Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Powering the High Speed Train With Renewable Energy

NOTE: We've moved! Visit us at the California High Speed Rail Blog.

Sitting here on the northbound Coast Starlight contemplating the past, the present, and the future. Off to the left is the Santa Barbara Channel with its oil rigs, representing a past that some believe, against all evidence, is still viable. The train is the present - a slow yet beautiful way to get from south to north, but reaching the limits of present capacity and stock. And I'm reading about the future - a high speed train that is not only a fast and efficient way to move people around our state, but that can provide massive benefits to our environment through the use of sustainable and clean technologies.

Back in the spring the California High Speed Rail Authority commissioned a study on powering high speed rail with a fully renewable electricity source. That study is now complete. Produced by Navigant Consulting, it will be discussed at tomorrow's board meeting in San Diego.

The report makes clear that California high speed rail can be powered by 100% renewable energy at an affordable cost - but only if the Authority is "committed early to renewable energy." In other words, to achieve the maximal environmental and economic benefits that 100% renewable energy provides, the Authority must decide soon whether it will commit to that goal.

While the details matter, and will surely be hashed out here on the blog and elsewhere in the state, it is my recommendation that the Authority pursue an all-renewable option and make it a priority in system planning.

Carbon Emissions: The report notes that HSR will save 12 billion pounds of CO2 annually, but the electricity it generates will produce about 5 billion pounds of CO2 per year. That's still a net reduction of 7 billion pounds of CO2 above where we're at today, which is laudable. Certainly there will be some HSR deniers who will point to the 5 billion pounds figure and say "omg this is going to wreck the environment" - but that attitude is akin to refusing to abandon a sinking ship for a lifeboat out of fear you might get cold. Still, HSR should maximize its carbon savings potential, and 100% renewable energy is worth pursuing for that reason alone.

Long-term savings: It's also economically sensible to pursue it - the report notes the "volatile" cost of natural gas, and considering the likelihood that fossil fuel costs will continue to rise over the coming years, 100% renewables is likely to provide a significant long-term savings to the Authority and to the state.

Affordable to the passenger: The report looked at how much renewable energy would add to fares, and found that it would be quite affordable, even without assuming greater innovations in solar energy that would bring down its cost. They considered three scenarios:

100% wind: 86 cents per ticket (on average)
80% wind/20% solar: $1.68
100% solar: $4.92

These numbers reflect the fact that wind is a "mature" technology whereas solar is not. Given the increasing amount of research being done on solar technology it's likely that its cost will decline by the time the system opens. But even if it doesn't, $5 per ticket is quite affordable.

Those costs are an average - shorter trips will see a smaller charge and longer trips will see something more, but even the long term trips will not be significantly more costly than the average.

Further, the cost to the passenger of renewable energy is likely to be much less than a carbon tax or cap-and-trade fee, either of which is highly likely to be in place in California by 2030. And the total ticket price even with renewables included will still be cheaper than airfare or multiple gas fillups will cost by 2030.

Stimulus to renewable energy generation: As a "reliable customer" the high speed rail project would provide a big boost to renewable energy developers, providing a stable and guaranteed purchaser of their product. It would boost California's efforts to achieve greater proportion of electricity generation from renewables - currently the goal is 33% by 2030. Proposition 7 on the November ballot would accelerate that to 50% by 2030, and even if that fails we are likely to see further efforts to achieve a more accelerated schedule. High speed rail would help the state meet those goals by providing a reliable customer, especially as the train will comprise about 1% of the state's daily electricity load.

Issues to resolve: The report identified two main issues that need to be resolved for high speed rail to be powered by 100% renewables. The first is that currently neither solar nor wind provide the full amount of energy needed at peak load times - which for HSR will be from 7-8 AM and 6-7 PM. Wind comes pretty close, and solar gets most of the way there but needs more refinement. Better storage technology, which is a central focus of renewables research right now, would alleviate that issue.

