December 13, 2010

Why isn't trucking moving faster to electric vehicles?

Companies with large local delivery operations, like Staples, UPS and others, are moving to electric trucks, but they're doing so very slowly, despite clear savings:

"The trucks, which have a top speed of about 50 mph and can carry 16,000 pounds, cost about $30,000 more than a diesel, but Staples expects to recover that expense in 3.3 years because of the savings inherent in the electric models, Mr. Payette said.

Staples said the annual maintenance cost of a diesel delivery truck is about $2,700 in most years, including oil, transmission fluid, filters and belts. For an electric truck—which has no transmission and needs no fluids, filters or belts—the cost is about $250."

On the other hand, the volumes are very small:

"FedEx is using 19 all-electric vehicles in London, Paris and Los Angeles made by Modec of Great Britain and Navistar International Corp. FedEx Chief Executive Officer Fred Smith has been outspoken about his desire to see electric vehicles proliferate, in part to cut the U.S. dependence on imported oil."

Why so slowly?

One problem: achieving economies of scale. The manufacturer received a grant to help get past that hurdle:

"Bryan Hansel, Smith's CEO, said his company is on track to lower its costs enough to not raise prices after its federal grant is used up. "We don't think there is a need for ongoing support," Mr. Hansel said. "

In comparable production volumes, electric vehicles are much cheaper than ICE vehicles, both to manufacture (without the battery) and to maintain. The cost of the battery will be more than paid for with fuel savings, leaving the other savings as profit.

Note the short-term orientation, which makes any kind of innovation difficult:

"One impediment to wider adoption of electric trucks: few finance companies offer leases on them. That's because finance companies are unsure about how to value the lease "residual," a truck's worth after a few years of use. "

The leasing companies are risk-averse. The larger problem: the operating companies are risk-averse, which is why they're leasing in the first place:

"Many large companies, including Staples, prefer to lease trucks to avoid the large capital requirements of an outright purchase, Mr. Payette said."

December 8, 2010

Can we reduce CO2 emissions from concrete?

Yes, it looks likely. We're seeing a large number of new chemistries that would allow this. The real question - how quickly we can get a very conservative building industry to test and adopt one or more of these solutions:

"Making cement for concrete involves heating pulverized limestone, clay, and sand to 1,450 °C with a fuel such as coal or natural gas. The process generates a lot of carbon dioxide: making one metric ton of commonly used Portland cement releases 650 to 920 kilograms of it. The 2.8 billion metric tons of cement produced worldwide in 2009 contributed about 5 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions. Nikolaos Vlasopoulos, chief scientist at London-based startup Novacem, is trying to eliminate those emissions with a cement that absorbs more carbon dioxide than is released during its manufacture. It locks away as much as 100 kilograms of the greenhouse gas per ton.

Vlasopoulos discovered the recipe for Novacem's cement as a grad student at Imperial College London. "I was investigating cements produced by mixing magnesium oxides with Portland cement," he says. But when he added water to the magnesium compounds without any Portland in the mix, he found he could still make a solid-setting cement that didn't rely on carbon-rich limestone. And as it hardened, atmospheric carbon dioxide reacted with the magnesium to make carbonates that strengthened the cement while trapping the gas. Novacem is now refining the formula so that the product's mechanical performance will equal that of Portland cement. That work, says ­Vlasopoulos, should be done "within a year."

Other startups are also trying to reduce cement's carbon footprint, including Calera in Los Gatos, CA, which has received about $50 million in venture investment. However, Calera's cements are currently intended to be additives to Portland cement rather than a replacement like Novacem's, says Franz-Josef Ulm, director of the Concrete Sustainability Hub at MIT. Novacem could thus have the edge in reducing emissions, but all the startups face the challenge of scaling their technology up to industrial levels. Still, Ulm says, this doesn't mean a company must displace billions of tons of Portland cement to be successful; it can begin by exploiting niche areas in specialized construction. If Novacem can produce 500,000 tons a year, ­Vlasopoulos believes, it can match the price of Portland cement.

Even getting that far will be tough. "They are introducing a very new material to a very conservative industry," says Hamlin Jennings, a professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Northwestern University. "There will be questions." Novacem will start trying to persuade the industry by working with Laing O'Rourke, the largest privately owned construction company in the U.K. In 2011, with $1.5 million in cash from the Royal Society and others, Novacem is scheduled to begin building a new pilot plant to make its newly formulated cement."

And, another form of zero-CO2 paving:

"... instead of paving with asphalt, why not use stone — sandstone to be exact, sandstone that is manufactured in place using a biological process.

Two prominent American designers, Thomas Kosbau and Andrew Wetzler, have taken an idea from a scientific paper published in 2006 and run with it. The system they devised for paving with stone has just won top prize in a South Korean design competition. And the competition was stiff — 4034 entries from 95 countries.

The stone they use is not just any stone. Instead they refer to “a biologically treated and processed paving material that uses a common microbe to alter the properties and behaviour of loose grains of sand into stabilized sandstone.”

The team says that mixing common sand, which is one of the planet’s most abundant resources, with a solution containing the microorganism Bacillus Pasteurii results in a cementing process that turns the mix into biologically engineered, hardened sandstone. "

November 28, 2010

What if something can't compete? "viability" vs "competitiveness"

Chemical companies use oil as a feedstock to make plastics, glues, etc because it is still cheaper than alternatives. British coal has mostly been replaced by cheaper imports. Won't migration to alternatives raise prices and lower living standards?

Yes, but how much? There is a basic paradigm that's useful here: "viability" vs "competitiveness". In most industries a very small cost difference can make you uncompetitive. That means that slightly higher cost solutions will be avoided, which can give the impression that those solutions are higher cost than they are. OTOH, if changes in the business environment (or natural environment!) change the costs of alternatives for everyone, suddenly alternatives can become acceptable in that industry.

There is an analogy in sports: "winner takes all". Tiger Woods and Pete Sampras get all of the publicity and a lion's share of the prize money. The 200th best player in either sport gets no publicity or prize money. On the other hand, the 200th best player will mop the field/court with you or me just as fast as would Tiger or Pete.

So, for instance, recycled materials are in general slightly more expensive than virgin materials, plastic included. But, if oil becomes more expensive then recycled materials could suddenly become the standard. If something could be recycled with only 10% loss at each generation, that would reduce the consumption of virgin materials by 90%, with only a very small additional cost for the industry.

As another example, high sulfur Illinois Basin coal costs perhaps 2 cents per kWh to scrub. That's an enormous margin to power plant consumers, who are willing to pay for long-distance transport of lower-quality Powder-River coal. The net difference in cost might be only half of one penny per kWh, which is still an enormous margin to power plant consumers. On the other hand, let's assume power prices rise by one half penny around the globe (to eliminate questions of regional competition) - how much difference would it make to consumers to add a half penny per kWh? Sure, they'd notice it, but would the difference cause any factories to close their doors, or homeowners to not be able to pay their mortgages? No.

November 19, 2010

Is the average voter helpless over energy policy?

No. If voters were to usher in a government that made dramatic changes to our energy polices, I don't believe that the corporations that were affected would try to overthrow the government. And, if such a government campaigned on the basis of dramatic change, and therefore had a mandate to implement them, I don't think that lobbyists behind the scenes would succeed in preventing them.

On the other hand, I think it's clear that corporations try to manipulate voters in order to get their short-sighted way. And, it seems pretty clear that most voters aren't very good at resisting the disinformation and appeals to emotion that corporations use to achieve their goals:

"...The Tea Party movement, which is threatening to cause an upset in next month's midterm elections, would not be where it is today without the backing of that most traditional of US political supporters – Big Oil.

The billionaire brothers who own Koch Industries, a private company with 70,000 employees and annual revenues of $100bn (£62bn), used to joke that they controlled the biggest company nobody had ever heard of.

