Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Your Low Energy Future

Believe all the hype if you'd like. Fracking is making the United States the new Saudi Arabia. Peak oil is over.

I'll believe it when oil is down to $19/ barrel. At over $100/barrel, it's economical to go after marginal sources.

Even if fossil resources have been underestimated, it's still a finite resource. At some point supply will be unable to meet demand. If you don't think that's possible, stop reading now and go back to FOX news. I can't help you.

Alternatives can make up for much, if not all, of our electric power needs. Transportation fuels like gasoline and diesel are the real crunch. W hen's the last time you saw a long haul electric tractor trailer truck? The numbers don't work out very well. 50 pounds of diesel has more energy than 1000 pounds of lead acid batteries. Yes, yes, there are rumors of all kinds of magic batteries. Dense energy storage is just around the corner . . . has been for 30 years.

How are things transported today? Planes, trucks, trains, and boats. That from highest energy usage to lowest.

Airline profitability is directly tied to the price of fuel. It takes a lot of energy to get those big birds in the air. If fuel takes a big spike, air travel will go back to being the plaything of the very rich. Forgot about most air freight. No more Maine lobsters in Oklahoma.

Trucks are much better than planes. An awful lot of stuff moves by truck. Roads go everywhere. Of course, truck transport requires good roads. Most roads in the world are paved with asphalt -another petroleum product.

Trains are much more energy efficient than trucks. A surprisingly large amount of freight travels by train. Rails can last a long long time with basic upkeep.

Historically, water transportation has been the cheapest way to move things. It was much less expensive to move something 1000 miles along the water than 100 miles by land. It's still the cheapest way to move cargo. Many countries, including the US, have extensive waterways. Canals dug hundreds of years ago are still in service.

How does all this affect you? Look at where you live. Is your area's main claim to fame is an airport? If that's the case, higher fuel prices can quickly destroy your local economy.

Good roads into where you live? How about rail lines? Are they still running or are trees growing in the rail beds?

Do you live near a navigable waterway? That's good.

Right now an awful lot of trade goes to a limited number of big ports. It takes a lot of infrastructure to unload container ships or bulk fuel carriers. Those deep harbors do the lion's share of the work.

Don't worry if you are near a minor port. I'll bet 100 – 200 years ago, those minor ports were pretty busy. They can be again. Smaller, shallow draft vessels will become economical again. Any place connected to the rivers and oceans are connected to the world.

In a declining energy situation, where you live really matters.



  1. Since it's you, I just HAVE to say this, maybe they'll bring back coal-fired trains and riverboats! (Sorry, the devil made me do it.)

    1. Thanks Gorges. :)

      Would not surprise me if they did.

  2. All true when you see warren buffet going all in on railroads it should give you a hint.Water and ships are very low energy per pound also.Most pople look at old ships trains and 1900 cars in museums a relics of the past.I look at them as working models of what one day may be our future.Why does the navy keep 2 sailing ships,why is the amish exempt from some laws,why is there rail lines in national parks that are for steam engine trains.As much a we have today why do we keep so many things from our low energy past?

    1. It would not surprise me one bit if old tech is pressed into service once again. Probably not in ways we cannot imagine.

  3. I think the big minus in water traffic will be the dams that now exist vs. years ago when rivers really ran. Maybe blowing the really large ones and 'portaging' the goods around the small ones would work.

    For the local markets, bicycle trailers might be a good idea. Plenty of DIY bike trailers around and having two riders taking turns to spell each other would be fast transportation of goods.

    There are some who sell Mexican food from front wheeled trikes, a decked cube with two wheels in front - those have been used to move furniture and other bulky items.

    1. I like bikes,but they have one big drawback. They really depend on decent roads. Decent roads depend on there being a lot of people driving cars. Perhaps road construction and funding can change, so you never know.

  4. Hey Sixbears,

    Good piece. I also liked James' take on our collective future.

    "The future isn’t going to be exactly like the past, but enough so that you shouldn’t delude yourself that high tech toys will stick around. Be ready to devolve. And not in a hippie commune tree hugging windmill powering the boom box playing a CD of bongos serenading unicorns kind of way but a nastier serfs starving amid Thirty Year Wars while dying of Plague kind of way." - James Dakin


    1. Thanks Moe.

      I read James,hoping he's wrong and fearing he's right.

  5. I remember the coal fired locomotives. My Grandpa, an engineer, retired from one. Of course I was quite small, but just because he retired, they didn't as yet retire the steam locomotives. They were big, noisy, and dirty, but they sure did get the job done!!

    1. South African ran steam trains a long time after we did as modern style equipment was embargoed. They had coal and could keep steam trains running.

  6. The military logistics rule of ten, describing the cost to ship a unit of goods:
    1 - by ship
    10 - by train
    100 - by truck
    1000 - by airplane
    10000 - by helicopter

    1. Good rule of thumb. Leave it to the military to have this figured out so concisely.