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Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Archive for the ‘alternative transportation fuel’ Category

Green group questions economic sense of hydrogen buses

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It was a while ago now that I questioned the hydrogen bus plan for Whistler,  in fact May 1, 2007. That post attracted a comment from someone using the pen name “Astrolounge” who is obviously an insider, since (s)he revealed that the “plan” was even worse than I imagined. Over two years later and long after most of the money has been spent, Ian Bruce of the David Suzuki Foundation has caught up – and is now being quoted by the Province yesterday.

Bruce says he is concerned about the priority of spending on the hydrogen buses as part of the 12-year $14-billion provincial transit plan announced in January of 2008.

“The new money was roughly $11 billion and of that just under $5 billion was committed from the province,” said Bruce. “Yet in the last budget we had roughly $150 million (toward public transit) so it is not even putting us close to being on track.”

The so called “transit plan” was bogus. I said that at the time as well. There was never any money – other than the funds committed to the Canada Line and this daft Olympic showcase as part of the “hydrogen highway”. The plan relied on money from the feds, and from the municipal level as well. Neither was consulted – and no commitments by either were ever made. The “plan” was simply a hasty rehashing of earlier proposals, designed to look like a plan. And there was never any thought given to how these projects might get enough operational funding.

The Gordon Campbell government was, as that time, looking forward to the election, and trying to appear green. Somehow they managed to work this trick with a totally inadequate carbon tax. Carol James seized on this as her (failed) strategy, when it would have been much easier to discredit the BC Liberals due to their much greater commitment to greenhouse gas increases through the Gateway – a major freeway expansion – the expansion of oil, gas and coal extraction and the yet to be realised plans to build more pipelines to export tar sands output, as well as the very real threat to open up drilling for oil around Haida Gwai.

Added to the question of costs is the fact that the hydrogen has to be bused in from Quebec, as it cannot be produced in B.C. in great enough quantities.

Actually that’s nonsense too. If you are going to spend these sorts of sums, a new electrolysis plant running off our own abundant hydro resources should not have been too difficult. After all, how can you have a hydrogen highway without the hydrogen? Of course, the fact that apart form these buses there are no hydrogen vehicles that need the fuel now or in the foreseeable future is just one of those nitpicking details that can be readily dismissed.

But, said BC Transit spokeswoman Joanna Morton, investing in future technologies is a must.

Actually, it isn’t. There are all sorts of well proven technologies that would increase transit use, reduce car dependency and start building a greener future. The problem is that would require a government that understands how transportation and land use needs to be changed to a more sustainable model. That would, for a start, mean abandoning freeway widening – something that Gordon Campbell has made clear he has no intention of doing even though studies the government themselves sponsored show will increase ghg emissions. It would also mean that some new funding source would have to be found to ensure that the proposed capital projects would actually be able to be operated. This is the most pressing problem in Greater Vancouver – not for BC Transit, since none of the other cities in the province will ever see modern transit investment in anything other than buses. Translink  (SoCoBriTCA) cannot afford any system expansion – and has simply raised fares and taxes to keep operating the same system it has now for the forseeable future.

The real question that needs to be answered is why this government can find millions for hydrogen buses which cannot operate effectively in Whistler and meets no identifiable needs at all, when all sorts of worthwhile projects that would increase transit use and enable a more efficient land use pattern are neglected. The Evergreen Line is the one that springs to mind, but let’s assume that BC Transit has to be involved and needs to spend in other places – so perhaps Rail for the Valley and on the E&N on the Island  come to mind. Or perhaps streetcars for Victoria. None of these looks Olympic of course. None offer photo ops with the Governator. But they would actually work to increase transit use and encourage transit oriented development, and thus actually do something effective about ghg emissions. Something that can not be claimed for hydrogen buses in Whistler.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 23, 2009 at 10:12 am

CNG is not worth the extra cost

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This has been a bit of an issue for me for some years. I knew little about alternative transportation fuels before I came to BC – but then I had nearly three years doing little else. I had also been involved peripherally in the decisions about the future of trolleybuses in both Toronto and Hamilton – where compressed natural gas  (CNG) was the preferred choice for replacements – so I have seen some of the ways these decisions have been made in the past.