Not any more. After decades during which their fortune grew exponentially and they channelled millions of dollars to rightwing causes, Charles and David Koch are finally getting noticed for their part in the extraordinary growth of the Tea Party movement.

The two, 74-year-old Charles and David, 70, have invested widely in the outcome of the 2 November elections."

November 15, 2010

Resistance to Change - Yet More...

Corporations, focused on their fiduciary duty to their investors to maximize profit, are attacking government's ability to charge for external costs like pollution. "Pigovian" taxes just became much more difficult in California:

"It was the "sleeper" ballot initiative of California's election season: Few paid heed to Proposition 26, besides the oil, tobacco and alcohol companies that funneled millions of dollars into promoting it in the final weeks of the campaign.

Now, from the Capitol in Sacramento to the boardrooms of county supervisors and city councils, lawmakers and lobbyists are scrambling to assess the fiscal and political effects of the measure, one of the most sweeping ballot-box initiatives in decades. Proposition 26 reclassifies most regulatory fees on industry as "taxes" requiring a two-thirds vote in government bodies or in public referendums, rather than a simple majority.

Approved by voters 53% to 47% on Nov. 2, it is aimed at multibillion-dollar statewide issues such as a per-barrel severance fee on oil and a cap-and-trade system for greenhouse gases. It's also aimed at local ordinances that add fees on cigarettes to pay for trash pickup and on alcohol to fund education and law enforcement programs.

Last week, the American Chemistry Council warned Los Angeles County supervisors that a proposed ordinance banning plastic grocery sacks and imposing a 10-cent fee on paper bags falls under the voting requirements of Proposition 26.

"We think it was a fair way to go," said Allan Zaremberg, chief executive of the California Chamber of Commerce, the biggest contributor to the Proposition 26 campaign. "It clarifies what is a tax and what is a fee. Right now, the public doesn't want any taxes."

Some simple charges are exempt, such as fees for marriage and fishing licenses, restaurant health inspections and property assessments.

But environmentalists and health advocates said the initiative makes it nearly impossible in the current political climate to boost industry fees for cleaning up air, water and toxic waste pollution; for curbing smoking and alcohol abuse; or for enacting new programs.

"California just got a lot harder to govern," said Bill Magavern, California director of the Sierra Club.

Proposition 26's TV campaign attacking "hidden taxes" caught many public interest groups unprepared. Hyper-focused on Proposition 23, the unsuccessful effort to suspend the state's global warming regulations, they were unable to pivot in time.

Environmentalists, unions and the Democratic Party scrambled to raise $6.6 million to fight Proposition 26, but proponents outspent them by 3 to 1."

November 2, 2010

Do we need oil?


Again, there is this puzzling assumption that oil can't be replaced, that it is somehow magically necessary for industrial/modern civilization. Oil has been cheap and convenient for the last 100 years, but the industrial revolution started without it, and modern civilization certainly will continue without it.  The idea that oil is necessary is an argument against solutions to Climate Change, and an argument for "drill, baby, drill".

• 130 years ago, kerosene was needed for illumination, and then electric lighting made it obsolete. The whole oil industry was in trouble for a little while, until someone (Benz) came up the infernal combustion engine-powered horseless carriage. EVs were still better than these noisy, dirty contraptions, which were difficult and dangerous to start. Sadly, someone came up with the first step towards electrifying the ICE vehicle, the electric starter, and that managed to temporarily kill the EV.

Now, of course, oil has become more expensive than it's worth, what with it's various kinds of pollution, and it's enormous security and supply problems.

• 40 years ago oil was 20% of US electrical generation, and now it's less than .8%.

• 40 years ago many homes in the US were heated with heating oil - the number has fallen by 75% since then.

• US cars increased their MPG  by 60% from about 1976 to about 1991.

• 50% of oil consumption is for personal transportation - this could be reduced by 60% by moving from the average US vehicle to something Prius-like. It could be reduced by 90% by going to something Volt-like. It could be reduced 100% by going to something Leaf-like. These are all cost effective, scalable, and here right now.

I personally prefer bikes and electric trains. But, hybrids, EREVs and EVs are cost effective, quickly scalable, and usable by almost everyone.

Sensible people won't move to a new home to reduce commuting fuel consumption. That would be far, far more expensive than replacing the car. It makes far more sense to buy an EV and amortize the premium over 10 years at a cost of about $1,000 per year (much less than their fuel savings), versus moving to a much higher cost environment (either higher rent or higher mortgage).

• As Alan Drake has shown, freight transportation can kick the oil-addiction habit relatively easily.

We don't need oil (or FF), and we should kick our addiction to it ASAP.

The only reason we haven't yet is the desperate resistance from the minority of workers and investors who would lose careers and investments if we made oil and other FFs obsolete. 

All of the various kinds of EVs (hybrids, PHEVs and pure EVS) would be much farther advanced if it weren't for resistance from the automotive and oil industries.  The first PHEV was demonstrated more than 100 years ago.  Very large and reliable EREVs were developed 100 years ago in the form of diesel submarines.  This isn't new stuff, and it would be far more useful and cheaper if we had started to really push them 40 years ago, when US oil fields clearly showed their limits.

Gas should be priced at European levels (say, around $7 per gallon), to reflect it's real costs.  If it were, EVs in their various incarnations would be obviously cost effective, and consumers would have demanded them long ago.

Some might ask, what about our current debt problems?

Debt is a symbol, a marker - what matters is the underlying productive capability of our economy, which will be just fine. Could we screw up the management of our economy, and go into a depression? Sure. But it's not likely.

Don't these transitions take 50 years?

The transition from kerosene to electricity for illumination took roughly 30 years. The US transition away from oil-fired generation took very roughly 20 years. The transition away from home-heating oil was also faster than 50 years (though uneven).

The fast transition from steam to diesel locomotive engines is illustrative. There were a few diesel locomotives in use in the U.S. during World War II but steam dominated in 1945. However, the steam locomotives had been very heavily used during World War II, and they all wore out at approximately the same time the first few years after 1945. When steam locomotives wore out, they were invariably replaced by diesel in the mid 1940s. By 1949, almost all steam locomotives were gone. There were still some steam locos made in the late 40's, and they were still in service in the 50's but dwindling. The RR's also relegated the steamers to branch line and switcher use - replacing the most used lines with diesel first as you would expect. Cn rail retired its last steam engine in 1959.

Other, very slow transitions are not a good guide to the future. For instance, the transition from coal to oil could be very slow, because there was no pressure - it was a trade up, not a replacement of a scarce resource. Many transitions occurred because something new & better came along - but the older system was still available and worked just fine. Oil may become very expensive very fast and that would provide us an incentive to switch over much more quickly.

On the other hand, we can point to many energy transitions that were sideways or down. The early transition from wood to coal in the UK was a big step down: harder to find and transport, dirtier - a pain in every way. Coal's only virtue was it's abundance. The transition from EVs to ICEs took a while - only when ICEs started to electrify did they become competitive. And, of course, we hid the external costs of oil from consumers: freeways (built by "engine" Charley Wilson after he went from President of GM to Secretary of Defense), pollution, overseas wars, etc. I'd argue that ICEs were never better than EVs - they just appeared that way.

On the other hand, EVs are better right now. They have better driving performance (better acceleration, better handling), and lower total lifecycle costs.

Unfortunately, we have more than 50 years worth of things we can burn for electricity. Fortunately, it doesn't look like we will. For instance, coal consumption in the US dropped 9% last year, about half of that due to loss of market share.

The transition from heating with wood to heating with coal took a lot more than fifty years. Electrification of the U.S. from small beginnings in the late nineteenth century to finishing rural electrification during the Great Depression took at least forty years.

