Car Pooling Part I: Treading Water

Posted in Uncategorized at 11:53 am by Administrator

My father is prone to making very simple and often amazingly insightful comments on complex social issues.  Often when we are driving in heavy traffic he will look around and say “gasoline is too cheap”.  If asked what he means by that his response is always the same.  “Look at all the people that are alone in their cars.”

It is a simple observation that speaks volumes about our relationship with the automobile.

Most of us view our vehicle as an intensely personal and essential part of our lives.  We take a lot of time to pick the car we want to drive; the size, the color, the interior details including how the instrument panel looks and the pattern of the carpets.   Those that can afford to buy a car that still has vestiges of shipping film protecting bumpers and doorjambs revel in the “new car smell” (there are companies that sell air fresheners that emulate the “new car smell” – luckily manufacturers tweak design clues every year so that discerning observers can always pick out the true new cars!).

Some people take more time and care selecting a car then they do choosing a spouse! (Larry King, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Liz Taylor come to mind).

How addicted are we to the automobile habit? Well, in 2009 there were 242 million cars and pickup trucks registered in the United States to serve 117 million households and 210 million licensed drivers

(http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/2012/tables/12s0059.pdf).  That’s correct; more vehicles than licensed drivers.

But you know what?  As hard as this might be to accept I can assure you that a car is not really the ultimate expression of our status in life, our virility, or our excellent fashion taste.  A car is a piece of machinery designed to move people from point “A” to point “B”.  I say “people” and not “person” intentionally.  There are no commonly used vehicles that seat one.  In fact, only a small minority of vehicles seat only two people.

Most vehicles are designed to carry from 4-7 people.  And yet according to the 2009 U.S. Census information (http://www.census.gov/prod/2011pubs/acs-15.pdf) some 76% of American workers drove alone to work compared to 10 percent that carpooled and 5% that used public transit (note that there was very little change from the 2000 census when the figures were 76%, 12%, and 4.7% respectively – http://www.census.gov/prod/2004pubs/c2kbr-33.pdf).

Driving a vehicle is expensive.  If you consider that a vehicle purchased for $30,000 depreciates to something like $15,000 after 5 years or 60,000 miles that is a depreciation rate of $.25/mile.  Add to that gasoline at $3.5/gallon or $0.12/mile (assuming the vehicle gets about 30 mpg), maintenance of $.08/mile (assuming $1,000 annual repair bill), and insurance of $.10/mile the total is $.55/mile.

Given that the average two-way commute for American workers is 24 miles that adds up to more than $13/day to get to and from work and that assumes you don’t have to pay for parking.  These numbers will vary considerably based upon the age and type of vehicle as well as the distance travelled.  But no matter where you are and what you drive the daily commute is expensive.

Driving to work is also stressful.  Rush-hour traffic demands constant attention and diligence.  It can often be frightening as well.  I tell the young drivers in our household that they would be well served to assume that everyone around them is out to bumper-car them off the road.

So why would we consistently choose not to share the pain and the expense of commuting with our fellow-travellers?  Car-pooling as a concept has been around for decades.  Many major urban centers have High-Occupancy-Vehicle (HOV) lanes designed to give responsible car-poolers an edge over the selfish SOVs.

I’d like to say that I simply cannot afford the extra time it takes to commute in a carpool.  According to the U.S. Census data, participation in a car pool costs the average commuter 5 minutes each way.

But really – 5 minutes?  Am I willing to be out-of-pocket and damage the planet in order to save 10 minutes per day?

OK, so what then?

It is too much hassle to find compatible car-poolers and I might not like the ones I find anyway!

This excuse might have some merit.  But there are numerous on-line services available to help you find your perfect car-pool companions .

When you come right down to it, the reason we don’t carpool is because we are not socialized to carpool.  It’s just not cool!  How many people do you know that brag about car-pooling or taking transit? Isn’t that a little like admitting you can’t afford to drive your own car?

Every television commercial involving car-pooling is vaguely comical at best.  Conversely, most of the glitzy automobile advertisements have a single driver, and usually a beautiful/handsome one at that.

The societal benefits of car-pooling are obvious.  If we had two people in every car rather than one, we could live with half as many costly and ugly freeways.  We would have half the pollution and half the energy use.

The bottom line is that when it comes to car-pooling we are just not very responsible.  We need to shift gears so that single-occupancy driving is really frowned upon, especially during our daily commute.  Driving alone should become an “only when necessary” activity rather than standard practice.

I firmly believe that an intense public education program, which highlights both the financial and environmental benefits of car-pooling can achieve a collective mind-flip (to quote Riff Raff from the Rocky Horror Picture Show).  In my next blog I will reference some case studies and provide some thoughts on how that might happen.

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Funicular Power – Newton’s Apple to the rescue

Posted in Uncategorized at 1:23 am by Administrator

If you have been reading entries in the “Black Swan Blog” you should have noticed that they deal with concepts that are somewhat off the mainstream but still very grounded in real world situations and applications.  However, in my introduction to this blog I did warn readers that some of the ideas would be really “out there”.  This is one of those blogs.

