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Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Does the 2016 Chevy Volt Really "Seat Five?"

Answer ...not really. More on that subject later.
Chevy Cruze and Volt
I was hoping to see the Chevy Bolt and Tesla Model X at the Seattle car show but the Nissan Leaf was the only all-electric car I saw on display this year. Nissan hasn't messed with the Leaf's look yet but the range on its SV and SL models has been improved about 22% (for a price).

I saw maybe a half dozen hybrids and a few plug-in hybrids on display. I took several pictures of what I thought was a Chevy Volt displayed on a roped-off stage. Later, out on the floor, I ran across two actual Volts. I'd been taking pictures of the new Chevy Cruze by mistake, which looks a lot like the Volt from the side. There was no information available for either car.
Volkswagen Jetta hybrid
The Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid caught my eye. MSRP was $32,340, with a combined MPG of 44. Not bad. I asked the Volkswagen representative if there were any diesels present and was told that for obvious reasons, no.

The Volt has gone through a major redesign and according to Inside EVs:
Perhaps most importantly ... the 2016 Volt can now seat 5 persons [author's emphasis]. The fact you can seat 5 is a real selling bonus [my emphasis] for the extended range [my emphasis] car.
Note: the Chevy volt is a plug-in hybrid. Their marketing department created the term (EREV) extended range electric vehicle for its version of a plug-in hybrid to differentiate it from other plug-in hybrids. However, they don't hesitate to call it one or the other depending on the situation. For example, in an ad attacking the plug-in Prius, GM refers to the Volt as a plug-in hybrid. Interestingly enough, they also released an ad attacking electric cars. The Chevy Bolt marketing department was probably not too happy about that.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Thoughts on the Volkswagen Emissions Scandal


 Cross Posted from Energy Trends Insider

Volkswagen was just caught cheating on emissions tests for some of its diesel powered cars. As a result, their stock price has plummeted. I no longer have to deal with emissions tests because we own a 2006 Prius and a 2011 Leaf, neither of which require testing because one has a SULE (Super Ultra Low Emissions) rating and the the other doesn't have a tail pipe.

You can't fake acceleration or gas mileage, but apparently you can fake out emissions tests by installing software capable of detecting when an emissions test is being conducted (via the diagnostic plug in your dash board) that will lean out the fuel mixture and alter the timing (among other things) so the car will pass the test, returning it to normal when the test ends.

I was fooled. Following is a comment I made last year on this subject:
These are all valid points but controlling pollution is mostly a matter of innovation and engineering. You are not necessarily limited by thermodynamics. For example, compare the mileage of the very dirty 2006 diesel Jetta to the very clean 2014 diesel Jetta.
In general, I try not to participate in media feeding frenzies. Here in the States, many diesel Jetta and Golf purchase decisions are based at least partially on the perception that these cars are more environmentally friendly than most. And truth be told, even with these higher emissions, they still are more environmentally friendly when compared to the vast majority of cars sold in the United States. And unlike some other car manufacturer cover ups, this one didn't involve fatalities or injuries.


I created the above graphic from the EPA Green Vehicle website. Note that since 2006, the Golf appeared to have improved its gas mileage more than 9% and its smog rating five fold (32 mpg to 35 mpg and 1 to 5 respectively).

Back in 2006 many States did not allow the sale of new Jettas or Golfs because of their emissions. Volkswagen decided not to sell them at all in the U.S. in 2007 and 2008 (those model years for diesel Jettas and Golfs are missing in the EPA Green Vehicle data base). In 2009 they introduced their new and improved versions that ostensibly met EPA standards, however (engineering being the art of compromise), they came with engineering compromises that would have degraded performance and therefore, sales, which eventually led to the emissions software cheat.

So what's the big deal?

The big deal is trust. They cheated customers to sell cars. Some owners, instead of being proud of their environmentally friendly car, will now be embarrassed by it. Surely Volkswagen knew this deception would eventually be exposed. They may have been anticipating a modest fine of some kind. Instead they have seen a collapse in stock value and I would not be surprised if this results in a permanent rejection of the Volkswagen brand by many American consumers. But again, maybe they were planning to rename the company anyway!
Now, having said all that, we might want to brace ourselves. Volkswagen may just be the first one caught. Read Biofuel Makers May Have Known About Volkswagen Emissions Rigging for Years.

There are still a lot of people out there clinging to the idea that diesel engines burning biodiesel made from soy, or canola, or palm, have the potential to curb greenhouse gas emissions but that idea has been pretty thoroughly studied by now. Most news you read today about biodiesel made from food stock is hype from those financially invested in biodiesel. Read Third Person Sentenced in Las Vegas for International Biofuel Fraud Conspiracy.

Coincidentally, our neighbors sold their first generation 2001 Prius and bought a 2015 diesel Golf just a few weeks ago. I test drove it. Great car, especially when compared to the soot belching, engine rattling, 2006 version once so popular with biodiesel enthusiasts. They had a difficult time choosing between a Prius and the Golf. Had this news arrived just a few weeks earlier, they would likely be driving a Prius today and that is an example of why Volkswagen should pay dearly for what they just did.

Friday, August 21, 2015

EV Update: Chevy Bolt, Tesla's Ludicrous Mode, Speed Record


 Chevy Bolt
Cross posted from Energy Trends Insider

The July announcement from Chevy of its upcoming $38K, 200-mile range Bolt electric car is, in my humble opinion, of similar historical importance to Nissan's announcement back in 2011 of the Leaf. With 55 test Bolts running around, this looks like the real deal. When it comes to electric cars, it's all about the battery and for the Bolt that battery is made by LG Chem. The price and range of the Bolt says it all, which is why Nissan is considering a switch to the LG Chem battery as well. Nissan has hinted that the 2017 Leaf may have a 250 mile range.

