Book Review | When Trucks Stop Running:

Energy and the Future of Transportation

I left off last week's post – "Money Doesn't Grow on Trees, Industrial-Scale Renewable Energy Does" – by mentioning the existence of a rather excellent resource. By that I didn't mean an energy resource, but rather a book – a book that nonetheless gives a rather fine breakdown of our various energy resources and their applicability to a world in the midst of peak oil and declining EROEI levels. That book would be When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation by systems analyst Alice J. Friedemann.

But before I get to the book, it's worth reiterating from said previous post the notion that just as the coal lobbies, nuclear lobbies, and all the other "dirty" fuel lobbies are wont to exaggerate and obfuscate the specifics of their energy resources, so too are lobbyists for the large-scale application of "renewable" energy sources more than willing to exaggerate, obfuscate, and even fudge the facts when it comes to conveying the benefits and advantages of their energy resources. And as I also pointed out, the latter is just as often the work of PR agencies and other marketeers, the goal effectively being anything but conveying a clear understanding of our current energy situation. Friedemann perfectly explains why this is (italics mine):

In business, ...analysis is essential to prevent bankruptcy. Yet when scientists find oil, coal, and natural gas production likely to peak within decades, rather than centuries, or that ethanol, solar photovoltaic, tar sands, oil shale, and other alternative energy resources have a low or even negative energy return on the energy invested, they are ignored and called pessimists, no matter how solid their findings. For every one of their peer-reviewed papers, there are thousands of positive press releases with breakthroughs that never pan out, and economists promising perpetual growth and energy independence. Optimism is more important than facts. And, it's essential for attracting investors.

So don't let a title like When Trucks Stop Running give you the impression that Friedemann's book is simply one about the energetic options for the trucking industry, since what it actually does is use trucks as an interesting starting point for how to understand the viability of the various energy options available to our declining industrial way of life.

While it was coal-powered trains and railroads that, as described, allowed for extensive inland settlements distant from shipping ports, it was cheap oil supplies after WWII that allowed for the even more distant and scattered suburbs – "truck towns" – thanks to the proliferation of diesel-powered trucks (ten million trucks in the U.S. alone), the millions upon millions of miles of road (4.1 million miles in the U.S. alone), and the just-in-time transport enabled by it all. With our industrial civilization now largely built around the continued operation of these trucks, Friedemann then explains that if our current way of life is to be maintained – and since supplies of various fossil fuels are finite and have begun, or are to soon begin, peaking – this suggests a turn towards renewables to power those trucks. But as is pointed out, renewables themselves are just as dependent on trucks as the rest of our modern, industrial civilization is: trucks are needed to transport massive wind turbine blades and the rest of their thousands of components (more than 8,000 in all), they're necessary to transport the cement needed for windmill sites, they're necessary to build and maintain the very roads they themselves travel on, and so forth.

You don't see many Amish men and their horses hauling those things around on dirt roads
You don't see many Amish men and their horses hauling those things around on dirt roads

The underlying question then becomes: How can the trucking system be adapted to run on alternative fuels in order to remain viable in a world of depleting fossil fuels of which said trucks rely on? Because if the trucking system can't be adapted, then there wouldn't be much reason for building out the large-scale windmill, solar photovoltaic, and all the other fandangle electricity generating ideas being hyped.

For starters, diesel-engine trucks can last decades, this implying a decades-long replacement time due to the billions of dollars already sunk in said trucks of which isn't going to be thrown away. Simultaneously, a chicken-and-egg problem exists of an aversion to buying alternative-fuel trucks due to the non-existence of fuelling stations, buttressed by an aversion to the building of alternative-fuel stations since the alternative-fuel trucks don't exist either.

What is ideally called for then is a "drop in fuel" – a fuel that utilizes the existing infrastructure and so works with the engines and pipeline systems we've currently got. But as Friedemann explains, ethanol and biodiesel can't travel in oil pipelines for a variety of reasons, one of these being the resultant corrosion of said pipelines. (Instead, ethanol will continue to travel by trains and trucks powered by twice-as-energy-dense... diesel.) Furthermore, hydrogen isn't a drop in fuel for the simple reason that it can't be used in existing engines, never mind that it would ruin existing oil and/or natural gas pipelines anyway. And although natural gas already has pipelines to be transported through, it can't be used in existing engines either.

