The Hyperloop – Not just San Fran to LA

By Nick • Energy, Hyperloop • 18 Aug 2013

Elon Musk made good on his promise and published the initial designs for a new transport technology called the Hyperloop. It has many similarities to the Vacuum Maglev concept I talked about here; it involves vehicles travelling in tubes at high speed. There are also some key differences:

  • The vacuum is less ‘vacuum-y’ than the ET3 approach – 1/1000 atmospheres vs around 1/100,000.
  • It’s a bit slower and less efficient.
  • Elon Musk is proposing it, and he’s the multi-billionaire founder of the two most innovative transport companies in the world: Tesla – making electric cars that actually win; and SpaceX – making, you know, spaceships. Real ones, that deliver stuff to the international space station. He’s pretty badass, and he’s considering building a demonstration system.
  • It’s presented as a relatively cohesive overall concept, in one place – more so than anything I’ve seen for ET3.

If nothing else, you should be enthusiastic about this. I explained why I think a hyperloop-equivalent would be such a good thing in my earlier post. Here’s the short list:

  • The Hyperloop is fast – faster than a commercial jet.
  • The Hyperloop is really efficient and can easily run on electricity.
  • The Hyperloop is convenient; it can go anywhere trains go, so there’s no need to take a journey from the city centre just to get to the airport.

All of this has enthused me to come back to some work that’s been gathering virtual dust in my dropbox for about a year, looking at what I think are some really important technical and commercial considerations for a Hyperloop.

I’ll start here with one of the commercial criteria – route selection – and leave the others for later posts.

Like a train or car, the Hyperloop needs a lot of fixed infrastructure before you can send the first vehicle… but once you have that infrastructure you can send a lot of vehicles without needing to build any more track. This means you should focus on journeys that are common to a lot of people – kind of like a big freeway.

The Hyperloop is also best suited to journeys where being fast and efficient makes a big difference. This makes it worth the effort of going to a Hyperloop station and getting onboard… rather than the alternative of just walking, driving, or taking a bus (or calling an autonomous car), any of which would probably be better for a journey of a block or so.

Finally, we should start with routes that aren’t too long. The route doesn’t earn any money until it’s complete, and it’s going to cost a lot to build. The faster something is in operation and proven, the better.

These factors mean we should focus on high traffic routes of medium distance… and it’s no coincidence that these tend to be the routes where there is a lot of air traffic. This is great, because it means we can use air traffic stats to find candidates.

Musk’s Hyperloop proposal focuses on the San Francisco – Los Angeles route. This is partly for comparison with the proposed California High Speed Rail project (which is basically pretty rubbish), and partly because Musk regularly commutes between the two regions (which must ALSO be pretty rubbish)… but as it happens (no coincidence), it’s also a pretty good candidate for a first Hyperloop project. The two cities are about 600km apart, and the air route between them carries around 6.5 Million passengers a year.

It’s interesting to contrast this with some of the other major air routes around the world, as I’ve done below. Apologies for the ugly chart, you can click to see the full thing. What jumps out immediately is the route from the South Korean capital, Seoul, to the South Korean vacation destination of Jeju. More than 10 Million passengers/year, and only 450km as the crow flies. However, it would also need to cross about 70km of the South China Sea, so isn’t a smart pick for a first effort. Hong Kong – Taipei is out for the same reason.

NOTE: The below chart uses airport-airport data, when what’s most interesting is population-area to population-area data. I’ll revise this; some routes will see significantly increased ‘demand’.



Remembering our criteria of ‘short and high demand’, the (superficially) best places are in the top left of this chart. There are plenty of candidates that seem at least as good as the SF-LA route. No surprise that several of them are in Japan, where they already have an extremely well developed high speed rail system… though these are the air passenger journeys with an awesome high speed rail network, so obviously that’s not going to solve everything.

This chart is far from exhaustive, and it actually masks another very important consideration in route optimisation. However it does show that if such a hyperloop is viable in the SF:LA case, it’s probably viable many other places as well. California should embrace the concept if it’s to stay true to its heritage as an innovation leader. Japan (who are light years ahead in rail and maglev technology) could easily do it first, as could China (who have the need and are massively expanding their own high speed rail network). The Boeing of the next era of transport might well not be in the USA.

EV Myths And Realities, Part 2: Green As The Grid

By Nick • Energy • 16 Jul 2012

Tesla’s Model S has now been on the road, with private customers behind the wheel, for almost a month. The styling and performance will certainly draw attention, and the early reviews are nothing short of glowing, but do these new owners really deserve to be viewed as enablers of a green revolution?

In the first article of this series, EV Myths & Realities, Part 1: The Battery Crisis, I looked at the supply and production constraints on battery availability for EVs, and demonstrated that they could readily scale to meet any foreseeable demand. In Part 2, I will discuss whether EVs are really ‘Clean and Green’, or just misrepresented as such.

This is an important issue for investors and buyers alike. EVs are seen as a big step forward on the path to a clean and energy independent future – if they only move the pollution over the hill to a coal power plant then their market position and consumer adoption may suffer, spelling bad news for the EV trail breakers. Whether you’re looking at taking a long position in an EV manufacturer or buying an EV as an informed consumer, you should be confident that the products’ ‘Green & Sustainable’ credentials will last the distance.

Let’s start with three key objectives in mind:

  • Objective 1 – Reduce CO2 emissions dramatically: If you don’t think this is important then, well, you’re probably not a climatologist. More importantly, you’re certainly not going to care about the aspects of this article that relate to relative CO2 emissions. For everyone else (and particularly prospective EV buyers) I think we can take this goal as given.
  • Objective 2 – Improve Energy security, preferably at a national level, but critically at a global level: If you don’t have a particular resource but someone else does, then you can generally trade with them — wheels of commerce and all that. If neither of you have the resource, however, and you both want it… things are going to get tense. Energy Security means plenty to go around.
  • Objective 3 – Be sustainable: The future is hard to predict, but we can at least avoid things which we are near certain will bring us grief in 50 years.


