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Thursday, September 30, 2010

Introducing the Seattle bike box

Photo courtesy of itdp via Flickr

According to this article over on the Seattle Post Globe, work crews were busy last night installing the first of two planned bike boxes in Seattle. I drive past those intersections about twice a week while delivering my daughter to school, although I don't usually get up that way on my electric bike. I will get to see it first hand from my car tomorrow.

From the Seattle Department of Transportation:

New bike facility increases visibility and awareness; makes road safer for cyclists and drivers

SEATTLE - To create a safer roadway system and help encourage more bicycling citywide, the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) is today installing the city's first bike box at E Pine Street eastbound at 12th Avenue. This fall SDOT will also emplace these new bike facilities at E Madison Street eastbound and westbound at 12th Avenue, and Seventh Avenue S northbound at S Dearborn Street.

A green box with a white bicycle symbol inside, a bike box is a nationally used intersection safety feature that prevents bicycle/car collisions by placing cyclists at the front of the vehicle queue. The boxes improve safety for all roadway users by increasing awareness and visibility of cyclists; helping cyclists make safer intersection crossings, especially when drivers are turning right and bicyclists are going straight; and encouraging cyclists to make more predictable approaches to and through an intersection.

When the traffic signal is yellow or red, motorists must stop behind the white line at the rear of the bike box and cyclists should enter the box itself. When the light turns green, motorists and cyclists may move through the intersection as usual, with cyclists going first. Motorists turning right on green should signal and watch for cyclists to the right, especially in the green bike lane of the intersection. New signage will help motorists and cyclists understand the new roadway feature. No right turns on red are allowed at these intersections.

SDOT is installing bike boxes this year as part of its Bicycle Master Plan implementation. These safety features are used in a number of other US cities to include Portland, New York City, Baltimore and Minneapolis.

No right turns on red? That may anger a few motorists.

I used my electric bike quite a bit yesterday, making trips to the Seattle Department of Planning and Development, the hardware store, grocery store, and a drug store.

As always I rode far enough away from parked cars to avoid being killed by a suddenly opened door, which irritates motorists because I'm harder to pass.

Left turns always make me nervous. I don't like taking my hand off the handle bar to signal at such a critical juncture and I also don't trust that the cars behind me will see me in all of the clutter. I usually find a way to turn left without having to play Russian Roulette, even if I have to pull over and use a cross walk.

I have also noted that some motorists don't appreciate it when a cyclist goes to the front of a line of waiting cars. They often gun their engines and blow by in a huff. Hopefully these bike boxes will let them know that it's legal for bikes to do that just as it's legal for pedestrians to stop cars at cross walks.

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Wednesday, September 29, 2010

It's National Coffee Day. Have we hit peak coffee?

The SUC (Sport Utility Cup)

Check out the tongue-in-cheek article over on Robert Rapier's R-squared blog written by Paul Nash, inspired by Ron Steenblik.

The SUC was designed to fit into a Hummer's drink holder. Ordinary cups were not large enough and tended to tip over.

A Hummer parked next to the original SUV, a Cherokee

A comment I left on that blog:

As I sit here, coffee cup in hand, I realize that it's a matter of scale. Coffee and tea plantations actually do destroy a great deal of biodiversity. Starbucks sells a shade grown version that is supposed to be less destructive. It's amazing that this cup of brown tainted water can have such a large impact when multiplied by 7 billion human beings. Imagine the impact of trying to fuel our cars with the planet's flora.

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Saturday, September 25, 2010

Securities Lawyer Mocks Electric Vehicle Enthusiasts--Gets Mocked Back

Photo from Wikipedia

[Update 9/29/2010] See this article by Ami Cholia on

The study says: “The single most effective way to reduce US oil demand and foreign imports would be an aggressive campaign to launch electric vehicles into the automotive fleet.”

Surprisingly, researchers also found that a carbon tax would actually end up being more costly in the long run and wouldn’t impact our oil imports in any significant way.

Original post continues below:

There's an article titled Alice In EVland: Six Impossible Things by John Petersen, ...a working securities lawyer, a humble scrivener who writes reams of deathless prose that private companies use to raise money from investors.