Sure. These involved an enormous amount of infrastructure. On the other hand, EV/EREV/HEVs are manufactured on the same assembly lines as ICE vehicles, and roughly 75% drivers in the US have access to an electrical plug where they park.

Alan Drake would tell you: We transformed transportation before, in just twenty years. From 1897 to 1916, over 500 cities, towns and villages built streetcar lines. In several richer rural areas, vast networks of interurban rail lines were built. This was a nation with very limited "advanced technology", a half rural, half urban population and 3% to 4% of the real GDP of today.

If we mobilized all our resources as we did in World War II with the single objective of getting off fossil fuels as fast as possible, wouldn't the transition still take at least twenty years, and probably longer than that?

Some things much easier than that. A transition to EVs requires only a change within the automotive industry (for most drivers).  Slashing coal consumption involves pretty straightforward ramping up of wind energy.  75% reductions in fuel consumption by road transportation and coal consumption for electrical generation would be ambitious, but doable.

But are we actually seeing any replacements of oil?

Consumption in the US has fallen by more than 15% since it's recent peak in 2007 (while GDP has risen by 3%), and it continues to fall. Production has risen (both C&C and all liquids), and net imports have fallen by 38% since their peak in 2005.

Didn't past transitions occur in a environment of growth, when making new investments was a good idea, and banks would lend?

The transition from horses to rail occurred mostly during the Long Depression from 1873-1890. The move from horses to tractors and automobiles continued at a very good speed during the depression, as did general electrification and business investment. The transition away from oil for electrical generation accelerated during the 1979-1981 recession(s), and CAFE standards rose.

Even at the depth of the Great Recession car sales were at least 60% of normal. Even with currently high oil prices car sales have recovered to about 14M per year, which is pretty strong. And finally, used cars were and are still turning over very 3 years, giving high-mileage/low income drivers an opportunity to switch to a more efficient vehicle.

Isn't this expensive?

EVs and their cousins (hybrids, plug-ins, EREVs, etc) don't require any more steel than ICE's, and they already have overall Total Cost of Ownership equal to or lower than ICE vehicles. We're making ICE's without a problem, and EVs aren't any harder. Wind turbines and solar panels really don't consume that much in the way of resources.  Making long-haul trucks and coal plants prematurely obsolete is, of course, somewhat expensive, but the US has a big output gap (IOW, we have a lot of unemployed manufacturing and construction workers and empty manufacturing plants, waiting for something to do), and really, it would cost a lot less than another oil war.

Isn't "wasted" use of fuel is someones job providing a good or service? won't reducing fuel consumption cost jobs?

I'm thinking of the 50% of overall liquid fuel consumption that goes to personal transportation.  That could be reduced easily without anyone losing their job.

Chevy Volts take as much labor to manufacture as vehicles that use 10x as much fuel. No problem there.

The average vehicle gets resold every 3 years: there's plenty of opportunity for higher mileage drivers to move to high MPG vehicles, even if they drive used.

Doesn't expanded rail mean wasteful & expensive extra handling?

Inter-modal container handling is well tested and is pretty efficient. More importantly, current distribution patterns were shaped under cheap oil. With higher oil prices the optimal mix of rail & truck has shifted sharply towards rail.

Alan Drake indicates that the clearest indicator of this is that Class I RRs are investing 18% of their GROSS revenues into capital projects. This is far higher than any other industry. The number of multi-modal transfer projects are exploding. Just 7 years ago, no Walmart distribution center was served by rail. Several new ones are. The number of factories and warehouses served by rail are expanding.

What about an emergency loss of oil supplies?

Carpooling works nicely: about 10% of all commuting is done via carpooling, more than mass transit and 3x as much as is done via commuter rail. Commuting is free, fast, and highly scalable, given that the average car only has about 1.15 passengers. Double that, and reduce overall fuel consumption by 25%. It could be done in weeks or months.

Isn't carpooling inconvenient and slow?

Yes, it's not an ideal long-term strategy. OTOH, it would work; it's bigger than bus & rail already; it's really cheap; it would eliminate congestion, which is why there are HOV lanes; and smart phones and modern telecom are making carpooling much easier. 

The point is that we could reduce oil consumption very quickly, if we wanted to. If the alternative were really economic doom, carpooling wouldn't seem so bad, would it?

October 25, 2010

More Resistance to Change....

"The oil, coal and utility industries have collectively spent $500 million just since the beginning of 2009 to lobby against legislation to address climate change and to defeat candidates, like Mr. Hill, who support it, according to a new analysis from the Center for American Progress Action Fund, a left-leaning advocacy group in Washington.

Their message appears to have fallen on receptive ears. Of the 20 Republican Senate candidates in contested races, 19 question the science of global warming and oppose any comprehensive legislation to deal with it, according to a National Journal survey. "

"BP and several other big European companies are funding the midterm election campaigns of Tea Party favourites who deny the existence of global warming or oppose Barack Obama's energy agenda, the Guardian has learned.

An analysis of campaign finance by Climate Action Network Europe (Cane) found nearly 80% of campaign donations from a number of major European firms were directed towards senators who blocked action on climate change. These included incumbents who have been embraced by the Tea Party such as Jim DeMint, a Republican from South Carolina, and the notorious climate change denier James Inhofe, a Republican from Oklahoma.

The report, released tomorrow, used information on the Open database to track what it called a co-ordinated attempt by some of Europe's biggest polluters to influence the US midterms. It said: "The European companies are funding almost exclusively Senate candidates who have been outspoken in their opposition to comprehensive climate policy in the US and candidates who actively deny the scientific consensus that climate change is happening and is caused by people."

October 15, 2010

Are Electric Vehicles cost effective?

Yes. Here's a Leaf price comparison:

First, you have to decide whether you're looking at out of pocket costs, or trying to look at underlying "real" costs. If we look at market prices paid by buyers, we have to include the credit. If we want to look at actual system-wide costs, we have to include external costs like pollution, supply security, etc. For our purposes today, let's look at out of pocket prices.

2nd, you have to decide what vehicle to compare it to. Here's what Wired magazine says:

"A nicely appointed five-door, five-passenger compact—equivalent to, say, a Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla. But it’s electric, so it’s fairly torquey—the measly 107-horsepower motor hustles like it’s got double the ponies up to 40 mph. The ride is soft but surprisingly sure-footed thanks to a 600-pound air-cooled battery under the floorboard."

So, a comparable vehicle would be a Corolla at minimum. Other useful analyses might be: comparison with a Prius, which Consumer Reports tells us is cost competitive with a comparable car; and overall affordability, which might need a comparison with the average US vehicle.

3rd, you have to do your cost calculations.

Now, the average driver drives about 13,000 miles per year in the US. Total Vehicle Miles Traveled is 2,982,532,000 and total number of vehicles is 238,314,692 for an average of 12,515 miles per year. The current price is before taxes is $2.29 - with taxes, that's about $2.80 . The Corolla gets about 30 MPG per , so the Corolla costs about $1,168 per year for fuel.

The Leaf should use about .25kWh per mile, and night time power should cost about $.055/kWh ( The average retail rate for power in the US is $.11 (the coasts have more expensive power), and night time rates should be about 50% of that (often it is much lower, occasionally wholesale rates even go negative)), for an annual cost of $172.

Other factors: less maintenance, due to a much simpler drive train and the elimination of many support systems, fluids, belts, etc, etc. An important example: brake costs will be much lower, due to regenerative braking.

Insurance costs? Insurance costs are based on many things, including theft rates, collision rates, repair costs, anti-theft system and owner behavior. A taxi owner I just interviewed told me that a Prius would cost him 40% more than the usual Crown Vic-type workhorse, but that insurance would cost no more. BTW, the extra cost of the Prius is paid for in 10 months by the fuel savings... The Prius might be a guide: anyone seen a good source?

A Corolla, financed over 10 years, would cost $23,991 ($16,850 XLE, 7% interest) + 11,680 gas costs for $35,671.

