I get questions:
Nick, what are your thoughts on this article in the NYT about the downside of electric vehicles? I thought that they more than a 40mpg range. We’re gonna have to develop cars that don’t need gas at all:
It’s a great question. As I mentioned in the past:
I see plug-in hybrids as a critical transitional component of the move toward sustainability because they offer the trust of being able to reliably cover some distance with the sustainability of electricity.
In other words, the gas-assist engine isn’t as much a range-extender as much as it is a confidence-extender. Getting stranded alongside the road is probably one of the greatest American fears specific to our culture. I believe that fear has by far been the biggest support the foreign car manufacturers ever had. American companies continued to turn out low-quality, unreliable crap while Americans increasingly turned to Hondas and Toyotas. So it’s not a fear to be taken lightly and it’s pure genius of Chevy to go with a small engine that simply recharges the batteries. (Traditional hybrids combine electric and gas engines for power.)
So this gas-assist concept is designed to create trust in the vehicle so you might consider buying it.
However, the real crux of your question relates to what you described as the “40mpg range”. And this is a common point of confusion.
Note the details from the NYT article:
G.M. engineers say that a fully charged Volt is capable of 40 miles of purely electric driving before the computer calls for the generator, which has an output of 53 kilowatts (about 71 horsepower), to start and sustain the battery’s minimum charge level — the “extended range” operating mode.
In other words, it can run for 40 miles on the battery, then the gas is used to recharge the batteries (while you’re driving). That’s different than mpg or miles per gallon. I’m not sure what they’re saying the total range of the car would be and a cursory search around the Internets didn’t turn up anything. In other words if you filled up the gas tank and took off down the road until it died, how many miles could you go? Not clear.
But maybe it’s somewhat irrelevant. It’s being sold as a commuter car and that should allow it to get most of us to work and back home every day and possible even some trips to the store before you’d need to plug in. That means the gas engine might never kick on for many of us.
Right now the main agenda for the U.S. is to build out an infrastructure that can support the Volt and cars like it. My commute is less than 10 miles. I could actually get by with a full electric car if there were currently some reasonable choices, something I’ll post about soon. Supporting electrics with plug-in stations along the highway, at work and along city streets will be desperately needed. If the Volt can help us reach the critical mass needed to force the building of that infrastructure then bring it on. Then, eventually, we may not need gas at all.
I’ve long been struggling with my light bulbs. And the bulbs have been winning. I think it’s critical we get off standard incandescent bulbs, yet widely available alternative of CFLs leaves me cold. And yellow. I’ve hated the weird color they give off and the delay when switching them on. Plus in my old house (I just moved) the CFLs would last half the time of my standard bulbs (admittedly could be related to the older wiring in that house or the quality of the brand I’d purchased). And they contain loads of poisonous mercury.
Now I have to admit, CFLs have been making big strides lately and I’ve been swapping out standard bulbs in the new house with CFLs. I’m experimenting with whether I can put a 75-Watt level CFL into an fixture labeled as maximum 60 watt. My theory is that the CFLs burn cooler and therefore are not a fire hazard. Plus Mr. Tight-Watt agrees!
I tried it recently in a three-bulb fixture, being careful to purchase “instant-on” bulbs with an Energy Star label. These were manufactured by GE. A little more money, but sooo worth it! I’d say the light from these new bulbs is just as good in terms of quality as incandescent and the instant-on feature neutralizes one of the most annoying things about florescent lighting.
So I’m actually pretty happy with light bulb situation when, what’s this? An LED bulb is finally hitting the market that is as bright as a 60-Watt bulb. And only consumes 8 Watts? Yes, the Geobulb is now for sale.
Given that the bulb retails for $115, it’s being marketed as a long-lasting (10 years) replacement bulb for hard-to-reach areas. While I may buy one as an experiment, it obviously makes no sense to buy a bulb at that price. But it’s one to watch and a sign that our path to a clean energy future may be closer than we think!