Interestingly enough, the impending improvement in battery technology is hurting sales for the Leaf and Volt. I can understand why someone in the market for an electric car might wait a year or so for a version with twice the mileage at a similar price. Conventional cars don't have to deal with major technological leaps that can obsolete all other cars overnight ...battery growing pains.

The second generation Volt using the latest LG Chem battery has a third fewer cells than the original model (192/288) and has roughly a 25 % improvement in range. Extrapolating this data I estimate that a 200 mile range Leaf would require about 479 of those cells: 384 - (0.33 x 384cells ) = 256 cells. ((256 cells/86 miles) x 200 miles)) / 1.25 = 479 cells. All things being equal, the fewer cells a battery management system has to keep track of, the better. The Panasonic battery powered 200 mile range Tesla Model S presently has about 5,000 cells. That's over ten times as many cells and all of the attendant software and hardware needed to connect, charge, and monitor them.

Tesla announced its "ludicrous mode" which would allow a Tesla to accelerate from 0-60 mph in 2.8 seconds. Ludicrous mode refers to faster than light speed in the Space Balls spoof of Star Wars. In the Next Generation Star Trek series they called it warp drive ...engage! Benjamin Zhang of Business Insider was so impressed with ludicrous mode that he wrote an article (complete with photos of ten high-end sports cars) comparing apples to oranges (a $70K electric sports car to much more expensive conventional ones).

White Zombie Photo Via Inside EVs
Student Built Electric Car Photo Via Gizmag

What he should have done was compare the Tesla acceleration to other electric cars like the car built by college students who just broke the record for electric cars (0-60 in 1.72 seconds). Or better yet, compare it to the 1972 electric Datsun 1200 White Zombie built in a guy's garage (0-60 mph in 1.8 seconds). The acceleration capacity of an electric vehicle is a relatively simple matter of driving a big motor with a big battery, connecting the two through fuses, wires, and a controller designed to handle the current draw ...big drill motors on wheels.


Truth be told, too much potential acceleration is dangerous, especially when it's being done on our roadways by anybody who can swing the payments on a $70K car instead of professional drivers at a race track. In an earlier article I described a Tesla wreck on city streets that split the car in half . The back end of the Tesla was jammed in the doorway of a synagogue maybe 100 feet away from the front end of the car. Over-hyping a relatively affordable electric sport car's capacity to accelerate for marketing purposes may come back to bite Tesla. Compared to the really high-end sports cars, the Tesla is actually pretty cheap so there will be a lot of them on the road by comparison. Tesla sales have passed 80,000.

Wikipedia Photo of Beech S35 Bonanza

The Beech S35 Bonanza earned the nickname "Doctor Killer" because it was a high performance plane being flown by non-professional pilots. Tragically, one recently crashed not far from where we were camping earlier this summer.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Everything Old is New Again; Biofuels, Still a Bad Idea

Gorilla at Woodland Park Zoo

 Cross-posted from Energy Trends Insider

I recently recieved two emails on the same day; one about more palm oil plantations usurping yet another tropical ecosystem, this time for highly endangered African Gorillas instead of Indonesian Orangutans, and the other from my local Sierra Club asking me to urge my elected representatives to reject a transportation funding bill that would not allow our Governor to mandate the consumption of biofuels. Instead, I wrote a letter to the editor of the Seattle Times expressing my opposition to a biofuel mandate (which, of course, wasn't published). I put a copy of that rejected submission at the end of this post as an example of what not to send to the Seattle Times Op Ed department.

And today the headline in the Seattle Times reads: "Inslee, the ‘greenest’ governor — not so much"

"He pushed ahead with a highway-expanding $16 billion transportation package, accepting a “poison pill” provision that could hinder his administration’s plans to enact a new clean-fuels regulation.

The Republican-backed provision would divert hundreds of millions of dollars away from transit, bicycling and walking projects if the Inslee administration tries to enact the cleaner fuels rule, known as a low-carbon fuel standard, by executive order."
Printed newspapers are in the middle of their own extinction event, which isn't moving fast enough in my opinion. I wrote my first critique of biodiesel in an article for Grist back in 2005 called "Bad Idea" at the height of the biodiesel fad hitting Seattle. In 2009 I wrote an article about why Seattle dropped the use of biodiesel.

Scientists submitting work to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are having issues over the issue of biofuels. The following paragraph represents the compromise wording finally released last year to placate both sides:
“Biofuels have direct, fuel‐cycle GHG emissions that are typically 30–90% lower than those for gasoline or diesel fuels. However, since for some biofuels indirect emissions—including from land use change—can lead to greater total emissions than when using petroleum products, policy support needs to be considered on a case by case basis”
The problem in my eyes is that, thanks to human nature, the profit motive will continue to roll over indigenous people and ecosystems. Corporations sensitive to public image simply sell off problematic plantations to corporations who are not so sensitive. At one point in our recent geologic history, there were several upright walking primate species coexisting on this planet with our species. We are the last primate species that will walk on this planet, but hopefully, we won't one day be the last primate species.

With shifting climate patterns, drought in five states, forest fires raging from Alaska to Southern California, chronic water shortages, and a global population still growing by roughly 75 million a year , how wise is it to further expand agriculture to fuel our cars?

As we approached our campsite in Okanogan County a few weeks ago we saw what we thought was a big thundercloud on the horizon which turned out to be a forest fire burning just fifteen miles away. Our tents were dusted with falling ash before it was brought under control. Another camper had recently returned from a camping trip where even the Hoh rain forest is experiencing its largest fire in recorded history. In the last several years it has become the norm to check for forest fires before setting off on a camping trip. This is how it happens. Slowly, over time, changes to the environment become accepted as the norm, with only the old-timers remembering what used to be (sky darkening clouds of passenger pigeons, herds of bison over the horizon, Carolina parakeets, ivory billed woodpeckers).

