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May 19, 2011 9:11 AM   Subscribe


 
-We must electrify the transport sector

CTRL-F "rail"
No results found

CTRL-F "train"
No results found

*sigh*
posted by clorox at 9:16 AM on May 19, 2011 [14 favorites]


We must electrify the transport sector - great.

The roads and infrastructure were built with $5 and $10 a barrel oil. Its now $100.

Exactly how are these roads gonna get paid for for these new electric point-to-point horseless carriages so that the FedEX business model can continue?

Lets have infinite money - where is the energy gonna come from to make these roads?
posted by rough ashlar at 9:22 AM on May 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


CTRL-F "nuclear powered flying cars"
No results found.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 9:23 AM on May 19, 2011


"We must electrify the transport sector - great."

They're called trolleys. They work very nicely.
posted by ocschwar at 9:25 AM on May 19, 2011 [4 favorites]


Only an 'energy internet' can ward off disaster

I think the author is referring to a system of decentralized, peer-to-peer energy production and distribution, but the phrasing is just the sort of breathlessly clueless buzzwordery that tends to make me stop listening/reading.

The basic principle is of questionable real-world utility. I don't think the problem with the energy production and distribution methods we currently use is that they're overly centralized and hierarchical, but I am not an engineer and I could be wrong.
posted by clockzero at 9:28 AM on May 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


They're called trolleys. They work very nicely.

It still doesn't address all the business and living models built about $5 and $10 a barrel oil.

How does the FedEX writer plan on powering/processing all the materials to keep what is otherwise "Business as Usual"?
posted by rough ashlar at 9:30 AM on May 19, 2011


Exactly how are these roads gonna get paid for for these new electric point-to-point horseless carriages so that the FedEX business model can continue?

The money part is easy: replace the tax on gasoline with a tax on tires. A bigger tax on big tires, smaller tax on small tires. This spreads the cost of wear and tear on roads pretty accurately in proportion to the kinds of vehicles that cause it, regardless of the fuel it uses. A light passenger vehicle pays less, an 18-wheeler pays more. A hybrid pays the same as a similar-weight non-hybrid.
posted by beagle at 9:30 AM on May 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


"It still doesn't address all the business and living models built about $5 and $10 a barrel oil. "

Only way to address those is with a coup de grace.
posted by ocschwar at 9:33 AM on May 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


replace the tax on gasoline with a tax on tires

This is a cool idea and a nice way to tax weight-miles or something like that, but wouldn't it lead directly to tire overuse and black (vulcanized?) tire markets? If you can lessen your tax burden at the expense of your safety, many many folks would make that choice as we suck at risk assessment so very badly... and this would impact the safety of everyone on the road, not just the bald tire riders. So, great revenue model, as long as you don't account for the cost of more road fatalities...
posted by ulotrichous at 9:38 AM on May 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


It still doesn't address all the business and living models built about $5 and $10 a barrel oil.

How does the FedEX writer plan on powering/processing all the materials to keep what is otherwise "Business as Usual"?


Keeping everything exactly the same forever is neither possible nor desirable.
posted by theodolite at 9:38 AM on May 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


Disappoiningly, a large part of the transport sector -- the railroads -- were far more electrified at one point than they are today.

A few months ago I took a train from Philadelphia out to Pittsburgh, along the Pennsylvania Railroad's "Main Line". The right of way is littered with old catenary supports. For the most part -- west of Harrisburg, I think -- they're unused, except for telecommunications cables, and the main wires have been removed (I assume for the copper).

It's too bad, because in the 1920s they were not just envisioning, but actually building a system that would have been impressive even by modern standards. Electric freight and passenger trains, powered by AC, generated by hydroelectric stations. (Today the PRR portions of Amtrak's Northeast Corridor and SEPTA are still powered in part by PRR-built hydroelectric stations, with additional power coming from the Peach Bottom Nuclear Station and the regular 60Hz grid.)

And this wasn't based, at least I doubt, on any real desire to reduce emissions; it was about reducing their consumption of expensive coal, coupled with a corporate outlook that was planning decades in advance.

