Actual Plug-ins Needed, Not Announcements

We’ve been hearing from practically every car manufacturer that they will be releasing plug-in electric models of popular cars. Enough with the announcements, we need actual sellable cars in dealerships. Instead, we have Volt in 2010 (and it’s arguably a pretty significant development that is coming in on schedule), Toyota is dragging their feet on a plug in Prius, who the hell knows what is going on at Tesla these days, Chrysler is showing off 2 plug ins that have the magical 2010 delivery date, and now even Mini is showing a prototype.

We’ve known for a little while now that BMW would be introducing an electric version of its iconic MINI, and now we have the photo proof as Autocar has taken the wraps off the new electric car.

[From Revealed: Electric MINI E – AutoblogGreen]

In all fairness, building cars is not easy because in addition to just making it work you have to meet regulatory requirements for safety and performance, their are driver and passenger comforts that are essential, and the actual manufacturing process is a web of supplier and scheduling complexities. But many of these vehicles are existing platforms refitted with a new power and drivetrain, and energy storage system. Few of these vehicles are like the Volt, a ground up new vehicle design, yet many of them have the same delivery date. I suspect market forces are a bigger predictor of delivery schedules than actual engineering requirements, and it may well be that no one sees being first as a competitive advantage.

Every car company in the world has made some noise about plug in electrics but where are the actual production vehicles? This is not new technology, it’s the evolution of existing technologies and many of these companies have been working on this publicly from 2006 and earlier (indeed electric cars go back over 100 years to production vehicles from Porsche in 1899).

Chevy Volt – Concept or Production?

The results are running neck-and-neck. After seeing it for the second time, it doesn’t look as disappointing but I’d still prefer the concept. Count me in for one at any rate, I’m buying one of these as soon as it’s available.

On a related note, the EV1 from GM was fugly, if they had made it look more like a contemporary car instead of a homebuilt geekmobile they would own the plug in electric market right now. Similarly, if Honda hadn’t made the Insight so impractical (and fugly) they quite possibly could be in Toyota’s pole position. Design matters (although this doesn’t explain why the Prius is so damn popular given that it ain’t no head turner… another kind of fashion statement I guess).

Now that you’ve had time to digest the look of the production Chevrolet Volt in a somewhat more flattering environment, it’s time to have your say. Obviously it changed a lot, but that was a necessity to get this first one out the door and meet the performance targets. The wheels shrunk, the greenhouse grew, and the transparent shoulders are now opaque. But this is now a real and buildable car. You’ve all been having your say in the comments, now let’s get some numbers from a thoroughly unscientific, self-selecting poll. Did Bob Boniface and his team break it or fix it?

[From Poll: 2011 Chevrolet Volt – which do you prefer, concept or production? – AutoblogGreen]

Google’s Energy Plan

Quick, how much is $2.7 trillion? Answer, the entire annual U.S. Federal government budget.

The reason why I’m skeptical of these plans is that they feel a lot like “have your cake and eat it too” plans. For example, Schmidt suggests that his plan costs will be recovered in savings and from half a million new jobs… and this makes it sound like a perpetual motion machine, a logical possibility but otherwise impossible because of various laws of physics, or in this case laws of pork spending and government inefficiency.

19 years after the Loma Prieta earthquake we still don’t have a replacement for the earthquake damaged eastern span of the Bay Bridge and that’s just a civil engineering project by comparison (which is not only behind schedule but also wildly more expensive than originally projected).

His plan will cost a lot — $2.7 trillion — but it’ll generate nearly as much in energy savings, and create a lot of new jobs, including 500,000 in the wind industry alone, he said.

[From Google CEO Eric Schmidt offers energy plan – San Jose Mercury News]

It’s not that I disagree with Schmidt’s prescription, but what I do take issue with is the viability of any solution that is billed as “comprehensive” in nature. Let’s get on with some tactical initiatives that move in the right direction, like expanding natural gas distribution pipelines, rebuilding power grids to handle new power generation capabilities, increase capacity in nuclear (7 plants on up-power permits before the NRC), and yes, increase domestic production of crude oil. Let’s also stop the tax insanity involving corn-based biofuels.

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T. Boone Pickens

I’ve been watching Pickens with a high degree of curiosity as he pitches his energy plan. On one hand I see a guy worth $4b that isn’t in this for the money, yet I haven’t seen too many billionaires that were not always looking for a 45 degree angle on a deal. I was therefore somewhat disappointed to realize that the core of Pickens plan is not just wind but natural gas, to which he has substantial financial incentives in the form of Clean Energy Fuels.

