June 17, 2023

Battery powered locomotives

California is hard at work cutting carbon emissions. It has heeded the climate warning signs of drought, wildfires, and flash flooding and landslides, and is putting in place a serious climate action plan that reduces fossil fuel use in every sector. For this, it has deployed the California Air Resources Board, or CARB, whose acronym should be revised to "DECARB", as it now includes carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the list of pollutants it needs to fight.

One way CARB is doing that is by telling railroads that starting in 2030 they are no longer allowed to use diesel locomotives that are more than 23 years old. Turning off the dirty diesel locomotives would save Californians $ 32bn in health costs.

You would think that the railroads would come back with a request for a huge chunk of money to help them modernise the rail network, and catch up with everyone else on the planet by making them electric. 

But no. The railroad industry is whining that they are already at work making their operations more climate friendly, that CARB doesn't have jurisdiction over the railroads, and that anyway there's no way battery operated locomotives will be ready by 2030 - because that's the only way they can imagine going electric. And because they are a big industry, the whining is done in a court of law.

I don't know about how railroads claim to be cutting emissions, nor do I know what jurisdictions CARB may or may not have, but I do know that battery operated locomotives are a solution looking for a problem. 

The idea seems to be deployed whenever someone wants to hold on to the past, that mythical and glorious past when a fleet of trains crisscrossed the United States running on coal-powered steam engines, on rails constructed right through indigenous peoples' lands, with total disregard for environmental and territorial issues.

The reason why e-cars and e-bikes need to run on batteries is that they can travel on myriads of roads, streets, alleys, and paths, not to mention off-road. A train however is confined to the rails, and right now there aren't that many of those, so equipping them with overhead wires is eminently doable. To use a battery for something that is catenary-ready is - a solution looking for a problem. 

It would also be an enormous waste of lithium, unconscionable at a time that we need all the lithium we can get to build batteries for those vehicles that are not confined to rails, like e-cars, e-motorcycles, and e-bikes, as fast as we can. For every locomotive battery that carries a whopping 7 MWh of energy, you can build 175 e-car batteries with 40 kWh each, or nearly ten thousand e-bike batteries carrying the typical  750 Wh.

The nation's rail network needs to be upgraded to accommodate high speed trains, and installing overhead wiring would be a relatively small addition to the cost. China is as vast as the United States and for years now they have enjoyed a high speed rail network running on overhead wires, so it's not like it's unproven tech. If you could cover Boston to Washington DC, or St. Louis to Atlanta, or San Francisco to Los Angeles, in three to four hours, you wouldn't take a plane (those are not about to get decarbonised, either, no matter what airline CEOs say).

The US railroad industry's diesel engines are only one step up from the pre-war coal-powered steam engines. It's time for US rail to come into the twenty-first century.