From the beginning of widespread distribution of electricity in the 1880’s through to the middle of the 20th century the most common source of electrical power generation has been the hydro-electric dam.  “New Deal” projects like the Hoover Dam in Arizona and the establishment of the Tennessee Valley Authority brought on massive new generation capacity leading in a very real way to the expansion of urban development in the Southern and Western United States.  Other regions, like the Canadian provinces of British Columbia, Manitoba and Quebec as well as Scandinavia rely almost 100% on hydro-electric power.

Most of us have probably never thought about what the true source of energy for a hydro-electric generator is.  It is that most mysterious of forces in the universe . . . gravity.

Water from lakes, rivers, soil and trees as well as the world’s oceans evaporates to form clouds.  These clouds are carried by the wind until they are forced over some mountain or hill causing them to cool, condense, and produce rain.  As a result of this hydrologic cycle rivers and lakes are formed at high elevations.

Anyone that has carried a gallon of water up a set of stairs can tell you that water is a pretty weighty substance.  So the existence of millions of gallons of water in mountain lakes and streams represents a vast amount of what is known in scientific terms as “potential energy”.  Hydro-electric generators work by tapping into this energy as the water makes its way back down to the sea.

As we all know, electricity use varies throughout the 24 hour diurnal cycle.  During peak demand from roughly 5 pm to 11 pm local time, 2-3 times the electricity is required compared to what is needed in the middle of the night.  Therefore during the off-peak hours there is an excess of capacity at most hydro generating stations.  Sometimes it is possible to reduce the flow of water and refill the reservoir (cutting it off altogether would dry up the river below the dam with serious impacts on fish and wildlife).  However, if the reservoir is full that possibility does not exist and all of the potential energy for the water that goes over the dam’s spillways is lost.

There have been efforts to try and recapture some of this energy since the early days of hydro power development.  The most common technique is known as “hydro-pumping”, in which water from below the dam is pumped back up into the reservoir at night. However, there are only a limited number of locations where the geography lends itself to a successful implementation because of the requirement for a significant reservoir below the dam.  And here again, if the upper reservoir is at capacity this technique does not work.

But there is another possible approach to capturing and storing the excess electricity generated at night from hydro (and wind, and even coal-fired plants which must be kept running 24 hours a day).   The concept is to use a purpose-built funicular railway.

The first funicular railways began to appear in the late 19th century.  They are built with the specific purpose of carrying goods or passengers up steep slopes.  In most cases these are relatively short and designed to carry passengers such as the funicular at the St. Regis Deer Valley Resort in Utah, completed in 2008.

However, there is precedent for the industrial use of funicular railways.  For example, the Katoomba funicular in Australia was originally built to carry coal and kerosene shale before it was converted into a tourist attraction.

So imagine if you will a funicular railway over 4 kilometers long constructed up a mountainside at an angle of 35 degrees.  The train built to run on this railway would consist of 20 or more relatively conventional cargo cars loaded with blocks of solid cast iron weighing approximately 300 tons each for a total of 6,000 tons.  The main modification for these cars would be the addition of 3 extra axles so that the cars could carry much more than the normal maximum weight.

A 10 MW electric locomotive engine would be used to haul the train up the mountain at night using relatively cheap “surplus” electricity.  The next day, during peak demand times, the train would be allowed to slide back down the mountain with the electric motor working in reverse to generate 10 MW of electricity.  Given current market conditions this peak demand electricity would sell for approximately $60/MW-Hour more than it cost to purchase it the previous night.  For this configuration the annual revenue would be more than $2 million/year with the potential to increase significantly during the lifetime of the project in step with rising electrical rates.

Assuming a cost of $10 million/kilometer for construction of the funicular rail bed and an additional $8 million for the cars, electric motor, cast iron ballast, and system integration the total project cost would be approximately $50 million.

At $5 million/MW this concept would be competitive with the real cost of wind and solar (because of their low effective yield rates).  The major advantage is that funicular power would be truly available “on demand” at the flip of a switch and as such could help reduce imbalances in regional grids caused by fluctuations in renewable sources such as wind and solar.  And, of course, it is 100% green and could be located anywhere there is a mountain.

A Black Swan – definitely!  But if it could be made to work …

28-Mar-2016 Update: A commercial firm, Advanced Rail Energy Storage has developed a successful pilot project using this approach and has received approval to proceed with a full-scale commercial project.

17-Apr-20 Update: Two firms in Europe are proceeding with promising applications of gravity based energy storage systems. The award winning team at Gravitricity have raised sufficient funds to start building their prototype installation which will involve lowering and raising a large weight in an abandoned mine shaft. Over in Switzerland the Energyvault company is proposing to use a large number of stackable weights to store energy.

Harnessing the power of gravity in different ways could be an important part of our efforts to achieve a truly sustainable energy environment.

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