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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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