Washington State, thanks to its mountains and river systems providing hydro electric power, has one of the lowest carbon electrical grids in the nation along with some of the lowest electricity rates. It puts Germany's electrical grid to shame with respect to both carbon emissions and especially cost (never mind for the moment the destruction of salmon and sturgeon migrations that resulted).

US State GHG Emissions
German GHG Emissions

That's the thing about renewable energy. Economic viability is a function of where on the planet you are. ...location, location, location. A one-size-fits-all global solution, it is not. Whatever mix and associated costs Germany settles on will be unique to Germany.

By circumstance, Washington is already way ahead of the game when it comes to decarbonizing energy consumption. By comparison, a State like Indiana; flat as a board, not particularly sunny or windy, using a lot of air-conditioning in the summer, heat in the winter, and powered mostly by coal might best be decarbonized with the help of nuclear energy.

Indiana GHG Emissions

Washington's main source of carbon comes from transportation. Electric cars would not be particularly effective at reducing emissions in Indiana thanks to the coal used to make electricity. On the other hand, they can be highly effective in Washington State.

As an agricultural powerhouse, Indiana could try decarbonizing its transport sector with corn and soy beans. This idea of the Midwest consuming their own biofuel products was first suggested by Robert Rapier years ago. Never mind for the moment that corn ethanol may not actually reduce carbon emissions much, if at all. A University of Wisconsin study published this year by the Institute of Physics estimated that emissions from the expansion of cropland in the United States to meet demand for mandated use of biofuels was "equivalent to a year's carbon dioxide release from 34 coal-fired power plants or an additional 28 million cars on the road."

The Governor of Indiana does not mandate the use of flex fuel cars and E85 gas, or even a blend of soybean biodiesel quite simply because the economic cost of doing so would largely negate the high grain prices being received by Indiana farmers (transfer of wealth) thanks to the federal fuel mandates.

Maybe Indiana should burn corn instead of coal to make electricity? And I realize that sounds absurd but there are wood stoves designed to do just that. Displacing coal with corn might be less carbon intensive than making a liquid fuel out of it, but again, it all comes down to cost. Coal is a lot cheaper than corn ...and I don't know which lobby is more powerful in Indiana, corn or coal.

Which brings us back to Washington State. Instead of doing something really innovative, like promoting the installation of high speed chargers at 7-Elevens (or wherever) in urban areas to match Tesla's Walled Garden of high-speed chargers which are only for Tesla owners, our Governor favors the more politically astute strategy of mandating biofuel use to capture the farm vote. For now, he can't do that but because he tried, he will still get his farm vote and that's how politics work.

For anyone interested, more about the camping trip below:
Our campsite on the dry side of the mountains in Washington State, which we have returned to for many years, was, for the first time, visited by rattlesnakes, one of which I carried away from the campsite on the end of my camera monopole. He was curious about the pole, nosed it a few times, and once I got him to crawl over the "far" end, I was able to gently picked him up without alarm. When I sat him back down a safer distance from the tents, he calmly crawled away the opposite direction of the campsite.

Western Rattlesnake Western Rattlesnake

I failed to get a picture of any of them but they were similar to the subspecies shown above (photo courtesy Wikipedia). The pattern looks similar to that of a common gopher snake, especially after dark. One teenage camper had actually reached down to pick up what he thought was a gopher snake after dark but thought better of it when he heard a strange rattle sound. Two problems; gopher snakes are not nocturnal and what are the odds the rattle sound was not from a rattlesnake? That was a close call and I hope he learned a lesson.

Dragonfly on a stick
Dragonfly on a stick
If you see three rattlesnakes, you can bet there are more you didn't see, and they tend to come out at night. They're pit vipers. Those small pits located on their heads are sensory organs that can essentially see heat, especially at night when the cooler air contrasts better with a warm prey body ...that also can't see the snake in the dark. My guess is that the especially dry, hot weather was drawing them out of the hills toward the lake in search of water. Our campsite just happened to lay between the hills and the lake.

Immature Rubber Boa Immature Rubber Boa

Minutes after I had moved the rattlesnake, my wife and daughter walked up with a young rubber boa that had been crossing the road. No mistaking one of these for a rattlesnake. Like rattlesnakes, rubber boas are often active at night but also spend most of their time underground (note its small eyes). You will rarely see the other common snakes in this area (racer, garter, or gopher snake) out after sunset. I've included a few other photos from past camping events below.

Mature Rubber Boa

Mountain Blue Bird Mountain Blue Bird

Tree Frogs Tree Frogs

bigmantis Immature Praying Mantis (photo by Jack Stephens)

Osprey Osprey

Frog on a flower

And for anyone interested, the copy of the rejected submission to the Seattle Times follows:

This is Why We Have a Two Party Political System
Thankfully, the senate transportation package on its way to Governor Inslee's desk still contains the purported poison pill (language that should prevent Governor Inslee from mandating the consumption of biofuels). Roughly a third of America's corn harvest is already in our gas tanks thanks to federally mandated biofuel consumption. Last year, the IPCC warned that some biofuels can lead to more total emissions than petroleum based fuels and that "increasing bioenergy crop cultivation poses risks to ecosystems and biodiversity."

A University of Wisconsin study published this year by the Institute of Physics estimated that emissions from the expansion of cropland in the United States to meet demand for mandated use of biofuels was "equivalent to a year's carbon dioxide release from 34 coal-fired power plants or an additional 28 million cars on the road."

Times change. At the height of Seattle's biodiesel craze you could practically walk across Ballard on the top of smelly, soot spewing, biodiesel fueled Jettas. The once ubiquitous biodiesel bumper stickers have practically disappeared.

Governor Inslee is an old-school biofuel enthusiast and long-time supporter of the biofuel industry. In 2007 he co-wrote the book "Apollo's Fire" which extolled the virtues of corn ethanol (25 mentions), biodiesel (31 mentions), and cellulosic ethanol (42 mentions). The book also praised the newly formed Imperium Renewables biodiesel refinery in Grays Harbor (12 mentions) ...which has since decided to get into the oil business by expanding its facilities to transfer a daily trainload of crude oil to tanker ships bound for refineries along the West coast.

