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Saturday, December 25, 2010

Nissan Leaf As An Emergency Power Source

While doing a test drive I discovered that the Nissan Leaf has an ordinary 12 volt lead acid battery under the hood. It charges off of the main battery pack, which is several hundred volts. In other words, because you don't need to run an engine to turn an alternator to charge the 12 volt battery, it shouldn't go dead in just a few hours if you use it to run something like your laptop while car camping (which actually happened to me last summer with our Prius). And if I'm wrong, it wouldn't take much for Nissan to make it so with a tweak to the operation software and lead acid battery charging hardware.

This feature could make the Leaf into an ideal emergency power source should a wind storm knock out power to your home. All you have to do is connect a power converter like the one shown above ($95.00) to your 12 volt battery and run extension cords from it to lights or appliances.

In the past month there have been two major power outages in my neck of the woods caused by bad weather. Some friends of ours had to live three days without electricity in subzero weather.

As with any emergency power backup system, you would have to be careful about how much current you used. The inverter above is rated to about 1000 watts. In our house I would use it to intermittently run our gas furnace blower motor, which draws about 300 watts, and various appliances, including flashlights, a laptop (and modem) for news etc, and electric bike batteries, which can also power large flashlights.

Depending on outside air temperature, I might just move food outside rather than run a refrigerator.

With 24 thousand watt hours in the Leaf battery, you could get by for weeks if you were frugal with power use. You might not want to drive the Leaf much until the power is restored just in case.

It doesn't take much imagination to go from the above scenario to one where we all share our batteries on a smart grid to stabilize renewable energy sources like wind and solar.

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Monday, December 13, 2010

The EPA's outrageous lie?

Photo from Wikipedia

Back in September I wrote a rebuttal titled:

Securities Lawyer Mocks Electric Vehicle Enthusiasts--Gets Mocked Back

Here I rebut that author's latest critique of electric cars which he titled Alice in EVland Part II; The Hall Of Mirrors.

Instead of mocking electric car proponents, he questions their integrity:

Mark Twain reportedly said that "Figures don't lie, but liars figure." Truer words were never spoken.

Both stickers [for the Leaf and Volt] were heralded as the dawn of a new age in transportation [which isn't true]. Unfortunately, they were outrageous lies that account for the distance a car can travel on a kilowatt-hour of electricity but ignore the energy needed to make a kilowatt-hour of electricity in the first place. [my emphasis]

What got this securities lawyer's boxers in a bind this time? Well, apparently it was the revelation that the Leaf will use about ten percent more life cycle energy than a Prius. Not to suggest that this is his revelation. He's just parroting other internet blog articles (without attribution) that pointed this out last month when the EPA first released its new mileage sticker for electric cars:

He thinks he has stumbled onto something new and that the EPA sticker is trying to deceive consumers because it does not account for life cycle energy use. Here's an article I wrote on equivalent MPG back in August of 2009.

However, every study I've read on this subject for the last several years has pointed out the fact that electric cars use slightly more life cycle energy (and produce slightly more GHG) than an equivalent hybrid when their electricity comes from non-renewable sources like coal. But, they have also pointed out that electric cars use far less life cycle energy and produce far less GHG than the average car, of which there are over 300 million in this country.

What is life cycle energy? Well, about 60-70 percent of the energy in the coal used to make electricity is lost. Only about 30-40 percent of it gets into the wires as electricity. More energy is lost in the wires, the charger, and the electric motor.

Even though and electric car is three times more efficient than a normal car, in the end, the Leaf will actually use about 10 percent more total energy than the most efficient car ever mass produced, the Prius, but about half the total energy of the average car.

EPA mileage stickers have never used life cycle energy. That would be complicated, and confusing. For example, it takes about 20 percent more oil to make diesel fuel than gasoline. So, using life cycle energy, you would have to reduce that mileage on the Jetta sticker 20 percent, but the diesel Jetta will still go a lot further on a gallon of fuel than the gasoline Jetta, in large part because diesel engines are more efficient.

Is that what consumers are interested in or do they want to compare how efficiently different cars use the energy stored in their tanks or batteries? That is why the EPA came up with MPGe (miles per gallon equivalent).

The sticker also rates GHG emissions out of the tail pipe, of which electric cars have none. Life cycle green house gas emissions are not part of the deal either. If your car gets its electricity from a coal plant, it is in theory increasing GHG emissions more than a Prius. In reality, until there are enough electric cars to be noticed, the power plant will not be throwing any more coal on the fire and if you have solar, or hydro, or wind, or nuclear making your power, your life cycle GHG is going to be lower than a Prius. So again, why try to convey that kind of complexity on a window sticker?

