Dirigibles may do the Heavy Lifting in Alaska

Posted by PITHOCRATES - July 28th, 2013

Week in Review

If you’ve watched Ice Road Truckers you’ve learned that it isn’t easy to move freight in Arctic regions.  Like Alaska.  Because there aren’t a lot of roads or bridges in Arctic regions.  Hence the ice roads.  Crossing rivers, lakes and oceans in the winter when they’re frozen over.  But even these roads cover only a fraction of Alaska’s sprawling country.  Which is why the airplane dominates in Alaska.  To move freight.  And people.  Making for some really high transportation costs.  Raising the costs of everything the good people of Alaska buy (see Hometown U: Could blimps find a place in Alaska skies? by Kathleen McCoy, Hometown U, posted 7/27/2013 on Anchorage Daily News).

Rob Harper at AUTC [Alaska University Transportation Center] pointed me to a new study the Center and UAA’s Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER) partnered on, looking at the effect of higher transportation fuel prices. He called it a true eye-opener on the ever-rising cost of moving goods to and around Alaska. Every household and business is affected. No one thinks fuel prices will go down again.

ISER economists have often looked at spiking heat and electricity costs, but this was a first attempt to document higher transportation costs rippling through Alaska’s economy. In 2010, economist Ginny Fay and her study colleagues reported, Alaska’s per capita energy consumption was triple the national average.

Alaska fuel prices increased more than 25 percent between 2009 and 2010. Consumers responded by buying fewer cars and airplane tickets. They also paid higher prices for everything they did buy, from food to clothing…

Industries that use the most fuel are the hardest hit. In Alaska, that’s aviation, which uses 90 percent of it, Fay wrote.

And this in a state that exports oil.  But while they may be rich in oil reserves they have no refinery capacity.  Which means refined aviation fuel, diesel and gasoline has to be brought into Alaska.  And unlike the lower 48, that get their refined petroleum products via pipelines, Alaska must rely on more costly modes of transportation.  Shipping it over land or over water in smaller batches at greater prices.

Here’s where those slow, graceful dirigibles wedge their way back into our conversation. Being lighter than air thanks to nonflammable helium, and moving much slower than planes, they consume a lot less fuel. One research study for the military in 2009 compared an hour of flight time in an F-16 ($8,000) to an hour of flight time in a dirigible (less than $500).

Traditional air cargo is the most expensive way to move freight on a fuel-cost-per-ton-mile basis. Fay’s analysis showed that rail is cheapest, followed by trucks, then barge, ships and ferries. But Alaska only has 500 miles of rail. Our ships and barges often leave the state less than full, raising the cost per ton-mile. And we only have two roads, one north and one south. Most of Alaska is nowhere near a road or a coastline. So we’re back to air cargo.

Rail is the cheapest way to move heavy freight because of steel wheels on steel rails.  There’s very little friction so locomotives can pull a very long train consist full of heavy freight.  And they move fast.  Day or night.  In any kind of weather.  So they can quickly carry revenue-producing freight nearly around the clock.  Trucks are fast like trains but carry far less per load.  And whereas railroads change out train crews to keep trains rolling around the clock most long-haul trucks are privately owned.  And when the driver reaches his legal limit of driving time per day he or she has to park their rig and rest for a mandatory rest period.  Thus reducing the revenue-miles of trucks compared to trains.

Barges, ships and ferries can carry larger loads than trucks but loading and unloading takes time.  Time they can’t earn revenue.  Also, they travel slower than trains or trucks.  Limiting the amount of revenue-earning trips they can make.  Whereas air cargo is the fastest way to move cargo.  Allowing many revenue-earning trips.  But the planes flying in Alaska carry a fraction of the cargo trains, trucks, barges, ships and ferries can carry.  Greatly increasing the fuel-cost-per-ton-mile.  Which makes the dirigible such an attractive alternative in Arctic regions like Alaska.

The dirigible doesn’t need a road or waterway.  It can travel year round weather permitting.  It’s slow but because it burns so little fuel the cost per trip is nothing compared to an airplane.  It can’t carry as much as a train, barge or ship but it can go where a train, barge or ship can’t.  And it can travel as the crow flies.  A straight line between two points.  Something that only an airplane can do.  But it can do it for a far lower fuel-cost-per-ton-mile than an airplane.

There is little downside of using a dirigible to ship freight in these inhospitable Arctic regions.  Unless you’re a fan of Ice Road Trucking.  For a dirigible could probably carry anything a truck can carry.  And without a road, paved or ice, to boot.  Putting the ice road truckers out of business.

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