From the book:
“It would be comforting to avoid the prospect of being proven wrong by the passage of time. But your authors are built of sterner stock. We refuse to take refuge in the privilege of punditry to cloak our comments in vague surmises.”
One of many predictions proved wrong by the passage of time was that "cellulosic ethanol will make a rapid penetration of the market" and that "meaningful amounts of cellulosic ethanol" will be available at service stations across the country by 2011. According to the EPA, there was no cellulosic ethanol available in 2011and last year, total national production of cellulosic ethanol was still measured in the thousands of gallons while corn ethanol exceeded 14 billion gallons. It is entirely likely that cellulosic ethanol may one day be dropped from the biofuel mandate.

With shifting weather patterns, drought conditions in five states, and forest fires raging from Alaska to Southern California, how smart is it to expand agriculture to fuel our cars? There are many other options we can take to reduce our transportation footprint. For example, in Seattle, a two-car family driving a Prius and a Leaf emit half the GHG emissions per mile of a one-car family driving a car that gets the U.S. average for gas mileage.


University of Wisconsin Study: page 9, and

Amount of corn used for ethanol:

IPCC quote:

Quotes from book Apollo's Fire used "search inside the book" on

Two-car family calculation:

Prius MPG = 48:

U.S. Average MPG = 24:

Nissan Leaf in Seattle is charged by Seattle City Light Grid which is composed of 95% low carbon energy sources hydro, wind, and nuclear:

Imperium Renewables oil transport:

Cellulosic Ethanol available in 2011:

Monday, May 25, 2015

The Corrections to Joe Romm's Corrections--Part I

Cross-posted from Energy Trends Insider

Climate Hawk

In his article, The Corrections: Jonathan Franzen’s Deeply Irresponsible Climate Change Article, Joe Romm, climate hawk, uses the nonsensical graphic shown below borrowed from U.S.News & World Report (also used here) in an attempt to stifle criticism of renewable energy.

Screenshot from Climate Progress

One could predict that Franzen's blasphemous epiphany in the New Yorker that we are not going to stop climate change by blighting “...every landscape with biofuel agriculture, solar farms, and wind turbines” would light Romm's hair on fire. However, it was Franzen's suggestion that conservation organizations like the Audubon society should be doubling down on what they do best, preservation of what remains, instead of diverting resources to climate change issues which they can't do anything about, that got the Audubon society's feathers in a bunch.
  1. Franzen is probably right about it being too late to stop climate change, although there is always hope.
  2. Because conservation groups tend to take their cues from the most vociferous climate hawks, who are also anti-nuclear energy, they are under the false impression that renewable energy can save the day.
One of Romm's fans said the following in a tweet found on the Audubon website:

Not so much ...Romm's corrections are in need of some correcting. Below are two bar charts that are the same as the one Romm provided above except I divided the bird counts by units of energy produced by each source. I had to break them into separate charts because the scale difference was so large.

Annual Bird Deaths per GWh (see Footnotes 1 and 11)

Annual Bird Deaths per GWh (see Footnotes 1 and 11)

 You might guess that if there were, say, only two wind turbines on the planet that they would kill fewer birds than any other power source, because, well, there are just two of them, which is all Romm's borrowed graphic tells us. Imagine comparing the efficiency of cars with a bar chart showing how much gas the cars used in a year without any mention of how many miles each car drove. To make any sense at all, that bar chart would show miles driven by each car divided by gallons of gasoline used by each car, i.e., the chart presented by Romm to his readers is nonsensical and misleading.

The solar estimate in the chart presented by Romm does not represent the sum of all solar power in the United States as one would expect. It comes from a single solar thermal power plant, Ivanpah. From the source:
If this rate persisted yearlong, then Ivanpah might be killing 28,380 birds, which would be 3.6 times greater than the fatality rate I predicted.
Click here to watch a video of a bird being "smoked" at Ivanpah. See Footnote 7 for energy produced.

An unexpected result from my efforts suggests that any attempt to provide the entire energy needs of the United States with a source having bird mortalities "per unit energy" similar to Ivanpah would kill up to 29.11/9.36 = 3 times more birds annually (see Footnote 1) than the "very crude approximation" of 24 million birds killed by climate change annually by U.S. coal, oil, and gas, electricity generation cited by the Vermont Law School study. This is an example of why we have to think critically about our choice of energy sources.

From Romm:
And yes, Franzen brings up the hoary complaint about wind turbines killing birds. What about the vastly larger number of birds that are killed by fossil fuels?
Using a study suggesting that cats may kill upwards of 3.7 billion birds per year in the United States, the "cats kill more birds than wind" argument says that global warming has 154 times less annual impact (3.7 E+9 / 2.4E+7 = 154) on birds than cats do.

Part of the effectiveness of the "cats kill more" argument is that everyone assumes cats are not a big deal. But, as it turns out, our pet and feral domestic cats are one of the most environmentally destructive forces (of many thousands) we have unleashed on the planet. They have been implicated in the extinction of roughly 33 animal species around the world. Just today I received a solicitation from the Audubon Society that said "nearly a quarter of the United States bird species are slipping toward extinction."

Fortunately, nobody thought to use the "cats kill more birds than DDT" argument against regulations controlling the use of DDT to stop the bald eagle's slide toward extinction. Because raptors are at the top of the food chain pyramid DDT concentrates in their tissues. Another impact of being at the top of the food chain pyramid is that raptors will be far fewer in number than songbirds. The death of a single raptor will have an impact on their total population that may be an order of magnitude larger than a death of a single bird at the bottom of the pyramid.

You can see that this DDT analogy is a dead ringer for wind farms. Cats don't kill large birds like eagles or great horned owls, quite the opposite. Killing an eagle instead of a house sparrow is like killing a lion instead of a house mouse.

