensive, sharing many of the same flaws as their cousin the electric car, and are thus not much of an option. Trolley trucks, though, are a cheap option that will be fast to implement, and are even already used, mostly in the former East Block countries.

All in all I have to wonder if the transportation problem is really super-critical, sure there would be mass death if oil vanished overnight, but even in a small time frame it should possible to institute some sort of alternative, maybe not as good, but an alternative nevertheless. In some other sectors, agriculture and mining being the most obvious ones, the question of no fuel is a bit more worrying, though…


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