Comparing Process Energy Efficiencies
When the switch is made from diesel to electric power, energy efficiency is increased in numerous ways. Electricity is generated in smoothly rotating equipment with the force coming from uniformly applied steam pressure. This part of the generating system is true regardless of the fossil or nuclear fuel used to generate the power. Solar thermal generation, wind, or water turbines use similar generation processes but are even simpler with nature providing the forces that turn the electrical generators. At the other end of the power delivery system, the forces are again applied in generally uniform constant application of electromagnetic forces turning a drive shaft.
Diesel truck engines, on the other hand, are anything but mechanically efficient. Each piston inside the diesel engine is moving rapidly back and forth under the force of thousands of diesel fuel explosions, delivering power in a vibrating oscillating machine that inherently wastes significant amounts of internal energy constantly reversing the momentum of pistons, moving hundreds of small parts including valves, rods, pistons, cranks, and crankshafts in opposing and continually changing speeds and directions.
All in an effort to take the chaotically random energy of internal combustion and turn it into energy that moves an object in a generally straight line. It takes a lot of energy to constantly change the momentum of all those individual parts and all of those pieces must be manufactured to standards that allow them to absorb huge amounts of energy that does not get transmitted to the wheels of the truck. Proportionally more energy is lost out of diesel tailpipes than is lost out of any electrical generating facility stack. Though diesel locomotives are more efficient engines than truck engines because of scale, these are also very inefficient. The real fuel savings in locomotives comes from converting from diesel to electricity. When added to the efficiencies resulting from less friction of steel wheels on rails compared to rubber tires pounding and being reshaped constantly by pavement, electric trains are doubly fuel efficient.
Because electrical energy can easily be stored on the grid by reversing the current, electrified trains can generate electricity from braking. Termed regenerative braking, slowing one train down banks energy back to the transmission system to assist another locomotive speeding up some where else along the tracks. Energy from braking a truck must be dispersed as waste heat.
Electrified Railroads Build in Flexibility to Deal with Future Energy Price and Supply Crises
According to transportation researcher, Alan Drake, the U.S. can easily offset the required "new" electricity demand of an electrified national rail system, "Transferring inter-city freight from truck to electrified double stack container rail replaces roughly 20 BTUs of refined diesel with 1 BTU of electricity... . This 20 to 1 replacement ratio, diesel “traded” for renewable electricity (or conservation), has significant economic, energy, environmental, public health & safety and national security benefits. Savings on the order of two million barrels per day or about 11% of current US oil consumption are possible. That 11% performs a critical service – one that will be difficult to reduce in an oil emergency - unless, of course, we can turn to an expanded and electrified railroad system. A system that significantly reduces oil consumption before an emergency, and can expand quickly to save even more oil during an emergency... . This creates an oil-free transportation backbone that can deliver food and other essential materials regardless of the severity and duration of any future oil shortage. This “new and improved” system can respond quickly to a prolonged oil emergency with proper planning."[Drake, A., An American Citizen’s Guide to an Oil-Free Economy: A How-To Manual for Ending Oil Dependency With valuable bonus information on Saving Our Economy, Our Planet and Strengthening Our National Security, unpublished manuscript, 2010, copied with author’s permission.]
North America is at a transportation policy crossroads.
Citizens must decide and tell their government where to allocate limited financial resources. Should the nation invest in an electrified Steel Interstate System or fund improving the highway network for trucks? The information on this website should make the answer plain. Safety, public health, fuel savings, environmental and land preservation, climate change, cost, and economic benefits all favor building the Steel Interstate. A sea change in investment strategy is needed towards funding multi-modal solutions, especially rail. You can help make this happen by donating money and working to build a Steel Interstate Regional Initiative in your area of the country.