I’m not casting a judgement on the Pickens plan, mostly because very little of it is described in detail. The plan is essentially a 3 page brochure that says we need more wind power and natural gas for transportation. No word on vehicle conversion, gas pipeline development, electrical grid impact, taxes, distribution of costs as they span state boundaries, exploration for natural gas, etc.

Then there is Nancy “trying to save the planet” Pelosi and Pickens making strange bedfellows indeed with the Speaker’s investment in CLNE, even if it is a relatively small one. Nonetheless, these perceptions of conflicts lead to actual conflicts that fuel the “business as usual” sentiment among the public that results in voter disgust and disenchantment.

We don’t doubt that T. Boone Pickens will eventually make substantial earnings off of his green kick — including the world’s largest wind farm, and the proliferation of natural gas to power our vehicles. But Clean Energy Fuels, Pickens’ natural gas distribution company, reported earnings yesterday and, yep, it’s still losing money. The company reported a loss of $2.41 million for the quarter, though that was narrowed from a loss of $3.56 million for the same quarter a year ago.

[From Wasn’t T. Boone Supposed to Be Earning Money Off Green? « Earth2Tech]

Obama and McCain on Electric Cars

Interesting analysis on the candidates proposals for alternative energy and vehicles.

PM’s Geek the Vote series takes an in-depth look at the presidential candidates’ policies and positions on science and technology. In this installment, car-tech experts evaluate the stances of Senators John McCain and Barack Obama on America’s future electric vehicles, including funding for battery research, tax credits and loan guarantees for a struggling American auto industry.

[From Obama and McCain on Electric Cars – Energy Plans for Gas Prices, Plug-in Hybrids – Popular Mechanics]

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A123 Systems IPO

I long ago stopped watching IPOs but A123 Systems is going to be one to watch. The company makes advanced lithium ion batteries that are primarily targeted to the transportation market and as you can imagine this has been a hot growth market. A123 alone went from less than $1m in revenue in 2005 to $41m in revenue for 2007 and with about 150 employees. Not profitable but that is not surprising considering the significant R&D and manufacturing costs, both of which should decrease with technology maturity and volume.

Irrespective of what happens with oil, and for the record I predicted back in early July that we would see oil fall to between $80-90 (trading today at $114), the consumer consciousness has set in and hybrid and plug-in electric vehicle sales will outpace traditional vehicle sales. Add to the mix expansion in industrial vehicle sales and commercial vehicles and A123 will remain in a good place.

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Zigbee and Smart Appliances

I hadn’t written about Zigbee is so long I had to go back to my old blog to search for it. I remain pretty bullish on this category of technology but am pragmatic about medium term results for several reasons.

Commercial power users have a lot of incentives to retrofit facilities with energy saving technology and smart monitoring solutions, while residential users have less directly connected incentives and tend not to behave according to market conditions because electricity markets are price regulated and respond less dramatically than, for example, gasoline. It takes 4-6 months for electricity rates to rise in response to global commodity markets, and for whatever reason that seems to condition homeowners to price increases.

More on point, home retrofitting for technology like this is expensive and that why the vast majority of the market won’t do it. Even with tax subsidies, which btw remain a terrible strategy that does nothing but encourage higher prices to consumers, the payback period for technology like this exceeds the threshold most homeowners will absorb. Exhibit A is solar retrofitting, which despite significant improvements in the technology and large tax subsidies is but a niche market.

Until these technology make it into new construction we won’t see significant movement in the market. With new home construction all but at a standstill for at least the next 18 months, this is obviously not a winning strategy for these companies.

In the final analysis though, it is these incremental savings that will likely “fuel” our next generation power marketplace along with renewables, clean coal technology, transmission technology improvements, and better battery technology.

ZigBee is on the verge of becoming the Wi-Fi of home power management, thanks to its inclusion in smart electric meters. But multiple wireless control technologies may coexist, as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth do. For both consumers and utilities, it’s like “going from an odometer to a speedometer,” says Paul De Martini, vice president of Edison SmartConnect, Southern California Edison’s next-generation metering project. It intends to introduce smart meters to its 5.3 million customers by 2012. This project is expected to help reduce peak power demand by 5 percent – about the output of an 1,100-megawatt power plant – and overall demand by 1 percent. That would cut carbon dioxide emissions as much as taking 79,000 cars off the road, De Martini says.