Maybe the "cats kill more" argument has had its day in the sun.

We can record power output, tortoise, bird, and salmon deaths, but we can't calculate the climate change impact to the ecosystem caused by one low carbon power plant. The only thing we can say with certainty is that any single power plant will make no measurable difference with respect to climate change. Ergo, environmentalists should continue to resist the building and operation of the most environmentally egregious energy projects, renewable or not. It will never be possible to calculate the number of salmon killed, if any, by climate change as a result of eliminating the low carbon energy from the Elwa river dam. We will one day be able to count the number saved by the dam's elimination.

The problem arises when climate hawks defend renewable energy projects regardless of immediate environmental impact because they see climate change as more important than immediate local ecosystem degradation. But I just demonstrated that if we power the world with Ivanpahs there would be few birds left to save from climate change. Of course, we aren't going to power the world with a single renewable source, but you get the picture.

It's quite disingenuous to claim that the elimination or prevention of a single particularly egregious project like, say, the Altamont wind farm, or Ivanpah, or the Elwa river hydro electric dam, or a new palm plantation in virgin forest, or mega-dam in a biodiverse part of the tropics can be blamed for the deaths of tens of millions of birds, desert tortoises, salmon, orangutans, or thousands of unique species, respectively because of climate change. Individually, each project will have no measurable impact on climate change. If collectively, there are enough bad apple renewable energy projects to matter, then collectively, they would be doing as much or more damage to ecosystems than they might be preventing thanks to their low carbon emissions.

Romm's mirror image and arch enemy (his intensely partisan political pundit counterpart on the right) may distort these findings, using them to claim that all solar energy, or possibly all renewable energy, is worse than fossil fuel. But that's what happens when a problem degenerates into a political battle rather than an engineering study. The truth becomes largely irrelevant. The "end justifies the means" is all fine and good but the road to hell has become a parking lot.

Not all wind and solar projects are created equal of course. The goal is to minimize the number of bad apples in the barrel, separate the wheat from the chaff and all that, which is easier said than done because, believe it or not, like all for-profit corporations, those that build wind and solar farms are also far less interested in ecology than profitability.

Back in 2005 biofuels were seen as the answer to oil. George Monbiot was the first to suggest that they may be worse than fossil fuels, many followed. You will be hard pressed to find even a climate hawk defending corn ethanol or palm oil biodiesel anymore. Cellulosic ethanol never happened.

Plans to displace coal by burning wood and bales of switchgrass are likely another case of the cure being worse than the disease. Read Dirtier than Coal, a joint effort by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Friends of the Earth, and Greenpeace. See chart below.

Destroying what remains of the planet's river ecosystems with dams, particularly in the biodiverse tropics have great potential to make things worse, especially if droughts, like those seen in Brazil and California, caused by changing rainfall patterns nullify the use of those dams to make electricity.

After reading what I just wrote above, you might be wondering if we really have the low carbon energy technology to pull this off, especially considering that climate hawks like Romm are anti-nuclear energy.

You would not be the first to wonder that.

A team of Google engineers assembled to find a way to displace fossil fuels with renewable energy (the RE<C "renewables cheaper than coal" project), concluded that the combination of today's low carbon energy sources, renewables and nuclear, can't prevent climate change. We need better technology and lots of it.

Read Google Engineers Conclude that Renewable Energy Will Not Result in Significant Emissions Reductions. They didn't conclude that we're doomed. They concluded that we need better weapons ..or we are doomed.

A study commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund titled Low-Carbon Re-Industrialization concluded that unless humanity immediately ramped up to its historically demonstrated maximum world war level of industrial output to replace fossil fuels, we will never get there. That study was done over five years ago. See chart below from that study:

From the Energy Information Administration's Annual Energy Outlook 2015: "The total renewable share of all electricity generation increases from 13% in 2013 to 18% in 2040 in the Reference case."

It's only a prediction but keep in mind, 70% of our renewable energy used for electricity consists of hydro and biomass and that electricity generation only accounts for about 40% of our energy, so we are talking about renewables going from about 5.2 percent of total energy to about 7.2 percent, of which only a few percent will represent wind and solar.

If climate change unfolds as predicted by climate researchers over. However, as my version of Romm's bar chart demonstrates, by picking the wrong energy sources it is entirely possible to accelerate ecosystem degradation above and beyond what we might expect from climate change, or more likely simply fall far short of slowing climate change while destroying more of nature trying. We could very well make things worse through the accelerated degradation of local ecosystems. Climate hawks are obsessed with wind and solar. They rarely mention the other half of the climate change problem, which is the need to extract and store CO2 in carbon sinks other than the ocean.

Footnote 1)
Footnote 2) Intervenor Center for Biological Diversity Exhibit 3128

Footnote 3) Estimates of bird collision mortality at wind facilities in the contiguous United States

Footnote 4) BrightSource solar plant sets birds on fire as they fly overhead

Footnote 5) Fluid Minerals Operations – Reducing Preventable Causes of Direct Wildlife Mortality

Footnote 6) Conversion factors

Footnote 7) Ivanpah Solar Plant Picking Up Steam

Energy Flows

Oil Sources

Footnote 10) Nuclear Kills More Birds than Wind?

Footnote 11):
I've seen the study for the wind estimate before and it appears pretty rigorous to me. Understand that the main concern with wind isn't just the total number of birds killed, but the kinds of birds killed. Common songbirds or introduced pests like starlings are not the problem. As I stated before, killing an eagle instead of a house wren is like killing a lion instead of a house mouse. See Footnote 8 for energy produced.
Although the chart Romm uses shows that nuclear has one of the lowest bird kill ratios, I left it off my charts because the study the ratio came from didn't pass peer review.
Oil and Gas
The source for the oil and gas bird kill estimates can be found here and estimates deaths from extraction in the field. See Footnotes 8 and 9 for sources used to calculate resulting energy services.
Coal (and gas)
The source for this came from a study that estimated birds killed by a combination of coal mining and by the coal and gas power plants themselves, which often have tall smokestacks that can be hazards at night to migrating birds etc.This is the same study dismantled by a peer review that calculated nuclear kills almost 2.5 times more birds per unit energy than wind.

