Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Autopsy of the EV1

This weekend I watched “Who Killed the Electric Car?” a documentary (with a good measure of advocacy thrown in) principally about the EV1 in California. For a period of about 6 years, GM and other major auto manufacturers made and leased electric cars in (southern) California in response to a state mandate. The automakers successfully defeated the mandate a few years ago, and then proceeded to recall and crush the hundreds of all electric vehicles (THEY USE ZERO GAS) they had put on the road. This movie explores the possible reasons why in mock detective style.

The saddest thing for me is knowing that electric cars are the best current solution to Peak Oil and a very good solution for global warming. The movie makes clear that this technology worked, and could be helping us solve a whole series of problems...instead a single model sits in an auto museum. I want my next car to be all electric, but it may prove too long a wait. Instead I will probably have to settle for a hybrid. I’ve heard of the Tesla sports car, but that is a limited run and the average net worth of the buyer on their waiting list is north of $1 billion. As recently as 3 years ago all electric cars were available in California, no longer.

I can only reaffirm my commitment that my next car will get significantly better mileage (my Honda Accord gets ~28 MPG average).

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Black is red; yellow is brown

The following headlines are a bit hard for me to take.

Renewable energy wrecks environment, scientist claims.
Renewable energy could 'rape' nature.
Study: Renewable Energy Not Green.

Especially from a guy that argues in favor of Nukes!

Well he got his headlines, which from Jesse Ausubel's flawed critique of solar and wind power (and what about geothermal, wave/tide power, efficiency? etc.) is all that he cares about.

It seems to me the the Nuclear lobby is getting desperate when they see that their arguments are not winning over many supporters. (They are getting more people to at least consider how nuclear may need to be a part of our future energy supply.) Or at least not winning enough supporters fast enough.

And Climate Change is a big, big problem. Unfortunately disposing of nuclear waste, proliferation concerns, finite uranium supply, and financial/investment viability of nuke plants, are all growing problems rather than diminishing ones. Meanwhile the wind and solar solutions that Ausubel bashes become more efficient and more cost effective and less "nichey" every year.

We already get ~1% of the US's total electricity from wind power and the industry is growing fast. If the cost/price of solar drops by 50% in the next ten years, as I expect it too, it will be too late to convince the public to invest in nuclear (plus in ten years time there may be more realistic--read higher--estimates for the cost of building plants, waste storage, and plant decommissioning). So nuclear proponents need politicians to commit now to building plants that won't start operating for 8-15 years (they expect a minimum of ~4 years to get permits and ~4 years to build, and x? years to fight nimby lawsuits) at which point the wind and solar industries will be far more established and efficient and people will be more comfortable with them.

I don't envy them their fight. The days of big centralized power solutions are fading. Will more nukes be built? almost certainly. Will they ever earn a return on their investment? Perhaps...but it seems iffy to me.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Samuelson slipping

Geoff at Energy Outlook comments on an OpEd piece in the Washington Post by Robert Samuelson on Prius Politics. I wanted to post the comment to his blog but couldn't get his comments page to accept my comment.

Samuelson says "Prius politics is mostly about showing off, not curbing greenhouse gas emissions."

He concludes this because the Prius has a distinct style (much more so than the similarly priced Honda Civic hybrid) and is out selling the Honda hybrid model by 5 times. The Prius also gets about 10% better mileage than the Civic hybrid, but both get twice the mileage (or more) of the average car.

Sorry, Samuelson completely misses the boat here. Prius driving is mostly about showing off?...and huge SUV/Hummer driving is about what? practicality?

The Prius is the most fuel efficient mass produced car on the road. It has taken off because many people care about the environment/dwindling oil supplies/energy security/rising gasoline costs. Take your pick.

Later Samuelson complains that "The [corn ethanol] program is mostly an income transfer from consumers to producers and ethanol refiners. Americans' oil use and greenhouse gas output haven't declined."

On oil use, he is just plain wrong! If we weren't using that ethanol in 2006 and so far in 2007, we would have used that much more oil (and gas prices would be even higher). As for wealth transfer, he may be onto something, but the fact is that the status quo is a huge wealth transfer from consumers to (largely foreign) oil producers. (to the tune of ~$800 million/day)

As far as total emissions of greenhouse gases emitted by the US not declining, Samuelson may be right, but attacking those few who are actually doing something about it (by buying and driving vehicles that are 2x as efficient) as "hippies" hardly helps matters.