Addressing these in enough detail to reach a conclusion is going to take a fair bit of space, and even then I’ll rely on the vast amount of existing work in the field for the details. To try and keep things under control and in readily digestible portions, I will split this post into four sections:

  1. Greening the Grid
  2. Reaching Break-Even
  3. Ramp-up and The Integral Effect
  4. Considering Complexities


As part of keeping things under control I take a fairly U.S.-centric approach in this analysis. This is not an inherent cultural bias, rather just that the issue is hard enough to address looking only at one country, let alone hundreds. As a large, diversified, and highly developed economy, the USA is a good representative for the challenges faced by the world as a whole when it comes to clean mobility. If anything, the challenges are greater as the USA has generally been somewhat slow (historically, recently improving) to adopt emissions reduction initiatives in the electricity sector, and has a huge vehicle population and associate infrastructural lock-in. If we can demonstrate that problems can be solved there then we’ll have a template for solving them elsewhere (as opposed to, for example, solving the emissions conundrum for Switzerland, France, Norway, etc which already have extremely ‘clean’ electricity and hence represent a somewhat trivial example). The other great thing about the USA is that it’s the subject of a lot of highly detailed and comprehensive research and studies, all published in English, which save me a lot of time.

Greening the Grid

Starting with a bird’s eye perspective, this whole topic is basically a question of different energy sources — how clean they are, and how abundant.

Oil from fossil sources is neither clean (11kg+ CO2 per gallon burnt… to say nothing of accidental spills) nor secure, with grave concerns about the rate at which additional production capacity might be bought online to meet new demand — concern that remains even considering unconventional sources. Electricity can be very clean, but it can also be very dirty — as is the case with old coal power plants. Supplies are more secure, however, ranging from several decades with natural gas, to 100 years+ with coal, to millennia with advanced nuclear, to aeons for Solar/Wind.

Broadly speaking, that’s Objectives 2 and 3 taken care of – the diversity of sources available to generate electricity, including many highly secure and sustainable on an order of millennia, mean that while there is a strong likelihood of short term price volatility and periodic shortages, the mid term ‘electricity supply’ picture is generally positive. The electrical vehicle energy supply challenge is basically one of emissions. Sadly for those who were hoping for a short article, addressing that first obective is going to be much more complicated.

The trend, as economies become more advanced, is universally one of increasing electrification, and creating that electricity in a ‘clean’ manner is one of the biggest challenges we face – to the extent that Bill Gates (no slouch on technology or policy) said he’d dedicate his ‘one wish’ to finding a solution. To his credit he’s not just wishing.

To put the problem in perspective, in 2008 the U.S. Transport Sector emitted 1.93 GigaTons of CO2. The same year the U.S. Electricity Sector emitted 2.4GT, with coal responsible for 82% (despite only delivering 45% of the total energy). Since both secure electricity and low COemissions are both critically important to our future quality of life, basically every major public policy entity acknowledges the need to massively decarbonise the electricity sector. The International Energy Agency says complete decarbonisation by the second half of this century is the minimum we should aim for. Many other entities advocate even more aggressive reduction targets to limit the extent and impact of global warming.

Thankfully, we have a pretty broad base of technologies to draw on to achieve massive emissions reductions in the electricity sector, even while increasing total generation. In the USA the average is around 600g/kWh, but the only modern generation technology worse than that is coal.

The above chart shows the emissions in gCO2/kWh of the majority of existing generation technologies. There’s no true consensus on this — I’ve taken the data from a very good IEA study that aggregates the results of numerous other studies, and added in the exact reported values for a number of newer products (USC, A-USC, & CCS CoalGas CTGas CC). Generally the green and purple numbers above represent ‘new’ power plant options, with the red numbers being outdated solutions or unusual circumstances. In the developed world, coal is actually in decline, caught between the dual pincers of both public opinion and economics. A coal phase out is strongly advocated by many environmental agencies, and the telltale signs are clearly evident in planned capacity increases in the USA. Conventional coal is dirty, CO2 intensive, comparatively inflexible, and no longer competitive for new build.

We have the makings of the solutions we need, and we clearly have a strong incentive to make the shift with near universal consensus that ‘clean, renewable electricity’ is the way to go. The challenge is going to be making the switch in a sufficiently short time. If we do, we win – if we don’t then any discussion of transport sector emissions reduction is a little irrelevant anyway.

Reaching Break-Even

So, we know that we need to shift to clean energy, and we know that we ARE shifting, and we know that if we don’t shift then this whole ‘clean mobility’ topic is only one of energy security (where EVs clearly win). Great! But not the answer to the real question, which is ‘are EVs cleaner than ICE’? Answer: It depends on the emissions profile of the electricity you put in. Garbage in, garbage out.

But that’s unclear too! Do we need to get the grid to carbon-zero before EVs become cleaner than ICE?

No, and not by a long shot. There’s a number hiding here (we’ll find it!) that represents the electricity generation CO2/kWh at which Electric Vehicles becomes cleaner than ICE equivalents for a given combination of:

  • MPG – Miles per Gallon for the ICE vehicle
  • kgCO2/Gallon – 11.2 approximately for conventional oil.
  • Wh/mile – Watt-hours of electricity per mile for the EV, include line (6%) and charging (10%) losses.


We also need to include another number – gCO2/Mile embodied, which captures the difference between the embodied emissions of the EV and the ICE. I take this as 3 Tons CO2 to the EVs debit, giving a 17g/mi advantage to the ICE (12,000mi/annum, 15y life).

The figure below show the relationship between these numbers, for all combinations of EV wh/mi and ICE MPG.

Shown are MPG ranges from 10-70 and wh/mi ranges from 250-500, with the ‘breakeven’ generation gCO2/kWh calculated and plotted for each point. I’ve thresholded the ‘breakeven’ generation at 1000g/kWh, as by the time we reach that results it’s pretty clear the EV is preferable and it gives us better resolution at the lower numbers we’re interested in. It’s not even close between an efficient EV (say 300wh/mi) and an average car (say 30mpg) — the EV is cleaner even when running off a filthy coal plant. In the foreground, however, we see a challenge — an inefficient EV (500wh/mi) would need to be charged with electricity that averaged less than 300g/kWh in order to beat an ultra-efficient 70MPG ICE car.

The purpose of the last chart is mostly to give you an idea of the overall landscape (and to add some much needed color). This next is a contour plot of the same data, much more useful as it allows us to read comparisons directly.