The second is logistical. The high speed rail route crosses areas served by twelve different utilities. The Authority will have to work to ensure that all of them are working together to meet a 100% renewables goal if the Authority adopts it (which they should). This isn't impossible, but to make this work they will have to start negotiating and planning now. The Authority's issues with Union Pacific have been overblown by the project's opponents, but it does suggest the need for the Authority to be proactive and diligent in bringing all 12 utilities on board with a 100% renewables goal. State and federal legislation could also help that process along, and here again, sooner is better.

Van Jones rightly called upon Americans to move "from opposition to proposition" - that the only way we will defeat ludicrous calls for more drilling is by giving America a better option. Not only is high speed rail that better option, but high speed trains powered 100% by renewable energy are an ideal option. Adopting a 100% renewables standard would make an already compelling project even more valuable and would help show Californians the value and importance of sustainable transportation.

The Authority should adopt a 100% renewables goal as soon as possible.


Rafael said...

A commitment to run HSR exclusively on renewable electricity would considerably broaden its appeal to younger voters. For these, energy dependence and global warming are clear and present issues. Future traffic congestion due to population growth is harder to relate to if you don't already have several decades of life experience.

Renewable electricity costs nothing to produce but the up-front infrastructure cost is high. In particular, unpredictable sources such as wind need to be backed up with spare capacity at predictable power plants (incl. hydro and biogas) plus, highly responsive power grid management. German scientists are currently conducting a large-scale trial of a fully renewable electricity concept.

Note 1: SCAG is hosting a seminar called High Gas Prices: The Tipping Point on Sept. 10. Tickets are $100 and, speakers will focus on strictly regional solutions in the LA basin.

If any of you are planning to attend, please use the Q&A session to press panelists on their views regarding all-electric HSR, its integration with local and regional transit plus air quality and renewable electricity issues.

Note 2: Germany's Umweltbundesamt just published new high-resolution simulation data produced by the renowned Max Planck Institute. Amazingly, it sketches the expected climate changes in the region for the latter half of the century on a 6 mile grid. The report is in German.

There is a broad consensus in the scientific community that we currently are in a period of rapid warming and, that at least a significant fraction of that can be attributed to centuries of industrial activity (i.e. burning fossil fuels).

Rafael said...

Note 3: the study's financial analysis suggests that the mixed wind/solar scenario would raise electricity prices from roughly $80/MWh to roughly $120/MWh, i.e. going renewable adds 50% to the "fuel" cost.

However, assuming identical train speeds and ridership profiles, this would lead to an average premium of just $1.68 on HSR tickets. This last figure appears to have been computed by dividing the total expected cost of the electricity by the total expected number of riders, irrespective of trip distance.

Actual fares, of course, will vary by distance. For example, the premium on an SF-LA ticket might be on the order of $5 compared to $0.50 for SF-SJ.

Rather than compound the uncertainties in the model, let's focus on the $1.68 premium on the fare for this unspecified "average" trip distance. Since going renewable adds ~50% to "fuel" cost in this particular scenario, the implication is that total "fuel cost" would be around $5. Ergo, the balance of the unspecified "average" fare would be used to fund salaries, depreciation on rolling stock and support equipment, maintenance of track and rolling stock, debt owed to private investors and surplus owed to the state.

The renewable electricity premium could be reduced to zero by slowing the train down by 1-sqrt(100/150)= ~20%. The higher cost per MWh would then be compensated by consuming less electricity in an effort to overcome wind and rolling resistance. Reducing top speeds from 220 to 180mph in the central Valley - with corresponding speed reductions elsewhere - would increase the SF to LA express line haul time for roughly 2h40m to roughly 3h10min.

Customers might be ok with that IFF sufficient, reliable and free broadband internet access is offered on all high speed trains so the time spent in transit isn't wasted. This service could be funded by choosing cheaper trainsets. After all, at high speeds traction power demand increases with speed to the third power, so you could make do with half the number of expensive electric motors, power semiconductors etc.

However, I suspect that in 2030, most customers will want renewable electricity plus minimal line haul times plus broadband internet access en route - and they'll be quite willing to pay a small premium per trip for that.

Ari said...

Let the riders decide which technology to support. For every trip, have a check box saying "add $5 here to power your trip by solar."