I'm really not certain what Samuelson's point was in his article other than saying too little has been accomplished in the US toward reducing CO2 emission. But the way he did it really tweeks me--hence this post. There is a perception that people concerned about global warming/the enviroment want everyone to give up the modern life and go back to living in caves. Such folks may exist (I haven't met every environmentalist yet), but most environmentalists really just want people to think about what they do and figure out ways to do it using fewer finite resources. In most cases reducing waste also reduces costs (Prius's actually cost less than the average car and use half the gasoline). In the instances where the price of things (coal powered electricity is a prime example) don't capture the full costs of those goods/services to society especially the environment, then we need to figure out ways to encourage greater efficiency and switch to goods/services which may cost a bit more up front but save money in the long run.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Thoughts from the recent solar conference

I attended the July 9-12 Solar2007 conference in Cleveland, Ohio. This was the third ASES conference I've attended, the last one was in Orlando, FL in 2005.

I told dozens more people about my 3-D solar panel invention, and learned that many people in the industry believe that the installed cost of solar PV systems will likely drop by as much as 50% in the next ten years--the point at which solar PV reaches grid parity in a many large markets. Those cost declines are predicated on incresed production volumes of PV, which require continued favorable regional incentives for several years to come.

Two things struck me at the conference, one is PV product related and the other is transportation related.

Product: Inverter. About 15 months ago my parents were looking into options for incorporating renewables into our family farm operations. At the time we were told that there were two ways to install solar PV into a home 1) off grid w/ batteries 2) on grid w/ net metering (grid-tied). The off-grid requires batteries which boost the total system cost significantly. Of course we have long known that option 1) exits and that it makes sense if you are builing a house far from existing electrical connections. Option 2) was of more interest b/c we are already connected to the grid. One rather unsatifying result (according to the local PV installers) with grid tied, option 2) is that if the grid goes down so does the PV system, even if the sun is out. In other words a $30k investment in energy independence shuts down right when you need it most! In the end my parents tabled the idea of installing PV or wind until we learn more about existing options or the economics become more appealing (which btw our utilities recent 30% price hike seems to have moved us a big step toward). We did decide to invest in solar thermal panels to heat our hot water--we now enjoy guilt free hot showers!

The story simply illustrates that it would be very nice to have a system that lets you use a few batteries to supply PV power in case of brief emergency power outages, yet still run your meter backward ala net metering program. So I was very excited to learn that OutBack Power Systems offers a "grid-interactive" inverter which allows exactly that. Unlike most inverters which are grid tied, which means they only work if the grid works, the grid interactive inverter allows the system to pull power from either the grid or the batteries and conversly feed power to charge the batteries or if they are full, back onto the grid. Power outages in our rural area occur at least a few times a year mostly as a result of storms knocking a tree/branch into power lines--I am the one responsible for resetting blinking clocks/answering machines etc. and swear I do so once a quarter. Usually the outages are fixed within a couple hours, although even a couple minutes of outage bollix up the clocks/gadgets. I'd certainly be willing to pay a little extra for the utility and convenience of a grid-interactive system, and will lobby hard to make sure our system has this feature once we eventually decide to buy a PV system.

Finally, I've been working hard to reduce the miles I drive (more carpooling), improve my car's mileage through better maintenance (replacing the air filter helped a lot) and smarter driving (no speeding! no going 0-60 in 6.4 seconds or 60-0 in even less) and then I offset the carbon from the driving I find impossible to eliminate. I drive a sensible (although bigger than i really need) Honda Accord, and have been following the success of the Prius carefully (I even got to ride in one last fall thanks to my California friend and host). I'm also aware of the talk of plug in hybrids, which should eventually lead to all electric plug ins which will enable the post carbon transportation era.

I attended a talk on evolving transport options and learned some very interesting things from the guy who created the semi cult movie "who killed the electric car". The first thing I learned is that electric cars are more efficient...a lot more efficient. This means the cost of running electric cars is substantially less per mile. If you spend $0.15 worth of gas to drive a mile with an ICE (internal combustion engine), you could drive that same mile for ~4 cents worth of electricity. Oh yeah maintenance is a lot less with an electric car b/c you keep the moving parts to a minimum. Battery technology is advancing to the point where a car's charge should easily get you 20 miles (more if you do stop and go driving) before you need to a recharge or a backup ICE onboard (i.e. hybrid). Experts believe that 20 mile range will increase significantly in the next five to ten years. But even at a 20 mile range, most city dwellers could get to work and back or run a day's worth of errands on a single charge. The speakers explained that as battery technology improves it is also becoming less damaging for the environment. Lead-acid technology (bad) is being replaced by Nickle-metal-hydride (not as bad) and soon lithium ion (even less bad) will be the storage medium of choice. Plus the electronics for monitoring and maintaing charging and recharging of batteries is improving so that batteries are lasting longer. In fact it seems reasonable that in a short time electric vehicles could provide significant benefits to both grid stability and the electric grids ability to accomodate more renewable sources like wind and solar. Imagine what several hundred thousand (or even a million) vehicles with significant battey capacity plugged into the grid could do to help stabalize fluctuations during the day (even draw down a bit of power at times of peak demand) and then recharge primarily at night when electricity costs are lowest.

