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Monday, September 29, 2008

Out of gas, and everything else

Today was the first I heard that there's a severe gasoline shortage currently plaguing the southeastern United States, especially around Atlanta. Here in Portlandia, however, we have a different problem: not enough hydrogen filling stations.

Comments (14)

The gas shortage has been a huge issue here in Atlanta for the last few weeks. I'm one of about five bike commuters in this city, so it's not affecting me directly, but I see the gas lines and closed stations.

The lack of transportation choices here is suddenly very apparent to everyone. The mass transit system is extremely limited (and has the stigma of being only for the poor), bike lanes largely do not exist, and sprawl has been actively encouraged for decades. Many major streets don't even have sidewalks. That leaves most people with no other option when it turns out they can't fill their tanks. I have multiple coworkers who've said they would bike commute if facilities existed, but I can't blame them for not doing so now. It's scary sometimes.

I think this shows the value of Portland's thinking on transportation options and land use. I miss it there.

"I think this shows the value of Portland's thinking on transportation options and land use."

That is an entirely imagined Portland.

Portland would be no different if it faced that kind of gas shortage.

It's pure fanatasy that our region has a superior transportation system. The realtive miniscule number of bike commuters means nothing for the overall system. Our transit system has failed to even keep pace with population growth and the only reason people beleive and tout otherwise is the perpetual campaign of self promoting misinformation coming from various public agencies and officials.

If FormerPortland thinks there wouldn't be any gas lines here he's still got the Portland faith.

I spoke with my friend last night who lives in Midtown Atlanta. He was saying that he was not affected and that he could get away with using his car less than 3-4 times per month. It takes him 20 minutes to get to work on MARTA.

Here, on the other hand, it would take me "Travel time: 99 minutes (including 12 minutes walking and 25 minutes waiting)".

We have invested in extremely slow methods of transit.


You seem to have missed the memo about what the comment section of this blog has become.

You may be stating the bleeding obvious but there seem to be a limitless supply of “Bens” who will argue the opposite. Packed buses – “nobody uses them.” Packed trains - “crime-causing toys.” Thousand of cyclists with the numbers growing every day – “miniscule numbers.” $4 gas and declining supplies – “peak oil is a myth.” People walking in nice new neighborhoods – “it doesn’t look like Tigard so is unlivable.” House prices rise – “nobody wants to live here anymore.” House prices fall with the suburbs leading the way and falling more – “it’s the fault of the condos.” A few bucks spent painting bike lanes – “bikes get all the money and are oppressing me.” Portland tops all the “best places” lists after decades of slowly dying – “it was better in the 1970s.” You get the idea.

A real gas shortage would be scary to go thru. Even in Portland where people think they live in some sort of people powered paradise the impacts would be significant. Without gas (and diesel) not much happens in modern society.

It is a good argument for more divisification in the supply chain but I doubt anyone is really listening. Most of the activists are sitting around beating their tom-toms about fur or trees or some other silly thing.

We currently try to run the infrastructure using low inventories and long supply lines in order to minimize carrying costs. But the problem with that model is that is something goes wrong it really goes wrong in a hurry.

As an energy investor, it's no big secret that gasoline supplies in the Southeast have been seriously limited by Hurricane Ike. Just for starters, it largely closed down refineries in much of Texas and Louisiana. It also disrupted supply lines from the Gulf of Mexico and damaged a number of offshore rigs. If a similar disruption, such as a major earthquake, happened here on the west coast causing refineries in WA and CA to stop operation; a similar shortage would result.

Regarding the hydrogen thing--I found the quotes by the Toyota representative rather amusing. The automakers go around saying "there's no infrastructure", and the people who are supposedly working on building the fueling stations (esp. the big oil companies) are going around saying "there's no cars". Effectively, they're just playing the blame game and using involvement in hydrogen fueling as a "green PR moment" to "show their commitment to sustainability". It's been like this for years. If hydrogen is going to be the fuel of choice (which I strongly believe it should), it's going to have to be from outside the existing hydrocarbon-based companies. And possibly outside the existing automakers.

Hydrogen is an effective fuel--it's more efficient than hydrocarbon fuel (and far more efficient than oxygenated fuels like ethanol). Plus no carbon=no CO2. It'll be harder for folks like Sam the Tram, Earl the Pearl and Streetcar Smith to justify super-densification and toy trains.

Hydrogen is not an effective fuel, as it is not a fuel at all. Hydrogen is a fantastically expensive and difficult way to store energy derived from actual fuels (like natural gas, mainly -- the source of 99% of hydrogen in this country). It does burn clean at the point of use, the polluting having occurred upstream when you tap the natural gas fields and pipe it or ship it as LNG.

There's also a tremendous amount of polluting that occurs in making the extraordinarily demanding components that are required if you want to use the universe's lightest and smallest element in quantities that enable you to do more than lift a balloon. Hydrogen embrittles metals, destroys seals rapidly, and reacts with _everything_, which is why it doesn't occur in nature and has to be separated from things like hydrocarbons.

Yes, in theory, we could use electrolysis to liberate hydrogen from water, but the energy penalty there is the barrier that can't be wished away -- you get less energy back from burning a mole of hydrogen than it cost you to create that mole; hence, if you have energy available to do useful work, are you going to use it directly, or are you going to take a loss just to transform it into a form that is really hard to handle and store and can only be used in really expensive vehicles that few can afford? (On submarines, the oxygen generators -- electrolysis machines that make hydrogen as a waste product -- are called "bombs" for a reason.)