You have to start somewhere and consumers can start with a low emission, highly efficient vehicle. Cleaning up power supplies is happening in parallel.

Not to say that total energy consumed (from coal mine to wheel turning) isn't important. I'm saying it is not the only metric that's important.

A solar panel only captures about 8 percent of the energy that strikes it. Solar energy is far less efficient than coal but who cares if we have to waste 92 percent of the sun that hits it to get solar power? A similar argument holds for nuclear power (and lets face it, solar collectors are essentially fusion powered).

If we can displace coal and natural gas with solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, and nuclear, we will have a carbon and oil free transportation system and it does not matter if that takes more overall energy use. It's an engineering trade off that's well worth it.

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Sunday, November 14, 2010

Nissan Leaf Test Drive

Crossposted to Grist

Nissan is touring the country with a dozen or so electric Leafs to let people test drive them. It was exciting to be sitting in the first viable mass-produced electric car from a major car manufacturer. This car has the backing of Nissan dealerships for maintenance, warranties, and the quality control you can expect from a Japanese company. This is history in the making.

See this Treehugger article on the American version of the Mitsubishi i-MiEV due out next year.

The Drive:

The quietness and total lack of engine vibration was noticeable.

The steering was effortless. I don't know if that had anything to do with it being electric but I already own two cars with electric power steering, a Prius and a Yaris, and they are both harder to turn than the Leaf I drove. Maybe there is less weight on the front wheels. Even though the electric motor, controller, battery, and gear box are located there, the combination may weigh less than a front wheel drive engine with its attendant transmission, radiator, starter motor, and alternator, although the difference must not be very big. Or maybe they just tuned the steering to be that way for the test drivers.

Cars tend to be rated by how fast they can accelerate from zero to sixty because that is what you have to do to safely merge onto an interstate. Nobody talks about accelerating from zero to thirty, which is what you have to do to dodge other cars here in Seattle traffic.

I goosed it while in economy mode (computer softening the gas pedal) and was shocked by how fast it got up and went. That's the beauty of an electric motor's torque characteristics. A gasoline engine has to spool up to achieve peak torque.

There didn't seem to be enough regenerative braking compared to a Prius. It's possible they had it turned down for the test drives.

Under the Hood:

The tour guide claimed that the top of the motor controller was intentionally made to look like a conventional engine valve cover to give customers a sense of familiarity. I find it hard to believe than anybody would care about a detail like that but then, what do I know about mass marketing? I bought a station wagon just like everyone else when they started calling them SUVs.

There are still brake fluid, window washer, and coolant reservoirs. The coolant is used for the controller and motor. The batteries (under the car) are air cooled.

There is still the same old lead-acid car battery sitting there even though there is no starter motor. It's still used as a low voltage source and power reservoir for most of the electric things like wipers, radios, headlights, etc. The Prius does the same thing.

However, the alternator that is normally spun by a belt off the engine to charge that battery was nowhere to be found. I'm sure it has been replaced by something though, or maybe I just missed it.

Miscellaneous observations:

I spotted a Tesla doing a drive by. I'll bet that every Tesla owner in the area test drove a Leaf to compare it to their $100K version. You can't blame them for checking out the competition.

One test driver asked the tour guide why the car doesn't just charge itself up when moving rather than have to be plugged in.

I didn't catch the standard answer they must all give. It certainly wasn't, "Because we would have to rewrite the laws of physics to do that idiot. Next dumb question?" Or, maybe, "Snap! A perpetual motion machine! Why didn't Nissan think of that?"

Just before I got in the car I heard tires screeching and looked up to see a Leaf skewed sideways with an octogenarian in the driver's seat. He might have been testing its handling limits and ABS braking, or maybe he just confused the brake pedal for the gas pedal. Everyone survived.

There were two large tractor trailer rigs nearby with full body shops and maintenance facilities. The dozen or so Leafs being driven were all test cars that had been used to develop the production version although you could not tell by looking.

There was also a large generator on a flatbed truck that was being used to charge the cars.

I envision companies springing up to assist Leaf drivers who are worried they won't have enough charge to get home. All they need is a pickup truck and a couple of large battery packs that can be used to put enough charge in the car to get home. Maybe they can drop the battery pack off to charge the car for several hours as a kind of rental deal.