Oh, and since we all need to get a lot smarter in buying bulbs instead of buying for fire safety (max 60 Watt, etc.) we need to start buying in Lumens. The Energy Star Web site has a handy table for comparing different products on a Lumen basis.
|Energy Use for
Light Bulbs (Watts)
|Energy Use for
common ENERGY STAR
qualified CFLs (Watts)
|25||250||4 to 9|
|40||450||9 to 13|
|60||800||13 to 15|
|75||1,100||18 to 25|
|100||1,600||23 to 30|
|125||2,000||28 to 40|
|150||2,600||30 to 52|
I’ve been beyond busy lately which has naturally affected my blogging frequency. But this just couldn’t wait: The Tesla Model S pictures and specs are out. And it’s sweet. Oh, so sweet. I must have one.
For those of you who haven’t been waiting anxiously for the Tesla sedan to be announced, here are the basics:
- 100% electric
- 300 mile range
- 0-60 in 5.6 seconds
- Seats 7 (this I have to see)
- Plug into any normal outlet
- Looks sweet
Drool, drool, drool.
Regular readers know I believe that a fully electric car is a key building block to a sustainable society and, particularly, to solving the global warming catastrophe. We have an existing road infrastructure that’s not going away any time soon and a generally car-dependent lifestyle. I’d love and prefer to see a move to mass transit but it’s just not realistic in the near-term. With a 300 mile range, the Tesla Model S could become the commuter car of choice. The range will give you the confidence to drive it to work or on a short trip without worry. Drive to work, drive home and plug in for the night. Now if I could just pop a windmill on the roof to provide the free power, I’d have my freedom, baby!
I’d be remiss to not point out the bad news: $50,000 price tag (yikes!) and not available until 2011. Oh well, gives me some time to save up.
Recently I was stopped late at night at a Seattle intersection. It was dark out, not a car around except for mine. And the light stayed red and stayed red. Then, almost as if the stoplight could read my mind, I was about to give up and go anyway when it finally changed to green.
There’s something programmed in us from when we first started driving that freezes us in place if that little red circle is showing. We sit there. And sometimes sit and sit. And now we need to fear photo-based traffic tickets.
In many ways stoplights have been an amazing invention. They’ve certainly saved many lives and keep traffic generally moving. In fact, long streets with a series of traffic lights are often better bets in heavy traffic compared to freeways that typically suffer complete system collapse once volumes pass the levels they were designed to handle. That’s why certain freeways are absolutely guaranteed to come to a near halt at certain times each day.
Which brings us back to the classic American traffic light. First used in narrow downtown cores where space was limited, the traffic light has spread to every suburb and has become a point of pride for small towns rolling out their first traffic light to great fanfare.
But as I sat alone at that intersection getting zero miles per gallon, the dark side of traffic lights became quite apparent. Multiply the minutes I spent sitting there across the other drivers sitting across the country and you’ve got a heck of a lot of carbon being produced unnecessarily. Fortunately there’s a solution: The Traffic Circle or Roundabout.
It can be amusing watching an American encounter one of these for the first time. They’ll sometimes freeze, panic or make an erratic move as they try to figure it out. It’s understandable, really. They’re relatively rare and often not signed well. And if you’ve ever gone through one in another country, you know the locals don’t slow down or tolerate unexpected movements. I had quite the experience on a Vespa in Rome trying to get to the outside lane so I could jump out at the street I wanted.
That said, roundabouts are remarkably efficient, really just a circle with a road wrapped around it. They do take more space so it could be problematic converting some intersections to this solution. But, best part? No stopping and no idling. And they’ve got to be cheaper to create. Maybe not ideal for every situation, but it’d be great to see city planners embrace this solution wherever possible.
Throughout the presidential election campaign, we endured endless ads from two unusual sources. One was the endless loop of “Pickens Plan” ads and other other was the heavy rotation of nonsensical “We” ads.