It's a good reminder that energy policy isn't some sort of ratchet mechanism. The PRR was very committed to electrification, but got tripped up by the Depression, a couple of World Wars, and then diesel locomotives made it uneconomical in the short term. (Then, of course, they went out of business.) Today there is virtually no electric freight in the US; it's all diesel. Conrail, who inherited the PRR's freight operation, discontinued electric service in 1979. And while diesel locomotives are still much more efficient than over-the-road trucks in terms of fuel consumption, it has always seemed to me like a missed opportunity.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:47 AM on May 19, 2011 [10 favorites]


By July 2008 oil had risen to $147, precipitating a slowdown in the global economy. This was the economic earthquake that signalled the passing of the oil era; the financial collapse 60 days later was merely the aftershock.

This reading of the global financial crisis is not really backed by the evidence. High oil prices were making headlines back then, but it didn't have much of an impact on personal driving habits or the overall economy. Plenty of people went on vacations before the economy went south and gas prices were high, whereas when oil dropped during the economic decline a lot of those people stayed home. When the economy slowed down, there was less demand for oil (and probably less money floating around to speculate on the oil market with) and that facilitated the drop in prices. The financial crisis had everything to do with a lot of people figuring out that the loans they had bought were worthless, and practically nothing to do with oil being expensive. The main reason why it is so hard to switch from oil to alternative sources of energy is that, even at inflated prices, it is incredibly cheap.

Just as millions share music with each other online and overpower major music companies, so millions of energy producers sharing electricity can overwhelm today’s conventional power generated by centralised power and utility companies.

The reason the Internet is a big deal is that it made transferring data across long distances cheap on a massive new infrastructure. For power, the infrastructure the author is talking about already exists. You can generate your own electricity using any method you want, and get paid for putting the excess onto the grid. The vision of millions of tiny energy producers outperforming big centralized energy producers only works if for some reason the big producers can't leverage their scale to produce energy more efficiently than an equivalent number of tiny producers, which for pretty much every type of energy production method available today isn't the case. I could grow my own corn in my back yard and sell it to people for money, but I'm not going to out-compete huge corporate farms.
posted by burnmp3s at 9:49 AM on May 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


The money part is easy: replace the tax on gasoline with a tax on tires.
posted by beagle at 12:30 PM on May 19 [+] [!]

This is a cool idea and a nice way to tax weight-miles or something like that, but ...if you can lessen your tax burden at the expense of your safety, many many folks would make that choice as we suck at risk assessment so very badly.
posted by ulotrichous at 12:38 PM on May 19 [+] [!]



I like the idea a lot, but I have the same initial reaction as ulotrichous. It's certainly a clever way at a VMT fee, and does not offend the sensibilities the way tracking mileage via GPS does. But major perverse incentive potential, for sure.
posted by oneironaut at 9:51 AM on May 19, 2011


Vehicle miles traveled taxes are the future. No other way around it. Everyone who buys an electric car is getting a free ride right now at the expense of regular-car owning public. Yet, its the regular car-owning public that seem to be the loudest against VMT. What idiots our society has.
posted by SirOmega at 9:52 AM on May 19, 2011


"energy internet" is exactly what I've been describing for like...5 years now. But I'm kind of tired from all that explaining and given up on (US anyway) politicians ever being reasonable human beings.
posted by DU at 9:55 AM on May 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


Vehicle miles traveled taxes are the future. No other way around it.

No, not necessarily. Any usable electric car is typically going to be charged from a high amperage outlet. With smart metering there's no reason the electric utilities couldn't collect a tax on charging done with those outlets. And charging at a charging station or battery swap-out station is even easier to tax.
posted by jedicus at 9:56 AM on May 19, 2011


"Vehicle miles traveled taxes are the future. No other way around it."

Hell. No. Tax the tires. Tax the electricity. Tax the parking spots. Tax the batteries every time they get taken out to recondition. THere are lots of ways to make electric cars pay their way without implementing a surveillance society.
posted by ocschwar at 9:57 AM on May 19, 2011 [6 favorites]


SirOmega: "Yet, its the regular car-owning public that seem to be the loudest against VMT."

Maybe because a lot of us anticipate owning an electric car in the future, and we don't feel like subsidizing the gas guzzlers?

VMT is idiotic. The future is progressively increasing gasoline taxes to make up for the revenue shortfall, which will push even more to own electric vehicles. If the end result is no more internal combustion cars on the road, well, that's what we call a high-class problem.
posted by mullingitover at 9:57 AM on May 19, 2011 [4 favorites]


Disappoiningly, a large part of the transport sector -- the railroads -- were far more electrified at one point than they are today.

It's too bad, because in the 1920s they were not just envisioning, but actually building a system that would have been impressive even by modern standards.