Electricians are going to get real busy installing plugs and chargers.


There are three types of charging. The cars all come with a trickle charger that will take about 20 hours to top off a fully depleted battery. Because you will rarely, if ever, fully deplete your battery just as you roll into your driveway, you will mostly just be topping off a partially discharged pack and should have no problem doing that overnight.

The power cord that comes with the car looks like a giant version of the one for your laptop and plugs right into the same 15 amp, 120 volt outlet.

The level II charger will top off a dead battery in about eight hours. The charger itself isn't very expensive. Most of the money goes to the electrician who will install it in your garage.

The level III charger is for people where cost is no object. It will blow a charge into your pack in about 30 minutes i.e., a carefully controlled explosion. However, you are not going to find any of these chargers out in public for quite a while. There isn't even a standard plug for them yet here in the States. I will also wager that fast charging will tend to wear your batteries out faster. This is a special factory ordered option. You can't have this plug installed at the dealership after it leaves the factory. I imagine it involves extra cooling fans and God knows what else.


I've been using an electric vehicle for several years now. You learn what your range is and never exceed it. You don't need public charging stations.

Local governments are spending a lot of time and money trying to figure out where to put public chargers. Personally, I think they are wasting most of that time and money as any government worth its salt is expected to do. Imagine taking a trip that is beyond your car's range so you plan to park it at a charging station. But when you get there, somebody else is charging. Snap!@? And what are the odds that a station is where you want it to be?

Range on all cars is highly variable depending on how you drive, city or highway, air conditioning etc. You just don't realize it until you drive an electric vehicle. Do eighty miles an hour and you won't go very far. In general you can expect somewhere between 80 and 120 miles on a charge, depending.

To the Luddites:

(This one's pretty good too)

The only heavy metals used are in the old style lead acid battery that is in every other car.

The batteries will be recycled.

Lithium is not a rare earth and supplies are plentiful.

The Leaf uses an induction motor which does not need rare-earth magnets.

A representative from a local power utility was there selling green power credits. For a few bucks a month you can blow off critics who claim your car is burning coal, or better yet, you can Photo-shop an image of your car into the following picture:

Photo from Tesla Motors website

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Saturday, November 13, 2010

Energy Policy Head Knock

Crossposted to Grist

From the Huff Po:

David Roberts And Steve Everley Debate Our Energy Future

I'm posting on this because my comment at Grist blew up into a full-blown diatribe and now I have to do something with it.

I didn't watch the video. A podcast would have sufficed. A transcript would have been even better. I listened to it from the Huff Po site while multitasking. Funny thing about debates is that your guy always wins.

I will briefly critique Steve's remarks but most of this post is meant to make the argument for renewable energy a little more bulletproof.

And if you don't feel like watching the whole video or reading my take on it, fast forward 38 minutes, 18 seconds to see the lead-in to Steve getting his head handed to him at precisely 40 minutes, 50 seconds. He tries to counter the fact that China outspends us on renewable energy by claiming it's because they have control over all of the rare materials needed to build wind turbines and solar panels or something like that. Followed by something about how we would trade our dependence on foreign oil from terrorists for dependence on rare earth elements from China, as if we are not already wholly mutually dependent on trading partners all over the planet for just about everything.

Steve's entire argument hinges on the fact that fossil fuels are cheaper than renewables and will therefore help the economy to recover faster, which will allow us to afford a "cleaner" environment. Although he would not say it, Steve thinks global warming is a crock and therefore could care less about renewable energy--end of story. There isn't much argument there for me to critique. Picture a debate about what God looks like between an atheist and the Pope.

It also appears that he was instructed to repeat specific sound bites. He must have used the phrase "economic growth" literally a dozen times and the phrase "the elections sent a clear signal" half that much. He used a comparison of a forty-year old coal plant to a new one as an example of how economic growth can clean up the environment ...and all this time I thought it was government regulations that forced coal plants to clean up their emissions using the 1990 cap and trade legislation. Note that this market has since collapsed and the government is now working on new rules to keep the coal plants from reversing 20 years of progress in reducing acid rain.

Steve claimed that one signal we got from this election (there was no such signal) is that companies like GE ...should take the money they would normally use for lobbying and begin investing in products consumers want (at least, I think that is what he was trying to say).

