Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Not Oil-Power but Horse-Power.

"The Independent" newspaper reports that least 70 towns in France have adopted horse-drawn carriages as a substitute for vehicles powered by petroleum-derived fuel. The move is part of an effort to reduce CO2 emissions. Now, horses do emit CO2, but only as derived from renewable carbon-fuels, oats and hay. The carriage is called the "hippoville", and is fitted with disc-brakes, signal-lamps and removable seats. As far as cost is concerned, a starting price (so to speak) is around £8,000 (11,000 Euro), which is about the price of 160 barrels of crude oil. I note this morning, incidentally, that the price of North Sea, Brent crude has fallen by $3 dollars to $93 per barrel, as a result of the promise by OPEC to increase its production by 500,000 barrels a day. One wonders, with record amounts of water being pumped out of the giant Ghawar field (the world's biggest producer of crude oil) how feasible this is, amid speculation that its production has already peaked.

As has been pointed-out, the hippoville is not a pollution-free vehicle, since a 1,000 pound horse produces about 50 pounds of dung every day along with six to ten gallons of urine, and which if soaked-up by bedding (straw) would provide another 50 pounds daily. Extrapolating, over a year, such a horse will produce about ten tonnes of dung and an equivalent amount of urine/straw. Now when I was a child, it was a common sight to see people going behind a horse, picking-up its dung to put on their gardens. Rhubarb was particularly favoured for this treatment, as became the subject of a number of British lavatorial jokes; such is our sense of humour. So, the horse exhaust-products could be put to good use in agriculture.

It is worth recalling that before the motor car became popular, there was speculation that the projected future number of horses would leave city-folk waste-deep in dung and it was noted the considerable effort of New York City in disposing of some 12,000 horse carcasses per year. I presume they were rendered-down to make glue and for other purposes. I walked past an expensive restaurant in Thun in Switzerland, some time ago, and noted with surprise that "pferderfleisch"was on the menu, "horse meat", and so this might prove another advantage to the horse, at least in some countries, though I doubt it over here, in this nation of animal-lovers.

Quite seriously, I fully expect to witness a come-back for the horse, amid the society of local farms and small communities that I envisage we will return too, from whence we came before the age of cheap-oil. As Thomas Hardy described in his novels, e.g. The Mayor of Casterbridge (his alias for Dorchester, in the south-west of England), such an agrarian lifestyle was extremely hard, especially if you were poor. He describes the journeyman farm labourers who walked 20 miles a day in search of work, and worked for a few pennies a day until that work was done, and then on to whatever next they could find. There was no welfare state then, and if a labourer was ill, or injured in this terribly dangerous profession, he simply got no money.

I do not envisage this extreme, but an emphasis on home-production - local farms and breeding horses and other animals is more realistic than the "hydrogen economy" for instance, or other technical fixes that will not be introduced in time, or if at all, to save us from the imminent energy-crunch, particularly in terms of transportation. If this nation and others must become as near self-sufficient as possible to survive, the horse will become an essential ingredient of the "energy mix" we often hear about.

Related Reading.
(1) "The horse: Is this the secret weapon to beat global warming?" By Geoffrey Lean, Environment Editor for The Independent.


Anonymous said...

It’s not, strictly speaking, on subject, but your piece about returning to direct horsepower caused me to think of returning to really useful horsepower, the iron horse, the railway train. Would it be possible to carry out an energy calculation for the following railway proposal, to compare it with conventional railways now in use.
Anyone who has driven in a truck-infected road, alongside a railway track will probably have noticed all of that lovely empty railway is seldom used, except by the occasional train, probably with lots of empty seats. In England there is a busy stretch of the M1 that runs alongside a main railway track which runs alongside a main canal, and the canal probably runs alongside an old major road which almost certainly started out in life as a horsetrack and before that a footpath. Thousands of years of really useful transport jammed close together within a few hundred yards of each other.
Of the three, railway, canal, road, the only one really used to saturation is the road.
How about increasing the loading on the railway, to reduce the load on the M1?
Surely in terms of power usage, by virtue of running on steel rails, a railway is less energy-inefficient than almost any other form of transport?
Consider the present day railway, the trains are modern, fast, long and thin.
The first adjective, “modern” is good. The last 3, the “fast”, “long” & “thin”, are, taken together, the reason why modern trains cannot operate anywhere in the world without massive subsidies, either as state owned or quasi-private entities as in the UK. They are bad.
They have to be fast because Japanese and French trains are fast. Fashion. Why should trains be fast? Aircraft are fast. Wouldn’t a “medium” speed, say, compared with other surface transport, but based on a 24/24 operation, be better for society? Less energy consumption, more reliable?
They have to be long because they are thin.
They are thin because of the small railway gauge originally selected by early railway builders, and retained virtually unchanged ever since. Suppose we increased the gauge size and thus made trains fat, really fat, so that they could carry really large volumes of cargo?
To have to ask the question is as if …..
It’s as if Boeing had never invented the Jumbo jet, and thereby made obsolete transatlantic passenger ships. The jumbo jet was envisaged as a large container carrier.
It’s as if Brunel had never invented large ships, and thereby made it possible for steamers to cross the Atlantic none stop. Brunel’s large ships were cargo carriers, with passenger space.
Brunel and Boeing, actualised the cube law, whereby doubling an objects dimensions, cubes it’s volume.
Why don’t we cube-law trains?
Let’s go back to first principles, first as they are now. The world standard of cargo transport, is now, thank to the Americans, the 20 foot container. This is a box 20 feet long, 8 feet wide and 8 feet high. It’s dimensions have resisted metrication, simply because they started in the USA and their use expanded so rapidly that by the time the contintal Europeans cottoned onto what was going on, the basic structures were already forming, railway wagons, ships, berths, cranes, terminals. The only variation is the 40 footer, height and width being the same as the 20.
So why not redesign our trains to accommodate the container, and the cube law?
Our present day enormously long container trains are absurd, there are limits. Anyone who has sat at a level crossing in (say) Texas and watched a container train trundle past, and counted the containers, must be well aware of the problem.
So I propose that we stack our containers in the new trains, high and wide. We immediately run into a simple geometrical problem, How? Well, they could be 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 (say) wide and 1,2,3,4,5 (say high).
Take the extreme in both cases. A 5 wide by 5 high container stack would measure 40 feet by 40 feet by (say) 40 feet. A cube. We cheerfully accept a 40 foot long container but shy away from the concept of a 40 foot wide container. Why? Similarly for 40 feet high. But such a stack would be only 1 twentieth the length of today’s trains. Wouldn’t that be a benefit?
Railway tracks are normally less wide than the trains which run on them, so the railway gauge would be less than 40 feet, but certainly more than today’s pathetic 5 feet 8 ½ inches.
The power for a fully developed cube-law train would be very high, compared with conventional trains, but on the other hand they would be travelling relatively slowly, remember the canal principle, so the power pro-rata would be less, per container movement, or per ton, or however they measure it. Certainly the power requirement would be much less than today’s high speed trains. Perhaps the power could be in the form or axle mounted motors, quite small compared with today’s locomotives, but already existing technology, thus reducing development costs.
Has anyone ever considered such a possibility, and carried out the energy and cost calculations, whole-life, and compared them with what we have now?

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