As told to me by the lawyer I useas told to him by his lawyer father in law who used to work with the utility:

The Rail line was the dump load for the local power firm. When the anti-monopoly laws were passed the local electric utility got rid of the rail line because they had to.
posted by rough ashlar at 10:00 AM on May 19, 2011


The money part is easy: replace the tax on gasoline with a tax on tires.

This is intriguing, but I could definitely see it leading to some unwanted effects. You'd almost instantly create a market for very hard, long-wearing tires ... which might be good (less waste), but might also be bad (less traction).

I'm all for taxing tires insofar as there are externalities associated with their production and use (a refundable deposit to encourage responsible disposal, for instance), but if we want to tax mileage driven, why not just tax it more directly?

Cars already have a device in them for measuring miles driven, which it is conveniently already illegal to tamper with. So why not just use that? In most states you need to take your car in annually for inspection, and these inspectors are trusted (by the state) to perform the inspections, check emissions, etc. So you could just have them note down the mileage as part of the inspection, and levy a tax based on that.

A fair, simple tax would be: (mileage) * (vehicle curb weight) * (tax rate). Alternately, if you wanted to get fancy, you could divide out curb weight by the number of axles or something, because it's the axle load that really determines road wear.

There would probably be a little haggling over details -- farm vehicles, for instance, that might drive on local roads but never on Interstates (give them a special plate that would result in an instant ticket if caught driving on a Federal road) -- but in general I think you could implement something like that immediately without any new infrastructure, in most states anyway.

The alternative we seem to be drifting towards, which is toll roads enforced by automated EZ-Pass-type systems, is a lot more complex and prone to all sorts of graft (like selling the road-operation rights to private companies who then set tolls at a revenue-maximizing level rather than that needed to maintain the road).
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:01 AM on May 19, 2011


"Everyone who buys an electric car is getting a free ride right now at the expense of regular-car owning public. "

Only on roads funded by gas taxes. That's not even most of them.
posted by lantius at 10:01 AM on May 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


The money part is easy: replace the tax on gasoline with a tax on tires.

GPS tracking of miles driven wouldn't go over very well, but I don't think having to pay roughly $500 in taxes every time you need a new set of tires would either.
posted by miyabo at 10:02 AM on May 19, 2011


Also, the US already has a Federal Tire Excise Tax (PDF), but it was amended to exempt passenger vehicle tires (those under 40 pounds in weight) back in 1982. In 2003 it provided a revenue of over $400 million.
posted by lantius at 10:06 AM on May 19, 2011


> "energy internet" is exactly what I've been describing for like...5 years now.

You and a million other people. It's not a new idea, and I doubt you can take credit for it.
posted by Horselover Phattie at 10:09 AM on May 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


GPS tracking of miles driven wouldn't go over very well

It's not exactly the same thing, but the EZPass toll system in the US northeast seems to be pretty painless.
posted by bonehead at 10:10 AM on May 19, 2011


"THere are lots of ways to make electric cars pay their way without implementing a surveillance society."

Why would a vmt necessarily lead to that? With such a system it wouldn't be necessary to know when and where you drove--just the aggregate amount, I would think.

I like the idea of taxing electricity more though.
posted by aerotive at 10:11 AM on May 19, 2011


VMT is moronic. No one wants to be monitored everywhere they drive. Plus why should people who drive hybrids have to pay the same as people who drive hummers?
Why would a vmt necessarily lead to that? With such a system it wouldn't be necessary to know when and where you drove--just the aggregate amount, I would think.
The proposals I've seen all call for using GPS. I suppose it could be done by accelerometer, but you would still be able to reconstruct trip, I bet.
posted by delmoi at 10:19 AM on May 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


The future is progressively increasing gasoline taxes to make up for the revenue shortfall, which will push even more to own electric vehicles. If the end result is no more internal combustion cars on the road, well, that's what we call a high-class problem.

