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HYDRAIL AND THE GREAT COPPER RIP-OFF

by guest columnist Stan Thompson

You are so unlikely to believe this that I’ll let Google tell you; enter this search argument in your browser:

copper + church + (steal OR stolen OR theft)

As of this writing, that entry nets well over ten million Google responses and over five million from Yahoo. An EPA friend whose church was just hit tipped me off to the problem. The price of copper has roughly quadrupled since the 2008 trough at the bottom of the Great Dismal Crunch. Yet copper’s price is at an all-time high, even with the economy bumping along the runway and trying to bounce airborne. Outdoor copper is like keys in an open convertible.

High copper prices are the calling cards presented by China and India and Brazil as they join the ranks of developed countries that use it to move energy around and, in exported products, move copper around the world to markets.

Petroleum prices pop-up fiercely but, when no one is looking, they ooze partway back down as the latest news sensations fade and lose their fear stimulation clout. But copper’s price is real, driven by steadily growing demand. It may feint a dip now and again but it’s always headed up, up and away.

Cooper’s worth stealing—so much so that the US Mint adulterates pennies with zinc to keep them from morphing (with the aide of entrepreneurs) into shiny ingots.

In this bent new world, does it make sense to pretend that future high–speed rail growth (which many of us believe is essential to relieve highway and airport congestion) can be powered externally via track electrification? To believe that is to believe that there is no upper copper price point beyond which railroads and their customers are unwilling pay in order to avoid coming to grips with the need for a better way to power electric trains. Of course there must be some such limit. But eyes are averted so as not to see it.

The present electrification cost is in the ten-million-dollars-plus-per-track-mile range. You’d need a flash camera to freeze it at that level. Aluminum may fill in, but only at the cost of a loss of efficiency, waste energy dissipated as resistance heat, and the problems of  electrical junctions between dissimilar metals.

Still, track electrification has two solid selling points: (1) it exists; and, (2) after 120 years, it still works.

And so did steam power and vacuum tube electronics and hand-wired circuit boards and cathode ray tube television sets and four-barrel Holley carbs perched atop huge displacement V-8 engines. Like all those things, track electrification is barreling toward the sunset of unaffordability.

But unlike those technologies, railroad traction and rolling stock have such long amortization and service lives that it’s intensely uncomfortable to contemplate a market abstraction like the price of copper making expensive, like-new, capital rolling stock obsolete. Being the first to nod toward that elephant in the parlor could have a foreshortening effect on one’s years of gainful employment. In change-averse industries, silence is more than golden; it’s a survival skill.

Standing safely outside the industry and regarding the electric passenger train elephant through the parlor window, I’d describe the ignored beast this way. All the following technologies are well known; they only want cobbling together.

Each car in the new-tech consist (the string of cars) has a very large, fast-charging lithium battery to reaccelerate it, using the energy it captured in stopping —using dynamic regenerative braking traction motors, powered partly from the locomotive.

Up front, there is a locomotive with an even larger battery system, fed by one or more clean, constant-speed diesels and also by a complement of hydrogen fuel cells. The FC’s are sized to have enough power to sustain the train at speed without diesel help (on all but the steepest grades) but also without enough power to reaccelerate the consist unaided. That is where the diesels come in.

An onboard “smart grid” deals out power from the hydrogen fuel cells and the diesel prime-movers to the locomotive’s and the cars’ traction motors and to all the train’s batteries.

The systems integration engineering to put all this together for the first time to even approximate the hefty pull of a catenary-powered electric locomotive is going to be very expensive. But even if it cost a billion dollars worth of R&D (unlikely), at ten million a mile, that’s just a hundred miles of track electrification, even at today’s snapshot price of copper. And the resulting train can go anywhere; it’s not wire-bound to only high–use corridors.

Security costs compound copper’s rip–off cost. If mid-city church rain gutters and downspouts and the lighting system wiring of Interstate Highways and live power lines and plumbing copper snagged from empty foreclosed homes don’t daunt copper–snatchers, imagine the temptation posed by lonely miles of open country electrified track. Image the security labor needed to keep copper cables from snaking away in the dark of night during construction. Mentally price-out the helicopter patrols needed to keep trains running in the wide open spaces of the South and West.

In a very real sense, planning investments committed to electrification of high-speed rail lines may prove the biggest rip-off of all.

About Stan Thompson

For 33 years I worked as an engineer, planner and futurist for what is now AT&T in Charlotte and Atlanta. Though I have no engineering degree, I'm a Life Member of the IEEE. Other memberships are the World Affairs Council, the local chapter of the National Association of Business Economics and the American Institute of Archaeology. (I dig international business, so to speak.)

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