You’ll note I’ve added several straight lines with the names of particular vehicles (For the EV wh/mi numbers I’ve used the EPA figures, which include charging losses, to which I’ve added 6% to account for transmission loss). The contours map onto the color chart on the right, each contour is labeled with the gCO2/kWh it equates to.

Now we can do quick comparisons – life is good.

  • Nissan Leaf vs Prius – Leaf wins for gCO2/kWh < 580
  • Honda (HMC) Fit vs VW Polo BlueMotion – Fit wins for gCO2/kWh < 520
  • Tesla S vs Lexus GS – Tesla wins for gCO2/kWh < 870


The only thing not considered in this chart is the increase in CO2/Gallon for gasoline as extraction becomes more difficult. A Prius running on gasoline from a Coal-to-Liquids plant would have an MPG equivalent of only 25 on this chart; meaning it would be worse than a Tesla S running off a coal plant.

Combining what’s shown here with what was shown in the previous section re: the need to green the grid, we can happily conclude that even if we can only charge our EVs with energy from a modern gas power plan,t they will equal or better the emissions of the most efficient ICEs. The Tesla S beats its most efficient segment competitors even when charged with decidedly average coal power.

Ramp-up and The Integral Effect

Now that we can easily see the relationship between generation emissions and EV ‘cleanliness’, you could be forgiven for assuming that we shouldn’t begin switching to EVs until we can be sure that the grids marginal emissions are below the critical point. After all, why introduce a new vehicle technology only to connect it to a coal power plant with net emissions even worse than oil? We know the grid needs to ‘green’, should we not wait until it has? And when would that even happen anyway?

The easiest statistic to use for ‘grid greenness’ is the average gCO2/kWh for the region in question, but this gives arguably flawed results. To establish the worst case consequence of adding EVs to the grid we should consider not the average but rather the marginal emissions. Marginal emissions are best understood as the emissions profile of the generation asset that’s generating electricity because you are charging your car… and would not be otherwise. This is actually an extremely complex problem to solve (we must consider the generation mix for the region, what’s running anyway, what the transmission constraints are etc) and we will look at that during ‘Complexities’. For now let’s just consider the ‘average of the worst’ that are likely to be on the grid — some mix of coal and gas, trending to gas as coal is phased out, and trending eventually towards the ‘clean options’ as we close in on that IEA goal towards the middle of the century. Remember it’s the average marginal emissions that matter; if your car is charged, considering the yearly average, on 20% nuclear, 20% Gas CC, 20% Gas SC, 20% coal, and 20% hydro, then your average marginal emissions will be around 380g/kWh.

The profile I have assumes a far worse mix than this (extremely pessimistically so, as we’ll see later) – with the ‘marginal EV’ emissions starting at 900gCO2/kWh, decrease slightly below the existing U.S. average by 2020, reaching 220g/kWh in 2050 (lagging well behind the IEA target), and finally closing in on ‘clean’ around 2100. Really we should aim to be a LOT faster than this to avoid the worst of climate change, but let’s wear our negative hats. It could be argued that I’m being unreasonable in the speed of my forecast early reductions, were it not for the average marginal emissions already being well below my starting figure.

The reason the reductions start quickly and then get slower is that the cleaner the grid gets, the harder it is to improve. Shutting down old coal and replacing it with clean coal, gas, etc is quite easy. Replacing clean gas with CCS, Solar, Nuclear, Wind, etc is harder (though, ironically, wind and solar are much easier to manage with a grid full of EVs). So now we have an, admittedly pessimistic, estimate for when the Nissan Leaf becomes ‘cleaner’ than the Prius – 2022. Should we wait until then to begin introducing EVs, or at least subsidizing their introduction?

The answer is no – the time to begin introducing EVs is now — and the reason (aside from the fact that many grids are already sufficiently green at the margin – as we’ll see in section 4) is found when we look at new technology adoption rates, market share, fleet penetration and replacement intervals.

Shifts between technologies usually obey a logistic curve. For EVs this will be evident in their market share as a fraction of total vehicles on the road. I assume the following profile of new vehicle sales in the USA – EVs increase to 50% of annual sales in 2033, saturating at 90% in 2053 (100% would be better, but some ICE may well remain, even if they run on synthesized zero emissions fuel).

Their share of the total vehicle fleet will lag this ratio considerably though, using the generally accepted 15 year time between vehicle purchase and retirement. The chart below shows the EV fraction of the total U.S. vehicle fleet; first for the case shown above, and second for the case where we delay introduction by 10 years (waiting until the Leaf is certainly cleaner than the Prius under our speculative marginal emissions profile).

The area between those EV early and late curves is the vehicle-years of additional ICE emissions that result from waiting, though of course it’s also vehicle-years of EV emissions that are avoided.

We’ve compared early EV adoption with late EV adoption in terms of the time taken for EVs to penetrate the vehicle fleet, but what we actually care about is the effect on the cumulative CO2 emissions. Note: cumulative - the CO2 mankind releases into the atmosphere in a single year wouldn’t, in isolation, have a huge effect. The problem is that we do it year after year, and in ever increasing quantities. If we could emit twice the usual quantity of CO2 next year, and then stop completely, most climate scientists would consider that a huge win (except for the fact that the only likely way to achieve this would be a global nuclear war/plague).

Above I’ve presented all the data we need as an input to calculate the cumulative CO2 emissions from the USA vehicle fleet under our scenarios; time for a look at the output.

Here we see that, whatever happens, the U.S. light vehicle sector is still going to make a huge mess over the next century. Behavioral changes to reduce that are really welcome, and should be actively pursued. Drive less, walk more, bike more, switch to EVs earlier, etc. But the point here is the relative emissions of our various EV adoption scenarios. You’ll see I’ve thrown a third in the mix, where we NEVER shift to EVs but rather just see rapidly increasing ICE efficiency.

The best outcome of the three is an early switch to EVs, at 46GT cumulative emissions. The small penalty we pay in the early days (running them on the dirtier grid) is completely insignificant (for those counting, the Early scenario results in cumulative emissions in 2016 of 7.091862 GT, while the late scenario results in 7.091377 GT) and more than compensated by the benefits that come from more rapid fleet penetration. Waiting until the grid is ‘green-ish’ results in an increase of 3GT cumulative emissions; while abandoning EVs altogether in favor of high efficiency ICE, means an increase of 23.2GT (and ongoing beyond 2100).

