Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Care about Oahu’s Energy Dependency? Look into Cars not Rail

Fossil fuel energy dependency and “carbon footprint” (a 21st century moniker for air pollution and green house gasses) are major concerns of many citizens which, combined with the wrong belief that rail systems are energy efficient (because they are “electric”) lead to wrong conclusions and decisions.

Rail systems can indeed be efficient if they are heavily utilized. Alas, only in cities with several million of densely distributed population the utilization of rail is high enough throughout the day. Those systems experience crash loads in the peak hours and heavy loads during most of the off peak hours. As a result energy per passenger mile is low and efficiency is high. Many of them in Canada, France, Japan, Taiwan or the United Kingdom are powered by electricity from nuclear or hydroelectric plants, so their carbon footprint is minimal.

However, in small population cities like Honolulu, a rail system may see some heavy utilization for two to four hours per day and the rest of the time it runs with a light load of passengers (and sometimes nearly empty) which leads to a very poor overall energy efficiency. Worse yet, its electricity come from diesel and coal, so the carbon footprint is very large.

The same could be said about buses, but buses do not have stations with lights, elevators, escalators, ticket machines, etc. and the security and other required attendants. Buses can be propelled by clean energy, e.g., fuel cells. There are several such buses in demonstration service and of course there are many hybrid buses on the streets of Honolulu already. Most buses in the city of Tacoma are LNG, or liquefied natural gas which burns much cleaner than liquid fossil fuels and is relatively abundant.

However, the comparison of rail to buses is baseless. Buses do fine without rail, as TheBus in Honolulu demonstrates. But rail is useless without buses. Honolulu's proposed system has 20 stations and that's it. Honolulu has thousands of activity points and hundreds of thousands or residences. Its proposed rail has twenty stations. The disconnect is obvious and only buses and cars can bridge the huge gaps between where the rail goes and where the people go. (That's one of several reasons why rail does not reduce traffic congestion.)

Except for nuclear, there are no clean energy power plants producing power for rail systems and this is unlikely to change any time soon since existing power plants have very long useful lives. So the present and long term (~20 year) conclusion is that rail systems in smaller cities (~2 million or less)
  • have a large carbon footprint,
  • are heavily dependent on fossil fuels for their electricity, and
  • consume a lot of energy per passenger.
For brevity, I am only giving you part of the story here. The energy consumption and carbon footprint for rail systems is huge not only because of the heavy construction and equipment involved to build and operate them, but also because of their dependency on cars and buses to take people from stations to their final destinations.

What’s the outlook for cars? Fortunately we do not have to make any guesses. The outlook for the U.S. car fleet is already present in Asia and Europe.

Compared to the oil crises of the 20th century which propelled the Japanese auto industry to international prominence, this time there is better news because U.S. auto manufacturers won’t be left out. On the contrary, their EU and Asia divisions are manufacturing remarkable cars. (Note that all the discussion herein is for vehicles being sold out of dealer showrooms, not for concept cars.)

Ford Fiesta and Mazda 2 are jointly developed small cars of the size of a BMW Mini, a popular small vehicle on Oahu. The 1.6 liter diesel engine of the Fiesta is capable of taking it to a top speed of 120 mph and provides an average fuel efficiency of 56 mpg, almost twice of today’s 1.6 liter gasoline powered Mini. The similar Mazda 2 was chosen the 2008 World Car of the Year.

Ford also offers the C-Max a 5 or 7 passenger car in the compact category with a 58 cubic feet cargo ability with the rear seats folded. Both gas and diesel engines are available. The gas engine delivers an average of 32 mpg whereas the diesel engine delivers 41 mpg.

Ford Kuga is a stylish crossover vehicle which is sold with only one engine option: A two liter diesel which delivers an average of 37 mpg and needs refueling every 550 miles. Ford plans to bring this vehicle in the U.S., but apparently the average U.S. Ford customer is not as sensitive to fuel price and pollution as their EU counterpart: A 2.5 liter gasoline engine is planned for it. Or perhaps a 2 liter hybrid version. The latter may come close to the efficiency of the EU version (but with a more complex and expensive power plant combination.)