A Leaf, financed over 10 years, would cost $35,993 ($32,780 minus $7,500 rebate, 7% interest) + 1,720 gas costs for $35,714.

So, a conservative comparison gives out of pocket costs which are almost identical. Other comparisons would look even better: including state rebates (CA-$5K, TN-$2K, GA-$5k?); comparing to a more expensive Corolla; to the average US vehicle; to a Prius; or using real costs (eliminating the rebate and including the external cost of oil).

In countries like Israel or Denmark, the Leaf will be a 1st car, supported by Better Place. OTOH, I don't expect Better Place to have a big impact on the US soon. On the 3rd hand, it's worth noting that: they are trying, in places like San Francisco; many places (e.g., Tennessee!) are installing charging stations on critical paths, and that a relatively small number can make a disproportionate difference; and the Leaf has a clever built-in app that finds efficient routes and charging stations.

October 7, 2010

Even more resistance to change

"What has Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California incensed is the fact that two Texas oil companies with two refineries each in California are financing a campaign to roll back California’s landmark laws to slow global warming and promote clean energy innovation, because it would require the refiners to install new emission-control tools. "

“It is very clear that the oil companies from outside the state that are trying to take out A.B. 32, and trying to take out our environmental laws, have no interest in suspending it, but just to get rid of it,” Governor Schwarzenegger said at an energy forum ... They’re not interested in our environment; they are only interested in greed and filling their pockets with more money.

“And they are very deceptive when they say they want to go and create more jobs in California,” the governor added. “Since when has [an] oil company ever been interested in jobs? Let’s be honest. If they really are interested in jobs, they would want to protect A.B. 32, because actually it’s green technology that is creating the most jobs right now in California, 10 times more than any other sector.”

No, this is not about jobs. As, a progressive research center, reported: Two Texas oil companies, Valero and Tesoro, “have led the charge against the landmark climate law, along with Koch Industries, the giant oil conglomerate owned by right-wing megafunders Charles and David Koch. Koch recently donated $1 million to the effort and has been supporting front groups involved in the campaign.”


August 31, 2010

More resistance to change

We can eliminate our dependence on oil, but how quickly will we do so? The tools are here: Hybrids like the Prius, EREVs like the Volt, and EVs like the Leaf have been engineered and are for sale. Wind power has grown to the point where it can provide whatever we need (and yes, nuclear and solar are important too). So, what's left is the pace of cultural change, and the small matter of politics - how we deal with the minority that wants to block change:

"The billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch are waging a war against Obama. He and his brother are lifelong libertarians and have quietly given more than a hundred million dollars to right-wing causes."

August 25, 2010

Will farm equipment, like tractors & large combines, survive Peak Oil?


First, diesel will be around for decades for essential uses, and in a transitional period commercial consumption will out-bid personal transportation consumers for fuel. Most farmers are small and suffering, but most farm acreage is being managed by large organizations, and is much more profitable. Those organizations will just raise their food prices, and out-bid personal transportation (commuters and leisure travel) for fuel, so they'll do just fine. As farm commodities are only a small % of the final price of food, it won't make much difference to food prices.

For example, "beanfarmer" tells us that diesel is less than 10% of his costs, so that if diesel prices double, and food prices rise by 10%, he'll be better off . The distribution system, too, will outbid personal transportation for fuel. Given that overall liquid fuel supplies are likely to only decline 20% in the next 20 years, that gives plenty of time for a transition.

Second, farm equipment isn't optimized for efficiency, and optimization of fuel useage combined with electrification of the drive train could probably double fuel efficiency. For example, GE expects to reduce freight train fuel consumption by 44% with expanded electrification of the drive train. Here's a terminal tractor that reduces fuel consumption by 60%.

Farm tractors can be electric, or hybrid . Here's a light electric tractor . Farm tractors are a fleet application, so they're not subject to the same limitations as cars and other light road vehicles(i.e., the need for small, light batteries and a charging network). Providing swap-in batteries may be easier and more practical: batteries could be trucked to the field in swappable packs, and swapping could be automated, a la Better Place. Zinc-air fuel cells can just be refuelled. Many sources of power are within the weight parameters to power modern farm tractors, including lithium-ion, Zebra batteries, ZAFC's and the latest lead-acid from Firefly Energy, and others.

It's very likely that an electric combine would be an Extended Range EV: it would have a small onboard generator, like the the Chevy Volt. Such a design would be 50-100% more efficient than a traditional diesel only combine, and would allow extended operation in a weather emergency.

The combine described here used about 73.5 gallons in a 12 hour day. That's about 450 kWhs (assuming 15% conversion efficiency*), or about 37.5 kW (or about 50HP on average). 450kWhs in a li-ion battery would weigh about 4 tons (at about .125kWh per kilo). Now, the combine we're talking about can carry 60,000 lbs of wheat, or 30 tons. If we reduce it's carrying capacity by 13% (inconvenient, but certainly doable) we can a days' worth of batteries.

On the other hand, we could choose to swap batteries once during the day, and only carry 2 tons of batteries.

Li-ion batteries cost about $350 per kWh these days (online sources range from $440/kWh to is about $2,000, but they're not selling large-format, high volume, purpose built industrial equipment), , so a 450kWh pack will cost about $160k (that's the wholesale price these days, and will be the retail price in 5 years). Over 30 days per year, we'll use 73.5 x 30 = 2,205 gallons, and use 13,500 kWh. If we want a 10 year payback, then we need to save $16k per year. The power will cost about $1,000 (night time power is cheaper, so the average cost/kWh might be $.07), so we need to save $15k on fuel. $15k / 2,205 = $6.80. gallon.

So, when fuel prices rise above about $7/gallon (timing?), or batteries get cheaper than $450/kWh (probably about 5 years out) electric combines will become competitive.

Or, we might get creative with strategies like cheaper shorter-lived chemistries: lead-acid costs roughly $100/kWh: LA would be competitive with diesel at $2/gallon. Now, LA weighs more: about 80 lbs per kWh (at 35 wHrs per kilo and 80% depth of discharge), so 450kWh would be 18 tons. That might mean swapping batteries every two hours to limit the pack to 3 tons. One advantage: with 4 hour fast charging, we'd only need two packs, which would reduce our cost by 2/3!

How fast do they recharge?

Depends on the chemistry: some li-ion chemistries can recharge to 80% in 30 minutes. OTOH, you might charge overnight. 450kWhs over 12 hours would be about 40kW: that's not that bad. That's a 440V, 100A load.

Most rural power grids are old and close to their load limit now, and many farms don't have large power services or transformers.

True. OTOH, their peak load is during the day, and battery charging would be mostly at night. The farm we discussed would need about 450kWh per day. A 15kW service could provide 1/3 of that in 10 hours: that's not bad. An EREV combine could be 1/3 powered by the grid, 2/3 by fuel.

*The conversions are very straightforward: diesel fuel contains about 40kWh, assuming 100% efficiency of burning. That means that our 73.5 gallons for the day can produce a maximum of about 3,000 kWhs. Now, even the most efficient marine diesels (2 stories high) only get to about 50% efficiency, and that's with a 2 story high 100,1000 HP engine running at the sweet spot of about 80% of rated capacity. A combine engine at best is unlikely to do better than 33%:

Two sources (hat tip to Paul Nash) back this up:

we see from that a generator with 150KW output capacity (roughly 200HP) consumes 5.9 gallons per hour at 50% capacity (75KW output). That gives roughly 32% efficiency (75kWh divided by 236 potential kWh (40kWh potential kWh per gallon x 5.9 gallons)).

