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Arguing with Ms Thunberg

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Screen Shot 2019-05-08 at 6.00.08 PM

I just came across a quote from the highly intelligent, well informed climate campaigner. It was on Twitter

Yesterday, Thunberg repeated the phrase. “Avoiding climate breakdown will require cathedral thinking,” she said. “We must lay the foundation while we may not know exactly how to build the ceiling.”

You can see the whole thing on the New Yorker who are impressed by her rhetoric.

So I do not really want to get into an argument with her and on media like Twitter and Facebook these things can get out of hand quickly. But I am pretty sure that the guys who built cathedrals knew exactly how to build the ceiling even as they were working on the foundations. You may recall that I recently posted my pictures of the ceiling of Notre Dame.

Ceiling

If you have been in the crypt of any medieval cathedral you will note a similar form of construction. This is not my picture. It is by Michael Gabelmann who uses a Creative Commons license for his picture of the crypt of Pecs cathedral built in the 11th century.

Crypt

Abundant Transit on Twitter also wrote today

We have everything we need to solve the climate crisis. Only politics and culture stand in the way.

And that was in reply to Jennifer Keesmat

The fact that #Vancouver has made creating walkable communities a central big move of it’s #ClimateEmergency plan is both a clue + an inspiration to cities around the world. We don’t need gadgets. We don’t need to invent something new. We know exactly what to do.

And, by the way, the record breaking increase in transit ridership here was not due to making it free. Lots more people are using the system because it is convenient, reliable and less hassle than driving. It also looks to be better value for money than owning a car and then trying to find a parking spot for it. In fact we are becoming the victims of our own success as the biggest problem now is overcrowding.

But to return to the climate crisis, what we need to do is first stop subsidizing fossil fuel use. Renewables are already cheaper than coal – and most people who are serious about energy efficiency find that an easier way of saving money than almost any other alternative. We do have to get serious too about inequality. Our society is headed in the wrong direction not because most people are unaware of the need for change, but a few, exceedingly wealthy people, have been working hard to confuse the issue while making unconscionable profits and avoiding paying tax. Tackling that is actually more important than trying to persuade everyone else that they have to change their lifestyle. Although carbon tax has been remarkably effective at quite modest levels. And because we have done not nearly enough for the last thirty years (other than have fairly silly arguments when the science was unequivocal) we now must move faster. But no-one has to freeze in the dark. But bicycles, buses, protected lanes for both – and more passenger trains in North America will all work very well indeed because we know how to do that. We know how to build better places too. Batteries are getting better and cheaper: so are solar panels and wind turbines. We haven’t even started on geothermal – unlike Iceland. It really does look like we will see commercial electric aircraft and ferries here soon too. Everyone loves to point to cruise ships – but they are actually already using electric drives. We just need to change the way they generate the power. Not rocket science. And that is something else we really don’t need. Setting up home on another planet is not necessary – or even very practical.

POSTSCRIPT

Ms Thunberg posted to her Facebook page recently. I decided to cut and paste it here. I have no argument at all with her. You should read this

As the rumours, lies and constant leaving out of well established facts continue, please share this newly updated clarification about me and my school strike.
Please help me communicate this to the grown ups who lie about me and family so that I can focus on school instead:

Recently I’ve seen many rumors circulating about me and enormous amounts of hate. This is no surprise to me. I know that since most people are not aware of the full meaning of the climate crisis (which is understandable since it has never been treated as a crisis) a school strike for the climate would seem very strange to people in general.
So let me make some things clear about my school strike.

