With voters concerned about record-high oil and gas prices and a slow economy, both presidential candidates are urging strong measures to reduce U.S. dependence on oil.
Last week, in a widely reported speech from Lansing, Mich., Sen. Barack Obama said, “breaking our oil addiction is one of the greatest challenges our generation will ever face,” and “will take nothing less than a complete transformation of our economy.”
Sen. John McCain has long called for breaking dependence on foreign oil for the sake of the economy, national security and the environment. Both propose accelerated battery research, tax incentives and other measures so consumers can soon buy affordable plug-in hybrid and electric-powered cars – cars that get 150 miles a gallon.
Most cars are driven less than four hours a day, meaning they could plug in and recharge for the other 20 hours at an equivalent electric cost of less than a dollar a gallon. A Seattle company, V2Green, is working with regional agencies, national utilities and the Idaho National Laboratory to demonstrate how recharging cars with smart technology at off-peak times can also make the power grid more efficient.
But what about the trucks and other heavy duty vehicles we need to deliver the goods to keep the economy going? High fuel costs are raising the price of almost everything we buy. Trucks account for 10 percent of total U.S. oil consumption. But unlike cars, long distance and local delivery trucks are on the road most of the day, making recharging difficult.
Two Seattle-area companies that are in the delivery business, Paccar and AmazonFresh, are working on solutions.
AmazonFresh, the online grocery of Amazon.com, has a fleet of delivery trucks it wants to make greener. One innovative approach under consideration would be to reduce the vehicle miles traveled (VMT) by working with the Washington State Department of Transportation, King County and others to install pick-up kiosks at regional park-and-ride lots. Customers could make orders online during the day and when they return to the park-and-ride lot to head home, their orders would be ready to pick up. This could work not only for groceries, but for anything Amazon sells, and as a potential portal to arrange for pick-up services for everything from prescriptions to pizzas.
Vehicle miles are reduced in two ways: Delivery trucks don’t have to travel into neighborhoods to make deliveries, cutting miles and time; and customers don’t have to make side trips to run errands at the end of the day, saving more miles and time.
A longer-term solution for delivery trucks will be to move as much as possible from diesel fuel to carbon-free electricity.
Several manufacturers are working on plug-in hybrid electric delivery trucks, and national companies such as Wal-Mart are helping to jump-start production by making the initial orders in hopes of reducing costs by increasing volume production.
National and state government delivery truck fleets could help lead the way as well. France is making government orders for electric mail-delivery trucks for use in urban areas. With a clean electric power grid in Washington, our state should be a leader as well. (Imagine a fleet of clean, plug-in school buses picking up and dropping off Washington state school kids, which also would cut their exposure to harmful diesel emissions.)
Changing long-haul trucking will be more difficult. A typical long-haul truck travels more than 500 miles a day, 100,000 miles a year, using 20,000 gallons of diesel. On any given day there are 100,000 trucks on Interstate 5. On average, a long-haul truck also idles 1,690 hours a year.
New technologies are coming. Paccar, parent of Kenworth, has developed new hybrid electric and (for the long-haul market) liquid natural gas trucks to meet the challenges of a future where the U.S. must be less dependent on oil to help the economy, security and the environment.
One immediate solution is to electrify truck stops so that trucks can connect to the power grid and avoid burning diesel while idling. A system of recharging stations along interstate routes and at warehouse and transfer points can be implemented relatively quickly and would be cost effective for truckers.
Also in the near term, retrofitting freight rigs with better aerodynamics and accessories should be a high priority. Replacements and retrofits to the current West Coast truck fleet could save a billion gallons of diesel fuel and $5 billion in fuel costs over the 10-year average remaining truck life. Other benefits including cutting carbon dioxide emissions by 110 million metric tons and nitrogen oxide emissions by 110,000 metric tons.
Oregon nonprofit Cascade Sierra Solutions has created a set of retrofit measures to accomplish these goals and is rolling them out at trucker outreach centers in the I-5 corridor.
The Northwest has an opportunity to become a center of transportation technology to meet one of the central challenges of our time. Reducing dependency on imported oil in transportation can be good for regional businesses, as well as being the right thing to do.
STEVE MARSHALL is a senior fellow at Discovery Institute’s Cascadia Center For Regional Development and a nationally recognized expert on energy and transportation issues. BRUCE AGNEW is director of Cascadia. Idaho National Laboratory, Microsoft Corp. and other sponsors will host the conference “Beyond Oil: Transforming Transportation” Sept. 4-5 in Redmond. More info: www.cascadiaproject.org