My Second Argument for Passenger Rail: The Electric Car

Now, with the change in administrations, we’re being told that the electric car is going to be our salvation … as well as the salvation of the Detroit “Big Three” … General Motors, Chrysler and Ford.

Okay. …???

I have a few questions that I’ll preface with some news about a new electric car that was widely publicized last weekend.

This electric car which is being manufactured in southern California, is a three wheeled vehicle which will “go as far as 100 miles on a single charge”. (Then it will have to sit for 8 to 10 hours to be recharged.) It will go from 0 to 90 (mph) in 10 seconds … real zippy. And, it can carry (up to) two passengers, three golf bags and several briefcases (a quote). And that 100 miles per charge is with a full load (all of those items and people listed above).

Okay … well … that’s great.

I live in Charleston, SC and … if I want to go to Folly Beach, Kiawah Island, or Seabrook Island … or even Sullivan’s Island or the Isle of Palms, I can do the round trip. But, what if I want to go to the beach at Edisto Island … about 52 miles away? Oops!!

I guess I’ll have to spend a few hundred dollars to get a room and plan for an overnight stay … or carry the camping gear and stay at the state park there.

If I decide to go to Columbia which is about 115 miles from Charleston, should I carry my camping gear and plan for an overnight trip … and where am I going to “plug in” to recharge? Maybe they’ll install an “outlet strip” at the truck stop on the way there … and I’m not talking about a shopping outlet.

Myrtle Beach is 90 miles away … definitely plan for an overnight … at least. Savannah is 110 miles to the southeast … definitely an overnighter, again, but I can stay at the KOA at Point South to “charge up” and … I hear they have a jacuzzi.

Well …, have I made my first point?

Next …

Has anyone out there bought a replacement battery for your cell phone … or better (worse) yet … for your camcorder? That cell phone battery currently costs about $30 to $40 … and that camcorder battery may set you back over $100. Hey … replace that battery in your laptop and you’re looking at several hundred dollars.

Can you imagine what a battery pack for an automobile will cost? A simple battery (lead acid) to start a conventional automobile will set you back anywhere from $60 to more than $100. What will a nickel cadmium, metal hydride or lithium ion battery that is large enough and powerful enough cost that will power a car? And, they will have to be replaced. And, as the sophistication increases and lack of “memory” decreases, the number of potential recharges decreases and the cost increases.

This electric car that was showcased last weekend will sell for $25,000 to $40,000. How much of that cost is the battery? Something to think about …

And …

Where is all of this electricity going to come from? How is it going to be generated?

Well, disregarding that bolt of lightening that just struck you in the ass, electricity doesn’t just …”poof” … appear.

It has to be generated … from coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear power plants.

Hey … wait. “They” say it’s going to be generated from “renewable” sources. Like what … wind, solar, hydroelectric? The environmentalists want “green” sources of energy … sure. Except, they just don’t want it in their backyard … or yours either … if they can see it … or hear it … or if some blind bird might fly into it … or if the power transmission lines might interfere with the migratory path of a desert turtle … or if it inconveniences the salmon. So, what’s left?

And …

How much “more” electricity are these electric automobiles going to require? Has everyone forgotten about “brownouts”? What’s going to happen one summer day when everyone in LA comes home, cranks down the thermostat on their air conditioning and plug their 50 or 100,000 electric automobiles in?

And …

If there are currently about 100 million gas guzzling automobiles being used now, is everyone, in one fell swoop, going to trade in their gasohol burner and get an electric car? I don’t think so. For one thing, a lot of people simply won’t be able to afford them. Second, for a lot of people, an awful lot of people, they are simply impractical.

Unless …

Yes, unless, we have some alternative, convenient and economical form of intermediate and long distance transportation.

And, I don’t think air travel can, or ever will be able to, handle the increase in volume that would ensue from a change from using automobiles for intermediate and long distance travel. Period.

The only logical extension of converting to electric cars is a massive reimplementation of passenger rail … a logical conclusion which is blaringly and evidently lacking in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The funds which have been “vaguely” dedicated to “mass transportaion” and “rail” amount to little more than 1% of the massive spending bill. Maybe it will be part of the next trillion or two the Obama administration and Democratic Congress will eventually spend.

If I’ve made any errors here, someone … please … enlighten me.

By the way, most of the electric cars that I’ve heard about only get about 60 mile to the charge …

Well, scratch a day trip to the Isle of Palms, Kiawah or Seabrook … just too close to call

And General Motors making an electric car …

I don’t think they could make one cheaply enough or charge enough to get out of the debt hole they’re in … well maybe if they charged $100,000 per car.

