Part of a four-part series related to creating more sustainable, resilient transport infrastructure. Other articles in the series include 5 Lessons The World Can Learn From Dutch Resilience, “Future-Proof” Technology Will Support Cities’ Sustainability and Resiliency Goals, and Full-Seats & Other Secrets to a More Sustainable Transport Future.
The last decade has seen a steady increase in the electrification of our transport network. The electric car (finally) appears here to stay, with sales up 60 percent in 2016 to two million vehicles. Boeing is backing electric planes and, of course, there is hyperloop. A big driver for the electrification of transport is the reduced environmental impact during operation. Electric vehicles do not necessarily use any less energy to move people about. However, electric power allows transport to move over to renewables and reduce pollution in some of the most affected areas.
The challenges of electrification are not insignificant, especially in long distance, high-speed travel. Yet, this is where hyperloop has the potential to be a game changer. Imagine traveling at the speed of a jet plane, with the grid distribution efficiency of a train, and almost no aerodynamic drag.
There are some unknowns around the hyperloop’s conversion efficiency, but it’s expected to be at least 60 percent better than what we have now. When we make the eventual move to a renewable grid, the benefits get even better. To wrap one’s head around why this is, one must compare hyperloop with the other major forms of transport and consider the constraints of energy stores (batteries, etc.) and the direction the energy grid is moving in.
Major forms of transport currently being electrified are cars, planes and trains. Electric cars have an ever-improving range and speed, and offer greater flexibility than hyperloop can hope to match for small commutes. But electric cars fall short as transport modes in the long haul/high speed area as they typically need to be charged after about 250 miles and are slower than high-speed transport modes. As such, electric vehicles and hyperloop are likely to be two very complementary and interconnected types of transport in the electrified future.
In many ways, the train is actually most analogous to hyperloop; they both can take electricity directly from the grid and they both run on specialized infrastructure – tracks. The big advantage to their development is that a lot of this infrastructure is already there. Trains are significantly slower than hyperloop and suffer far greater energy losses, the majority of which (approx. 60 percent) comes from aerodynamic drag. This is something Hyperloop avoids due to the way it operates.
Electric planes offer higher speeds than trains for domestic travel. Advances in light-weighting and battery technology mean that this technology is showing promise, but commercially viable electric passenger planes able to match current aviation capabilities look some way off. And, like trains, planes are a scheduled mode of transport, which quite often run with empty seats, a key factor to consider when thinking about sustainability. In fact, around 16 percent of all U.S. domestic airline seats go empty. And between 14 percent and 26 percent of seats are empty on international flights. Hyperloop’s modular design could massively reduce this as an issue, by offering flexibility in the number of pods required to meet passenger demand.
In many regions, renewable energy is not yet ubiquitous. As such, in those regions hyperloop would require energy from fossil fuel power stations. However, where this is the case, de-carbonization of the power grid is moving at pace, with the U.S. at about 15 percent renewable generation (half of it hydro). With infrastructure projects in production, and transmission and storage coming online, renewables are estimated to reach about one-third of generation by 2040.
Globally, the development of the European-North African HVDC grid will allow North Africa and Europe to store and share electricity, so that solar from Africa can power Europe when energy is required and, vice versa, wind and wave from Northern Europe can power Africa. As such, even though fossil fuels are still very much a part of the current energy mix, our reliance on them is decreasing.
For high speed, long distance travel, the combination of significantly reduced drag (and therefore improved efficiency) and the greater ability to schedule pods (to ensure they are full) means hyperloop is set to be a leader in operational sustainability when compared with other forms of analogous transport, especially when fed by a green grid.
Steve Carden is a leader of PA Consulting Group’s technology innovation organization. He is an expert in technology led-innovation, and has experience driving sustainability into the heart of new technology solutions, in this case, to the transport sector. Steve recently co-authored a series of briefs on breakthrough technologies for the UN Global Compact, and PA’s latest autonomous vehicle report.