The updated 2012 version of the 2009 source U.S. News linked to (found at NUKEFREE.ORG) estimated that coal and gas together, used for electricity production killed about 512,000 birds annually. That number leaps 50 times to 24 million birds annually if you accept the author's assumption that the portion of global warming caused by U.S. coal and gas for electricity is killing 24 million birds annually. How did he come up with that number? He found a study that estimated total avian deaths over the next 38 or so years as a result of climate change, adjusted it for the U.S. contribution of emissions, and then divided by 38 years, as if bird deaths would be a linear function rather than exponential (page 275). There isn't the slightest evidence that 24 million birds are being killed from the U.S. contribution to climate change annually. The author described this estimate as a "very crude approximation." In any case, I left his calculation in the bar chart to show how it compares to an Ivanpah powered country.

Photo at top of article adapted from a Raymond Shobe photo via Flickr Creative Commons

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Did Tesla Just Kill Hydro Electric Power?

 Cross-posted from Energy Trends Insider

Thanks to Tesla's new battery packs, can we not only stop building more hydro electric dams, but remove the existing ones to save what remains of the last river ecosystems, restore the world's salmon runs? Unfortunately, the answer is no. My sarcastic title was inspired by an article written by Jeff McMahon for Forbes titled: Did Tesla Just Kill Nuclear Power?


The inanity of debating the displacement of nuclear energy (which provided 63% of our low carbon electrical energy last year) instead of coal with wind and solar ...boggles the mind.

Tesla's new packs come in three flavors ...and many attractive colors. The 7kWh pack for solar panel storage can purportedly be charged 5000 times. The 10kWh pack meant for emergency use can be charged 1000-1500 times. These are both called PowerWalls. There is also a 100kWh, $250/kWh, industrial version called the PowerPack.

Being able to buy retail, what is essentially a giant power tool battery pack, is a first. What use they will be put to, only the market can tell. Whether or not Musk can create a market for them, only time will tell.

An acquaintance of mine asked what makes Tesla's new batteries so great and was surprised to learn that Tesla does not make batteries. They assemble Panasonic (or batteries from one of the other battery manufacturers in Japan, Korea, or China) into packs with battery management circuitry to control charging and discharging, very much like the power tool battery packs found at Home Depot ...writ large.

He then asked why they are so much cheaper than any other battery pack and was surprised to hear that they aren't. The battery pack in the Nissan Leaf sells for about 34 and 64 percent less4) per kWh than the 7 kWh and 10 kWh PowerWalls respectively.

When I told my neighbor that it would cost me well over a million dollars to use Tesla's packs to go off grid he didn't know what to believe, and I don't blame him. You'll see why later.

Below I parse transcripts of Elon Musk's PowerWall presentation. Like most things in this world, reality is a matter of degree. Rather than rate Musk's comments as true or false (a step function), I will give each one a veracity (conformity with truth or fact, accuracy) score. I'll calculate the average score at the end of the post. For example, a typical politician may average a veracity score of about 3 out of 10 any time his or her lips move, a televangelist, maybe a 2 out of 10. A score of zero indicates not a grain of truth to be had. A score of 10 would indicate a cold, hard, fact. They are of course, arbitrary, so feel free to make up your own.

"And if you look back against that wall you'll see a whole bunch of them as well in different colors so you can pick your favorite color, and it looks like a beautiful sculpture on the wall."
Veracity score = 8 out of 10.

The $71,000 Tesla Mosel S sedan is, by dint of its price, a coveted status symbol. Few, if any, of the individuals who signed up for a Tesla PowerWall to hang on their wall, have a need or use for it, other than as a status symbol by proxy. I gave this remark an eight because beauty (as well as its close cousin, status) is in the eye of the beholder. To me, the PowerWall looks like what it is; a shiny plastic cover over a pack of Panasonic batteries that are about as practical in an American home as a bowling trophy. I'll explain why, later.
"You can actually go, if you want, completely off grid. You can take your solar panels, charge the battery packs and that's all you use. So it gives you safety, security, and it gives you a complete and affordable solution. And the cost of this is $3,500 (wild applause) ... So, this is a good solution for homes and perhaps for some small commercial applications."
Veracity score = 1 out of 10.

This is where Tesla devotees will begin twisting the definition of "completely off grid" and possibly "affordable." But, assuming we mean "disconnect the two wires coming to your house" consider that it would take about twelve of these packs, worth about 12 x $3,000 = $36,000 (sans loan interest, cost of solar system, and subsidy) just to back up a solar powered average American home for three consecutive rainy days. And because all of your neighbors are also being rained on, the grid and all of its power plants have to be there ready to supply everyone if there are four consecutive rainy days.

 You can't disconnect from the grid without risking running out of power and somebody has to pay to maintain that grid. It would take well over a million dollars worth of Tesla's battery packs (in addition to tens of thousands of dollars worth of solar panels) for me to replace the power flows that I currently receive from those two wires attached to my house. That's because solar panels on my roof can't generate enough power for my house for half of the year and I would need enough batteries to store six months worth of short fall. See the spreadsheet below.


After seeing the results of my above spreadsheet, I went looking on the internet for corroboration and found it here. His calculations showed a $780,000 cost at my latitude for a roof with optimal inclination big enough to hold the necessary solar panels. See also Footnote 6.

One problem with solar is that there is no "one size fits all" solution. Location, total electricity consumption, how much is used at what times of day (home load profile), the orientation, size, and shape of roof, are different for just about every house.

I live in a modest sized home by American standards, at approximately 50 degrees latitude and consume roughly the American average amount of electricity annually. Even though I own an electric car, our electric bill is slightly lower than the American average.