You might be a little shocked that, even if we start moving to EVs now, the light vehicle sector will still emit 46GT of CO2 by 2100. That’s the penalty of slow replacement, and the fact that in my model almost 20% of the vehicle fleet is still ICE at the end of the century. EVs themselves are responsible for only 7.3GT in that time, and at the end of the century, despite comprising 80% of the vehicle fleet, have annual emissions of only 0.04GT running on our clean grid.

That’s more or less the story told, at least in terms of overall principles. In the next section I’ll look at some of the complexities I ignored until now to try to keep the size under control (for all the good THAT did!), but feel free to just skip to the conclusion.

Considering Complexities

Still reading? Like a boss. I’d like to quickly touch on these topics:

  • The global grid picture, and some clean oasis.
  • The deeper issues in marginal generation emissions (and some great studies on the topic)
  • How EVs can work to clean the grid faster


Global Grid

Some countries already have significantly lower energy intensity than the USA – this chart drawing on CARMA data from 2007 shows the averages of the 35 largest generators globally.

As you can see, a lot of them are still quite dirty. But there are some countries (including big ones – France, Brazil) that are already very clean. A quick shout out to Switzerland and NZ (where I live and where I’m from, respectively) that are also well down at the low emissions end. Those countries with a ‘clean’ mix are unlikely to start switching to dirty sources just to accommodate the additional 20% load of EVs (all that would result in the USA if the entire vehicle fleet switched). If you live in NZ (which only HAS one coal power plant, and it already runs all the time) then you can buy an EV immediately with a completely clean conscience. If you live in Australia, on the other hand, get outside with a placard! I’ll chip in for marker pens. It’s pretty shameful that such a rich country has such a filthy electricity mix (and proof of the negative impact of massive mining lobbies).

Marginal Generation Emissions

We gave the marginal generation topic a pretty cursory treatment before, and adopted a negative outlook for the sake of minimizing argument. The reality is not nearly so bad. During daytime charging coal power is basically never the marginal generation source. The coal plants (cheap once they’re built, slow to respond) are almost always running flat out anyway. Even during the night, in many grids, coal is treated as ‘must run’ base load.

Coming from this basic principle to a solid number is very difficult – I probably don’t have the skill to do it and I certainly don’t have the time right now. Fortunately, the heavy lifting has already been done. The chart below, from this excellent UC Davis journal article, calculates the time dependent marginal emissions rate for today’s electricity mix in California, and investigates the impact on overall emissions if the grid mix was used to charge EVs.


Interestingly, the daytime marginal emissions are actually higher than at night – daytime slightly above 600, nighttime slightly below 500 (give or take). More interestingly – looking back at our contour plot from before – A Nissan Leaf charged on the overnight mix in California is already cleaner than a Toyota Prius, and a Tesla S has less than half the emissions of a Mercedes E400. California’s off-peak marginal emissions are already below what my model assumed for 2022! EVs romp home with the win.

That’s California today though; what about considering the whole USA in 2030, once EVs actually comprise a significant fraction of the vehicle fleet? We’d need to consider economic dispatch, grid transmission constraints, new planned capacity, EV charging profiles… argh! Thankfully the good folk at Pac Northwest National Labs have already done that for us too.

This chart shows the generation mix which would be used to charge a fleet of EVs with a mixed day-night profile, considering each of the 13 major control regions in the USA. PNNL have used the EIA 2009 Annual Energy Outlook to arrive at the 2030 generation mix. This anticipates only a very small role played by solar, the conclusions were arrived at before the huge PV System cost reductions in 2011.. and also before the massive reductions in coal sourced generation observed in the last year. But even without solar, there are some interesting features. Firstly coal, even in the coal-heavy Midwestern regions (ECAR, MAIN, MAPP) plays a very small role. The bulk of the supply in this scenario is met by Single and Combined cycle gas turbines, modern versions of which have CO2/kWh of approximately 500g and 380g respectively. We can therefore reasonably conclude that, U.S. nationwide in 2030, the marginal emissions will be well below 500g. Which is to say: Leaf beats Prius. Tesla beats E400 hollow. And we can do MUCH better.

EVs Supporting Low Emissions Electricity

This is another entire topic in itself, so I’ll come back to it sometime and only give a very brief treatment here.

While EVs are a new load on the grid, they are a load with interesting features.

  • They can store energy, and don’t especially mind when the energy arrives as long as it happens at some point before the vehicle is driven again.
  • Their user behaviour profile is tolerant of occasional errors in energy dispatch, as fast charging can rapidly top up a few percent of missing charge if required (and that will rarely happen).
  • They are extremely dynamic (the load on the grid can be adjusted in a matter of milliseconds).


This, combined with the fact that vehicles spend more than 90% of the time parked, allows EVs to help significantly in the integration of renewables such as solar and wind. Consider a grid region with 100GW of load and 100GW of solar PV — as well as around 100GW of other generation for when the sun don’t shine. EVs with a daytime charge profile could accommodate the peaks and lulls in solar during a sunny day by adjusting their charging behavior to match, easing the integration of the resource for the entire grid, and reducing the required conventional standby generation. On a cloudy day, the standby generation (primarily SC and CC gas and hydro – coal will be too expensive at low load factors) will fill in.


Even with fairly dirty electricity, EVs are – indeed – cleaner than ICE ones. We only need to get to an average marginal generation CO2 intensity of 500g/kWh to have a Model S be cleaner than a Prius… and many markets are already there! The only modern generation technology that is worse than this is coal, and even it can be improved with Carbon-Capture-&-Storage (not that I think CCS is really the solution… but with a gas powered car it’s not even an option). Comparing like-for-like, the Model S Performance is cleaner than a Mercedes E400 hybrid even if it’s running on a reasonably modern coal plant output.

If you see a new EV buyer lobbying FOR new coal plants, then you can perhaps accuse them of environmental ignorance. Otherwise, give them a pat on the back – they’ve put a decent chunk of their money on the line and braved a new technology to make the switch… and as long as we don’t totally fail the energy generation challenge it’s a switch with a huge net benefit for everyone. If we DO totally fail the energy generation challenge… well… the whole topic is moot really. Green the grid!