In short, a drop in fuel doesn't exist.

That being the case, Friedemann proceeds to break down the three most notable alternatives to diesel-powered, internal-combustion-engine trucks: battery-powered trucks, hydrogen-powered trucks, and trucks running on a catenary system (an overhead wire system as used by trolleys/trams/streetcars).

Battery-powered trucks:

While it might be possible to get a battery-powered remote-control Tonka truck with a cute little Tesla sticker on it, the battery-powered trucks that matter are the massive ones that can haul 30 tons of cargo or pour cement, generally weighing more than 40 times your average car. Problem is, the amount of batteries needed to allow a truck like this to travel an appreciable distance results in a significant dent in available cargo space, which is then made even worse by the decreased amount of payload a truck can carry due to the sheer weight of the batteries themselves. This doesn't make for economical transport, and nor does it help that the advancement of batteries is bumping up against physical and thermodynamic limits (as Friedemann has explained on her blog, Energy Skeptic). But supposing you've got the money to burn (and/or have made some key donations to people in the right government departments and/or positions) and wack it all together anyway, the inherent limitations to the energy density of batteries not only dictates the need for more frequent stops, but for prolonged stops of several hours in order to recharge the batteries. As if that weren't bad enough, battery-powered trucks have many performance issues, such as mediocre acceleration and problems driving up steep hills, shoddy performance in subzero temperatures, declining range as batteries degrade, and simply cost much more than a conventional diesel truck. As a result, the battery-powered trucks currently in use are heavily subsidized by governments and exist in the form of smaller-sized hybrids used for garbage pickup since this allows them to utilize all the stopping and starting to recharge their batteries. In other words, they aren't even the type of truck that hauls large loads and travels for long distances without stopping.

I stand corrected. Even Tonkas use diesel – turbo-diesel! (photo courtesy of Dana Martin)
I stand corrected. Even Tonkas use diesel – turbo-diesel! (photo courtesy of Dana Martin)

Hydrogen-powered trucks:

As should go without saying, hydrogen isn't a fossil fuel we mine from the ground but rather an intermediary of sorts that other energies (such as from wind, solar, etc.) can be transferred over to for storage or other means of usage. In other words, hydrogen isn't an energy source but more like a battery, and since it takes an enormous amount of energy to split hydrogen from water (water which must be very pure), 96% of H2 is derived from natural gas. In effect, hydrogen has an abysmal efficiency rate due to the multiple stages where energy is lost – liquification, hydrogen re-forming, fuel cell efficiency, etc. On top of all this, hydrogen-powered trucks are so horrible at acceleration that they actually require a secondary propulsion system – batteries – which results in a single truck costing more than a million dollars each – in comparison to the $100,000 or so for a diesel truck.

Catenary system:

Problems quickly appear here due to the frequency of trucks travelling on the system – once every few seconds versus trolley/tram/streetcar systems in which passenger vehicles generally come once every ten minutes or so. This puts a significant strain on the system due to the enormously large loads of electricity that must pass through the overhead wires. Moreover, the tens of thousands of trucks that would travel on a single system each weigh twice as much as one of the few hundred trolleys/trams/streetcars on an urban transit system and so require much more energy to move. Then there's the massive overhead costs to install such a system over tens of thousands of kilometres (at several million dollars per kilometre) and the abhorrent amounts of electricity that tens of thousands of trucks would necessitate, compounded by the fact that catenary enabled trucks also require an added battery or fuel cell system for those times when trucks need to drive off the catenary system towards a delivery/pick-up point (or simply overtake another vehicle), or for those times that the power goes out and one doesn't want the highways to turn into McParking lots.

And that's all supposing that there's even enough energy in the first place to charge those batteries, or to be a feedstock for the hydrogen fuel cells, or to power the overhead catenary system. Because while being a slim and easy-to-read 131-page book, When Trucks Stop Running also gives a barrel-by-barrel, kilowatt-by-kilowatt account of why none of our fossil fuel energy sources – not oil, not coal-to-liquids, not natural gas, not even any of their combination – are capable of maintaining the trucking system and thus our current industrial way of life. Likewise, the book also conveys why no amount or combination of renewable energies are enough to maintain a trucking system which is needed to maintain a... renewable energy system. And sorry, Friedemann also explains why energy storage systems are a crapshoot as well.

