Category Archives: Transport

Towards an Ecological Civilization

Paris

Can we make our cities, and World, less polluted and better to live in? This picture is of Paris, one of the places leading the way.

Humanity wants a better future. Increasingly we are united in our demands for a cleaner, less polluted environment, and we see this as a fundamental human right. We want to protect the oceans, the forests and the air we breathe from the multiple onslaughts of industrial civilization. Achieving a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable lifestyle for all humanity is a goal worth striving for.  Increasingly we have the technological tools to help us do this, and there is a global groundswell providing the pressure politicians need to enact positive change.

Slowly the United Nations is moving towards recognising the human right to a healthy environment. Over the last eight and a quarter years I’ve posted three hundred blogs highlighting some of the positive steps that are being taken on this path to a better future. My focus has been on the shift from a fossil fuel economy to one based on renewables. This change in energy use is one part of a bigger shift, what David Korten and Joanna Macy refer to as ‘The Great Turning’, from Imperial Civilization to Ecological Civilization.

In a great video Jeremy Leggett argues that the transition away from fossil fuels and to a 100% renewables based global economy is happening faster than most people understand. He identifies three meta-narratives in this process. First, the global groundswell of people, governments and increasingly also from corporations who see the need for change. Second, the falling costs and increasing efficiency of the renewable energy technologies, and thirdly, a whole set of problems within the old energy incumbency, from the ponzi like debt structure of the fracking industry to the inability of everything from coal and oil to nuclear to compete with renewables on either cost or environmental legislation. Together all these trends conspire towards an exponentially fast energy transition. We will see a lot of stranded assets.

There are many victories to celebrate. Over the last few years UK carbon emissions have fallen, so that in 2017 they dropped to levels last seen in 1890. This rapid improvement was mainly due to the decline in coal and rise of renewable sources of electricity.

As I’ve stressed in a number of recent blogs, the next big change needs to be in transport. At last many cities are starting to ban cars and make city centre areas radically more pedestrian focused. Cycle paths and public transport infrastructure are being improved. Several German cities are about to introduce free public transport in order to help get people to quit their car addiction. Many cities are banning the most polluting vehicles, and as I’ve shown in recent blogs very much cleaner alternatives are rapidly developing. Over the next decade I would predict air quality to improve and carbon emissions from transport to fall. Putin, Trump and few ghastly politicians will do all they can to stop this transition, but the overwhelming tide of global opinion combined with the pace of technological innovation is stacked against them.

Shipping beyond fossil fuels

Ampere

Ampere, the Norwegian pioneering battery electric ferry.

Last week I looked at how transport systems might work in the post fossil fuel era. Hydrogen fuel cells and batteries are emerging as the main contenders in the race to store cheap, clean, surplus wind and solar energy and use it in various types of transport. The speed of change is likely to much faster than most people envisage. Reducing carbon emissions and cleaning up local air pollution have usually been portrayed as a cost, but if making these improvements proves cheaper than carrying on with old polluting technologies, then the pace of change may be very rapid. One extraordinary example of this is the ‘Ampere’.

The ‘Ampere’ is a ferry operating between Lavik and Oppendal across the Sognefjorden fiord in Norway. It is a battery electric vessel and came into service in 2015, and has now a couple of years of data which show that emissions are 95% down and operating costs are 80% cheaper than the previous diesel powered ferry. Due to these staggering environmental benefits and cost savings orders for similar ferries are flooding in. The busy ferry route between Helsingborg in Sweden and Helsingor in Denmark now has battery electric ferries, but the route is only four kilometres. The Dutch company Port-Liner are due to launch their innovative fully automated battery electric container barges this autumn, operating between Antwerp, Rotterdam and Amsterdam. On the Pearl River in China a large new battery electric coal transport ship has come into operation with a 50 mile range. There is much scope to increase the use of battery electric ferries on short trips, but for large international ships crossing the major oceans something more than just batteries will probably be needed. This might include onboard solar panels and use of the wind via sails, kites or aerofoils. All these are being trialed.