In may 2018 I was one of the winners in a writing competition about the environment held by Svenska Dagbladet, a Swedish newspaper. I got my article published and some people contacted me, among others was Bo Thorén from Fossil Free Dalsland. He had some kind of group with people, especially youth, who wanted to do something about the climate crisis.
I had a few phone meetings with other activists. The purpose was to come up with ideas of new projects that would bring attention to the climate crisis. Bo had a few ideas of things we could do. Everything from marches to a loose idea of some kind of a school strike (that school children would do something on the schoolyards or in the classrooms). That idea was inspired by the Parkland Students, who had refused to go to school after the school shootings.
I liked the idea of a school strike. So I developed that idea and tried to get the other young people to join me, but no one was really interested. They thought that a Swedish version of the Zero Hour march was going to have a bigger impact. So I went on planning the school strike all by myself and after that I didn’t participate in any more meetings.

When I told my parents about my plans they weren’t very fond of it. They did not support the idea of school striking and they said that if I were to do this I would have to do it completely by myself and with no support from them.
On the 20 of august I sat down outside the Swedish Parliament. I handed out fliers with a long list of facts about the climate crisis and explanations on why I was striking. The first thing I did was to post on Twitter and Instagram what I was doing and it soon went viral. Then journalists and newspapers started to come. A Swedish entrepreneur and business man active in the climate movement, Ingmar Rentzhog, was among the first to arrive. He spoke with me and took pictures that he posted on Facebook. That was the first time I had ever met or spoken with him. I had not communicated or encountered with him ever before.

Many people love to spread rumors saying that I have people ”behind me” or that I’m being ”paid” or ”used” to do what I’m doing. But there is no one ”behind” me except for myself. My parents were as far from climate activists as possible before I made them aware of the situation.
I am not part of any organization. I sometimes support and cooperate with several NGOs that work with the climate and environment. But I am absolutely independent and I only represent myself. And I do what I do completely for free, I have not received any money or any promise of future payments in any form at all. And nor has anyone linked to me or my family done so.
And of course it will stay this way. I have not met one single climate activist who is fighting for the climate for money. That idea is completely absurd.
Furthermore I only travel with permission from my school and my parents pay for tickets and accommodations.

My family has written a book together about our family and how me and my sister Beata have influenced my parents way of thinking and seeing the world, especially when it comes to the climate. And about our diagnoses.
That book was due to be released in May. But since there was a major disagreement with the book company, we ended up changing to a new publisher and so the book was released in august instead.
Before the book was released my parents made it clear that their possible profits from the book ”Scener ur hjärtat” will be going to 8 different charities working with environment, children with diagnoses and animal rights.

And yes, I write my own speeches. But since I know that what I say is going to reach many, many people I often ask for input. I also have a few scientists that I frequently ask for help on how to express certain complicated matters. I want everything to be absolutely correct so that I don’t spread incorrect facts, or things that can be misunderstood.

Some people mock me for my diagnosis. But Asperger is not a disease, it’s a gift. People also say that since I have Asperger I couldn’t possibly have put myself in this position. But that’s exactly why I did this. Because if I would have been ”normal” and social I would have organized myself in an organisation, or started an organisation by myself. But since I am not that good at socializing I did this instead. I was so frustrated that nothing was being done about the climate crisis and I felt like I had to do something, anything. And sometimes NOT doing things – like just sitting down outside the parliament – speaks much louder than doing things. Just like a whisper sometimes is louder than shouting.

Also there is one complaint that I ”sound and write like an adult”. And to that I can only say; don’t you think that a 16-year old can speak for herself? There’s also some people who say that I oversimplify things. For example when I say that “the climate crisis is a black and white issue”, ”we need to stop the emissions of greenhouse gases” and ”I want you to panic”. But that I only say because it’s true. Yes, the climate crisis is the most complex issue that we have ever faced and it’s going to take everything from our part to ”stop it”. But the solution is black and white; we need to stop the emissions of greenhouse gases.
Because either we limit the warming to 1,5 degrees C over pre industrial levels, or we don’t. Either we reach a tipping point where we start a chain reaction with events way beyond human control, or we don’t. Either we go on as a civilization, or we don’t. There are no gray areas when it comes to survival.
And when I say that I want you to panic I mean that we need to treat the crisis as a crisis. When your house is on fire you don’t sit down and talk about how nice you can rebuild it once you put out the fire. If your house is on fire you run outside and make sure that everyone is out while you call the fire department. That requires some level of panic.