Taxing something will reduce its use to some degree, but back-door prohibition through taxes doesn't really work and only really impacts low income people. For example people who are wealthy enough to afford cigarettes along with all of their normal expenses smoke without even thinking about, and plenty of people who really are financially impacted by cigarette taxes smoke despite it. So once gas prices get high enough that someone working minimum wage in a place with bad or non-existent public transportation can't afford to drive their car to work, they are just screwed. They are not going to be able to buy a (more expensive) new electric vehicle to replace their old beater. Whereas the wealthy suburbanite with an SUV is not going to really care if more of their disposable income is going toward their vehicle. At that point you are just getting more regressive tax revenue and making a lot of people pay more for expenses that they can't realistically get away from. In my opinion it would make more sense increase progressive tax revenue and use that money to heavily subsidize electric cars to the point where it's cheaper to buy and maintain one than it is to buy an equivalent gas-powered vehicle.
posted by burnmp3s at 10:19 AM on May 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


The problem I see with a VMT is that, at present, with the influx of upper and upper middle class populations moving closer to city centers leaving the lower classes longer distances to travel to and from work, it seems to me that a disproportionate amount of the burden of a VMT would fall on the lower and lower middle classes. Outside of shipping/trucking/taxiing and such, of course. And I could, of course, be wrong about all of this.
posted by The Great Big Mulp at 10:19 AM on May 19, 2011


"The proposals I've seen all call for using GPS. I suppose it could be done by accelerometer, but you would still be able to reconstruct trip, I bet."

Your choices are to use a GPS and have Big Brother, or use something else and make cheating trivially easy.

Or you can tax something other than the mileage.
posted by ocschwar at 10:23 AM on May 19, 2011


GPS tracking of miles driven wouldn't go over very well

I have no idea why people keep reaching for GPS tracking devices as a way to measure miles driven. It seems like swatting a fly with a hydrogen bomb, and I'm very suspicious that anyone seriously proposing it (in government) would have some sort of ulterior motive, given the much simpler solutions that exist. The idea of a mileage-based vehicle tax is not new, long predating GPS devices, and there have been fairly serious proposals* which do not rely on it.

Given all that, the attempts to link GPS tracking devices to mileage taxes strike me as one of two things: (1) an attempt to discredit the idea of a mileage-based tax in general, by making it creepier and far more invasive than necessary, or (2) an attempt to get a creepy and invasive tracking system implemented under the cover of a comparatively innocuous taxation program. Take your pick; I'm not sure which is more likely.

While I'm a fan of the VMT concept, at least as something that we should be considering in the long term, you're all welcome to come over to my bunker and help me go all Wolverines if they try to use it as an excuse to put mandatory tracking devices in passenger cars.

* There was one proposed in North Carolina a few years ago, which didn't pass, but was at least fleshed out pretty well. A description from an anti-VMT site:
Raleigh has everything in place to implement this tax immediately. The way it will work is when you go to get your car inspected the inspector will have to record your mileage as part of the inspection to get a printout. The mileage will then be stored as a vehicle record, and the next year when you have your car inspected again and the mileage is again recorded, the computer will calculate the mileage driven that year, and you will get a nice tax statement for mileage used.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:25 AM on May 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


burnmp3s: "So once gas prices get high enough that someone working minimum wage in a place with bad or non-existent public transportation can't afford to drive their car to work, they are just screwed."

If the majority move on to electric vehicles, the base cost of gasoline will be driven down pretty low just through sheer supply and demand. With taxes it might be pushed back up to roughly what we're at now. Meanwhile electric vehicles won't be crazy expensive forever.
posted by mullingitover at 10:27 AM on May 19, 2011


"Meanwhile electric vehicles won't be crazy expensive forever."

Oh, yes they will. A gasoline car is a hunk of steel, aluminum and some plastic. An electric car has to have copper for the windings, rare earth magnets for the motors, and probably lithium in the batteries. The same forces driving up the price of oil are driving up the price for those too.
posted by ocschwar at 10:30 AM on May 19, 2011


the influx of upper and upper middle class populations moving closer to city centers leaving the lower classes longer distances to travel to and from work

Actually, you're more likely to move the less money your household makes, and you move about the same distance (based on county and state, not miles) regardless of income*.

*Slightly less likely to move farther with higher household income.
posted by clorox at 10:33 AM on May 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


or use something else and make cheating trivially easy

Not really convinced of this. Odometer tampering is already illegal. Bribing the inspector to get your car through its inspection is already illegal (on both sides of the transaction). There are fairly big incentives to do both, and it's not a huge problem. Not saying that it doesn't happen, but in general it's not endemic.

Using the odometer for taxation would create an additional incentive to cheat and thus might create some additional fraud, but I don't think it would be "trivially easy" or commonplace; if it was that easy, then all used cars would have fudged odometers -- since there's a huge incentive at the time of resale to fix it -- and nobody's car would fail inspection -- since that can mean huge repair bills. I suspect that in many cases, the upside of cheating in both of those scenarios is bigger than the upside for cheating to dodge some portion of a hypothetical VMT. Plus they're big one-time payouts and people love those.