There is a new “peer-reviewed, open-access journal that provides a platform for the dissemination of new practices and for dialogue emerging out of the field of sustainability” called “Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy”. In the first issue I have seen there is a comprehensive review of the data that should be driving these decisions. It is written by

Thomas Hesterberg and William Bunn [who] are employed by Navistar, a major manufacturer of diesel engines and vehicles. Charles Lapin is a consultant to Navistar. All authors declare no other financial interest in the subject matter of this study. Results and conclusions presented in this paper were drawn independent of the interests of the sponsor.

I thought I would put that in front. Navistar (who make International) do not – so far as I can determine – offer alternative fuel engines. But the paper “An evaluation of criteria for selecting vehicles fueled with diesel or compressed natural gas” does seem to be objective, is well referenced and – as noted above – peer reviewed.

The most frequent charge levelled at diesels is that they are “dirty” but the emissions from diesel engines have been subject to progressively stronger emissions regulations and new technologies have been developed which are now required to meet current standards. Since we only buy new buses (the last two excursions into the used bus market were mixed: Seattle does not maintain old buses like Everett) they meet these standards – and do so no matter what fuel they burn. Both diesel and CNG are fossil fuels – and several full life cycle cost analyses contradict each other on whether or not there is a ghg case one way or the other.

So the choice comes down to cost – and CNG is more expensive – and operational considerations which do not offset these costs but rather emphasize the case for diesel.

P3307 Braid Stn 2009_0126

This region recently undertook a side by side comparison of CNG and other alternate fuels, including hythane (CNG with extra hydrogen added). Despite poor experience with previous fleets of CNG buses Translink bought more of them – the triumph of hope over experience. They simply hoped that the CNG converters had finally sorted out the problems of adapting a diesel to run on gas.

Translink P3355 Braid Stn New Westminster 2007_1220

There are also hybrid buses on order. Again hybrids should offer much better fuel economy – after all they can capture energy lost by braking, and also reduce transmission energy losses – but full life cycle cost data will take some time to acquire as hybrid buses have been only recently available as production vehicles.

For many politicians, the venture into alt fuels was all about “spin” – not reality. For instance some of the first CNG buses got a special livery.

P3262 and 3267 BCT G40HF New Flyer March 1996

But the zero emissions trolleybuses that had been operating for years never got the “Clean Air Bus” treatment.Based on the data reviewed in the referenced article, the CNG buses were probably no cleaner than equivalent diesels. Yet they cost so much more that BC Gas (as it then was) organised a special deal to finance both the fleet and and its refuelling facilities so that the cost appeared to be similar to diesel. That is not good public policy. In the case of the trolleybus purchase, it was a much clearer decision. Yes trolleybuses were much more expensive – about twice the capital cost to buy, and they did not include the cost of the overhead as that was already in place – but it was worth that much more to get zero emission, nearly silent buses that could use electricity which in BC is nearly all from existing hydro. So no tail pipe emissions and negligible ghg  – and the abilty to power the buses from what ever became available to Hydro in future.

E40LFR 2259

But the case for CNG – which I never thought very compelling – seems now to be no longer in question. Even if the authors are thought to be biased by their employment, the evidence they present and the conclusions they draw seem to be quite sound. There really is no case for expensive “alternatives” which offer no real advantage.

Written by Stephen Rees

July 24, 2009 at 12:53 pm

The Great Ethanol Scam

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A search of my blog shows I have posted about ethanol 21 times – none of them favourably. Perhaps these two will give the flavour to new readers. Now Business Week turns up the heat a bit.

Not only is ethanol proving to be a dud as a fuel substitute but there is increasing evidence that it is destroying engines in large numbers

It is of course written for an American audience. The basic thesis is that when cars fail – especially fuel pumps – the fuel quality should be tested. Because the amount of ethanol blended into the gasoline is critical, and that is not tested often enough.  Canadian readers are not so much at risk since we do not have the same mandated ethanol content  as the US: the proposal here is for only 5% and the damage occurs at higher percentages. And often the failures have been found with ethanol much higher than intended. 