There is one other argument that I can’t do anything about. And that is the fact that I’m ”just a child and we shouldn’t be listening to children.” But that is easily fixed – just start to listen to the rock solid science instead. Because if everyone listened to the scientists and the facts that I constantly refer to – then no one would have to listen to me or any of the other hundreds of thousands of school children on strike for the climate across the world. Then we could all go back to school.
I am just a messenger, and yet I get all this hate. I am not saying anything new, I am just saying what scientists have repeatedly said for decades. And I agree with you, I’m too young to do this. We children shouldn’t have to do this. But since almost no one is doing anything, and our very future is at risk, we feel like we have to continue.
And if you have any other concern or doubt about me, then you can listen to my TED talk ( https://www.ted.com/…/greta_thunberg_the_disarming_…/up-next ), in which I talk about how my interest for the climate and environment began.

And thank you everyone for your kind support! It brings me hope.
/Greta

Ps I was briefly a youth advisor for the board of the non profit foundation “We don’t have time”. It turns out they used my name as part of another branch of their organisation that is a start up business. They have admitted clearly that they did so without the knowledge of me or my family. I no longer have any connection to “We don’t have time”. Nor does anyone in my family. They have deeply apologised for what has happened and I have accepted their apology.

 

Written by Stephen Rees

April 26, 2019 at 4:33 pm

BC Transit offers Hydrogen Buses for sale

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BC Transit 1000

I saw this story on the CBC News last night so that’s where I am linking to. It gets picked up by the paywalled press too, of course, but what I think is interesting about this version is the commentary from Eric Denhoff President and CEO of the Canadian Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association..

While these buses may have saved some greenhouse gas emissions, the admission that the hydrogen had to be trucked from Quebec offsets that a bit. Hydrogen is of course freely available everywhere: extracting it, packing and shipping it is, of course the expensive bit, and itself consumes lots of energy. And the trucks which drove back and forth across the continent were diesel powered. There is also a plant in North Van which vents hydrogen it produces as a byproduct which is not clean enough for the finicky fuel cells.

What annoys me about the web version of this story is that is misses the correct attribution of responsibility. The TV news had quite a bit about the decision by Gordon Campbell to buy these buses and have them run in Whistler during the Olympics. It also mentioned the complete failure of the “hydrogen highway” that he announced with Arnold Schwarzenegger that never materialized.

The Province always has money for these ribbon cutting, PR fluff type projects. Obviously just not enough money for Whistler’s transit system to keep running the things. There is never enough money to run transit in BC but every so often they go all loopy and buy a bunch of white elephants. Several different iterations of CNG buses wished on to Vancouver before they got one that actually worked reliably. Even though the emissions from diesel buses fitted with mandatory control equipment now equal the tailpipe performance of CNG. Not that there is much wrong with air quality in Vancouver.

It is also worth noting that the CBC web version mentions that there is a Plan B if BC Transit can’t find a buyer, which I would think is the most likely outcome.

NOTE This post has been corrected after correspondence from Eric Denhoff (April 28, 2015)

The Natural Gas System is Leaky and in Need of a Fix

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The first thorough comparison of evidence for natural gas system leaks confirms that organizations including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have underestimated U.S. methane emissions generally, as well as those from the natural gas industry specifically.

That’s a really neat summary of a new study from Stanford. The mainstream media is reporting this – often behind paywalls – so the link I have posted is to the original not them. It also seems that they have decided the story is to be about buses. That’s in the report but a ways down

the analysis finds that powering trucks and buses with natural gas instead of diesel fuel probably makes the globe warmer, because diesel engines are relatively clean. For natural gas to beat diesel, the gas industry would have to be less leaky than the EPA’s current estimate, which the new analysis also finds quite improbable.