There already is a system that uses the battery pack in the Leaf for the same purposes as the PowerWall. I wrote about it three years ago. Read: First Vehicle to Home Power System in North America.

The Leaf system provides a large DC to AC  inverter needed to use the batteries to power your home, as well as the ability to charge the car from either solar panels or the grid, and of course, instead of buying extra batteries, you use the ones you already have in your Leaf.
"So, with 160 million PowerPacks you can transition the United States [to use solar with Tesla battery packs for all electricity generation]."
Veracity score = 1 out of 10.

Holy cow. 160 million PowerPacks is one for every other American. At $25,000 per pack1), these batteries alone would increase the average annual residential electric bill from about $1,322 to $2,9272), and that's without taxes or installation costs. And because "...most of that area is gonna be on rooftops" I would need to add the $73,0003)/25 = $2,934 per year annual cost of having solar installed on my roof to charge those battery packs. I would be paying annually $5,861 per year, which is quadruple the average American electricity bill.

And all of those calculations are assuming that the 160 million PowerPack number has any bearing in reality, which it doesn't. As I showed earlier, it could actually cost hundreds of thousands per household (depending on latitude) to go off grid using these batteries.
"You can basically make all electricity generation in the world renewable and primarily solar ...And then, going a little further, if you wanted to transition all transport and all electricity generation and all heating to renewable you need approximately 2 billion PowerPacks."
Veracity score = 1 out of 10.

OK, that's one $25,000 PowerPack for every 3.5 people and never mind what it will cost them to purchase the solar panels, inverters and on and on as well. According to the World Bank, "Almost half the world — over three billion people — live on less than $2.50 a day." Who is going to pay for all of these batteries, assuming Tesla's estimate has any bearing in reality, which, as I said earlier, it doesn't.
"Now that may seem like an insane number"
Veracity score = 10 out of 10.

 "The number of cars and trucks that we have on the road is approximately 2 billion and every 20 years approximately that gets refreshed because of a hundred million new cars and trucks made every year.  So the point I wanna make is that this is actually within the power of humanity to do. We have done things like this before. And so, it's not impossible, it is really something that we can do."

Veracity score = 2 out of 10.

He's asking everyone on the planet who can afford a car, to come up with enough money to buy the equivalent of several more cars in addition to the one they can afford, and again, this is assuming Tesla's estimate has any bearing in reality, which, it doesn't.
"The fact that it's wall mounted is vital. Because it means you don't have to have a battery room."
Veracity score = 2 out of 10.

 Being wall mounted may be vital to displaying a trophy, but certainly, it could also sit on the floor in a closet somewhere, or in the case of the Leaf home power system mentioned earlier, in your car.
" panels and batteries, it's the only path that I know that can do this and I think it is something that we must do and that we can do and will do."
Veracity score = 1 out of 10.

Considering that virtually all grid storage today comes from  pumped hydro, obviously, selling billions of his batteries isn't the only path (assuming that it even is a path). It all comes down to cost.
"Now the issue with existing batteries is that they suck. They're really horrible. They're expensive. They're unreliable. They're sort of stinky, ugly, bad in every way, very expensive."
Looking around my shop, I found ten power tool batteries (six of which power my electric bicycle) and a dozen or so batteries in the rest of my home for cell phones, cameras, laptops, etc, etc. Not a one of them fit his above description. They are mostly lithium chemistry. He is referring to lead acid batteries, which, other than for starting cars, have already been replaced for pretty much every other application. They are still used in cars because they are still the cheapest for that use (intermittent bursts of high current with no deep discharge).
"So we have to come up with a solution. That's the missing piece, that's the thing that's needed to have a proper transition to a sustainable energy world."
Veracity score = 5 out of 10.

We don't yet have an affordable non-fossil fueled power source that can fill in the gaps for wind and solar. We do have a non-fossil fueled power source that could do that if it were cheaper than using fossil fuels--nuclear with hydro storage. The whole key here is the word affordable, of which, his batteries are not.
"If you're thinking about buying a battery, what does this provide you? Well, it gives you peace of mind so if there's a cut in the utilities, you're always gonna have power. Now you don't have to worry about being out of power if there's an ice storm."
Veracity score = 5 out of 10.

One of these $3,500 battery packs (+ installation and inverter) = $6,000 can keep your lights on for part of a day in the event of a power outage. But then, there are dozens of much less expensive ways to deal with temporary occasional power outages.
"And very importantly, this is gonna be a great solution for people in remote parts of the world where there's no electricity wires. Or where the electricity is extremely intermittent, or extremely expensive. So people in a remote village or an island somewhere can take solar panels, combine it with the Tesla PowerWall and never have to worry about electricity lines."
Veracity score = 3 out of 10.

Solar with batteries is already a solution of sorts for some of those people, who live in sunny enough places. Will a modestly lower battery cost than the lead acids they now use make much difference? Those impoverished communities might be able to afford to keep the lights on later at night, or watch television longer, but because this is such an expensive means of producing energy compared to what we pay for energy today (as demonstrated earlier in my post), it can't scale to create economy-growing, industrial levels of energy.
"And in fact I think what we'll see is something similar to what happened with the cellphones verses landlines where the cellphones actually leapfrogged landlines."
Veracity score = 5 out of 10.

There is nothing new here. Solar with batteries are already being used in these places. Replacing $150 worth of lead acids in a village with say, ($428/$600) x $150 = $107 worth of lithium will not make much difference in their lives.
  Average veracity score = 3.9.
Hotel Greenwashed laundry card
Tesla is trying to create a market for its battery packs under the auspice of saving the environment. It's a tried and true technique called greenwashing.


The $100,000 Roadster and the $70,000 Model S were not conceived as a means of saving the environment. The big battery makers will sell to anyone they want, not just Tesla.