GM will introduce the Opel Corsa to the U.S., a car slightly smaller than the VW Rabbit. The Corsa has been sold in Europe and elsewhere for over 10 years and there are eight different motors for it, depending on version and market. Of great interest is the version presented at the 2007 Frankfurt Auto Show which combined a 1.3 turbo diesel engine with a hybrid motor to deliver a 63 mpg fuel efficiency and good performance.

Then of course there are competing offerings from Toyota (the 3-cylinder iQ gets 56 mpg), or the fully-electric Mitsubishi MiEV (costs about $25,000 and has an 80 mile range.)

Honda already imports the Fit to the U.S. The 2009 version delivers 27 mpg in the city for under $15,000. In various automotive magazine tests, the Fit delivered a frugal 35 mpg overall. The 2009 Toyota Prius is still formidable at 48 mpg in the city. Honda’s answer to that is the 40 mpg in the city Civic hybrid.

Speaking of hybrids, statistics of the U.S. Department of Energy show that their sales took off in 2005. Sales started at 9,000 units in 2000 and grew quickly to 84,000 by 2004. But in the last three years their sales have exploded: 210,000 units in 2005, 253,000 in 2006 and 352,000 in 2007. It is likely that a half million units per year sold in the U.S. will be reached by 2010 despite softening fuel prices and weak overall economy.

In conclusion, if people are concerned about carbon footprint and dependency to fossil fuels, then looking to return to 19th century commuting in trains is not the answer. Been there done that. Too limited, too crowded, too inconvenient.Modern society evolved out of it.

Technology is providing the solutions to the problems. This is the same technology that in one person's life time took us from the 1920 Ford Model T with its top speed of 35 mph and a fuel economy of 20 mpg to, say, the 2009 Ford Escape Hybrid with its top speed of over 100 mph and fuel economy of 34 mpg in the city.

In the next 20 years there will be an abundant selection of vehicles that are two or three times more efficient than today’s average offerings. This reduces fossil fuel dependency substantially. Combined with less travel, more telecommuting and wider use of renewable energy and natural gas, dependency on oil can be reduced dramatically.

In the next 20 years, scientific knowledge may overcome unfounded fears and allow us to replace oil fueled power plants with nuclear ones, for the benefit of our planet. This is a win-win-win proposition for the U.S.: Less dependency on oil imports, green house gas free electricity generation, domestic high-technology infrastructure development boosts the local and national economy.

If that occurs, then fully electric and truly non-polluting vehicles are possible. There are several fully electric cars available, the Tesla Roadster being the most spectacular U.S. electric vehicle in small production. Affordable and clean electricity is needed for mass production of electric vehicles and convenient fueling at Electron Stations which today we call Gas Stations. Or at park-and-plug parking stalls: It is not hard to imagine a parking meter with an electric outlet, isn’t it?

Better Place offers a concept of an all-electric car future. Hawaii's Governor Lingle has been briefed. California signed up last week.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Policy and Infrastructure: A New Course for Civil Engineerring Majors at UH-Manoa

CEE 491 – Policy and Infrastructure
Dr. Panos D. Prevedouros
Spring 2009

Infrastructure is a rather complex and not-so-clearly defined word. Only about twenty years ago there was an attempt to define it with some precision by the National Research Council (NRC); its definition provided some clarity by adopting the term public works infrastructure to include

"both specific functional modes - highways, streets, roads, and bridges; mass transit; airports and airways; water supply and water resources; wastewater management; solid-waste treatment and disposal; electric power generation and transmission; telecommunications; and hazardous waste management - and the combined system these modal elements comprise.
A comprehension of infrastructure spans not only these public works facilities, but also the operating procedures, management practices, and development policies that interact together with societal demand and the physical world to facilitate the transport of people and goods, provision of water for drinking and a variety of other uses, safe disposal of society's waste products, provision of energy where it is needed, and transmission of information within and between communities.”

