Energy is both global and local

Sustainability

In his recent State of the Union address, US President, Barack Obama, concludes that the safe extraction of oil and gas has enabled the US to be closer to energy independence than they have been in decades. In particular, access to low cost natural gas is described as a positive contribution to the energy independence needed for transportation.

In Germany, the Energy Transition organization driving green visions and projects, Energiewende, has brought a lot of focus on the phase-out of nuclear power and the phase-in of sustainable power. The rational has six aspects:

  1. Fighting climate change
  2. Reducing energy imports
  3. Stimulating technology innovations and the green economy
  4. Reducing and eliminating the risk of nuclear power
  5. Energy security
  6. Strengthening local economies and providing social justice

Most countries have national targets that are similar, such as, Australia, Canada, India, China, Brazil, and Turkey just to mention a few. As a result of population growth in megacities around the world and the increasing need of public transportation, more emphasis is put on energy independence (like the USA) and Energy Security (like Germany).

Megacities-01

The national energy policy is important for public transportation. The cost of fuel is between 15% and 50% of the life cycle cost for most public transportation systems around the world with privatization of operators becoming very common.

This is nothing new. In my home town, in Gothenburg, the trams were horse powered until 1902 (after an incredible project time of less than two years), when the first electric tram started operating. This was a political decision directly related to jobs, food and energy security. Fortunately, most trams around the world have been electric ever since.

Gothenburg

Gothenburg

This is, however, not the same case for buses and coaches. Trials have constantly been ongoing with different and, more or less, secure fuels, such as, liquefied petroleum gas, bio ethanol, bio methanol, biogas, liquidized biogas, di-methyl-ether, rapeseed methyl ester, hydrogenated vegetable oils, algae oil, hydrogen and electricity.

In a typical pioneering proposal, strong stakeholders, such as, energy companies, the agricultural industry, the automotive industry, construction companies, prepare a convincing case for government decision making. By industrial “seed money” and a “someone-else-pays” set-up, the new fuel is enforced on the local bus fleet. Often public money is indirectly provided for trials, as well as, for industrialization. In the end, the ticket price and tax subsidies for public transportation have to pay the bill. The result is less public transportation, doubtful environmental results and unreliable service.

Imagine if a federal political decision would be taken to make all trams run on, for example, sunflower oil? Be it in Europe, India, China or US. How would the city mayors and councils react? I would personally find it unacceptable if federal or national authorities would interfere with the trams in my home town. Electric drive certainly remains the best solution for trams and this decision should be taken locally.

Buses in cities all over the world are becoming more efficient by hybridization and electrification, similar to what trams have been for the last 100 years. Being more efficient means using less energy. This is not always rewarded when growth targets are set for all sectors, including energy production. Hence, in many places powerful interest groups of different kinds attract the interests of old school political stakeholders. The development of energy efficient buses has really taken off in the last few years, but the new base-line is not yet in the awareness of the general public.

On the 31st of December 2013, Volvo Buses made the hybrid bus a standard offer in Europe. Plain diesel and gas buses are no longer available.

About volvobuses

Adjunct Professor of Catalysis at Chalmers University of Technology. Lives in Gothenburg, Sweden, with my wife and three daughters born in 1991, 1994 and 1997. Is a passionate runner.
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