You'd probably want to mitigate against additional fraud by increasing the downside risk (increasing the punishments for tampering or misrepresentation, in other words), but it's a pretty straightforward problem.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:35 AM on May 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


rare earth magnets for the motors

Not necessarily. AC Propulsion's motors (used in Tesla's cars) do not use rare earths.

Anyway, rare earths are not actually particularly rare. The US has an enormous amount of the stuff. The reason China has a present monopoly is because the US mines were not price competitive due to labor costs and environmental regulations. That is changing as China's prices increase.
posted by jedicus at 10:36 AM on May 19, 2011


Also, the US already has a Federal Tire Excise Tax (PDF), but it was amended to exempt passenger vehicle tires (those under 40 pounds in weight) back in 1982. In 2003 it provided a revenue of over $400 million.

Taxing passenger vehicle tires is a bad idea because it discourages drivers from replacing their balding unsafe tires, making the roads more dangerous for everyone, including pedestrians and cyclists. Commercial vehicles are subject to more rigorous inspection programs, so it's theoretically easier to avoid this concern there.
posted by zachlipton at 10:39 AM on May 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


When it comes to transport, it's not about imagining a world where everything is moved by a different energy source, but rather imagining a world where everything moves a lot less. Travel costs a lot of energy - especially when for each person you're moving many hundreds of kg of additional material in the shape of a automobile - and it's not needed nearly so much as we use it. Most people can live with not traveling 10/25/50 miles a day just to work, and even a lot of energy spent on transporting goods is wasted.

In a world with limited available energy, cars won't make the cut for most folk.
posted by Jehan at 10:41 AM on May 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


As any online gaming company will tell you, you can't trust a client-controlled machine to give you good data. The incentives to cheat are simply too high. GPS blackboxes on cars or even odometers would be prime subjects for grey and blackmarket hacks. Additionally, getting compliance for the current fleet ("you must have the tax blackbox installed by a licenced shop before your next vehicule registration") is going to be costly and cause a lot of whinging.

Fees based on government-controlled and managed detectors, like the current speed camera licence-plate readers, would be far less prone to cheating and transparent to the current on-road fleet.
posted by bonehead at 10:45 AM on May 19, 2011


"Only an 'energy internet' can ward off disaster"

I think the author is referring to a system of decentralized, peer-to-peer energy production and distribution, but the phrasing is just the sort of breathlessly clueless buzzwordery that tends to make me stop listening/reading.

I think the author is calling for a series of tubes. For ENERGY!

But isn't it already possible to sell solar energy back to the grid? I mean, doesn't this thing the author wants already exist? Except for the part where everyone banks energy locally as hydrogen. That doesn't exist because it's ridiculously inefficient and expensive compared to energy-on-tap from the power grid.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 11:01 AM on May 19, 2011


I feel like we're burying the lede here. We'll not have to worry about how to pay for the roads at all unless we come up with a way to keep making cheap energy. If we have it, we have a chance at a future. Without it we are doomed. Yet all I ever hear about are ideas that will never work for even the approximately 4 trillion kW h/year of electricity that we already use, let alone the added demand of a couple of hundred million vehicles.

There are good ideas about how to get cheap energy. They're not even new ideas. The technology necessary to deploy space solar power satellites (SSPS) is more than a quarter century old, as mikelieman pointed out several weeks ago. (Lots of good comments vis-à-vis SSPS there, especially from mikelieman and lupus_yonderboy.)

I see only three main problems with SSPS. First, we still don't have a good way to transport the personnel and materials to orbit to construct the satellites. Second, the U.S. squandered the money that could have been used for such a project over the last decade. Finally, such an endeavor would of necessity be a national project, but our current economic arrangements and the concomitant political reality they entail makes the very idea of such a thing hateful to many Americans.

As far as SSPS being a sci-fi dream, well, that may be, but not because it's unrealistic. We're not talking about jetpacks or flying cars or dilithium crystals and matter replicators here. We're talking about a technology that is already being deployed. PG&E in California has contracted to buy power beamed from space starting in 2016, and the Japanese have started a project to deploy a 1GW array, which they expect will beam down power at 9¢/kW h by 2030.

