I was just listening to the radio, one of those talk shows to be exact, when someone called in to complain that we will never be rid of fossil fuels because, well because of the planes, trucks and trains that are used to move goods and people around. Fallacious to say the least. This is the world some people live in and they will not open their eyes.
As I sat here listening to him ramble on it got me thinking about all the false information out there regarding planes, trucks and trains. It is rampant. It saddens me to hear people so self centered that they cannot (or will not) reach beyond their limited comfort zone to learn something that will benefit them, their families, humanity and the world.
Like it or not folks Climate Change is real, it is happening and humanity is, at the very least, partially responsible. The science is in and it is a closed case. Many different disciplines, from meteorology to geology, agree. Ninety-eight percent of scientists have declared it to be fact. I know in my lifetime from the 1960’s as a child in central Pennsylvania the snowfall went from an average of about four feet per year to maybe an inch or two in the double aughts of this century. The summer temperatures went from one day over 100 degrees then to it being a fairly common occurrence today.
I believe there is more to it than greenhouse gas generation from burning fossil fuels but I will cover that in another post.
The solution has two paths, using renewable energy and reducing our footprint (conservation and reduction). We need to be smart and do both to have any impact and any chance of leaving our descendants a better world.
About four years ago I moved into the mountains of far western North Carolina. I asked some new friends what there was to do in the area and invariably the answer was “not much”. That answer didn’t set well with me. There had to be groups and events going on in a small town with a population of 2,500 people, so I started doing some research.
I searched online and really couldn’t find much. Different businesses and organizations had calendars with things to do but they weren’t populated well or were well out of date (meaning they didn’t keep up with it). So, I started to cull through 4 newspapers from the area and 5 or 6 regional travel magazines. Wow! There was so much to do it blew my mind.
Thinking about all of this I came up with an extension to “Buy Local, Eat Local”. I now say “Eat, Stay, Shop & Play Local” and developed an online service that covers all of this.
I started looking around and listening to my friends (spread out across the U.S., Canada and overseas) I learned that just about anywhere you could live, within about an hours drive – about 50 miles, you can find about 85% of what you need or could ever want to do. For example, where I live, there are 6 farmers markets within an hour drive (a bit far for food but more goes on at farmers markets than just food), a plethora of local restaurants with local flair, at least six theaters if I wish to go see a play, fishing, rafting, hiking, ziplining, 3 riding stables and so much more.
When you spend money locally for things such as food or spending a romantic Valentines Day locally, most of that money stays local and helps keep the local economy strong. It also does something very important: it helps reduce your footprint. How about an added benefit? You are not as constrained, penned in, hampered as you might think. A fifty mile radius is almost 8,000 square miles!
Solar powered planes are not that far off, believe it or not.
The Wright brothers first flight in 1903 was only 120 feet, lasted only 12 seconds, and carried only one person. Only eleven years later (the start of World War 1) planes could soar thousands of feet into the air, stay aloft for hours and carry hundreds of pounds aside from the pilot. Thirty years later the jet engine was born and planes could reach altitudes of tens of thousands of feet, fly thousands of miles and reached speeds close to the speed of sound. Ten years after that the sound barrier was broken.
In 1979 the Gossamer Albatross was the first human powered plane to fly non-stop across the English Channel. Two years later, the Solar Challenger was the first solar powered plane to accomplish the same feat and more: it flew 163 miles! Development (and achievement slowed but did not stop after that). NASA developed HELIOS which set an altitude record of 50,000 feet – Mount Everest is only about 25,000 feet.
Just this year, 2015, a solar plane – the Solar Impulse – flew from Abu Dhabi to Hawai’i in 8 legs averaging over 1,000 miles per leg. They were trying to fly around the world but ran into battery problems coming in to Hawai’i. They plan to finish the flight in 2016.
Progress marches ever onward, slowly at times but inexorably. If we funded projects like this at the levels we do wars all planes would be solar by now. So the next time you hear someone say it can’t be done you will know better.
Timeline of electric plane development and achievements can be found on WikiPedia.
This is a tougher nut to crack in reducing and eliminating these big diesel powered vehicles. On every continent you will find them. Yes I said every. Even the research stations in Antarctica have them. They are used for hauling goods and machinery everywhere. The diesel power plants operate construction equipment and drive emergency generators. They also power trains (which we will get to in the next section).
The thing about diesel motors is that they can generate a tremendous amount of power and are very durable. Replacing them won’t be easy. It can be done. It has been done. Development continues.
We all know about electric cars. Did you know that pickup style trucks that are electric are being built and sold (even in the U.S.). I bet you didn’t know that there are now electric big rigs being built?
There are basically two types of routes for 18-Wheelers: long haul (overnight and longer) and short haul (returns home at the end of the day). Designed in Germany and built by the Dutch there are now electric big rigs starting to run the roads of Europe. Granted, it only has a range of about 70 miles which makes it a short haul truck. It is a start and as more companies come on board development will continue to grow. The range will extend.
Remember the model A only had an operating range of about 100 miles before it had to be refueled.
So, once again there is absolutely no way to argue against going to renewable energy.
There is a big misconception about trains in this country. People will tell you that they run on diesel and will hold that thought until they are in the grave. They are wrong. No train in the U.S. or anywhere else in the world runs on diesel. If they did, they would have to unbelievably large and expensive. Aside from the coal or wood tourist attractions they all run on electricity. The diesel everyone talks about is nothing more than a diesel powered electrical generator. That’s it.
In fact, one of the most powerful train engines, and in my opinion one of the most elegant, in this country was the GG1 and it ran on nothing but electricity. The last one went out of service in 1983 – a run of 40 years. The limitation (which was the major cause for its retirement) was that it required an overhead power line.
Something most people in this country don’t know is that most trains throughout the world do not rely on diesel generators to drive the electric motors. The bullet trains of Japan do not use diesel as they get electricity from overhead lines and yet they run at 200+ miles per hour. Freight and passenger trains in Europe don’t use diesel. They use overhead lines just like the bullet trains, however, Europe is working to do away with the overhead lines and use charging stations to charge batteries on the fly.
I hope I have been able to shed some light on what is going wrong and what is going right in the world right now.
A train car has about 500 sq.ft. of roof area. A one Kilowatt (KW) solar panel is about 15 sq.ft. So each train car could produce about 33KW which is enough power to propel that car. By placing solar panels on top of train cars and linking them together there would be sufficient power to move freight and people without overhead power lines or diesel fuel. We just need the powers that be to start thinking outside the box and find the simplest solution.
Take heart my friends we are getting there! With a little bit of conservation and pressing forward on alternative and renewable energy we will be able to leave our world a better place for our children, grand children and great grand children.
Update: Just came across this article on TED about the Solar Challenger plane.