Another good source for a real world estimate is well known and published naval architect Dave Gerr. If you google Dave Gerr engine fuel consumption, it wil come up with the Google books link to his 2009 book "boat mechanical systems", and on p90, he has his formulas for fuel consumption. For diesel engines, gal/hr = 0.054xhp, so 1 gal/hr =18.5hp or 13.8kW, and for 6gal/hr = 84 kW, so pretty close. A boat engine is a good comparison to a tractor because they tend to run at fairly constant speed for long periods, and often at or near the optimum fuel efficiency point.

The inefficiencies built into the overall mechanical system likely reduce overall efficiency to maybe 15%. I'm really combining several forms of efficiency: engine thermal efficiency, drive train efficiency (including low utilization periods).

Examples of EREV efficiency in large equipment include GE's latest diesel train EREV work) and this new Caterpillar dozer, with diesel electric drive: .This is a production model you can buy today. The electric motor small compared to the engine and generator that power it. They claim a 25% improvement in fuel per ton of earth moved.

I strongly suspect that farm equipment hasn't been optimized for fuel efficiency (note that the majority of the Prius efficiency gains come from outside the hybrid drive train). Sources of inefficiency include hydrostatic transmission & torque converters etc, equivalent of a car automatic; accessory loads powered by always-on mechanical linkages (A/C, brakes, etc); tire and suspension flexing; and aerodynamics (yes, combines move very slowly, but everything adds up).

So, 15% of 3,000 kWhs is 450kWhs for the day.

Can we really electrify such large pieces of equipment?

Mining gives us a lot of examples of really large electrical equipment: electrical mining equipment. Caterpillar manufactures 200-ton and above mining trucks with both drives. Caterpillar will produce mining trucks for every application—uphill, downhill, flat or extreme conditions — with electric as well as mechanical drive. Here's an electric earth moving truck. Here's an electric mobile strip mining machine, the largest tracked vehicle in the world at 13,500 tons.

A battery pack can fail via a dead short or, for some chemistry types a puncture - in both cases the dense energy can be released in a FAR shorter period of time.

Doesn't this seem a bit alarmist? Doesn't it seem like something the owner of a horse and buggy would have said about those dangerous horseless carriages?

To answer the question directly: the newest li-ion designs are mighty safe, and even the older designs never exploded.

What about just using a very long cable?

An alternative (courtesy of Paul Nash): go mining style, and do it with cable, not batteries. You woul need to have one cable (the A cable) on a reel and trailer, which starts from the SW(say) corner, and will run up the W side of the field. the combine has a B cable, connected to the A cable, and this is started laid out to halfway along the S edge of the field and back to the combine at the corner. The combine moves west to east along the south side, and drags the cable behind it, in the just harvested area. When it gets to the east side, the cable is now at full length, and the combine turns around and comes back, so the cable will be back to being halfway along the field. The A cable is then moved forward two combine widths, so it is behind the next run and you go again.

This is similar to how traveling irrigators (the big gun type, not centre pivot) drag their supply hoses. You then pick up the whole thing , move it over to the next line, and go again.

This might be easier, and cheaper, than messing with batteries. You just need to find an armoured cable to drag along, but those do exist.

These are designed to be dragged behind mining equipment, so they can take some punishment, and being driven over etc.
For 100kW, and three phase, 480V, you would be looking at about 150amp/leg, so the #1 sized cable would do it. Not light at 3kg/m, but much lighter than any battery pack, and cheaper too.

Taking the wired concept a step further, you could set up the field in lanes, and run overhead wires for each pair, and use a trolley bus style pickup. Drive to the south side of the wires on the way out, U turn at the end, and come back on the north side, then switch over to the next set of overhead wires for the next lane.

They wouldn't even have to be over head, they could just be at chest height, like a normal farm fence, with a side pick up from the tractor/combine - think a heavy duty, two cable electric fence, and you just energise each length as you go.

Won't we just stay with fuel?

We might. Diesel farm tractors can run on vegetable oil, with minor modifications. Ultimately, farmers are net energy exporters (whether it's food, oil or ethanol), and will actually do better in an environment of energy scarcity.

Battery costs will continue to decline, and liquid fuel costs will likely rise at least a little. At some point those lines will cross, but it may well be long after most of the rest of the economy is electrified.

A grid-sourced approach might work best, in farm areas close to the (Many) new windfarms that are rising in the MidWest. This isn't just to hang the loads on that windpower, but to take advantage of the Grid improvements that the Windfarm brings along with it.

We really don't need one-size fits all solutions: we need a diverse portfolio.

August 1, 2010

Climate Change denial

"A dark ideology is driving those who deny climate change. Funded by corporations and conservative foundations, these outfits exist to fight any form of state intervention or regulation of US citizens. Thus they fought, and delayed, smoking curbs in the '70s even though medical science had made it clear the habit was a major cancer risk. And they have been battling ever since, blocking or holding back laws aimed at curbing acid rain, ozone-layer depletion, and – mostly recently – global warming.

In each case the tactics are identical: discredit the science, disseminate false information, spread confusion, and promote doubt. As the authors state: "Small numbers of people can have large, negative impacts, especially if they are organised, determined and have access to power."

July 14, 2010

Does pollution reflect environmental limits?

Yes, it's crucial to realize that there are limits to the ability of the earth to absorb pollutants, such as CO2. On the other hand, I'd draw a distinction between pollution, and the kind of limits to growth discussed by the Club of Rome.

Sometimes pollution problems are framed as a "limit to environmental sinks" problem - in which the earth is thought to provide environmental services which have a limit. This is accurate, but it's not a "limit to growth".

Commodity resource consumption is different from pollution:

Pollution is a destructive and undesired side effect. It's magnitude isn't necessarily related to the size of the polluting activity (pollutants can be extremely destructive or only mildly destructive, like the warming effects of methane vs CO2); and pollution can and should be eliminated, while resource consumption generally is intended, and has value.

CO2 in particular is difficult to separate from energy production, but it's very doable, by electrifying energy consumption and producing renewable electricity.

June 23, 2010

Could we use solar power for transportation?

I often hear that installing wind and solar power doesn't help with our oil import problems, because we don't use oil for electrical generation anymore. I think that's not thinking far enough "outside the box".

So, do renewables help with our problems with oil?

Yes, solar power should be an important part of our transportation solution portfolio.

Transportation needs to be electrified, and all forms of existing transportation have power-hungry electrical systems, which draw power from the engines. PV can provide electricity more cheaply than can gasoline/diesel engines functioning as generators1.

We could reduce transportation fuel consumption by aggressively deploying PV on planes, trains, ships and automobiles. Let's discuss the hardest case, flying.

1st, Manned non-commercial planes that run on PV2 exist right now, and PV can certainly provide "hotel" electrical consumption (lighting, instruments, etc) on commercial aircraft. Planes travel above the clouds, and mostly during the day, which raises the "capacity factor" - the % of time the PV would generate power. The surface area of a plane could be maximized with trailing surfaces and longer wingspans. Taking the surface area of a large existing plane, one might generate 5% of overall energy needs using 20% efficient current commercial technology.

PV efficiency is likely to rise to something close to it's theoretical 66%, tripling the % that it can provide, while energy requirements are likely to fall: In the long term, design changes can reduce fuel consumption by 70%: "CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — In what could set the stage for a fundamental shift in commercial aviation, an MIT-led team has designed a green airplane that is estimated to use 70 percent less fuel than current planes while also reducing noise and emission of nitrogen oxides (NOx). source

The combination of 3.3x the PV output and 1/3 the energy requirement brings the PV % up to perhaps 50% of energy needs.

Finally, the remainder of the power could come from fuel (SOFC, hydrogen, etc) cells, which make much more sense for aviation than for personal transportation because infrastructure requirements are much easier to deal with (there are a relatively small number of airports). It's perfectly possible aviation will go to fully electric drivetrains.

