Thursday, June 12, 2008

$25 per Gallon Gasoline and a Crazy Idea (375 miles bikeway to L.A.)

Forget $4 per gallon for gasoline--let's talk about how things will be--or could be--when it's $25/gallon and strictly rationed: 5 gallons per household per month.

I don't mean to trigger a cardiac arrest, but here is a serious, experienced analyst foreseeing $450/barrel oil. At about 28 gallons of distillate (gasoline, jet fuel, diesel, etc.) per barrel, that's $16/gallon without refining, shipping, taxes and retailing expenses. So let's just call it $25 per gallon.

Yamada: Oil Could Pass $450 In a Decade.

As you probably know by now, having read Life After the Oil Crash (LATOC) and the Oil Drum (TOD), cheap oil flowing into the U.S. is toast, history, doomed, etc.

Uncommon sense (uncommon because it certainly isn't common) suggests that we should prepare for this eventuality by living within our means, i.e. preparing to live with what oil/fossil fuels are produced domestically.

Currently the U.S. pumps about 5 million barrels of oil a day and imports the other 15-16 million barrels we consume each and every day. Since the U.S. production peaked in 1970, we can expect our production to continue declining, even if we drill the Alaskan reserve and fire up coastal drilling again.

So on a back-of-the-envelope calculation, let's say a semi-sustainable production in the U.S. would be about 2 million barrels a day (e.g. 60 million barrels a month), including shale oil and coal gasification and all those other technologies which turn out to require vast amounts of energy themselves.

(I am leaving the U.S. Military consumption out of the picture for the moment; aircraft carriers and submarines are nuclear-powered, and electric railguns are being tested, so clearly the Military could do with a lot less oil as well. Let's say U.S. production is 2.2 million barrels a day and the U.S. Armed Forces get 200,000 barrels a day, mostly for jet fuel, which is produced when oil is "cracked" anyway. Hint to Pentagon contractors: start designing that battery-powered "stealth" tank soon.)

Since we will need most of that production for things like maintaining a few roads and the railways and manufacturing solar arrays and some petrochemicals--items like superlightweight inflatable electric vehicles and super-efficient refrigerators can largely be manufactured with solar-generated power--let's limit private transportation consumption to, say, 50% of production or 30 million barrels a month. Not a day, a month.

Since there's about 100 million households in the U.S., let's say on average each household is rationed 5 gallons a month (one-person households get less than 4-person households, and so on) which can be purchased at the market price of $25/gallon. (Of course this fluctuates as it is a market price.) If you don't use all of your 5 gallons, you are free to sell the remaining balance to someone who wishes to buy more gasoline at whatever price you agree upon.

That's 500 million gallons per month or roughly 18 million barrels per month. Now we need to allot additional fuel to small businesses and other private transport, so we'll make 12 million barrels a month available for private commerce.

That's our 30 million barrels a month. OK, so what can you do with 5 gallons a month? Actually, quite a lot--if we've manufactured the right sort of transport and the right sort of infrastructure.
First, we need to refurbish the U.S. rail system, of course, because rail remains the most efficient method of transporting people and material. (Ditto public transport within urban zones.)
Nonetheless the desire and need for private transport remains, so what do we have which runs on 5 gallons of liquid fuel a month?

1. Bicycles. A bicycle is a wonderful machine and requires only musclepower to operate. It doesn't require even a single drop of fuel (other than food, which the human operator has to eat just to live). It is light, easy to maintain and though high-tech in many ways it is relatively (compared to an auto) inexpensive to manufacture and very durable. Here is one of mine (we have a number of used bikes and some others which were given to us.)

As long as the terrain is relatively flat, it is a mode of transport which can be used even by children and the elderly. (If balance is an issue, then an elderly person can ride a 3-wheel equivalent which can't tip over.) On flat ground and on a halfway decently maintained bike, it's quite possible to reach 10 miles per hour (16 KPH Kilometers per hour) for extended periods, and on a light bike someone in reasonable shape can do even better (12-15 MPH) as long as they're not fighting a headwind.