Just yesterday I read that GE is going to buy 25,000 electric cars, starting with 12,000 Chevy Volts (never mind that they are not electric cars, but plug-in hybrids complete with some kind of planetary gear transmission from the engine to the wheels). So, is this a case of GE investing in products consumers "don't" want? And what does the oil and corn ethanol lobby think about GE horning in on their internal combustion engine liquid fuel dissipaters?

Just today I test drove a real electric car, the Nissan Leaf (no transmission). The tax credits for both of these cars are ginormous, as they should be. The electric utility had a booth there selling their green energy program. For an extra four dollars a month you can smack down the guy on the next bar stool who claims your Nissan Leaf uses coal for power. And if you really want to bury him, show him a picture of your solar panels

Clearly, the building of electric cars, wind turbines, solar panels and appropriately designed and integrated nuclear power plants into a renewable grid would generate a lot of jobs.

While listening to the "video" at Huff Po I read the 114 comments.

"Clean energy girl" made a comment I agreed with. In reference to Dave's repeated use of the word believe:

"Please stop using words like "believe" to describe whether climate change is real. People who rely on "beliefs" are emotionally mainpulated by rghetoric and tlaking points. People who are informed have read that all of the scientists who are not industry funded are in agreement that humans burning fossil fuels = climate change that is detrimental to humans surviving well in the long term.

The word believe denotes it's is a view that is not based on being informed."

Climate skeptics often call global warming a religion, even though it is based entirely on science. Drop the phrase "I believe."

Another commenter, Sparky, provided a reality check and ray of hope:

"Politicians typically do the right things for the wrong reasons and sometimes accidentally!"

Dave's remark about our energy system being laced with rules and regulations and subsidies that stifle competition is legitimate. Although rapid progress has been made, there are still fifteen states that do not allow net metering for solar.

But in all honesty, those rules and subsidies are not what have "locked in fossil fuel incumbents" protecting them from competition and thereby suppressing the normal action of the free market (make coal, natural gas, and oil cheaper than wind, solar, and cellulosic ethanol). Cost has done that. Even with net metering and truly gargantuan tax breaks, meeting your energy needs with solar panels on your roof here in Seattle is vastly more expensive than hydro. And don't get me wrong. I think solar has to evolve into our main energy source.

Dave's insistence that fossil fuels are really more expensive than renewables dances on the edge of a conspiracy theory and because fossil fuels dominate energy use on every corner of the globe (except, ironically, in France where 75 percent of their electricity comes from nuclear) it is a global conspiracy theory--the worst kind!

The fossil fuel industry has more money and has therefore bought more politicians. Dave and Steve seem to agree on that but because Steve thinks global warming is a crock, he's not particularly concerned about it.

The fossil industry killed cap and trade but the debate participants seem to be conflating America's unique form of legal bribery with energy subsidy rates. Although related, they are not the same thing.

Later in the debate Dave mentions the external costs of fossil fuels that are not being paid. This is not news to the environmental community and a price on carbon was our first attempt to address part of it. Maybe we should frame subsidies to renewables as a way of making fossil fuels pay. That's exactly what the 1990 Clean Air Act did when it used cap and trade to control emissions. Somebody get on that idea.

External costs aside, remove all subsidies from all energy (renewable and fossil) and fossil fuels are still cheaper. In fact, in most cases, they are cheaper than renewables even if you let the renewables keep their subsidies. If that isn't true, why do we want a price on carbon? Reality sucks sometimes.

Fossil fuel companies certainly compete amongst themselves. Natural gas competes with coal and heating oil for heat and power. Coal and natural gas compete with hydro (fully renewable) and nuclear (lowest GHG source). Natural gas competes with oil for transport (all of our recycling and garbage trucks run on it). If fossil fuels were more expensive than renewables they would be history already.

Steve agreed with Dave's comments about campaign finance (lobbyists skewing the market to favor their product) pointing out that all players do it, including the renewable energy players. When he mentioned "a product the government forces people to buy" he may have been thinking about corn ethanol, which ironically, is not only not renewable but should not be getting any subsidy in any case. Confusing, I know.

Rather than acknowledge that renewables actually do have a higher subsidization rate, and then explain why they should (except the really stupid ones like biofuels made from food), Dave first suggests that renewables do not have a higher rate (calling that fact an absurd red herring and an incredibly deceptive way of framing things) before properly explaining that subsidies for renewables should be higher. Subsidies per unit energy are much higher for renewables as they should be, if for no other reason than to try to compensate for fossil fuels (and confusingly corn ethanol's) very real external costs.

