Thursday, November 26, 2009

Gloves come off as Copenhagen nears

Computer files were delivered to a climate change sceptic, BBC weather personality Paul Hudson. These files - it was claimed - are evidence of malfeasance by scientists at the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit.

For example in one of the files the writer, allegedly a CRU scientist, talks about using a "trick" and also refers to "hiding" some values.

The story first unfolded on Hudson's blog where he says he can confirm that some of the files are actual East Anglia CRU emails, because he was involved in those email conversations.

Although he received the files on the 12th of October, suddenly with Copenhagen around the corner the apocryphal files have been beaten up in the last 48 hours, into a smoking gun, 11th hour expose by this tawdry conspiracy anorak Hudson and a handful of other journalists who ought to have known better.

Hudsons involvement and the provenance of these files reeks. Any ethical journalist would not have touched the affair with a barge pole.

Note that these are not paper documents, they're electronic files. Already if one follows the link from Hudson's blog to the small sample of the alleged emails it can be seen that the emails have been altered by replacing the authors email addresses with xxxxxxx.

Clearly any of the text of the alleged emails could easily have been altered in subtle ways to make the contents appear suspect. Certainly East Anglia University has not verified that the alleged emails are true and correct, and without alteration.

What makes this appalling lack of journalistic rigour by those promoting this beat-up even worse is that there is no global warming conspiracy in these emails, even if they were true.

As the RealClimate web forum puts it:
More interesting is what is not contained in the emails. There is no evidence of any worldwide conspiracy, ... no evidence of the falsifying of data, and no ‘marching orders’ from our socialist/communist/vegetarian overlords.
These files are not even close to any smoking gun, and just amount to the same back-and-forth that you'd find in the email servers of any professional organisation.

As RealClimate points out - a trick does not mean something underhand. If you're a professional in any sphere, a handy technique that quickly gets the job done but produces valid and ethically sound results can be called a "trick" - a valuable nugget of experience.

Everyone from surgeons to auto-electricians have handy tricks they use to get their job done, without any implication of malfeasance.

Certainly cherry-picking the computer files for phrases that could imply anything is meaningless without reading all the files in context.

I write software for a living and there are often vigorous disagreements both within our company and between members of the software engineering community and our own engineers about the quality of code, the viability of our approaches and a range of other topics. But none of this detracts from the fact that we produce the deliverables, and the results are well engineered and professionally sound.

Just the IPCC report - the work of several hundred scientists from all over the world - is sound and so and the science behind it and other peer reviewed studies which reach the same conclusions.

A few dozen emails out of months and months of correspondence of one research center and all they could come up with is a "trick" being used?

Don't worry - there will be more dirty tricks from the right wing media and their mud slinging brigade in the lead up to Copenhagen.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Future of Energy

In a very timely conjunction, I went to a great panel discusssion of five experts, all of whom were speakers at the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering 32nd Symposium held just recently in Brisbane. The title of the symposium was Future-Proofing Australia - Rising to the Challenge of Climate Change.

I say timely because the panel discussion was a face-to-face demonstration of a real conviction in the scientific and engineering community that ways are immediately available to move forward into cleaner energy for Australia.

Perhaps for me one of the most surprising moments in the proceedings were when a straw poll was taken of the audience on whether they would support nuclear power generation in Australia: the result was a resounding "yes".

Myself I'm used to being in the minority especially amongst my greenier friends when I advocate for nuclear power.

After the event I talked to one of the panelists, Peter Meurs, about his Blade EV which Peter charges from a very impressive solar array at his home. A real world example of zero emissions EV driving.

Of course if you have read my previous posts, a future of greener power generation has great implications in electric vehicles. If EV's have only relatively small takeup - and optimistic projections say 20% by 2030, then the impact on the grids emissions will likely be negligible.

But with clean power we can look to a future with close to 100% EV penetration in the national fleet - with all the zero tailpipe emissions that that would entail - without having a coincident increase in emissions from coal fired power plants.

Why this is critical is that many EV manufacturers are only going to deliver their limited EV production to countries that provide decent governmental support, with infrastructure spending if possible, but also with taxes or other incentives that make the EV's competitive with petrol powered cars. And governments will do that if they know that EV's will definitely reduce greenhouse gases.

While at the panel discussion I also spoke to another of the experts, John Loughhead of the UK Energy Research Center, who told me about the UK system of incentives and programmes for low-emissions vehicles in the UK. John told me about the UK excise on vehicles that have higher emissions of greenhouse gases, which as an example usage of the VED calculator places a duty of 405GBP (around $730 Australian) on the 4.2l V8 Ranger Rover for its 376 g/km.

When vehicle buyers are paying for their polluting ICE vehicles at a rate that reflects their actual cost to the environment it makes the extra upfront costs of zero emission EV's and low emissions PHEV's comparable on a level playing field.

The aim of the long tailpipe crowd is to spread confusion and disinformation in order to derail that message and kill off the electric car by making ICE's stay at their artificially cheap current day prices.

I'm seeing a lot of activity around the "long tailpipe" issue at present. Of course there is the E&T report which I critiqued in my last post, and before that the GAO report in June. I dismissed that report at the time as it made no negative findings about EV's.

However it was quoted in a number of articles since under headlines like "GAO: Electric Cars Won't Reduce Carbon Emissions". This is a bit of a stretch from what the report actually says which is that electric vehicles charged from coal fired power will only be 4-5% better.

Update: I contacted Mark Gaffigan (Director of the Natural Resources and Environment Team at the GAO, and lead author of the report) for comment:
The bottom line regarding your questions, per our report, is that plug in electric vehicles could result in reduced emissions of greenhouse gas emissions and air pollutants but the environmental benefits depend upon whether the electricity used to power plug ins emits fewer greenhouse gases and pollutants than the fuel it replaces.
What Mr Gaffigan is carefully saying is that EV's could result in reduced emissions - not that they definitely won't - and that whether they do or not depends on the grid.

I am at a loss to understand the cynicism of attacks on the EV, which wilfully misquote reports and studies, and use other dirty tricks.

Do these people really believe that we can just keep driving in petrol powered cars?

We should have fixed this 30 years ago when the first oil shock occurred, when we realised the dangers of being hooked on oil and beholden to its curators, a who's who of enemies of reason and western democracy.

Here is some good science that provides yet another example of how personal management of EV charging provides the opportunity for great reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. There is no such opportunity with petrol powered cars, including conventional hybrids.

Its great to see some real science and engineering working on getting solution that work now rolled out for the benefit of all our futures.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

EVs Speed Climate Change? WTF??

Now that climate change is firmly on every country's agenda, lobby groups and think tanks everywhere are jumping on the band-wagon.

It seems like there are million of these wise-ass organizations trumpeting green advice for public consumption, and producing policy statements and reports for government.

A very common factor in many of these statements and reports is the well-to-wheel analysis which talks about electric vehicles producing greenhouse gases. Below I go into a detailed discussion of why this type of analysis and its conclusion (EV's produce greenhouse gases) are just plain wrong.

But first a prime example of how misleading this type of "report" can be.

Clean vehicle website Autoblog green is carrying a press release from the Environmental Transport Association, quoting from a new report by a group called Transport & Environment stating that:
Switching to electric cars could speed climate change
There are other groups such as the National Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Law and Policy Center saying:
Wait!! Oh, my God!!

You mean my electric car, which I thought was definitely clean and green, could actually bring on climate change? Panic! Hold the presses!!

Could, might? Its lurking down there in my garage, and on the toss of a coin, the roll of a dice, it might decide to start spewing greenhouse gases into the environment! There's a chance??


So what the hell are they talking about then?

