September 25, 2008

Can we replace oil in general?

People who are pessimistic about dealing with Peak Oil wonder: which processes happen to use oil today, because of historical accident, and which truly have to do so? What part of manufacturing, transportation etc, is specifically reliant only on oil?

So many things run on oil - can we possible replace oil in all of these applications?

The answer is yes, primarily through electrification of surface transportation and building heating. Aviation and long-haul trucking can be replaced with electric rail and water shipping, and aviation will transition to substitutes.

This will proceed through several phases. The first is greater efficiency. The second phase is hybrid liquid fuel-electric operation, where the Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) is dominant - examples include the Prius and, at a lower price point about $20K, the Honda Insight. The 3rd phase is hybrid liquid fuel-electric operation, where electric operation is dominant. Good examples here are diesel locomotives, hybrid locomotives, and the Chevy Volt. The Volt will reduce fuel consumption by close to 90% over the average ICE light vehicle. This phase will last a very long time, with batteries and all-electric range getting larger, and fuel consumption falling.
The last phase is, of course, all electric vehicles, which are are slowly expanding, and being implemented widely (Here's the Tesla, here's the Nissan Leaf). Electric bicycles have been around for a long time, but they're getting better. China is pursuing plug-ins and EV's aggressively. Here's an OEM Ford Ranger EV Pickup, and a EREV light truck (F-150).

Here are electric UPS trucks. Here is a hybrid bus. Here is an electric bus. An electric dump truck. Electric trucks have much less maintenance.

Kenworth Truck Company, a division of PACCAR, already offers a T270 Class 6 hybrid-electric truck. Kenworth has introduced a new Kenworth T370 Class 7 diesel-electric hybrid tractor for local haul applications, including beverage, general freight, and grocery distribution. Daimler Trucks and Walmart developed a Class 8 tractor-trailer which reduces fuel consumption about 6%.

Volvo is moving toward hybrid heavy vehicles, including garbage trucks and buses. Here is the heaviest-duty EV so far. Here's a recent order for hybrid trucks, and here's expanding production of an eight ton electric delivery truck, with many customers. Here are electric local delivery vehicles, and short range heavy trucks. Here are electric UPS trucks, and EREV UPS trucks. Here's a good general article and discussion of heavy-duty electric vehicles.

Diesel will be around for decades for essential uses, and in a transitional period commercial consumption will out-bid personal transportation consumers for fuel.

Mining is a common concern. Much mining, especially underground coal mining (where ICEs can cause explosions), has been electric for some time - here's a source of electrical mining equipment. Caterpillar manufactures 200-ton and above mining trucks with both drives. Caterpillar will produce mining trucks for every application—uphill, downhill, flat or extreme conditions — with electric as well as mechanical drive. Here's an electric earth moving truck. Here's an electric mobile strip mining machine, the largest tracked vehicle in the world at 13,500 tons.

Water shipping and aviation can also eliminate oil: see my separate post on that topic.

Here's a terminal tractor that reduces fuel consumption by 60%.

Farm tractors can be electric, or hybrid . Here's a light electric tractor . Farm tractors are a fleet application, so they're not subject to the same limitations as cars and other light road vehicles(i.e., the need for small, light batteries and a charging network). Providing swap-in batteries is much easier and more practical: batteries can be trucked to the field in swappable packs, and swapping would be automated, a la Better Place. Zinc-air fuel cells can just be refueled. Many sources of power are within the weight parameters to power modern farm tractors, including lithium-ion, Zebra batteries, ZAFC's and the lead-acid developed by Firefly Energy (before their demise), and others.

It's very likely that an electric combine would be an Extended Range EV: it would have a small onboard generator, like the Chevy Volt. Such a design would be more more efficient than a traditional diesel only combine, and would allow extended operation in a weather emergency.

Most farmers are small and suffering, but most farm acreage is being managed by large organizations, and is much more profitable. Those organizations will just raise their food prices, and out-bid personal transportation (commuters and leisure travel) for fuel, so they'll do just fine. As farm commodities are only a small %of the final price of food, it won't make much difference to food prices. The distribution system, too, will outbid personal transportation for fuel. Given that overall liquid fuel supplies are likely to only decline 20% in the next 20 years, that gives plenty of time for a transition.