If you’ve been near a TV at all during the last few months, you’ve seen both of these ads. In some ways the similarities are more telling than the differences with these ads. Both are focused on sustainability in their own way, both claim to be demanding renewable energy and both at least seem to be aimed at moving opinion leaders toward their approach.
But what are these plans and organizations all about? You certainly can’t tell from these 30 second ads. I decided to take a look.
The We campaign is being run by the WeCanSolveIt.org group, founded by Al Gore (full disclosure: big Al Gore fan here and I joined the group when it was first organized). The We group’s goal is to get the U.S. to 100% clean electricity in 10 years. The goal is so aggressive that you could be forgiven for assuming that their position is nothing more than a clever use of the Overton window. I, however, think it is an attainable goal. And, like Al Gore would probably say, it’s a goal that we can’t afford to miss. Sadly it is an expensive goal as well; although we could certainly use some infrastructure spending in America to kick-start our economy.
I’m excited about We because it puts our focus where it should be: moving to electricity for energy wherever possible and creating that energy with clean, renewable sources. And for those of you who are regular readers will note, that means you’re not burning anything. The technology is here today, but it’s not the cheapest energy in most cases. For example, let’s say you wanted to move your house to solar. You would probably pay something above $20,000 on panels and an inverter. Plus you’ll likely need a new furnace if you live in a colder part of the country. With an electric bill of, say, $100ish per month, you’re looking an incredibly long payback. There’s no way to move massive numbers of people to these solutions with those economics. This is why RE<C is such an important concept. In fact it’s the entire basis of this Web site.
Which brings us to the Pickens Plan.
Now I’m doing my best to give the plan an honest look, but readers should note that I’ll never forgive this sleazeball for financing the Swiftboat ads against John Kerry in 2004. Simply disgusting and immoral.
So with that bad taste in my mouth ignored, let’s look at Pickens. T. Boone PIckens rightly highlights the fact that our foreign oil consumption has risen for decades now under both political parties. He doesn’t mention how much money he made off that oil importation, however. His plan calls for a bold move to renewable energy, such as wind. But, as you’ve seen in his commercials, he notes the “technology isn’t there yet. We need a bridge.”
His bridge? Natural gas, or as he calls it, CNG. CNG stands for compressed natural gas (don’t kind yourself into thinking the C stands for clean. It doesn’t. Now natural gas does work in cars. Governments and taxis have used it for years. Now, what you may not know is that Pickens is the largest shareholder in Clean Energy Inc., a natural gas distribution company. Stations are already popping up around the country.
So is this “bridge” really just a bridge from your wallet to Pickens’ bank account? Hard to say, but it’s clear Pickens stands to make a fortune. Not that I mind someone making money from their ideas. I’m a proud capitalist and nothing would make me happier than making money by driving greater sustainability. But is there something else going on here? This Business Week article seems to show that there is. It seems Pickens is snatching up midwest land and driving toward a pipeline pointed toward Texas. For oil? No, this time water. Could Pickens be getting ready to step on the drinking water hose? Yikes! Could the plan to build a massive wind farm in the midwest actually be a water rights grab? I’m sure I’m not qualified to say, but the speed at which Pickens’ wind power plans were shelved puts quite a bit of weight on the wrong side of the scale.
From a marketing perspective, kudos to Pickens for a very clear, powerful marketing campaign. I’m a member of We, have seen dozens of their ads and still can’t figure out what their core message is. Do they want volunteers? Investors? Donations? I can’t tell! Weak! Pickens also shows how shooting some video of yourself in front of spinning windmills can’t help but make you look like an environmental hero. It’s a lesson John McCain used quite a bit during the campaign.
So the bottom line? Pretty simple, really. They just have different goals. Al Gore’s We group is 100% about climate change issues. He wants us to drop the carbon output of this country and fast. And rebuild our economy in the process. Pickens, if taken at face value, is focused on escaping the clutches of middle eastern dictators. An admirable goal, but one that is also solved with the We approach. Unfortunately, if Pickens’ plan were to work, it would actually extend the climate change challenges by extending the timeframe that our economy is based on burning a natural resource. Add in the worries over water issues and with Pickens you have the exact opposite of sustainability. Just more short-term corporate thinking from a billionaire.