I’m optimistic about the future of EVs, and I have invested in both Tesla and Kandi. These are volatile stocks, and there’s uncertainty in the future of both companies. But one thing I’m not worried about is the mid term ‘green’ image. EVs are not perfect, but they beat the snot out of any like-for-like midterm alternative on the radar today.

ET go Hom3

By Nick • Energy • 3 Jun 2012

“But I have promises to keep

and miles to go before I sleep”

New Zealand is a good place to be at Christmas. And for most of the rest of the year really. But christmas is when I promised to be there, so be there I shall. It’s a long way from my new home though – I bet Robert Frost didn’t have that many miles in front of him. Of course, he was on a horse – I’ll be in a dirty great airbus and, god willing, will sleep on the way. Or numb my mind with premix singapore sling and movies – I have it pretty easy either way.

It’s never been easier to get from one side of the planet to the other, or between two cities a couple of thousand km apart (except, arguably, 12 years ago when airport security was a little less touchy). In Vaclav Smil’s typically excellent-but-heavy book ‘Prime Movers of Globalisation’ (Bill Gates gives a brief summary here) he identifies the diesel engines and gas turbines, that propel ships and planes respectively, as the two most critical enablers of globalisation – though I guess high speed communications should also be included (as the enabler of efficient ordering and payment). While globalisation has its detractors, and some definite negatives as currently executed, I think it’s a positive thing overall even if some significant tweaks are required. Whatever the future model is, I think efficient trade and global interdependency are important things for stability and prosperity.

All this speed and convenience are making a bit of a mess however, and it’s expected to get a lot lot worse. Two things matter – one is how efficient the technologies we use are, and the other is how much we use them. For efficiency we’ve been on a good trend, but we’re getting into diminishing returns for what we can expect from existing technologies. As for demand, there’s a lot more to come.

We need fast, convenient, and clean transport options for long distance travel and freight… and like so many things, it’d be good to have it soon! We can’t wait for teleportation.

Sea Freight

Large ships are now close to their limits in terms of engine and hull efficiency. Improvements will continue with route planning and speed optimisation, but we’re squeezing out improvements of a few percent now; there are no 50% reductions remotely on the radar.

Container shipping volume is at 350% of the figure only a decade ago. The rate of growth has slowed somewhat, but it is still forecast to double again in the next decade. Another figure I found, billion-tonne-miles, is up by 65% in the last decade (growing more slowly, as this includes bulk commodities (oil, coal, grain) which aren’t seeing such high growth as manufactured goods usually put in containers).

2001 - 2011: +250%; 2011 - 2021: +100% in 20 Foot Equivalent Units (TEU) (1)

Air Travel

Air freight is highly volatile, and an increasing fraction of it is being shifted to the belly hold of high capacity passenger airliners rather than dedicated freighters, so I’ll look at Air Passenger demand instead. The metric here is the Revenue Passenger Kilometers, or RPK; 4,000,000 RPK’s could be a plane with 400 people on it flying 10,000 kilometers.

The below chart shows Boeings 2010 forecasts on future growth in RPK’s. Sure, they’re an arline manufacturer with stockholders so of course they’re going to be ambitious… but for what it’s worth their similar estimates created in 2000 were LOW compared to reality.

A lot of new travelling dudes and dudettes.

A large fraction of this additional growth is anticipated to come from developing economies. As people get more wealthy, they tend to travel more. If Boeing’s estimates are wrong, it’ll probably be because economic growth has stalled… not a pretty picture for the world’s poor.

Aircraft are still progressing when it comes to technology, but as with shipping many of the opportunities for gain are already implemented when it comes to energy consumption. Fuel costs are the single biggest factor in an airline managers life (ok, that and passenger demand, but that’s much more stable generally unless it’s messed up by fuel costs), and the major aircraft manufacturers know this well, yet despite that the progress is slow and slowing. Older 747-100′s managed about 5L/100km.passenger. The 747-400 reduced this to about 3.2L/100km.passenger. The 747-8 seems to manage 2.8L/100km, with numbers for the airbus A380 as low as 2.73L/100km. The state of the art, boeings new 787, is quoted as 2.4L/100km.passenger… though some early reports from Japan Airlines indicate they’re not seeing such an improvement in operational use. That is pretty impressive progress… although it’s taken almost 40 years to halve the consumption since the original 747, and the rate of progress is slowing; the brand new Airbus A380 only managed a 15% improvement over the Boeing 747-400, despite arriving 15 years later and being a fair whack bigger. Maybe, with further improvements, the 787 might make 2L over the next 20 years, but it’d be a stretch and even if it’s acheived it’s still a pretty bleak outlook for my low energy trips home.


A better lightbulb?

That’s pretty much the status quo in technology and demand. A lot of demand growth, and an existing solution that’s already pretty dirty and doesn’t have much remaining potential for improvement. If we want something better, let’s take a blue-sky (shudder… business talk) approach and define our dream.

Firstly, to avoid debate on the topic, let’s just agree that we’d like to reduce ‘unnecessary’ shipping and travel. But let’s also agree that in 20 years time, demand is going to be at LEAST the same as it is today (barring a major global decline of some form).

So, from the technology side I’d like the following:

Something able to substitute a significant fraction of passenger air travel that is:

    • At least as fast, and preferably with the potential to go at least twice as fast on longer trips – 1000 -> 2000kph
    • At least ten times more efficient in terms of energy consumption (<0.24L/100km.passenger).

Something able to substitute a significant fraction of freight that is:

    • At least as efficient as ocean shipping
    • Would allow direct city-city transport without multiple modal changes in between.
    • Is at least 100 times as granular as large ships to improve the potential for point-point transport.

Both should lend themselves to implementation with a clean energy option – probably electricity but could also be synthesized fuel maybe one day.

Woah. Am I being a fool here? I mean these are pretty ambitious targets… surely even achieving half this level of improvement would be worthwhile, or even a quarter?
Well, sure. But I’m cheating a bit, because I’m writing this article with an solution already in mind that I think (though I haven’t checked the numbers yet on the freight side) could deliver on even these goals… so why not try :-)


The possible better lightbulb I’m thinking of is based on the maglev VacTrain concept, now several decades old. Early vactrain concepts have been proposed more than a century ago. I can’t find a consistent view on ‘who was first’, but American Engineer Robert Goddard allegedly designing concepts for a 1600km/h link between Boston and NY while a student in the 1910′s. Russian professor Boris Weinberg proposed it also in his 1914 book ‘Motion without Friction’, and allegedly later built some first concepts of the maglev technology. 40 years later, Robert Salter of the RAND group proposed an intercontinental maglev vactrain link between North America and Europe. His proposal had trains travelling at up to 15,000kph, for very short (and surprisingly/preposterously cheap) trips.