Even hydrogen fuel cells could be used, though they're not likely to be cost-competitive soon with the alternatives. PV roofs certainly could be used to extend battery life, though the cost effectiveness of that will depend on how much of the year the tractor is in the field. Electric drive trains are likely to be much more cost-effective than liquid fuels, but locally produced bio-fuels would certainly work. Also, fuels synthesized from renewable electricity, seawater and atmospheric CO2 would certainly work, though it would be rather more expensive than any of the above.

Any and all of these is several orders of magnitude cheaper and more powerful than animal-pulled equipment. One sees occasionally the idea that we'll go back to horses or mules - this is entirely unrealistic.

The easiest transitional solution may be running diesel farm tractors on vegetable oil, with minor modifications. Ultimately, farmers are net energy exporters (whether it's food, oil or ethanol), and will actually do better in an environment of energy scarcity.

Iron smelting currently uses a lot of coal, which isn't oil, but is a fossil fuel which we'd like to eliminate. Iron used to be made with charcoal, and iron oxide can be reduced either with direct electrolysis, or with hydrogen from any source.  Eventually smelting will become much smaller - most of the steel used in the USA is reclaimed from scrap (and when industries mature, essentially all of their steel can be recycled);  an electric furnace can re-melt it, and the electricity can come from anything. About 30% of world steel production recycles scrap with electric arc furnaces ( ).

The US Navy plans to go reduce it's 50,000 vehicle fleet's oil consumption by 50% by 2015. They plan by 2020 to produce at least half of its shore-based energy requirements on its bases from alternative sources ( solar, wind, ocean, or geothermal sources - they're already doing this at China Lake, where on-base systems generate 20 times the load of the base), and it's overall fossil fuel consumption by 50% by 2020 with EVs and biofuel.  Here's a base that replaced on-base vehicles with EVs -

Some question the stability of the electrical grid, in an environment of expensive fuel. Utilities like the idea of "eating their own cooking". Here's an electric utility boom lift. Here's a consortium of utilities considering a bulk purchase of plug-ins (and a good article). Here's an individual utility buying electric cars. Similarly, utilities are buying hybrid bucket trucks and digger derricks. Here's a large commitment by two major utilities .

Here's a good quote from the Governor of Michigan: "For automakers, replacing the internal-combustion engine with an electric powertrain is both revolutionary and daunting. In a world where economic Darwinism threatens slow adapters with extinction, U.S. automakers know that they can either lead this historic transformation or become history themselves. Even today, as they engage in a struggle to survive, the Big Three are leading the way: General Motors, Ford and Chrysler are scheduled to introduce electrified vehicles next year."

France is planning for a market share for EV's of 7% by 2015, rising to 27% in 2025.


What if our current system is less like a train running out of power, where it will just slow down and stop, and more like a jetliner running out of power, energy which it crucially needs to have a safe landing? Do we really have the resources to build out an alternate energy infrastructure?

Well, at least in the US, there's so much energy used for things with very marginal value that we have a very big cushion. We have an enormous surplus of energy (used for single-commuter SUVs, for example) , so we have quite a lot of flexibility.

EVs don't require significantly more energy than ICEs to manufacture. Wind turbines have a very high E-ROI.

Even if PO reduces the energy we have available, we currently have such a large surplus that we have plenty of leeway to reduce consumption in some places to free up the oil needed for such an investment.

Isn't this a tricky transition, with fragile balances between politics, communications, labor, logistics, public-calm, etc?

It's true - a transition away from oil will put stress on a lot of institutions. On the other hand, this isn't any bigger than similar transitions, like going from coal to oil, or from mules to tractors. And, isn't it good to know that there technical solutions?

Where will the needed electricity come from?

From wind, mostly. Wind has a very high E-ROI, and is plentiful. Solar, nuclear, geothermal, etc will also be important. Coal is extremely abundant, but we have to hope that we don't use it.

Aren't we going to have to live within the limits of our environment?

