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Defending the Upgrade of Highway 1 - Gateway Project

Richard C. Pitt

At dinner tonight the major topic of conversation turned to whether or not the Billion-$-plu$ budget for the twinning of the Port Mann bridge and widening of Highway 1 through to Vancouver was justified, or whether the money was better spent on some other means of transportation.

Now I personally think that not only is it justified, but that it is over twenty years too late and probably not enough expansion to adequately deal with the problems we have here in the Vancouver Lower Mainland with traffic and congestion. But I found myself having to justify my opinion in light of the recent radical rise in gasoline costs; and that got me thinking that maybe others might be interested in why, since I've actually given this quite a bit of thought over the past few years.

What it comes down to is that I believe that the personal automobile, at least here in North America, is not going to disappear, no matter how high the price of gasoline goes.

read on for why I think this way...

The first thing to understand is that North America is not like Europe, the part of the world that many point to as being the epitome of public transportation infrastructure and a model for what these many say we should be implementing instead of pandering to the automobile. The problem is that Europe (and East North America) and Western North America have each grown up in completely different technological climates, and because of this they live and grow by different rules now.

Europe grew up via industrial revolution in a time when it was only possible and practical to create large engines to move goods and people in large quantities rather than smaller ones that could move them in ones and twos. Thus they have a network of railroads, trams and inter-urbans, and an urban geography that revolves around these modes; lots of apartments and many homes as "row-houses" so people are close together. In addition, the overall population density is much higher than that found in most places in North America; the North Atlantic seaboard (New York, etc. ) being the prime exception. This means that towns are fairly close together and overall travel distances average far less than we find typical. I'll note here that the Atlantic seaboard also "grew up" in times of large-engine types of commuter services - railroads and subways - so it too has these in place.

Western North America in particular and most of the rest of N.A. in general on the other hand has excelled at spreading its population out - creating single family homes that are well detached and which take up many times the area for a given population. To find the land for such urban sprawl the cities have expanded outwards in any and all directions; continuing today, even though we now know we should stop such wasteful practices. These centers have spent a lot of their history in an age when individual conveyances - the automobile - were encouraged, whether by the gasoline and tire companies as some would have you believe (see for example the "Judge Doom" entry in the trivia section of IMDB's entry for "Who Framed Roger Rabbit") or simply because the population saw it as a freedom engendered by the technological advances of the time; who knows or at this point cares.

The result of these two disparate growth methods is that London, UK is about 35km across and has something in excess of 8 million people, many without vehicles of any sort, whereas Vancouver and surrounding areas extend over 80km and contain around 2 million people, many with more than one vehicle.

The point is that we here now have both the automobile and the geographic predicament it has allowed us to paint ourselves into - a spread-out population and no large-scale transit infrastructure.

Now we come to today's problem of the moment, high gasoline prices. What has this done, in this geographic situation with the current lack of transit infrastructure (Surrey, a city of almost the same population as Vancouver, has almost no buses or other transit infrastructure for example) and the proclivity of the population toward individual vehicles?

Well, the first thing it has done is prompted a turn toward alternative energy thoughts - and with the price of gasoline as it now is, these are starting to make some economic sense with more to come.

In Great Britain and other European countries the fact that gasoline is 2-2.5 times as expensive (70% of price is tax to pay for their transit) as it is here largely does not matter - the number of people reliant upon large quantities of it is nothing like here in Western North America. There they use rail and barge to transport most goods to within a few of miles of  their destination, and small trucks to deliver the last distance. Here, we've all but abandoned rail for anything but treks of hundreds and thousands of miles, and instead employ tractor-trailer units for much of our goods movement for long distance.

Similarly, much of the commuting in Britain and Europe is by rail and/or bus. Here it is by car. If even 10% of our vehicles somehow completely disappeared overnight, the transit infrastructure simply could not handle the extra load.

But the saving grace is that at today's gas prices there are a couple of alternatives that are now economically feasible or very close to it, and with not very much more development (not research, that's done) they could move in to allow us to continue to use our vehicles both economically and even with a clear, "green" conscience. 

The first is actually the most compelling - and probably the most immediately feasible because it actually simply replaces the source of crude oil from which gasoline and diesel are made, with a substance made from ethanol; itself a product of microbes eating various plant products (I'll get to the current problem about this shortly.) Initially pitched at the aircraft fuel industry, a product from Swift Enterprises of Indiana called Swift Fuel may have come at just the right time. At an estimated $2/gallon (US) cost for large scale manufacture, and able to be delivered and used in exactly what we currently have for infrastructure and vehicles, Swift Fuel can step right in initially as a component of, and eventually a direct replacement for, gasoline in today's and tomorrow's cars.

