The Ghosts of Energy Decisions of the Past

Guest blog by S. A. Shelley: Governments’ penchant for wasting taxpayer money and harming the environment is not a recent phenomenon but it went industrial in 20th century at all levels. At the beginning of the century Mother Nature and society had a tremendous capacity to forgive bad decisions even when some such decisions resulted in millions of deaths over the span of several decades. Human, sorry, people-kind abused Mother Nature and the pocketbooks of taxpayers in the name of progress and energy transition but managed to overcome crises such as anthropogenic acid deposition and the oil embargo of the 1970s. People-kind barely limped out of the 20th century into the 21st century. In all likelihood Mother Nature and taxpayer pocketbooks are now beyond the capacity to forgive our shortcomings and bad decisions for much longer.  Who is to blame for this? Big business has big shame, but most blame lies entirely before the governments who are elected to be wise but are faddish populists with inherent graft and “ism” agendas. Difficult and complex solutions require deep thinkers, not pot-addled Princes of Privilege (shout-out to Justin Trudeau, see notes 1 and 2).

Let’s look at some of those ghosts of decisions past…

In the middle of the last century, many municipal governments operated transit systems with electric trolly buses. Fig. 1 shows such a bus in operation by the City of Edmonton.

Fig 1. Edmonton Transit System (ETS) Trolley Bus in the Mid-1950s

However, the continued operation of such clean, green and quiet public transit into the 21st century did not align with the vision of the then progressive city politicians of the late 1980s and 1990s. As one commentator wrote:

The fact that most other North American cities got rid of their trolleys does not mean that they (city councilors) were wise or far sighted when they did so. But if you had stood up then before those city councils and talked about oil at $150 a barrel and vanishing glaciers, you would have been laughed out of the room.  

Before the decision was made to get rid of the electric trolley buses in Edmonton, politicians often made two arguments to support their case: 1) maintaining the overhead wires was too costly, and 2) modern diesel buses were cleaner and cheaper to operate. The argument against diesel should be obvious to everyone; the economic case is not as obvious but just as foolish. Studies have invariably concluded that electric trolley buses are, in fact, the cheapest transit system to build and operate, even cheaper than battery electric buses (see Urban Transport Magazine and Low-Tech Magazine). Unfortunately, battery electric buses are now the de riguer choice of city councils everywhere including in the city of Edmonton. Forty years after the initial decision was to get rid of electric trolley buses, the city is now buying more expensive battery electric buses.

Electric street cars were also quite common in urban municipalities, and they operated frequently, conveniently and safely for many years. Fig. 2, shows an electric streetcar operating in Los Angeles around 1960.

Fig 2. Los Angeles Streetcar around 1960

By 1960 over 1000 miles of streetcar lines (urban rail system) served the public in the greater municipality of Los Angeles. Yet in 1963 the city began ripping up and dismantling its once impressive system. There are numerous reasons given for the demise of urban rail system, and an often overlooked reason is that …city rules often kept fares artificially low. In other words, inept political meddling killed a good thing. Now, almost 60 years later, city of Los Angeles councilors have decided that streetcars are again an integral part of the transit system and they have embarked on building a new streetcar system starting with the 3.8 mile downtown route.

On a large scale these days, politicians are justifiably and frantically proclaiming the need for green and energy efficient transportation. Yet when they had it, they got rid of it. How many times must taxpaying citizens pay for the short-sighted planning and outright mistakes of politicians? How often are cities going to switch between urban rail, “clean” diesel (or LNG) buses and E-buses? What is the government transit plan going forward (Fig. 3)?

Fig 3. Municipal Transit Trajectory

It’s not just municipal transit which has suffered immeasurable damage because of flaky political thinking: personal transit is now under relentless and inconsistent attack by politicians.

In Europe, diesel cars became the government solution to achieving Kyoto Protocol CO2 reduction targets, and governments threw their resources into convincing citizens to drive diesel instead of gasoline powered ICEs. Now politicians everywhere are coercing their citizens to drive EVs, which have their own issues with sourcing critical materials in a sustainable and socially just manner (see Climate Nexus and Inside EVs) and cost. I doubt that any politician knows that it takes about 500,000 gallons of water, or about 2200 tonnes of water to mine 1 tonne of lithium.  Then there is the question of battery disposal, with forecasts indicating 2,000,000 tonnes per year of EV batteries will be tossed into landfills each year after 2030. Again, I doubt that any politician is thinking now about that future problem. I also wonder what the future of personal transit will be in the future: Will it be egalitarian or elitist (Fig. 4)?

Fig 4. Personal Transit Trajectory

If politicians are serious about clean and green transit and reducing CO2 emissions, then the politicians need to: (1) stop throwing out working municipal transit technology, and (2) get serious about shutting down all coal burning power plants instead of penalizing citizens for personal EV choices. Shutting down all coal burning power plants would cut umpteen millions more tonnes of CO2 emissions than taking all personal ICEs off the roads (see notes 3 and 4). As taxpayers, we’re paying over and over for the mistakes and short sighted woke-infused dreams of politicians at all levels. We need more reality and careful consideration about our next step forward with regards to transit and energy.

Vive l’Alberta Libre!

Shut Down Line 5

Notes:

  1. Thanks to Ms. S of Canada for suggesting the “Prince of Privilege” moniker for Justin Trudeau.
  2. The “How Dumb is Canada” energy blog for 2022 is still being written, because, regrettably, Canada is continuing to make dumb decisions at a rate faster than we can analyze.
  3. Umpteen is an acceptable measure of quantity – it’s more than a gob-full but less than a gazillion.
  4. The port of Vancouver in Canada is the largest coal exporting terminal in North America. Burning coal in China is just as bad as burning it in Canada. Stop that.
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