Are these guys some sort of oil industry goons, talking down EV's?

No, they're mostly not - but they're also not scientists (like the IPCC) or governmental agencies (like the US Department of Energy). They have their own particular hobby-horses to ride.

The ETA for example is a company that makes its living in the United Kingdom by selling green transport services, like insurance and roadside assistance. Its name - Environmental Transport Association makes it sound official, but its a commercial organisation, and it has to pay the rent just like any commercial organisation. Every EV owner who believes that their vehicle generates no emissions is one less customer for ETA's carbon offset service.

NRDC does not like coal, and - rightly so - is keen to jump on any chance to point out that increasing dependence on electricity in states that depend on coal has to be coupled with a corresponding commitment to reducing the use of coal in its power generation mix. As the NRDC rightly points out so-called carbon capture and sequestration is not a "technology" it is a branch of science fiction, and is not to be relied apon to clean up coal-fired power generation.

And of course since most of the states in the mid-west rely on coal for power generation (see table A1 in the DOE's figures), the ELPC (a mid-west specific environmental organisation) is keen to see that the new-found governmental interest in EV's does not push aside concerns about pollution from coal fired power generation.

There is a completely valid point to be made here that coal fired power generation is an environmental hazard, and that clean power generation has to be a top priority in the fight against climate change.

What is not valid is to connect uptake of EV's to an increase in coal fired power generation.

See the could here, is not that there is some chance or possibility. Green EV's are not suddenly going to start producing greenhouse gases on some percentage outcome.

Electric Vehicles never ever produce greenhouse gases.

All of this confusing scare mongering is just another repackaging of the good old long tailpipe argument that we've heard so many times before.

Let me just say this again slowly.

Some power plants produce greenhouse gases. Not EV's - power plants.

An EV is not a power plant, and EV's don't have tail pipes at all, or chimneys, or in fact any way at all to produce smoke or pollution.

Well-to-wheels - in depth discussion

How this mischief has come about is that the good ol' boys that we love for coming up with the "Hummer is more economical than the Prius" and other great "analyses" and "reports", just could not except that EV's produced no pollutants. They said "You have to look at the big picture - you have to do a well-to-wheel analysis".

As a result the EPA and also european equivalent organizations have come up with measures based on gCO2e - which means in English grams of CO2 equivalent, used to analyse things like the total impact of renewable fuels. Stretch that analysis over vehicles and you have gCO2e/km, which results in completely bizarre statements like the GM claim of 230 miles per gallon for the Volt PHEV.

Don't get me wrong - the Volt is a great design and will be a great vehicle for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But 230mpg is rubbish - its meaningless. Why? Because equivalents just do not work when you start powering vehicles with electricity.

How you drive, when you drive, when you charge, how you charge - all of these things are drastic game changers for the sums behind the report that the ETA is quoting from.

I contacted the ETA's press officer and on request was promptly given a copy of the 51 page report. The report is actually written not by the ETA, but by the European Federation for Transport and Environment. Yet another official sounding group, T&E is actually an industry organisation representing around 50 different bodies mostly with a environmental focus. The report is not new facts - it is an analysis of existing studies and of yet more reports. The main focus of the report is on the European Emissions Trading Scheme and the impact of European government taxation schemes on electricity generation for EVs.

The T&E group wants stronger government action to tighten taxes and legislative incentives to produce cleaner power - something we all should wholeheartedly support. But since EV's are so high on the agenda of governments, T&E is hitching their message about cleaner power to EV's by saying EV's could "produce more emissions" unless power is cleaned up first.

This is where T&E stretches the friendship, by making claims that there is no science to support.

So what does T&E base its claim on, if its so wrong?

Well, the sound bite that heads up ETA's press release, and which is trumpeted in the introduction to T&E's report is referenced (on pg 27) to a study by Kromer & Heywood. In fact several large portions of the T&E report are verbatim from Kromer & Heywood's study.

Take note before going on, that the plugins could speed climate change statement has actually lost some context as it appears in the sound bite: the Kromer study is actually saying that if power is coming from coal, PHEV's like the Chevy Volt will be marginally more emissive than a hybrid vehicle like the Prius.

I think you'll agree that this is far from saying that EV's will increase climate change, but its still wrong, and its potential for misquoting means that it must not be left to stand.

The Kromer study was funded by companies including Shell, and the Ford Motor company. The latter via yet another research group called the Alliance for Global Sustainability. It is wonderful that Shell and Ford are getting involved in funding research into sustainability, and not for a minute do I suggest anything but the highest standard of intellectual rigour in the methods of Kromer's study but again it is not new science. The methodology is to take existing figures and using a computer model develop a number of scenarios to predict future figures.

All of these scenarios are based on the idea that CO2 equivalents can be fairly calculated for the electricity used to charge EV's. In fact the methodology uses a straight energy content calculation, and goes further by doing such things as adjusting to allow for transmission losses via the grid, comparing these to the plant-to-tank costs for transporting conventional fuels.

These foundation assumptions for the well-to-wheel (WTW) methodology employed are just plain wrong. WTW is the long tailpipe argument in academic guise. The methodology comes from an existing energy sector that is clinging to its existing structure with oil refineries as central points of distribution.

But notice that while no company, save the oil companies, can currently refine their own petroleum to drive their cars, everyone has the potential to generate their own power to power EV's.

This is the first breakdown in the WTW assumption. Electric grids world wide are right now being transformed by local power generation from a vast number of solar panel installations. Solar panels are going on rooftops all over the world.

While I was working at Google last year, the many electric vehicles on the campus were being charged from the solar array on the Google rooftop. Here in Australia houses all over are sporting solar rooftops thanks to the governments incentives.

There are zero transmission losses here - the power is generated right where it is used, and that power is 100% clean.

Oh, but wait - those amounts of power are still tiny compared with total electricity consumption!

Yes - but so are the amounts of power being used by electric vehicles! EV's require very small amounts of power to run, and we have so few EV's that the process of renovation of the grid is more than keeping pace with EV uptake.

While many of these environmental reports are talking about "technologies" such as carbon capture which are right now just science fiction, EV's and local power generation is here and now. Its already working.

Along with local power generation from solar panels, there is also a large amount of activity in co-generation, demand side response and active power market participation.

When I was at the AEVA Electric Vehicle Festival in October I met and talked with Dean Spaccavento, Enabling Technology Manager with Energy Response. Their service involves enabling companies to take an active part in the National Energy Market, by responding to energy demand as reflected in real-time updates of energy costs via DSR. The software and hardware systems that Dean is involved in building go into Australian industries and reduces their total energy bill, whilst at the same time reducing the impact on total energy generation capacity requirements and the environment.

Companies that produce energy as a by-product of their operations can generate electricity on site, to both provide their onsite electricity requirements, and also sell back into the grid. There are a increasing number of co-generation sites in Australia right now, such as Coopers Brewery in South Australia. Power companies are getting into the act, enabling and welcoming co-generation as a way to reduce load on power generation capacity and also reduce environmental impact. Using software like that produced by Dean Spaccavento's company they can benefit financially by responding to the local market with their co-generation capacity.

This is working, right here, right now. Zero transmission losses with power being used on site, and with EV's in that companies fleet parking lot their charging is not reflected at all in any central coal fired power station.

The future for co-generation has much greater promise, with waste products being used for domestic level power generation instead of going into landfill. South Australian company Micro-Cogen have developed a small scale cogen unit suitable for the basement of your house which they say will be shipping in 2010.

Smart grid technologies also have matured and will form an integral part of the EV take-up phenomenon. As we see our grid as mentioned above becoming cleaner, it will also become smarter with software and hardware from a whole range of companies, including industry giants IBM, and other new startups competing to provide the best savings in electricity generation capacity.

