Editor’s Note: In a previous article, we explained why projected greenhouse gas emission savings from California’s High-Speed Rail project are overstated. The High-Speed Rail Authority’s Environmental Impact Review is based on inflated ridership numbers and does not take into account automotive emission savings that will arise from the transition to electric vehicles. Here, Mark Powell and Mike Brady review the other side of the equation: emissions generated by HSR during the construction and operation of the system.
The California High-Speed Rail Authority (Authority) promises to “achieve net zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in construction” and is committed to operate the system on “100% renewable energy” by contracting for “400 to 600 megawatts of renewable power”. These talking points may prompt environmentalists to back the high-speed rail project, but they are promises that cannot be kept.
The Authority has provided only limited information regarding GHG construction emissions. Its 2013 Emissions Report estimated 30,107 metric tons in GHG “direct emissions” for the first 29 miles of construction. “Indirect emissions” associated with the manufacture and transport of materials, primarily concrete, steel, and ballast were not reported because the Authority said the precise quantities, sources, and suppliers were not known. A more plausible reason is the Authority’s desire to hide from the public more than 90% of GHG emissions associated with their project. Regardless, recent testimony by the Authority’s CEO clearly indicates that indirect emissions could now be tallied.
Speaking before the Assembly Budget Committee responsible for High-Speed Rail Oversight on January 27, 2016 the Authority CEO, Jeff Morales, explained how cost estimates are determined. He described the assemblage of 200,000 individual line items including concrete, steel, dirt, electrical, etc. and said each includes a unit cost which is multiplied by the units required to build the system.
Fortunately, Professors Mikhail Chester and Arpad Horvath at UC Berkeley’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering have shed some light on the magnitude of construction emissions. In a 2010 study, they estimated that 9.7 million metric tons of GHG would be emitted during the construction of the statewide system, primarily because of the production of massive amounts of concrete and steel. Moreover, using mid-level occupancy for the three competing modes of travel (high-speed train, auto, and airplane) the authors estimated it would take 71 years of train operation to mitigate the project’s construction emissions. California’s Legislative Analyst Office came to a similar conclusion in a 2012 report critical of using GHG reduction funds to pay for Phase 1 (Los Angeles to San Francisco) of the statewide system. LAO cited an independent study projecting that “if the high-speed rail system met its ridership targets and renewable electricity commitments, construction and operation of the system would emit more GHG emissions than it would reduce for approximately the first 30 years”.
However, the Authority promised “net zero greenhouse gas emissions in construction”. A reduction in California’s GHG emissions due to the trains’ operations were to help reduce the state’s future GHG emissions, not merely mitigate construction releases. The Authority’s zero construction emissions promise relies heavily on a tree planting program. If so, then how many trees and when? Using the ARB Protocols cited by the Authority, more than 5 million trees, each more than 50 feet tall, would need to be grown and perpetually maintained to offset (recapture) the 9.7 million tons of GHG emitted during construction of the statewide system. However, one year into construction, the Authority’s CEO admitted on camera that not a single tree had been planted. Making matters even worse, the Authority plans to cut down thousands of trees south of San Francisco to electrify Caltrain. Finally, it is worth noting that the state could plant trees irrespective of whether it moves forward with HSR.
Emissions from Operation
Chester and Horvath generously assumed the trains would run on a power mix relatively high in renewable sources. When Phase 1 is completed the trains would place a new demand on the electric grid that must be met immediately by a power provider. Some electric generator, idle at that moment, must come on line. It may be a peaking unit in California powered by natural gas or a coal burning plant in Utah. The exact source is unknowable. But it will not be a wind or solar powered electric plant. These plants are always running when wind or sunshine is available because they operate at low cost. Wind and solar sources will already be generating all the power they can produce when the first trains require power.
