Blackrock Invests In Startup That Is Less Green Than 100-Year Old Tech

News came this week that Blackrock BLK , the biggest money manager in the world, is investing $118 million in a London-based startup intending to produce and sell electric municipal buses and commercial vans. The startup is called Arrival Ltd., and it already has other impressive investors, including UPS, Hyundai and Kia. But electric buses for public transportation already exist and have existed for almost 100 years, so is this really about the environment? 

Arrival was founded in 2015, and it already has an order for up to 10,000 vehicles from its investor, UPS. The vehicles for that order are supposed to be delivered over the next four years. That is the commercial van part of the business. 

It’s the city bus part of the business that raises serious questions about what is driving the push for electric vehicles and the startup money to so many of these companies. Of course, no one wants to sit in traffic behind an old, diesel city bus spewing soot-like emissions that look bad, smell bad and make us want put on coronavirus masks. However, compressed natural gas (CNG) buses are now commonplace in many cities, and the technology is readily available. As the U.S. Department of Energy says, “CNG buses emit virtually no visible PM or black soot at the tailpipe.” When it comes to CNG buses, there are arguments that they are not better for the environment in all cases, but when it comes to environmentalism we are always working on a balancing act. 

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There is another bus technology, however, that is more environmentally friendly than battery-power, and this technology has been around since the early 1920’s. Yes, for almost 100 years we have had the proven technology to send public transportation buses through our cities with no emissions at the point of travel. That technology is called trackless trolleys. If you have lived in cities like Philadelphia or Boston, you might know about the electric wires overhead and the buses that are powered through those wires while they travel along the regular roads. 

Trackless trolleys are an aesthetic problem. Some might even say they are a blight on cities, which became a real problem near the end of the twentieth century when urban renewal efforts led to a goal of improving the way our cities looked. However, if your priority is the environment, trackless trolleys are the way to go. 

  • Trackless trolleys do not use batteries built with precious metals that are often mined with underage and/or underpaid labor. 
  • Trackless trolleys do not require the disposal of heavy and sometimes toxic batteries after they are no longer usable. 
  • Trackless trolleys do not require long charging times. Thus, each bus can stay in service longer each day, and fewer buses need to be built.  
  • Trackless trolleys can be connected to clean power sources, like hydro or nuclear (or maybe small modular nuclear reactors), to ensure the most environmentally friendly system. 

Trackless trolleys work and have worked for almost 100 years. Arrival may change the city bus business. That might be a victory for the aesthetics of the urban landscape, but it would not be an environmental victory. If the environment is our priority, we would return to trackless trolleys.

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