Of note is the part of the definition that clarifies that infrastructure is not only the physical system but the operation and management of it. Operation and management is an area of weakness for CEEs. In addition, in many systems O+M costs may dwarf high construction costs because public works infrastructure has a typical life span of 50 to 100 years. Various types of engineers are involved in the operation of water, sewer, trash, road, airport, harbor, electric and telecom systems.

Now that we have a definitional grasp of one of the keywords of the course’s title, let’s cover our bases by defining policy. A policy is a deliberate plan of action to guide decisions and achieve rational outcome(s). The term may apply to government, private sector organizations and groups, and individuals.

The scope of this course may be narrowed down a bit by focusing on public (or government) policy on public works infrastructure with emphasis on civil engineering systems. What are major infrastructure systems? What are their technologies and functional variations? What are their characteristics and costs? Are there size limitations?

Engineers should be and in many cases are the primary advisors of elected or appointed decision makers responsible for the development or expansion of a type of infrastructure. What information and evaluation techniques would an engineer provide to decision makers in order for them to make the right choices for the community? Here is where good technical knowledge, honesty and ethics, and ability to keep up with new technologies and methods make the engineer a key partner in the choices and the future of a community.

The main areas covered in the course are outlined below:

  • The NEPA Process
  • Impacts Analysis
  • Evaluation of alternatives
  • Case Study 1 – Transportation alternatives
  • Case Study 2 – Pavements, cost, life, recycling
  • Case Study 3 – Bridges and tunnels
  • Case Study 4 – Sewer lines and water lines
  • Case Study 5 – Utility tunnels, utility corridors
  • Case Study 6 – Solid waste management
  • Case Study 7 – Residential and industrial waste: Recycling, reuse, remanufacture
  • Case Study 8 to 10 – Sustainability via renewable energy: Wave, ocean upwelling, geothermal, wind, solar, nuclear, biofuels, other
  • Case Study 11 – Flood management
  • Case Study 12 – Emergency management

This course relies on textbooks from previous CEE courses and on extensive use of the Internet to analyze infrastructure types and issues, and develop case studies to improve the situation on Oahu. It relies extensively on self learning and group collaboration to develop an understanding for the sample case studies.

Students form groups of three to five and tackle several case studies, identify alternatives and apply a high level evaluation. Each student will work on five case studies. Each case study culminates in a comprehensive presentation and brief report.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Is 50.6% a Win for Rail?

Official results for Oahu can be found from the state office of elections:

One can see that all state and county questions passed or failed by a clear margin, except for the rail question for which the votes and percentages were:

YES 155,880 (50.6%)
NO 140,623 (45.6%)
Blank Votes 11,441 (3.7%)

If one accounts for the disproportional promotion, support from several special interest groups, and powerful "old boy" backing, then the result is not only surprising but it is embarrassing to the pro-rail cause.

Recall this poll reported in The Honolulu Advertiser putting rail support at 59%. It came in late August 2008 (http://www.honoluluadvertiser.com/article/20080827/NEWS09/808270388/-1/NEWS09), well before the October advertising storm by rail supporters: "Another rail poll, similar results: 59 percent of voters in People's Pulse survey back $3.7 billion project. That 59 percent level compares with 38 percent of voters who opposed the project, according to the People's Pulse poll ..." The problem is that the election votes in support of rail are barely over 50% and nowhere near 59%!

Proponents of rail had a $110 million engineering and marketing team and flooded airwaves, TV screens and print media. In comparison, opponents had peanuts; they did no TV promotion and only minimal print media promotion.

I understand and support elections of officials with a 0.6% or even a 0.01% margin. The elected person will stay in office for a limited and prescribed amount of time.