So back home now and more or less recovered from jetlag. I was thinking on the way home about some of the interesting little things we could learn from while I was away.
In no particular order:
Turn off the bus
In Kyoto, where you’re pretty much forced to rely on their extensive bus system, the drivers switch off the bus every time they stop. In traffic, stoplights or just at regular stops. It must destroy starter motors, but apparently they figure that’s cheaper than all the fuel they’d be burning up. Given how many times they stopped during the times I rode the buses, the savings could be quite substantial.
I’d never thought about it before, but across America, escalators run continuously all day. In our hotel in Tokyo, the escalators switched off some minutes after riders decended. You’d walk up to what you thought was an inoperative escalator and literally with perfect timing, the escalator would kick on and take you for your ride and then shut off when you were down (or up). Very clever.
If you’ve ever seen a Japanese movie, you’ve certainly noticed the florescent lighting everywhere. It’s true. Hotels, train stations, restaurants. They all have florescent lighting. Now I hate the color and brightness (or lack thereof), but I have to admit, once I got used to it, it wasn’t too bad. Still not something I care for, but they’re saving massive amounts of energy (probably without even realizing it).
And, of course, a few things that weren’t so impressive:
Wrapping everything in plastic
Japan is known for its neat and tidy culture so maybe I shouldn’t be surprised at how much plastic they use, but really it was pretty shocking. The first jarring thing was the morning paper, yep, wrapped in plastic. It’s like vacuum-sealed in its bag. Weird! When we had our bags shipped from city to city, they arrived wrapped in a heavy plastic. Then, of course, you’ve got the handy-wipes they hand you before each meal (and even come with takeout food). It was nice having something to clean your hands with (see below), but the amount of garbage we were creating was insane. And, of course there was the bento boxes we got at the train station. Actually pretty tasty, but the garbage to food ratio was stupefying.
Why the Japanese are known for their clean culture, I have no idea. You’d think something like SOAP in a public restroom would be pretty standard in a place that wraps everything in plastic, but sadly no. More often than not, paper towels and other drying devices, but especially soap were nowhere to be found. But they do have a handy device to clean your butt (more later).
And, while I’m here, I might as round out the rest of the trip with a few more photos:
Hiroshima was an interesting visit, with its obvious history dominating the sights. There’s a robust museum dedicated to the bombing and this dramatic building which has been preserved in the condition from immediately following the attack.
Just before leaving the Hiroshima area, we stopped by the charming island of Miyajima where the deer run wild. I’d recommend anyone spend a day or two here, even more than Hiroshima itself.
From there it was on to Kyoto, home of the famous Kyoto Accords. Kyoto kicked our ass. Very hard city to travel in due to the lack of subway and higher expense. It’s a good place to see some of the old Japan, traditional and beautiful. We visited a great street market there, at the foot of a large temple:
And, of course a shot from the aforementioned bus:
We headed on over to Mount Fuji after Kyoto, which is quite a journey by (mostly) train. Unfortunately, after all that travel, the great and powerful Mount Fuji refused to show. Here’s what we ended up seeing. That’s Mount Fuji in the clouds, or maybe not, I wasn’t really sure what direction it was in. But then it didn’t really matter.
After the trip to the woods (and, oh yeah, there’s a giant amusement park right below the mountain, doesn’t really show up in the tourist photos), we headed back to Tokyo for the last day. We splurged on a nice hotel with a view of Tokyo Tower (yes, it’s an Eiffel rip-off, but a nice one). And so ends the journey, but here’s a parting shot from our hotel room.
As someone who has spent many years working in the travel industry, it’s very exciting to see an environmental advancement in the airline world that’s not related to carbon offsets.
Via Ecogeek, very exciting news that Virgin Atlantic has performed a test flight in a 747 with 5 percent biofuel. Although the 5 percent seems like a small number, the importance is huge because concerns about biodiesel freezing up at low temperatures of high altitude have slowed the entry of renewables to the airline space.
