Rail in Winnipeg: Sign of the Times

In today’s Globe and Mail, Siri Agrell wrote on the rail renaissance taking place in Winnipeg.

The premise of the article is something that should ring true for every transportation planner around the world: with the long-term decline of oil and gas supply, trucking isn’t going to be as viable in the mid- to long-term future as it is now for hauling freight long distances.

Winnipeg is in the midst of some major course corrections, most importantly a return to its roots with an ambitious plan to re-establish itself as a major transportation hub, one that will be built largely around the belief that rail shipping, too, is poised to make a comeback.

The author notes that “Winnipeg is not alone in predicting that rail shipping will be a major force in the coming years.” In fact, Bill Gates is now the biggest shareholder of Canadian National Railway, Co. — there is clearly a future in this business.

Why is this happening?

…with fuel prices rising, many experts predict a growing reliance on rail, especially when it comes to feeding demand from the populous Asian continent. Products packed into shipping containers do not have to be reloaded at different ports of call, and can be delivered in a faster, more streamlined manner, with less of an environmental toll.

Given these trends, what is the future for heavy-duty trucks in Canada, and indeed in China?  Will we continue to see the long-term growth of this market?  If fuel is going to become a limiting factor, how should the world prepare?

I have a few ideas: first, where trucks are necessary, especially in agricultural areas, make sure there is a supply of biodiesel available.  This is not a choice of food versus fuel.  This is fuel for food, and is a necessary part of our food production and delivery process.

Second, make sure rail is hybridized and can access electricity where it is clean, and diesel where it is available.

Third, optimize trucking for integration to the rail system.  Long distance trucking is not necessarily a big part of the long-term future.

Will these be the answers?  Who knows — People have been predicting peak oil for a long time, and some have suggested that we actually did hit peak oil in 2006.  That means that the transport world is going to change quickly, and we have to be ready for it when it does.

In the end, peak oil isn’t just about cars — it is about the way global trade works, from shipping manufactured good from China, to delivering food to your grocery store.  It is time to get over the question about the existence of peak oil, and get working on how to adapt our lives to it.

United Nations Publishes iCET’s Electric Vehicles in China Analysis

The United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development has published a report by iCET (and me as the lead author!), entitled “ELECTRIC VEHICLES IN THE CONTEXT OF SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT IN CHINA.“  This paper, which will serve as background information for the 19th Session of the Commission on Sustainable Development in New York, 2-13 May 2011, highlights some of the environmental opportunities and risks of developing electric vehicle systems in China.

This report provides a comprehensive and systematic analytical overview of China’s automotive electric-drive technology development and electric mobility promotion policies and programmes, and recent trends and projections in technology development and electricity use in private and public motor vehicles are analysed. Significant findings of the report include:

  • China’s financial support for electric vehicle development, while significant, is lagging behind other nations
  • Although high-speed, high-tech vehicles are on the policy agenda, low-speed, low-cost electric vehicles are selling well across China
  • China will require the development of new lithium resources, or import of lithium, in order to complete its mid-term targets for electric vehicle implementation
  • Accounting for energy losses and GHG emissions from resource extraction, power production, transmission and distribution of power, charger and battery efficiency, lifecycle analysis indicates that electric vehicle use will result in GHG emission reductions in Southern China as well as in the Central China region, while resulting in possible GHG emission increases in cities such as Beijing, Tianjin, Tangshan, Dalian, Shenyang and other northern places

The paper concludes that China should not overemphasize the benefits of electric vehicles in regions where they are not environmentally appropriate, and continue to follow its policy of transport energy diversification depending on local circumstances.  Given the potential of electric vehicles to provide stable storage to the grid, the grid should be optimized to provide renewable energies to electric vehicles, and for electric vehicles to provide power back to the grid during peak times.  Plug-in hybrid technology should be utilized to maximise the benefits of both ICE and battery drive systems, and finally, fuel economy and GHG emission standards should be expanded to include electric vehicles.

The report is available at the United Nations website at:


It’s the feedstock, silly

Say what you want about Chinese biofuels – not enough subsidy, not allowing imports, high carbon emissions, low-tech.  The facts are in: it doesn’t matter what the government does, if you can’t find sustainable feedstock, you can’t make sustainable biofuel!

And so it is for China.