In it, he uses the term "EVangelists" (get it, EV?) five separate times. Remember when the Prius arrived on the scene? Out of the blue there was this strange car that doubled mileage for mid-sized hatchbacks. Curmudgeons told us this just wasn't possible. Toyota must be lying about the mileage and had to be losing a fortune on every car sold, the batteries were polluting the world and wouldn't last the life of the car, yadda, yadda. The Prius is presently the top selling car in Japan.

Well, here we go again:

"...I've never seen a study that analyzes the CO2 emissions differential between peak and off-peak power, but I'll give long odds that an EV charged with off-peak power is considerably dirtier than a Prius..."

If we are serious about limiting green house gases, coal fired power plants will soon supply much less of our power. See:

The Nuclear Enhanced Renewable Grid (NERG) and

Reframing Nuclear Power as an Ally of Renewable Energy

And if we are not serious about them, then the above argument is moot. I'd still buy one just to get rid of the water, oil, and fuel pumps, air and oil filters, coolant, transmission fluid, transmission, radiator, fan, thermostat, hoses, intake and exhaust manifolds, oxygen sensors, muffler, catalytic converter, injectors, fuel tank filled with a highly flammable liquid, and the couple of hundred parts that make up the engine in general.

Certainly, the deployment of electric cars and low carbon power plants should happen together (in parallel) instead of waiting for clean power before deploying electric cars (in series). Many people plan to offset their electric car with solar panels. The car has given them the incentive to invest in clean energy.

"...the big battery behemoths have all the long-term potential of the Edsel unless someone can find a way to repeal the law of diminishing marginal returns..."

The author compares apples to oranges (hybrid cars of different sizes to electric cars of different sizes),which makes the whole analysis somewhat nonsensical:

1) The Prius is a mid-sized, five-person, parallel-hybrid, hatchback.

2) The Volt is a small, four-person, series, "plug-in" hybrid sedan.

3) The Leaf is a small, four-person, all-electric, hatchback (click here for a cool 3-D view of this marvel).

4) The Tesla is a two-person all-electric sports car.

Electric cars will fill the niche for urban two car families and people with commutes within range, which for the Leaf will be around 30 miles one way (very conservatively), 60 miles (conservatively) if the car can charge while parked at work. Anyone with a one-way commute longer than that needs to rethink living and/or job arrangements (and get a life).

Electric cars will never have the range of an internal combustion car with a liquid fuel tank, and they don't need to. When was the last time you drove your car tank empty without stopping?

Photo from Tesla Motors website

In addition, electric cars will spur solar panel sales, improve car rental infrastructure and other entrepreneurial opportunities not yet envisioned, like a quick charger on a truck.

"..It is impossible for more than a handful of politically favored elites to use hundreds of kilograms of highly refined and processed metals .."

All cars carry about 50 pounds of toxic heavy metal (lead) around in their battery. The metals found in batteries are not like a fuel that gets burned. If regulations require it, they will get recycled to be made into more batteries. The cost of recycling will vary according to battery and that cost ends up being reflected in the battery price. Government regulations are the rules all players must play by if they want to play. Without government regulations, most of us would be slaves.

"...the Federal government is preparing to impose sweeping restrictions on the transportation of those same batteries on US cargo planes..."

He really jumps the shark here. Car manufacturers do not ship their batteries on airplanes and not all lithium-ion batteries use the same chemistry. The ones that caused the Dubai crash were likely the old design with a marginally stable chemistry. The new batteries are thermally stable.

"...EVangelists invariably assume away battery recycling issues with blithe assurances that somebody will solve the problem before used battery packs become a disposal problem..."

Well, there's theory and then there is reality. Toyota pays junkyards handsomely for used Prius batteries, which makes your above argument look kinda silly. Recycling is accomplished with adequate regulations that require they be recycled. Recycling simply alters the cost of a battery.

".... Most investors are concerned with return on investment. A business model that can't offer a return of investment is worrisome..."