“Fueling trucks and buses with natural gas may help local air quality and reduce oil imports, but it is not likely to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Even running passenger cars on natural gas instead of gasoline is probably on the borderline in terms of climate,” Brandt said.

At first this was the item that made me think I should blog about it. I have long been critical of the way that in BC we have glommed onto to NG as an alternative transportation fuel and have so often found it wanting. I won’t repeat that here.

What struck me was much closer to the top of the story

Natural gas consists predominantly of methane. Even small leaks from the natural gas system are important because methane is a potent greenhouse gas – about 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide. A study, “Methane Leakage from North American Natural Gas Systems,” published in the Feb. 14 issue of the journal Science, synthesizes diverse findings from more than 200 studies ranging in scope from local gas processing plants to total emissions from the United States and Canada. [emphasis added]

“People who go out and actually measure methane pretty consistently find more emissions than we expect,” said the lead author of the new analysis, Adam Brandt, an assistant professor of energy resources engineering at Stanford University. “Atmospheric tests covering the entire country indicate emissions around 50 percent more than EPA estimates,” said Brandt. “And that’s a moderate estimate.”

So instead of me ranting about buses I am going after the more significant target. Our Premier’s obsession with LNG, and how this is going to be both our fiscal salvation – and will help other countries wean themselves off dirtier fuels like coal.

The problem with natural gas – methane – is that is far more powerful as a greenhouse gas than CO2. As noted above “30 times more potent than carbon dioxide” which means while burning methane is cleaner than burning coal, if just small amounts leak unburned then the advantage in terms of impact on climate is negated. Since the leaks have been underestimated up to now, that means we now need to rethink some of our strategies. I think it is very common for the people who promote fracking to downplay the destructiveness and carelessness of their activities. So the phrase “some recent studies showing very high methane emissions in regions with considerable natural gas infrastructure” is striking even though in context it is stressed that these levels are not characteristic of the continent as whole. The frackers keep secret the chemicals they add into the water – and deny that these chemicals damage the water supply of people downstream. Rather like the way the tarsand developers prefer us to not pay attention to what happens to the water supply people who live near the operations depend on.

Even though the gas system is almost certainly leakier than previously thought, generating electricity by burning gas rather than coal still reduces the total greenhouse effect over 100 years, the new analysis shows. Not only does burning coal release an enormous amount of carbon dioxide, mining it releases methane.

But I do not think that justifies a strategy that throws LNG in as the be-all and end-all. Recent developments in solar power, for instance, are showing that the competitiveness of this source of electricity has been greatly improved. BC has all sorts of renewable energy sources that remain virtually untouched. Geothermal energy, for instance, seems to be mostly confined to a few spas and hot tubs. Wind and wave energy generally is ignored, despite our location on the shore of the Pacific.

There are also very real doubts about the viability of some of the proposals being floated for LNG plants, which seem to me to based more on wishful thinking than clear headed analysis of the realities of a market place that has recently seen a flood of new production for a product that is difficult to package and transport to market. It is still the case that what I was taught in that CAPP course all new employees of the Ministry of Energy were required to attend, that what comes out of the ground is either oily gas or gassy oil. And what the market demands here is usually liquid fuel, and the gas is flared. About half of the volume produced I’m told. Using lots of energy to liquify the gas and then ship it around the planet to be sold at competitive prices to places that can pipe gas in from much closer locations does not seem very likely to be viable.

But mostly I am very tired of this administration pretending to care about the climate (because we had the carbon tax implemented before other places) while doing their very best to undermine the limited success we have had in reducing our own ghg. Which may not be entirely due to good management but simply reduced levels of economic activity.

Are electric cars bad for the environment?

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1912 Detroit Electric

I was alerted to this story by the Globe – which this morning is trumpeting going behind the paywall as “access for all” (Orwell would be proud: newspeak lives). I am not going to link there since they were in any event simply recycling something. Not – I hasten to add – plagiarism. Just what we all do – and in this case adequately cited, though without the necessary web links. Which of course Google gets quite quickly.

