Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization


Lester R. Brown

Chapter 4. Stabilizing Climate: An Energy Efficiency Revolution: Electrifying the Transport System

Among the keys to cutting carbon emissions are redesigning urban transport (see Chapter 6) and the overall electrification of transportation. The last century witnessed the evolution of an oil-powered transport system: gasoline for cars and diesel fuel for trucks and trains. Now that is changing. With both cars and rail systems, oil will be replaced by electricity. And the power will come increasingly from wind farms and from solar and geothermal power plants.

With peak oil on our doorstep, the world desperately needs a new automotive energy economy. Fortunately, the foundation for this has been laid with two new technologies: gas-electric hybrid plug-in cars and all-electric cars.

The Toyota Prius—the world’s top-selling hybrid car—gets an impressive 50 miles per gallon (mpg) in combined city/highway driving, nearly double that of the average new U.S. passenger vehicle. The United States could easily cut its gasoline use in half simply by converting the entire American automobile fleet to highly efficient hybrid cars. But this is only the beginning. 52

Now that hybrid cars are well established, it is a relatively small additional step to manufacture plug-in hybrids that run largely on electricity. By shifting to lithium ion batteries to boost electricity storage capacity and by adding an extension cord so the battery can be recharged from the grid, drivers can do their commuting, grocery shopping, and other short-distance travel almost entirely with electricity, using gasoline only for the occasional long trip. Even more exciting, recharging batteries with off-peak wind-generated electricity costs the equivalent of less than $1 per gallon of gasoline. 53

As of mid-2009, nearly all major car makers have announced plans to bring either plug-in hybrids or all-electric cars to market. The world’s first commercially available plug-in hybrid car reached the market in December 2008 in China. While the world was focusing on the race between Toyota and GM, China’s BYD (Build Your Dreams) had quietly forged ahead, bringing its plug-in hybrid car to market. Already in mass production and selling for a highly competitive $22,000, it is scheduled to appear in U.S. and European markets in 2010. 54

Meanwhile, Toyota apparently has gotten the jump on GM by announcing it would start to market a limited number of plug-in hybrids for selected use by the end of 2009. The Chevrolet Volt, GM’s entry, is expected to average 150 mpg, largely because of a stronger battery and greater all-electric range. It is this prospect of triple-digit gasoline mileage that is selling customers on plug-in hybrids. 55

Nissan has been emphasizing the development of an all-electric car, which it plans to market in 2010. Chrysler plans to produce an electric version of several of its models, effectively offering customers a choice between gasoline and electrically powered vehicles. Think, an entrepreneurial Norwegian firm, already producing an all-electric car in Norway, is planning an assembly plant in the United States in 2010 to produce up to 60,000 electric cars per year. 56

Shifting to plug-in electric hybrids and all-electric cars does not require a costly new infrastructure, since the network of gasoline service stations and the electricity grid are already in place. A 2006 study by the U.S. Pacific Northwest National Laboratory estimated that over 80 percent of the electricity needs of a national fleet of all plug-in cars could be satisfied with the existing electrical infrastructure since the recharging would take place largely at night, when there is an excess of generating capacity. What will be needed is the installation of electrical outlets in parking garages, parking lots, and street-side parking meters, along with a credit card access device to identify the user for billing purposes. 57

Silicon Valley entrepreneur Shai Agassi is working with Nissan and the governments of Israel, Denmark, Australia, and Canada’s Ontario Province, as well as the San Francisco Bay area of California and Hawaii in the United States, to set up networks of electric-car service stations. These stations would replace depleted batteries with freshly charged ones, thus eliminating the need for time-consuming recharges. Whether the typical daily driving distance will warrant investment in battery replacement on this scale remains to be seen. 58

While the future of transportation in cities lies with a mix of light rail, buses, bicycles, some cars, and walking, the future of intercity travel belongs to high-speed trains. Japan, with its bullet trains, pioneered this mode of travel. Operating at speeds up to 190 miles per hour, Japan’s bullet trains carry almost a million passengers a day. On some of the heavily used intercity high-speed lines, trains depart every three minutes. 59

Beginning in 1964 with the 322-mile line from Tokyo to Osaka, Japan’s high-speed rail network now stretches for 1,360 miles, linking nearly all its major cities. One of the most heavily traveled links is the original line, where the bullet trains carry 413,000 passengers a day. The transit time of two-and-a-half hours between Tokyo and Osaka compares with a driving time of eight hours. High-speed trains save time as well as energy. 60