If only we could stop squabbling long enough to realize that there aren't going to be future generations of Americans to curse us for saddling them with unsustainable debt unless we solve some of these problems today.
posted by ob1quixote at 11:02 AM on May 19, 2011 [4 favorites]


In the real world we trust data coming from hostile environments -- to limited and well-understood extents -- all the time.

Just with automotive examples, when cars are bought and sold, we generally trust the VIN stickers and stamps to be correct. We generally trust the odometer reading. A police officer pulling over a car can generally trust the license plate -- even though that one really is 'trivial' to change. (And people do switch them, but not as often as perhaps you would expect.)

In each case we weigh the incentive to cheat by messing with a particular source of information or identification, and create matching disincentives. It's illegal to tamper with an odometer. It's illegal to remove the VIN tags. It's illegal to steal or swap a license plate from one car to another. All of them happen, but not all the time. In general, the disincentives against tampering have been created in such a way that it's not worthwhile for most people to find a back-alley mechanic to reset their odometer, or buy a hot car with the VINs removed, or swap plates in the rest area.

Many of the systems used for toll collection, like EZ-Pass, themselves depend to some extent on data coming from the vehicle passing through the barrier. The electronic tags can be stolen, and the backup method relies on photographing the license plate, which can also be swapped. It's not a terribly high-security system, but it works well for what it needs to do.

Computer games probably have to be more suspicious of data coming from end-user machines, because they can't effectively create disincentives. The worst thing that Blizzard can do to you, if you're cheating at WoW, is kick you off the game and try to ban you from signing up again. The government, by contrast, has guys with guns and PMITA prison if you get too cute.

At best you could probably use electronic toll systems to determine the mileage driven on limited-access highways (which by design have good chokepoints for placing the readers, on entrances and exits). But I don't see how it would be very practical for doing a VMT that included taxes driven on local roads and the millions of miles of uncontrolled-access Federal and State highways. That's not to say it's an idea completely without merit, but it would be a very different tax scheme -- one more akin to just making the Interstate system into toll roads than a true VMT. I'm not intrinsically against it, but I don't think it's the same thing.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:18 AM on May 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


But isn't it already possible to sell solar energy back to the grid?

You can, but you have to upgrade the grid. Many of the assumptions made in the distribution network are that enegery flows mostly one way, from source to consumer. Having the consumer being a producer too means stations and metering equipment all has to be changed.

Ontario is going through this right now. Our electricity bills are up a heafty percentage to pay for it. The government isn't clearly breaking out how much these upgrades are costing, but our bills have gone up by 50% in the past few years. There's a lot of costs for deferred maintenance and incentives for green power generation in that increase too, however.
posted by bonehead at 11:20 AM on May 19, 2011


It's too bad, because in the 1920s they were not just envisioning, but actually building a system that would have been impressive even by modern standards. Electric freight and passenger trains, powered by AC, generated by hydroelectric stations. (Today the PRR portions of Amtrak's Northeast Corridor and SEPTA are still powered in part by PRR-built hydroelectric stations, with additional power coming from the Peach Bottom Nuclear Station and the regular 60Hz grid.)

Of course here in liberal San Francisco, where we supposedly have had a Transit First policy for years, we have a fairly extensive electric urban public transport network. The city gets cheap clean power through the Hetch Hetchy water system, which it owns and operates, and that power is used for, among other municipal purposes, the operation of light rail and electric trollybusses throughout the city.

And yet none of that matters all that much because they can't manage to operate a transit system that doesn't hemorrhage money while hitting new lows for reliability and service every year. This even applies to what should be one of the simplest parts of the system: modern light rail vehicles moving through a simple subway. Trains frequently break down, the control system freaks out, trains run through the tunnel with the doors open, they crash, or most inexplicably, they get stuck in traffic. Yes, you frequently get stuck in traffic while on the subway.

So we have infrastructure that's doing everything right: clean hydroelectric power, a dedicated right of way corridor, governmental policy to encourage and support transit, and a population that is pretty receptive to environmental causes and sustainable transportation. Despite all that, lots of people drive because the system is pathetically unreliable. A couple weeks ago, a 2.6 mile trip through the subway during rush hour took me 42 minutes, giving me a 3.7 mph average. That's not even including the two sets of 10 minute walks I had to/from the stations. About a week after that, again during rush hour, trains weren't even running into downtown at all. I want to do the right thing and I want to use transit as much as possible, but when the bloody subway is about as reliable as the airlines, it's an awfully tough sell.
posted by zachlipton at 11:30 AM on May 19, 2011




If you think about it, you may come to the realization that energy is the ultimate currency. What we need is a real sea change or two.

