Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Energy efficiency: method vs. objective

Alzetta's petrol-driven mechanical horse (Pic: http://cyberneticzoo.com/?p=2595)

Is our thinking radical enough? Imagine if all we had done in the twentieth century was to replace living horses with mechanical ones to pull carts and waggons.

Similarly, making internal combustion engines more efficient and cleaner is good, but this still focuses on cars as a method rather than re-examines what they're for. ATOC reckons rail is better:

"... on average, passenger rail currently emits approximately half the carbon dioxide per passenger kilometre of cars and around a quarter that of domestic air... This analysis is based on average figures. Quite clearly, in any specific example, the occupancy of the vehicle is key. A fully-loaded car will perform well on a CO2 per passenger km basis compared to the most efficient train with very few people in it. Similarly the averages quoted here cover a range of traffic conditions and may well differ from those of individual operators running specific services. Nonetheless these average figures clarify the starting position. Further work is needed to consider the effect of practical policy options open to us to reduce emissions from transport."

Shame about Beeching, then; and about the way that rail travel has become so expensive on certain routes. Privatisation may have helped certain entrepreneurs and (indirectly) some politicians, but there was nothing much wrong with the old transport system in Birmingham in 1975, and the lower level of car ownership then. Now, some of my young colleagues prefer to run a car instead of building a pension and saving up to buy a house - this DM article says that lower earners can be paying 27% of their disposable income in this way.

On the other hand, there is a welcome new realism about "green transport" in the air. This week there will be an EU vote in Strasbourg on revising targets for the contribution of biofuels to energy production, as London MEP Mary Honeyball explains. This is, it seems in response to growing awareness of the impact of corn ethanol production on food prices; plus the relative expensiveness of alternative fuels. The EC Commissioner for Energy Günther Oettinger also admits that electric vehicles will contribute less to the solution than previously expected (see this video at 1:20 in).

Rather than design better mechanical horses, it would help more if we and our stuff were in the right places to start with. To quote Douglas Adams, one of the finest philosophers of the twentieth century:

"Bypasses are devices that allow some people to dash from point A to point B very fast while other people dash from point B to point A very fast. People living at point C, being a point directly in between, are often given to wonder what's so great about point A that so many people from point B are so keen to get there, and what's so great about point B that so many people from point A are so keen to get there. They often wish that people would just once and for all work out where the hell they wanted to be."

Many of our current solutions are a sort of Marie Antoinette washed-sheep playing with a fantasy version of reality; alternative technologies can be cute and clean without really being green.

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