Sustainable Mobility: Walking before running is always best

Recently I referred back to the 2004 World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) document entitled Mobility 2030 as I recalled that it had an excellent table listing the well-to-wheels CO2 footprint of a variety of vehicle and fuel types. When I found the table in question what surprised me most of all was the complete lack of any information on electric mobility. But this was 2004 and hydrogen was all the rage. Remember when Iceland was due to become the world’s first hydrogen economy on the back of its vast geothermal energy potential and GM were investing heavily in hydrogen fuel cells?

Roll on three to four years and there was deep global concern about the impact of biofuels on food production. With food prices rising and the US Congress, European Union and others passing legislation requiring more and more biofuel blending it was hardly surprising that alarm bells were ringing.

Today, the focus is on electrification of the transport system. A number of vehicle models are nearing production and cities are contemplating the vast infrastructure requirement to recharge them all. Others are concerned about the environmental impact of the batteries when we start disposing of them and grid experts concern themselves with the impacts on base load and dispatch. Meanwhile, the consumer is contemplating how far 100 miles actually is and whether it will be enough to visit those friends who live out of town!

The reality is that we just don’t know what our transport system is going to look like and it may be some while before we actually do. But progress is being made on many fronts.

  • In a recent Nature article, the progress being made in the field of hydrogen powered mobility is highlighted. Fuel cell costs are coming down as less and less platinum is required, compressed hydrogen storage in lightweight containers is now possible thanks to carbon fibre technology, driving distance between refills is nearing that of gasoline vehicles and the chicken-or-egg problem of cars first or a filling network first is being cracked with industry agreements to do both in a coordinated approach. Nobody is claiming that hydrogen is completely ready to roll, but some sense of the future is beginning to crystallize. Plans are even in development in Germany to produce hydrogen from surplus wind capacity.
  • Similarly, the biofuel industry moves forward. A recent blog on The Energy Collective noted that the industry in the USA is nearing the current 10% blending limit of E10 but equally pointed out that there is little uptake for E85. Food prices have eased significantly from their 2008 highs (see chart below) even though biofuel production continues to increase globally. But concerns remain about the sustainability impacts of the industry, although much work is being done to address this issue.

  • Returning to electricity, progress is both impressive and disappointing at the same time. The Nisan Leaf I discussed in my last post looks like a “must have” for the urban dweller of 2010, but at least in terms of range it is no better than a 1908 Fritchle Model A Victoria Phaeton. Interestingly, by 1912 there were 30,000 electric cars on the road in the USA and 4,000 in Europe.

  • Meanwhile, internal combustion engine vehicles continue to show some impressive improvements in efficiency.

So what to make of all this? Arguably, society is jumping to conclusions about the future of the transport sector. The die is far from cast and neither industry or government have the answer yet. The reality may be a more diverse system than the one we see today, or at least the one that the consumer sees today (with hundreds of different crudes coming from all parts of the globe, diversity is an unseen feature of mobility). Hydrogen, electric, bio and ICE could all feature.

One thing is certain, like it or not we won’t see a significant and highly visible change until well into the 2020 decade. There may be urban pockets that look different in less time, but the total changeover of the transport system is probably a forty year journey.