So – this is an old idea! Interest has waxed and waned from time to time – while no-one argues that the proposal is technically impossible, the huge hurdle to be overcome is cost. So it was, so it still is – even high speed trains are extremely expensive and, in many cases, unable to compete on price with aircraft. Surely doing something similar at 10 times the speed in a vacumn with magicalnetic levitation must cost much more? Well, maybe, maybe not.

The Vactrain concept I like is the one being pioneered by Daryl Oster, named ET3. Technically it’s also being pioneered by me now, since I signed up as a licensee and am writing visionary blog posts about it (and doing some other stuff when I’ve got time). There’s a good pictorial overview of ET3 here, and a a video – with some aspects that I still consider pretty speculative – here. For a quick summary, however:

  • ET3 is a transport solution that involves capsules, essentially very small (1 – 10 person) maglev trains, travelling through small tubes (around 1.5m diameter) that have had the air sucked out of them (the tubes, not the capsules… obviously).
  • This means they eliminate the two main sources of drag (wind, and wheel friction) and hence can theoretically go extremely fast with very low power/energy consumption
  • It also means that they can be very light, as they have a small payload and limited environmental exposure.
  • This means that the rails can also be light, and the drive systems can be small, and… we’re starting to maybe have something that’s certainly fast enough and possibly cheap enough to compete with (initially) aircraft and (eventually) ground transport.

ET3 uses, for the most part, fairly well understood and proven technologies. Maglev is nothing new; it’s operationally proven (last time I was in Shanghai I took the Transrapide train back to the airport, a high speed maglev (450km/h top speed) in commercial operation for several years now) and well understood technically. The drive technology is also well understood, and proven in industrial applications. Making all manner of tubes (plastic, concrete, steel, whatever) able to hold a vacumn with low losses is pretty trivial really.

For me the question is not ‘Could we make ET3′, but rather ‘Could we make ET3 cost effective and safe’.

ET3 Benefits

ET3 doesn’t exist. All assertions in here are based on models and experiements by myself and others. Reality might be different – this is not a short and quick and easy solution! Hence I’ll say “ET3 is/ET3 can” when really I mean “Models and initial analysis which, in some cases, hasn’t even been peer reviewed thoroughly, suggest that ET3 is/ET3 can”. Cool? Moving on.

ET3 is REALLY energy efficient in operation. Ignoring the energy embodied in construction for now (which will certainly be significant) and considering only the incremental energy consumption per trip, my result for an ET3 trip between Miami and NY (approx 2000km), for a capsule seating 6 persons, at 2000km/h (Concorde speed) was approximately 50kWh, or around 0.4kWh/100km.person. If we got that electricty from a reasonably efficient gas cogen power plant that’d work out to around 0.06L/100km.person… or roughly 40 times less than in a 787. And I only asked for 10x reduction!

ET3 is perfectly suited to electrification by renewables. Forget the gas cogen power plant – we want clean! Can we afford it? There is minimal onboard energy storage required, most of the power can be reticulated through the track to the drive motors in the track itself. Because the energy consumption per trip is so low, we can assume ‘expensive’ renewable energy as the power source with minimal cost impact. The above trip of 2000km would have an energy cost, at 20c/kWh (now significantly more than PV power costs today), of only $1.70 per person. That’s not a typo, I didn’t mean to write $170 and accidentally hit the decimal point. Operating energy cost of ET3 is essentially zero.

ET3 could be very comfortable. Unless you’re really rich and fly in the comfy seats up front/top, flying probably isn’t something you look forward to. Aircraft design constraints are such that giving more space costs more money. A tradeoff is required, and people typically choose the cheap and uncomfortable options. With ET3, on the other hand, the capsule costs are a very small fraction of the overall cost, and space within the 1.5m diameter tube is cheap. You won’t be able to stand up (increasing the tube diameter has a large cost impact), but you’ll be able to sit in some style. I predict ET3 will be extremely luxurious compared to air travel due to the low incremental cost and high potential for differentiation as a result. Can’t wait. Aircraft first class seating would be simple to accommodate. Much more luxurious seating is also realistic due to the small impact of increased vehicle weight.

You wouldn't sit side-by-side, but otherwise no problem. Would the lady and gentleman like peanuts?

 ET3 Could be REALLY Fast. The main limitation on the speed of ET3 is the minimum corner radius of the tubes considering g loading. Higher speeds mean more gradual curves, which mean less flexibility in going around hills/valleys and hence the potential for increased cost. But assuming reasonable terrain (i.e. not across the himalayas) there is nothing fundamental to stop ET3 achieving 2000km/h or even more… unlike aircraft which are limited by the sound barrier, and the potential sonic boom damage resulting from exceeding it above built up areas. If tunneling does become necessary it’s a lot cheaper to build an ET3 sized tunnel than a train or even car sized one.

ET3 Could be cheap. This is a tough one to call at this stage. It’s almost entirely a function of cost per track km, and the route demand. I’m currently using $4mil/km for the track in my calculations; twice the figure ET3 themselves use, but only around 10% of the cost for a high speed rail line today in most cases. Why would ET3 be so much cheaper? Primarily because it’s SO much lighter – by a factor of approximately 40x. This has a scaling effect on essentially every system component. What impact does this have on the price you pay? Well, for the aforementioned trip from NY to Miami I estimate a 15% IRR at a WACC of 8% assuming 50% of today’s air market between the two cities is captured, and with ticket prices the same as they are today ($240). So I think it’s realistic for ET3 to be the same price as air travel on busy routes while delivering the improvements in speed, comfort, and efficiency (and, of course, the total insensitivity to energy costs). What would be possible if we think bigger? Well, with higher capacity (like if the NY:Miami route linked up all the cities in between as well, with sharing of the tube capacity) resulting in overall demand increase of around 10x, tickets would fall below $50. Further reductions with more growth. Still further reductions with freight. ET3 can be cheap… but the track cost is the critical parameter.

