While a percentage point improvement in energy efficiency might never capture the imagination like a wildcat oil discovery or a game-changing renewable technology, our economic prosperity will depend intrinsically upon it.
On the road, the fuel economy of the U.S. fleet of loaded light vehicles improved from 13.0 miles per gallon (mpg) in 1970 to 21.5 mpg in 2010, according to the US Department of Transportation. And this trend has accelerated in recent times, with new car fuel economy increasing from 20.1 mpg in 2007 to 24.8 mpg this past December, an improvement of 23% in just six years. At the same time, fuel efficiency per passenger mile improved only 17% from 1970 to 2010, because average vehicle occupancy has fallen from 1.90 to 1.38 persons over that period. The underlying trend has been for vehicles to become more personal as opposed to family-oriented, or put another way, fuel savings have been partially consumed as individuals have gained greater personal mobility and freedom.
Improvements will continue in the future with hybrid technologies driving efficiency improvements as they continue to gain market share. The greatest long term opportunity to revolutionize transportation – and a major threat to oil – will be the self-driving electric car, which could potentially transform automobile economics. Expect one on the market by 2020.
On the high seas, Maersk’s 400m long Triple-E container vessel may not be the most obvious symbol of increased efficiency with fuel consumption figures of 100 tons per day. However, through a combination of slower sailing speeds, increased container capacity, an all-new engine design and waste heat recovery, fuel efficiency is estimated to be 16% greater than the previous generation vessel.
Aircraft are also vastly more efficient than 40 years ago, with fuel per passenger mile falling by nearly three quarters over that period. With fuel prices high, efficiency remains a critical issue. For example, Boeing designed its 787 Dreamliner to consume 20% less fuel than the similarly sized 767, which dates back to the early 1980s. Airlines have responded by ordering one thousand Dreamliners with an estimated book value of more than $250 billion.
With developing economies oil demand growing, the sobering truth remains that the advanced economies will remain under pressure to reduce their oil consumption. US oil consumption – even with an improving economy – remains 9% below the level of 2005. European consumption has fallen even further, down by 14% in the same period. If the advanced economies intend to grow, then the only options are fuel substitution and efficiency gains. With natural gas yet to materially penetrate advanced economy transportation markets, efficiency gains appear to be the only credible game in town.
Frank Wright, Douglas-Westwood Aberdeen
+44 1224 264972 or [email protected]