Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Liquid fuels

There’s no good substitute for liquid fuels for transportation.

Alternatives work fine for production of electricity. In my local area we already produce electricity from hydro, biomass, wind and even a tiny bit of solar power. I can imagine a gradual switch over to a mix of renewables to keep the lights on. Very little oil is used for electricity. The big power generator in the US is still coal.

Transportation is a problem. Electricity’s use in transportation is severely limited by the lack of good cheap high density storage -the batteries. It might be feasible for the commuter with a relatively short driving distance. We aren’t going to see electric tractor trailer trucks hauling produce from California to New England.

Expect that gasoline and diesel will be used where it’ll do the most good. Right now, tractor trailers do a huge part of the heavy lifting. However, rail is more efficient than roads. Water transport is better than rail. Wind powered water transportation would be even cheaper, if somewhat slower.

Expect everything to slow down a bit. If transportation fuel is $20/gallon, people are going to think very seriously before they go anywhere. There may still be big SUVs on the morning commute to work, but there will be 8 - 10 people crammed into it. There’s a lot of our lives that will be significantly different. The ability to live within walking distance to work will be a huge advantage. More food will be grown locally to shorten transportation distances, among other reasons.

How will you deal with huge price hikes in transportation fuels? No politicians or the media will talk about it, but it is coming. Even if we get a miracle breakthrough in transportation, it will take years to convert the infrastructure to accommodate it. When the world switched from wind to coal powered ships, it took about 40 years for the changeover.

The only reason we’ve been able to keep the wheels turning this long has been the desperate development of less than idea fuel sources: ethanol, tar sands, shale oil, and deep water drilling. Those efforts barely produce more energy than it takes to extract and process them. When it costs more energy to produce than you get out of it, it’s game over. Liquid fuel will suddenly become in short supply. Exporting nations might come to the logical conclusion to keep the oil for for their own country, never mind the world market. Thinking like that could crash supply.

Then $20/gallon would be a bargain. It could happen soon. A massive economic collapse could prevent the price hike, but we’d all have other problems by then. A person who can’t afford food won’t buy gasoline. Assuming they can keep the economy struggling along in some fashion, the hike in transportation costs will have to be dealt with.

Have you a plan? A bicycle? Good walking shoes? The ability to car pool? Public transportation? Enough stuff stored up so you only have to go to town on a monthly basis? I know I won’t be hauling a boat all the way from my home in New Hampshire to Florida. I could afford to drive the 120 miles or so the coast of Maine, then sail down to Florida. That would add a couple months to my winter vacation, but I could live with that.



  1. Energy density is the problem but it affects you less than most.You have had SVO systems in your truck for years.SVO is what diesel motors were designed for when invented.A motor that could run on veggy oil grown on the farm and used in a tractor.Corn only yields 50 gallons an acre soybean 90 gal. but rape/conolla 160 gallons .Now im not in favor of growing all our fuel instead of food but if we cut 70% of our miles driven out we would still go more than our grandparents did.My little 3 cyl. tractor could plow and till an acre on way less than 5 gallons SVO if all i had was 150 gallons of oil for a small car that would be 4000 to 6000 miles.So Sixbear i guess you are a man ahead of your time.Would you plant an acre for the return?

  2. Changes will definitely be required...The grocery stores will be carrying more staple foods and less convenient foods, the trips to market/grocery/town etc. will be cut to monthly or longer between runs and will be carpooled or buses haulin couple kids miles twice a day will cease, schools may once again be in walking distance and fewer extra-curriculiar BS...the family farms and maybe even families will be the norm once again...problem for the near is, lot of land has been so depleted that it depends on petrol based fertilizeer to produce...time and effort growing stuff will be mostly for food, not fuel...due to labor required and land required....Michael Yon, war correspondent had some articles several months back on the use of composting/methane gas generators used to produce enough fuel for cooking in the third world countries that i'm looking into, both for cooking and firing refigeration...I've already cut my grocery/town runs to monthly the past year and buying in bulk when I do make a run and working towards being totally off grid the next gardening and canning...more and more bartering as fiat money will be worthless in a short big problem I'm trying to solve is to gather all the family in from scattered all over, to get the clan all nearby...un-certain times ahead, but planning, prepping can make it less scary except for PTB...Rusty

  3. We are going through a demographic aging bubble with the boomers moving into and eventually beyond their 60s. Bycycling and walking are going to be limited options for an aging population.

    Falls are always dangerous for seniors. A fall from a bike would not be good.

  4. I heard a piece on NPR the other day, that Toyota and BMW are teaming up to share technologies re:batteries for cars. This makes me hopeful. One article about it here: another Also, have you heard of transition towns? I think I mentioned them. Rob Hopkins is the guy's name who's credited with a lot of that. Interesting times, that's for sure.

  5. Gary: your math looks good. I'd plant an acre if I had one to spare. SVO makes perfect sense for tractors and other farm equipment. Quite a few are quietly doing it. There's some pretty innovative stuff showing up in the farm magazines.

    Rusty: you are ahead of the cure, that's where a lot of us rural folk will be -if we want to stay rural. It just won't be feasible to do the two hour commute to work. Family -there's the rub. I'm lucky that I've a lot of mine relatively close. However, my dad's 1600 miles away, and my wife's folks moved 2000 miles away.

    russell1200: As a guy in the tail end of the baby boom myself, I see all my friends aging. I must be too. However, I think biking will be a lot safer when there are lot fewer cars on the road. The work out would do me good.

    Jess: Even if the perfect technology showed up today, there's still a time period needed for the switch over. Maybe we have to think beyond cars. You've found a way to live with only one instead of two, so that's a huge amount of progress.

    The Transition Town movement has some good ideas and they are a good start. I don't think they are moving far enough fast enough, but at least they are on the path. Most people don't want to think that tomorrow won't be like today.

  6. You mean it will cost me $2000.00 to fill up my 100 gal fuel tank in the RV? Wow, I hope social security gives me a raise.

  7. Hmmm... I can see myself as the skipper of a small coastal trading schooner. Load cotton and grain down here, then sail to Houston to deliver, and return with whatever cargo I could load up there. That would suit me fine : )

  8. Dizzy, it could. It must cost you close to $400 to fill it up now.

    Craig: Something like that could work fine in the not too distant future. Heck, it might pay now in some markets. I know they are delivering from farm to farmer's market by sailboat in the North West.