Dave lists the costs of wars as part of the external costs not covered by fossil fuels. This is the very backbone of corn ethanol's argument as well. We have all seen the "No War Required" biofuel bumper stickers. Certainly we can't argue that coal and natural gas, being primarily domestic sources, share that particular external cost, assuming it is real. But, assuming that external cost is real, it applies only to oil, imported oil ...from the Middle East.

Unfortunately, it's the one external cost that isn't real. Go to Google and count the number of known wars through human history. Now, on one hand show how many were over oil. Biofuels will not end warfare. My children may one day be funding a war to capture South American cane ethanol refineries.

Raise your hand if you think the United States should abandon attempts to stabilize the Middle East should we decide to buy the 10% we get from Saudi Arabia elsewhere. Take a look at what would happen to just one of our major trading partners if the Middle East were allowed to collapse into warfare and anarchy. We could kiss the Prius and Nissan Leaf goodbye.

Which should lead to the next question. Why do we have to buy any oil from the Middle East and what difference does it make if we don't?

Steve mentioned Google as an example of what entrepreneurs are capable of producing. Why he did, I don't know but it's a legitimate example.

Dave countered with the age-old, but wrong, urban legend that the internet was spawned by decades of government research. Never mind that Google is not a synonym of Internet.

The internet came about as a result of millions of entrepreneurs, some using one kind of government funding or another, some not, each contributing important pieces of the puzzle to be built upon by others. The government did not invent the internet. It's just a tad more complex than that.

The government also did not invent the airplane or the cell phone.

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Sunday, November 7, 2010

Electric Bicycle Evolution

I spotted an interesting looking electric bicycle in front of my neighborhood grocery store a while back. The picture you see above came from an owner's manual I found on the internet.

It has some nice features like:

1) A centered kickstand (electric bikes tend to be top heavy)
2) Front and rear disc brakes (will never wear a hole in your rim)
3) A pivoted rear wheel frame (loose tail to protect electronics and your butt)
4) A cargo rack that fits on a loose tail (a feature easier said than done)
5) Lithium ion batteries (never buy a bike with lead acid batteries)
6) It folds in half (nice if you don't have a bike rack and can lift it into trunk)
7) No front derailleur (not needed)

However, at 24 volts it will be underpowered.

I don't know what the "XB-310Li" costs but the Sanyo Eneloop pictured above costs about $2,000. I do know which bike looks cooler.

The bike below was purchased by one of my neighbors off Amazon for about $300. I believe it is 24 volts and uses lead acid batteries.

What do all of these bikes have in common? They were all bought off the internet and as soon as any electrical component fails the owners are out of luck because there are no repair shops for them (unless they can do their own troubleshooting and soldering, assuming they can get parts as well). The lead acid powered bike will fail before the year is out guaranteed because that's about all you get from lead acid.

Those of us who have built our own bikes are looking to iterate toward better and better designs. For example, ideally, you would get rid of spokes on the wheel that has the motor because they always stretch, get loose, and eventually fail.

Above photo from Golden Motors

Above photos from Grin Technologies

The price may be right for some of these Chinese electric bike parts, but reliability and support can be very dicey.

The Chinese market for electrified bikes and scooters is gargantuan. There isn't much money to be made in the paltry American market.

The people at the Canadian business called Grin Technologies are filling a niche. They designed the legendary CycleAnalyst and now have a lighting system that can be run off just about any battery pack.

Buying an electric bike sight unseen off the internet is asking for trouble and most people don't have an electric bike shop in their neck of the woods that sells and services electric bikes that don't look like something your grandma would ride.

That leaves the DIY option, which for now is a good option if you are willing and able to learn and experiment. Home built bikes often outperform the best store bought ones for a fraction of the cost. The 1000 watt limit for ebikes in California and Washington state has blurred the line between human powered with electric assist and electric powered with human assist. But that's OK. If we are going to break the stranglehold internal combustion cars have on us we will need a little room to maneuver and experiment.

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Saturday, October 30, 2010

Biofuels Reduce The Biosphere's Capacity to Absorb Carbon

Brace yourselves for another thought exercise.

Expanding Croplands Chipping Away at World's Carbon Stocks

The conversion of the planet’s ecosystems into cropland — particularly in tropical rainforests — is stretching the Earth’s ability to store carbon, according to a new study. The demand for new agricultural land is growing most rapidly in the tropics, due to growing populations, changing diets, food security concerns, and a rising demand for biofuels.

