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General News · 29th June 2008
Barry Saxifrage
Last year I presented my concerns that our ferry won't be viable much longer because of the amount of fossil fuel it burns. Today things look even worse. We need to work together now as individuals, families, businesses, ferry folks and government to fashion a hopeful sustainable alternative in time.

How much fossil fuel does it use? Our ferry burns more fuel per kilometer than 200 Priuses. More than 70 Hummers.

Put another way, you could drive a Prius to Mexico City on the 216 litres used by our ferry each round trip. Or you could drive a Prius around the world at our latitude on amount of fuel used in five round trips.

On average our ferry carries 14.4 cars per trip. The gas mileage works out to 65L/100km per car. That's almost 5 times worse mileage per car than a Hummer...and 13 times more fuel per car than a Prius uses. If you had a car that got 65L/100km it would cost you over $600 to fill the gas tank. In Germany today it would cost $1,000.

In short, that's a lot of increasingly expensive fuel.

Fares are already increasing at a rate that will see a doubling every few years. A request for second fare hike this year (20%) was just made.

The price of gas has more than doubled in Canada in the last 5 years to over $1.35 per liter. In Europe, the price is already over $2.20 per liter. The price of oil is on a multi-year tear, fast approaching $140/barrel.

And yet fossil fuel prices are still cheap compared to what they could be soon. Driven by the twin forces of global supply-and-demand and rapidly accelerating climate chaos, fuel prices are likely to rise ever upwards.

As the saying goes, "you can't argue with the market". Supply and demand determine pricing. And we have a problem with both.

Despite record prices, global oil production fell slightly last year. George W. Bush has twice gone hat in hand to Saudis in recent months asking for more supply. Twice they said no. Global demand is now 1.5% higher than supply.

A mere 1.5% might not seem like a lot but a recent US Dept of Energy study calculated that a 4% shortfall in global supply vs demand would cause oil prices to nearly triple.

Here is what some of the big oil players predict:

$170/barrel this summer according to president of OPEC

$200/barrel within a year according to Goldman Sachs investment bank

$200/barrel next year according to Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens (now investing heavily in wind farms)

$250/barrel within a year according to president of Russian energy giant Gazprom

$500/barrel in three to five years according to former US Dept of Energy specialist Robert Hirsch.

More supply? The Saudis are the only nation on earth that might have enough extra inexpensive-to-get oil to keep up with increasing global demand for a few more years. And they refuse to tell anyone how much they have. Or to pump more. If they can.

In short, an affordable oil future depends on either significantly reduced global demand very soon...or the Saudis having lots of extra easy oil in reserve and a willingness to pump faster now at a lower price. Neither seem likely to me.

If we want a hopeful future for our families and that we can control...we must start working now to create new low-fossil-fuel alternatives for our basic needs, like our ferry.

As bad as the fossil fuel pricing news is from supply and demand, it is small potatoes compared to the price pressure coming to save civilization from climate chaos.

There is no future scenario that includes fossil fuel usage anything like what we have now. If we are foolish enough to try it we will lose the ecosystems the 7 billion of us rely on for food, water and shelter. The human use of fossil fuels will end within decades either way. It's just a matter of whether we are left with hope or misery.

In BC the law already says we must cut fossil fuel use 33% in 11 years. And 80% within 40 years. That's the political reality of last year. This year the science says 90% in 30 years will be needed. Or more. And the biggest use of fossil fuels in BC is transportation. A ferry that uses 6.5L to move a car 10km is a big square peg for a small round hole. And any new ferry we might be lucky enough to get will need to be viable decades from now in the very low fossil fuel future.

We still have a narrow window to gracefully transition our essential daily activities to a fossil fuel restricted future. Good solutions exist. But they take time, effort and money to make happen. Costs are going up and options are closing off as we delay. The Cortes community...individuals, businesses, industries and government...need to start acting seriously on our transportation systems including our ferry.

One option might be a new ship. In theory, ships can be the most efficient form of transport on the planet. "Hybrid" ferries exist that use sail, solar, electric motors combined with fossil fuel. Freighters and big ships are using high-tech kites.

Another option could be alternative power source. Some ships are being retrofitted with electric motors. The ballast replaced by batteries. The energy supplied by a clean electric grid.

Perhaps an expanded public transit system linked to a part-time passenger ferry could be part of a solution. Use a car ferry on some days/runs and a passenger ferry other days/runs.

Solutions exist but they won't appear magically, or in time, without the community being involved, flexible and aware of the very real constraints imposed by rising fossil fuel prices and decreasing fossil fuel allowances that are coming.

While it is a rational choice for individuals to use the ferry less as fares go up, it won't solve the problem. Our ferry costs about the same to run empty of cars as it does full. If ridership declines, the remaining users will just have to pay more. A nasty spiral.

The same is true if many folks decided to walk on instead of taking their cars. Same ferry fuel use, same costs. A big increase in walk ons vs drive ons means walk on fares will go way up.

A favoured solution of many, including Claire Trevena and NDP, is to have the government cover the extra costs by making it part of the "highway system". While this would be great for islanders, it seems a fantasy at this point. Everyone in BC is struggling with high transportation costs. Cost overruns are everywhere in the public transport system from bus fuel to asphalt prices. The Cortes ferry is already subsidized by around $1,000,000 dollars a year. That's a thousand dollars per resident. What are the long term chances for even more. Especially because the "have the taxpayers pay for more of it" solution totally ignores the climate chaos emissions and laws. Our ferry emits one tonne of CO2 each year per resident. That's more than the each of us can emit for ALL our transportation all year and still hope to prevent disastrous climate chaos.