Lets look at shipping, starting with the Emma Mærsk . With a length of 397 metres, and beam of 56 metres, it has a surface area of 22,400 sq m. At 20% efficiency we get about 4.5MW on the ship's deck at peak power. Now, as best I can tell it probably uses about 10MW at 12 knots (very roughly a minimum speed), 20MW at 15 knots, and 65MW (80% of engine rated power) at 25.5 knots (roughly a maximum). So, at minimum speed it could get about 45% of it's power for something close to 20% of the time, for a net of 9%. Now, if we want to increase that we'll need either higher efficiency PV, or more surface area from outriggers or something towed, perhaps using flexible PV. You could add a roof, or you could incentivize 10% of the containers to be roofed with PV - they could power ships, inter-modal rail, inter-modal trucks...

Here' a fun example of a boat that's 100% PV powered, and here's another.

Rail would be relatively easy, as most trains are driven by electric motors. A straightforward solution would be to build PV into the roofs of shipping containers, which could be plugged into ports on both trains and container ships.

1 $3 gasoline in a car translates to $.30/kWh (there are about 35kWh in a gallon, of which the most efficient generators can extract about 10), which PV can beat handily. $2 diesel or jet fuel translates to $.10/kWh (there are about 40kWh in a gallon, of which the most efficient diesel engines can extract about 20). That would require PV that cost $2 per peak watt, which the best existing PV modules can provide. Balance of System costs (structures, wiring, inverters, installation) would be greatly reduced by building panels into rolling stock as part of the manufacturing process. Inverters wouldn't be needed, as power would feed directly into vehicle electrical systems.

We can expect diesel to rise in price, while PV will continue to fall.

2 This may look very far from a practical solution, with it's small single-person manned capacity and it's very wide wingspan, but these guys are trying something very hard: continous powered flight during the night. They're trying to solve a problem that's much harder than commercial daytime aviation from Chicago to New York.

June 13, 2010

How quickly will we move to electric vehicles?

As you probably know, I think we should find replacements for oil ASAP. In particular, we should move to electric vehicles. Lately we've seen solid progress towards EVs, in the form of the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt. OTOH, GM plans to ramp up the Volt slowly to not get ahead of demand, and other car manufacturers are moving more slowly.

So - why aren't we moving more quickly to EVs?

I think there are a few things going on:

Oil's price has been higher than the price for substitute fuels for most of the last 40 years, but the margin has varied enormously, and it has only been clearly very high just in the last several years;

Industrial/commercial users are more price sensitive than residential/personal users;

Substitution takes a while ("capex lag");

Transportation is harder to replace than stationary uses, due to the secondary cost of energy storage (mostly in the form of batteries);

EVs are competitive with $80 oil, and far cheaper when you include external costs (security, "conventional" pollution, CO2, etc, etc) , but external costs are only internalized for a small minority of consumers, who are willing to recognize and factor in those costs even without subsidies, credits, fuel/carbon taxes, etc. External costs are extremely important: If those things weren't a problem, we wouldn't be worrying about HEV/PHEV/EREV/EVs. Heck, web sites like The Oil Drum etc wouldn't exist;

OPEC knows they face dangers from substitutes, and will keep prices in their current range as long as they possibly can. Effective fuel prices will stay moderate unless there is another price breakout, or governments rustle up the courage to internalize costs; and

A substitute needs to be much better than the status quo (rather than just competitive) to replace it quickly;

So.....the transition to EV/PHEV/EREVs will be kind've slow for a while.

Won't another wave of high gas prices cause a recession, that will prevent people from buying EVs?

EREVs are here now. Suggesting that high gas prices will cause recession, and that no one will notice and do anything about it, seems highly unrealistic to me. You may object that's already happened, and I'd reply that's only partially true. OTOH, the part that is true is why we're seeing a CAFE that's rising sharply; the Volt and Leaf vehicles; and an EV credit of $7,500.

If we were to see another oil price shock, I think we could expect to see the transition from ICE to EV accelerate very considerably.

Keep in mind that one of the major causes of oil-shock induced recessions is consumer uncertainty, as they delay their purchase, and wait to decide whether to buy something with better mileage. Well, I think another oil shock will push people off the fence: they'll start buying EREVs and EVs, and they'll have a much better reason to replace their old vehicles than they've had for a very long time.

April 27, 2010

Will energy alternatives be too expensive? Feasibility vs Competitiveness:

Chemical companies like Dupont still use oil as chemical feedstock to make plastics, glues, etc because it is still cheaper than alternatives. Won't alternatives raise prices and therefore lower living standards?

Yes, but not much. There is a basic paradigm that's useful here: "feasibility" vs "competitiveness". In most industries a very small cost difference can make you uncompetitive. That means that slightly higher cost solutions will be avoided, which can give the impression that those solutions are higher cost than they are. On the other hand, if changes in the business environment (or natural environment!) change the costs of alternatives for everyone, suddenly alternatives can become acceptable in that industry.

So, for instance, recycled materials are in general slightly more expensive than virgin materials, plastic included. But, if oil becomes more expensive then recycled materials may suddenly become the standard. If something can be recycled with only 10% loss at each generation, that can reduce the consumption of virgin materials by 90%, with only a very small additional cost for the industry.

Similarly, electric vehicles cost more than internal combustion engines fueled by dirt cheap gasoline. But, they don't cost any more than ICEs when gasoline reaches $3 per gallon, a level we only reached relatively recently.

Another example: Observers of the coal indutry sometimes think that "The cheapest and best coal is gone." But the US has a lot of Illinois Basin coal, and it's both high quality, and from a larger perspective only slightly more expensive to handle due to it's sulfur content. In a competitive environment, it's winner takes all, and only slightly more costly sellers lose out completely.

So, we have to "think outside the box", and consider that we could have whole industries that eliminate oil entirely, at a cost which is surprisingly affordable.

Why didn't we do that a long time ago, then?

Because, change is painful, and we don't do it if we don't have to, as I talked about in my last post.

April 22, 2010

Will we prevent climate change?

I see huge amounts of disinformation in the media that discourage recognition of the seriousness of Climate Change. Most people seem to be in denial, and polls show that in the US that action to prevent CC is losing support.

Will we prevent climate change in time?

No, I'm pessimistic that we will. Basically, those who stand to lose because of change (either jobs, careers, or investments) fight change very, very tenaciously. They buy media outlets, they create think-tanks, they buy advertising, they buy politicians, etc, etc. The potential losers fight change with an intensity that is much, much stronger than the energy that comes from people who want change.

I see dramatic change to prevent AGW as pretty unlikely. OTOH, I'm a bit encouraged by this article:

"If you looked merely at the realm of politics, it would be easy to believe that the question, “Is climate change really happening?” is still unresolved....A spring Gallup study found that Americans’ concern over global warming peaked two years ago, and has steadily declined since.

But there’s one area where doubt hasn’t grown — and where, indeed, people are more and more certain that climate change is not only real, but imminent: The world of industry and commerce.

Companies, of course, exist to make money. That’s often what makes them seem so rapacious. But their primal greed also plants them inevitably in the “reality-based community.” If a firm’s bottom line is going to be affected by a changing climate — say, when its supply chains dry up because of drought, or its real estate gets swamped by sea-level rise — then it doesn’t particularly matter whether or not the executives want to believe in climate change. Railing at scientists for massaging tree-ring statistics won’t stop the globe from warming if the globe is actually, you know, warming. The same applies in reverse, as the folks at Beluga Shipping adroitly realized: If there are serious bucks to be made from the changing climate, then the free market is almost certainly going to jump at it.