But the most interesting point of all for me was that plug in vehicles compliment solar power. The combination will allow a fully modern low carbon lifestyle for individuals. Talk about zero emissions! But also since the electric vehicles are so efficient, using your solar panels to charge your electric car saves you more money than simply turning your utility meter backwards. Using solar to charge a car means one can pay off the big investment in solar panels even faster.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Michael Moore hits a home-run

I was brought up with a liberal bent. I was taught to value life and that we ought to treat others as we would like to be treated. As a result I have always thought that universal health care is a wonderful idea.

Sicko—the movie by Michael Moore, like most of his work, is an entertaining and provacative film. Moore points out the many flaws in the US healthcare system today; he shows why even those of us with healthcare coverage ought to be worried by industry trends toward denying patients coverage; and he pulls aside the curtain of FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) about the quality of care in countries that have instituted a single payer (government run) health care system—a system most other industrialized countries have.

In particular, he refutes the notion that government run services (in the US) are universally bad…as proof he points to libraries, police services and firefighters. He also demolishes the notion that government care = rationed care, at least vis a vie the rationing that HMOs already perform in order to secure their own profits. Finally he points out that the US spends the most money on health care (both per capita and as a % of GCP) despite the fact that more than 1 in 6 Americans lack insurance, and by extension access, to health care.

In essence, we pay more and get less in the American health care system. How interesting that all the other industrialized nations have single payer system of care and get remarkable results.

Mike, thanks for packaging all the facts and figures in such an entertaining and persuasive piece. Go see Sicko if you are interested in improving the US health care system.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Is solar PV too expensive?

A lot of people believe that solar will always be a niche power source (in our lifetime). The most common reason is that it simply costs too much.

While the following analysis is high level (i.e. it glosses over many details) and assumes many wonderful things which may not come to pass, it does show that solar could provide all the electricity generated in the US in 2005 by the year 2025. While not cheap, it would be affordable—at least in comparison to the ~$270 billion/yr spent on electricity in 2005 and a $25 trillion/yr and growing economy. We don’t actually HAVE to replace every watt with solar and I don’t expect we will…besides our energy needs will undoubtedly be greater in 2025 than they are today.

"Net generation of electricity increased 2.1 percent from 2004 to 2005, reaching 4,055 billion kilowatthours." (source US EIA)

4,000 billion kwh = 4 trillion kwh

Assume that every watt of solar capacity generates 1,500 watt-hours a year (i.e. 4.1 hours x 365 days/yr). While some spots in Arizona get about twice this amount, I live in Chicago.

The US would require 2.67 trillion watts of solar capacity to completely replace all generating capacity with solar panels.

At prices ranging from $3.5-$4 per watt, this would cost about $10 trillion. (About 5 months of US GDP to completely replace all US generating assets with solar power.)

But in ten years I expect solar to fall in price by about 50% due to economies of scale, greater capacity and the historical learning curve.

At $2 per watt to completely replace all US generating assets with solar will run $5 trillion dollars.

Obviously it will take time to ramp up solar PV capacity. I think we will reach 25 GW/yr within the next 10 years (from a global total of 2GW/yr now). At that point I expect solar will really grow fast (at half the current price PV is equivalent to grid power in cost without any subsidy), say 100% a year versus 50% a year growth today. If PV capacity could grow 100% a year for 10 years global annual capacity would reach 25 TW—so 2.7 TW in the US would certainly be feasible. Of course all this growth would drive costs significantly below $2 watt. [Any price below $2 watt means switching to solar saves the buyer money w/o subsidy.] On average I’d guess the cost would be about $1.5 watt, so ~$4 trillion to completely switch the US to solar PV.

I expect this could occur in the next 20 years (assumes US is the main solar market in the world for the next 15 years). Using $4 for the first 10 years, $2 for the next 5 and $1 for the last 4 gives:

$4 x 10 GW/yr average x 10 yr = $400 billion total ($40 billion/yr average)
$2 x 155 GW/yr avg. x 5 yr = $1,550 billion total ($310 billion/yr average)
$1 x 600 GW/yr avg. x 4 yr = $2.4 trillion total ($600 billion/yr average)