As ships currently use heavy, very dirty, forms of diesel they emit huge quantities of a whole range of pollutants. Switching to radically cleaner forms of energy makes sense first in urban contexts, such as in port, along rivers and canals and on short ferry crossings, up to and including say ferries linking England and France. We have the technology to do this now, and it makes perfect sense both environmentally and economically. Long distance global shipping will also make the transition to cleaner fuels, but it’ll take a little longer, as the technical challenges are more complex, but certainly not impossible.

Transport beyond fossil fuels

Coradia iLint

The Coradia iLint made by Alstom, a hydrogen fuel cell regional train

Many countries are now setting themselves the goal of moving from petrol and diesel powered transportation systems to very much cleaner technologies. The UK, like many countries has set itself the goal of banning sales of new fossil fuelled vehicles by 2040. Norway plans to do so by 2025. Many people still don’t seem to realize that we already have most of the technologies we’ll need to run a modern global economy purely on renewable forms of energy. Renewably generated electricity, supplied via the grid, via batteries or via hydrogen fuel cells will be the basis of most methods of transport.

For over a hundred years trains and trams have used electricity via either overhead cables or live rails. There is a strong case to keep electrifying railway lines. An emerging alternative, particularly suitable for quiet rural railway lines, where the high cost of electrification might not be justified, are hydrogen fuel cell trains. Alstom is already marketing the Coradia iLint, and Siemens are now partnering with Ballard to make something similar. There are lots of advantages to getting people and freight off the roads and on to rails. Steel wheels on steel rails generate much less friction than rubber tyres on tarmac, meaning greater energy efficiency and less pollution. The longer thinner shape of trains means less air resistance, again aiding efficiency.

We will of course still need buses, trucks and cars. There are many possible fuel options. Oslo has a fleet of 135 buses powered on biomethane made from food waste and sewage. I’ve blogged about methanol fuel cells, and a whole range of innovative and experimental ships, planes, and solar panel clad roads and cars, which are all promising but not yet in common usage. Battery electric vehicles are getting massive media coverage due to Elon Musk and Tesla, and are beginning to sell in large numbers. Last year in Norway over half of all new cars sold were either battery electric or petrol/electric hybrids, but sadly in most other countries the proportion is very much smaller. In terms of volume of sales, China is a long way ahead of any other market for battery electric or hybrid cars and buses.

Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are the other main technology to be moving from the experimental stage to the mass production stage. (earlier blogs from me in 2015 and 2017) The Scottish government has recently helped Aberdeen double its fleet of hydrogen fuel cell buses from ten to twenty. Cologne in Germany has just ordered thirty, and dozens of cities are ordering a few. Ballard, the Canadian hydrogen fuel cell specialist has now teamed up with some Chinese companies to build a fleet of 500 hydrogen fuel cell light trucks and the refuelling infrastructure to support their roll out in Shanghai. Meanwhile the Nikola company has secured 8,000 pre-orders for its huge hydrogen fuel cell trucks, and will start production next year in Arizona. At the other end of the spectrum is Riversimple, who are due to build their first twenty tiny hydrogen fuel cell cars later this year, and which our local car club may be in a position to trial. Exciting times!

The days of petrol and diesel are numbered. It is too early to say which technology will dominate in the post fossil fuel economy. Both hydrogen and batteries are in essence ways of storing surplus wind and solar electricity and it is this aspect of how best to store energy cheaply and at vast scale which may be the main determinate of which fuel is used where. There will undoubtedly be a role for many technologies in various settings. I’ll explore more on this next week.