As for "hydrogen = no CO2," sorry, wish it were so. That's like saying that an electric lawn mower doesn't produce CO2 ... well, yeah, not at the point of use, but with Oregon getting the plurality of its electricity from coal, anything that uses electricity (like reforming natural gas to make hydrogen, which also emits the carbon in the natural gas directly) makes CO2.

Hell, Oregon is even getting ready to send your tax dollars to "Snake River Ethanol," a new plant being proposed for Nyssa, OR, where they plant to burn MORE coal to make more ethanol from more imported corn (with the plant sited just inside Oregon to take advantage of our insane state subsidies that add to the federal ones).

Bottom line is that if you build a city to be utterly dependent on fossil fuels, don't be surprised when things fall apart when fossil fuels get scarce. Most Portlanders won't avoid any of the pain that Atlanta and other places experience when gas gets tight -- they can't, because their whole day-to-day lifestyle is predicated on abundant cheap gasoline. And the days of abundant cheap gas are numbered.

I was about to give my anti-hydrogen rant but Mr Seldes did a superb job.

Basically moving people is expensive. The best we can do is to shorten the trips.

Yeah, the hydrogen thing, as well as most everything else that enviromentalists tell us is a basic violation of the first law of thermodynamics.

I'm always amazed by how technically illiterate many environmentalists are but then I recall in college that the smart kids went to engineering school and the dumb ones stood around and protested things.

Electric cars with their toxic batteries and inefficient energy conversion system, hydrogen fuel cells with their hyper-expensive fuel, subsidy sucking ethanol, etc. all trying to violate that first law.

No such thing as a free lunch the wise man once said. Which is really just the way an economist expresses the first law.

Back to the topic at hand, a gas shortage wouldn't be pretty. If it lasted more a few weeks you would start to see people fighting in gas lines. It doesn't take much to push people over the edge if the system gets stressed.

George, I don't quite understand how you can say that hydrogen isn't a fuel. It is true that many of the "hydrogen" vehicles in production today are merely using it as a sort of intermediary means. But there are actually other ways to use it as a primary fuel source--it can be done fairly "low-tech", too.

The reason why gasoline, ethanol, etc. burn is because they contain hydrogen within their molecules. It doesn't have all the ancillary elements (carbon, oxygen), so it, by definition, is more efficient. It is a "simpler" chemical reaction.

Also, hydrogen does not need to be transported to the fueling stations. It can be produced completely on-site, negating any need for tanker trucks.

I remember going through a "real gas shortage" in Portland the 1970s. It was inconvenient but not the end of the world.

I also know a guy whose work involved aerial photography in Atlanta. His take on the pedestrian/bicycle unfriendly aspect of Atlanta was something that he expressed to me in the 1980s. Unlike Portland, Atlanta burned to the ground and was rebuilt and later designed around the needs of vehicular traffic. Only parts of Florida are less bicycle friendly.

"Portland would be no different if it faced that kind of gas shortage."

I would speculate that the person who wrote the above statement has never tried to bicycle in Atlanta.

Fuel = an energy source.

Energy source = a resource that returns more energy than is required to gather and use.

Peat, wood, coal, oil, wind, waves, solar irradiation, whale oil -- all these were or are energy sources. Harnessing them requires an investment of energy but they return more than they use.

Hydrogen, which does not exist unbound in nature, is not an energy source and more than an alkaline battery is an energy source. You can carry energy with hydrogen (at a penalty) just like you can carry energy with an alkaline battery, but until you supply the energy from a real fuel, there's nothing there.


P.S. Regardless of the fantasy about having thousands of hydrogen reforming stations all over the country (obviating the need to transship hydrogen), any vehicle that used hydrogen would have to carry a supply with it, so you're still talking about a very difficult problem. And running a network of natural gas to every filling station is no picnic either. Especially since no one seems to want LNG up and down the US coasts; if we shift from oil to less-dense natural gas, we are going to be importing LNG day and night just to keep up (if we can afford it) with our "hydrogen" economy.

My father worked on hydrogen vehicles for the US Post Office in the 70s; very little has changed since then because the problems are fundamental to the task -- trapping a very light, very small, highly reactive element in a mesh of much, much bigger molecules. It's like trying to catch mosquitoes with a fish net. The weight penalty of the storage tanks (whether they be conventional tanks or one of the solid-state storage devices that try to put the hydrogen into the interstitial gaps in the solid matrix) alone kills hydrogen vehicles for all practical purposes.

Sherwood, I see you arrived to trumpet the status quo nonsense.
Your description says absolutely nothing about the the topic.
Instead you toss out the tired mischaracteriation of transportation criticism.
One that fits the easy way to dismiss it.

"Packed uses – Packed trains - Thousand of cyclists with the numbers growing every day"

That would have zero impact on a fuel shortage here in the Portland region.

Declining supplies are from declining production brought about by the anti-car zealots such as you.
"People walking in nice new neighborhoods“?

What new neighborhoods? The Pearl? Or how about that wonderful mini-city Cascade Station? The auto oriented big box strip mall.
This tried and failed mixed use TOD density approach is a fantasy as any substitute for the fuel supply demand.

Tigard looks just like the rest of the region,,,, Beaverton to Gresham, and Metro's chaos planning promises to make it all even more like LA (or Atlanta) every day while claiming they are avoding that very outcome. It's a way to never admit huge failures such as Cascade Station, SoWa and the Beaverton Round.

A few bucks spent painting bike lanes provides no measurable benefit to the regional trasnsportastion system.
And Portland doesn't top all the “best places” lists.

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