Very few people buy a car to maximize return on investment. Auto parts stores, on the other hand, do want a return on investment. That's why most of them use a tiny fuel efficient car like the Chevy Aveo to deliver parts.

Note that most consumers do not buy the cheapest most fuel efficient economy car they can find. People tend to buy the highest (perceived) status car they can afford. The Leaf is a very high status car. They then tend to drive it until it loses its shine and go for the next golden ring if they can afford it.

"...Any one of these six impossible things should be enough to give a contemplative investor pause..."

Contemplative investors always pause, regardless of investment. Financial advisers in today's economic climate have about as much respect as lawyers and economists. All shaman claim they can predict the future and they always manage to find people who believe them.

I have been using an electric vehicle running on the A123 batteries for the last four years and they are still like new. Fantastic technology. This would not have been possible with the old-school lead acid technology.

"...In combination they spell disaster for investors in electric car manufacturers like Tesla (TSLA), Fisker Motors and Th!nk,..."

The Tesla is the electric version of the DeLorean, a sports car for the rich, and will go the way of the DeLorean. The Nissan Leaf is an entirely different animal.

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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Nuclear Enhanced Renewable Grid (NERG)

Photo by Worklife Siemens

Replace the letter D with the letter G in the word NERD.

Following on the heels of this report in the New York Times:

California Licenses World’s Biggest Solar Thermal Plant

...was this interesting article by an honest solar power enthusiast saying that solar thermal power plants in sunny places need a lot of water. His solution? Get innovative. What those innovations might be, he couldn't say.

For example, a typical parabolic trough plant with wet cooling uses approximately 800 gallons/MWh, comprised of 780 gallons for evaporation and water make-up and 20 gallons for mirror washing. Change to dry cooling – at the expense of increased capital costs and decreased efficiency – and a facility still requires approximately 80 gallons/MWh for make-up and mirror washing. For a 100 MW facility operating 14 hours per day (i.e. producing 1,400 MWh per day), that’s over one million gallons of water per day; change to dry cooling and that 100 MW facility still consumes more than 100,000 gallons of water per day.

How about a small variable output distributed energy nuclear power plant that provides desalinated water for the solar power plant while it is sunny and sends power to the grid in place of the solar arrays when it isn't sunny?

From an article in the Washington Post about mini reactors:

When nuclear scientists talk about the size of a reactor, they're talking about maximum electrical output, not square footage. The world's largest reactors generate 1,455 megawatts of electricity, enough to power about 1.5 million households. A program being run by the Department of Energy is focusing on models that would produce about 300 megawatts, enough for Knoxville, Tenn., according to Dan Ingersoll of Oak Ridge National Laboratory. They may go even smaller, producing 50-megawatt reactors that could power small towns or even individual work sites, such as mines, that may be located far from the main energy grid.

Think locally

There are virtues to local reactors. If a reactor powers only one community, it can be built close to the end users. Between 4 and 10 percent of the electricity produced by U.S. power plants vanishes as it travels through power lines on its way to users. Building smaller plants and putting them closer to population centers could cut that figure significantly.

And doing so can save on construction costs as well. "It's getting very difficult and very expensive to lay new transmission lines," says Ingersoll. "This offers the possibility of providing isolated communities with power."

Survey results that followed the above article.

When you think about it, a small, local, low carbon source of energy would meet three out of the four requirements demanded of many environmentally minded individuals and groups. The only one missing is renewable.

Ironically, corn ethanol is listed as a renewable source of energy by our government when two-thirds of the energy in a gallon of it is derived from fossil fuels. In a sense, nuclear is almost as renewable as corn ethanol.

According to a recent report from MIT:
The estimate of enough uranium to run 10 times as many reactors for 100 years was given by Charles W. Forsberg, the executive director of the study. While the price of uranium might be driven up by 50 percent, uranium represents only 2 to 4 percent of the price of electricity from a reactor, he said, so a 50 percent increase would mean only another 1 or 2 percent increase in the price of electricity.


The old arguments against nuclear are rapidly unraveling.