If you keep an eye on solar and energy storage technologies you may be surprised to see the price of energy will continue to drop. Many expect solar energy to be competitive to juice from the plant within ten years or so.

Sure there are challenges, but imagine what will happen to the world if energy does become "too cheap to meter".....
posted by onesidys at 12:17 PM on May 19, 2011


Electrify? How about we just get more people on bikes. One of the most efficient ways to move a person in terms of calories per mile.
posted by humanfont at 12:28 PM on May 19, 2011


At best you could probably use electronic toll systems to determine the mileage driven on limited-access highways (which by design have good chokepoints for placing the readers, on entrances and exits).

You could put readers at major intersections and traffic chokepoints and charge for the passage near the meter. In my juristiction, there are red light cameras in every major intersection, with more added every year.

In a city of a million or so, I doubt you would need more than a few dozen to make such a scheme work, based on the present number of red light cameras in my city. There are chokepoints like bridges and the like that are impossible to avoid if you need to get from one part of the city to another. the system desn't have to be perfect, just "fair enough" and sufficiently revenue generating. Set the per transit cost low enough and I doubt people will try too hard to avoid it.

I dislike the active models because they are intrusive and expensive. Someone, either directly or indirectly through higher taxes, has to pay the $100+ charge for the GPS blackbox installation (or the upgrade to the odometer). Someone has to pay for it to be read every year by a trusted third party. I can't help but think that scaling would make this a very expensive tax to collect. In contrast, passive sensors (or an active RFID-type device) can collect with a minimum of human intervention from a small number of locations. Lower costs means more efficient (and lower) taxes.

Furthermore, a GPS system would be a privacy nightmare---would you trust the police not to seek warrants for tracking criminals' cars? Cameras are bad enough, but they're not continuous.
posted by bonehead at 12:45 PM on May 19, 2011


Ctrl-F "teleportation booth"

...

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posted by Halloween Jack at 12:49 PM on May 19, 2011


I see only three main problems with SSPS.

If you think the fights over environmental and human impacts of windmills or solar or electrical powerlines are bad, wait until the public gets wind of this. Dead birds will be all over the newspapers.

Nothing, nothing, is as cheap or simple or without consequence as they are made out to be by their boosters.
posted by bonehead at 12:50 PM on May 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


space solar power satellites

...are an absurd pipe dream, absent something like a space elevator, which is presently also a pipe dream since it's looking less and less like carbon nanotubes will be strong enough in practice to make a space elevator. The launch costs for an SSPS of any size utterly demolish the value of the electricity that it might produce. Even if you posit magic solar panels that are vastly more efficient and lighter than current panels could even hope to be, it still doesn't scale.

The SpaceX Falcon Heavy has a cost to GTO of $6000/kg. Current large-scale terrestrial solar can manage about $1/watt, or ~$1 billion for a 1GW plant. For the same billion we could launch 167,000kg. That means each kilogram of satellite has to produce 6kW of power, after conversion losses. Note that I'm not counting the cost of the ground antenna.

So how big does the satellite have to be? In space there's about 1.4kW/m^2 to be had at Earth orbit. To get 6kW that will take about 9.5m^2, assuming a staggering 50% efficiency at the collector and a mere 10% transmission loss. So how does .1 kg / m^2 compare to current high end space PV panels? A current best-in-class panel [pdf] is .84 kg / m^2. So this magic panel has to be 8 times lighter than current panels while also being almost twice as efficient. Oh, and that's not even counting the mass of the antenna, the support structure, and the station-keeping rockets.

Finally, this 1GW station will be 1.6km^2 and we'll need 2,300 of them to meet current energy needs. So we're going to put 3700km^2 worth of solar panels in space, which will take about 20,000 Dragon Heavy launches (allowing for a few hundred launch failures). But hey that's only about 3 rockets per day, every day, for twenty years.

Space based solar power may have a few super-niche applications in disaster areas, war zones, and isolated-yet-somehow-very-wealthy communities, but that's about it.
posted by jedicus at 1:10 PM on May 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


Electrify? How about we just get more people on bikes. One of the most efficient ways to move a person in terms of calories per mile.

Even if everyone in the world started biking for personal transport and light deliveries it would at most move the peak oil curve over by a few years.
posted by jedicus at 1:10 PM on May 19, 2011


Electrify? How about we just get more people on bikes. One of the most efficient ways to move a person in terms of calories per mile.