Tim Searchinger is a researcher who has been published in the prestigious journal Science at least five separate times by my count. His, in hindsight, rather obvious, common sense observations have become a serious thorn in the side of the biofuel industry.

He was one of the first to raise the alarm about indirect land use issues (using corn for ethanol sent a price signal to clear more farmland from carbon sinks). He was the first to point out that government subsidies for biomass will aggravate global warming by motivating people to cut down trees. Burning trees to make electricity will release their carbon into the atmosphere. The seedlings planted to replace those trees will take decades to remove that carbon and store it again. Meanwhile, the CO2 from the trees that were burned will heat the planet for decades. We don't have decades.

Because of the great potential for profit, attention has focused on technology (hybrid and electric cars, solar, wind, nuclear, biofuels, and biomass) that will release less CO2. Very little attention has been paid to the other half of the global warming solution (getting the excess CO2 back out of the atmosphere) because nobody has figured out a way to get rich by just leaving forests and grasslands alone.

Photo by Mongabay

Case in point, Mongabay has an article up titled Scientists blast greenwashing by front groups:

The Consumer Alliance for Global Prosperity (CAGP) is a new group based in Washington D.C. that has launched a campaign against American firms that have adopted sustainability criteria in their sourcing policies. Companies targeted consist mostly of retailers that have dropped APP [Asia Pulp & Paper] from their stores, including Office Max, Staples, and Office Depot, but not Walmart, which has cut ties with APP except for its Walmart China division. The Consumer Alliance for Global Prosperity claims that these corporations are colluding with unions and "radical environmental activists" to hurt consumers in the United States.

"The 'Empires of Collusion' continue to push an anti-prosperity, anti-trade agenda," CAGP says in its campaign materials. "This coordinated campaign is run by radical environmentalists and others against the producers of pulp and paper from the developing world, destroying the livelihoods and aspirations of thousands of the world's poor."

"This initiative will fight back against anti-trade, anti-prosperity collusion among international Green NGOs, American trade union bosses, and corporations looking to eschew the rigors of a competitive marketplace."

How much a given biofuel reduces production of CO2 depends on how much fossil fuel is used to make that biofuel. No crop-based biofuel is carbon neutral. Cane ethanol and palm oil biodiesel come the closest but they all increase greenhouse gases to one degree or another.

But, unlike fossil fuels, the usurpation of water and arable land to grow biofuels inversely impacts our ability to allow forests and grasslands to remove the CO2 that's already in the atmosphere (as well as the CO2 being added with each gallon of biofuel burned). This is an extra downside to biofuels that fossil fuels don't share. Put another way, today's crop-based biofuels are hogging up the land and resources we need to store carbon.

In a nutshell, agrofuels are a dead end idea, a dog barking up the wrong tree. There are many ways to reduce CO2 production other than simply exchanging gallon for gallon the fossil fuels in our gas hog cars for liquid fuels made from the rapidly unraveling fabric of our biosphere.

We must reduce CO2 production while increasing CO2 absorption: Absorption/Production > 1, or Production < Absorption.

Until some biological process absorbs it, CO2 tends to stay put. Plants are the only means we have of removing excess CO2 from the air and safely storing it as carbon. In theory, if we could grow enough plants we would not have to cut back on fossil fuel use to avoid global warming because those plants would absorb and then store all of the CO2 produced by the fossil fuels. This would require roughly tripling the amount of land covered by forest and grassland. Unfortunately, that much water and unused arable land does not exist.

And keep in mind, those plants have to be alive to store carbon. They can't be used for fuel, or food (which is fuel for people).

The biofuel lobby appears to have concluded that this is one argument they are not going to win so they have switched tactics. No longer do they mention greenhouse gases or global warming in their press releases. Instead, they stick to exaggerating claims of clean air and job creation, while fanning the flames of xenophobia by suggesting corn ethanol is a stepping stone to energy independence (when in reality, it has hogged up all of the market leaving nothing for potential next generation fuels).

It seems that few people are interested in just leaving forests and grasslands alone to absorb carbon. The whole idea seems somehow wasteful. Where's the money in that? Global warming is essentially a shot across the bow warning us that we have finally exceeded a planetary limit. Speaking of which, and as icing on the biofuel cake, biofuels are also exacerbating other planetary limits.

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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Cougar Sign

This is a re-post from 2009. I deleted it to break the link to Chinese spammers who were burying the comments.