EV's are inextricably bound up with this future since they are ideally situated to be charged at times when it is cheapest for their owners, and also lowest impact on the grids generation capacity.

When the dinosaurs of the energy world, the oil companies threw up their hands in horror at being compared to EV's they were right to be afraid. Their well-to-wheel analysis tries to portray a negative impact via the long tailpipe argument for EV's on the basis that a "whole lifecycle" model is the only fair way to compare EV's with internal combustion engines (ICE's).

But we have had 100 years of internal combustion engines, and now the landscape is covered with petrol stations, pipelines and petrol tankers - the infrastructure to support the plant-to-tank mentality that the dinosaurs are still clinging to.

The only fair way to compare EV's to ICE's is to look at what the energy distribution network will look like with these real current technologies - smart grids, solar, co-gen and local power generation - feeding into the EV picture.

Forget about gCO2 equivalents which assume the moment you plug your EV into the wall, a power station somewhere is instantly going to produce smoke directly in proportion to the energy used at the socket.

Those analyses were bogus when the oil companies first proposed them, and they are bogus now, even though many producers of reports who ought to know better have swallowed their marketing story.

But surely all these smart grids and co-generation are going to take time to ramp up, and in the meantime if every body goes out and buys EV's isn't that going to put pressure on the existing electrical grid causing more pollution from coal fired power stations?

But the reality is EV uptake is going to be slow. It will take years for early adopters to convince the middle of the normal curve that a switch to an EV is a good idea. Even with Nissan producing its new Leaf EV in production volumes next year, going forward EV's as a percentage of the national fleet will by even the most optimistic of projections still be down at %15 by 2030.

And the good news is that our existing grid infrastructure can easily accommodate the loads generated by these levels of demand without generating any new pollution at all. The charging can be done out of surplus capacity, meaning that even in places where coal is being used for generation, no extra generation will be done as a result of the EV's plugging in.

A study in 2007 by the Pacific National Northwest Laboratory found that surplus generation capacity in the USA could support 43% market penetration of electric vehicles, based on charging being done during the night. Interestingly this same information is actually quoted by Kromer, and Kromers quote is produced verbatim in T&E's report, yet they both fail to draw the obvious conclusion that projected levels of EV uptake are not going to have an impact on power generation. The PNNL report mentions a case study of San Diego where night time charging would allow up to 60% of the San Diegan's becoming EV drivers before any generation impact was felt.

Of course the T&E report claims (page 30 and 31) that as EV ownership increases, quick-recharging facilities are demanded and
"...substantial daytime charging will also occur..."
however they offer no support whatsoever for the claim of substantial daytime charging. Whereas the PNNL study examines night time charging as the obvious mode, there is no support in any actual studies for T&E's claim.

Does it make sense then? Will people charge during the day rather than at night?

You can only charge a battery if it is empty, or partly empty. And EV's are always plugging in where-ever they go. You arrive home from work in the evening, plug into the wall socket, and during the night the battery is topped up to full on cheap night-time rates.

Then during the day you head out to work, and maybe your employer has a charge point to plug into. If you're an EV owner you definitely have a charge point at home, but maybe your employer has one for the EV owners on staff. Then on the way home you stop at the supermarket for 30 minutes, and maybe there is a charge point in their car park.

And of course since the majority of drivers make relatively short trips, their EV's are going to be nowhere near empty when they plug in during the day.

Also day time charge points are going to be supplied by a company like Better Place, and will involve a charge via your credit card. Even if its like iTunes, where you make micro-payments for the small amounts of electricity topped up into your EV's its going to be much more attractive for most consumers to get their power from the socket at home where it just appears on their power bill. Or doesn't appear, if they have a solar panel or co-gen.

So these day time charges are going to happen, but due to:
  • cheaper night time rates
  • ubiquity of home chargers
  • slower rollout of charging points at other locations
  • small trips by driving majority meaning day time battery levels are high
  • charging account costs with daytime power compared to home charging
all meaning that the claim that daytime charging is going to be substantial does not make sense.

I am sure daytime charging at Better Place style charge points will be a very important part of the EV landscape, especially when EV ownership levels are as high as 20%, but even then daytime charging will not represent a substantial amount of kilowatt/hours put into EV batteries.

Instead daytime charging will be a part of the modality of EV usage, that you top up in small amounts so that you never have to worry about being low on juice.

Conclusions - EV's (still) do not "produce" greenhouse gases

Current levels of EV usage do not impact at all on coal fired power generation, and so EV's being charged today, are thus not generating any additional greenhouse gases.

By the time the EV landscape has progressed to 30% ownership, for the range of reasons discussed above, power generation will have changed how electricity delivery takes place to the point that EVs will still not require any additional power generation from coal fired or other centralised power generation sources associated with greenhouse gases.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

GarageBand Lessons missing sounds

Music is fun - and Garageband can make it especially so.

That is, when it plays fair and doesn't give crazy "Audio file Piano!@#$%!@#$!.caf Not Found" error messages.

Here's the whole story.

I've been using Garageband 09's new Lessons to teach myself to play my new Yamaha e413 keyboard (right, set up next to my trusty MacBook Pro). The lesson contents are great and I love how once the lesson content has sunk in, you can switch to "Open this Lesson in Garageband" mode to record the basic plinking-and-plonking alongside a pro backing track.

Besides having the feature that the instructors playing does not intrude (or give you a crutch), in "Open this Lesson in Garageband" mode you can check that lesson off as done, or give yourself a critical assessment by listening to your recording.

Trouble is I started getting these crazy errors. I resorted back to my desktop machine - an 09 iMac that had started out with Leopard before going to Snow Leopard and iLife 09 back when it came out. No errors!

Another weird issue was that I got similar error messages when I was trying to record our band at work using the laptop and my mixer - more missing caf files, from some earlier project I was working on.

So, how to fix the MacBook pro!

I found a useful post on teh Interwebs but while seeming to be exactly my issue, the suggested fix did not supply a cure.

But it got me thinking - maybe the MBP, which had a life (with Tiger) before Leopard, has some issues with the format of these working copy and cache directories that the post had mentioned. If so, nuking and reinstalling might just fix it.

And it did. Woot!

So my fix was:

  • 1) Back up the MBP to an external drive (Time Machine will do this)
  • 2) Put in my original Leopard DVD (not the Snow Leopard) and reboot the MBP with the "C" key held down - this will cause it to boot from the DVD
  • 3) Click "Customize" on the install target screen and tell it to reformat the hard-drive (I chose journalled, non-case-sensitive).
  • 4) Proceed with the installation.
  • 5) Once done, insert your Snow Leopard install disk and install as normal.
  • 6) Reinstate your files from the backups

Note that you can reformat with Snow Leopard's disk utility as described in another post but the above worked for me.

Now no more Garageband Lesson glitches!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Infrastructure, schminfrastructure

Recently plenty of electric car enthusiasts, environmentalists and all other folks turned up in the Canberra rain and cold for the first ever National Electric Car Festival, organized by the Australian Electric Vehicle Association.

For me it was an incredible event - a chance to meet and talk with figures from the landscape of EV's in Australia, and to see a new reality of clean, fuss-free and efficient personal transport.

In the picture I'm standing next to the 1915 Detroit Electric, one of two that were on show, and of many that tooled around the streets of Australia nearly a hundred years ago.

Do we need infrastructure for electric vehicles to take hold and begin to provide great clean transport for Aussies? Clearly not, seeing these vehicles - the demonstrations of ingenuity and relevance going back over the past century puts the lie to the idea that special preparations are needed before we can start with EV's here.