Sure. Fortunately, energy isn't one of those limits. I'd say that climate change and species extinctions are much larger problems.

What about the invested-in infra-structure for our oil-based life style and what it will take to tear down the old infra structure and replace it with an entirely different one? Won't we have to tear down the suburbs, and similiar infrastructure?

Yes, we'll have to toss out some ICE trucks and cars before the end of their natural lifetime. On the other hand, we do that all of the time: the average US car/SUV/pickup gets 50% of it's lifetime mileage by the time it's 7 years old. They could last 25+ years, if we wanted them to, but we throw them away. The premature retirement of commercial trucks will hurt investors in some trucking companies, but that's a sunk cost.

The real question is, can we afford to build new infrastructure, and the answer is clearly yes: new rail tracks and rolling stock aren't that expensive, and EVs are no more expensive than ICEs.

We won't have to toss out housing - Kunstler is just wrong, completely wrong. A Nissan Leaf will allow a 50 mile commute, or 100 miles with workplace charging.

EVs can be built with the same factories - for instance, the Volt shares a factory with 2 other cars. They drive on the same roads.

September 22, 2008

Is Chinese oil demand immune to prices?

No - Automobile sales in China in August 2008 shrank 6.3% year on year to 629,000 units, the first fall in about two years, due to higher fuel prices.

Chinese GDP growth has dropped by about 1/3 recently - see .

Chinese are much more aggressive than the US about replacement of oil-based electrical generation with coal and nuclear; energy efficiency (especially automotive); and PHEVs/EV's.

Regarding competing with China for imported oil: the US produces at least 40% of it's own oil, so a 20% reduction of overall consumption is a 33% reduction in imports. I would note that the US reduced it's oil imports by about 15% recently, even before this credit crunch hit.

China, already a global center for lithium-ion battery component production and battery manufacturing, is ramping up its research and development efforts in the field, both within the private sector and with government support.

September 13, 2008

Can we replace oil for shipping?

Sure - Long distance land shipping can go by rail (which is 3x as efficient, and can be electrified): local can go by plug-in hybrid truck1.

Water transport is even more efficient, and can find substitutes for oil.

Substitutes for oil for water shipping? Pshaw, you say.

No, really. Substitutes include greater efficiency, wind, solar, battery power and renewably generated hydrogen.

Efficiency: Fuel consumption per mile is roughly the square of speed, so slowing down saves fuel: in 2008, with high fuel costs, most container shipping slowed down 20%, and reduced fuel consumption by roughly a third. For example, Kennebec Captain's ship carries 5,000 cars from Japan to Europe (12,000 miles) and burns 8.5 miles/ton of fuel at 18.5knots, for a total of about 1,400 tons of fuel. At a 10% lower speed of 16.6 kts, the ship burns 21% less fuel (about 300 tons).

Size brings efficiency: the Emma Maersk uses about 320 tons of fuel per day to carry 220,0002, tons of cargo, while Kennebec Captain's ship uses about 60 tons to carry about 23,000 tons (see here ), so the Emma Maersk uses roughly 60% as much fuel per ton.

Other substantial sources of savings include better hull (I've seen mention of "axe cleaver" designs - anyone seen details?) and engine design (very large (3 story!)marine diesels can get up to 50% thermodynamic efficiency), and low friction hull coatings (the Emma Mærsk saves about 1.3% with special paint, and bubbles work too).

Container shipping fuel efficiency rose 75% from 1976 to 2007, in an era of very low fuel costs.

Finally, reduction of oil consumption brings a kind of reverse-Jevons efficiency. Currently, some 34% of shipping tonnage worldwide is devoted to transporting oil [source , p.16]. If we reduce oil consumption, we reduce the need for shipping. Similarly, world coal trade was about 718Mt in 2003 [source , p2], at the same time as total world trade was 6,500Mt, so that coal was 11% of world seaborne trade by weight.

Wind: kites mounted on the ship's bow have been shown to provide 10-30% of ship's power - this is cost effective now. See an early article the leading company, Skysails, a followup article showing a commercial implementation, and the Skysails website. These are retrofits: it is likely that far more wind power could be harnessed if the ship were designed to accommodate kite assist (stronger more integrated ship structure to tug upon) rather than merely retrofitted with it.

