The Question Before This House

The Common Problem . . .

is that alternative fuel programs are largely focused on the same transportation options where previous research has already produced huge gains in fuel efficiency. Trying to change over efficient platforms to alternative fuels is chasing diminishing returns. The focus for alternative fuels should be on large engines with long work cycles, because that produces the largest reduction in imported fossil fuels for the least change by end users. Changing the core of freight transport, trains and tractor-trailers, to alternative fuel would benefit the environment and the economy, improve overall efficiency, and improve national security. In addition, one of the most promising alternative fuel options would be best employed on large commercial vehicles.

In the US alone, rail and heavy trucks consume 32 billion gallons of diesel fuel annually; that’s roughly 10% of the petroleum used in the US. For those who count by CO2 emissions, say hello to 360 megatons per year. The Department of Energy spends billions every year on alternative fuel programs for cars and buses and delivery vans, but not a dime on the largest and most-used vehicles in the country. An 18-wheeler produces 3,000 kilowatt-hours of power in an 8-hour workday; a single freight locomotive generates over 35,000 kilowatt-hours per day. To put those numbers in perspective, changing just 80 semi trucks to renewable fuel is the energy equivalent of building 10,000 homes with enough solar panels to run themselves; switching 400 locomotives over would have the same environmental benefits as closing down an average coal-fired power plant.

There is a good economic case for reducing the use of imported fuels. Every year, the US spends over 100 billion dollars on oil imports; 10 of the last 15 years, the cost has been over 250 billion dollars. Some of that money goes to neighbors and allies, and is largely recovered in mutual trade. Unfortunately, at least one-third goes to entities like the OPEC nations or Russia, which prefer to buy as little as possible from the US. Such nations can inflict significant disruptions on the core of the US economy, with only collateral damage to their own finances. Oil prices go up in times of uncertainty, so they might actually clear the same profit totals while selling less oil overall.

Thermodynamically, it makes no sense to expend energy to move energy to the other side of the world. Yet the modern world does move energy from one continent to another, because it’s cost-effective. The major alternatives all require significant improvements in energy storage or distribution. For electric vehicles, the key number is energy density in the battery. Wind and solar power are intermittent sources, so they need some form of energy storage (or another power plant kept in “spinning reserve,” consuming the very energy supplies alternative energy is supposed to replace). Hydrogen is very good at storing energy; it has 2-3 times the energy density of any common hydrocarbon fuel. In fact, when NASA built the Space Shuttles and picked a fuel based solely on its ability to store energy, they chose hydrogen! The main reason we don’t already use hydrogen for energy storage across the country, and across the world, is that we don’t have a good way to move hydrogen long distances. Instead of trying to make hydrogen available at every neighborhood gas station, start by putting it into commercial vehicles where users plan their routes and select fuel stops before the vehicle is even loaded. In addition, hydrogen storage requires large, heavy fuel tanks; trains and heavy trucks already have large, heavy fuel tanks, and some trucks already use a gaseous fuel. From a mechanical standpoint, a locomotive or 18-wheeler is far better than a car or bus at carrying hydrogen without giving up usable space.

National security actually provides the single greatest reason to shift heavy freight transport to an alternative fuel. The OPEC nations have cut off oil supplies to the US before; given how many of their residents (and how many of their governments) are known to be unfriendly toward the US, it could reasonably happen again. If the ability to move raw materials and finished goods is completely independent of their oil imports, the economy keeps moving with little impact. US foreign policy would be much less tied to events in the Middle East. The reduced demand would cut oil prices worldwide, and reduce Russia’s export balance. With less economic leeway, Moscow would have to cut back on threatening its neighbors, including many NATO members.

There are many advantages to expanding hydrogen fuel use among railroads and heavy trucks. Not only are they the easiest stepping stone to supply hydrogen fuel where it is needed, they would also be among the easiest to change the powerplants to hydrogen fuel. Although fuel cells are more efficient, it is possible to modify an existing internal combustion engine to use hydrogen fuel. From 2005 to 2007, BMW leased cars with V12 engines running on hydrogen, and in 2013 Aston-Martin ran a 500+ horsepower race engine on hydrogen. The more hydrogen is used as a transportation fuel, the greater the economies of scale for hydrogen tech. Diesel itself was almost unknown to the average consumer in 1930; by 1960, almost every locomotive in service used diesel, and diesel passenger cars were available 20 years after that. Anyone who is serious about using hydrogen to replace oil should be trying to follow that same working model.

There is one more historical model to consider. Aviation and aerospace technology have achieved economically unfeasible and physically implausible breakthroughs, from the first flight across the English Channel to the first private spacecraft, because of people seeking fame and fortune. In many cases, the prize money available for a given accomplishment was not enough to cover the costs of research and development, but someone did it anyway. Aviation enthusiasts still know the name of Louis Bleriot, because of the publicity associated with winning large amounts of money. Even those who don’t follow history recognize the name of Charles Lindbergh and his Spirit of St. Louis. How many billions would any of the 7 major freight railroads in the US pay, to have the notoriety of being responsible for the largest expansion in alternate energy history? Many major corporations handle their own logistics; what would Walmart or McDonald’s do for the corporate image of having the greenest trucking fleet in the world? The Department of Energy spends billions of dollars per year on renewable energy and alternate fuels; the world’s wealthiest people have pledged billions more for environmental causes through The Giving Pledge and Breakthrough Energy Coalition. National defense alone would justify spending billions a year for the next decade to reward using hydrogen fuel in heavy vehicles. The technology is available; what the market faces is a chicken-or-egg problem. Hydrogen fuel is only available in a few cities, so hydrogen-fueled vehicles are very much a niche market. Without demand for hydrogen fuel on a retail level, there’s no reward for building hydrogen fueling infrastructure. Railroads handle their own fuel deliveries; set a target for ton-miles on hydrogen power every year, and reward those companies which meet the goal. Then, after 5 years, do the same for semi trucks. Repeat the rollout of diesel fuel, but do it in a matter of years, not decades.

The Uncommon Solution . . .

When the problem is high-density energy storage or long-distance energy transport, hydrogen ought to be the first option to consider.

Copyright 2017 by J.D. Lewis

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