However to capitalize on all the promise of clean air, efficient transport and smarter energy that EV's are part of then there are lots of other great innovations which work alongside EV's.

I spent a bit of time chatting to Ben Keneally, Head of Marketing and External Affairs for Better Place Australia, at the Better Place stand. Ben assured me that the distinctive blue Better Place charging bollard was no mere concept mockup, but a real prototype.

If we don't need infrastructure to bring on electric cars, why Better Place?

Well, here's my take on it: electric cars are inevitable, and good job too since we need them to help save the planet. Early adopters, tech geeks and those concerned about the environment are queueing up to buy EV's and for the most part this vanguard is happy to just plug their new wheels into the fast-charging 240V AC outlets we have in Australia.

But if we have EV's and don't have a Better Place then we're losing out on a raft of other great benefits that can come with pure electric personal transport.

As Ben explained Better Place is really in the business of being a demand side energy management company. An EV driver is a energy demanding kind of person. And for all of the great convenience, efficiency and utility that running cars on electricity can give, you need the partnership between the two.

So what are these benefits?

Before I start - let me just say that this is not a feature report or a sales pitch for Better Place. Although I definitely want to see them succeed, I don't pretend to know what they offer and what they don't. But more importantly, here I want to talk about what companies like them could bring to the EV party, in the ideal world.

What a great EV oriented demand side energy company do for the new cadre of electric motorists can be summed up thusly: just-in-time energy inventory.

JIT is the efficient practice that made industry giants out of companies like Dell. Its closely allied to Lean Manufacturing which made Toyota king of the hill in vehicle manufacturing. Its tenets are own and hold only what you need, just when you need it. Eliminate waste wherever possible.

When I fill up my current dinosaur burning Prius with petrol, I am carrying around enough fuel to drive to Sydney. It sloshes around in my petrol tank and does no-one any good, weighing the car down and actually costing me in energy to transport it, and in the opportunity cost of owning the fuel when I don't need it. And then a month or more later when I finally get through all that petrol, I go and fill it back up to full again.

When you think about it like that it is incredibly wasteful. If I took the approach of only filling up at the gas station when I actually needed it, and put the balance of the money into my mortgage instead I'd save thousands.

So why do I waste thousands of dollars this way? Why does everyone? Because with petrol you have all of the inconvenience of driving in to a petrol station, and waiting in line to fill up before queueing to pay. I don't want to repeat that charade any more than I have to so I pay thousands over all the years for the convenience of being able to carry around a lot more petrol than I need.

With electricity you get all that convenience for free - if you have a Better Place around to make it possible. Smart charging points, micro-energy accounting, energy market aware charging policies, and smart grids: all things that make for EV's that can take an active role in their own energy use. Vehicles that work for us, to our command, charging up just as needed, when its best saving us money, at the same time as saving the environment.

Just-in-time energy for transport is the promise of demand side EV power management, and companies like Better Place are stepping in to fill a great opportunity in this niche, by supplying the charging points, battery swap facilities and other paraphenalia that people and corporate entities might want to cater for the EV revolution.

But above all the physical manifestation of this sort of hardware infrastructure is the software infrastructure: all the business solutions that need to be in place so I can buy automatically $0.85 worth of electricity while I'm parked in the supermarket carpark.

We don't need infrastructure to have EV's - but we'd be mad not to get infrastructure to make EV's be the best they can be.

I like the convenience that I now enjoy with buying songs from iTunes over the internet: I look forward to that coming to my personal transport, and me not having to do anything special to enjoy it - certainly not queueing up in a dirty malodorous petrol station.

Monday, September 21, 2009

A slow grass roots movement

Its starting to feel like the battles have all been won.

We have a President of the USA who is listening to scientists and informed advisors, and who as a result is leading the way to a greener future - and a major plank of Obama's platform is electric vehicles.

Here in Australia the politico's aren't arguing about whether to have a green policy, its just which one, and who is greener than who.

In 2010, a whole slew of car manufacturers will be delivering new zero emission electric vehicle models - and the factories and supply chains for these are rumbling along as I write this.

What I think is most exciting is that all of this is mirrored by a beginning groundswell of us ordinary humans, eagerly waiting to get our hands on these cleaner more hi-tech electric cars.

But one very important thing should not be lost sight of with this change: it will be a slow-burning revolution. There'll be no overnight toppling of the old regime of internally-combusting dinosaur-burning auto's.

As we've already seen with the Prius, the rate of supply of batteries and other components has meant that the demand for the high-miler has typically outstripped supply.

When EV's come on the market, even if prices are initially inflated, there will be far fewer units available than eager drivers waiting to buy one. The auto-makers are busy testing the waters with every market research tool they have, but still caution and costs of tooling factories will mean that production capacity will be initially low, and waiting lists for the new cars will be long.

And yet, its funny - when I talk to ordinary folks around about EV's there is occasionally a very defensive reaction.

Its almost as though the arrival of electric vehicles is expected to be like going to digital television: an overnight government mandated changeover where new-fangled equipment will be forced on sometimes unwilling citizens along with assurances that its all for the best.

Well, it is all for the best.

But there is no overnight thing, and there's no mandate either.

For those that love their gas-guzzler, I'd love to say please consider driving something greener - but the reality is, that big old bus is not going to be supplanted by an EV because the green and bleeding-edge technology loving crowd will be grabbing all the EV's that come down the line.

A couple of weekends ago I was at the foundation meeting of the Brisbane branch of the Australian Electric Vehicle Association.

And it was a fascinating group.

One third roughly were the green-tech crowd I mentioned - in fact there was quite the contingent of software engineers (like me), along with a few other types of engineers. Another third were solid green and star-gazing types, familiar with promoting the low carbon agenda.

All of us in those two-thirds (barring a few with electric cycles and so on) were in the "wannabe" category when it came to electric vehicles. For us in this sector of the electric green-swell the belief is that it's all a brand new wave.

Then there were the other third: electric vehicle grey-beards and sages of back-yard engineering who have been designing, building and driving around in their own electric vehicles for decades. This inventive entrepreneurial vanguard have been waiting so long for this revolution you could forgive them for being a bit tetchy.

Outside the meeting was parked a Honda City converted to electric over 14 years ago.

Since arriving back in Australia from Silicon Valley in December last year this was the first electric vehicle I had seen.

In less than 2 weeks I'll be flying down to Canberra for the AEVA's National Electric Vehicle festival - the first of its kind.

There I'll be seeing dozens of electric vehicles. From the ultra-fast, ultra-desirable Tesla, to the home-grown sports cars of Australia's EV innovators and hardware hackers.

From these firsts, we're going to see a slow dawning of a new age of zero emissions vehicles.

The electric vehicle revolution is slowly happening. I'm hoping its not too tardy to turn around rising levels of pollution, and the economic damage of oil.

How long then before gas-guzzlers are the same kind of curiosity that electric cars are today?

I'm picking it will take a decade for it to be an overnight success.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Nissan first to Australia with EVs?

The Nissan Australia website, as well as a few other Nissan country specific portals have been sporting a EV badge for a short time now, which until just a few hours ago led to a sign-up page to register interest. Now that logo, as well as a top-row menu item on their website leads to a flashy marketing presentation touting their zero emissions strategy. A strategy headed up by a real zero emissions true electric vehicle.

It looks like the big announcement from Nissan slated for the 2nd of August is their new Leaf EV. The Leaf (its Nissan bonnet logo pictured left concealing a nifty two-port charging socket) is a nippy 4-door hatch, with a snub-nosed low-drag front, reminiscent of the Prius, and a rear that seems more Citroen/Renault.

