Are there any political leaders in the EU who say we must (urgently) move to renewable-energy-transport and that road-building can no longer be our top transport priority? The issue is becoming urgent and we must prepare for the risk of oil depletion and global warming (which could result in a 6 metre rise in sea levels).
Even a small risk of oil running out should be enough to make us urgently review our transport sector. The economic arguments are powerful — there is big money to be made by “electrifying” Europe’s transport fleets — and the car industry is quietly moving towards the electric car. But political will is missing.
The “Peak Oil Theory” (global oil supplies will “peak” in 2012) wasn’t taken seriously by the mainstream until recently. That attitude is starting to change. Shell Oil recently sponsored an advert in Time Magazine that quoted a former US Energy Secretary as saying “we can’t continue to make supply meet demand for much longer. It’s no longer the case that we have a few voices crying in the wilderness. The battle is over. The peakists have won.”
If oil did run out the consequences for our transport system, food supply and economic system would be devastating. Although there is growing interest in renewable energy it is still considered somewhat marginal, uncompetitive and untested. There is no sign of a “rush to renewables” that could be compared to the “dash to gas” that took place in the UK during the 1980s. We are still tinkering at the margins.
The EU’s new Transport Policy must be based upon renewable energy. The first challenge is a conceptual one: people need to understand that a transport system can function on electricity just as efficiently as it now does on oil. The case for a “renewable transport system” needs to be communicated to the public and a massive investment plan worked out.
It is becoming increasingly clear that a combination of wind, solar, hydro and nuclear power could provide us with a carbon-free power supply. The most exciting developments seem to be taking place in the solar energy industry, where prices are falling rapidly. A German utility recently commissioned a study into extending the European electrical grid to northern Africa, a potential major supplier of solar energy. Apparently Morocco could provide all of Europe with electricity if 3% of the country was covered with solar panels. Cost is a major barrier here but if we consider that global companies will spend $3.4 trillion on IT this year (according to Gartner, a consultancy) it is clear that the cash is available.
Another barrier to the development of electricity as a replacement fuel is the challenge of storing electricity. The electric car could provide a solution to this problem. The concept is simple: electric cars would charge up at night, when electricity is cheap, and during the day the grid could draw off some electric power from individual cars, when extra power is needed. According to the “Zero Carbon Britain” group, if Britain’s car fleet became electrical it would provide the grid with more than enough reserve energy to meet any surges in demand.
Electric cars, bicycles and improved public transport could take care of almost all transport requirements at the urban level. But what about long distance transport? There is talk of biofuel and hydrogen fuelled planes, but the future for these fuels does not look promising. A strong transport policy would confront the energy and transport lobbies and phase out aviation altogether, replacing it with high speed trains and wind-powered ships. A French train recently broke the 500km a hour speed record. If the Russians and Americans took the plunge, they could build the “Intercontinental Peace Bridge” across the Bering Straits and it might be possible to one day get a train from Naples to New York.
What about freight? Our economic system has become so dependent on big trucks that it is hard to think what could replace them. Europe’s freight-train infrastructure has become so neglected (except in Germany) that upgrading it would cost trillions. But there is another alternative: the airship. Interest in airships is currently growing and scientists say that future “freight airships” could pick up containers directly from a factory yard, fly across the world and deliver inside another factory yard. We need to urgently develop these future forms of transport before it is too late.
This article was also published in the EUObserver.