ET3 Challenges

Well! Fast, cheap, clean, comfortable – what are we waiting for! Oh yeah – it doesn’t exist. Stink. Nevermind, let’s build it! How hard can it be, right?

Considering the rise and fall over the last decades, it seems the answer is ‘Fairly hard’. Before I mentioned ‘safety’ and ‘cost effectiveness’, but at least as big a hurdle as either of these is the issue of ‘commercially feasible’. Commercially feasible doesn’t just mean ‘achieving a technically sound tube solution that costs less than $1m/km’; perhaps more critically than that it means ‘creating a business case surrounding ET3 that allows it to be pursued as a potentially profitable business venture, including funding for the development phases, an acceptable level of venture risk, a manageable scale-up strategy that can be pursued in a gradual way’ etc etc etc.

Safety: The safety issue is largely one of design. There are many problems to be solved, many of which probably aren’t even properly understood at this stage. However, ET3 is essentially a high speed rail system in this regard. High speed rail runs beneath the english channel. It runs through cities. It is fast and safe. Eventually realising similar performance from ET3 should be possible; the biggest concern I have right now is largely related to the headway between capsules and the need to find some safe compromise between the ‘brick wall’ stopping criteria (where a vehicle should be able to decelerate and stop safely even if the vehicle in front stops instantly) and the fairly extreme spacing proposed on the ET3 site of only 15m between 5m long capsules (potentially travelling at several thousand km/h) – this influences capacity and can have a major impact on cost effectiveness.

Cost: The issue of cost effectiveness is the biggy. ET3 is targetting an existing market, and that market is already highly competitive. The Airline industry isn’t going to appreciate some new player coming along and taking away 75% of their demand (though if they’re cut in on it – a real possibility – they might see it differently; they have competition to worry about too afterall). The biggest cost driver by far (at least up to the point at which ET3 is commercially successful beyond any debate, beyond which point the capsule cost might become significant) is the cost of developing the system (fairly expensive) and installing the tube infrastructure for a given route (really expensive). That $/km figure needs to be kept down or else it’s going to be very hard to beat planes at their own game.

Commercial viability: Is ET3 commercially viable? I think it could be. I’m focussing at the moment on an incremental approach to deployment whereby ET3 lines can be profitable even at the relatively low capacities resulting from existing demand for point-to-point routes. If the first of these routes can be proven, then it you’re running with the river. If not, and your system won’t be profitable until you connect 20 cities or whatever, then it’s going to be pretty hard to persuade an investor (even a farsighted government) to take the large technical risk associated with the project. Development costs are an additional burden, but I don’t know what these will be yet. More than a new car, certainly, but not necessarily more than a new space shuttle.

So, what are some of these early routes we might use to justify developing this awesome technology?!

ET3 Case Study

After some consideration, that’s enough for today actually. Well done if you made it this far, I’ll take a look at some of the early candidate ET3 routes next time around. There’s also a far bit to be done in assessing key technical features, but like all good things (and many bad ones) it’ll take time.

[1] ISL Shipping Statistics and Market Review, Volume 55 No 5/6, 2011

Round Round Get Around

By Nick • Energy • 26 May 2012

We rollin', We lovin'

When it comes to getting from place to place I live what would generally be considered a fairly ‘green’ life. Since I moved to Switzerland 4 years ago my day-to-day mobility needs are, for the vast majority of the time, met by bike, tram, and train. I could probably count the number of times I’ve been in car so far this year without running out of fingers. Ok, I just did and wasn’t even off the first hand.

Does this make me Green?

If only it were so easy. While I don’t spend that much time in planes, they screw up ambitions of ‘green-ness’ REAL quick… and while I’ve improved I still do and will probably continue to cover a hell of a lot of distance in them. Further, not everywhere has a rich rail infrastructure to draw on – it’s expensive to deploy from scratch and sometimes isn’t as efficient as you might expect.

Vehicle Speed and Fuel Efficiency in kWh/100km.person

I stole the chart above from David Mackay’s excellent ‘Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air’. I don’t feel bad about it, because he stole it from someone else I’m sure… I’ve seen it many times and you might have before too. What it aims to compare is two critical parameters for transport solutions – operating energy efficiency and speed. It doesn’t show another critical variable – cost – but I can live without that for now. You’ll notice that, right up the top, we have the Earthrace EcoBoat. What a crock[1].

For a good sustainable future we want solutions that are close to the x axis of that chart – on the order of a few kWh/100km.p and a decent mix of fast/convenient/economic. We need to get away from fossil fuels, and if we’re going to use liquid fuels we need to find a way that doesn’t involve massive disruption of food production and soil depletion. For now we have a couple of good tools (bikes!) but also a number of holes, especially at higher speeds.

I want to be live a sustainable lifestyle! How am I doing?

The bike is clean – no debate there. Bikes are amazing. Electric trains and streetcars(/trams) are potentially quite ‘low emission’ too, at least if you get the electricity from a clean source. But they’re not outlandishly efficient in a kWh/ sense (especially if they’re not loaded close to capacity), with a ballpark value for normal loadings of around 8kWh/100km.person. A Nissan Leaf EV, with two people in it, manages 7.5kWh/100km.person. Both a lot better than a typical combustion engined vehicle which, if it was extrodinarily efficient, might manage 15kWh/100km.p with two occupants but considering a more typical vehicle (8L/100km) and passenger mix (1.2persons average) would come in at around 65kWh/100km.p. Pretty weak.

Of course, efficiency isn’t all that matters – with todays expectations of ease of travel we also care a lot about speed on long trips (like, for my highly personal and troubling example, when I want to travel from Europe back to visit my family in New Zealand… a trip of around 20,000km each way). Even ignoring oceans, mountains, and dodgy political areas and assuming I could do an ambitious 200km/day on my bike that would take up 200 days of my year for the return trip just to travel. I need something fast, or I won’t go, and I’m not prepared to not go just yet. Planes are the answer and considering the benefits they bring in terms of direct travel and speed the price in efficiency is surprisingly small with the full 747 shown coming in around 40kWh/100km.p and the new boeing 787 Dreamliner purportedly managing 24kWh/100km.p! (The newer model 747′s are actually closer to 33kwh/100km.p; this chart is drawing on older numbers).