Hereford By-pass

As renewables are replacing coal, carbon emissions associated with the generation of electricity are falling in the UK and in most countries. That’s the good news. The bad news is that progress in the transport sector, in the UK and globally, has been woefully slow. Transport is now the UK’s biggest source of carbon emissions. It is also the source of most of our nitrogen oxides and particulate matter pollution, both known carcinogens, causing much ill health and death. Over the next few weeks I’ll explore what could be done to lower carbon emissions, pollution, prevent accidents and to generally improve things.

Many cities around the world are acting to limit the use of cars, investing in walking, cycling and better public transport. Barcelona, Copenhagen and Freiburg are all making excellent progress. Sadly many other cities are still building roads in the mistaken belief that they are the future of transport. Hereford, where I live is one such place. The new link road has recently opened allowing better car access to the northern part of the city centre, but at an unnecessary financial and environmental cost. The Tory cabinet are determined to build a by-pass. Some of us have been active in our opposition to this for decades. We managed to stop the Eastern route on environmental grounds back in about 1991. Now the council have seven alternative routes for a Western by-pass and are running a consultation process. Please fill-in a form, available from Hereford Library or from the council website (and do so before the consultation closes on 20th March). Also do please sign the 38 degrees petition against the by-pass.

On Wednesday 28th February, as part of the Left Bank’s weekly politics, ethics and environment sessions the Green Party are hosting a public debate on the by-pass. If you live in Herefordshire, please come and join-in: 7.30pm, this Wednesday, all welcome and free admittance.

Here are a few recommendations I’d like to explore.

How can we improve access and permeability for pedestrians, cyclists and public transport users, while decreasing it for cars?

How to make safer routes so children can walk and cycle to school?

Which roads would we like to see pedestrianized?

Lowering urban speed limits would help: by how much and where?

Could we introduce a congestion charge or toxin tax as has been done in London?

Could the council impose a parking charge on people using supermarket car parks?

When might we see battery electric and hydrogen fuel cell buses, trams and cars replacing fossil fuelled ones in Hereford? (This is beginning to happen in some places, and will be the subject of another blog in a few days time).

Methanol Fuel Cells

Methanol fuel cell boat

MS Innogy, the world’s first methanol fuel cell powered boat

I’ve never mentioned methanol on this blog, yet it is important both as a fuel and in many aspects of the chemical industry. It has a huge range of uses and can be made in many ways, many of which are very polluting. However some new innovations, making methanol from renewables and using it in fuel cells, look very good and may play an important role in the evolving cleantech revolution.

Methanol use is expanding, and has mainly been based on methanol made from coal and shale gas. An alternative and very much better way of making methanol has been pioneered in Iceland by Carbon Recycling International. They use carbon dioxide from a geothermal power station and combine it with hydrogen, which they make by electrolysis, splitting water into oxygen and hydrogen, driven by surplus renewable electricity. Carbon Recycling International market geothermally made methanol as a fuel under the trade name Vulcanol.

In Denmark Anders Korsgaard and Mads Bang worked on developing methanol fuel cells while at the University of Aalborg and have since founded Serenergy to commercially develop the most sustainable path to a methanol based economy. They recently spent five months working with the German energy company Innogy to convert an old diesel powered boat into the world’s first methanol fuel cell powered boat. On 25th August they launched the MS Innogy at Lake Baldeney on the Rhur, where it will act as a passenger ferry carrying over 100 passengers. Innogy has also developed a small experimental unit making methanol from electricity at the local hydro electric dam at Lake Baldeney and carbon dioxide captured from the local air, to supplement the methanol they import from Iceland. Methanol fuel cells look like being a competitor to hydrogen fuel cells for a whole range of transport technologies from boats to cars, trains, trams and buses. They might possibly one day be important in the global shipping and aviation industries.

Serenergy are already selling their methanol fuel cells for a variety of uses, including for a few cars and to generate electricity for off-grid situations, or to help the grid in times of peak demand. One of the most interesting is for the telecommunications industry that requires very reliable power for phone masts, often at very remote locations.

