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Sunday, October 19, 2014

Renewable Energy Versus Wildlife Conservation

Migrating waterfowl at feeding grounds via Pembina Institute

Cross-posted from Energy Trends Insider

The argument goes something like this:

Real environmentalist: “We should not allow the destruction of orangutan habitat for palm oil biodiesel!”

Apologist: “In fact by displacing fossil fuels, palm oil biodiesel is helping orangutans, as well as everything else that is alive on the planet! Orangutans are at serious risk due to climate change. Some primate species are forecast to to lose more than 95% of their current ranges!”

(1) From an article in Treehugger about wind farm impact on birds:
…. in fact by displacing fossil fuels they are helping birds, as well as everything else that is alive on the planet. … the bald eagle and eight state birds …are at serious risk due to climate change. …some species are forecast to lose more than 95% of their current ranges.
Another real world analogy to wind farms, the Elwa river dam, was recently removed in an attempt to restore an extinct salmon migration.  Using the reasoning presented in the Treehugger article about wind farms, what’s the point in restoring a salmon run if climate change will eventually destroy it? Right? The dam should be rebuilt so it can once again produce renewable energy.

There are a few missing links in this argument’s logic chain. Scientists recognized the sixth extinction event long before they did climate change.  Producing low carbon energy with that rebuilt dam would immediately and directly cause the extinction of that salmon run. Whereas, removing the dam (not producing low carbon energy at that location) will help assure there will be salmon left to save from the ravages of climate change, assuming humanity can avert climate change. In other words, find another place to generate low carbon energy.

Analogously, usurping raptor hunting grounds(2) and intersecting major migration routs with giant blenders to produce low carbon energy is not going to help eagles, hawks, owls, condors, vultures, herons, waterfowl, whooping cranes or bats survive climate change. They are going to need all the help we can give them (with or without climate change) in addition to attempting to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Conservation and development of renewable energy have to be done in parallel with priority given to conservation. The extinction event has been accelerating even in the absence of climate change, which of course will make it even worse.

One could argue that humanity should not be building new dams at all in places like the Amazon basin, and that wind farms should be relegated to offshore locations far from raptor and bat hunting grounds and major migration routes. And why are we destroying intact dessert tortoise habitat for solar thermal installations? We can’t find a place without threatened tortoise habitat?

The author’s strategy is to use close-up photos of naughty kitties to convince “bird lovers” to stop hassling utilities that own wind farms and to instead focus their ire on …cats:
“But bird lovers need to go against the real enemies rather than spending precious energy fighting one of the main tools that we have to clean up our power grid and have a greener world.”
The label “bird lover” makes an easy target because it conjures up images of retirees in their birding gear gathering into flocks of their own to count and categorize the birds they see (Greater Peewee, Spectacled Tyrant, Handsome Fruiteater …to name a few). In reality, state and federal governments, environmental groups, and their attendant armies of concerned scientists, naturalists, and conservationists around the world are working to minimize the impacts of wind farms.

Interestingly enough, the author’s attempt to deflect attention away from wind farms to cats appears to have worked, at least on his Treehugger readership. Drop into the comment field below his article to participate in the hate festival. Several comments had to be deleted. I did find one salient comment:
Wind turbines are creating mortality on birds that aren’t at risk by cats or large buildings. The bigger birds (raptors, owls, etc.) are long-lived and have low reproductive rates. They’re like the grizzly bears of the bird world. They have no way to compensate for excessive mortality.
If cats are the real problem maybe Treehugger should spend a little more time writing about cats, a little less time trying to trivialize the  damage done by wind farms.
More from the article:
Many people have this obsession with wind turbines killing birds, probably because it’s a really great story.
Riiight. I seriously doubt that state and federal governments, environmental groups and the attendant armies of concerned scientists, naturalists, and conservationists around the world are working to minimize the impacts of wind farms ” ….because it’s a really great story.”