It's astonishing what can be done with modern materials, computer-aided design, and electronic control systems, to turn the old new again.

Solar: The first question is: is it cost effective? Sure - it's just straightforward calculations: PV can generate power for the equivalent of diesel at $3/gallon (40KWH per gallon @40% efficiency = 16 KWH/gallon; $3/16KWH = about $.20/KWH, or $4/Wp, which large I/C installations have already surpassed.

Ships, trains and planes are outside all of the time, so they'll have a decent capacity factor. Grid tied systems have to deal with Balance of System costs, but a panel in a vehicle should be able to eliminate most costs: it's manufacturing, which is far more efficient than grid-tied systems that require field installation; redundant support structures; and dedicated power electronics. If a vehicle can add a panel for $1 per Wp, and get just 5% capacity factor, it could achieve $.15/kWh.

Let's look at the Emma Mærsk . With a length of 397 metres, and beam of 56 metres, it has a surface area of 22,400 sq m. At 20% efficiency we get about 4.5MW on the ship's deck at peak power. Now, as best I can tell it probably uses about 10MW at 12 knots (very roughly a minimum speed), 20MW at 15 knots, and 65MW (80% of engine rated power) at 25.5 knots (roughly a maximum). So, at minimum speed it could get about 45% of it's power for something close to 20% of the time, for a net of 9%. Now, if we want to increase that we'll need either higher efficiency PV, or more surface area from outriggers or something towed, perhaps using flexible PV. You could add a roof, or you could incentivize 10% of the containers to be roofed with PV - they could power ships, inter-modal rail, inter-modal trucks...

Here' a fun example of a boat that's 100% PV powered, here's a company selling a general approach, and here's a nice pure-electric

"Solar-powered sails the size of a jumbo jet's wings will be fitted to cargo ships, after a Sydney renewable energy company signed a deal with China's biggest shipping line.

The Chatswood-based Solar Sailor group has designed the sails, which can be retro-fitted to existing tankers.

The aluminium sails, 30 metres long and covered with photovolatic panels, harness the wind to cut fuel costs by between 20 and 40 per cent, and use the sun to meet five per cent of a ship's energy needs.

China's COSCO bulk carrier will fit the wings to a tanker ship and a bulker ship under a memorandum of understanding with the Australian company, which demonstrates the technology on a Sydney Harbour cruise boat.

"It's hard to predict a time line but at some point in the future, I can see all ships using solar sails - it's inevitable," said the company's chief executive, Dr Robert Dane.

Once fitted, the sails can pay for themselves in fuel savings within four years, Dr Dane said. They don't require special training to operate, with a computer linked in to a ship's existing navigation system, and sensors automatically angling the sails to catch a breeze and help vessels along." Source

Batteries: Large batteries could provide most of the remaining power needed, to be recharged at frequent port stops, as used to be done with coal 60 years ago (that's why the US wanted the Philippines' military bases, and why they're not needed in the oil era). Let's analyze li-ion batteries: assume 20MW engine power at a cruising speed a speed of 15 knots (17.25 mph) or 20MW auxiliary assistance to a higher speed, and a needed port-to-port range of 2,000 miles (a range that was considered extremely good in the era of coal ships - the average length of a full trip is about 4,500 miles (see chart 8 ). That's 116 hours of travel, and 2,310 MW hours needed. At 200whrs per kg, that's 11,594 metric tons. The Emma Maersk has a capacity of 172,990 metric tons, so we'd need about 7% of it's capacity (by weight) to add batteries.

So, li-ion would do. Now it would be more expensive than many alternatives that would be practical in a "captive" fleet like this - many high energy density, much less expensive batteries exist whose charging is very inconvenient, but could be swapped out in an application like this. These include Zinc-air, and others. It should be noted that research continues on batteries with much higher density still, as we see here and here, but existing batteries would suffice.

Here's a hybrid car carrier from (who else?) Toyota.