The Comparative Environmental Life Cycle Assessment of Conventional and Electric Vehicles is available from the Wiley online library – and since it has yet to appear in the paper version of the Journal of Industrial Ecology you can get the whole thing as a pdf though that may not last for long. What the Globe was doing was reporting on an on line discussion on Leo Hickman’s blog – part of the Guardian’s web presence – and one that I freely admit I had missed.

The study looks at both the potential of increased emissions from the manufacturing process – especially for batteries – as well as the source of the electricity. The EV has often been criticized as an “elsewhere emission vehicle” (49 million google hits on the phrase) – it may have no tailpipe emissions but if the electricity comes from a coal fired power station …

Here are the key conclusions

The production phase of EVs proved substantially more environmentally intensive. Nonetheless, substantial overall improvements in regard to GWP [global warming potential], TAP [terrestrial acidification potential], and other impacts may be achieved by EVs powered with appropriate energy sources relative to comparable ICEVs [internal combustion engine vehicles]. However, it is counterproductive to promote EVs in regions where electricity is produced from oil, coal, and lignite combustion. The electrification of transportation should be accompanied by a sharpened policy focus with regard to life cycle management, and thus counter potential setbacks in terms of water pollution and toxicity. EVs are poised to link the personal transportation sector together with the electricity, the electronic, and the metal industry sectors in an unprecedented way. Therefore the developments of these sectors must be jointly and consistently addressed in order for EVs to contribute positively to pollution mitigation efforts.

All of which is fair enough since all they are doing is comparing one sort of car to another sort of car. Which is why the big problem of electric cars gets completely missed. As I have often written on this blog the problem is the overuse of cars – far more than how those cars are powered or constructed. As a policy issue in urban areas – and after all most of us live in urban areas – what we need to confront – here and elsewhere – is that when most people use a single occupant vehicle for most of their trip making, the consequences are dire. Traffic congestion is the one that gets most noticed, as it is the most obvious, but add to that the horrendous toll on life and limb caused by collisions, the health impact of not using your own muscles enough and being sedentary for most of the time, and the sprawl of urban areas onto productive farm land and essential natural areas (loss of biodiversity and the greenhouse gas collection function of forests are merely examples).

I find it offensive that I am being accused of “a rapture of techno-narcissism” when I have long been advocating some very old fashioned ideas. Electric trains, trolleybuses, and trams as well as human powered bicycles were all widespread at the turn of the 19th into the 20th century. Not to mention the somewhat obvious wisdom of building places where it was both possible, safe and pleasant to walk – something humans were able to do for millennia prior to gadarene rush to rebuild cities to accommodate the automobile. Or even something that seems revolutionary in Vancouver but has always been instinctive in older cities – places to sit down comfortably outside in public spaces without any payment being required.

Something similar seems to be going on with the debate about the pipeline. I really do not think that the main issue is the possible impact of spills on either land or sea. It is the problem of burning ever more fossil fuel that worries me. The oil sands are one of the worst offenders simply because of the amount of energy it takes to convert tarry sands into liquid fuels. If we had better ways of moving ourselves around – and we could have very easily and relatively cheaply – then the oil could stay in the ground. Possibly not forever – since there are so many other really clever things we can do with petro-chemicals, for which there often fewer readily available alternatives. Burning the stuff or making non-biodegradable plastic bags  is simply profligacy, given the increasingly precarious future we face.

Or as Bill McKibben states

“We also figured out that we’re not going to win just fighting one pipeline at a time. We have to keep all those battles going, but we also have to play some offense, go at the heart of the problem.”