Male Swainson's hawk
Photo of Male Swainson’s hawk in front of the turbine that eventually killed it

The photo above and the following excerpts are from an article by concerned scientists, naturalists, and conservationists from my local zoo:
With such keen eyesight, why do hawks not see these giant fans in their workaday flight paths?  Gretchen explains that “hawks are predators. After a long migration, their job here is straightforward, driven by instinct: build nests, find food and defend territory in the home range.” Making sense of strange, new human-built hazards is a secondary priority. “As Jim sees it, imagine waking up every day with hungry kids to feed. A huge, dangerous blender is lodged between your bedroom and your kitchen. Your eyes scan the ground, locking in on food, so even with all your flying skills, eventually you’re going to bump into it.”

Through focal observations, the keepers collect data on specific birds’ range behaviors, recording flight type, duration of interaction with or near turbines, and wind and turbine speed. They seek to discern patterns and trends holistically on two levels. The landscape level looks at whether populations are displaced by the turbines, abandoning their breeding grounds for safer but often less suitable habitats. The interaction level looks at whether the hawks become habituated to the turbines, flying near or through them.  In nesting territories, the mean rate at which hawks encounter turbine collision zones, a 400-foot radius around the blades, is once every 76 minutes.
From the Treehugger article:
As a meme, it really strikes the imagination because wind turbines are this green thing, right, so killing birds is antithetical to what they’re supposed to be doing.
Really? Killing hawks, owls, bats etc isn’t antithetical to what wind farms are supposed to be doing?
But if the goal is to save birds, we have to look at the actual facts on the ground and not just at whatever story makes for the catchiest headline.
Following is the headline to the Treehugger article: Wind turbines kill around 300,000 birds annually, house cats around 3,000,000,000

And if you just blew coffee (or whatever you were drinking) out your nose, I don’t blame you. Several commenters mentioned that based on the headline they also thought the article was about wind turbines killing 3 billion cats annually.

After having said all the above, the author concludes with a throw-away comment as a hedge against the unlikely event that somebody would call him out: “This doesn’t mean that wind power operators should stop doing what they can to protect birds. Wind farms should be properly sited and everything should be done to mitigate any risks.”

The Treehugger article was based on one found in the respected peer reviewed science journal …USA Today.  I had to dig around on the internet to find the actual link to the peer reviewed study that the USA Today and subsequent Treehugger articles were based on. The photo below was found on the website that linked back to the study.

Halved Golden Eagle via

The study is about the impact on small songbirds. It isn’t about eagles, hawks, owls, condors, vultures, herons, waterfowl, whooping cranes or bats, which cats don’t eat, although some eagles, hawks, and owls do eat cats. See the photo below of a great horned owl that landed on a power line with the cat it had caught. Both were subsequently electrocuted. The irony. Could only have been worse had they been struck by a wind turbine.

Electrocuted Great Horned Owl with Cat Prey via Imgur

I read the study, which was very obviously biased but I suspect that its conclusion is largely correct: wind farms kill a relatively small percentage of the total song bird population. The authors showed their bias by repeatedly comparing the numbers of small birds killed by turbines to the numbers killed by other things, like cats, which were not part of the study. There was no need to repeatedly do that comparison other than  to bias the article intent–to trivialize song bird deaths. It’s a moot argument. Song birds are not the big problem.

To convince myself that the study conclusion was reasonable I made a simple spreadsheet that calculated the number of song bird deaths as a percentage of the power supplied to the grid by wind. The total percentage of song birds killed struck me as relatively small no matter what percentage I chose for wind energy all the way to 100 percent (a study by the National Renewable Energy Lab suggests that a maximum of about 12 percent of total energy supply can be from wind by 2050).

An extreme example just to make a point about renewable energy would be the conversion of the entire Amazon rain forest into corn, soy, and sugarcane fields to make biofuel and tree farms to fuel power plants in place of coal. That act would be one step forward (displacement of fossil fuels) and a thousand steps backward (utter destruction of the very biodiversity we are trying to protect from climate change).

Climate change is expected to wreak havoc on the planet’s already rapidly disappearing biodiversity (wildlife) because it will further shrink/degrade what remains of the ecosystems wildlife needs to avoid extinction. Ergo, an energy scheme that reduces carbon emissions but also kills wildlife and degrades wildlife habitat is going to worsen the impact of climate change on the natural world (one step forward, some number of steps backward).

(1) If you want to read a more useful article about efforts to reduce the damage done by some wind farms I would suggest this one: For the Birds and the Bats: Eight Ways Wind Power Companies are Trying to Prevent Deadly Collisions  by Roger Drouin writing for Grist.

