Plugging in electric cars is easy, but paying for them might kill you

Charging a plug-in vehicle is a lot like a middle school science project – except most middle school science projects don’t leave you stranded in a parking lot hundreds of miles from home.

Electric_car_chargingThat's the implicit message permeating the public duel between Tesla Motors CEO and founder Elon Musk and New York Times writer John Broder. The former objects to the latter’s review of Tesla’s swanky Model S electric sedan. Broder's travelogue legitimizes a central fear about plug-in vehicles: that they’re unreliable if they stray too far from a high-speed charging station. (Which, incidentally, aren't all that speedy at 30 minutes for a 150-mile charge.)

Broder wrote that he did everything short of pumping magic beans into the Model S to keep it rolling. He drove at low speeds without the heat on for miles to get from one charging station to another. He stayed in almost constant touch with Tesla customer service. He took long breaks while the Model S slowly sipped from electric outlets.

Even with those accommodations, Broder claimed that the Model S ran out of juice and shut itself down in Milford, Conn., about two thirds of the distance from his starting point of Washington DC to his destination of Boston.

Tesla struck back – persuasively. Musk cited the car’s on-board activity log and Broder’s own communications with Tesla customer service to charge that Broder deliberately ran the Model S down for dramatic effect. Oh yeah, and he didn’t putter along at 50 miles per hour with the heat off in February, as he claimed. He drove at highway speeds with the heat on.

No matter whom you believe in this beef, the underlying issue is bogus. Electric cars are not going to fail for lack of places to plug them in any more than gasoline-powered cars failed for lack of gas stations at the end of the horse-and-buggy era.

When gasoline engines hit the scene, the technology was good enough to spur growth of an infrastructure around it. The same thing is happening with plug-ins. Nissan and Tesla Motors are rolling out coast-to-coast networks of high-speed charging stations for their electric vehicles. There are already gujillions of charging devices on the market. The Baltic nation of Estonia has made it a national priority to establish a network of charging stations and they’re off to a good start.

I know, Estonia doesn’t compare to the U.S. in size or population. Yet it has 1.25 million people and 17,000 square miles to cover, so it’s not a throwaway comparison either.

No, the issue with plug-in cars isn’t where to plug them in. The issue is also not that they plug into a grid powered largely by dirty-burning coal, which is the other popular red herring around plug-ins. The grid is getting more environmentally friendly and will grow steadily more so as more renewable energy sources come online.

The issue with plug-in cars is that they’re too expensive for large-scale consumer adoption. A Tesla Model S costs $54,000. A similarly tricked-out Mercedes Benz E-class sedan goes for $51,000. A Chevy Volt is $39,000, compared to $21,000 for a Chevy Mailbu. A basic Nissan Leaf costs $21,300 – and the Leaf is the econobox of the electric car set. A comparable conventionally powered car costs about $14,500.

These price points make plug-in vehicles irrelevant to most consumers. Even if they care for the environment, they can’t pay for a car with good intentions. So treat spitting contests like Broder versus Musk for what they are: entertainment. But when someone talks about making a plug-in that the average consumer can afford, you might want to pay attention. That’s the real obstacle for plug-ins.

Vermonters want to tame the wind power momentum

What’s not to like about wind power? It’s clean, it’s abundant, and windmills look pretty sleek - unless they’re blighting scenic mountain ridges.
 
That’s just one concern that some in Vermont, the country’s second-bluest state, are decrying in their bid for a three-year moratorium on large-scale wind development. Supporters of the measure want the state to take time to figure out how to better manage wind proposals.

“We shouldn’t permit ourselves to be pressured by corporate, mostly out-of-state entities while we take that time,” said co-sponsor Bob Hartwell, D-Bennington. “We shouldn’t be allowing our cherished mountains, our cherished history to be destroyed while we take that time. We shouldn’t involve ourselves in social upheaval while we take that time. For that reason, a bipartisan effort … is being made to make sure we back up the train, set the reset button and redefine a conversation with Vermont’s history and environmental proactivism involved in the discussion.” (Source: vtdigger.org)

Although a similar bill failed last year, Gov. Peter Shumlin has called for a commission to look at energy permitting in the state. And with every wind proposal come a new group of affected neighbors. Last fall, nearly 200 activists descended on the capitol, issuing a mock “Certificate of Public Harm” to the governor, wind developers and others.