It has been spelled out that China doesn’t have much accessible sustainable feedstock for biofuels right now, no matter where you look for it, and  much greater international cooperation not on feedstock conversion technologies, but in fact on feedstock development technologies and strategies that work for China is needed.

What if China misses its biofuel targets by 2020?  Well, so what?  If you don’t have the feedstock, if you don’t have the resource, how can you make the target?

A brief review of the challenges ahead:

1.  Non-grain fuels

There are international standards being developed everywhere for sustainable fuels, low carbon fuels, etc.  But China has come up with its own term that it believes is most applicable to its own situation: non-grain fuel (非粮食燃料). On the surface, it’s simple.  China has 1.(6?) billion people to feed, and it needs grain to do so.  Don’t use grain for fuel.  But it’s not that simple.  There is no standard for what non-grain means.  Is cassava a “grain?” how about grasses or Sorghum?  After you answer this question, let me ask:  are you SURE?  Ha.  Didn’t think so.

“What is non-grain fuel?” needs to be answered in the context of China as a developing country, but could definitely use the input of the sophisticated policy and standards development of overseas experts.

2.  Biofuel mandates and targets – why not import?

Having stronger mandates for biofuel in China is going to cause serious problems.  The fact is that if China imports even one ton of ethanol, the global price of ethanol is very likely going to shoot up, because it indicates that China has changed its import policy.  Who wants that to happen?

At the same time, it is impossible to know where ethanol is actually coming from.  Is the ethanol imported from Brazil, or has it been made in an unlicensed backyard distillery in Henan province from wheat?  Is it second generation bioethanol made from farm waste, or is it corn-based ethanol from Jilin?  The fact is that if any mandates or subsidies are made to increase the supply of ethanol, the cheapest feedstock will be used in order to maximize profit to the subsidized entity.  Given that China’s regulatory system is not sophisticated enough to track batches of ethanol from producer to retailer, it will probably mean an increase in dirty 1st generation ethanol.

3.  What’s up with Waste-based Cellulosic Ethanol? Isn’t it the perfect solution?

Novozymes has recently made announcements in China that the price of enzymes for processing cellulose into sugar to make ethanol has finally entered the realm of commercial pricing.   This is a great and important step for this technology — so, what’s holding things up?

We’re back to the feedstock supply issue:

The management of farm wastes in  China is really difficult.  It seems that biomass users can’t properly educate their farm waste suppliers (farmers) what kind of waste they need, how to prepare the waste in advance, the dimensions and characteristics of the biomass they need, and so on.  There is no mechanism for pricing biomass, so there is little stability for the biomass user.  Perhaps the most discouraging fact for biomass users is that in many cases across China, land is divided between millions of small landowners…and each of them needs to negotiate a contract with the biomass user.  A formidable task for any new enterprise.

Regardless of technology readiness, it is the business model related to feedstock that will continue to be a problem for cellulosic ethanol in the near and mid-term future in China.

What should be done?

Cellulosic ethanol is still a key technology that needs to be developed in this area.  Its carbon emissions and potential environmental impacts are significantly lower than grain-based ethanol.

But there are some systematic challenges that need to be solved:

  • Training on how to manage waste materials from farms: farmers need to know what type of farm waste is needed, and standards need to be developed on how waste materials are prepared
  • A regulated pricing market needs to be developed for waste biomass in order to offer price stability to bioenergy producers
  • Other cellulosic materials need to be developed, including energy grasses that can truly grow efficiently on marginal land.

Standards, logistics and training, the “soft technologies”, are going to be key to the development of sustainable biofuels in China.  Whoever figures that out will reap great rewards!

These are issues we’re working on at iCET – we need partners, help, and funding to get the right businesses and regulators to do the right things!

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L1nked In Bl0cked in Ch1na – watch what you write

Well, yesterday it appeared that L1inked in has been bl0cked in Ch1na.  It’s a real pity.  China is sealing itself away from the world again.  On these Chinese s0cial networks, Chinese people don’t interact with non-Chinese, and non-Chinese don’t interact with Chinese.

How can good ideas travel in either direction?  It seems ridiculous now.  There are some massive s0c1al and p0l1it1cal pr0blems that need to be solved, or the whole world is going to miss out on good ideas, for the sake of p0l1t1cal tens10ns that are building here.

There isn’t even a reliable international platform for posting a job description now.

What a shame.

[It seems that linkedin is back — what was that all about?   –March 16, 2011]