The solution to our ferry is the same as the solution for our cars, homes, food, power, business and public institutions. It is to quickly switch to low-fossil-fuel infrastructure while we still can.

For those that think it unlikely that Cortes could lose it's ferry because it uses too much fossil fuel, just look at the airlines. It turns out that jetliners, just like cars, have gas hogs and gas sippers. The airlines with gas hogs, like Boeing 707s, have had to abandon hundreds of them in the last year. Perfectly good multi-million dollar planes abandoned because they use too much fossil fuel per km. This has lead to a 10% cut in flights in North America this year. Over 100 communities have lost commercial jet service this year. Hundreds more are slated to lose it next year. The airlines that planned ahead are doing fine. The ones that ignored the risk are losing billions, going bankrupt, throwing out jetliners and removing service to small communities.

Cortes is a small community with a number of fossil fuel challenges ahead of us. We can create a vibrant, hopeful future for our families, business and community if we act together, seriously, and soon on fossil fuel alternatives.
Yes, electricity too...
Comment by Barry Saxifrage on 1st July 2008
I agree with Richard's comment that we need to be generating our own local, non-fossil-fuel power. Our two biggest direct uses of fossil fuels on Cortes are for transportation and power.

I also agree that tidal power (moon power) should be expanded. The Linnaea senior class recently toured the Race Rocks tidal generator near Victoria. And there are over a dozen new applications for tidal power generation in Johnstone Strait. The closest to completion is on Quadra.

Tidal power is an excellent fit for BC because it generates reliable summer power. BC is going to need lots more reliable summer power in the future.

BC has a large hydro power system currently supplying 80% or more of the province's electricity. More hydro is coming soon with all the many run-of-the-river projects like the Plutonic project in Klahoose territory.

However, hydro power will be increasingly challenged in future summers. Data shows year to year decreases in:

* summer snowpack
* summer rainfall
* summer river flows

Another huge and reliable summer power source in BC is solar: both hot water and power panels. It is also something individuals can do now without waiting for big groups or biz to organize. Our family is working to install solar panels that will feed directly into the BC Hydro grid allowing all the potential power to be used. These panels will supply our local grid with some non-fossil-fuel summer power for decades.

Solar panels are expensive and require big dollars upfront. Some governments are doing creative financing schemes to cover these costs. I hope Canada, BC and our SRD do the same soon. We are going to need it.

Wind power is cheaper than solar electricity generation. However wind tends to blow most in the rainy months. The NW is already experiencing grid balancing problems because of too much water and wind at the same time. Wind is great for off-grid systems to recharge batteries in winter...but it is unclear it can be a major source for the grid to compliment hydro in BC.

George Monbiot, in his book Heat, as well as many other groups have calculated that the only way to move society off of fossil fuels is to create an "electricity internet" using the existing grid. To replace the huge energy we get from fossil fuels with non-fossil-fuel electricity will require millions of small and large clean power sources (solar, wind, hydro, tidal, geothermal) linked into a two-way grid.

In the UK a new law says all new buildings must be net power producers in a few years.

That's the direction our family is heading. I encourage other individuals, groups and business on Cortes to do the same. I strongly encourage our local government to help make this possible for more people.

To highlight how fast change is happening, two years ago our Prius got dismissive and pitying glances from SUV and truck owners. Some saw it as an expensive "statement". But now studies show the Prius is the cheapest new vehicle you can buy when all costs are totalled up over 5 years. Fuel savings and resale value are sky high. Today when we (rarely) fill up and the pump stops at $25 or $35 dollars the looks are very different. Some dealers now refuse to take SUVs as trade-ins and wait times for hybrids can be many months.

Transition while you still can.
Beyond the Ferry...
Comment by Richard Lawton on 30th June 2008
There's an interesting and very useful Australian website (that I'd post a link to except I lost it!) that summarizes the requirements and potential yield of the various alternate energy sources. (Solar, wind, river, geothermal, tide etc.)

A while ago I went through the possibilities for Cortes, plugging in real numbers or best guesses, and it was depressing. Literally everything failed the acceptance test but one:

* wind - we don't have any except during storms when there's too much;
* solar - nearly useless except in the summer when the efficiency of panels drop due to the high temperature;
* rivers - we don't have any;
* streams - only a few are viable and only on a household scale;
* biofuel - we have limited agricultural land, limited fertilizer and limited water to irrigate except close to lakes... and I think we'll need to eat the corn;
* geothermal - nope...
* and so on.

But one alternate energy source shines - TIDE FLOW!

We have two large bodies of saltwater fed by narrow channels where massive amounts of water flow most of the time - the Gorge and Von Donop Inlet.

Large, slow underwater propellers, safely out of reach of vessels, could create power on a meaningful community scale.

Tide energy is a bit awkward because it isn't continuous. Each time the tide reverses it slows, stops and then slowly resumes again, at ever changing, sometimes inconvenient times. And both locations are a bit remote. So instead of connecting to the power grid, perhaps creating hydrogen in portable containers might be more workable (just speculation).

Barry is right that we need to prepare for serious changes or we'll get caught with our pants down again like we did with basic community issues. (You know, all that boring nonsense about land, earnings, a future for our kids and stuff like that. Heck, trees are far more important...)

This is something we should research and prove locally. The frustration of trying to get government to listen to a little Island that throws toilet rolls at the Premier will only increase if we run to them and start begging for grant money or expecting them to change everything out there to suit our wishes.

But... ooops... that puts us face to face with our little hidden handicap.... can we DO anything practical and constructive as a community?

We are "real good" at raining on everyone else's parade with no parade of our own, aren't we?

Can Cortes create a parade of its own?