I found the above photo on the Flickr Commons. It was taken at a trail head somewhere in California. A cougar was recently removed from a Seattle park just a few miles from where I live:

I poked around looking for cougar sign by some ponds in the park but found only raccoon tracks. The last time a cougar was in this park he left behind a cache of raccoon heads. I chased some growling raccoons away from our chicken coop earlier this summer. Had to buy a new frying pan because I broke the handle off the one I hit the raccoon with.

The cougar was of course, tranquilized, ear tagged, and radio collared. He will be sending text messages to wildlife agents, becoming a source of endless entertainment as they get to track and dart him over and over again in the name of research. Objects of our affections often become victims of them.

I raised this point a few years back on Grist Magazine and got called on the carpet with a nasty email from Luke Hunter, who was then (taking a deep breath) Global Carnivore Program Coordinator for the Wildlife Conservation Society and an Associate Conservation Scientist in the Science and Exploration Program.

Oddly enough, a few days after this cougar was captured, another one was killed by a car just 15 miles from my house. The photo of the dead cougar was removed from the post after a commenter complained that she did not like pictures of dead cougars.

Nature lovers, of which I am one, should resist the urge to go live with nature. It's better to just visit. People and nature don't mix. Your dogs and cats will create a smelly circle of death around your residence. You will be forced to trap rodents, poison hornets, wasps, termites, and wood ants, fence out deer, porcupines or whatever and will occasionally run over something. An enhancement to the ecosystem you will not be.

This is the second time a cougar has found his way into a park in the middle of Seattle. They follow a rail line which acts as a very long thin green belt connecting this park to the forests in the surrounding mountains. Both had to cross a rail road trestle to complete their journey.

This is proof of the effectiveness of interconnected green belts. Wildlife trapped in small isolated pockets of habitat will eventually die out. Interconnection can make small areas act like larger ones.

The sign below suggests how a non-English speaker might interpret the above sign:

Sign photo credits to:

someToast and ingridtaylar on the Flickr Commons.

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Monday, October 25, 2010

Birth Control will not stop climate change

...but it sure could help. From a study recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

...reducing peak population to roughly 8 billion, for example, could save 29 percent of expected greenhouse gas emissions.

In addition, if people are allowed to retire at a reasonable age (there is a trend to increase retirement ages), some industrialized countries could also see a very large drop in CO2 emissions.

On the negative side, increasing urbanization could increase emissions because that trend tends to go along with greater wealth and wealthier people tend to do stupid things like build large homes, drive large cars, and buy second homes.

The $1 million dollar bed pictured above came from this Mongabay article:

The report, based on more than a year of investigations, shows that Madagascar's valuable hardwoods—including ebony, pallisander, and rosewood—are being illegally harvested from rainforest parks and trafficked to Asia, Europe, and the United States. The vast majority of timber—98 percent—however ends up in China, where it is converted into luxury furniture.

"In China, Malagasy rosewood beds sell for a million dollars apiece...

The person who buys the above bed should get the prestigious "Moron of the Century" award. It's not just how many of us are consuming but how and what we are consuming as well.

I suspect that if a global meme were to get started that super-efficient, solar enhanced, small homes, and cars were cooler than the cavernous status symbols of today, urbanization and the wealth that follows could drive emissions down more than the study estimates.

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Thursday, October 21, 2010

EPA approves E15--Bob Dinneen unsatiated

Bob Dinneen, head of a very well-funded corn ethanol lobbying organization, has a new press release in the Huff Po green blog which begins by claiming:

Other nations, including Brazil, with at least as many older vehicles on their roads, allow higher levels of ethanol blends with no discernible damage to their cars and light trucks.

In reality, unlike American cars, cars in Brazil where ethanol blends have been 22% since 1993 are all designed to run on that higher blend. According to Wikipedia:

"All Brazilian automakers have adapted their gasoline engines to run smoothly with these range of mixtures, thus, all gasoline vehicles are built to run with blends from E20 to E25, defined by local law as "Common gasoline type C". Some vehicles might work properly with lower concentrations of ethanol, however, with a few exceptions, they are unable to run smoothly with pure gasoline which causes engine knocking, as vehicles traveling to neighboring South American countries have demonstrated.."

Next he tells us about a study conducted specifically "for" his lobbying organization and paid for in part by the Illinois Corn Marketing Board:

In fact, the internationally recognized automotive-engineering firm, Ricardo, Inc., recently conducted a study for the Renewable Fuels Association [my emphasis] that used EPA's own engineering assessment methodology to determine the efficacy of E15 in vehicles MY2000 and older [not exactly true, the study went back only 6 years]. The report concludes: "... the adoption and use of E15 in the motor vehicle fleet from the studied model years should not [my emphasis and note they did not use the term "will not"] adversely affect the vehicles or cause them to perform in a sub-optimal manner when compared with their performance when using the E10 blend that is currently available."