But this announcement from the Japanese automaker is really about more than one car: they really have thrown all their weight behind the EV concept, in an uncompromising way - and the Leaf is just the first real world sign of this strategy.

Without mentioning Toyota explicitly, the Nissan EV strategy is clearly targeting the Prius which has until now been the poster child for eco-friendly high-tech automobiles.

However as climate evangelists will tell you a world full of Prius drivers is still a world addicted to oil. And still a world where tailpipe emissions take us closer to midnight on the climate change doomsday clock.

Toyota, and Honda too, are bearish on EV technology. Of course Honda has an ongoing dalliance with Hydrogen fuel cells. But why is Toyota, with its Prius full of batteries and clever electric technology not more gung-ho on electric?

While some view Toyota's Hybrid Synergy drive as a clever entree for the motoring public to full electric vehicles, their top brass are still saying that full-electric vehicles - with no internal combustion range-extender or cooperative power source - are not a viable strategy for them. Improvements in battery technology and commitments on infrastructure are needed, they say, before committing to EV's, and while they're busy selling the Hybrid Synergy drive to other manufacturers they'd be mad to say anything else.

Basically Toyota just don't think the motoring public are ready to buy pure EV cars.

Toyota have been toe-dipping with talk of an EV based on the Toyota iQ - a mini-car popular in Japan, they remain convinced that the incredible success of the Hybrid Synergy drive, and in particular the Prius is a golden goose that will keep laying for some time.

Mitsubishi dropped into the EV scene a year or so ago with lots of chat about their iMiev electric car. Earlier this year the compact four-seater was doing the rounds of Australia in a traveling road show to try and guage interest in the fully electric vehicle.

However like the iQ, the iMiev is stuck in the mini-car mentality - electric car equals under-powered.

Elon Musk recognized in Tesla that breaking down the "golf cart" myth was essential to getting broad take up of EV's as a real transportation option.

However, many manufacturers seem to be failing to innovate in their EV offerings, producing underpowered cars like the 47kW iMiev, or worse still "neighbourhood cars" that are not capable of highway speeds at all.

Note: don't try to compare those kW figures with the power ratings on an internal combustion motors - the whole power delivery and performance characteristics of an EV are completely different to ICE powered vehicles. Also power on an EV has more to do with the settings on the battery management system and drive-by-wire setup which balance range, safety and wear-and-tear against performance.

Don't get me wrong - I would be happy to see lots of folks buying the iMiev or even an neighbourhood car, and saving all those emissions nipping down to the shops, or dropping the kids at the bus stop.

And the Leaf is not the hairy chested sports car that the Tesla is.

But what Nissan is doing with the 80kW Leaf and its 160km range is truly ground-breaking in a consumer vehicle. They are producing a car that is designed to appeal to anyone looking at for example the Mitsubishi Colt or Toyota Yaris.

Nissan are not quoting zero-to-100km/h times on their website but from the looks of the car and the specifications it appears to be looking good for around 7 seconds zero-to-100km/h. And like all electric cars it will do a lot better in the 0-50km/h range than many gas-guzzlers, leaving them standing at the lights as it surges silently away.

I will be the first to admit that electric cars are not for everybody. If you're an outdoors type constantly tooling off to the waves or to where the fish are biting, then the electric vehicles coming out in the next few years are not for you - their range is not good enough, they won't have the towing capacity, and quite frankly they probably won't fit your lifestyle. A flex-fuel diesel is probably the best thing for those folks - and will be for some time.

But there are huge numbers of people for whom a peppy zero-emissions compact car is an absolutely ideal solution for daily getting around, commuting, buzzing out to visit friends, do the shopping and getting to the gym.

Oh, and forget about "infrastructure". With Australia's 220 volt power you'll charge up to that full range figure in 6-8 hours while you're sleeping. For typical commutes even if you forget the occasional night to plug it in you'll still have plenty of juice. Most EV owners will never ever need infrastructure - they'll just plug their car in, wherever they are.

Imagine that - never ever having to go to the gas station again. Sounds great to me.

Where the BetterPlace model makes sense is for large fleet buyers who may currently have LPG fuelling setups at their depot, and want to take advantage of the lower maintenance costs and smaller energy costs of an electric fleet. Also they get to take advantage of green credentials - in their marketing, and in any future carbon trading scheme. Fleets like for example the Queensland Government operation are keenly aware of these factors and a BetterPlace battery swap station or two is entirely in their scope.

The question for us antipodean motorists will be - when? Hopefully since Nissan partners BetterPlace have been trumpeting their new infrastructure rollout in the Canberra Australia will be one of the early-adopters - we can only wait and see, but I'm picking this might very well be the first electric car on our shores.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Our Governator has the Cahoolies

Just in case you haven't heard, that legendary cigar chomping tough guy, Hummer driver and California Governor, has sent a sculpture of bulls testicles to lawmakers in a wry attempt to suggest greater fiscal and legislative courage was needed to make unpopular decisions in tough economic times.

Governor Schwarzennegger has however not been making the really hard decisions, when it comes to putting the bite on the heavy hitting oilmen who so far have been getting a free ride on taxation, and enjoy massive state sponsored benefits.

I was reading about all of this, after receiving an interesting email from Doug Korthof:
Sleazy California politicians join corrupt regulators in proposing new handouts to Big Oil, this time allowing new offshore oil drilling. This is the WRONG way to go, we need to leave all oil, especially exotic and expensive oil, IN THE GROUND, not pay subsidies to help drill it up and burn it.

Chevron admitted to the California Coastal Commission that they dump their "drilling spoils" in the Ocean because "it's too toxic to barge to land, we'd need an air resources permit". Now, they are asking for new drilling, and new threats to the Ocean, instead of paying their fair share of taxes.

(thanks Doug) and it occurred to me that we have a tough decision maker right here in Queensland that could show the Governator what it means to have the Cahoolies.

What I'm talking about is Premier Anna Bligh's excellent policy of abolishing fuel subsidies. These subsidies, like such subsidies everwhere go into the pockets of the fuel companies and fail to help the farmers and the bushies.

I sent Premier Anna Bligh MP a letter - which is only very slightly tongue-in-cheek - commending her administration on the policy, and suggesting that she tell her fellow state politician in the northern hemisphere how we roll up our sleeves down under.

Here's the text of the letter, faxed recently:

Anna Bligh MP
Premier of Queensland
PO Box 15185
City East Queensland 4002

Dear Ms Bligh

Your government is to be commended on its stand on fuel subsidies.

Removing these subsidies is not, as some have tried to say, a new tax, but a removal of an iniquitous burden on the tax-payers of Queensland, and an end to a system that rewarded wasteful and greedy behavior, whilst failing to help regional Queensland.

Additionally for too long those who maintained wasteful and negligent practices with regard to their own motor vehicles, have been subsidised by those of us who mindful of the environment and our energy security try to reduce usage of fossil fuels. The end to the subsidy is welcomed by those of us that want to see clean air for our children to breathe and a reduction in the hemorrhage of cash to foreign oil producing nations.

As a Software Engineer I recently returned to Brisbane from working in California's Silicon Valley.

As a Brisbane resident, rate-payer and voter, I am proud of the initiatives our state is promoting in these very difficult economic circumstances. Its a chance to make far-sighted reform for long term good. While Queensland works to define itself as the Smart State, these new measures of removing the fuel subsidy are world beating, and are to a standard of independence from industry influence, and courageous right-thinking that the Governor of California ought to aspire.