Victoria firm develops renewable fuel

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The Times Colonist has a story about alt fuels this morning – their headline adds ” with fraction of the emissions from gasoline”. Apparently it comes from renewable sources – but what exactly is not specified – and can be mixed with regular fuel and used in current engines without modification. So since they mention renewables that presumably means less net greenhouse gas emissions than a fossil fuel, which a Good Thing. And the route they have chosen to go avoids the major pitfalls of most alt fuels which require either modified engines or different fuel dispensing systems – and, frequently, both.

Much will depend on price of course – and the, so far, mysterious source. There are many other toiling in this field  – algae being popular and a better choice than grains otherwise used as food. Fortunately gasoline is going to continue to get more expensive – as the market is betting that way now too even though there are no actual shortages at present. So that means that even the big oil companies are starting to look around for ways to make what they have go further and last longer.

But – yes there is always a but – the problem of the car is not just what you put in its tank. Indeed, I begin to think that is the least of our immediate concerns, since car dependency has brought so much misery in its wake. We were persuaded to drive everywhere and told this was the ultimate freedom only to find we had lost most of the other choices in the process, and become sick, lost many to collisions and seen the places where we live transformed into parking lots. The real choice now is we either ween ourselves off the automobile by creating walkable places – or we continue to pursue the impossible dream that we have never realized in the last sixty or more years.

Alt fuels like this one may not actually help very much – because they allow us to continue with the illusion that auto mobility can be made sustainable. Yet it is clear that in places that have tried to make it possible to drive everywhere end up choking themselves on traffic.

We know that when people have a choice, they will begin to turn away from cars and auto oriented places. Indeed some say that is already observable with the success of downtown Vancouver. The new urbanists are showing that there can be a wider variety of placemaking – it does not have to be high rises around subway stations. Though we always knew that worked because every major world city already had that  – though many took a while before they realized that mixed land use in their central places was a Really Good Idea too. The cities that had the sense to hold to streetcars – or to put them back – found success too. As did the places that developed bike lanes and concentrated on pedestrian safety and places to people watch. Not exactly a complicated paradigm to get ahold of – but one which entrenched commercial interests are still doing their best to resist.

Suburbs are a challenge – but were commonplace long before widespread car ownership. Retrofits now underway across the US are starting to show  what can work commercially as well as offer hope for a more sustainable future.

For the record I want to re-iterate that while I know that we need to develop transit – and actually I think the more types of transit (local shuttles, bus, rapid bus, lrt, metro, commuter rail) the better – there will still be cars. New models of operation like car sharing and car pooling are developing – and there have been a few false starts. The velib/bixi model works with bikes – if someone picks up the tab for our bad behaviour – and will probably work better with car share schemes – I look forward to learning more about that next week. We already know that people who belong to car coops use transit and ride bikes more than those who own vehicles. That may say more about the demographic and location of early adopters. Car sharing is not yet main stream – and seems to be stuck in the city centres where there are plenty of other options already and any car use should be curtailed, if we are to avoid living in a place that works like Granville Island. It has train tracks but no trains. And the nearest transit service is nowhere near where people want to be.

Granville Island

switch

At the very least, the suburban American malls (like Bellingham) that put the bus stop at the building entrance – and not way out beyond the limits of the parking lot  – show they know what has to be done.

WTA 844 Bellingham WA 2008_1003

Vancouver, New Westminster, the City of North Vancouver  seem to be determined to say “no more” to the car – they simply do not have the space. Surrey obviously wants to do something different now to what is has been doing and poor old Coquitlam and Port Moody have been desperate to get on the bandwagon but are stuck waiting for SkyTrain. Meanwhile highway #1 is being widened and the SFPR is taking over the bog and the farmland – protest today. I doubt the elite will even notice. Everywhere else is car oriented now and has little hope of anything more than marginal change when radical action is needed.

