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!

Tuesday, June 9, 2009


Courtesy wonder what the Americans think of Senator Fielding.

I hope they don't think we're all like him: "Yuk, yuk - y'know, humans ain't the cause of Global Warming. Its the sun."

Trying to explain the fact that we cannot keep crapping all over the planet we live on is getting chillingly like something out of a bad horror movie.

Its like Secretary for the Interior Not Sure, played here by Luke Wilson, in Mike Judge's Idiocracy, who tried to explain that "Brawn-Do" soft drink was not suitable for watering plants.

In Judge's spoof movie vision of the idiotic future, the global corporations have irrigation systems pumping their soda pop resulting in an increased stock price, even though all crops have failed. And Secretary Not Sure has the balls to stand up and say "I think plants need water."

"What? You mean we have ta use water, like out of the toilet?"

Wilson's character tries hard to explain that you need to use water for watering, not soft drink.

In the end he resorts to saying that the plants talk to him and they say they want water.

So what are the smart guys saying right now?

What does the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change say?
  • "Warming of the climate system is unequivocal."
  • "Most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations."
Hundreds of scientists from over 100 different countries, working for 5 years to produce a single compelling report. These are the guys our governments asked to work this out and produce an answer.

Yuh, see - the problem is scientists say words like "likely".

I won't repeat what the yokels in Idiocracy have to say for this kind of scientific talk, but its not complimentary. Scientists deal in theories, hypotheses, and the scientific method - which allows for experiments to offer supporting evidence for those hypotheses.

But that doesn't sound like the kind of clear cut answer that Senator Fielding is looking for.

Lets look at the similarities between the climate change skeptics that Senator Fielding has been hob-nobbing with, and the tobacco lobby.

We now understand that cigarettes cause fatal diseases.

You know those kind of diseases? They're the ones that kill you.

Lung, throat and other cancers; cardiovascular and chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases, early aging and the list goes on.

Remember back last decade or so when the large tobacco companies were paying "researchers" and "think tanks"? These are the guys who amazingly enough came out with statements about smoking not being definitely linked to cancers, and filter cigarettes being milder.

Well, not so amazing really, when you realize that the "think tanks" were having their rent paid for them by the cigarette companies.

Big Tobacco sunk millions into fighting the public health initiatives that were being pushed through by doctors and government health agencies, to make the public aware of the dangers of these fatal products. There was even a movie about all this starring Russel Crowe - so it must be true.

Well, do you know what happened to those "think tanks" and "researchers" geared up to sew uncertainty and doubt about public health warnings against the dangerous products and activities of their corporate masters?

Guess what - they're still here, and still in business!

The Heartland Institute during the 90's received hundreds of thousands of dollars from Phillip Morris, a large tobacco company, to support its "think tank" activities drumming up "research" to counteract reports of the dangers of smoking. That's just the amounts that were documented in public records.

These days most of its funding comes from energy companies like ExxonMobil.

And guess what - its luxury gabfests for climate change skeptics including fully paid up conference stays at the Marriot Hotel in New York for politicians are more of the same tricks from their standard playbook.

And "conferences" like the one in Washington that Senator Fielding went to are just another weapon in their arsenal of Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt or FUD.

"The dangers of acting too soon...". "There is disagreement on the evidence...". "We're just not sure...". Not Sure?

But wait!

Even if the provenance of these "scientific" opinions has a cloud over it, isn't it important to look at all the opinions and evidence before the Australian Government makes up its mind on climate change policy?

Ought'nt they look at both sides?

No, no and no.

No, Senator Fielding, no they should not.

Solar flares are a red herring, and there are bound to be more fishy science to come from our friends at the think tanks.

We ought not stop and listen to the dross that you have recycled from the corporate flunkies of Exxon and other global polluters.

Not because opinions aren't important but because we have to listen to the scientists who were known to have been paid to assemble the authoritative report, the IPCC scientists who have nothing to gain, the hundreds of scientists from all over the world, who are desperately trying to save the world from the pollution being generated by the giant corporations paying to cover it up.

For just. One more. Quarterly. Profit. Report.

And another quarter.

And another after that.

The ExxonMobils are saying "We just have to run this FUD for one more year. And we rake in billions. Buy more 'scientists' - hold more 'think tanks' - just hold them off for another year!".

Each year, for billions in government incentives and subsidies, billions of dollars in profit.

Trillions of dollars worth of damage to the environment.

Oh, and just one thing - a question: do you know what the "environment" is? Here's a clue: we only have one of them. We live in it, and breathe its air. Our kids grow up in it, and play in it.

Its our world.

And "sustainability" - do you know what that is?

If you start telling your boss your Grandma died, whenever you want to get a day off work, is that sustainable?

Not sustainable means: You cannot keep doing this. Period.

That's what sustainable means, and that's what environment means.

You cannot keep spewing garbage and pollution into our air, and our water and expect to keep living here like we do.

There's been a century and change, of governments listening far too eagerly to anything these guys have to say.

We've heard all about how all that pollution pouring out of tailpipes everywhere, and those burning tire dumps, and Exxon Valdez oil slicks are not really harming the environment.

Its now really time to listen to the other side.

Step aside Senator Fielding.

Let's listen to the smart guys now.