1) The fuel issue is a non-issue, at least for the foreseeable future.

2) The proliferation issue has nothing to do with nuclear power in countries that already have nuclear weapons. If Iran refuses to let nuclear powers process their fuel for them for free, then those nuclear powers are going to have to make a decision. That decision has nothing to do with the fact that there are nuclear power plants in our country.

3) The waste issue is not nearly as large as we have been led to believe. Putting it into perspective, nuclear power plants are still storing right in their own parking lots every ounce of nuclear waste they have ever generated, awaiting the arrival of a federal repository of some kind. How much waste could there possibly be?

Other nations, like France, recycle their waste, reducing the volume ten fold and mix what remains in with molten glass (vitrifying it) to create cylinders of glass than are much easier and safer to move and store.

4) Chernobyl, the poster child for everything that could go wrong continued to produce electricity for 14 years after the incident. Dozens of people died in the immediate aftermath but other than thyroid cancers (with a 90 plus cure rate) in children in the path of the fallout, higher rates of cancer have never been detected. The dead zone quickly reverted to one of Europe's largest wildlife preserves and there were no deformed babies as a result of that disaster.

Modern nuclear power plants do not cause cancer.

5) Nuclear is more expensive than coal and natural gas. Well guess what? So is solar and wind. The whole may be cheaper than the sum of its parts.

6) We have been building bomb proof bunkers since WWI. Building a bomb proof nuclear facility is a piece of cake.

7) Ditto for earthquake proof structures.

Time to open our minds?

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Thursday, September 16, 2010

X Prize: Electric Vehicles-Two, Biofuel Vehicles-One

The $10 million dollar X Prize was split between two electric car designs and a design that runs on biofuel (E85) called the Edison 2.

In the above video the Edison 2 is hyped by the guy who bankrolled it. He tells us the main reason the wheels stick out is to enhance crash safety. Actually, they stick out for stability and aerodynamic reasons as they did for the defunct Aptera and the popular Cessna 172 aircraft. To be more accurate, they are hoping the wheels will also act as a kind of bumper, unless the car striking you from the side happens to land between the wheels.

When you cut through the hype, there isn't really anything new about the Edison 2. Take a deep breath and ask any mechanical engineer worth her salt, "If allowed to compromise crash safety, acceleration, payload, and cost (a low-weight body costs more than a steel body), and if you bolted a modified single piston turbo charged motorcycle engine running on a high octane fuel using exhaust gas recirculation to reduce pumping losses to a very light aerodynamic body, would you get great gas mileage?"

Her answer would have been, "Duh?!"

The marketability of a car having these compromises has always been the only unknown, and remains unknown. And because the Edison 2 can't run on regular gas, you would be stuck looking for gas stations that sell E85 (assuming you could buy one of these cars today).

Every story written about this prize tells you that the Edison 2 gets 102 MPGe (although most laypersons have no idea what that means). Robert Rapier took the time to look at the formula for calculating MPGe and realized that the Edison 2 would only get 73 miles on a gallon of E85 (73 MPG). Confused? Well, I don't really blame you. You can download a spreadsheet to verify Rapier's epiphany "here".

To put this in perspective, an ordinary Prius gets 50 MPG running on E10, and it's a five-passenger, mid-sized hatchback, with power windows and air bags all over the place. And unlike the Edison 2 (assuming you could buy one of these cars today), which is not capable of running on regular gas, you would not be stuck looking for gas stations that sell E85.

Corn ethanol can't ever provide more than about 10% of our fuel. If it were all converted into E85, about one in ten gas stations could carry it. But the vast majority of available ethanol is blended into our gas already at much lower percentages, so in reality, only a fraction of a percent of gas stations will ever sell E85 (an 85 percent blend).

This is not a flex fuel car. It is a car optimized to run on a fuel that is not readily available (E85), which is kinda dumb for more than one reason, and it would actually get worse mileage if modified to run on gasoline. I am a big fan of smallish, lightweight, aerodynamically clean cars like the Edison 2 but would never buy one because of the fuel it burns.