Refrigerated storage/transport could go via electric rail, which can certainly be low-CO2; refrigeration can always be made more efficient with better insulation; and there are "reefer" units that are "charged" on land, using grid power, that don't need any inputs from the ship during transit.

Hydrogen fuel cells: they can't compete with batteries in cars, but they'd work just fine in ships, where creation of a fleet fueling network would be far simpler, and where miniaturization of the fuel cell isn't essential. If batteries, the preferred solution for light surface vehicles, can't provide a complete solution, a hydrogen "range extender" would work quite well.

Hydrogen has more energy per unit mass than other fuels (61,100 BTUs per pound versus 20,900 BTUs per pound of gasoline), and fuel cells are perhaps 50% more efficient, so hydrogen would weigh less than 1/3 as much as diesel fuel.

Electricity storage using hydrogen will likely cost at least 2x as much as using batteries (due to inherent conversion inefficiency), but will still be much cheaper then current fuel prices. Fuel cells aren't especially heavy relative to this use: fuel cell mass 325 W/kg (FreedomCar goal) gives 32.5 MW = 100 metric tons, probably less than a 80MW diesel engine.

Hydrogen would have lower upfront costs versus batteries, and a lower weight penalty, but would have substantially higher operating costs. The optimal mix of batteries and hydrogen would depend on the relative future costs, but we can be confident that they would be affordable. Here's a forecast of affordability in the most difficult application, automotive.

Here's a demonstration project on a small boat.

Are shipping lines working on this?

Yes. Here's an example:

"The Auriga Leader, operated by NYK Line, was launched in December 2008 and can transport up to 6200 vehicles. NYK Line has set a goal to reduce car carrier energy consumption by 50 percent by 2010 through solar power generation, ship operation improvement, redesigned hull form, propulsion systems energy savings and improved cargo handling."

I suspect that container shipping will be able to out-bid other uses for FF, like personal transportation, for quite some time. We'll see the gradual addition of direct wind propulsion, like the Skysails, along with engine electrification and the addition of PV.

What about nuclear propulsion?

It would work, though I would be skeptical that it could beat the alternatives on cost or speed of deployment.

Don't forget that commercial nuclear plants are built as large as possible to maximize cost-effectiveness. The US Navy doesn't have to worry about cost-effectiveness - it chooses nuclear not on a cost basis, but on an operational effectiveness basis (maximum range without refueling).

The US Navy maintains a rigorous, labor intensive, costly safety program. Per Wikipedia, "A typical nuclear submarine has a crew of over 80. Non-nuclear boats typically have fewer than half as many." The Emma Maersk, the largest container ship in the world, sails with only 13 crew members!

My litmus test for nuclear proposals is their effect on weapons proliferation, especially relative to the complete fuel enrichment cycle. Per Wikipedia, "reactors used in submarines typically use highly enriched fuel (often greater than 20%) to enable them to deliver a large amount of energy from a smaller reactor." This doesn't seem encouraging.

What about the NS Savannah?

It was designed as a show vessel, not a workhorse, but it was only a few years after it was decommissioned as "uneconomic" that oil prices shot well above its parity point.

That parity point compared operating cost (excluding 1950's era capital costs, maintenance and disposal, etc) of nuclear to conventional operating costs, including fuel oil at $80/ton in 1974 dollars. Non-oil alternatives will be more competitive.

What about air transport in this age of just in time supply chains?

I would estimate less than 5% of plane transport is represented by the kind of small industrial components that go by air. Air freight transport uses surprisingly little: fuel is only 10% of Fedex's budget, so a doubling of fuel costs would only raise Fedex costs by 10%. The ratio of fuel cost to product cost is probably .1%. If Fedex fuel costs were to go up by 3x, it wouldn't have any significant effect on the affordability of sending such a part by air. Prices won't exceed an inflation adjusted $150/b anytime in the next 30 years in a sustained fashion - other things would change to prevent prices going over that level, including reduced fuel consumption by personal transportation & commuting, and US economic stagnation. The kind of small industrial components that go by air will be able out-bid other forms of fuel consumption.

What about passenger aviation?