[From New meters find power hogs and limit how much they use / Technology on verge of a boom, some analysts say]

LEDs, the Green Option Even if They Are Blue

For all the talk about the lowly light bulb being a primary front in the ongoing journey to becoming green, the fact is that there are few good options to replace the incandescent when it comes to light quality, cost, and environmental impact.

I have a few CFLs in the Nolan household but I simply don’t like them. They have to warm up to before outputting full power and the color of the light is hit or miss depending on the brand of bulb you are buying. Then there is that pesky mercury problem that proponents who claim to also be environmentalists selectively overlook… given the choice of mercury contamination or excessive electricity use, I’ll take the latter because mercury is serious stuff. Remember that fluorescent lighting is also a hundred year old technology.

The typical CFL has 4-6mg of mercury but the thing that should be concerning is that CFLs use elemental mercury which readily vaporizes when exposed to air, meaning a broken CFL in your home should be dealt with not simply by sweeping up and throwing away the broken glass, as you would an incandescent, but also by opening windows and allowing the air to change to decrease the mercury levels. BTW, the broken glass should not be vacuumed up, but rather collected and placed in a sealed bag to be disposed of in a certified Household Hazardous Waste facility, according to the EPA. Right…

I am a big fan of LED lighting but even here I find the solution to be a glass half empty. LEDs have a funky cold blue light, something that will no doubt be corrected over time, but the bigger problem is that LED light has to be concentrated which means it doesn’t disperse well so for area lighting it is not an option. On the plus side, LED lighting generates a lot less heat than other options and of course lasts pretty much forever.

For over one hundred years, traditional incandescent light bulbs have dominated the lighting industry. While the past belongs to these incandescent bulbs, the future belongs to light emitting diodes (LEDs), a new and efficient technology that is revolutionizing the lighting industry and ensuring it will have a smaller impact on the planet.

[From Amazon Green Scene’s Blog: Light Emitting Diodes: The New “Green Light” Permalink]

While I would call LED lighting very efficient, it’s certainly not new… the first calculators that appeared in the early 1970’s depended on two innovations, the microprocessor and LED lights.

Cleaner Jet Engines

This is great news. Technology people like to point to clean tech solutions that are literally decades away from mass market because they are the more intellectually interesting problems to tackle. Environmental zealots think the government should just start banning anything that emits exhaust, throwing us back to the Neolithic period somewhere between the Copper Age and the Iron Age.

The compromise between these two camps results in things like biofuels, which when government gets involved results in disaster.

Engineers, on the other hand, tend to be pragmatic and present solutions that build on what they know while striving for efficiencies that end up adding up when taken across the entire system. GM recently launched two new small displacement engines that are cleaner and more fuel efficient but sadly we won’t see these in the U.S. because Euro 5 standards are not CARB compliant, Bluetec diesel technology with urea injection is Bin 8 compliant and available in all 50 states, Bruce Crower’s 6 stroke gas/steam takes what works from old technology and adds it to current generation engines, and now Pratt & Whitney has evolved the basic turbofan jet engine to deliver greater fuel economy, reduced emissions, and a lower maintenance cost.

Pratt & Whitney solved that problem with a gearbox that lets the fan and turbine spin independently. The fan is larger and it spins at one-third the speed of the turbine, creating a quieter, more powerful engine the company says requires less fuel, emits less C02 and costs 30 percent less to maintain. Pratt & Whitney has been torture-testing the engines, and its engineers have simulated more than 40,000 takeoffs and landings.

[From Greener Jet Engine Could Reduce Aviation’s Carbon Footprint]

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Kalex Systems, Turning Waste Heat into Power

I met the CEO of a Kalex Systems recently, really neat guy with a fascinating company. The company’s technology is based on the Kalina Cycle, a method for recovering heat and converting it into mechanical power. I get excited about technologies like this because so much of the available energy at our disposal is thrown away as waste heat, everything from the exhaust your car produces to industrial processes.

What Kalex is doing is building small scale power plants that convert a variety of heat sources into power. For example, in China the company is building power plants that convert waste heat from cement factories into electricity. Concrete doesn’t dry, it cures as a result of a chemical reaction, and a major by product of that chemical reaction is heat. Up until now there hasn’t been an efficient method to capture heat, consolidate it, and convert it into power.

It’s often said that reducing our dependence on fossil fuels will come as a result of incremental innovations across a portfolio of solutions. Kalex is one such innovation that makes possible the development a wide range of industrial power plants, whether from the methane produced by a dairy farm (biomass) to waste heat (municipal waste) to geothermal.