If I had a choice, I would not use a fuel that exacerbates the negative ramifications of agriculture (corn ethanol). Few people understand the scale and scope of the damage being wrought by our global need to provide ourselves with food, fiber, and housing (agriculture). Adding fuel to that demand is just not very smart.

Had the MPGe formula taken into account the EROEI (energy returned on energy invested) of the fuel it uses, the Edison 2 would likely have been eliminated at the get go.

Put an electric drive train in it and I may reconsider, even with the additional cost and more limited range.

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Thursday, September 9, 2010

People Will Believe Whatever They Want

Science--One, Chiropractor Assn--Zero

Here is Penn explaining why he used the term "baby twisting motherfucker" in a short clip in defense of Simon Singh back when he was first being sued by the British Chiropractic Association. [Update--the original video was removed, possibly under threat of a lawsuit? I've replaced it with another one. Hang in to the end to see the snails]

From Wired:

Losing the case would have cost Singh both his reputation and a substantial amount of his personal wealth. Such is the state of science, where sometimes even stating simple truths (like the fact that there’s no reliable evidence chiropractic can alleviate asthma in children) can bring the wrath of the antiscience crowd. What the British chiropractors didn’t count on, however, was Singh himself. Having earned a PhD from Cambridge for his work at the Swiss particle physics lab CERN, he wasn’t about to back down from a scientific gunfight. Singh spent more than two years and well over $200,000 of his own money battling the case in court, and this past April he finally prevailed. In the process, he became a hero to those challenging the pseudoscience surrounding everything from global warming to vaccines.

Wahoo! Haven't been this elated since a judge smacked down the Intelligent Design fruitlogs.

On the other hand, this is a struggle that can't be won. Self-deception is built into our genes. From an article by George Monbiot where he vents about the stupidity of his fellow environmentalists:

"...each of us exists in our own world of meaning, constantly at risk of being shattered by inconvenient facts. If we acknowledge them, they can destroy our sense of self. So, to ensure that we won't be "overwhelmed by the uncertainty inherent in living in a world we can never truly know", we shut them out by lying to ourselves."

Evidence plays a small role in what we choose to believe. The ubiquitous belief in an afterlife is all the evidence needed. If we are going to find a way out of the global warming trap we will have to find a way to do it without wasting all of our energies trying to get the public to read, understand, and accept science. In any case, that isn't a scientist's job.

You can lead a horse to water ...

A case in point would be an excellent article over on Class: M called "An elegy for the oceans."

It's about ocean acidification caused by high atmospheric CO2 concentrations. I may not sleep well tonight. It seems to me that the public might accept ocean acidification as evidence for the need to do something about CO2 emissions. Warmer winters and slowly rising sea levels just don't put the fear of God into most people. Could this aspect of global warming have an impact? Probably not. The vast majority of Americans would very likely find a way to blow it off, assuming there was a way to get them to read anything as boring as a science blog. If we lose the oceans, the game is over.

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Friday, September 3, 2010

Adirondack Adventure--No Bats, One Rabid Fox

In the above Animal Planet video, a man tries to defend himself from a rabid fox ...with a loaf of bread.

I just spent a week with my family in a cabin on the shore of Brant Lake in the Adirondacks. While walking along a main road we were met by a guy walking up his driveway with a 2 x 4. He said that a pregnant woman had just been bitten by a fox with rabies. She had to hit it with a paddle to get it to let go of her leg.

He graciously loaned me his 2 x 4 for the rest of our walk. I found fresh Fox scat on the road.

The next morning there was fresh fox scat a few feet from our cabin door. A Google search found this article:

Woman attacked by fox near Brant Lake

This got us to wondering how long a rabid fox will live once it reaches this late stage in the disease. Not long I think because I did not see any fresh scat for the rest of the week.

I also didn't see any bats. The insects were still there, banging on the screen door under the porch light but there was not a bat to be seen, anywhere. Coincidentally, two papers in the August 6 edition of Science discussed rabies transmission from bats to other species, and the potential for white nose syndrome to cause extinction.

No shortage of bullfrogs in the wetlands.

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