Creating 100% Renewable Transport Systems

Guy Dauncey
Thursday, 14th August 2014

Guy Dauncey explores how to make transport systems 100% renewable - getting rid of fossil fuels and creating sustainable cities.

Last week I started to explore the possibility that British Columbia could become a 100% renewable energy region, as 140 regions in Germany are planning to become.

This week, we look at transportation. Is it possible that we could get where we want to be and ship our goods where they need to go without any use of fossil fuels?

Helsinki, capital of Finland, is taking a big step in this direction, with its goal that by 2025, nobody will need to own a car in the city at all, thanks to an advanced integrated 'mobility on demand' network of shared bikes, transit, LRT, and computer-automated Kutsuplus minibuses that adapt their routes to take you wherever you want to go.

The cars, trucks, ferries and planes that we use to go about our daily lives are 38% of the cause of global warming in BC, so this is clearly a big deal. So let's start at the easy end, and work our way into the difficult, uncharted territory.

Have You Ever Tried Cycling in North Vancouver?

Cycling is easy: the bustling city of Copenhagen has already demonstrated that 35% of its commuters can get to work by bike, and many cities in Holland can boast equally good numbers.

"Ah, but it's flat," you might respond. "Have you ever tried cycling in North Vancouver?"

"Ah," I respond, "have you ever tried an electric bike?" Electric bikes defy gravity, making hills vanish with a twist of the hand. In so doing they open up new realms of possibility for older cyclists, and anyone who doubts their ability to cycle a 10km round trip. Add safe protected bike-lanes, off-road bike trails, clearly marked intersections, good bike-sharing schemes with bike-attached tablets that give GPS based-directions, as they are doing in Copenhagen, and you've got a set-up in which cycling becomes irresistible.

There's a cost to all this, of course - but in Holland, which has 35,000km of bike paths and spends $580m a year on bicycle infrastructure, the cost is 4.3 cents per kilometre pedaled by each cyclist, compared to 22 cents for a motorist. In other words: it is five times cheaper. For shorter distances of 5km or less the bike will also get you there faster than a car. In Copenhagen, they justify the cost of the bike infrastructure by the health care savings: the health benefit of cycling comes to $1 per km, creating an overall annual benefit to the Danes of some $388 million.

But even so - where will the money come from? It could come from existing transportation budgets, by spending less on roads. It could come from an increase in the gas tax. It could come by changing the way we use income from the carbon tax, spending it on positive climate solutions instead of returning it in tax reductions. It could come from a special green bonds issue. Or it could come from road tolls, which make sense in a post-carbon world when gas taxes will no longer exist.

1,000 Kilometres a Day - in an Electric Bus

Next up is public transit, bus rapid transit and light rail transit. There are cities all over the world with excellent systems, from Portland to New York, Paris to Tokyo, Curitiba to Bogota. Light rail can be fully electric - and so can a regular bus. There are 100% electric buses on the road without overhead cables in Seoul, Montreal, London, Helsinki, Los Angeles, Edmonton, Geneva (using a 15 second flash charge), Adelaide (solar electric), Umea (Sweden), San Francisco - and soon, everywhere. In the US, the Proterra electric bus has set a world record, travelling over 1,000km in a single day, using rapid fast charging during the day.

In China, the auto-manufacturer BDY recently received an order for 1,800 electric buses that can travel 300km on a single charge, with 1,200 going to Dalian in northeast China and 600 to Nanjing in eastern China. With that kind of range, fast luxury electric coaches travelling into Vancouver from Whistler and the Fraser Valley cannot be far away, equipped with tables, coffee and orange juice.

Next, there's railways. The West Coast Express from Vancouver to Mission could easily be electrified, as railways are in many parts of the world. If you have never travelled on a fast, comfortable train, you don't know what you're missing. When I lived in England, I would regularly take the two-hour ride from South Devon to London. The seats were arranged in groups of four around a table, enabling you to spread out, work, and talk to fellow travellers if you wanted to. When I travelled on a high-speed train across South Korea, averaging 300kph, the journey was so smooth you hardly knew you were travelling. It's just a matter of commitment, to make the investment.

In the Lower Mainland, there is an existing Fraser Valley Interurban rail line that runs from New Westminster to Langley, Abbotsford and Chilliwack where a light rail train could operate, sharing the track with existing goods use. Maybe the rail line that carries coal to Roberts Bank at Tsawwassen could also share the track, allowing a light rail passenger service to operate there too.

The Electric Car - and Pick-Up Truck

So now we come to the big one - the electric car. Among those who observe the scene, there is a sense of welcome inevitability that the future of cars and light trucks will be electric.

Not hydrogen fuel cell, since a fuel cell electric vehicle uses three times more energy than a straight EV.

Maybe not biofuel, since progress on second-generation biofuels grown on marginal land is slow, and most biofuel still has a large carbon footprint, with the exception of recycled biodiesel, as distributed by the Cowichan Biodiesel Co-op and other groups.

And not natural gas, since gas is a non-renewable fossil fuel that increasingly depends on fracking for extraction, polluting the groundwater with unknown chemicals and releasing fugitive methane emissions into the atmosphere.

EV prices are falling, and choices are increasing. EV drivers report a really positive driving experience, and BC's charging infrastructure is spreading. If BC was to follow Norway's example, with a well-organized system of incentives, 10% of all new cars sold could be electric. The question is not 'if,' but 'how soon?'

At today's fuel-prices, a regular car costs $200 a month to lease and $150 for gasoline, which comes to $11 a day. A Nissan Leaf, offered for lease in America for $199 a month, and costing just $10 a month on electricity, comes to $7 a day. With prices like that, anyone who does not drive a leased EV will be losing $4 a day, or $120 a month.

And if you live out in the back-country, where you really need your rugged pick-up truck? They're coming: Tesla has plans for an EV pick-up truck similar to the Ford F-150, and Via Motors already has one.

This article orginally appeared at www.bcsea.org/blog/guy-dauncey/2014/07/25/could-bc-become-100-renewable-energy-region

Further resources

Part 1: How to make an entire region run on renewables

Part 3: Can long distance transport become 100% renewable?

Public transport solution: tram your bike

Applying Permaculture Principles to Transportation - Save Money, Get Healthy and Be Happy!

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