Aviation will use liquid fuel for quite some time, as there will be some oil for many years, some biofuel will be available, and it will always be possible, though perhaps expensive, to synthesize fuel. Eventually substitutes like liquid hydrogen will be substituted if necessary - aviation will have to be dragged kicking and screaming to it, of course.

Won't the transition from oil take a long time?

Let's take trucking: first, it has some time for the transition to rail: trucking's consumption is only 27% of surface non-rail transport. Personal transportation is by far the big user, and personal transportation is mostly optional consumption which will be out-bid by commercial users (optional includes anything not essential, such as commuting that could be replaced by carpooling, albeit with great inconvenience).

Let me say that again: the food-and-goods freight transport network of the modern world uses about 1/4 of oil consumption in the US. Light vehicles overall account for 45% of oil consumption: their utilization could be doubled with carpooling in a matter of months, freeing up whatever fuel was needed by the freight network.

2nd, the transition is already underway: intermodal shipping is replacing trucking, and the trucking industry is under a lot of pressure.

Finally, truck efficiency can be greatly increased: here's a report by the US National Research Council that finds large truck fuel efficiency increases are technologically possible and cost effective.

"The report also estimates the costs and maximum fuel savings that could be achieved for each type of vehicle by 2020 if a combination of technologies were used. The best cost-benefit ratio was offered by tractor-trailers, whose fuel use could be cut by about 50 percent for about $84,600 per truck; the improvements would be cost-effective over ten years provided gas prices are at least $1.10 per gallon. The fuel use of motor coaches could be lowered by 32 percent for an estimated $36,350 per bus, which would be cost-effective if the price of fuel is $1.70 per gallon or higher. For other vehicle classes, the financial investments in making improvements would be cost-effective at higher prices of fuel."

Regarding water shipping: it's cost advantage will allow it to outbid other uses for a very long time. Here's a back of the envelope calculation:

1400 tons of oil to ship 5000 cars - 1400 tons is about 9,800 barrels. At $80/bbl that's $784,000. That's $157/car. If the average car sells for $20,000, that's 0.8% of the cost of the car. That's not much.

Jeff Rubin says that the Chinese have already lost their advantage in manufacturing steel for export to the US because total shipping costs, of both the ores and the finished product,are now so high that domestic American producers are now in a very competitive position again, despite higher labor costs. Doesn't this show that higher energy will make shipping infeasible?

No, it means that in selected areas it will be uncompetitive, which is very different. Commodities like iron ore and coal are very low cost per pound, so that the cost of transportation is a significant fraction of it's value. In competitive industries, a small change in cost makes a large difference, and a rise in shipping costs can tip the balance between regions and manufacturers. Moving high value added products will be relatively unaffected even if energy prices increase by a factor of five or even ten, as the shippng is only a tiny fraction of the cost of a camera or a computer.

On the the other hand, where all manufactures are affected, perhaps because there is a single source on which all are dependent, a change in cost of commodities due to shipping will raise all costs slightly, but have little effect on demand.


1The truck comes with a fast charger, which takes it to 80% charge in about 1 hour. The 6 hour charging time is for the remaining 20%. It might be fast charged during lunch, and slow charged overnight, giving a daily range of perhaps 145 miles ((72+90)*90% of max range).

The battery pack of 280kWh gives about 3.1 kWh/mile. With dense city driving a heavy diesel truck probably doesn't get more than 20% engine efficiency, which would give about 2.6MPG.

Here's a breakeven cost analysis:

miles (AM) 81.0
miles (post-lunch charge) 64.8
total miles per day 145.8
days per year 286
MPG 2.57
gallons per year: 16,216
10 years: 162,162
Fuel cost $1.43
Cost per day $81.20
10 yr cost $232,227

battery cost premium: $100,000
10 yr amort: $142,378

kWh/mile 3.1
pwer/day 453.6
cost/kWh-night (I/C) $0.037
cost/kWh-day (I/C+demand charges) $0.110
Cost per day $31
10 year cost $89,850

Net cost: $0

2 this figure conflicts with the wikipedia figure - IIRC it came from the Maersk line fact sheet, which is temporarily unavailable.