Needless to say, transporting yourself on a bicycle is also moderately easy and good exercise. You notice things and hear things in a new way when you're riding. It's easy to park a bike and you never get stuck in traffic, either.

2. Electrically powered bicycles, tricycles and "commute cars." There are a wide variety of electrically powered modes of transport--just glance at for an idea of what's available. Such vehicles could be recharged off household photovoltaic (solar) panels and used for short jaunts--the most common kind of household trip.

Schwinn has 8 electric-assist bike models: Schwinn International bikes. Such bicycles are popular in China and elsewhere, and it doesn't take an engineer to foresee how distributed electrical power generation units (a.k.a. solar panels on 75 million buildings in the U.S.) could be used to recharge such bikes during seasonable weather.

There are also fuel-sipping ICE (internal combustion engine) bikes. For example, longtime correspondent Azvitt recently sent in a link to this site:

3. Extremely high-mileage, small, low-weight autos like the 1-litre car: VW Confirms 1L Concept Will Become Reality in 2010.

Correspondent Michael Goodfellow recently sent in this update on the 1-litre car, which I covered here in September 2006 The Winning Trifecta: Save the U.S. Auto Industry, Provide Healthcare, and Stop Importing Oil (September 13, 2006):

The VW 1L is so named because, in theory, it only consumes one liter of fuel per 100 kilometers traveled. For those of us in the US, this translates into about 235 MPG.

Let's be honest--cars which get 200+ miles per gallon are not large, or comparable in comfort to a 1-ton sedan which gets 30 MPG. They are small, light, cramped and won't go 80 miles per hour.

But if the only other choice is a bike or your own two feet, they will look extremely luxurious. So if our society and economy prepares for the future, and you have purchased a 200-MPG vehicle--or a 120-MPG vehicle which seats four--then between trains, electric-assist bikes and regular human-powered bikes, you should be able to travel up to 1000 miles a month on your 5 gallons of gasoline (or 7 gallons of algae-based biofuel, if algae scales up as some hope.)
OK, so here's my crazy idea: make bicycling from San Francisco to Los Angeles not only do-able but fun. It's about 375 miles (600 kilometers) via I-5 through central California, longer on the scenic Highway 1 coastal route.

Before you scoff, recall that Medieval pilgrims on the Pilgrimage of St Jacques-de-Compostelle (in English, Way of Saint James) routinely walked 30-40 kilometers a day (20-25 miles per day), so the idea of biking--or biking with electrical-assist--100 miles a day (maintaining a speed of 12 MPH for 8 hours) is not all that incredible.

Since gas stations/interchanges are already scattered along the route, the common-sense way to make the roads enjoyable and easy to bike include:

1. Devote two of the four divided lanes on I-5 to bicycles/low-speed vehicles such as electric-assist bikes and tricycles during the day. Close most of Highway 1 to large vehicles/ transport (which would be scarce/rare anyway).
2. Install 20,000 square feet (or so) of solar panels at each waystation (approximately every 40 miles or so) and have solar-recharged batteries available so riders can swap-out drained batteries for "hot" ones for a modest fee. (This assumes standardized batteries.)
3. Low-cost hostels/campsites would be available for overnight stays along the route. Existing motels might even stay in business, too, as "luxury accomodations."
4. Electric-powered trolleys/"open-air wagons" would transport bicyclists and their gear up steep grades (Tejon Pass, etc.)
5. California Highway Patrol (CHP) officers on "souped-up" electric bikes capable of reaching 50 MPH (normal electric-assist bikes go 15 MPH) would patrol the low-speed highways.
Since the frenetic lifestyle of today will probably fade along with "cheap" $5/gallon gasoline, the idea of spending three to four days to reach San Francisco or Los Angeles might not seem as snail-paced as it does today. As hikers and pilgrims already know, there is a wonderful sense of camaraderie and adventure in such intimate voyages/travels, and you usually meet some interesting people along the way.

