Per Capita Davis: When innovation goes off the rails
For some time now the columns I’ve been writing were born out of the urgent discussion that started in the spring over how we earthlings will move forward from the pandemic. Would we learn anything from our experience about the value of and need for preparedness, about listening to the scientists, and would the focus be on erecting scaffolding to prop up the old and collapsing parts of our economy, or would we turn our eyes to the future and take this opportunity to reimagine a better world?
In furtherance of the latter, I looked for innovations, new stuff that might be a part of an economy not based on fossil fuels and policies that recognize the terrible consequences of adhering to the practices driving the unrelenting increases in greenhouse gas emissions.
I’ve been amazed and impressed by what appears to be an eruption of innovation — new ideas and technologies that could be game-changers, some on a small scale, others on a big scale, all potentially important to a newly imagined future.
I wrote about the recent development of “Million Mile Batteries” able to provide power to a car (or multiple lifetimes of several vehicles,) for a million miles, thereby dramatically reducing the need to manufacture new batteries. I discovered that there are new and more efficient techniques for the manufacture of aluminum, also resulting in dramatic decreases in greenhouse gas emissions. And I have been impressed by the increasing potential for hydrogen to replace or offset fossil fuels in many applications.
But the one I got really got excited about was “Solutionary Rail” the topic of the prior column.
Just to remind you, or in case you missed it, this is an innovation with two parts. The first is electrification of rail lines. Viewed from space, the network of rail lines in America resembles a closeup of the blood vessels in an eyeball. I’m hoping this is a common enough image to adequately convey the complexity and extent of the railroads. Rail is more efficient than truck transport of both goods and people and has corollary benefits of reducing expensive wear and tear on roads, bridges and other infrastructure, not to mention congestion on our highways. A part of Solutionary Rail’s vision is to upgrade and double track much of the existing network to accommodate speeds up to 125 mph.
The goal of electrification is good in and of itself, but the second pillar of the proposal is addressing a major obstacle to the development of renewable energy resources. Rail tracks cross the windy midsection of the country and many long stretches where the sun shines more or less continually. Solutionary Rail proposes to use the railway right-of-way for transmission lines to bring electricity from new wind and solar facilities in those areas to cities.
But here’s the rub. There’s a chasm between conceptualizing an innovation and realizing its potential in the real world. In the case of Solutionary Rail, innovation seems to have gone off the tracks in the U.S. While it is actually working in other countries, including China, France, Germany, India, Japan and Russia, where on average of half of the rail line miles are electrified, compared to 1 percent in the U.S.
The question is why. I’m not an expert, and can’t claim to know all the details for the lack of action on this idea, but I will point to one factor identified by the folks proposing this innovation. “Wall Street predation over railroad assets threatens long-term vitality and capacity of U.S. railroads. Wall Street now controls much of the railroad industry and seems determined to mine rail assets for short-term profit, without concern for long-term viability or safety.”
Further, Wall Street owners “have an incentive to sell off or abandon infrastructural capacity that was built up over the last 170 years … the US has already lost more than 50 percent of its once 300,000 miles of track, The 140,000 remaining are in jeopardy as Wall Street pressures the railroads to inflate short-term profits by reducing operating costs by paring low-margin services and capacity.” And, “A leading rail expert characterizes Wall Street’s treatment of U.S. railroads as a ‘going-out-of-business sale.’”
This update on barriers to implementing Solutionary Rail as a climate-friendly innovation poured cold water on my enthusiasm. And not just for this one innovation. Going from idea to implementation, especially for the big ideas, often requires cooperation from entrenched industries that don’t see the problem or the solution through the same lens. Certainly, this is true of the coal and other fossil fuel industries themselves, but it is often also true for those who are financially invested in those industries as well as the railroad industry that transports those fossil fuels.
The Solutionary Rail folks have taken a step back and are adopting a step-wise approach to eventually realizing the full potential of this promising innovation. They call it “Moonshot Modeshift” to, before emphasizing electrification, change the “mode” by which way freight is transported, particularly for long distances, from primarily trucks to primarily rail.
— John Mott-Smith is a resident of Davis. This column appears in the print version of the Enterprise the first and third Wednesday of each month. Please send comments or suggestions for innovations to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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