Good luck to Carbon Recycling International, Innogy and to Serenergy, between them they are pioneering what might prove to be a key part of the transition to a post fossil fuel future.

Sono Motors solar cell clad Sion

Sono Motors solar cell clad Sion

Sono Motors solar cell clad Sion

I’ve blogged before about solar cells being integrated into ships and planes, and this week I came across a story of Indian trains having them, and many experimental solar cell clad cars compete each year in a race across Australia. It now looks likely that the first solar cell clad car is going to go into commercial production, assuming it can get 5,000 pre-orders. Munich based start-up Sono Motors have just successfully Crowdfunded and launched the Sion. (Great videos) It looks to me to be the coolest electric car in the world and is being sold for the very modest price of £14,500 or 16,000 Euros, excluding the battery, which currently costs an extra 4,000 Euros, but this figure is falling rapidly as battery prices continue to come down. Currently the world’s largest selling electric car is the Nissan Leaf, despite the Tesla’s massive hype. The Sion will be considerably cheaper than either of these, and has a lot of additional features, such as the solar cells, that make it very much cooler. Perhaps the most novel feature is its living moss air filter. The battery has a power take off so that it can be used to charge up other electric cars, for power tools or to sell electricity to the grid.

It is a family sized car totally covered in 330 high specification solar cells, which even on a cloudy day should generate enough electricity to drive 30Kms. With a full battery it has a range of 250Kms. The car is designed for car sharing and lift sharing and comes complete with apps to help these systems.

The UK government has announced its predictably unimpressive goal to rid the country of diesel and petrol cars by 2040. As one might expect much of the press and the incumbent motor industry is bleating about how this could undermine the existing motor industry or require many new power stations. The reality is that this is part of a globally disruptive series of changes that are needed to tackle a human health crisis and the climate crisis. Getting people out of their cars and into public transport is clearly happening in many cities around the world, and needs to happen on a very much greater scale.

I, like a growing number of people do not own a car but share the ownership and use of a number of cars through a car share club. Our club, St James and Bartonsham car share club currently owns four cars, all still fossil fuelled. We hope before too long to switch to electric or hydrogen fuel cell. I’ve written before about Riversimple’s Rasa, probably the most sustainable and best car on the planet. The Sono Motors Sion looks to me to be another one of the best. Note Sono like Riversimple is a tiny start-up. Most of the big volume car makers now have all electric models, but none seem to be so ground breaking as the Rasa or the Sion.

Globally it is estimated that the fossil fuel industry is being subsidized to the tune of $5 trillion per year. We should curtail all such subsidies immediately and aid the speedy end of ‘The Fossil Fuel Age’ and invest in the coming ‘Solar Age’.  In the UK electric car sales make up just 2% of new car sales, while in Norway the figure is 42%. The mayor of Oslo says that she wants her city to have the cleanest air of any city in the world. Reducing the number of cars on the road, having as many of them as shared use as possible and making sure that the actual cars are as minimally polluting as possible are all part of this desired policy, and the Rasa and Sion seem to me to be the cars that best fit this goal.

 

Cities and cars

Urban space is at a premium, and cars waste that precious space

Urban space is at a premium, and cars waste that precious space

The move away from petrol, and more especially diesel cars, buses and trucks is gathering pace. Greenpeace and the Guardian have shown how hundreds of thousands of children are routinely exposed to illegal levels of air pollution. Sadiq Khan is bringing in the Ultra Low Emission Zone. Courts in Munich and Stuttgart have instructed city authorities to prepare to ban diesel cars and plan the transition to electric. Many cities around the world are now striving to clean up their air quality, and since the dieselgate scandal the image of the diesel car has been in freefall. The petrol engine too is on its way out.

Stock markets sense the direction of travel. Last week the stock market valuation of Tesla overtook both Ford and General Motors, despite Tesla still having never made a profit and only producing a tiny fraction of the number of vehicles than their more established rivals.