(2) If you look at the background of the wind turbine photo  chosen for the Treehugger article you will see degraded habitat; roads leading to wind turbines bulldozed through a hunting ground for raptors which soar/soared on wind currents while hunting rodents and ground nesting birds in the rocks below.

Why Ethanol Free Gas is More Popular than E85

Sign at a gas station that sells only ethanol free gasoline

Cross-posted from Energy Trends Insider

Sam Avro, Energy Trends Insider editor, recently received an inquiry from a reader about the popularity of ethanol free gasoline in the Midwest. Coincidentally, I recently visited Indianapolis and had noticed a large billboard advertising ethanol free gasoline.

I thought I’d share what I found. Much to my surprise, there are about 8,000 gas stations offering ethanol free gasoline and only about 1,200 offering  E85 (85 percent ethanol). There are about ten million flex fuel cars on the road designed to burn E85. Assuming a cost of about $100 per car to make it flex fuel, and assuming that about 10% of flex fuel cars actually use E85, this would mean that consumers have paid about nine billion dollars for nothing.

Why is ethanol-free gasoline so much more popular than E85? I poked around in comment fields to come up with a short list of reasons, some rational, some not so much.
  1. Many consumers realize that E85 reduces gas mileage, but this is largely irrelevant when E85 is cheap enough to make up the difference. Maybe people don’t want to bother running the numbers every time they use E85 to figure out if  it’s cheaper or maybe they don’t want to visit gas stations thirty percent more often.
  2. Others fear that gasoline with ten percent ethanol might harm their car. This is a rational concern only for owners of older cars.
  3. Some consumers don’t want to use gasoline with corn ethanol for ethical reasons. Using food stock to produce car fuel increases the cost of basic food staples like corn meal and eggs, which impacts the poorest of the world far more than it does the richest.
  4.  Still others don’t want corn ethanol in their fuel because of its negative environmental impact. When farmers plant corn instead of some other crop it causes a dominoe effect where farmers in other parts of the world create farmland to plant the crops replaced by corn. Many thousands of acres of wildlife habitat (conservation reserve land) has been converted back into corn  fields as farmers understandably use unproductive land to capitalize on the record breaking high price of corn thanks to government mandated consumption of corn ethanol creating a demand that continues to exceed supply (thus the tripling in the price of corn).
  5.  Yet others buy ethanol free gasoline as a way to protest government mandated consumption of what they believe is an inferior product.
Although I am unaware of any environmental organization that supports corn ethanol, some states have made it illegal to sell ethanol free gasoline. Go figure.

As part of writing this article, I discovered that there are two gas stations serving ethanol free gasoline within a few miles of where I live. If I didn’t drive an electric car, I might be buying ethanol free gasoline, for some rational reasons and maybe a few not so rational ones.

Update on the Tesla Model S

 Cross-posted from Energy Trends Insider

Has anyone else noticed how much a Tesla Model S looks like a Jaguar XF (pictured below)? One of my neighbors drives a Tesla Model S. I was following him down the street a few weeks ago and heard his tires squeak three times in two blocks. Adequate acceleration to maneuver in traffic can enhance overall safety but too much acceleration potential can be dangerous, especially in the wrong hands. Not sure I’d want that temptation.

Tesla Model S Photo courtesy of Gareth James via Flickr

Jaguar XF Photo courtesy of Jimmy Smith via Flickr

Fast Chargers

Tesla is dead on with their promotion of fast charging stations. The ubiquitous 240 volt chargers are next to worthless simply because they take too long. A high voltage fast charger can provide a significant charge in a matter of minutes. I recently deliberately drove my Leaf beyond its range because we needed two cars to get supplies to a wedding. My plan was to stop at a charge station on the way home for a few hours to get enough charge to finish the trip. The rest of the family came home in our Prius.

I had obtained my code to use a given company’s charge station but it turned out that the station I chose was owned by a different company so I had to move to the next closest charge station, which was occupied by a Chevy Volt. So, I moved to the next closest station, also occupied by a Chevy Volt! There was a Volt at the fourth station as well but luckily, there were two chargers. However, they were owned by yet a third company. Luckily they were in a municipal parking lot so their use was free. By calling the number on the charger I was able to get the operator to unlock it for me. Don’t invest in any company providing 240 volt public charging stations.