But I have disliked the idea of ethanol ever since,as an analyst with the BC Ministry of Energy I got lobbied regularly by the industry rep. Actually they all did that – but the ethanol guy seemed particularly persistent. I don’t suppose I was the only civil servant he talked to – and some may even have had some level of influence on decision making. Fortunately most of the lead on the issue was taken by the Ministry of the Environment – and they wanted biofuel to be made from forest waste (of which BC had a lot then – and was still using beehive burners to get rid of it) not grain. No one was producing ethanol from that source then and I am not sure if anyone has made it commercially viable even now.

What I did hear from people in the auto business were stories about people with older cars who used ethanol to get an AirCare pass – and then had trouble because the solvent action of the additive in the system loosened lots of old crud (that is the technical term they used) and bunged up the fuel filter. Not a big problem to be sure – unlike these poor souls identified by BW with fuel pumps actually failing.

The US political system – and to some extent ours – has been undermined steadily by lobbyists. Even now it is difficult for President Obama to get the much needed greenhouse gas legislation through congress because of the pressure of special interests. The only way to get legislation through there is to allow for changes. Our parliamentary system is less malleable – but still subject to pressure. Ethanol – as BW lists – is not good for the environment (either air quality or ghg) nor has it reduced US imports of oil. But large amounts of money have been diverted into a few pockets – agribusiness rather than farmers – and much of that could have been much better spent. But the worst effect is created by the need for presidential hopefuls to get through the Iowa caucuses early in their primary campaign. Which is when they have to take the ethanol pledge if they want to get onto the ticket. They grow a lot of corn in Iowa. And as we have seen here recently, self interest trumps general well being every time.

Anyway, I no longer buy my gas at Husky – which is, as far as I know, the only local source of ethanol blended fuel here.

Written by Stephen Rees

May 15, 2009 at 12:32 pm

Ottawa was warned of biofuel problems

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Vancouver Sun

Using the Access to Information Act, the original briefing notes sent to former environment minister Rona Ambrose now reveal that despite knowing that fuel produce from corn and wheat was not worthwhile the Conservative Government on Ottawa pressed ahead anyway and mandated

that gasoline contain an average renewable fuel content of five per cent and that diesel contain an average renewable fuel content of two per cent by 2010. The government has also offered $1.5 billion in subsidies mainly to support farmers, agricultural and energy companies which produce ethanol from corn or wheat.

The briefing notes look at a wide range of issues (as they should) but the point it that this legislation is supposed to reduce ghg emissions and this programme actually increases them!. Not only that, but we – the taxpayers – are actually subsidizing people to make matters worse!

Corn based ethanol is a scam – and it has been known to be a scam for a long time. In the US it is really difficult to do much about it since Iowa with its caucuses dominates the early rounds of the presidential primaries, so every candidate has to take the “ethanol pledge” just to get a chance to stay in the running. In Canada the political advantage of supporting farmers is somewhat greater. For one thing, votes have always been more valuable in low density rural areas. Which of course tend to be small c conservative. But this is much more about funelling money to companies who spend huge amounts of money lobbying. The job of the civil servants is to provide objective and well reasoned arguments. The lobbyists, of course, are under no such constraint. And what seems to be happening across federal government is that qualified, professional people in the public service are being ignored.

I hope that Sheila Fraser is picking up this story. Wasting government money is one thing. Spending it at these volumes on a programme which is known to be perverse is something else.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 12, 2008 at 10:54 am

Compost bug offers hope for biofuel industry

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The Guardian

A detritus-loving bug found in garden compost heaps has been genetically ‘turbo-charged’ to help it break down tough plant matter at speed, a process that could be about to transform the way the world makes biofuels

The problem with “second generation ” biofuels is that it is not easy to break down cellulose. So biofuel at present is made from material that has a better use – food. This British development will at first just make that process more efficient. Which in itself is not a bad thing, since the invetsment has already been made in the ethanol plants and they will continue to produce for some years until that investment is paid off. They use tremendous amounts of energy too, so just cutting back on that bill is also a good thing.