In effect, you aren't going to find much in When Trucks Stop Running to help sell your favourite brand of snake oil in order to prop up your Madison Avenue lifestyle. Otherwise, it's an excellent read.

Without fossil fuels, how will the trucking industry be able to move around all the
components necessary to maintain the trucking industry? (photo by jeshua.nace)
Without fossil fuels, how will the trucking industry be able to move around all the components necessary to maintain the trucking industry?(photo by jeshua.nace)

That all being so, Friedemann suggests in summation that rather than waste the fossil fuels we've got left on attempting to build out systems that won't have much of a shelf life, we'd be much better off using that fossil energy to convert away from industrial agriculture, to build passive solar houses and buildings, maintain and upgrade domestic waterway transportation infrastructure as well as other low-energy systems.

Regardless, no PR agency, or energy lobbyist, or charlatan is going to be content with letting Friedemann get away with the last word here. For as was mentioned in the passage of hers I quoted earlier:

[W]hen scientists find [uncomfortable facts], they are ignored and called pessimists, no matter how solid their findings. For every one of their peer-reviewed papers, there are thousands of positive press releases with breakthroughs that never pan out...

And you know what that means, right?

Elon Musk just announced the unveiling of the Tesla Semi truck!! And it's "Seriously next level"!!

Okay, okay, I don't mean to say that the latest MuskMobile will "never pan out", just that Concordes generally necessitate too much energy to make them viable without significant subsidies of one sort or another. And that isn't to say that there's anything inherently wrong with subsidies either, just that while Friedemann also points out that "it is energy, not money, that fuels society", it is also energy, not money, that fuels subsidies (money is after all a proxy for energy, as I've previously written).

In other words, using energy to subsidize energy probably isn't much of a viable long-term plan, but it can certainly score you the starring role as the latest messiah in this age of optimism being valued over facts.

Sorry there Elon, but it looks like even the big boys realize their Tonkas have no
choice but to use diesel – mighty diesel! (photo courtesy of Wallace Shackleton)
Sorry there Elon, but it looks like even
the big boys realize their Tonkas have no
choice but to use diesel – mighty diesel!
(photo courtesy of Wallace Shackleton)
<  Previous   Home   Next  >

Comments (17)

Gravatar
New
RobM
Gravatar
1
May 2017
First Poster

Well done!

Gravatar
Admin
Allan Stromfeldt Christensen
Gravatar
211
Aug 2014
Top Poster

RobM: Cheers!

Gravatar
New
Venkataraman
Gravatar
4
Apr 2017
Venkataraman

When people talk about sun and wind I think of my life during early 1950s in a small village in South India. Anything that needs to be dried (clothes, paddy, our body) we dried using sun and wind. During early night time we used castor oil lamp (bio-diesel); otherwise sun provided all the light we needed. During hot weather we opened all doors and windows and let the wind do the cooling.

It is true that such a life style is now difficult or impossible (for one thing the population is too large and the earth is warmer). But, at least we should try to move in the direction that lets solar and wind power is something individuals and villages use without outside help.

Gravatar
Admin
Allan Stromfeldt Christensen
Gravatar
211
Aug 2014
Top Poster

Venkataraman: "Anything that needs to be dried (clothes, paddy, our body) we dried using sun and wind." And food too! I've been itching for some time now to put together a solar food dryer. You can see many different kinds if you do an Internet search for "solar food dryer", although my favorite is definitely the Appalachian Food Dryer.

Like you say, we should definitely be moving in the direction of using the energy that comes free and accessible to us all, no outside resources needed (besides some basic building materials).

p.s. Here's a good article on the Appalachian Food dryer, which I first saw mentioned in the book The Solar Food Dryer by Eben Fodor:

http://www.motherearthnews.com/diy/tools/solar-food-dehydrator-plans-zm0z14jjzmar

Gravatar
Regular
Joe Clarkson
Gravatar
12
Jan 2015
Joe Clarkson

There is a good reason that some substitute for oil is being sought and that electricity generating renewables are touted as the answer to fossil fuel depletion- without some substitute for fossil fuel, industrial civilization cannot continue. When the trucks stop running, most people, especially in rich countries, would die. Since almost all people are motivated to keep living, any proposed 'solution' to fossil fuel depletion will have a great deal of attraction.