As the population of many big cities is growing and space is very much at a premium there is a very strong argument to limit private car use within cities, even for zero emission vehicles: there simply is not the space for them. By improving public transport, walking and cycling facilities it is possible to move very much larger numbers of people more quickly around the limited available space, as the above table shows.

A few weeks ago the giant Chinese company Geely opened a new car factory in Coventry. It is now making the new TX5 London taxi, a plug-in hybrid with a 70 mile battery range and a petrol back-up motor. The TX5 is a six seater with space for a wheelchair. This looks to be a considerable improvement on the old dirty diesel taxis currently in use. In the longer term the TX5 hybrid is likely to be superceded by an all electric or hydrogen fuel cell vehicle.

The best cities around the world are continually improving walking, cycling and zero emissions public transport systems. More streets are being pedestrianized. The next logical steps are to roll-out zero emission taxis, ban diesel and petrol cars and allow some, but probably quite restricted, use of zero emission private cars. Such cities should be a joy to live in: safer, quieter and cleaner, and with air fit to breathe.

Hydrogen Shipping

Energy Observer

Energy Observer, which uses on-board solar and wind power to desalinate and electrolyse seawater to make hydrogen for its hydrogen fuel cell power system.

Ships are responsible for a lot of global pollution. Small gains in efficiency have been more than offset by the increased volume of trade. Historically most environmentalists argued that relocalizing the economy and decreasing trade was the best way forward, but there is little evidence that this is about to happen any time soon. Another path is to make shipping very much less polluting. Currently most shipping uses diesel engines burning a particularly polluting form of fuel oil known as bunker oil. A range of exciting technical innovations are pointing to the possibilities of a future with global trade based on pollution free ships.

In 2013 I blogged about the MS Turanor making the first circumnavigation of the globe using just photovoltaics and batteries and I’ve frequently blogged about hydrogen fuel cars, trucks and trams. Today I want to focus on two hydrogen powered boats that I think have tremendous potential.

In April 2016 Cheetah Marine successfully launched a catamaran powered by an outboard motor using hydrogen in an internal combustion engine. Cheetah are based at Ventnor in the Isle of Wight where they make hydrogen using energy from the solar panels on their workshop roof to split ordinary mains water into oxygen and hydrogen using ITM’s electrolysis process. The hydrogen is stored in pressurized tanks on the boat.

The Energy Observer is a French boat currently being completed ready for its official launch this May in Paris. Again it is a catamaran but in this case using hydrogen fuel cells. Seawater will be purified and pass through an electrolysis process onboard the boat utilizing energy from onboard solar panels, two small vertical axis wind turbines and a traction kite. A six year round the world trip is planned calling in at 101 ports as an educational showcase for clean technology.

These two hydrogen powered boats, along with MS Turanor, show the technological potential for shipping to become radically more sustainable. What is needed at this stage is strong action on pollution through outright bans, taxes and other disincentives, and support to take these innovative cleantech solutions out into the mass market. Last month I blogged about how electric buses, many with solar panels on the roof, have suddenly leapt from the eco-fringes to the commercial mainstream in some Chinese cities such as Shenzhen. How long will it be before clean renewable hydrogen replaces dirty bunker oil as the main energy source powering the global shipping industry? Much of the best innovation is happening in Britain and France, yet will it be China that takes it into mass commercial production? We need to stop pollution and replace it with very much cleaner technology, and there are huge economic and health opportunities to be gained by doing so. To grab these opportunities requires political support. It is about time Britain and Europe turned this native innovation into the norm for mainstream commercial shipping. If they don’t somebody else will. Bunker oil has had its day. Better technologies are available. Now is the time to develop and deploy them.

Solar Buses in China

Solar powered buses

Chinese Battery Electric Buses, with solar panels.