The fuel is produced by Imperium Renewables, a Seattle-area startup. The Feb. 24 flight used a biofuel composed of babassu oil and and coconut oil. Atlantic President Richard Branson weighed in:
“Today marks a biofuel breakthrough for the whole airline industry. Virgin Atlantic, and its partners, are proving that you can find an alternative to traditional jet fuel and fly a plane on new technology, such as sustainable biofuel. This pioneering flight will enable those of us who are serious about reducing our carbon emissions to go on developing the fuels of the future, fuels which will power our aircraft in the years ahead through sustainable next-generation oils, such as algae.”
Airline travel — and I use it all the time — causes a lot of pollution, in particular carbon. Biofuel produces a lower amount of carbon and would help America become more self-sufficient in its energy needs. Airline travel has been of the toughest challenges so far toward that goal so far. Let’s hope this step brings us closer to that goal — soon.
Who couldn’t use a little more guilt-free travel?
So I was able to spend some time with my father over the holidays. I was sharing with him my dreams of having enough power generated on-site so I’d never have to pay another energy bill. Or at least on a yearly basis I’d break even.
In brainstorming how much power-generating capacity I’d need, it became very apparent that I really needed some way to determine my power consumption. Regular readers know the philosophy of this site is that when things make economic sense they become mainstream and you begin to make a real difference on a macro scale. I’m not interested in getting off the grid for the sake of it (aside from the educational aspect), I’m interested in solutions that make sense for the average person. The ideal solution, at least as far as techology has gotten so far, would be a pretty decent-sized solar panel array combined with a decent amount of wind power. I would love to be that one house with the lights on during a power outage. And if it has enough juice to charge up my (some day, I hope) electric car overnight, even better.Â Failing that, I’d at least like to have a substantial amount of my grid-based power bill covered by my own home’s power generating capacity. And I’m sure that’s where I’ll start.
But step one is really figuring out how much power I need. In chatting with my dad, I dreamed up the invention (that someone has probably already created) of a power meter that provides additional data beyond the aggregate information you get on your power bill. My dad said, “Well, you could go out to your meter every hour and right it down” to which I rolled my eyes. It would be so cool to have a digital meter downstream of the utility meter that provided in-depth information about your power usage. Having a USB plug-in or wifi capability would be even more kick-ass! Unfortunately it doesn’t seem that exists today and if it does it’d probably be expensive and hard to wire it in.
Why do I want this? The way I see it (and as I always say, I know very, very little about this stuff), the total power you use in a month is a pretty meaningless number really. If I use, say, 1600 kWh per month, how many windmills do I need? Let’s sayÂ I have a windmillÂ generator installed that is rated at 1 kW. Will my lights go out if I decide to make toast? How can I tell before I drop $5,000 on a new system? That’s where the power meter would come in. In terms of identifying my home’s maximum energy usage I really need to know where the spikes are — or as I call it quite often, the “high water mark”.
To simplify the problem I’ve been thinking about things in terms of hours, for example, how much power does my refrigerator use in an hour? Is it consistent or does the power rise and fall as the room temperature fluctuates? If so, what are the high and low points? What is the average usage? Other devices are used only occasionally. I if I kick on the tablesaw, will my system tip over or can it handle the load? Some systems like saws, have surges when you first kick them on to initiate the momentum of the spinning. Can I handle those spikes as well?
Which brings me to my latest find. The Kill-a-Watt electrical meter (pictured above) is the next best thing to my macro concept. It’s built by P3 International. I found it via Harbor Freight but I’m buying one from Amazon ($10 cheaper!) It’ll take a little while to compile my data, but I should pretty easily be able to identify the power cost of random items, such as a television, that are a bit hard to figure in when putting together a power usage grid. I hope to use this to get some additional clarity on what I’d need to power my current home. I’m ordering it tonight. I’ll be sure to report back on how it works out.