We do not live in a society that embraces planning. We like to think that somehow the market sorts out optimum solutions. Nonsense of course, but one which still seems to attract the voters. We have been social engineering for years – and mostly for the benefit of a few large corporations, who did their best to persuade us that this was also good for us – even though it was always manifest that it was anything but. And I do not expect any of our governments to get any better at picking winners – or even make much effort when there is so much else to distract us. The present fleet of cars will be around for at least another twenty years – and the current short terms supply problems from Japan will doubtless be sorted out and provide a short window of opportunity for other, less skilled auto makers and sellers. The turnover rate for our built environment is even slower. I know it seems to be rapid but that is an illusion. We just tend to notice the new bits more.

So two cheers for Novaera. And hope that a few more pols will notice how many people are looking for REAL change – and have not been voting very much recently.

Written by Stephen Rees

April 23, 2011 at 12:35 pm

Transit tests out hybrid bus

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Times Colonist

Can you hear the wailing and the gnashing of teeth? Once again the sub editors have undermined a transit story. The whole point about this bus isn’t that it is a “hybrid” (I am not at all sure it meets any normal usage of that term) but that it runs on hydrogen.

The pictures that accompany the article show that photographer Darren Stone was playing around with a wide angle – maybe even “fish eye” – lens, and it is this quite difficult to determine what the thing really looks like.

BC Transit CEO Manuel Achadinha with a fuel cell hybrid powered bus in Victoria, B.C. March 11, 2010.

BC Transit CEO Manuel Achadinha with a fuel cell hybrid powered bus in Victoria, B.C. March 11, 2010.

Built to be environmentally friendly, its batteries can be recharged at night by plugging it in to the electrical grid and hydrogen fuel tanks — stored in the roof of the bus — can be refilled.

OK so that explains the “hybrid” tag – so then we are back to the usual quibble I have about the claims that are made about “environmentally friendly”. It all depends on where the electricity comes from – and the hydrogen for that matter. In BC we get most of our power from existing hydro, so it is about as clean a power source as you can get. There was a lot of environmental impact when the dams were built and the valleys flooded – but most of that was in the past. Of course, a lot of fish habitat has never been restored or replaced either, but compared to other power stations hydro generation is reasonably benign. But elsewhere in North America a lot of electricity comes from coal – which is about as bad as it can be. And a lot of new power generation in BC is going to be a lot less environmentally friendly than it could be. That’s because in the rush to allow private sector generators to make a lot of money, many corners were cut off – including the critical environmental assessment process.

But I digress.

B.C. Transit spent about $15,000 and the Canadian and U.S. federal governments each chipped in $45,000 to bring the bus to Victoria

Which is not very much for a project like this – the demo of the Bombardier trams here cost a great deal more!

But what does it really tell us? That one of these buses – which currently cost double a conventional bus – will be quieter and a bit cleaner. No mention, you notice, of trolleybuses – which can do all of this as far as the wires reach. I also wonder if the batteries are really the best choice. They tend to be a significant environmental issue themselves: might super-capacitors be a better choice? I don’t know, I am not an engineer – and there is no information in the story about what type of batteries these are. And I read somewhere recently (no, I am not going to look it up) that shortages of rare earth elements may be more significant than peak oil.

But most importantly, as with the hydrogen buses in Whistler, in BC we do not have a suitable source of hydrogen and it is now being trucked in from Quebec.  That is not at all environmentally friendly. Indeed, it is not economical nor is it energy efficient. The “hydrogen highway” was just the Potempkin village  put up for Olympic PR purposes.

It might be a pretty bus – I like the idea of lightweight composite materials: they could be used in any bus. It might be a quiet bus – but then so are trolleybuses. But I really do not see why anyone within Transit should get excited about hydrogen. Frankly, we cannot afford it. Transit is starved of cash, and needs to make the most of every dollar. And I am afraid that experience to date of just about every “alternative fuel” (and hydrogen is not really a fuel either – its just an expensive way to store and move electricity) has been that they have been both expensive and technically inferior to well established technologies.

Written by Stephen Rees

March 12, 2010 at 10:49 am

Why do I talk to the CBC?