Boone Pickens and Natural Gas

Every one knows that Boone Pickens is promoting the use of natural gas as one of his methods reducing American dependence on foreign oil.

Seemingly, as an afterthought, Mr. Pickens adds, “Sure, Drill, drill, drill … but that misses the point.”

Well, someone correct me if I’m wrong; but, unless your talking about coal gasefication or in some way extracting natural gas from shale oil deposits, I think you have to “drill, drill , drill” to get natural gas. In other words, it doesn’t grow on trees.

Now, I know that Mr. Pickens has the reputation of being sort of one of these western cowboy types … being from Texas, but I don’t think he was referring to placing rectal tubes in those cowboys from “Blazing Saddles” as his main source of “natural” gas, compressed or otherwise.

Natural gas is, in fact, a “renewable” source of energy. It can be produced from the fermentation of waste products as those cowboys around the camp fire amply exhibited. I seriously doubt that Mr. Pickens was referring to the “renewable” aspect of natural gas, though.

Currently, commercially significant natural gas comes from wells … which have to be drilled. So, unless gasefication of fossil fuel liquids and solids becomes a more prominent source of natural gas, drilling new wells and exploration for new deposits of natural gas which frequently occurs in the same wells as crude oil will be the main technique for expanding our natural gas supply.

As a side note, Mr. Pickens has referred to Iran converting to natural gas instead of gasoline for its transportation needs. I doubt that this is based on any environmental concerns. Iran lacks refining capacity and has to import refined gasoline just as we do because of our lack of sufficient refining capacity. Since natural gas doesn’t have to be refined, it is a natural solution to their critical shortage of refining capacity and could, in the short term, relieve our shortage in refining capacity.

Pickens Plan Presentation Before Senate Committee

On 22 July 2008 Boone Pickens presented his energy plan before the Senate Homeland Security Committee chaired by Senator Joe Lieberman (I) of Connecticut. The hearing was requested by Senator Susan Collins (R) of Maine and telecast on C-Span with a rebroadcast late night 22 July or early morning on 23 July.

I caught the rebroadcast early Wednesday morning missing the first part of Mr. Pickens presentation but heard about 20 or 30 minutes of it. To me, the essence of Mr Pickens’ initiative is to convert the mass of U.S. transportation from gasoline to natural gas, especially heavy transportation, and the development of wind power throughout the heartland, from Texas into the Dakotas, with the potential of developing as much as 400 gigawats of electrical energy. In addition to these proposals, he had a plan for developing the infrastructure to carry the newly developed energy source. Of note, he pointed out that natural gas provides power that alcohol based fuels cannot, i.e., horsepower. His natural gas proposal seemed to me most realistically aimed at the current non-rail freight transport system in the country today … aimed at decreasing our dependency on foreign oil in the transportation sector, primarily commercial, by 38%. When asked, he estimated that the cost for developing this wind power would be about $500 billion with an additional $100 billion for infrastructure. He pointed out that this was still less than the current estimate ($700 billion) of the cost of oil imports for one year at the current price of crude oil. Mr. Pickens pointed out that known natural gas reserves within the United States have doubled in the last 10 years.

The second speaker was Gal Luft of the Institute for Analysis of Global Security. He pointed out that 2008 would be the first year that the United States will pay to foreign countries more than we pay our military to protect us. He challenged Mr. Pickens plan which is based partially on natural gas, stating that the United States is currently a minor producer of natural gas with only (?) 4% of the known natural gas reserves in the world. He stated that several natural gas producing nations with most of the known reserves are currently forming a natural gas cartel and that the United States would only be substituting an oil based problem for a natural gas based one. I don’t know if he’s taken into account the increase in known natural gas reserves that Mr. Pickens alluded to. Mr. Luft also pointed out that OPEC is essentially producing the same amount of oil that it was producing 35 years ago, that the 65% increase in oil production in the past 35 years has been accomplished by non-OPEC nations. He stated that OPEC has historically decreased its production as the United States has increased its production.

Mr. Luft’s proposed solution was the implementation of flex-fuel cars, able to use gasoline, ethanol and methanol (GEM). He further stated that the cost of adding the flex-fuel capacity to American autos would be about $100. Apparently, there is currently a bill before Congress that would make the flex-fuel requirement law with 50% of autos sold in the U. S. being required to have the flex-fuel capacity and 80% by 2015. He stressed that this was part of an “open fuel standard” which would allow market forces to lower and dictate the cost of fuel through competitive pricing.