I would like to suggest that the Bligh Government send Governor Schwarzennegger a statement of support for his planned new tax regime, as his administration struggles to address terrible budgetary problems in the State of California. It might be appropriate to remind him of the previously planned tax on oil production which
according the Los Angeles times:
How embarrassing is it for California to be hanging out there alone? That outstanding anti-tax crusader, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, in 2007 raised her state’s tax to 25% of the value of extracted oil and gas. ... At the current world benchmark price of about $70, the 6% tax contemplated by Proposition 87 would have generated more than $1 billion a year
Instead of raising these much needed taxes it seems independence from industry influence requires a fortitude that is lacking, as California's watchdogs:
dismissed assurances from the Schwarzenegger administration that his panel's
independence would not be eroded. ...
"You've taken the position of destroying several decades of work by this commission," he told Sheehy, pointing out that it was established in
the late 1930s after an oil scandal had snared state officials.
It would be a great thing for Queensland to show its international credentials by reaching out to another state as it too struggles to manage energy policy in the face of public opinion, industry pressure and challenging financial circumstances.

Again I would like to congratulate your government on this policy, and hope it continues to show its world beating standards in governance and independence while also demonstrating good fiscal management in these difficult economic times.

I'm sure someone at the Premier's office fell of their chair with surprise at actually receiving a positive message regarding the fuel policy.

But its time we started paying the actual cost of the black gold. The fact that there is a federal tax does not in anyway construe this new policy of removing the state subsidy as a "new tax".

That removal of the subsidy is somehow a tax is a bizarre construction, straight from the spin-merchants hired by vested interests. Those vested interests want to keep up their unsustainable practices, filling our air with tail-pipe emissions, and they want our tax dollars to pay for it.

Bravo for a Premier with the cahoolies to say no!

Friday, July 17, 2009

Girl power

Just added Electric Cars are for Girls dot com to my blog roll - what a great website!

This woman captures pretty much why I'm an electric car zealot: we're dumping our garbage into the world that our kids have to live in, polluting the air they have to breathe and allowing rapacious corporations to raid their future for gross profits today.

Here's a call out to all women in Australia, and especially to those with kids, don't accept the gas-guzzling corporate deal that we have been given. Demand better! Demand zero-emissions!

Rock on Lynne Mason, and Hi from Australia!

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Leave the oil in the ground, drive electric with the savings

100 mile trips x million on 0.1% of 2008 oil production
You can leave the oil in the ground and drive in electric vehicles 15% of the distance the gas guzzlers would have gone just on the saved energy that refineries would have used to extract the petrol and diesel from that oil.

With many thanks to one reader, some corrections have been made to the figures in this article. Please accept my apologies for the error.

What these numbers mean is that the long tailpipe argument - that EV's just move their emissions to the power stations - is put to the lie.

It also means that claims EV take up by the public would result in mass over-subscription of power generation capacity are also not supported.

Read on.

As the USA shows its world beating credentials by making billions of dollars available for a range of climate friendly initiatives, inevitably the conservatives are coming back more loudly with complaints that the green spending spree is a "new boondoggle".

I've never really been sure what a boondoggle is. But Mr Carney writing in the Washington Examiner echoes the sentiments of plenty of other better dead than red types, when he compares the recent funding initiatives for battery technologies by the Obama administration to the dreadful corn ethanol initiatives of the previous administration. Lithium, necessary for battery technology being produced in a country like Bolivia has all the McCarthy-ists reaching for their propaganda manuals.

The Obama governments Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Program serves up billions of dollars in funding, 5.9 billion for example going to Ford for its new initiatives which include Electric Vehicle (EV) research, as well producing more efficient traditional Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) vehicles.

If Mr Carney really wants a boondoggle, he only has to look back at the previous government grants to the big auto companies to make more efficient cars: money which those automakers cynically frittered away without only to arrive today at a financial crisis, and with rising fuel prices, and their caps in hands again.

Like many who are reaching for the handbrake on the clean vehicle charge, Carney is quoting the recent Government Accountability Office's report on Plug-in hybrid usage in the Federal Fleet. The executive summary of the report says in part
For plug-ins to realize their full potential, electricity would need to be generated from lower emission fuels such as nuclear and renewable energy, rather than the fossil fuels - coal and natural gas used most often to generate electricity today.
Sounds familiar doesn't it?

Its the same old FUD that's been going around for some time now.

As we already know, in answer to the GAO report and other "long tailpipe" arguments, the fact is that just replacing ICE vehicles with plug-in Hybrids without changing any of the electricity production would realize a saving of 27% in pollutants. And in California, where a cleaner mix of electricity production is used the figure is 40%.

But the biggest argument against the GAO report and other clean car naysayers is this fact: if you just leave the oil in the ground, your electric car has already done 15% of the journey for free, just on the energy saved by not running the refinery.

Add in the costs either side, of extracting and shipping the crude to the refinery, and then trucking it across the country in tankers - figures that are much more difficult to obtain - then the

Put it another way: that electric power which the naysayers claim electric cars would chew up, causing extra pollution would actually come for free - and actually even more save on pollution - just because the refineries are not pumping out so much of Chevron and Texaco's favourite money-spinner.

I first saw this in a ground breaking article by Doug Korthof. (Note that I now think Mr Korthof's claims are a bit strong, based on the numbers I have been able to produce, but I think the idea is still valid - but you have to include the costs either side of the refinery, just the refinery itself is not enough).

I just had to check the claims he makes for myself. I contacted the US Department of Energy for their take on it, and Paul Hesse of the Energy Information Administration got back to me with references to some of the DOE's figures.

According to the figures in 2008 oil refineries in the USA purchased 42,682 million kWh of electricity.

Another major energy cost is 710,500 million cubic feet of natural gas, which assuming only 50% generation efficiencies is worth another 108,642 million kWh.

Coal is also used - 43,000 Tons (US), which at a typically quoted figure of 2.5MWh/ton electricity generation rate is good for 107 million kWh.

And we'll also include the steam purchased 98,769 million pounds. Assuming 0.3kWh energy content per pound and conversion efficiency of 60% (modern steam turbines are pretty good): 19,600 million kWh.

That's a total of 171, 031 million kWh of electricity.

That is a hell of a lot of electricity being used by oil refineries.

Now that power went to produce 5,119 million barrels of petroleum and oil products.

Lets imagine that green citizens of the USA buy up the electric vehicles that the Obama initiatives are funding, and that 0.1% of the production capacity of USA refineries is saved as a result.

Just imagine how good it would be if 5.12 million barrels of petroleum and oil products don't have to be produced, and 0.1% of energy costs at refineries is saved as a result.

What could that 0.1% produce?

The answer is - according to the DOE figures (their diagram left) that one 44 gallon barrel produces around 19.15 gallons of gasoline for ICE cars, and around 9.21 gallons of diesel fuel.

The gasoline - around 98 million gallons of it from the 5.12 million barrels - would make for 24 million trips of 100 miles in internal combustion engined cars, and another 16 million trips of 100 miles in diesel vehicles - that's assuming an average of 25mpg EPA mileage for the cars and 35mpg EPA mileage for the diesels.

But since the 5.12 million barrels of production didn't happen, and the USA saved that money - the refineries also saved the energy costs involved 151.3 million kWh worth.

Turns out that is enough to do 6.1 million 100 mile trips in an electric vehicle, like a Tesla, which uses just 28kWh to do 100 miles on EPA figures. See my bar chart at the top of this article for a graphical representation of these figures.

What that means is that if 40 people took their fossil fuel powered vehicles off the road, 6 of them could travel for free just on the power saved by not running the refineries.

The other 34 people would just be travelling at the 27% pollution saving, and at a fraction of the cost to the hip pocket compared to the fossil fuel powered vehicles.

These same figures work for Australia too, and for other countries, although here we have slightly better average fuel consumption in our vehicles, and less nuclear power stations, so the figures are a little different - but the general message is just the same.

