Monday, June 19, 2006


Welcome to Charge: the future of energy
by Daniel C. Sweeney, PhD

In the past we worked for a highly controversial journal covering an area that, to the uninitiated, would seem to be devoid of controversy, namely consumer stereophonic high fidelity systems. The name of the book was The Absolute Sound and its editor was one Harry Pearson.

Mr. Pearson, like many great editors, and he was a great editor, combined considerable literary gifts with a bilious nature and tendency toward vituperative outbursts. He once told us that he valued writers for their ability to provoke controversy, genuine controversy, rather than personal attacks. It took us years to understand what he was saying, but when we did it struck us with the force of revolution.

So what has this to do with energy?

The last post discussed at no great length a concept in transportation known as PRT or personal rapid transit. We received more responses, some from obviously agitated individuals, than from any other posting we have made over the past year. Clearly, we were doing something right according to the Pearson canon.

We mentioned PRT because it seldom figures in discussions of the future of transportation in the light of declining fossil fuel reserves and because we believe that the concept remains a matter of some interest. We also mentioned that we believe that actual systems are a long way off. Our rather cautious approach to the subject did not prevent a string of passionate replies and a few quite insightful questions.

Here perhaps some background is in order, and I’ll drop the editorial we for a moment. My father was involved in PRT back in the early seventies to the extent that he was charged with studying the phenomenon by the Los Angeles Department of Public Works of which he was an official. During that period interest in the notion was at its height as was federal funding. Richard Nixon for a time was backer and then cooled on the notion, but of course he had other fish to fry. The PRT craze, if you could call it that, was nothing remotely comparable to that surrounding fuel cell powered automobiles a quarter of a century later, and it was far less publicized, but it certainly engaged the attention of transportation authorities such as my father.

I’ll never forget our discussions on the subject. This, we were both convinced, was the future of transportation.

Obviously, it hasn’t been. The technology was just as premature in the seventies as fuel cells appear to be today, and a series of publicly financed boondoggles involving PRT soured public policy types on the whole idea. And, rather curiously, PRT aroused the determined opposition of two groups who normally don’t agree about anything. Those groups consisted of advocates of traditional public transportation systems, primarily light rails, and opponents of the same who tended to lump PRT with light rail to the utter consternation of the PRT camp.
Light rail advocates including many manufacturers of such systems feared that PRT boded no good for them. If it succeeded it would tend to displace many light rail systems, and if it failed it would harden public opposition to mass transit of any sort.

Public transportation opponents had different motivations, some of them covertly ideological. Many believed and continue to believe that public transportation represents a form of creeping socialism, an unwarranted expansion of government that might ultimately result in restrictions in regard to private automobiles.

Here it might be well to remember that a hundred years ago electric trolleys were the dominant form of mechanized urban transportation in the U.S. and that almost all systems were privately owned. Furthermore, they tended to be the province of gung ho entrepreneurs who were, often as not, real estate agents on the side. The streetcar lines encouraged the growth of suburbs, and the streetcar owners took advantage of the fact to organize building projects in the new suburbs. Trolleys were the hot technology of 1905. Who’d have thunk it?

A few further thoughts on the subject of PRTs.

A couple of years ago, I interviewed a multitude of individuals in the PRT business, which in truth is not much of business today. All of the executives with whom I spoke were without exception deeply knowledgeable transportation wonks who had spent years conceptualizing networks and creating predictive models for traffic flow in such networks. They weren’t nut jobs, they weren’t na├»ve idealists, and many had taught civil engineering on the university level. Having long reported on telecom where extravagant claims were the norm, I was amazed at how cautious these individuals were and how little inclined they were to oversell their own products. Where they were for the most part deficient I think, was in their perceptions of the political hurdles confronting them. People tend not to get out of the PRT field once they’re in it, it’s kind of like organized crime in that regard. It becomes a sort of obsession, and obsessions tend to confound clear thinking regarding external factors.

One reader asked if PRTs might be combined with more conventional automotive transport. Indeed, yes. These are known as dual mode systems and they have their own separate and distinct advocacy groups. In my opinion, the logistical difficulties involved in implementing such systems are far greater than is the case with simple PRTs—they’re approximately twice as complex—but I wouldn’t dismiss them out of hand. Incidentally, several major auto makers have studied such systems extensively.

Our Troubles Are Over

Many who chance to read this blog also browse the various peak oil blogs of which there are several. Peak oil is a hot potato I am seldom inclined to grasp between my thumb and my forefinger, though I suppose I believe that a peak is not only inevitable but likely to arrive sooner than one might wish.

Anyway, rather recently I was speaking with a business acquaintance who was eloquent in his assertions that no departure from the status quo in oil consumption was necessary or desirable, and who advanced some supporting evidence which I’m sure will gratify almost everyone who views the prospect of $5 a gallon low test with some trepidation.

This individual, who will go unnamed since he does not welcome online communications from strangers, advanced the following argument:

Since the world was created approximately six thousand years ago, if we read the scriptures aright, all this talk about petroleum deposits requiring millions of years to form must be obvious nonsense. Instead oil must form almost instantaneously in geological terms, and fresh deposits must be abuilding even as we speak. This same individual who has close connections to the leadership of what has come to be known as the religious right, maintains that this argument will be advanced very forcibly in the months and years to come in order to persuade the electorate that elevated oil prices are a momentary annoyance and that redoubled exploration efforts will save the day. In other words, oil is renewable resource. How remarkable if it were. This argument, by the way, is somewhat distinct from the largely discredited abiotic oil theory which has it that vast new deposits lurk somewhere near the mantle of the earth. Most abioticists are not creationists and do not subscribe to the theory of a young earth.

At any rate, this individual quite evidently accepted the validity of this argument, and indicated that the view is widely held among our corporate as well as our religious leadership. Is this in fact true? I mean to say, are both in fact true? Is crude oil rapidly replenishing itself and does everyone in positions of responsibility think so?

Damned if I know. Maybe someone can enlighten me here.


Solarbird said...

I have heard rumblings of this in my monitoring of the fundamentalist right, but nothing that has gone so far up the ladder as to be visible on official websites or broadcasts. It seems unlikely to me. However, it does line up perfectly with the view of the fundamentalist movement that "entire sciences will have to be rethought from the ground up" once they've gotten "Intelligent Design," which allows "and then a miracle occurred" to be a valid process step, generally accepted. So the idea that this could be argued does strike me as reasonable, but I suspect it will be only for consumption by the fundamentalist faithful.

(It is similarly easy to suggest that Jehovah created oil 6,000 years ago when creating the earth, and that we can and may use it up, so therefore any oil limitations are perfectly possible. It would be extremely interesting to see whether anyone who matters actually brings this forward.)

Anyway, they haven't yet, as far as I've seen. So far, it has been a consistent drumbeat of "We'd have all the oil we wanted if the environmentalists will let us drill in [foo] or [bar]."

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George said...

Oil getting created as we speak? One must propose a mechanism, beyond "and then a miracle happened"... Here is a stab: I recall hearing recently that microbes exist underground. Way underground. Like miles from the surface. Further, the sum total of these microbes, it is speculated by some unknown source, far exceeds in mass all the biota of the surface. Or something like that. I would assume these microbes are carbon based. And the rest is... just biochemistry!

Do people in power believe the 6000 year old earth rapid oil generation hypothesis? My God, I hope not. But we already know that the Bush administration is not reality-based. (And that's worked out just peachy so far...)