If we'd be much better off using that fossil energy to convert away from industrial agriculture, we need a plan for emptying cities and establishing small eco-agrarian farms for everyone so they can eke out a living growing their own food using muscle power.

Creating such a plan is not easy. I can just imagine Donald Trump setting an example by turning Mar-A-Lago into a collection of small subsistence farms using the clubhouse as a communal barn. But getting Trump on board would be the easy part. How do we convince everyone to give up everything they are doing now to live in a tent or shack and grub in the dirt in some corner of a played-out ex-industrial farm field?

Gravatar
Admin
Allan Stromfeldt Christensen
Gravatar
211
Aug 2014
Top Poster

Joe: "How do we convince everyone to give up everything they are doing now to live in a tent or shack and grub in the dirt in some corner of a played-out ex-industrial farm field?"

That is the hardest part isn't it? How many people would willingly want to cultivate potatoes rather than be couch potatoes of one sort or another? How many people are willing to voluntarily downsize their material expectations? Doesn't look like very many, which I suppose means that reading between the lines is a rather crucial skill to have right about now. ;)

Gravatar
New
Jerry McManus
Gravatar
1
May 2017
Jerry McManus

Spot-on. Thanks for posting.

I would just add that when you consider how ridiculously easy it is to store heat as compared to storing electricity it really starts to sink in just how delusional people have become.

Very few people alive today in the wealthy industrialized countries have known anything except the grotesque comfort and convenience of electricity on demand and internal combustion engines powered by liquid fuels on demand.

They would rather swoon for Elon Musk than consider giving up their cherished lifestyle for even one moment.

Gravatar
New
Gregg Senne
Gravatar
1
May 2017
Gregg Senne

I had a flash of incite with the bit about money as a proxy for energy. Economists love to use proxies for things they can't or won't quantify directly. This is why so much economic analysis is garbage. That and outright fraud and indoctrination. Economists often assume that all of the necessary information is included in the price. They disregard externalized costs. But, the externalized costs are still costs that will come due at some point. In the case of oil it's contamination and global warming. Then there's the cost of being left in the lurch when oil is no longer viable as an energy source. If the economist deal only in proxies then those costs are easy to ignore because everyone else is doing it and there is no price penalty. I've noticed that economists who do include the externalized costs are soon expelled from the orthodoxy. It seems there's a version of reality that sells and one that doesn't.

Gravatar
Admin
Allan Stromfeldt Christensen
Gravatar
211
Aug 2014
Top Poster

Jerry: Good point regarding the relative ease of storing heat. Solar water heaters, passive solar homes, etc. sure do make a whole lot of sense.

Gravatar
Admin
Allan Stromfeldt Christensen
Gravatar
211
Aug 2014
Top Poster

Gregg: And then there's the whole approach of treating oil (and other energy sources) as if it were nothing but a mere commodity, making it even easier to miss out on the fact that cheap energy underpins our modern-day economies. I missed out on ECON 101, which I figure saved me a bunch more of un-learning.

This all relates to a certain article in The Economist from a few days ago, which I'll get to next post.

Gravatar
New
Irv Mills
Gravatar
6
May 2015

Nice summary of the book and the subject, Allan.

Maybe a bit off topic, but what's with the price of these books from Springer. Here in Canada, on amazon.ca "When the Trucks Stop Running" lists for $70.79. Even used, it's $39.79 or more. This for a 113 page book.

I paid over $50 for Nafeez Ahmed's book, which you also reviewed. Excellent book, but just as pricey.

A good service you are providing by writing such good summaries of these books for those who can't afford them.

Gravatar
Admin
Allan Stromfeldt Christensen
Gravatar
211
Aug 2014
Top Poster

Irv: Funny you mention that as just last night I was chatting with a friend of mine about Springer's book prices. Down here in Australia When Trucks Stop Running is going for $80, while Nafeez Ahmed's Failing States, Collapsing Systems actually runs between $114 and $140! Books can be pricey down here.