Now I'm sure there's some play in my figures - for example critics might say there's line loss in the transmission of the electricity, and there are extra products in the barrel of oil, such as aviation gas.

But I haven't yet counted the costs of extracting and shipping the crude oil, or the cost of trucking of refined petroleum to gas stations.

Petro-politics and the energy security implications are difficult to evaluate, but the costs of wars and military protection for oil shipping also should be factored into these numbers.

I'll say it just one more time in case it didn't stick first up: leave the oil in the ground, put the petro-dollars back into education or something useful, and the power saved by winding back production at the refineries will run 15% of your EV's.

When you add the other costs, the figure is probably close to 100%. Anyway - its got to be better than the damage we're doing now, and the only way to know how much better for sure it is to start making the changes.

Every way you look at it, EV's are a much better choice for the world - its time for the oil men and their cronies to say uncle - the game is over guys, its been a great century for you.

Now its time to join the 21st century, stop burning fossils and join the technical revolution.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Clean Vehicle Adoption - VHS & BetaMax all over again?

Clean Vehicle Adoption Curve

One of the things that drives me crazy about clean vehicle debates is the binary nature of the dialogue: hydrogen or electric? Plug-in hybrid & range-extended or flex-fuel?

Sides are forming, straw men are being thrown up, and in the technology of the new clean green car it looks like a VHS versus BetaMax argument all over again.

When new technologies come on-line the supposed way things happen is that the best tech wins as the relative merits are discovered by an unsung army of innovative consumer investigators who compare the offerings and vote with their wallets.

Innovators in small numbers buy the new technology just because its new. These folks love trying out new stuff, and don't mind if it doesn't work perfectly.

Then the early adopters get on the bandwagon - they can see that the new tech actually provides a pragmatic solution to their real world need, and are willing to spend a bit extra in time and cash to find out how. There's lots more numbers of these trend-setters, and a key difference (at least according to the theory) is that they'll send out the message via journalism, blogging, and the whole range of public expression.

You can see from the diagram how the rest of the population takeup follows on from these ground-breaking types. In the ideal cleaner world, at any rate.

But in the case of VHS and BetaMax the best product didn't win. It was a case of marketing, politics, vested interests, sides being taken and sheer chance.

So how do the folks out there make their choices? What makes a technology debate finally settle to where it seems like it was always meant to be that way? What will Joe Sixpack do? What car will he choose?

Those lining up behind Hydrogen as a solution are running the argument that Joe Sixpack is on their side, and therefore manufacturers and governments should focus on the hydrogen highway. The argument goes that Joe and his friends will choose the hydrogen cars, because they look like that SUV he already has.

Of course the Honda FCX Clarity is a big four door car. And it looks like a valid choice. Hydrogen filling stations, SUV's with gas pedals: its not a hard sacrifice for Joe Sixpack to make.

But its actual on-road cost is in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, you can only lease them, and then with a insurance bill that reflects the units actual value. It will be 5-10 years before the investments in hydrogen technology research produce a vehicle that can be mass produced.

And Honda has now committed to electrification as the way forward, with plans to produce a range of electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles, including electric motorcycles.

Toyota, Mitsubish, Nissan, GM and most major manufacturers have now switched to electrification as their key strategy for clean vehicles with plans for either all electric or plug-in hybrid/range-extended vehicles starting from 2010.

But doesn't Joe Sixpack get a wallet vote here? How do these manufacturers know they've chosen VHS or BetaMax?

As much as I hate to say it I don't think the noble consumer vote is going to carry much sway here, since our decisions are going to be mostly made for us by pricing - hydrogen cars are way to expensive to produce.

At present if you live California or Iceland you can refill the hydrogen fuel cell that supplies electricity to your electrically powered vehicle. But in Australia, and most of the rest of the world, where hydrogen is still a commercial gas for industry, produced in relatively small quantities from fossil fuels, pulling into the local hydrogen station is at least 10 years away.

Yes, hydrogen can be produced from water using electricity - but then why not just use the electricity?

Why do we have to build out a collection of hydrogen filling stations just to act as middle-men? Are we trying to keep Joe Sixpack happy here, or is it actually ExxonMobil?

I have cheap electricity already coming out of a socket in my garage, so explain to me again why I should drive somewhere, and queue up so I can pay someone for it?

And what the manufacturers and governments are realizing is that it will not be a reality for the early and late adopters in their very large numbers, for ten years at least.

Another compelling argument for going straight to electricity over using hydrogen as an electricity middle-man is the Smart Grid.

Its certain that the Smart Grid will be a necessary innovation to both enable new efficient energy consumption strategies for consumers, and to manage the growth of solar, wind and other alternative electric power sources. The way we get power at present is that each turbine and generator that is bought online at the local power station to meet a days peaking usage results in a big step up in power availability. Its like power is sprayed out over the consuming public from a fire-hose, and another fire engine just backed up to pump out more.

Its a hit-and-miss operation, where the amounts we choose to use bear little relation to the generation capacity power authorities have to produce. A SmartGrid allows a feed back loop where intelligent management of capacity and consumption makes the consumers partners in the process - instead of a firehose, we get to channel more like what we need.

Also the SmartGrid enables balancing and management of clean energies at the times they're produced - on windy days, or sunny days for example.

When we see large scale take up of clean vehicles that don't use oil to power them, an amazing by product will be the free electricity no longer needed by the refineries - one analyst at least says that this amount of electricity would power the equivalent electric vehicles of the petroleum that would have been produced. This changing face of electricity production and usage in the face of climate change initiatives and a new greener high-tech economy will necessarily require a smart grid to manage it.

So we're going to have to get a SmartGrid - where does Hydrogen fit into that? Answer, nowhere that I can see.

Electric vehicles can use the SmartGrid to charge at off peak times, and even take an active part in buffering the SmartGrid. Hydrogen doesn't work that way, and the Joe Sixpack consumer model hydrogen gas station is even worse of a fit.

Nevertheless, common-sense and the good of mankind have never been good enough reasons to do the right thing.

And its certain that adoption of cleaner vehicles will be slow going.

Clean Vehicle Adoption with Chasm
If you follow the "Crossing the Chasm" theory of technology adoption, there is a big gulf between those true-believing converts in the early adoption camp, and their reticent counterparts in the early adoption majority.

But this is yet another win for electric vehicles, in my view. Electric cars are the ideal chasm bridging technology, because they provide a way to "sharpen the wedge".

Hydrogen has a big hump to get over with its requirements for new fuel cell technology, hydrogen filling stations, cryogenic storage and a laundry list of high-tech advances.

But with electric vehicles, ordinary folks are building them out of spare bits and pieces in their garages. The technology is really nothing new. That innovative spirit that has us rolling up our sleeves and tinkering in the shed will give traction to the already burgeoning grass roots electric car movement.

Also making the take up slope less of a hike is the the time-saving and budget-conscious aspects of electric vehicle ownership. I don't have to do anything new with my electric car - just park it and plug it in. The socket is right there, where I park my car - its a no-brainer. No more finding time to get to the gas station, or adding up those 4c per liter savings vouchers.

Don't get me wrong - its not that I don't think hydrogen has a future. It definitely has a future, especially in fleet and heavy vehicle usage.

But to get over the hump of clean vehicle adoption before we all choke on our collective soot, we can start with an easy curve to climb.

2010 will be the year when we see these new cars arrive in numbers sufficient to make a difference. Zero tail-pipe emissions is a really good difference to be able make, especially around our schools, our cities, and our local environment.

