An electrifying ride – a sustainable mass transportation network

8 February 2016

Technology is evolving and the possibility of a fully electrified mass transportation network is getting closer. Politics, rather than innovation, are required to make it a reality, though, as Urban Transport Agenda’s editor Andrew Tunnicliffe explains.

Barely a day passes without some mention of 'sustainability' or one of its derivatives, in the news, at business meetings or among the ingredients of something we're about to buy. It's been in the English lexicon for many years, but its use has grown markedly over the last few decades. However, because of that we're in danger of becoming inured to the word, its true meaning and the noble intentions it evokes.

The private and public sectors are awash with initiatives, policies and practices aimed at achieving sustainability. Depending on where you are in the world, that statement will be more or less believable. Nevertheless, the need for sustainability is influencing our lives more every day.

In recent years we've had a rash of international events with organising committees unashamedly announcing that theirs is "the most sustainable (insert event name here) ever". We've even heard politicians telling us they aspire to be part of the most sustainable and greenest government ever.

It's hardly surprising, then, that the notion is greeted with a degree of suspicion, but should it be?

Driving change

The drive to get people out of their cars and onto public transport continues apace, a lifestyle choice that would return considerable benefits to the environment. In doing so, however, individuals are being pushed towards modes of transport that, in some cases, are dated and scarcely the greenest.

That said, much is being done to address those issues, as the International Energy Agency (IEA) reveals. In July, the intergovernmental organisation lauded Luxembourg for cutting greenhouse gas emissions. In its report, 'Energy Policies of IEA Countries - Luxembourg 2014', the group of 29 nations said the country had been able to reinforce the security of its energy supply, integrate gas and electricity markets, prioritise research and development in clean energy and eco-innovation and was taking major steps on energy efficiency.

However, one of the areas for substantial praise was the ironically so-called 'Kyoto cent'. There has been a significant rise in the sale of fuel to non-residents, such as cross border commuters and long distance freight.

A surcharge imposed on those sales, the 'Kyoto cent', has been redistributed into a newly created Climate and Energy Fund established to help the country meet its greenhouse gas (GHG) and carbon dioxide emissions reduction targets by 2020. Those targets, the Agency says, are the highest among EU member states, but ironically, sales of 'dirty' fuels are helping the country build for the future in a sustainable way.

The most interesting points to be raised concerned mass transportation. Maria van der Hoeven, the Agency's executive director, commented: "Promoting clean transport solutions can improve sustainability and security of energy supply, but Luxembourg can do something no other IEA country has yet done, which is to combine smart grids and electric vehicles at a country-wide level to create a smart energy and transport network."

Since a previous report by the IEA in 2008, Luxembourg's government has launched initiatives aimed at addressing energy consumption and emissions. As a result, the report noted the efforts being made to "diversify fuel use in the domestic transport sector and promote public transport. Deployment of alternative fuels and fuel infrastructure, notably electric vehicles, are among the measures set out in the Global Mobility Strategy and the Transport Sector Plan."

Luxembourg, where as much as 88% of oil goes to transport, is introducing smart meters for electric vehicles and a push for greater use of those vehicles to create harmony between the transport and energy systems.

Electric dream

Transport accounts for 90% of the world's oil consumption. Electricity, on the other hand, represents just 1% of all energy used in global transportation, a percentage that is unchanged since the 1970s, as if to highlight that the transport sector remains heavily reliant on oil.

"Anticipated growth in transport demand," the IEA warns, "represents increased GHG emissions and poses energy security issues in many countries that struggle to secure long-term supply of oil and/or refined products at affordable prices." Because of these challenges, energy source diversification is "key to long-term sustainability of transport, and the way forward to start its decarbonisation".

One of the biggest barriers to the wider use of electricity to power vehicles (railways aside) has been battery life and storage. However, says the report, electric vehicles hold a lot of promise: they should become cleaner and will help reduce pollution, particularly in cities.

"The technology is developing and the international will is building, but change must begin in the corridors of power if significant progress is to be made."

Today, the debate rages on how electricity can be used as part of a mass transport infrastructure. Sceptics argue the issue of storage means we'll never see the use of electricity on the urban transportation network, while advocates look to rail electrification as the most likely blueprint for the future. Overhead lines (trolleybuses), induction (dynamic or static), battery-swapping or stationary conductive battery charging are the options being considered.

An interesting proposition for intercity bus travel has been the establishment of an overhead line infrastructure, catenary HFTs (high-frequency transformers). Such a network would be available to intercity buses and road freight, so there would be payback in both sectors.

However, this is one option among many considered in the report and each has its pros and cons. For urban bus transport, this type of power supply has been used widely for years, particularly in Eastern Europe. Trolleybuses are popular, but electric fleets are growing rapidly as operators see their value despite the initial upfront costs.

Some of the most exciting and innovative work is taking place in the US, Germany and Korea, where dynamic induction charging is being tested. The report explains: "Induction plates installed in roadways interact with copper coils on buses to generate electricity while the vehicle drives over the plate [without having to stop]. This greatly reduces the need for on-board battery storage capacity.

Induction has the benefit that multiple vehicle types could potentially use the same power source. Lack of consistent data and the multiplicity of configurations, however, made it difficult to include dynamic induction in the sensitivity analysis."

On the buses

The payback duration for the available EVs for mass transportation stands at four to nine years for battery-powered electric buses, three to eight for trolleybuses and between just one to five years for induction buses.

The report deemed battery charging to be most suitable for lighter vehicles, whereas swapping would suit fleets, although a stock of units would be necessary, which could push up costs. Catenary lines and induction, it says, are best used for predictable lines with high vehicle frequency. "The increased utilisation factor spreads the overall investment over a greater number of potential ratepayers," it concluded.

So, it's clear the technology is there, or almost there, to help mass transit operators reduce GHG emission and create a more sustainable operation, but widespread adoption is some way off.

"Developing a wider portfolio of fuel pathways for most modes will require political vision that has so far been lacking," the agency added.

"As currently organised in many countries, national government often shies away from long-term investment, preferring to wait for the most competitive alternative fuel to gain significant market share.

"Without policies to promote deployment, it could be delayed for decades. Commitments to reduce emissions and improve energy security are important first steps to move away from fossil fuel in transport."

Sustainable technology is developing and the will of the international community is building, but as the IEA asserts, the picture is bigger than just converting a few buses. Change must start in the corridors of power, and until that happens, it's doubtful we'll see any significant progress, no matter how noble our intentions.

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