Over the years I’ve posted a number of blogs about why I’m optimistic that Chinese carbon emissions will plummet over the coming decade, and that the Chinese will make significant headway on tackling their ghastly air pollution. I’ve also written about lots of prototype zero emission transportation systems, but much less about the mass roll out of such systems and the effect they might have in reducing pollution.

Diesel buses and trucks are a major source of pollution in Chinese cities. Their days are numbered. Battery electric bus sales are booming. China represents 98% of the global market for such vehicles.  Many now have solar panels built into the roofs, as the above photograph shows. In Europe and North America a few pioneering places are doing small scale trials, mainly by importing electric buses from China. A few ground breaking efforts are being made to design and build electric buses, some with roof mounted solar panels, such as in Kampala, Uganda, by Makerere University and Kiira Motors, the first such project in Africa. However it is only in China that the rapid adoption of electric buses is forging ahead at incredible speed. The huge city of Shenzhen plans to have a fleet of 15,000 electric buses up and running by the end of this year. Other cities are expected to follow in rapid succession. There are several Chinese electric bus companies that are expanding very rapidly, such as BYD which is currently growing 50% per year. Chinese deployment of solar power is currently growing at 100% per year. Increasingly renewable electricity will be what fuels both the Chinese electricity grid and its public transport systems. Trains, trams, trucks, cars and motorbikes are all likely to go electric, or hydrogen fuel cell. It is now becoming possible to envisage fossil fuelled powered cars, trucks and buses in the same way we see steam trains, with a strange confused nostalgia for a more polluted past. If humanity is to have a future it will be with clean, pollution minimizing technology, and currently China is forging ahead of the rest of the world. Chinese carbon emissions rocketed during the decade 2002 to 2012 then levelled off for the last five years and now, I believe, are on the cusp of rapid reduction. And as carbon emissions fall so too will local air pollution. There is a long way to go, but improvements can be remarkably rapid, as the roll out of battery electric buses and solar power in China show.

Transport Revolution Accelerates

Nikola hydrogen fuel cell powered truck

Nikola hydrogen fuel cell powered truck

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a blog about railways and renewables. The German start-up Locomore was running its single train on renewables. Today I’ve learned that since 1st January 2017 the entire Dutch rail system is now running on wind power. During 2016 Holland tripled its offshore wind capacity with the opening of the Gemini and Westermeer wind farms. This meant that the railways could switch to 100% renewables a year earlier than planned. Hats off to the Dutch!

Also in the news has been the starting of a regular freight train service linking Yiwu in eastern China to Barking in east London, UK. It takes about 18 days to cover the 7500 miles. I wonder how long it will be before this entire route is electrified and powered 100% by renewables. The route passes through lots of areas where cheap, clean solar and wind power can be generated.

The Nikola Motor Company launched their remarkable hydrogen fuel cell truck just a few weeks ago in Salt Lake City. They intend to build their own solar farms to drive electrolysis to split water into oxygen and hydrogen. The technical specifications of the trucks look great. Meanwhile in Sweden they are experimenting with trucks using overhead electricity lines as we are used to seeing with trams. The world’s first road paved with solar panels has just opened in Normandy using similar technology to the Solar Roadways system I blogged about a couple of years back.

The mayors of Paris, Madrid, Athens and Mexico City have said they plan to ban diesel cars by 2025. We should go further and faster and ban both diesel and petrol cars, trucks and buses from all major cities globally, and some cities may be able to achieve this before 2025. My guess is that Oslo will be the first to achieve this goal, but it is quite small and not as polluted as many places. Which of the really big and horribly polluted cities will be first, Delhi, Beijing, Dubai, Lagos, London or Los Angeles?

It is quite extraordinary to see how quickly the transport sector is innovating to bring us a zero emissions global system. I’ve written before about experimental solar ships and planes, but how long before we see regular commercial renewably powered ships and planes carrying cargo and passengers? Air travel will of course be the hardest nut to crack, but the pace of innovation in many sectors of transport is breathtaking!