Crash Safety

From the Tesla website: NHTSA Reaffirms Model S 5-Star Safety Rating In All Categories For Model Year 2014

That’s all well and good but a 2003 car safety study titled “An Analysis of Traffic Deaths by Vehicle Type and Model” concluded what insurance companies have known for a long time: “…sports cars, as driven, are extremely risky to their drivers…”

Personally, I never consider crash safety ratings when purchasing a car. Why? Even with new, more stringent standards in 2012, roughly 95 percent of all cars tested by the NHTSA received a four star rating or better (out of five). About 25 percent received a five star rating.  Although there are other organizations that do safety ratings, the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) ratings are much less likely to contain bias. Five star ratings are inevitably used for marketing, but if you were to buy a new car that has a four star rating, the odds of being injured purely as a result of not having that fifth star are very low. All new cars today have safety features not dreamed of decades ago (three way restraints, airbags, anti-lock brakes, crush zones, safety glass and on and on).
In reality, when it comes to crashing into other cars, the overarching difference is mass; heavy cars crush lighter ones. If a three star truck hits a five star economy car, the occupants of the higher rated car are at greater risk of injury.  But that does not necessarily mean that heavier cars are safer. The vertical axis on the above chart ranks risk to the driver of the other car. The horizontal axis  debunks the myth that trucks and SUVs are necessarily safer than smaller cars. In a nutshell, driving a truck or SUV may not only put you at greater risk but the greater mass also puts other drivers at greater risk.

The Tesla is a  heavy car for its size, thanks to its batteries (roughly half-a-ton heavier than the Jaguar XF). On July 6th a Tesla (4,600 lbs) rear-ended a 2004 Corolla (2,500 lbs) at high speed, killing one adult and two children. However, largely thanks to the five star crash rating, the Tesla driver had minor injuries.

Obviously, a five star crash safety rating can only do so much. On July 5th a stolen Tesla crashed into a pole during a high-speed chase and broke in half. The batteries in the front part of the car caught on fire and the back half of the car ended up jammed in the doorway of a synagogue, I’m guessing, about 100 feet away from the front end of the car. The driver was thrown clear but is in critical condition. You can see video of the carnage here.

In response to the car fires earlier in the year, Tesla has reinforced the car’s underbelly. Although Elon Musk said that additional “…underbody shields are not needed for a high level of safety” (i.e., to reduce the risk of a Tesla being engulfed in a fiery inferno after hitting road debris) …he did it anyway. The NTSB investigation did not mandate a fix.

However, from the AP:
The U.S. government’s auto safety watchdog has closed an investigation into Tesla electric car battery fires after the company said it would install more shields beneath the cars.
To avoid the stigma associated with the word “recall” Tesla does not call this retrofit a recall (although, for the record, it is by definition a recall). This is reminiscent of when extra “non-mandatory” reinforcement was voluntarily added to the Chevy Volt after some caught fire as a result of side impact. GM called it a “customer satisfaction improvement.”

The Tesla engineers looked under their car to see where they could bolt more hardware on under the already existing quarter inch thick “ballistic grade” aluminum plate. They cobbled together a titanium plate along with a couple of  aluminum extrusions. The Tesla website has three short videos of the car running over junk (which you can bet represent the best examples out of the 152 tests they ran).
They also did a software tweak that limits how much the suspension will lower the car at highway speeds. Lowering the car at high speeds does two things: it drops the CG for better handling and less ground clearance can also improve range by reducing drag. Tesla was quick to point out that the extra weight of the fix did not meaningfully affect range but made no mention of the aerodynamic impact of higher ground clearance.

Electric cars (including Tesla) have so far proven to be far less susceptible to catching on fire than conventional cars. On the other hand, not all electric cars will necessarily be equally less susceptible. Although there are far more Leafs on the road than Teslas (due to the lower price tag) I am unaware of any of them catching on fire. The simple fact that Tesla uses quarter inch thick “ballistic grade” aluminum plate to protect its battery pack is all the evidence you need to know that Tesla was concerned about what could happen when a car hit the wrong piece of road debris.