Putting these numbers into some context reveals uncomfortable truths though, especially for the average commuter… and especially especially for air travellers.

Remember the lofty goal I set for myself of a 2kW life in FirstStep? At the time of writing I was blowing through 25% of my total power budget (500W) with even my pretty efficient commute… to say nothing of the 9kW of Air Travel. Even if I only made the round trip to NZ once every two years (as I do now) and I did it all in an Airbus A380 (at around 30kWh/100km.p), the 40,000km trip still works out to 700W of my 2kW budget… so combined with my commute I’m at 1.3kW without eating, living anywhere, heating my house, having any other stuff, or making any contribution to social infrastructure.


I need better transport options, and if the world is going to be a nice place in 50 years I’m not the only one.

I was going to make a table to go in here offering my classification of ‘transport categories’, but I’ve decided it would be a weak and incomplete effort. Rather than introduce artificial precision, I’ll be pretty loose.

  • Walking: I’m not a huge fan of walking, so for me walking means ‘pretty close’. If I’m walking it’s because other options were limited or because I think I’ll get there in less than 15 minutes… so around 1km.
  • Short: Anything up to around 10km… certainly the sweet spot of day to day life. Even 5km gets me to most of Zurich (the inner circle below) and is less than 15min by bike without making any effort at all.
  • Medium: Distances where I don’t want to bike anymore. It might be anything from 20km up to 100km. Usually I’m on a train in Switzerland; in NZ I would have been in the car.
  • MediumYawn: A long medium. Typically still train/car – up to around 500km.
  • Long: More than 1000km. Now pretty seriously thinking about taking a plane unless there’s a good high speed rail connection.
  • ReallyLong: More than 5000km – A plane is the only reasonable option most of the time, even without the typically considerable geographical constraints.

The home zone

This is the first in a series of posts about what I see as the best options for the future to address these various requirements (and why, and what needs to be done to move them ahead).

First, but probably not in this one, I’ll talk about Evacuated Tube Transport. I’ve recently started talking a bit with ET3 founder Daryl Oster about this and bought a license through their scheme (for about the price of a dinner for two in Zurich) to try to contribute something from time to time. ETT/ET3 is a possible solution to address, in my view, the requirement for MediumYawn and beyond. It has the potential to be extremely fast and energy efficient, with the downside that it requires fairly high demand to be economic (lots of trips)… and of course it doesn’t exist yet. I like the idea though – even if it goes well this is going to be a long term thing, but in 30 years people could travel from NZ to Europe in 3 hours rather than 30, and use ten times less energy in the process.

I’ll then look at the short distance options, and especially how to extend what I consider ‘short’ a little. The focus here will be on bikes – the limitations and how they can be addressed… especially with my latest favourite thing: Electric assist bikes. Electric assist bikes are awesome. Zurich is a nice city for biking around – it’s not as good as Amsterdam, but still thumbs up. Last weekend I was in London, and it reminded me what a not good city was like. The bike sharing system is brilliant. The lack of dedicated bike paths, narrow roads, and streets crowded with busses are not. My home town of Christchurch was flattened by a big Earthquake around one year ago and, with the rebuild now under discussion, I really hope a major emphasis is placed on making the city not simply ‘bike friendly’ but ‘bike focussed’. Bikes are the ultimate clean and energy efficient ride (even if you boost them with an electric motor) – they’re dirt cheap (which is why there are so many e-bikes in china) and take up a tiny amount of space for parking compared to cars. You can also put a lot more people down a street on them than in a car, and when the inevitable collisions with pedestrians occur it tends to be scrapes and maybe breaks, rather than death as with cars. Build Christchurch for bikes! And everywhere else.

Finally, I’ll discuss some options for ‘middle’. I don’t think bikes are it, and neither are trains a particularly good solution considering the requirement to serve many end points at short notice and with minimal delay. There’s also a need for freight etc. ET3, as a new-infrastructure system, is also somewhat train-like in limitation on approaches/departures – maybe it eventually makes it’s way into neighborhood commuter systems but I see its strengths much more for long distances at high speed. My favourite solution for middle distance commuting is small electric vehicles operating on a sharing scheme, probably with autonomous driving capabilities (no longer the exclusive realm of sci-fi with successful demonstration in normal use by Google, and favourable legislation on the table in California). The Renault Twizy is a great example of a possible platform, as is the GM EN-V (props to Renault for actually making their version commercially available, unlike GM). These vehicles are cheap, quick, agile, compact, have decent range, and get by with small batteries.

Look forward to hearing people’s thoughts! Hopefully it won’t take me too long to frame mine.


[1]I shouldn’t make fun of this for a number of reasons, including:

- It was a pretty cool boat, and broke the road the world power boat record after a lot of hard work and commitment by those involved.

- It’s builder, Peter Bethune, got into the project with the best of intentions and, I suspect, does actually care quite a lot about being ‘eco friendly’.

- It was sunk during an anti-whaling protest… and I am pretty anti-whaling.

I will anyway though, for some other good reasons:
- For all his good intentions, Peter Bethune sent a bad message with the project. Earthrace was an incredibly inefficient vehicle, even more so than most ships, with the only ‘green’ claim was that it ran on ‘bio-diesel’. Current ‘bio-fuels’ are, for the most part, even less sustainable and environmentally friendly than regular fossil fuel. Maybe someday someone acheives something amazing with arid cropland and algae and closed cycle reactors, but for now it’s a total con and it allows (or allowed – most people agree it’s bullshit now) fossil fuel companies an easy way to argue against electric vehicles etc. Earthrace was NOT eco.
- The anti-whaling protest was being carried out in immensely irresponsible fashion by ‘eco’terrorist organisation ‘Sea Shepherd’. They are violent, dangerous, ineffective, and inevitably put other far better organisations in a bad light. Finally, the sinking was entirely the fault of the Earthrace crew (they were hit by the whaling ship while they were driving back and forth under its bow while trailing a rope trying to tangle its propellors). There was a lot of finger pointing and hand wringing at the time about how ‘The whaling captain swerved’. Whatever. True or not, if you are on the open ocean in a power boat that can do 70 knots, and you get hit by a whaling vessel that can do about 20 knots WHILE you’re trying to tangle its propellors with a rope then you’ve really got no one to blame but yourself.