The Authority’s business plans have used a variety of assumptions regarding energy consumption and cost. Here, we’ll use the 2012 Business Plan, which assumed a cost of 15.2 cents/kWh for power, inclusive of a 3 cent premium for renewable power. Energy consumption was estimated at 63 kWh/mile. Train miles traveled between 2022 and 2030 were projected to be 99 million resulting in an energy use of 6,300 million kWh.
To make good on its claim that it will power its trains with 100% renewable energy, the Authority needs to fund the construction of the necessary renewable power plants. To estimate the capital cost of constructing the required renewable power for HSR we can use the case of California Valley Solar Ranch, a 250MW facility producing 650 million kWh/year recently built with the aid of a $1.2 billion federal loan guarantee. Since the Authority’s trains would be consuming 1,200 million kWh in 2030 and requiring the output of 1.85 Solar Ranches, (460MW of capacity) the imputed capital cost is $2.2 billion. A premium of 30 cent/kWh, ten times the Authority’s offer, would be needed to raise the necessary capital by 2030. Worse, more than 20% of this capacity, costing half a billion dollars, must be constructed before the first trains run. Otherwise, those trains will be totally powered by fossil fuels and the GHG emissions per passenger mile for train travelers might be no better than for passengers traveling in an automobile meeting the federal fuel efficiency standards scheduled to be in place in 2022.
The issue of global warming needs to be addressed. The planting of millions of trees and the spending of billions of dollars on a fossil fuel propelled train is not a practical or cost effective way to address the problem. The Authority’s project is detrimental because of its massive construction GHG emissions and because it diverts funds that could otherwise help address the serious problem of global warming.
 2016 Business Plan, May 2016, page 36
 Contribution of the High-Speed Rail Program to Reducing California’s Greenhouse Gas Emission Levels, June 2013, page 13
 Contribution of the High-Speed Rail Program to Reducing California’s Greenhouse Gas Emission Levels, June 2013, page 14
 Authority CEO Jeff Morales testimony before the Assembly Budget Committee responsible for High-Speed Rail Oversight on January 27, 2016, YouTube Video 25-27 minutes into the video
 Life-cycle assessment of high-speed rail: the case of California
Mikhail Chester and Arpad Horvath, January 2010, pages 5 and 6
Life-cycle assessment of high-speed rail: the case of California
Mikhail Chester and Arpad Horvath, January 2010, Table 2, page 7
 The 2012-13 Budget: Funding Requests for High-Speed Rail, April 17,2012, page 8
 Contribution of the High-Speed Rail Program to Reducing California’s Greenhouse Gas Emission Levels, June 2013, Diagram entitled GHG EMISSIONS SOURCES FOR HIGH-SPEED RAIL SYSTEM, page 9
 California Air Resources Board -Compliance Offset Protocol Urban Forest Projects, Adopted: October 20, 2011
Appendix B Calculating Biomass and Carbon – Quantification Methodology, Example of tall hackberry (Celtis occidentalis) sequestering 477.30 kg (.4773 metric tons of carbon). Equates to 1.75 metric tons of CO2/fully grown tree.
 KCRA Trees and Trains Youtube video, Dec. 8, 2015
 Life-cycle assessment of high-speed rail: the case of California
Mikhail Chester and Arpad Horvath, January 2010, page 2
 Estimating High-Speed Train Operating and Maintenance Cost for the CHSRA 2012, pages 7-8
 Estimating High-Speed Train Operating and Maintenance Cost for the CHSRA 2012, pages 8 and 12, Operations and Maintenance of Equipment Costs for Medium Ridership Case was divided by their variable costs to arrive at Trainset Miles.
 Estimating High-Speed Train Operating and Maintenance Cost for the CHSRA 2012, 99 million trainset miles are multiplied by 63kWh/mile.
 Energy.Gov Loan Programs Office, California Valley Solar Ranch
 $2,200 million/6,300 million kWh = $.35/kWh. $.05/kWh is subtracted to allow for the lower operating cost of solar power. Penn State Engineering Department study.