Indeed, but people don't necessarily want to arrive at work work tired and sweaty, nor are they always within easy cycling distance of their workplace.

I like bikes; when I lived in Amsterdam I used to ride one all the time. It wasn't that big of an effort, because Amsterdam, like most of the Netherlands, is flat as a pancake. An ordinary Dutch bike doesn't even have gears - there isn't any great need for them and they also make your bike more tempting to thieves (bike thievery is so rampant in Amsterdam that new arrivals are advised to purchase a bike from a junkie). Now I live in San Francisco, and hardly ever go cycling because the hills are so steep and also because half the cyclists in the town are maniacs with no respect for pedestrians or cars, which in turn makes drivers hostile to cyclists.

Don't you recall how China and other countries in that region used to use bikes as the primary form of personal transport, for exactly the reasons you describe? As soon as their economic development took off, they began switching to mass transit and/or powered vehicles. You can't build a future on technology that people leave behind as soon as they have the opportunity.
posted by anigbrowl at 1:50 PM on May 19, 2011 [4 favorites]


Indeed, but people don't necessarily want to arrive at work work tired and sweaty, nor are they always within easy cycling distance of their workplace.

And that's the rub. Bikes are great in communities that are designed for them. Actually making cycling a reasonable option for most of us is not about building more bike paths, absurd bike lanes, signs that normal people should be able to understand, and signs no one could possibly decipher while operating a moving vehicle. Yet those are the sort of schemes we tend to spend time and money on when it comes to promoting cycling.

Actually making bikes a useful mode of transportation for most of us requires real neighborhood planning, which is rather hard to do when there are already buildings and roads in the way. The majority of American commuters have at least a 11 mile one-way commute to work. Only 29% commute five miles or less each way. Most of us are simply not going to bike 22 miles a day on a regular basis no matter how many paths and lanes you give us. Many physically cannot do so, whether due to age, disability, illness, cultural factors (e.g. they never learned how), or simply because they happen to be carrying a medium sized cardboard box or a small suitcase. The solution that's best for everyone (except the oil industry) is for people to live close to the places they typically go to work, shop. eat, and play.

Besides, most people aren't going to bike to work in the snow, very cold or very hot temperatures, or substantial rain. Yes, I'm fully aware that many people do just these things and get along perfectly fine, but here in the real world, we're picky people, and we don't particularly enjoy arriving at work frozen, drenched in sweat, or drenched in rain. Most of us don't even enjoy arriving at work when we're comfortable. Actual and realistic transportation plans for the masses have to work every day, not just when the weather is nice.
posted by zachlipton at 6:59 PM on May 19, 2011


Besides, most people aren't going to bike to work in the snow, very cold or very hot temperatures, or substantial rain. Yes, I'm fully aware that many people do just these things and get along perfectly fine, but here in the real world, we're picky people, and we don't particularly enjoy arriving at work frozen, drenched in sweat, or drenched in rain. Most of us don't even enjoy arriving at work when we're comfortable. Actual and realistic transportation plans for the masses have to work every day, not just when the weather is nice.

Here ya go, problem solved. For the sweaty at work problem, try showering at a nearby gym. No gym or shower nearby, well when everyone is biking to work, don't worry the bosses and the market will provide an answer.
posted by humanfont at 7:27 PM on May 19, 2011


Right, like anyone with half a brain is going to spend $10,000+ on a tricycle with a fiberglass shell.
posted by anigbrowl at 4:08 AM on May 20, 2011


here in the real world, we're picky people
I suspect the time will come when quibbling about being uncomfortable after a bike ride will be the least of our worries.
The resources and political will don't exist to provide an energy source that is an alternative to oil. Space based solar fantasies, nuclear, coal, wind - you name it and even all together there is still a huge deficit in available, cost effectively harnessable energy.
If energy costs 6 times what it does now, how many changes will occur in your life?
posted by bystander at 5:41 AM on May 20, 2011


Right, like anyone with half a brain is going to spend $10,000+ on a tricycle with a fiberglass shell.

Right they will probably want carbon fiber. I'm sure at $8/gallon things will start to change. Already at my office the bike racks have started to overflow. And not just with walmart specials, the status chasers already upgraded to trendy expensive models. Also these enclosed models could be made a lot cheaper if theylvef beyond a tiny niche. A lot cheaper than a Volt for a daily driver.
posted by humanfont at 6:45 PM on May 22, 2011


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