Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Cutting emissions with rail upgrades, or, stuff white people like


A lot of the discussion about carbon emissions is pretty one dimensional -- more low carbon energy means less emissions. Efficiency, when it enters the discussion, is often conflated with conservation -- which, at least to Americans, carries connotations of making do, of cutting back, of low-flow toilets, brief lukewarm showers, and long bus rides to work listening to homeless people ranting about the CIA's implants in their teeth. Somehow, this has not caught on.

It is a mistake to confuse conservation and efficiency. Efficiency can be big, bold, and transformative. For example: doubling and electrifying America's railway system.

About 39.5% of US freight is transported by rail. The vast majority of the American rail system is powered by onboard diesel engines. This is an inefficient, wasteful technology with large associated carbon emissions. Electrified rail has been around for decades, and not only allows you to power your train with zero-carbon energy from whatever source, but also decreases the energy requirement as the train doesn't have to haul a diesel engine with it. Power can be recaptured via regenerative braking, just like a hybrid or electric car.

The second major problem with the American rail system is congestion. In many areas, traffic slows to a crawl, averaging 4mph or less. The Chicago area is a particular offender:
A recent trainload of sulfur took some 27 hours to pass through Chicago — an average speed of 1.13 miles per hour, or about a quarter the pace of many electric wheelchairs.
Obviously the comparably slow speed of rail transport, due to congestion, is one of the reasons the rail system, passenger and freight, have continued to lose market share to the roads. The solution is simple: double the tracks. Most railroads in America are single-track, meaning there's no passing lane. Every mechanical problem, every delay ripples back through the rest of the system. With doubled lines everywhere a slowed or stopped train can simply be bypassed.

So what would be the cost of that? Obviously there would have to be a costly study to determine the cost, but as a back-of the envelope calculation, a recent project in Spain doubled and electrified the tracks of an existing railway at a cost of €2.125million/km. Apply that to the US railway system (ignoring the economies of scale inherent in a far larger project, and cost differences due to terrain, etc.) the cost to double and electrify the entire US rail system would be about $500 billion.

That's a steep bill, but infrastructure spending returns a lot of money to the economy with new jobs and business growth. As a comparison, the Fed's Quantitative Easing program, in which the government essentially prints money and gives it to the banks, has printed up $3.8 trillion so far, a total that continues to rise by $85 billion per month. Yes, really.

We need to think bigger. A zero-emissions future is not going to look like today. Our economy needs to be fundamentally restructured, beyond adding bike lanes and wind farms (as good and helpful as those things are.) And in the political sphere, climate hawks have been caricatured as anti-consumer, anti-growth, neo-Puritan hippies (and some are; not that there's anything wrong with that).

The people buying into this messaging and off-put by it are the white, conservative, hierarchist males. And you can resent 'em if you want, but there are a lot of them and they have a lot of power. Maybe nothing will get them on the right side of history, but if anything can, it will have to start with showing them that our dreams for our country are big, bold, and ambitious, and that the world after fossil fuels is one of abundance and hard-driving industry.