However, moving ahead with a multibillion dollar infrastructure project with a life cycle of over 100 years on a 0.6% "advantage" is an entirely different choice. Clearly 49.4% of the voters did not say yes to the project.

We can boot a crooked or ineffective elected official or re-write a bad law or amendment. But we cannot undo a multibillion piece of infrastructure which will cost us roughly three times the annual City budget. A two thirds majority would have been appropriate for this choice.

Of course, in the short term the railroading process is likely to proceed unabated, but in the longer term a permanent derailment is likely.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Proposed 19 Mile Rail for Oahu. Bottom Line Benefit: 1% Increase in Transit Trips

Since 2006 I have been saying that the proposed rail on Oahu is nothing short of a joke. The just-released 2008 Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) proves this. Table 3-13 shows that transit share will increase from 6% to 7%. Auto based trips change from 82% to 80%, and walk-and-bike trips are 12%.

No administrator in his or her right mind would advocate the expenditure of five billion dollars for an 1% gain in the share of transit trips. The correct priorities would be to fix the sidewalks and build traffic and bike lanes. Not in Honolulu where administrators are proud to provide TheBoat at a taxpayer subsidy of $42 per trip!

Here is the breakdown of daily trips on weekdays as in DEIS page 3-18:
  • 2007 No Rail = 184,000 total transit trips (on bus)
  • 2030 No Rail = 226,000 total transit trips (on bus)
  • 2030 With Rail = 249,200 total transit trips (on bus and rail)

Notice the tiny benefit of rail. And to put it in perspective, that's out of more than four (4) million daily trips on Oahu!

This result evokes the paraphrasing of Churchill... Never before so many paid so much, to benefit so few and by so little.

Figure 3-1 shows that from 1984 to 2008, transit speed decreased by 1.5 mph. So in the last 22 years the average speed of the TheBus fell by 1.5 miles per hour. This is such a calamity that according to the Go-Rail-Go luminous spokespersons requires a five billion dollar rail to fix it!

The Notice of Intent or NOI is violated. This is the 2006 agreement between the Federal Transit Administration and the City and County of Honolulu. The NOI explicitly mentions a fixed guideway from Kapolei to the UH. The DEIS guideway starts well outside Kapolei and ends at Ala Moana Shopping Center. The 34 miles have become 19, but the alleged traffic benefits have more than doubled from the 2006 Alternatives Analysis!

It should be obvious that this DEIS will provide a lot of entertainment in the coming weeks. By law, comments are requested by January 7, 2009. But thanks to the careful planning of the Mufi administration, Oahu's public had the Sunday and Monday before the elections to read and understand 400 plus pages prior to making an educated choice at the polls.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Does Rail Stimulate Long Term Urban Growth and Development?

Proponents of rail argue that billions of dollars of development will occur along a rail line and they offer multibillion dollar estimates from other cities.

Let’s take a few examples of large developments that occurred on a 6-mile corridor in Honolulu between 1992 and 2008:
  • Extensive hotel and retail renovations in Waikiki
  • Two new towers at Hilton Hawaiian Village
  • The Hawaii Convention Center
  • Ala Moana Center nearly doubled in size
  • Three colossal Nauru towers
  • Several other large buildings along Kapiolani Blvd. and in Kakaako
  • UH’s Kakaako Medical Complex
  • Aloha Tower Marketplace development
  • A couple of new towers in downtown Honolulu including First Hawaiian Bank tower, the state’s tallest building
  • Redevelopment of Dole Cannery and the large Costco complex in Iwilei.
All these and other smaller developments sum up to multi billion dollar development along the 1992 rail route. We did not build rail. But if we had, then all the developments above would be credited to it!

Lesson: You do not need rail for development and opportunities to flourish. You need a robust economy, a well-paid populous, low taxes, good quality products and services (tourism, education, local products, etc.), steady and smart leadership, and reliable infrastructure and government operations. Rail is simply a scheme to rob a million people (through taxes) in order to benefit a few hundred insiders and a few thousand workers, most of them temporary.