Fuel shortage and EVs

As UK readers will know, much of the country is currently suffering a fuel shortage. While there is, as I understand it, a small supply deficit due to a lack of tanker drivers, the main problem is that when people heard about that deficit they all filled up their cars at once, causing a large spike in demand (which will be balanced by low demand for a couple of weeks as everybody has full tanks).

I’m not here to talk about Brexit, HGV drivers, or fuel crisis management. I’m not even here to be smug about driving a partly electric car. What I want to point out is the light that this throws on an argument we sometimes see against EVs:

Sometimes one hears people saying that if everybody in the UK went electric, the grid couldn’t cope because of the load of all the cars charging at once. And that would be a reasonable concern, if we were talking about first-generation EVs that needed charging every night.

But to within a factor of two, today’s EVs have the same range as petrol cars. Most petrol cars aren’t filled every day, and there’s no reason that most EVs will be either. The grid doesn’t have to be able to cope with this eventuality, and this is demonstrated by the evident fact that the petrol network also cannot cope with this eventuality.

Posted by simon in The wider world

Renewable liquid fuels – No silver bullet, but perhaps important.

Over the last few days I’ve seen a number of tweets appear like this

and like this

The story is one about a paper in Science which goes way over my head, but which appears to talk about a new catalysed method of sucking CO2 out of the air and using it to produce ethanol. A number of people have reacted as though this will solve all our problems. They are wrong. This is not a clean fuel source that will solve all our energy problems, because the process will require an energy input greater than that which is released by burning the ethanol. I’m no organic chemist, but if that wasn’t the case it would be bucking some of the most fundamental principles of physics. This isn’t free energy, and it isn’t going to make climate change go away.

However, it may still be important. If the round-trip efficiency is good enough, it may provide a useful means of long-term storage of energy. Even if the efficiency is relatively poor, it may still be important as a sustainable way of producing an energy-dense liquid fuel for those transport applications, such as aircraft, ships, or heavy trucks, that don’t show any prospect of being electrified any time soon. In this way the new technology is in competition with other ideas for producing methanol, ammonia, or (beloved of many) hydrogen. If the new catalyst makes this more efficient, all the better.

Posted by simon in The wider world


Side view of the front of a N700-series shinkansen train

N700-series train. Photo: author

Japan’s Shinkansen (bullet train) system is famous, and rightly so – it was one of the first high-speed railways in the world (the first on dedicated track), and as new sections have been built over the years it has stayed at the forefront of technology.

Interestingly, its origins parallel events in British Rail somewhat. Each country was faced with an old network with winding, low-speed routes. Development of the Shinkansen started about a decade earlier than development of the APT, and went in a different direction: the British, with standard-gauge track that was speed-limited by passenger comfort, did the early work on tilting. The Japanese had a mountainous country full of narrow-gauge railway, and so opted for a completely new high speed system with dedicated (standard-gauge) track, minimum bend radii, maximum slopes, and so forth. The APT was of course an unsuccessful project (although the technology that it developed lived on), but the first shinkansen sets[1] arrived a decade before the HST and had around the same service speed of 200kph.

0 series shinkansen

0 series, the first shinkansen train, in the 1960s. Photo: Roger Wollstadt, CC-BY-SA 2.0; original at Flikr

That was 55 years ago, and since then things have diverged… Shinkansen upgrades have pushed its speed on new routes up to 300kph, while UK speeds on old track have remained topped-out at what they were in the 70s. Meanwhile, using technological ideas that originated on the APT project, Japan now has “limited express” trains, the fastest to use the old narrow-gauge track, that tilt and run at 200kph (125mph).

Recently, long distance rail here has faced some of the same challenges that it does in the UK. Shinkansen tickets are really expensive, akin to on-peak British ones bought without any advance purchase discount, and low-cost air travel has been eroding the market. Nearly all of Japan’s sleeper trains have vanished, and the air route between Fukuoka and Tokyo is apparently the second busiest in the world, despite a high speed line running underneath that (for a city-centre to city-centre journey) doesn’t take much longer. This feels sad, and in energy terms must be bonkers.

Fortunately, if one has a JR Rail Pass (only available to foreign visitors, and only if bought outside Japan), things are really cheap. So bullet trains, here I come!

Noses of two N700-series Shinkansen trains (bullet trains) in a station

Two N700-series trains at Kagoshima station. Photo: Author

[1] If you’re wondering where the name “bullet train” came from, it’s not a direct translation – “shinkansen” just means something along the lines of “new trunk line”… but just look at that first train‘s nose!

Posted by simon in Working in Japan