It will be exciting to finally have the chance to be part of that difference.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Answer Man

Photo by Elliot Moore
How do we save the world as it teeters on the brink of an energy crisis and a climate change catastrophe?

Many governments now are scrambling to put together a coherent set of answers: some sort of plan to address this question.

I recently read a slim volume by investigative journalist and author Edwin Black which steps up to provide such answers.

"The Plan" is nothing less than a no-holds-barred manifesto of energy security politics. It reads as a apocalypse survival plan, detailing week by week how western civilization might save themselves when the black gold stops flowing, and anarchy rules our streets.

From my perspective - not being a politician looking for a policy - the most eye-opening part of the book was the coverage of the fragility of oil supply. The book opens with this important background, before it gets into the survivalist stuff.

Oil has over a century ago stopped being a commodity - it no more follows supply and demand or any other market place rules than nuclear weaponry. Oil is a political issue.

Enter the IEA. This is an organization dedicated to protecting nations who join it from the impact of oil supply loss. Set up after the oil shocks of the 70's, the IEA member nations recognize that loss of even a fraction of supply would lead to an apocalypse - the signatories agree to help each other in the event of such a calamity by immediately executing a three-pronged action:
  • stockdraw - releasing strategic reserves
  • surge production - increase of supply from internal oil sources
  • demand restraint - reducing oil consumption
This material is compelling reading. It puts a lot of what I already knew about the Oil Shocks of the 1970's and later into chilling perspective.

But doesn't this sound like a plan?

It would if the first two items would address a tiny part of the impact of an oil shock. Even a drop in oil supply to the USA of 5% would trigger the stock draw - raiding the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. The month or so that the SPR would last is nowhere near enough time to enable demand restraint. Anything that had not been already prepared would be overwhelmed by chaos before it got off the drawing boards.

And surge production - the USA is already using and drying up its own oil wells. If the 5% drop is more widespread than just the USA then the chances of other countries being willing or able to surge supply enough to get the USA out of the fat-fire are near zero.

But the big flaw is demand restraint.

Demand restraint? Are you kidding?

If there's one thing that will get an American president shaking in his boots, its trying to get US citizens to restrain their gas guzzling ways. And a century of GM marketing teaching them that success is the same as a big car is going to take a long time to turn around.

New Zealand responded with great restraint during the Oil Shock times by instituting carless days.

USA has no plan and no ability to do anything like carless days, even though its obligations through its membership of the IEA decrees that it should.

But do we really have to worry about another oil shock?

Black shows why we should expect it as a virtual inevitability. He covers a range of threats from military, through economic, to pragmatic which will likely realize the substantial ruination of oil supply.

It won't take much.

After Hurricane Katrina hit the continental USA and took a number of refineries offline, the availability there dropped by 5% - this is the figure sufficient to trigger releases from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

A drop of 7% is enough to precipitate an international crisis, and trigger obligations under the IEA membership.

Losing 10% of oil supply in the USA is unthinkable: so "off the charts that we can't model it" according to one of Black's sources.

This is because the USA has already hit its Peak Oil - its been many decades since those cocky Texas oilmen were supplying anything more than a trickle of the black gold gushing into the USA's unquenchable gullet.

Around 60% of the oil used in the USA is imported. But what is more interesting is that due to Oil Market intricacies, while it would appear that most of that oil comes from friendly countries such as Canada - the true picture is that USA is far more exposed to the middle-eastern oil markets than raw import source percentages would suggest.

But even looking at raw figures, Saudi Arabia supplies over 10% of US oil.

This fact alone leaves the super-power critically vulnerable. Its why twice during his presidency as Black describes, George Bush went cap in hand to the Saudis asking for price breaks. The volatile nations of the middle-east have the the international oil market in the palm of their hand.

The remainder of The Plan presents a range of energy initiatives that would allow a shattered country to try to survive the impact of an oil apocalypse:
  • upfitting vehicles to CNG, and other alternative energy sources
  • using sugar cane and other sustainable ethanol programs
  • stopping corn ethanol production - it uses more petroleum products than it produces
  • hydrogen and electric vehicles
  • moving off oil fired heating
Of course Blacks point is that if the Plan is instituted now, instead of waiting for the disaster then maybe we can pull back from the precipice.

Hydrogen Update

This is an update on an earlier blog article about Edwin Blacks book "Internal Combustion: How Corporations and Governments Addicted the World to Oil and Derailed the Alternatives".

Mr Black responded to my offer of commentary - his comments are in red below.

Where as for hydrogen:
A 2008 report from the National Research Council estimated it would take $200 million from government and industry over the next 15 years to commercialize hydrogen fuel cell vehicles to the point they could be competitive with gas vehicles.(Reported by reuters)

These are just politicized numbers. Last year, I drove a GM hydrogen car that used water dispensed from a Shell station to create the fuel.

The problems of practical transport using hydrogen are well known - see this article in Popular Mechanics for an even handed analysis.

Hydrogen has its hands as dirty as oil, since it is traditionally made from natural gas, a fossil fuel. Companies mentioned by Black in his chapter on hydrogen, such as Linde, and Air Liquide are now leading members of the National Hydrogen Association, along with guess who: General Motors and Shell.

A common feedstock is not natural gas but pure water.

There are 3 main ways to make hydrogen--reform it from natural gas as some wish so they can use existing infrasture, electrolyze it from water like the Shell station in Santa Monica ( I favor), or use bacterial generation which still being perfected to yield higher amounts.

Hydrogen could be synthesized from your hat--it is in 99% of the universe.

Hydrogen futurists such as Dr Alan Lloyd were pivotal in killing off the California zero emissions mandate. The ZEV laws brought in by the California Air Resources Board to fight chronic smog had led to a huge flurry of electric vehicle activity in California. In the period where Lloyd was the Chairman of the California Air Resources Board and Secretary of the California EPA the electric vehicle innovation and recharge point infrastructure rollout was crushed literally, and replaced with a highly touted hydrogen program.

I know Lloyd. He was not a hydrogen futurist. The hydrogen fuel cell was invented in 1838.

Lloyd was also Chairman of the California Fuel Cell partnership. He vehemently denied that this was a conflict of interest.

Of course proponents of hydrogen with vested interests ranging from pet research to major investment, are ready with all sorts of arguments against the view that electric is superior to hydrogen for transport. Even if they're not all Lloyds with a cash register tune playing in their ears, their views are based on theory.

Remember Sarah--the hydrogen car is just an electric car with the electricity generated from as hydrogen reaction. Now you can generate electricity from a battery, from on-board hydrogen, or a squirrel in a cage--just the end product is all the same--electricity out of the fuel combination to run the wheels. Batteries are a dirty business. It is brown green, not green green. Water is clean. It only takes a zap of electricity to electrolyze it. In Vegas that is done with solar.

Electric Vehicle Update

In October the Australian Electric Vehicle Association has its first ever field day. Yours truly will be there and I plan to report on the event.

The guys from the AEVA have been building and driving electric vehicles, approved for driving on our roads now for decades.

I agree with Mr Black that hydrogen can be generated cleanly, and I hope some day soon that it will.

I believe that avoiding the Oil Apocalypse will take a broad ranging response - a response from all of us. And an effective robust response will involve a range of technologies.

We have to start now - and we can start with non-oil burning technologies that we have on our roads right now - and for me electric vehicles are the most exciting reality, but of course CNG and LPG will play a role, as will biodiesel.

I'm sure that the current success and innovation in electric vehicles will pave the way for a viable hydrogen powered car, since as Mr Black says, hydrogen is essentially another way to power an electric vehicle.

I look forward to seeing a hydrogen vehicle on our shores as soon as possible.

In the meantime, come and join me at the AEVA's electric vehicle open day!