 Drive Train Issues
 From Green Car Reports:
On Tesla’s own website forum, dozens of owners weighed in with their tales of drive unit woes. “Every car in my area has had at least one DU replaced,” noted one. “I’m on my fifth drive train at 12,000 miles,” reported another. One poor fellow was on his sixth–as far as we know, the record for drive-unit futility.
 The Gigafactory
 Tesla will eventually run out of customers who can buy $80K cars. To keep selling them, they have to get the price down. The only way for Tesla to do that is to get the battery costs down. Because their car is designed around their choice of battery cell, they are stuck with the battery they have so the only way to get prices down is with greatly expanded mass production of the battery. Aside from other concerns, the problem as I see it, is that they are going to commit themselves to mass production of a soon-to-be obsolete battery.
Unlike the Nissan Leaf, Chevy Volt, and Ford Focus Electric, which all use a larger, flat, prismatic shaped battery, the Panasonic batteries used by Tesla have been around for a long time (I wrote an article about them long before there was a Tesla). Their cylindrical shape wastes a great deal of space and their small size necessitates the use of thousands of them in a car which can lead to thousands of potential problems. Buying off-the-shelf Panasonic batteries was the best Tesla could do at the time of its development.

In Conclusion

All companies eventually fail, or get bought up. That does not mean a company was not successful. Tesla is a success. However, it is also a monopoly of sorts. It is the only electric car in its price and performance range. They can and do charge whatever it takes to cover costs. How long will Tesla survive when a car with the same performance arrives with a much lower price tag, as would be the case with a car that has cheaper, more modern batteries?

Nissan Leaf Replacement Battery for $5,500


 Cross-posted from Energy Trends Insider

Provision of an after-market battery pack is another electric car first and an all important step for electric cars to gain greater market share. Leaf owners now have the option to upgrade to a new battery (with new, more heat resistant chemistry) when the old one wears out, or of selling their car and letting someone else put a new battery in it. An electric car with a worn out battery wouldn’t have much resale value if you couldn’t replace the battery. The existence of a reasonably priced battery replacement might stimulate sales by putting at ease any prospective customers concerned about how they would sell their electric car once its battery wore out.

All automotive lead-acid batteries have a core charge to make sure they get recycled (parts store will pay $5-$10 for your old battery). The core charge for the Leaf battery is $1,000 (new battery would cost $6,500 without it). And you don’t have the option of keeping your old battery. Nissan wants them back to recycle or possibly become part of a study that uses old batteries for other energy storage applications. Nissan may not want to be sued by tinkerers who burn their garages down (like may biodiesel tinkerers have) trying to use the old batteries for solar back-up and such. Modern lithium battery packs require sophisticated charging and discharging controllers to keep them safe.

It should take two or three hours for a dealership to replace a battery and if you own a 2011 Leaf, you need to purchase a retrofit kit for a few hundred more dollars as well. This cost is comparable to having a dealership put a new engine in a conventional car, and certainly no more than the cost of putting a new engine and a new transmission in a car (it isn’t advisable to put a new engine in a high-mileage car without also replacing the transmission). Having only one moving part, the electric motor may last longer than the car.

It may come as a surprise to many, but there are still only two electric car manufacturers that sell (and can maintain) your electric car at any of their dealerships: Nissan and (of course) Tesla. The Ford Focus electric and Mitsubishi MiEV are low volume cars. I just called my local Ford dealership and was told that they had a Ford Focus Electric on the lot about a month ago but wasn’t sure when there would be another one. The Fiat 500e, Chevrolet Spark EV, Honda Fit EV, and Toyota RAV4 EV are even lower volume cars sold in states like California primarily to meet zero-emission vehicle mandates. For this reason they are sometimes referred to as compliance cars. Unfortunately, with an $80,000 price tag the Tesla is relegated to a niche market. Tesla can only sell them to a relatively limited number of people willing and able to pay that much for a sports car.

Nissan may provide an option for  a 150 mile range battery pack in the next year or two. Considering the Leaf’s passive battery cooling system, I suspect that this upgrade is technically possible thanks to the more heat resistant battery chemistry. A reasonably priced 150 mile range electric car along with fast chargers sitting next to the coin operated tire pumps at most 7-Elevens could be the beginning of the end for market dominance of internal combustion engine automobiles.