Challenges to oil dominance

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-119022517731291.jpg’, ‘Photo courtesy of‘, ‘Milwaukee Road’s electric-powered “Little Joe,” in retirement in Montana. Electric trains were from 40 to 60 percent less costly to maintain and far more durable than diesels. Yet in 1973, the Milwaukee Road began removing its 656 miles of electrified train service in Montana, Idaho and Washington just a few months before the Arabs briefly stopped shipping oil to the United States, producing a spike in oil prices.‘);

Sept. 12, alternatively-powered vehicles including hybrids, biodiesels and electrics on display at Cliffbreakers demonstrated their presence in the marketplace.

In his latest Energy Fair presentation, Chris Schneider shared his belief that through attrition the best vehicle technology will win out in the marketplace. The almost mystical belief in the magic of the marketplace ignores other forces that interfere with the alleged ironclad laws of supply and demand. The existence of OPEC is the most glaring example of how markets can be manipulated.

In his book Internal Combustion, Edwin Black places the energy issue into a historic perspective. He makes the case that society’s energy dependence has always involved greed, monopolies and market manipulation. In his view, the ultimate power struggle is controlling energy and the technologies to exploit it. For Black, the winning technologies are not necessarily the best technologies or those that best serve the public interest, but rather an outcome determined by the pursuit of money.

His historic perspective on monopolies involving wood, coal, batteries, transportation and oil is riveting and well documented. In the early 1900s, electric and steam engines dominated U.S. vehicle markets. The Electric Vehicle Company monopolized electric vehicles, but failed to invest in improving batteries or building an electric recharging network as promised. It focused on efforts to enforce a monopoly over the internal combustion engine. Henry Ford began mass producing gasoline-powered engines and eventually broke their monopoly.

By 1912, Thomas Edison had teamed with Henry Ford to mass produce an electric car.

The project was abandoned after a mysterious fire burned down Edison’s fireproof multi-building facility where he was assembling batteries. The firm hired to test the performance of the batteries appeared to sabotage the test results to favor an established lead acid battery manufacturer. While the dynamics differ, a recent tale of undermining the electric car is portrayed in the video Who Killed The Electric Car?

Electrified rail was well developed in New York and Chicago in the early 1900s. Later, electrified trolleys served cities and linked towns across the country only to be undermined by a coalition of auto-related interests.

As the need for transcontinental rail service grew, beginning in 1905 the Milwaukee Road laid out an electrified route from the Midwest to the Pacific Northwest. According to Black, a prolonged period of financial looting, back-room deals and banking and accounting manipulations undercut the electrified railroad’s financial success and led to the dominance of oil-powered diesel engines.

Electrified rail service was initiated in 1915 in the mountainous Montana portion of the line as it held a substantial cost advantage over coal-powered trains. Electrified trains did not need to carry fuel, and on downhill runs, the regenerative braking system fed electricity back into the power line. Since the original electrical supply came from nearby hydro plants, it was a renewable energy system.

Black reports that electric trains were from 40 to 60 percent less costly to maintain and far more durable than diesels. Yet, in 1973, the Milwaukee Road began removing its 656 miles of electrified train service in Montana, Idaho and Washington just a few months before the Arabs briefly stopped shipping oil to the United States producing a spike in oil prices.

Ironically, long-distance electrified rail service is well established in Europe, Asia, Australia and Latin America. The train from London to Paris is electric. We have experienced the comfort and speed of Japan’s electric bullet train.

At the IREA’s first energy fair, Jay Friberg presented the results of Bill Leighty’s study on the best means to transfer electricity from Dakota wind farms to Chicago either via DC power lines or as hydrogen electrolyzed from water and shipped in a pipeline. Perhaps the best use of western wind-generated electricity would be to help power adjacent transcontinental rail lines.

Possibly this time, the effort to reduce our reliance on oil-dominated transportation will succeed. Alternative technologies are well advanced and reliable. The high environmental, economic and human costs of fossil fuels are apparent to anyone paying attention. Processing Saskatchewan tar sands oil and shipping via a pipeline to Chicago requires a major energy investment and is environmentally damaging. Dwindling oil supplies, along with the recent court ruling favoring selected states’ rights to control auto carbon emissions, suggests the stranglehold of oil over our economy might be successfully challenged.

We would like to acknowledge Pat Wiener as Birgit Wolff’s primary set-up co-worker for the Ten Thousand Villages tent at this years’s Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyles Fair.

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are founders and officers of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association and coordinate the annual Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair. They have 3.2 kW of PV and a 1 kW wind generator at their home. Forty acres of their 180-acre home farm are in ecological restorations. They are also active in preserving natural areas. They are retired professors from Northern Illinois University.

from the Sept. 19 – 25, 2007, issue

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