But yeah, Springer titles are generally pricey in the first place. I take it that that's because Springer is an academic press which, although it puts out a lot of titles, it has such a low readership base on each of those that it has to charge more to recoup its costs. But that's just my guess. I don't know if they really expect the average Joe to be purchasing their books, so if a person does like one of their titles perhaps they could request their library to purchase a copy?

I'll try to get a better answer for you about this and will update this comment once I learn more, and might very well touch on this in my next Springer book review.

Gravatar
New
Howard Switzer
Gravatar
1
May 2017
Howard Switzer

Enjoyed...I wrote a column for our local paper a few years ago titled, "When the trucks stop running" telling them when that happens the food shelves will be empty in 3 days, I suppose to try and scare people into pumping up the local food production. And there are people who want to do it except that it is so difficult in the current economy. I notice a lot of the problem comes down to human behavior, which we all know has been conditioned by systems, the social management system comprised of schools, media and various business networks, all in service to the macro-economic system. Within that privately controlled system money is created as debt, once known as usury, which has the greatest influence on human behavior, which is why it was once banned by every religion. It is the centuries old global monetary system that is behind the monocultural agriculture model. I wrote a song a couple years ago, the chorus goes, "I heard money don't grow on trees, gotta get a new kind of money." What kind of money? Nations world around need to reclaim their sovereignty, which they have all ceded to the global monetary system, and issue there own money spent into their economies for the general welfare, which as we know is to recreate the viable local economies. We can unplug and run to the hills but for the planet we need to create the political will to change the system to sovereign money issued as a national asset, not debt. Such a change creates what I call the Economics of Care which will have profound positive effects on human behavior.

Gravatar
Admin
Allan Stromfeldt Christensen
Gravatar
211
Aug 2014
Top Poster

Howard: Perhaps you're wrong about money created as debt as being such a big problem, but if you are then I'm wrong with you. I've written a bunch on that already here on FF2F (and will continue to do so), and from what I can tell it's not the banks that need to be nationalized but the currency. Might that actually happen? I'm not so sure about that, and I suppose that implies the need for local currencies that aren't created as debt, doesn't it?

Gravatar
New
Irv Mills
Gravatar
6
May 2015

I'll look forward to what you can turn up on this subject, Allan.

I ran a printing and sign company for about 20 years, and we got into producing short runs of perfect bound books for people who wanted to self publish. We would have charged $8 to $10 Canadian each to print and bind a run of 100 books the size of Ahmed's, and recommended that they sell for $20.00. Here in rural Southern Ontario very few if any would have sold for $70 each.

Gravatar
Admin
Allan Stromfeldt Christensen
Gravatar
211
Aug 2014
Top Poster

Irv: I'll look more into it for the next post, but just taking a look at the inside cover of their latest book that I'm going to review, I noticed that it's printed on acid-free paper. As are the others that I've read. I imagine that that alone is going to up the price of each book a fair amount. And in comparison to what you could charge via your setup, well, not only does Springer have to cover its costs due to what I imagine are low print runs, but they also have a to pay for all the marketing and salaries and shipping, etc. And the acid-free paper. Nonetheless, I'll see if I can shed any more light on this when I publish my review of their next.

Gravatar
New
Irv Mills
Gravatar
6
May 2015

Acid free paper is one of those things that printers make a big deal of, but in fact I would have been hard pressed to find paper that wasn't acid free. Only the cheapest mass market paperbacks are printed on paper that isn't acid free.

All the publishers that are turning out books on the kind of subject we're interested in are3 suing acid free paper (New Society, Chelsea Green, etc.) When you're turning out short runs of books (up to a few thousand or so) there no point in scrimping on the paper quality.

So I don't think the acid free paper is the issue. Marketing, salaries, shipping--all those are no doubt factors. But all the publishers have approximately the same costs and most of them are turning out books priced between $15 and $30.

I wonder if they are giving a bigger share to their authors? But that sounds improbable...

Anyway, sorry if I am going on to much about what is really just a side issue.

Add Comment

* Required information
5000
Powered by Commentics
<  Previous   Home   Next  >


www.fromfilmerstofarmers.com

Creative Commons logo2014-2017 Allan Stromfeldt Christensen