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Once again, I agreed to be interviewed for CBC TV. They have been up a Whistler looking at the hydrogen buses, and they wanted to talk to me about what might have been a better way to spend the money. Of course, all they really want is a sound bite. This happens every so often. I stay in. They run up, they spend a while talking while tape is rolling. They then take some other footage which can be used – with other sources of sound – in the editting suite. It might take twenty minutes to half an hour, of which a minute or two at most might be seen (or heard on CBC radio). As with nearly every issue in real life, things are rarely simple – and usually interconnected. But the world of TV news does not allow for complexity.

Of course I have covered this issue in this blog – some time ago actually – which is how they got hold of me in the first place. The key question is “was there a better way to spend $40m?” (or whatever the figure was)

Yes, of course, I replied. If you just wanted zero emission buses the same money would buy you 40 trolleybuses. Or if you wanted to increase transit use, 80 conventional buses. Of course, you would need more operating funds to actually use the buses – they would need operators, as well as some maintenance. By the way, the funding for the BC Transit hydrogen buses ends in 2014. No-one knows what happens to them then.

Would that actually increase transit use then?

Well no, not really. It would be a necessary but not a sufficient condition. We really need transit priority on the street – to make the service attractive and reliable – but we also need to have a land use pattern that makes transit use feasible. Outside of Vancouver, there are not many places where that is the case. And as long as there is inadequate transit service, not really much chance that things will change. And as long as we are spending billions on widening one freeway and building another one, not much chance of that pattern emerging either.

Like I said, there really is no simple magic bullet solution. Gordon Campbell – like most politicians – loves being on tv. He enjoys the ribbon cutting moments, and always has a sound bite ready. And he is all about image. Reality, of course, is rather different. He likes to be seen in front of a hydrogen bus, because he likes people to think he is green. Actually his performance to date on the green portfolio has been worse than dismal. The huge expansion of oil, gas and coal exploration has been second only to Alberta. BC was the only province to increase its industrial greenhouse gas emissions in 2008. The carbon tax has had no measurable effect on car use – or indeed anything else. The pipeline from Alberta to the BC coast will be soon be built for the export of bitumen and the import of distillate, which means the prospect of oil tankers in the inside passage will soon be a reality. When that happens, expect the moratorium on off shore drilling for oil and gas to vanish. The increase in car use in the lower mainland will by then be seen as a minor contributor to BC burgeoning ghg production.   There has not been a lot of green achievement so far – and the prospects for the near future look to be much worse.

We know what we have to do to reduce ghg emissions. We have to reduce the use of fossil fuels – which first means cutting their production. Then we have to adopt a life style that is less carbon intensive. In urban areas that means we walk and cycle more – and use transit for the longer trips. Over time, motorised trip making must be reduced, which means we have to tackle land use. Transit must be electrified – which means we can use a variety of sources of energy, but we are lucky in BC in having plenty of existing hydro. Of course, we have to stop using that for other purposes like export to California to feed their fridges and air-conditioners, or for our own space heaters. There will of course be a long transition period – it cannot happen overnight – which means hybrid and battery cars will have some role – as will diesel buses, which have a service life of around 18 years. In that time we will have also brought in more bikeways, bus lanes and surface LRT. Transit oriented development will be encouraged at the points where transit service is most frequent – and will be very popular, as other ways of getting around get more difficult and expensive, since oil gets very expensive, very quickly in nearly any scenario.   The good news is that we will be both happier and healthier: the more we walk, the lower the incidence of diabetes, heart disease and obesity – the three biggest threats we now face. Public health costs – one of the greatest budgetary concerns at present – could actually start to fall. But there is absolutely no need whatever for hydrogen – in buses or cars. We have all the transport technologies we need – we just need to use them more sensibly. We need a real commitment to change – not a showcase or a Potemkin village. Buying more buses is just step one – and nothing will happen until we take the steps after that – and keep going in that direction.

Written by Stephen Rees

January 7, 2010 at 2:30 pm