May 15, 2009

Is solar cost competitive?

Not quite yet, but it's coming:

"The economics of solar power are changing rapidly. And if the Prometheus Institute for Sustainable Development (PI) is right that solar module prices will fall more than 50% by 2012, grid parity will be achieved across many parts of the US."

They assume rising electricity prices (which is pretty realistic, with CO2 pricing apparently on the way), but we don't need to focus on that.

The fact is, that PV grid-parity is beginning to emerge right now for a very few specific applications and locations. This will just expand over the coming years, and the assumption of rising power prices will only change the inflection point by 2-3 years.

Also, keep in mind that this is the unsubsidized price, which doesn't reflect any of the externalities, like CO2, sulfur, etc, etc.

The fact is, that solar is here: as production expands, prices will continue to fall, and demand will rise explosively.

May 12, 2009

Why is talking about energy so hard?

It can be very hard to talk about the kind of big changes in our energy infrastructure that we really need. Traditionalists and activists talk past each other. Here's pretty good article
about that - it's also fairly realistic about what's most likely to happen, (though I think it discounts what we could do, if we wanted to...) .

"One executive decried the “cheap shots” taken at the oil and gas industry by climate change activists, and then a few moments later mentioned how much he liked a print ad that offered a false choice between offshore drilling and high gasoline prices."

"An attendee stood before a panel of major oil company executives and ask how the energy industry could engage more fruitfully with policymakers and the public on climate change, then admitted that she had boycotted a recent local presentation by T. Boone Pickens about his energy plan for the country simply because he was an oil baron."

"what I see is both sides—the green/climate change side and the fossil fuel side—retreating to their corners, throwing up walls of propaganda, and demonizing the other side."

Do Electric Vehicles cost less to maintain?

Car manufacturers and dealers think so:

"Car dealers are nervous a shift from gas to electric cars will mean that they don't see their customers as often as they currently do.

The design of the electric car is really simple. There's not a lot of parts, so there won't be much need for maintenance says Mark Perry, Nissan (NSANY) Americas' head of Product Planning. When he said that, was speaking to a group of dealers at an event in New York to show off Nissan's upcoming electric. (We stood outside the circle of dealers and listened in.) "

I've heard a contention that transmissions are the most important cause of car scrappage (" you can call any wrecking yard sales clerk and ask him why most of the cars in his yard are there ,if not because of an accident that rendered them undriveable,and he will tell you the same thing. The used mechanical component that is most often sold out is the automatic transmission. Among working class people who drive older cars this is accepted as a given as certain as death and taxes").

So, what about transmissions?

Well, EVs (and Extended range EVs like the Volt) don't have them. EVs generally do have a reduction gear to reduce the ratio of engine rpm to wheel rpm, which is often called a transmission. However, it's not the multi-speed affair with a torque converter and one or more clutches that drive conventional vehicles, and so reliability will be very high.

Regenerative braking greatly reduces brake wear. Brake maintenance is a significant cost. Even Prius brake wear is greatly reduced, and it only has partial regenerative braking. Taxi drivers with Priuses are very happy about that cost reduction.

EV's have no starter motors, transmissions, mufflers, tuneups (plugs/injection, air filters), timing or other belts, fuel pumps, engine coolant (with fan, radiator, hoses and pump), valves, oil (with filter and pump), exhaust pipes or muffler, catalytic converter, supercharger, idle control, or fuel injection. The engine has only one moving part, almost no internal friction, and is likely to last forever.

Wouldn't all of this likely reduce maintenance costs by roughly 75%?

Jay Leno has a 1909 Detroit Electric model that's still working just fine - it's even still using the original battery.


The Leaf’s service manual says the Leaf requires ABSOLUTELY NO SERVICE. No oil change, transmission fluid, spark plugs, tuneups, oil filter, gas filter, air filter, radiator leaks, muffler changes, power steering fluid, transmission radiator leaks, brake pads, emission control sensor failures, air care inspections...

The only recommendation: inspect/replace brake fluid every 30,000 miles.


Fleet EV managers seem particularly aware of the potential maintenance savings:

“On an equivalent 100 mile-per-day diesel vehicle, we spend roughly $900 per year in preventive maintenance – oil changes, filter changes, anti-freeze adds, and eventually transmission oil changes. With the electric vehicles, we take that down to $250 per year.

The electric trucks are only equipped with four grease fittings and no engine or transmission oil. The truck must still be taken to look at brake lines and other wear components that may be cracked. Overall, there is virtually nothing that goes wrong with these things.” – Staples vehicle fleet manager

May 9, 2009

What about cultural obstacles?

Doesn't moving to renewable energy, greater efficiency, and a lower environmental "footprint" require a cultural change? Culture changes slowly - what hope is there for the change we need?

Change can come from surprising places:

Producers and advocates of green technology are taking note. The Defense Department derives 9.8% of its power from alternative sources and is looking to expand use of wind, solar, thermal and nuclear energy. Some believe that the military has the potential to become a catalyst, helping to turn more expensive power sources into financially viable alternatives to coal and petroleum.

"If the military were to go green, I think that this really could achieve some environmental goals, for a very simple reason: the military is so big," said Matthew Kahn, an environmental economist at the UCLA Institute of the Environment.

Although that remains to be seen, Kahn noted that it would not be the first time the military has had a transforming effect on technology. Cellphones, the Global Positioning System and the Internet all have roots in the military.

Some in the green energy sector hope that as the military adopts alternative power sources, the technology will gain broader acceptance among political conservatives.

""Just hearing that their military is embracing this new technology that was thought of as left-of-center is going to swing people's thoughts" about using it, said David Melton, president of Albuquerque-based Sacred Power Corp., which installed some of Ft. Irwin's photovoltaic panels and wind turbines.

Military officials concede that changing an institutional culture that until recently was far from green has sometimes been an uphill battle. But at a time of shrinking defense budgets, they say, commanders are finding that making their facilities more energy-efficient and generating some of their own power can yield significant cost savings."

The Army has more than 12 million acres, including large tracts that cannot be used for military, residential or commercial purposes because they are intended as buffers between bases and the civilian population. Some of that land, Eastin said, would be ideal for a solar array, wind farm or geothermal project. Within 15 years, he predicts, the Army "will be a net energy exporter.",0,4417523.story?page=2&track=rss

Nate Hagens asks: A green 'military' is kind of an oxymoron don't you think? I suspect they would be green in peacetime and take whatever energy they need during war. Which I suppose is an ecological improvement over taking whatever energy they need during wartime AND peacetime...


As far as the oxymoron goes..I know what you mean. That's the whole point: if the military does it, that takes it out of the realm of treehuggers, makes it a hard-headed business proposition, and gives conservatives permission to pursue it.

As far as the rest: aren't we involved in a war now? I mean, what war bigger than Iraq is going to come along? Russia? China? Canada?

If you read the whole article, I think you'll see that they're looking at a wide range of energy consumption, including energy efficiency. In fact, they're beginning to realize that their current immense refueling needs are a major strategic vulnerability, whether it's tanks, planes, or soldiers.

DARPA is funding R&D of batteries, PV, wind (wind provides 1/3 of Guantanamo's electricity), etc, etc. Everything.

All of this means that whatever they do, they'll use fewer Fossil Fuels.