But you cannot please some people

Some environmental campaigners remain unconvinced, however. A spokesperson for Friends of the Earth, which campaigns against biofuels, says that so-called second generation technologies are not the answer.

“Sustainable second generation biofuels are a PR promise, not a commercial reality – and are a distraction from real green transport solutions, like more fuel efficient cars, better public transport and safer routes for walking and cycling,” she said.

Well yes, but why do we let the best become the enemy of the good? Certainly I would argue for an end to subsidies and mandates for grain based ethanol. And the quite daft marketing of minivans in BC with a “flex fuel vehicle” badge when E85 is not sold here. After all it had to be adapted to meet Canadian standards – so why is that badge still there? But, the present fleet of internal combustion cars and trucks is going to be around for a while, so getting cleaner fuel for them is still necessary. Corn based ethanol fails to meet that criteria because it is not carbon neutral – yet. “A distraction” possibly – but not enough of one to be a plausible alternative to all the other good things, and anyway we should be doing all of those even if the planet wasn’t heating up. “More fuel efficient cars, better public transport and safer routes for walking and cycling” are all Good Things in and of themselves, and consequent reduction in GHGs simply a bonus!

Written by Stephen Rees

August 15, 2008 at 9:07 am

Algae or air could fuel cars

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Gwynne Dyer – Georgia Straight

The algae I think I covered a while back. But the combination of CO2 and hydrogen to make octane is a new oner on me. This is a short piece and frustratingly short on detail. But as with most things timing is everything.

I think there wil be some way of keeping the internal combustion engine going – we have so many of them – but for now the best bet I think is not to be too concerned about alterntaive fuels. Let the inventors and venture capitalists do their thing and refuse to subsidize them. Governments need to get us out of car dependance which they have largely created by building freeways and the associated distributors in response to pressure from the auto makers, oil and concrete industries – not to mentiont he property developers.

As commenters herev point out frequently there are too many areas where there is very little alternative to cars – and that is a failure to invest in footways, cycle paths and transit. And that is what the BC government shoudl be doing. Not building Gateway or the Hydrogen Highway or giving tax concessions to some fuels or vehicles.

And Transport Canada should stop buggering about and allow slow speed EVs on the road. Good grief, back in the 1950’s that was how the milk was delivered and the recycling collected back where I lived then. What is the problem that takes 5 years (and counting) to deal with?

Written by Stephen Rees

June 20, 2008 at 10:52 am

Honda rolls out Hydrogen Car

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Globe and Mail

Well you can find it there and many other places. It is actually an agency story from Tokyo.

New Honda Fuel Cell car

It is said to be the first production fuel cell car – but the volumes are going to be very low.

Honda expects to lease out a “few dozen” units this year and about 200 units within a year. In California, a three-year lease will run $600 (U.S.) a month, which includes maintenance and collision coverage.

Among the first customers are actress Jamie Lee Curtis and filmmaker husband Christopher Guest, actress Laura Harris, film producer Ron Yerxa, as well as businessmen Jon Spallino and Jim Salomon.

That’s payback for Arnie’s “hydrogen highway” but really delivers very little apart from column inches. And of course have a real Hollywood star name associated with the new car is good press too. But no-one is expected to go to a showroom and order one. In fact the chances of any ordinary Joe switching away from an SUV to one of these is slim to none.

As the piece points out, how you get the hydrogen determines whether this is a good policy move or not. And in terms of energy use and greenhouse gas emissions in California these may be worse than a hybrid. The lease rates are artificially low too. Honda is charging these to its R&D budget, not making money on them for a long time.

For most people now the big issue is gas prices – not air pollution or greenhouse gas emissions – but their response is actually doing more to reduce both both than any alternative fuel. They are taking transit.

Written by Stephen Rees

June 16, 2008 at 9:40 am