I've always thought this would be a great way for public transit agencies. For people who pay an extra 10% fare (or so), give them a special green-colored card which they can carry with pride. That way, you allow people who want to go green to do so, but people on a tight budget to travel as cheaply as possible.

Brandon in San Diego said...

I am 100% behind the move to renewable energy. BUT, I do not support the CHSRA committing itself to such without direction from the California legislature, or there being an explicitly purpose and benefit that can be justified to California tax payers.

The fact is, the Authority is charged with providing a service at the most economically feasible way possible within existing standards, regulations, and with common practice in the high speed rail industry.

Renewables are more expensive than current standard energy systems. The higher the energy costs the higher the operational costs will be to users and tax payers.

Spokker said...

I would like to see the country gradually go nuclear. Solar, wind, and whatever is fine to supplement our energy needs but I think the bulk needs to be nuclear.

Robert Cruickshank said...

brandon, those costs are only more expensive as of today. One of my main points here is that by 2030 it is entirely possible, if not likely, that the cost of fossil fuels will be greater than the cost of renewables. Renewable energy is subject to significant innovation that is already bringing down its costs, whereas ALL fossil fuels are experiencing upward long-term price movement.

Of course, the cost of carbon emissions to our state's economy is considerable. Not enough Californians are trained to think in those terms, but it's time we started doing so. Burning fossil fuels comes with an enormous cost and it can be quantified. That cost is already higher than the cost of developing more renewables.

Finally, the study suggested that the price differential was not that large. rafael, as always, provided some good fine-tuning of their numbers but even at the long-distance premium, $5 isn't a significant difference. I just don't see a basis for the argument that the Authority would be wrong to pursue renewables from a financial standpoint.

As to nuclear, as I understand it the high speed rail system would already be complete by the time the state could bring any new nuke plants online. Renewable energy for HSR seems a quicker and more sustainable long-term solution. After all, there is such a thing as peak uranium...

Brandon in San Diego said...

I agree that future conditions concerning energy cost may be very different than todays, hence my saying "...or there being an explicit purpose and benefit that can be justified to California tax payers."

Basically, I want to see a stronger argument for renewables that speaks to costs and benefits to taxpayers.

I'd also be sold on a realistic argument concerning the practicality of obtaining additional energy to power HSR from current conventional sources. Assuming a study finds that additional conventional sources are too difficult to develop... that would be palatable to me. But, we need such a study. (has one already been done?)

But bottomline, I feel it is not the place of the CHSRA to make such a decision given the costs involved. And it seems power generation is outside the scope charged to the CHSRA. Because of that I feel the California legislature should weigh-in before another $1 billion or so go towards the system.

The philosophical debate I agree on, but, I don't feel that is within the authority of the CHSRA to decide upon given the likely costs involved.

Rafael said...

@ ari -

energy security and the climate are assets held in common. If you let people opt out of doing their part to protect them, they will. It has to be a collective decisions and enacted accordingly.

@ brandon in San Diego -

fair point, though given that HSR is a ballot initiative, perhaps the decision should be informed by how voters decide on prop 7.

Spokker said...

Let's build a wind farm in Menlo Park.

Anonymous said...

There is a lot of garbage being posted here about the economics of renewable energy sources.

The rule of thumb is todays costs for renewables is 2.5 to 3 times the cost of fossil fueled plants. That's the facts of life.

The statement renewable electricity costs nothing to produce is nonsense. It may cost nothing in terms of the base fuel to produce the electricity, but it still costs plenty to maintain; administration etc. It is not a free ride after construction.

Now, there is over a 2000 year supply of coal in this country and its costs are not going to be coupled to the costs of oil.

The comment that renewables by 2030 will be, or may be competitive with say a coal fired plant is certainly bogus if based on present day technology. It photovoltatics are able to increase their efficiency by a factor of 3, then you might have competition in cost.

Of course, you always have nuclear, which is competitive and clean, if you don't count disposal of the spent fuel.

Kevin said...

I think a 100% goal is setting the bar a little too high. 80-90% goal would give you the same benefits but reduce the 'getting over the top' costs that come from the inconsistency of solar/wind power and the extra power needed for commuter service.