This makes capitalism a curiously bracing mechanism for cutting through ideological haze and manufactured doubt. Politicians or pundits can distort or cherry-pick climate science any way they want to try and gain temporary influence with the public. But any serious industrialist who’s facing “climate exposure” — as it’s now called by money managers — cannot afford to engage in that sort of self-delusion. Spend a couple of hours wandering through the websites of various industrial associations — aluminum manufacturers, real-estate agents, wineries, agribusinesses, take your pick — and you’ll find straightforward statements about the grim reality of climate change that wouldn’t seem out of place coming from Greenpeace. Last year Wall Street analysts issued 214 reports assessing the potential risks and opportunities that will come out of a warming world. One by McKinsey & Co. argued that climate change will shake up industries with the same force that mobile phones reshaped communications.

More here:

April 10, 2010

Are Electric Vehicles inevitable?

Yes, says Eric Kriss (and I agree).

"A hundred years from now, historians may view the early evolution of the automobile as something of a happy confluence of unlikely events that could never be sustained; the electric car was completely inevitable, notwithstanding the gas-powered blip of the 20th century.

“You may find it remarkable,” a professor in 2108 might tell her (virtual) classroom, “but in 2008 everyone drove cars powered by petroleum engines so hot they could boil water and so poisonous they could kill you within the hour if left running in your closed garage.” But let's start at the beginning: 127 years ago.

The beginning

The first automobile, introduced at an 1881 exhibition in Paris, was – surprisingly – an electric one. But the internal combustion engine quickly eclipsed the electric motor due to the unique physical qualities of gasoline, refined in Russia for the first time in the 1860s. A German mechanical genius, Karl Benz, conceptualized the gasoline engine in the late 1870s, and just four years after the first electric car's premiere in Paris, the first gaspowered vehicle – a Benz, naturally – was introduced to the public, and the fledgling automotive industry never looked back."

See the rest here:

April 7, 2010

Why do people resist change?

The coverage of the coal mining accident in West Virginia made me think about the fight to eliminate coal, and the resistance that has stirred up. Sometimes people suggest that resistance to change is just a lack of enlightened leadership and a reluctant-to-change populace, due to ignorance.

So, why do people resist change?

People are afraid of change, and with good reason. When new tech arrives, companies move staff, companies shrink, whole industries shrink and shift. Old careers become obsolete. People lose jobs, or their careers stagnate. Other people gain jobs, and do better, but there are winners and losers.

Change is good overall, but some people know they'll be hurt, and others are afraid.

Just one example: I recently read that coal mining jobs pay 3x as much as anything else available in the area. Despite the risks, and the environmental devastation, you won't convince most West Virginians that shrinking coal mining is a good idea.

Does that mean we shouldn't fight to eliminate coal? No. But it does mean we should be realistic about some people fighting back. We need to be compassionate, see their realistic fears, and find ways to help them, and convert them to...not allies, perhaps, but at least something other than enemies who will fight to the death with any weapon (votes, lies, etc).

March 16, 2010

Can we really transition from oil fast enough to deal with Peak Oil?

Sure. We need to be clear: we have two separate problems: climate change, and liquid fuels, not a general problem of peak energy. If wind and natural gas are inadequate, we have more than enough coal to keep the lights (and whatever else we want to power with electricity) on during a transition (for better or worse). See Are we running out of coal? and Are we running out of coal? - part 2

You might ask:

During a transition to what?

Wind would be the biggest, with (in rough descending order) nuclear, solar, hydro and others.

how long it would take?

However long we choose - we could do it in 20 years if we want, or we could do it in 50. 50 years would be no more expensive than BAU, but terrible for AGW mitigation.

What would be the cost of both producing those renewables

For wind: about $7/average watt capex, giving about $.07/KWH wholesale cost, or about $.12/KWH retail. That's a little more expensive than old, dirty coal plants, but it's competitive with any form of new generation (including new coal, even without sequestration). We can see in Germany and Japan that $.12/KWH is more than cheap enough to support a strong economy.

What would be the cost of converting everything that now uses oil to use those renewables?

Very little, if we did it through attrition. An EREV like the Chevy Volt will cost about the same as the average new US vehicle, with large volume production, and reduce liquid fuel consumption by 90% (that's the range that biofuels can scale to - ethanol production is about 10% of gasoline volume right now).

Don't you have to add in the cost of all those batteries and inverters?

Like the Prego commercial, "that's in there". In other words, wind power costs include inverters and transmission, and EREV costs include batteries.

The wind doesn't blow all the time

Actually, it does, somewhere. It just takes some geographic diversity to take advantage of that fact, and a moderate amount of long-distance transmission.

the sun shines only in the daytime.

Isn't it convenient that's when we use the most?

The transition target has to be vastly scalable

Which wind is.

but cost less than existing energy sources, else the effort to switch alone will cause significant disruption.

Not if the transition is long enough. We could transition over 30 years, and that's more than enough time to amortize the capex of existing generation. Personal vehicles, of course, last a much shorter time: we can replace about 10% of VMT per year with no pain at all.

How could we replace about 10% of VMT per year - wouldn't that require new car sales of 25M per year (50% more than the all time record)?

The thing you have to keep in mind is that some vehicles travel many more miles than other: Commercial vehicles like taxis drive much more, and newer personal vehicles drive more. Vehicles less than 1 year old account for roughly 10% of US Vehicle Miles travelled.

An aggressive transition to electric would accelerate that tendency, both in terms of sales and in terms of preferential usage of new vehicles. After all, what difference is there between current new vehicles and those from 50 years ago, when automatic transmissions were introduced? Sure, electronic stability control and ABS are nice, but 95% of new vehicle sales come from a desire for the latest fashion - that's part of why people can so easily defer purchases during times of uncertainly, like the last 2 years.

Any transition to more expensive energy, which is the only reasonable expectation, will cause significantly greater pain.

A little, but we see in Japan and Germany that electricity twice as expensive as that in the US can easily support a strong economy.

Can renewables really make up the difference?

There's at least 5x as much easily usable wind resource as we need, and 1,000x as much solar.

But a great acceleration would be necessary.

That's the thing - it wouldn't. First, wind is already "here" - it provided 42% of new generation in the US last year. 2nd, we have enough coal to cover any transition (unless, of course, we want to do something about climate change, as we should - but that's a different problem).

can we afford wind?

An investment of about $2.6k in wind power per vehicle could provide all the "fuel" needed for personal transportation (13k miles per year/4miles per KWH/8760 hours per year x $7 per watt = $2,597). For 100k miles, that's about $.03/mile, much less than gas or diesel. It will be easy and cheap to power EREV/EVs (either bicycles or Volts). As this article stresses, that's the big kahuna.

That assumes $2 per nameplate watt, at 30% capacity factor. The US has more than enough of that, at that price, to supply 200% of our current electricity consumption. Heck, either N. Dakota or Texas alone could provide 30-50%.

What role do you see conservation, efficiency and simple doing without playing in your future scenario?

Really, we haven't converted to a renewable electricity economy already because it would hurt the careers and investments of too many people. When we get to the "tipping point" where the overall society demands solutions to AGW and PO, we'll move very quickly to EREV/EVs and wind power - there will be some temporary personal conservation on the way, but that won't be the primary thing.

Heck, why do without when you can just buy an EREV/EV?

if we put all our energy into producing enough solar and wind energy to power a world of Prius cars and don't have enough resources to upgrade the grid or supply charging stations we have wasted our remaining fossil fuel resources.

So manufacturing wind/solar might use so much resources that we wouldn't have enough to upgrade the grid or supply charging stations? The answer: we have more than enough energy to do both. First, manufacturing (of solar panels, wind turbines, grid equipment or charging stations) mainly uses electricity, and we have plenty of that from coal (see how useful it is to deal with things one at a time?), if needed. 2nd, wind has a very high E-ROI, meaning that it will pay for itself. 3rd, HEVs don't need grid upgrades or charging, and the grid is just fine as it is for a pretty large buildup of EREV/EVs.

Isn't the statistic that matters how much of our current FF fired electrical generation has been replaced by wind or any other source?