The problem with Swift Fuel is that it relies upon ethanol for its manufacture - and today ethanol is largely created from what would otherwise be used as food; corn and grain. Today we have rising food prices. Some attribute this at least in some measure to the fact that several governments (including Canada) have mandated a percentage of ethanol to be mixed into gasoline, and the easiest way to make it is to ferment something high in sugar - corn.

To this table comes a variety of new technologies that promise to take virtually any plant matter and turn it into ethanol, cheaper (waste wood and weeds) and just as easily as with corn. This would make things like our pine-beetle infested and otherwise worthless wood in the Pacific Northwest into something we can turn into fuel for our cars. In the process we would also control and even lessen the impact of its otherwise natural decay into masses of methane and carbon dioxide as it lies on the forest floor, or directly into ash and CO2 via forest fire which is more likely. So we can come up with the ethanol for this fuel and the net green-house gas balance sheet actually shows either a bit of a gain or a straight wash as in = out.

The second alternative aims not only at the automobile, but at other fossil-fueled infrastructure as well including coal and oil-fired electric generation plants. It is part of a whole gamut of similar technologies, but is distinguished by the fact that it is the most direct converter of the largest source of power in the solar system, the sun. I'm talking of solar-electric cells. For those who can't think of the other similar technologies I refer to, they are wind and wave generation of electricity - both of which harness the weather which is a manifestation of solar activity - and of course we can also include hydro-electric because it too is dependent upon the sun evaporating water from the oceans and depositing it as rain on the mountains.

From the point of view of the automobile, solar power is really only part of the answer, the other part being power storage technologies - batteries and capacitors.

So we'll take each of these electric pieces in turn and talk about what is here but not yet widely available:

First, no less than Larry Page and Sergey Brin of Google fame have put seed money into what is billed as the largest solar-panel production plant in the world, built in California's Bay Area. The Nanosolar panels being made differ from those that we have seen to date in a couple of ways: they are made on what amounts to a printing press with nano-technology ink, and they are more efficient and less costly to produce than crystalline silicon cells by a hefty factor.

Google also has its money in another solar technology, that of using the heat from mirror-concentrated solar power to create electricity. This plan, while falling back on more traditional (than direct electric conversion) steam technologies, gets a boost from mass-production techniques and modularity and is presented by eSolar.

These two electric generation technologies are now cost effective and will continue to become more cost effective as the price of fossil fuels continues to rise.

The problems noted above for use in the automobile/transportation sector fall in the storage of the generated electricity so we don't have to trail a cord behind us or hook to the overhead electric trolley wires. Here too we have several technologies that are close to or actually at the point of being feasible in mass usage and cost effective at the current or near future price of fossil fuels.

The electric car has relied to date on storage batteries - initially the lead-acid type we're all familiar with just from having one to start our car's gasoline engine. Today we have other technologies to choose from that are both higher charge-density (the amount of power that can be stored in a given volume) and ligher in weight (lead is HEAVY - and itself takes significant power just to move) like lithium and its storage identity, lithium-ion.

As with the solar cells noted above, new technologies using nano-scale substances are making the Lithium-ion battery work better and safer than the batteries we've been using in our laptops and cell phones for the past few years. Let's face it - if you know anything about Lithium from your high school chemistry, you'll know that it is nasty stuff - explosive!

But encase Lithium in a nano-cage and you have a fairly tame (nothing that stores lots of power can ever truly be said to be tame), light (lithium is one of the lightest metals), power storage technology that has already been shown to work well in an electric vehicle.

And technology has also created another storage alternative to batteries just in time to also vie for a place in our fossil-fuelless future; the super capacitor or super-cap for short.

We already have super-caps that can store about 1/2 the charge density at roughly the same weight as current Lithium-ion batteries, but new nano technology research has shown promise to boost this at least to what is achievable with the Lithium-ion nanotechnology battery. The advantages of capacitors over any battery technology to date are:

  1. capacitors will live through thousands to hundreds of thousands of charge-discharge cycles vs. hundreds to thousands for batteries
  2. capacitors can be charged and discharged faster and with less heat dissipation than batteries can, meaning higher accelerations and faster recharge.

So we have options of both direct fuel replacement for gasoline and several completely different alternatives using electric; all here now and at costs that are competitive with today's gasoline costs. What it comes down to is that I believe that the personal automobile, at least here in North America, is not going to disappear, no matter how high the price of gasoline goes.

That being said, the twinning of the Port Mann and widening of Highway 1 are not only an excellent use of our billions, they are mandatory, not optional - and as I noted earlier - THEY'RE LATE!!!

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