The third speaker was Geoffrey Anderson of Smart Growth America. His presentation was on the future development of “walkable communities” as opposed to “drive only communities”. Basically, what he was referring to was the fact that the past century’s residential development had been geared to the development and widespread use of the automible as the primary means of transportation … to the point that most residential developments were based on the necessity of the automobile to reach required services. One fact he presented was that currently only 11% of school children walked to school as compared to 50% in 1960. He discussed a “walkable community which had been developed in Atlanta, GA. It was anticipated that the residents in that community would only drive an average of 27 miles per day compared to the typical (?) 34 miles per day that the average Atlantan drove. They found that the average resident of that community actually drove only 9 miles per day, 1/3 of their estimate. A “walkable community is one where nearly all essential services and many nonessential services are within walking distance of the resident’s home. He envisioned “walkable communities” interconnected by convenient forms of mass transportation.

The last speaker was Dr. Habib Dagher, the director of the Advanced Structure and Composites Laboratory at the University of Maine. He spoke on the development of offshore wind power and stressed the acute need for that development by the residents of Maine because of the dramatically increasing cost of fuel oil which has been paralleling the cost of crude oil. He stated that the average cost of fuel oil for the average Maine household was projected to be about $5,000 this coming winter accounting for about 25% of that household’s annual budget. He presented a map that showed three primary areas where offshore wind power could be developed … off the northern Atlantic coast, in the Great Lakes region and off most of the Pacific coast. He addressed some considerations regarding wind variability and power storage. He did admit that it would probably take five to seven years to actually begin deployment of this power source. The potential energy production for each of these regions ranged from 150 to 400 gigawatts, similar to as well as complimentary to Mr. Pickens proposal, but, as he pointed out, closer to population densities with less infrastructure requirements. He did state that all of their proposed wind generators would be located greater than 20 miles offshore … over the horizon … out of sight, Senator Kennedy … and at greater cost. I did find it interesting that he completely avoided referring to the Cape Cod area as well as the mountains in southeastern Maine as well as those in New Hampshire Vermont and western North Carolina. But he was talking only about offshore, wasn’t he?

As both Senator Collins and Senator Lieberman pointed out, all of these proposals seemed to be complimentary.

Watching nearly all of the proceedings, I was acutely aware of the similarities ( sans wind power) of the “walkable community” proposal to the small community where I grew up in middle Georgia. There were four small towns in the county ranging in size from 500 to 3500. Practically all essential services were to be found within each community or within the county. The longest distance between the towns was about 19 miles and all were interconnected by rail as well as highway. It was actually possible to travel from one town to another by rail although, by the time I came along in the 1950’s, commuter rail was already being killed by a pro-union Democratic congress more interested in subsidizing automobile use with the development of the Interstate Highway System under the guise of national defense as well as its obvious subsidization of air travel through federal control and support of airports and air traffic control.

One thing that did strike me about the hearing was the total lack of even one Democratic senator’s presence during the nearly one and one half hours that I viewed. Another thing that stuck me was that the “Massachusetts Situation” was alluded to or tiptoed around. Nantucket Sound was specifically mentioned and, therefore, Senator Ted Kennedy’s obstruction of that project was alluded to.

Frankly, it sounds like we need to back up at least 50 years … or more like 100 years … in the transportation realm … and try again. I once read that modernization didn’t always equate to progress … or something like that.

Postscript: It’s now 4:53 am and I’m watching the beginning of the third broadcast of T. Boone Pickens’ presentation. As I suspected, there doesn’t appear to be even one Democratic senator who has shown Mr. Pickens the courtesy of listening to his presentation. And least I forget, as well as to be fair, only three Republican members were present. What a bunch of … buttheads!

Roll Call:


Joseph Lieberman (I), chairman

Susan Collins (R), co-chairman

George V. Voinovich (R), OH

Pete V. Domineci (R), NM


Absent: (The Roll Call of Shame) …

Carl Levin (D), MI

Ted Stevens (R), AK

Daniel K. Akaka, (D), HI

Thomas R. Carper (D), DE

Norm Coleman (R), MN

Mark L. Pryor (D), AR

Tom Coleman (R), OK

Mary L. Landrieu (D), LA

Barack Obama (D), IL

John Warner (R), VA

Claire McCaskill (D), MO

John E. Sununu (R), NH

Jon Tester (D), MT