No, it really doesn't. Nobody's retiring generation at the moment, unless it's seriously functionally obsolete. People often get confused by that point, but it's a red herring.

There is a difference between having enough power, and decarbonizing our power. We should decarbonize our power, but that's very different from the premise that we're running out of energy.

We are at least as dependent upon FF for for energy today as we were 5 years ago. And possibley more so. Isn't that the big issue?

That's the issue for decarbonizing. But it's not the issue for our economy running out of power We have plenty of coal - enough to bake the planet. Will we do so? I'm afraid we probably will...but we won't run out of electricity.

But isn't our economy going to grind to a halt because of oil scarcity?

No. The food-and-goods freight transport network of the modern world uses about 25% of oil consumption in the US. Light vehicles overall account for 45% of oil consumption: their utilization could be doubled with carpooling in a matter of months, freeing up whatever fuel was needed by the freight network.

What about historical examples of societies that didn't recover well from economic transitions, like the US South after the Civil War?

I don't think the South is a very useful model for most of the world. It might be a good model for oil exporters.

First, it needs to be said that the South lost the first modern war of total destruction. 30% of all white males aged 18-40 were killed (  There are usually more injuries than deaths: very likely only 20% of the white adult males were left healthy at the end of the war. Both ex-masters and ex-slaves were left without financial, industrial or technological capital with which to rebuild. Transportation, industry and even agriculture were laid waste - think of Sherman's march to the sea: everything was systematically destroyed.

The impact of slavery on human capital may have been the worst: slavery left a cultural heritage of passivity and violent authoritarianism (classism, racism, sexism, domestic violence, etc, etc) for both ex-masters and ex-slaves that cannot be underestimated (as discussed above regarding West Point traditions). To work (especially with your hands) was dishonorable for ex-masters, and to think and take responsibility for oneself was terrifying for people who had been publically tortured and killed for centuries, and who now faced a similar lynching campaign. The lack of more practical human capital can't be underestimated: ex-slaves didn't know how to read and write, how to run their lives (handling money, land titles, etc), how to raise their children or relate to spouses, etc, etc.

2nd, the South was a commodity exporter, like Russia and Saudi Arabia today. It was devastated by the "resource curse". "During the time of the Civil War, there was a dramatic slowdown in British cotton demand. As the textile industry matured, its rapid replacement of traditional methods naturally slowed. While the industry was still growing, its rate of growth slowed to match the relatively natural growth of population and incomes. The drop in demand growth, coupled with the tremendous cotton supply coming from the Southeastern states, led to falling prices. As poor conditions persisted for South Carolina’s cotton producers, no viable alternative crop could be found. The now relatively stagnant cotton economy remained until the end of the 19th century, as industrialization reached the state."

All in all, the South had a uniquely frozen culture, due to the violence, abuse and misinformation required to maintain a slave society, and the "resource curse" created by it's dependence on a single export commodity (cotton) in a single industry (agriculture). Despite the availability of capital from the North, the South was in a uniquely unfavorable position for adaptation to a new world. It may be a model for oil exporters like Russia and KSA, but not for dynamic, educated countries in the OECD.

Wouldn't affluent people used to a consumerist lifestyle have comparable problems to face new realities?

OECD economies show a much greater ability to change. Look at Japan post 1870. Look at Germany and Japan post-WWII. Look at the US post-WWII. Look at the world car industry, which is gearing up to produce EVs, something which they found anathema only 5-15 years ago.


Didn't it take a couple of generation for horse transportation to be replaced by street cars and ICE vehicles?

Yes, and difficulty of the transition contributed at least a bit to the Depression. The difference: hybrids, EREVs and EVs are being built by the same companies that built ICE vehicles, operate the same way, cost the same over their life-cycle, and need very little new infrastructure (90% of US vehicle owners have access to off-street parking, and more than 50% have private garages). The difficulty of the transition is orders of magnitude smaller.

Doesn't an energy transition require heavy investment which is not easily forthcoming under crisis conditions?

On the one hand, that's assuming the premise that Peak Oil will cause economic crisis. On the other, it's precisely under crisis conditions when investment is easiest - look at WWII: the US Depression ended because the war provided a good excuse for massive governmental spending and investment.


The most important element of a transition from oil is the electrification of transportation. Surprisingly, the first part of the EV revolution has been here for years, in the form of the Prius. The Prius cuts fuel consumption by 50% (50MPG vs the US fleet average of 22MPG), in the US hybrids are 3% of new sales, and there are more than 1,000,000 on the road.

And now, the Leaf and the Volt are coming out, and it is really clear that we have all the technology we need, we just need to use it.

February 4, 2010

What is the real cost of electricity?

Recently Robert Rapier compared the pricing of various forms of energy.

He noted "I have included the cost of electricity, although it is important to note that the efficiency of electric motors is higher than for internal combustion engines."

Why did he think that was important, and what does that mean for the real cost of electricity?

Robert was talking about the dramatically greater efficiency of electric motors when they power a vehicle, when compared to internal combustion engines. Let's start with the best engineered electric vehicle on the road, the Chevy Volt1.

On the one hand, the 1st-generation Volt gets at least 40 all-electric miles on both the EPA city and highway cycles, and does it using an effective battery capacity of 8 KWHs (50% of the nominal 16 KWHs). That gives us .2 KWH/mile, battery to wheel. On the other hand, GM's engineers tell us that doesn't include the charge-discharge losses, which are usually 7-10% for li-ion, or AC-DC conversion losses: the wall-to-wheels power is .25 KWH/mile.

Efficiency is likely to improve with later generations - especially aerodynamics (the most important factor with an electric drivetrain, where regenerative braking greatly reduces acceleration/braking losses, and thus greatly reduces the importance of weight), but also peripheral loads. The importance of aerodynamics can be seen with the ultra-streamlined Aptera, which is expected to use only .07 KWH per mile. On the other hand, efficiency improvements could easily go to larger vehicle size (though not to acceleration: one of the nice things about electric motors is that they get more efficient as they get larger, unlike infernal combustion engines).

Electricity costs $.10 per kilowatt-hour, at retail and on average, without taxes. Now, one advantage of electric vehicles is their ability to charge at night at lower rates, on average less than $.06/KWH. A rough average of $.08/KWH gives us 2 cents per mile to run an EV.

Gasoline costs about $1.75 currently, without taxes. A very efficient compact conventional car might get 35 MPG, which gives us 5 cents per mile. So, in Robert's framework, electricity costs only 40% as much as gasoline, when actually used to drive a vehicle.

Of course, real-world drivers pay taxes, and on average the conventional vehicles they drive aren't very efficient. Add 10% taxes for electricity, use $2.75 for pump prices, and 21 MPG vehicle for comparison, and we get 2.2 cents per mile for an EV, and 13 cents/mile for a gas-powered car: electricity costs less than 20% as much per mile!

We shouldn't forget that using electricity directly for home heating is also a waste of power: a heat pump (either air or ground based) will take advantage of the much higher quality of electricity BTU's, and slash the cost of power for home heating by 60-70%.

1 Tesla deserves credit for a very good car, and for jump starting a movement to EVs. But, we can compare their ramp-up delays (design delays, manufacturing problems, transmission problems, etc, etc), to GM's flawless execution (a 3 year time-frame, which is very, very short in the car world, with not even a week's slippage in the schedule); their battery has an older chemistry with a much shorter lifespan; and much of their design and supply chain is out-sourced, which leaves them vulnerable to the kind of disruption they recently announced - they're likely to not be able to sell cars for about a year during the transition from their current models to the next!.

I'm back!

Well, we have a resolution of the guest blogging question. It looks like Forbes is going to link to selected posts, rather than use my posts directly.

I like to stay behind the scenes, and Forbes preferred that I present more information about myself. I understand that - it's traditional for mainstream columnists to be publicly available to their readers. So - we'll work this way instead, which will work just fine.