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Energy Conservation: Our Greatest Resource, Part 6

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       More Wasted Energy

In the last installment we noted that most of the energy we consume in the US is wasted even before it is available to do useful work for us and then we waste most of what is left.  We started our investigation of potential energy savings by looking at personal transportation as this is the single largest use of energy that we as individuals have direct control over and it is almost all petroleum.  As George W. Bush announced in his 2006 State of the Union speech: “America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world”.   We export more than $1B/day ($1,000,000,000 every day) of our hard earned dollars! This is the largest transfer of wealth in history and it is from your pocket to places like the Middle East and Venezuela.  The chart below illustrates were we are sending your money to every time we fill up.[1]

Dollar export chart

As we noted in the last installment of this series, just improving our fuel efficiency to the level of the proposed 2025 CAFE standards, which the EU and Japan nearly do already, would save the US over $400M per day in oil imports.  In this installment we will take a broader look at energy conservation in the transportation sector.

There are many ways to conserve energy other than buying a lighter, more efficient car. The following chart illustrates the efficiency of different modes of transportation by listing them by miles per gallon per passenger mile.[2]


Transport mode

Average passengers per vehicle

BTU per passenger-mile

MJ per passenger-kilometer

MPG per passenger mile






Efficient Hybrid










Rail (Commuter)





Rail (Transit Light & Heavy)





Rail (intercity Amtrak)















Buses (Transit)





Personal Trucks





*Compare to European TVG 85% occupancy at 920 MPG per passenger mile

** 747  full occupancy 91 MPG per passenger mile

**Commuter bus full occupancy – 330 MPG per passenger mile

An easy way to increase fuel economy is to increase occupancy, 6 people in a van easily beats 1 person in a car even if it is a very efficient car.  Public transportation easily beats driving your car especially in Europe where occupancy is much higher than in the US.  We could also drive less.  Consider that 32,788 Americans died on the highway last year.  Driving your car is by far the most dangerous thing you will ever do!  However, we Americans love our cars and it will take a major event, like the Oil Crisis of 1973, to spur us to action.  Let’s make the crazy assumption that we wake up, or are woken up by another oil crisis, and take practical steps to reduce our dependency on foreign oil by car pooling, driving less and using more public transportation.  We don’t even need to be like Europeans with and increase commuter rail efficiency by a factor of 23 over what we do now in the US, what if we just improved our overall efficiency by a factor or 2?  We could save another 8% of total energy which is 20% of petroleum consumption which is about 40% of petroleum imports.  We would save over $400M/day in oil imports.  More efficient vehicles and practical steps together could save $800M/day in petroleum imports.  Of course it is not this simple because oil is a global resource and we wouldn’t use all our savings to reduce imports but the point is that we could in the event of a national emergency (or sensible policy or sensible public action).  $800M/day reduction in oil imports is about 80% of our total imports and we import about 20% from Canada.  I personally feel much better about paying Canadians to fill up my tank than “unstable parts of the world”.  Even better, if I was smart enough to use natural gas to fuel my car I could pay my neighbor (a New York State landowner) $1.25/ gal (energy equivalent for natural gas to gasoline) instead of paying an Arab Sheik $3.84/gal.  I would also reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 25% and other pollutants by as much as 95%.[3]  Unfortunately, as a society we are not bright enough to grasp the implications of these simple facts.

Apart from making truly intelligent choices, how else might we save energy in the transportation sector?   The next largest use of fuel in the transportation sector behind cars & light trucks (at 62%) is freight (at 22%).  The chart below illustrates relative fuel consumption by freight transportation mode.[4]  The key point is that rail is about 10 times more efficient than truck and about 30 times more efficient than air freight.  Trucks are necessary for short haul deliveries but there is a significant potential savings by using more rail and fewer trucks & airplanes for long haul freight.



Fuel Consumption

Transportation Mode



Class 1 Railroads



Domestic Waterborne



Heavy Trucks



Air Freight (approx.)




In 2005 Walmart started an initiative to double its truck fleet efficiency by 2015.  By 2008 it had already achieved a 25% savings and expects to save $500M/year in fuel savings by 2020.[5]   How smart is that?

The next generation of commercial airplanes, such as the Boeing 787, will make extensive use of composite materials and engine technology for a 20% gain in fuel efficiency.  Commercial aviation accounts for about 9% of total transportation energy use and it is all petroleum (Jet A aviation fuel which is essentially diesel). 

Increasing use of rail (1000% savings), improved efficiency of trucks (100% savings) and airplanes (20% savings) could result in a large reduction in freight and commercial aviation energy consumption.  Since this represents about 30% of energy in the transportation sector, we could follow Walmart’s lead and double overall efficiency saving about 15% of petroleum for freight.  I haven’t even mentioned the potential benefits of “buying local” or a “victory garden” in your backyard.

In other words, if we were to meet the energy efficiency standards that are already accepted in Europe and Japan and make sensible improvements to transportation costs, we could eliminate our “addiction to oil from unstable parts of the world”.

Imagine that!  Just by taking small steps in energy efficiency in the transportation sector alone we could end our dependence on foreign oil and save the US economy over $1B/day, money that could be used to benefit Americans instead of Arab Sheiks.

In the next installments of this series we will investigate ways we can conserve energy in the three remaining sectors of our economy: residential, commercial and industrial.  We have only begun to understand that energy conservation is our greatest resource!

Note: This series is based on a presentation I have given. I welcome opportunities to deliver it personally to groups of 20 or more. If your group is interested, please contact me through the Member email.

Dave Hauber is Director of Technology at Automated Dynamics in Schenectady, NY.  He has over 40 years of experience in advanced materials, composites, textile R&D, control systems, robotics, lasers, ultrasonics, and industrial automation.  BS Physics and MA Business. He lives in Troy, NY. He can be reached through Member email or commenting here.



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