Although Japan’s bullet trains have carried billions of passengers in great comfort over 40 years at high speeds, there has not been a single casualty. Late arrivals average 6 seconds. If we were selecting seven wonders of the modern world, Japan’s high-speed rail system surely would be among them. 61

Although the first European high-speed line, from Paris to Lyon, did not begin operation until 1981, Europe has made enormous strides since then. As of 2009 there were 3,100 miles (5,000 kilometers) of high-speed rail operating in Europe. The goal is to triple this track length by 2020 and eventually to integrate the eastern countries, including Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary, into a continental network. 62

While France and Germany were the early European leaders in intercity rail, Spain is fast building a high-speed intercity rail network as well. Within a year of opening the Barcelona-to-Madrid connection, domestic airlines lost roughly a fifth of their passengers to these high-speed intercity trains. Spain plans to link with high-speed systems in France to become firmly integrated into the European network. 63

Existing international links, such as the one between Paris and Brussels, are being joined by connections between Paris and Stuttgart, Frankfurt and Paris, and London and Paris (the latter via the Channel Tunnel). On the newer lines, trains are operating at up to 200 miles per hour. As The Economist notes, “Europe is in the grip of a high speed rail revolution.” 64

High-speed links between cities dramatically raise rail travel. For example, when the Paris-to-Brussels link opened—the 194 miles is covered by train in just 85 minutes—the share of those traveling between the two cities by train rose from 24 percent to 50 percent. The car share dropped from 61 to 43 percent, and plane travel virtually disappeared. 65

Carbon dioxide emissions per passenger mile on electric high-speed trains are roughly one third those of cars and one fourth those of planes. In the Plan B economy, carbon emissions from trains will essentially be zero, since they will be powered almost entirely by renewable electricity. In addition to being comfortable and convenient, these rail links reduce air pollution, congestion, noise, and accidents. They also free travelers from the frustrations of traffic congestion and long airport security check lines. 66

There is a huge gap in high-speed rail between Japan and Europe on the one hand and the rest of the world on the other. But China is beginning to develop high-speed trains linking some of its major cities. A high-speed link between Beijing and Shanghai scheduled for completion by 2013 will slice train travel time in half, from 10 to 5 hours. China now has 3,890 miles of track that can handle train speeds of up to 125 miles per hour. The plan is to triple the length of high-speed track by 2020. 67

The United States has a “high-speed” Acela Express that links Washington, New York, and Boston, but unfortunately neither its rail bed and speed nor its reliability come close to the trains in Japan and Europe. The good news is that the U.S. economic stimulus plan signed into law in February 2009 contained some $8 billion to help launch a new era of high-speed rail construction in the United States. 68

In the United States, the need to cut carbon emissions and prepare for shrinking oil supplies calls for this shift in investment from roads and highways to railways. In 1956 U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower launched the interstate highway system, justifying it on national security grounds. Today the threat of climate change and the insecurity of oil supplies argue for the construction of a high-speed electrified rail system, for both passenger and freight traffic. The additional electricity needed could easily be supplied from renewable sources, mainly wind energy. 69

The passenger rail system would be modeled after those of Japan and Europe. A high-speed transcontinental line that averaged 170 miles per hour would mean traveling coast-to-coast in 15 hours, even with stops in major cities along the way. There is a parallel need to develop an electrified national rail freight network that would greatly reduce the need for long-haul trucks. 

Voters in California approved a bond referendum in November 2008 of nearly $10 billion to build a high-speed rail system to link northern and southern California. This would reduce the use of cars and eliminate many of the fuel-guzzling short-distance flights linking California’s major cities. 70

Any meaningful global effort to cut transport carbon emissions begins with the United States, which consumes more gasoline than the next 20 countries combined (including Japan, China, Russia, Germany, and Brazil). The United States—with 249 million passenger vehicles out of the global 912 million—not only has the largest fleet but it is near the top in miles driven per car and near the bottom in fuel efficiency. 71

The first step to reduce this massive U.S. consumption of gasoline is to raise fuel efficiency standards. The 40-percent increase in these standards by 2016 announced by the Obama administration in May 2009 will greatly reduce U.S. gasoline use and bring the country closer to the fuel economy levels prevailing in Europe and China. A crash program to shift the U.S. fleet to plug-in hybrids and all-electric cars would make an even greater contribution. And shifting public funds from highway construction to public transit would reduce the number of cars needed, bringing us close to our goal of cutting carbon emissions 80 percent by 2020. 72


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