The tens of thousands of orders for these packs are actually tens of thousands of people curious about what happens when they click the "order" button on the Tesla website. You are then asked to leave your contact information (as I did) so they can get back to you in a year or so to see if you really want to buy a pack when they have one to sell (which I don't).

This "click a button to order" idea was used by Nissan for the Leaf but you had to put a $90 deposit down to show that you were serious.

Lithium batteries have already become ubiquitous. Tesla has had nothing to do with that fact. As my spreadsheets show, the PowerWalls have little practical use in a typical American home, with or without solar, but, like the Hummer, or any big, shiny, red truck that never hauls anything, this won't stop some people from buying them. Tesla's current business model can be summed up as selling expensive electric sports sedans to the wealthy. It's a niche market that no big automaker has bothered to enter. Without a competitor for market share, Tesla has been able to charge whatever it costs to produce the car. The fact that I can purchase a Nissan battery pack for a third to tw0-thirds less per unit energy than the PowerWalls suggests that if a market for large battery packs emerges, Tesla will face real competition for the first time.

Footnote 1): $250/kWh x 100 kWh = $25,000.

Footnote 2):

Interest on $25,000 loan for 14 years at 4% = $7,263
  • 5000 cycles/365 cycles/year = 14 year battery lifespan.
  • $25,000 + $7,263 = $32,263
  • $32,263/14 year lifespan = $2,305 per year paid by every other American for those 320 million Americans/2 = 160 million batteries.
 160 million PowerPacks is one for every other American. Assuming that the cost is born not by every other American, but by all Americans, that would equate to about $2,305 /2 = $1,152 per person. Using 2.54 persons per household leads to an annual bill per household of 2.54 x $1,152 = $2,927. The average residential annual electric bill today is about $1,322.

Footnote 3):


NREL solar cost estimator

Footnote 4)

Cost of a 21 kWh Nissan Leaf battery pack = $5,500.
Cost of two 10 kWh PowerWall battery packs connected in parallel for a total capacity of 20kWh~ 2 x $3,500 = $7,000.
Cost of three 7 kWh PowerWall battery packs connected in parallel for a total capacity of 21kWh ~ 3 x $3,000 = $9,000.

This isn't an exact apples to apples comparison because the PowerWall also contains a circuit board to control DC flows into and out of the pack (just like any lithium power tool battery pack does).

Footnote 5)

Average  American home uses 10,000 kWh per year.
10,000 kWh per year / 365 days per year = 27.4 kWh per day.
27.4 kWh per day / 7 kWh per battery pack = 3.9 battery packs per day
3.9 x 3 rainy days = 12 battery packs.
12 x $3,000 = $36,000

Footnote 6)

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Nissan Leaf Drive Train is 25 Times More Reliable than Conventional Cars

Cross-posted from Energy Trends Insider

My Leaf parked in front of a seventies vintage Ford Pinto (my first car was a Pinto). Car technology has come a long way.
Nissan recently released the results of a five year study that found 99.99 percent of its battery packs are still operating as warrantied (battery not having less than 80 percent capacity after five years). Using that information, a study conducted by Warranty Direct (an independent British insurance specialist) found that the Leaf drive train is 0.255/0.01 =25 times more reliable than internal combustion engines. This is, however, somewhat misleading because today’s conventional cars are amazingly reliable, especially compared to a 1973 Pinto. They found that out of 50,000 conventional cars aged 3-6 years old, only a quarter of one percent “had an issue that led to an immobilization of the internal combustion engine.” This finding appears to have led Glass’s (Britain’s used car guide) to conclude:
    “They [Leafs] are good enough that, as an expert in this field, we will be looking again at our residual value forecasts for LEAF and probably revising them upwards. Long-term battery life has been a definite concern for used EV buyers but the new figures from Nissan effectively remove this worry.

    “Really, Nissan has gone through a process with the LEAF similar to Toyota with the first generation Prius several years ago, where the cars had to be proven in real life conditions before used buyers could feel confident. Now, the Prius enjoys excellent residuals and the LEAF should start to find a similar level of market acceptance.”
Coincidentally, my neighbor pulled up in front of my house the other day in a 2012 Leaf with 11,000 miles on it that she had just purchased at a Honda dealer for $13,000. As an early adopter, I  paid $35,000-$7,500 tax credit = $27.500 for my 2011, which recently crossed 30,000 miles and has performed flawlessly with the exception of a flat tire, two new sets of wiper blades, and a failed key fob.

Leaf with trailer in Home Depot parking lot
Also, just this week the battery condition indicator dropped one bar out of the 12 bars that indicate a new battery condition. My battery isn’t like new anymore but still provides more than enough range for 99 percent or so of my driving needs. I sometimes pull a four foot by eight foot trailer with it and recently took it on a long journey to do maintenance on my remote forest property, which required two hour-long ferry rides and stopping at a charge station for 1.5 hours to complete the trip. The day some entrepreneur finds a way to put a fast charger at every 7-11 is the day electric car sales will really take off.

New Leafs have a 6.6kW on board charger compared to my 3.3 kW one. They also have a heat pump instead of resistance heating elements and a more heat resistant, higher capacity battery. Four or five years from now I will have to decide to spend roughly $6,000 to replace the battery or get another car.  On the plus side,  a Leaf with a new battery would perform like a new car. I’m guessing that a Leaf with a worn out battery will have very low resale value because the new owner will have to put a new pack in it. The electric motor is likely to outlive the rest of the car. Time will tell.

Photo taken last year.

I’ve read a few times that low gas prices have been hurting EV sales while improving SUV sales, and if true, I would not be surprised. If the day ever comes that there are enough electric cars to measurably impact oil demand, there will be a tendency for lower demand to reduce oil prices, eventually stimulating more oil consumption (SUV sales), and up and down it will go. Displacing oil isn’t going to be as easy as displacing coal, which has three strong competitors in natural gas, hydro, and nuclear.