Of course the route would be less appealing in winter/lousy weather, but then we all like to travel in nice weather even now. It doesn't take much to cover a bike or trike with a lightweight all-weather cowling or flexible "body." Worst case, you hang out for a few hours or a day in a hostel, swapping stories and resting.

Travelers could bike/ride one way and return home on the train, which, if the U.S. invested a modest $100 billion or so, might be a TGV or Shinkansen-type train (common in Europe and Japan) which travels at 200 MPH (320 KPH)--three times as fast, and in much greater safety per passenger mile, than current passenger cars.

I know, I know--I-5 is too hot in summer. That's why Highway 1 will be available. That will be too cold and foggy in winter, so then use I-5. And I also know solar panels won't generate much power in Detroit or Albany NY or Boise during winter--but they will during long summer days. That's called "adapting to reality." "Reality" could be overwhelmed and negated with extremely high-energy, low-cost petroleum for a few decades but those days are over (other than during the one final "head-fake" of lower oil prices I have suggested might occur in a sharp global Depression.)

As demand outstrips supply, all-weather travel in high style will be a luxury like air travel which perhaps 4% of the population will still be able to afford.

Pointing out what isn't 100% cheap, easy, comfortable or efficient is not creating a solution or adapting to the realities already visible on the horizon. Naysaying is always fun but you're still standing in the same place when you're done. If you believe there's plenty of oil, coal, methane, etc. and it's only a matter of drilling offshore and digging up a chunk of Wyoming, be my guest; at today's rate of consumption--8.5 billion barrels a year in the U.S. alone--then new wells in Alaska might provide three months more supply, tops. Maybe I'll be wrong and we'll be luxuriating in low-cost, nearly limitless methane, algae-based fuel, plutonium-generated electricity, etc. Maybe a low-manufacturing cost, high-energy-density battery-storage technology will scale-up and electricity will be dirt-cheap everywhere. That certainly would be ideal (or lucky). I'll be as pleased as anyone to change absolutely nothing in our high-energy consumption lifestyle.

But if we screw up and do nothing, and high-energy-density replacements don't materialize, then we enter the "extinction spiral." It works like this: blue-fin tuna (for example) are getting scarce, so the price goes up, which offers ever-larger rewards to those who catch some, which further drives down wild stocks of tuna, and so on.

In a world of wealth, the last 1,000 wild blue-fin tuna will go for hundreds of thousands of dollars each. But they will go, and quickly, and those who caught them will be well-rewarded.
The same "extinction spiral" will play out in oil. If we do nothing, then there is plenty of wealth left to pay $1,000 a barrel. But by then, it will be increasingly difficult to build a replacement energy and transportation infrastructure. If we do nothing and "hope that a technological miracle" will save us from a low-energy consumption lifestyle, then we end up with a World Made by Hand . In this fictional account, author James Howard Kunstler wittily and engagingly brings to life the U.S. that remains after we collectively did nothing as oil entered the extinction spiral.

But a low-energy-consumption future doesn't have be awful. Maybe we'll do nothing except stick our heads in the sand and whine about what a rotten deal life gave us, or blame some distant land for our entirely self-created woes; or maybe we'll wake up and make what seems "impossible" and "horrible" like riding a bike or tricycle 600 kilometers for a vacation damned good fun.

Lagniappe crazy idea:

Since carting another 20 pounds (~10 KG) behind a bike or in rear-wheel saddlebags is no big deal, a web-based "shipping system" would allow entrepreneurs to deliver high-value goods (computer parts, Napa Valley wine, etc.) to depots where willing bicyclists/tricyclists et al. would pick up the goods and transport them for a reasonable fee to the endpoint depot. If it was cheaper than FedEx or UPS (assuming they've long since shifted their fleets to all-electric) or train, this might work very well in providing competitive shipping rates and giving the riders a few dollars for their journey.

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