ENERGY TRANSITIONS FOR MAURITIUS, FROM NOW TO 2050: An overview (Part 3) - Energy and Transport

We have been keeping a close watch on energy issues in Mauritius and elsewhere for 20 years now. We have always been struck by the curious tendency most experts and laypersons have of assuming that for transportation there shall be no future shortfall in energy and that issues involve demand side management only. To some extent this short-sightedness is understandable as in nearly all countries Governments have had to deal with ever increasing air, land, maritime traffic.

With the concern over climate change and the ever-increasing air pollution problems caused by vehicles, efforts have been made to make engines more efficient, less polluting and to promote public transport. These different targets have largely been reached elsewhere, alas this has done very little to abate pollution problems or oil consumption as the sheer number of new vehicles on the road have negated any benefits accrued from improved technology.

To understand the nexus of energy and transport we need to turn to History. The steam engine first revolutionized industrial manufacturing and then ushered in the era of mechanical transport via steam ships and railways. Oil powered engines invented during the late 19th century was a second revolution for transport as it opened the way for mechanized road transport, faster shipping, and air travel.

The 20th century was the era of oil powered machines as they took over nearly all forms of mechanical transport, to such an extent that today 95% of all transport energy is oil. A mere 3 to 4% of transport energy is natural gas, 1% electric and another 1% coal. The supremacy of oil as transport energy is beyond dispute. Note that over 60% of world oil production goes to the transportation system. It is a truism that our modern industrial civilisation and economic system are inextricably dependent on oil for land, air and maritime transportation.

Hence high oil price have significant impacts on world economic systems. Mauritius is a case study as our mathematical models indicate that oil prices above US $ 100 per barrel of oil on average during the year tend to slow down economic growth. Above US $ 140 and economic growth grinds down to a halt. Needless to say, actual physical shortages of oil are crippling to any economic system as the world experienced in the seventies and eighties. As we argued in Part I of this article, there are good sound reasons to initiate a transition away from fossil fuels to renewable energies and these are (1) oil depletion issues, (2) price impacts, (3) pollution and (4) climate change. Now let us see what alternatives to oil there are.

Transportation systems can be divided into land, air and maritime transport. Let’s consider land transport first which itself can be subdivide into road and rail transport for both goods and people. In 2015, Mauritius consumed 163,036 tonnes of oil equivalent (toe) of gasoline and 169,187 toe of diesel and 3445 toe of LPG for transportation. We can safely assume that nearly all of gasoline, diesel and the 3445 toe of LPG went for land transportation. The 3123 toe of fuel oil probably went for Mauritian maritime vessels. This means that for land transportation Mauritius consumed about 335,668 toe of fossil fuels. Assuming that we can electrify gradually ALL of land transportation and making some rather simple conversion calculations, we estimate that about 1000 GWh of electricity yearly would be required to power our current land transport system. Note that we generated 2996 GWh in 2015, thus electrification of transport would require a 30% increase in power generation at least. As we showed in part 2 of our article, any transition to renewable electricity will be decades long; to disengage land transport from oil dependency by electrification will significantly lengthen transition times.
Electric cars and motorcycles exist and run satisfactorily even in Mauritius. However for heavy goods vehicles, the matter is different as very few manufacturers of electric lorries exist worldwide. Electric buses run in large cities in Europe and China but they tend to operate on level roads with limited climbs. It remains to be seen whether electric lorries or buses can be satisfactorily deployed in Mauritius where roads link coastal lands to highlands with steep inclines along the way. Limited battery capacity restricts range, load and traction. We therefore believe that for the foreseeable future heavy goods vehicles and most buses will remain heavily dependent on oil.

Given the above, are there other alternatives? A few years ago, Government tested sugar cane alcohol as an additive to gasoline. Although technically feasible, currently there is no interest in the matter. A few individuals tested vegetable oils and biodiesel, but volumes available here and elsewhere are minute. Hence we do not expect bio fuels like alcohol or biodiesel to become significant as a land transportation fuel in the years ahead.  

Should Mauritius switch over to natural gas, it might become feasible to run part of our fleet of busses on compressed natural gas. It already exists in certain major cities and it improves air quality. Once more costs and technical feasibilities will have to be studied before hand.

Modern rail transport has been electrified worldwide to over 90%. Hence it is feasible to run trains on renewable electricity or natural gas. Currently a few countries actually manage to run their trains mostly on either wind or hydropower. In that perspective, the introduction of the Metro-Express in Mauritius goes in the right direction provided the country manages to increase its production of renewable electricity to cater for the extra power the metro will require.

However, the current project is still shrouded in mystery as the cost of the project, the price of tickets, the profitability of the system, the additional electrical power demand required and its projected routes are still not known to the public. Those unknowns could derail the project at any time in the future. It would be better should Government publish all relevant studies and begin a communication campaign to explain the rational behind the project. It would be interesting to know if Government considered using the tracks of the metro express for the transport of bulky and heavy goods across the country. It could increase revenues and hence improve profitability.

A major challenge of any alternative public transport is to entice middle class car owners to leave their cars at home and opt for public transport. We do not believe that the metro express can be made cheap and reliable enough to attract the public massively. A different mindset is needed. Currently, Government spends Rs 1.2 Billion yearly on transport subsidies. The private sector too spends at least as much on employee transport costs. It might be possible for Government and the private sector to pool those funds and issue a transport credit card that grants each citizen monthly credit points that are redeemable on any buses, taxis or metro express. Hence, car owners who use the transport credit card would immediately save fuel costs. They could hire a taxi from home to the station, hop on the metro and finally take a bus to their work place and back, all free of charge. The public transport system would then compete with private cars. But this means that the metro, buses and taxis would have to operate in an integrated and regulated system whereby buses and taxis feed passengers to the metro express where appropriate. A modest increase in retail fuel prices might also be needed to fund the system.

In 2015, Mauritius imported 279,551 toe of aviation fuel both for local and foreign aircrafts. Worldwide there are virtually no substitutes for oil as aviation fuel. Very small quantities of vegetable oils or coal have been used to manufacture aviation fuel on an experimental basis. Although successful, it is clear that these alternative fuels are incapable of substituting more than a token fraction of oil based aviation fuel. For the foreseeable future aviation will remain solidly dependent on oil. Exactly the same rationale stands for maritime fuel oil of which Mauritius imported 160,160 toe. We do not expect to see much change in the dependency of maritime transport on oil.

Although to some extent, land transport can be shifted to renewable fuels and electricity, for the coming decades, most transportation systems shall remain largely reliant on oil. Even for electricity and heat generation, where realistic alternatives exist, transition to renewable energies can be expected to take decades. Modern civilisation, here and elsewhere, shall therefore remain largely dependent on fossil fuels, especially oil for transportation purposes, at the very least till 2035. The 21st century began with wild swings in oil prices that impacted many countries creating much economic havoc. Our continued dependency on fossil fuel, oil especially, guarantees that further energy crisis will erupt in the future with significant economic, social and political consequences of us all. We are slowly entering an age of consequences caused by our fossil fuel addictions. Expect rough rides ahead.