Hmmm, who to believe? An organization chartered to protect the environment or a company that designs fuel systems for the car industry? Your call. According to the Ricardo study:

Six automotive manufacturers were identified as representing the overwhelming majority of vehicles sales for the study period, and the top selling platforms of these manufacturers thus became the focus of the Ricardo study. This approach enabled Ricardo to carry out engineering analysis without individually inspecting or testing each of this very large number of vehicles.

...this study demonstrates for the first time that raising the blend ceiling to E15 is "likely" to have a "negligible" [my emphasis] impact on vehicles manufactured between 1994 and 2000.

That's right. They only actually physically tested a handful of cars. In other words, if a 15 percent blend screws your car up immediately, or slowly over time, too bad for you because they never said it wouldn't, they said the higher blend is "likely" to have a "negligible" impact.

Bob goes on to tell us that EPA mandated labels on gasoline pumps to warn consumers that they are about to put a 15 percent blend into their cars "will ...confuse gasoline marketers, retailers and consumers.."

I own four cars (because my family has four drivers--myself, my wife, and my two daughters who are still in school). Half of our cars are quite a bit older than the study covered using statistical methods. What about all the poor people in America driving older cars, Bob? Is your organization going to pay their repair bills, (assuming the Ricardo study is correct, which is not "likely")?

...while making it more difficult for the nation to transition from imported oil to clean-burning, American-made renewable fuels. As it says in Scripture, "For if the bugle produces an indistinct sound, who will prepare himself for battle?"

Above Dinneen(along with quoting scripture that references violence), continues to claim that corn ethanol can scale up to the point of replacing imported oil. It can't. Using a third of our corn crop it barely displaces five percent of our gasoline use. And this fuel is not what you could call clean. In addition to being the major cause of the Gulf of Mexico dead zone:

"..Due to its ozone effects, future E85 may be a greater overall public health risk than gasoline.."

"health costs are $469 million for gasoline and $472–$952 million for corn ethanol, with the higher totals coming from coal-fired production."

"..would likely worsen health problems caused by ozone, compared with gasoline, especially in winter.."

Although his overarching concern appears to be national security, below he plays the global warming card:

On the environmental front, according to an analysis conducted by the EPA, ethanol reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 61 percent, compared to gasoline.

Actually, according to this NRDC article:

At its worst, lifecycle GHG emissions from corn ethanol exceed those from gasoline in all three scenarios. At its best, corn ethanol is not that much better than gasoline on a climate basis, and certainly not good enough to warrant the soil degradation, water resource depletion and water pollution it continues to cause.

Bob continues distorting reality:

On the economic front, the US ethanol industry supports nearly 400,000 jobs

Actually, according to this NRDC article:

" some estimates, fully 2/3rds to 3/4ths of the jobs were already there... But US farmers would have been growing crop any way thanks to domestic agricultural subsidies and just exporting more than we do today. Thus if there’s any significant job creation in agriculture, it’s probably internationally where farmers are trying to make up for the higher level of exports our farmers would have been able to supply."

Next, Bob tells us ethanol paid $15.9 billion in federal, state and local taxes. What he does not tell us is that those taxes would have been paid by the gasoline the ethanol replaced, so no new income was generated as he suggests.

When it comes to energy security, the production of a record 10.75 billion gallons of ethanol last year replaced 364 million barrels of oil that would otherwise have been imported from unstable nations with unfriendly governments, such as Hugo Chavez's Venezuela and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Iran.

America has not imported any oil from Iran since the hostage crisis during the Carter administration and 10.75 billion gallons barely represents five percent of our gasoline use. Considering that it took about a third of our corn crop to do that it's easy to see that corn ethanol can't scale up enough to provide a modicum of energy security.

Meanwhile, the Blend Wall also stands in the way of developing the next generation of biofuels from feedstocks such as woodchips, corncobs, native grasses, and even garbage.

The above quote is a beautiful example of what Orwell called "doublespeak." In reality, it is thanks to corn ethanol that there is little market left for alternative versions of ethanol. It has hogged the entire market up for itself. The greatest impediment to alternative forms of ethanol corn ethanol.

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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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