This should get interesting. There’s enough energy in wind to power our warming planet more than 20 times over. But if resistance is coming from a state that’s so blue it has “green” in its nickname, we’re in for a long slog.

Renewable energy is showing spark for 2013 and beyond

2012 had all the ingredients for a bummer year in renewable energy, but instead it gave us a lot to be optimistic about for 2013 and beyond.
 
Sure, the renewable energy and conservation grants in the stimulus bill are going away. Consumer demand for alternative energy systems dropped. A glut of solar photovoltaic equipment on the international market helped fuel a trade dispute between the U.S. and China. That dispute raised uncertainty about solar’s long-term prospects as free trade collided with low prices.
 
Solar energy companies, some backed by government loans and grants, scaled back operations or shut down. Critics in Congress derided each failure as a waste of tax money. Some tried to prevent the military from investing in biofuels.
 
In the end, Congress restored the military’s freedom to explore alternative energy sources. That was emblematic of what happened in the U.S. and the world in renewable energy. It didn’t look good for a while, but by the end of 2012, there were a lot of positives on the scoreboard.
 
Germany again showed what a developed nation with a large, complex economy can accomplish in renewable energy. The country’s renewable energy output rose to 25 percent of its total energy production in the first half of 2012. Wind led the way at 9.2 percent, followed by solar at 5.3 percent. When the final numbers from 2012 are in, Germany expects to beat its 2011 clean energy output by 15 percent.
 
China, the world’s largest energy consumer, erected 36 wind turbines per day in 2012. One of its provinces alone generates as much electricity through wind power as the entire United Kingdom does from all fossil-fueled and renewable sources. The Chinese government quadrupled the amount of solar power it wants to generate by 2015 to 21 gigawatts.
 
In the U.S., total renewable energy output dropped slightly in 2012 because of lower water levels in the Pacific Northwest that cut hydroelectric energy production. However, renewable output is forecast to rebound to 2011 levels in 2013.
 
As of Nov. 30, 2012, new wind power installations in the U.S. outpaced natural gas and coal with 6,519 megawatts of new capacity. Natural gas was at 6,335 megawatts and coal was less than half of the wind power total. Wind power electric generation increased 15 percent in 2012.
 
As good as 2012’s lagging indicators were, the signs of what’s coming in 2013 and beyond were even more encouraging.
 
Investor Warren Buffet bought the 579-megawatt Antelope Valley Solar Project in California for somewhere between $2 and $2.5 billion. It’s the world’s largest solar photovoltaic development. When a guy like Buffet puts that much down on a venture, he’s clearly not afraid of government subsidies drying up, or market peaks and valleys.
 
On the technology front, there are encouraging signs that companies are plugging away at the limitations holding renewable energy back from mass acceptance. A U.S.-based company has applied for a patent on a wind turbine design that stores energy as heat instead of immediately converting it to electricity. The heat generates steam to drive turbines when the wind isn’t blowing, a stubborn drawback of wind power.
 
In solar photovoltaics, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and partner Solar Junction announced a solar cell that converts 44 percent of the light that hits it into energy. Efficiency has been a drag on solar photovoltaic; most panels only convert somewhere around 20-25 percent of available light into electricity. At the same time, the government research agency DARPA is experimenting with nano materials that can boost solar cell efficiency to 50 percent.
 
Politicians and economists are still guarded in their predictions about renewable energy. Even so, there’s a feeling of inevitability building around it. The feeling ebbs from time to time, but even during slack tides like 2012, the trend is for better and smarter renewable energy technology and a bigger renewable energy market.

Export Land Model watch - news from the Citi

Today's blog is posted by guest blogger, Ed Marshall, a senior account manager at Beaupre. Check out his bio in our "About Authors" section.

Once upon a time, the United States of America was the world’s largest oil exporter. We grew rich from the oil we sold and the oil we used powered new industries and ways of living that, in turn, amped up our use of oil until we had nothing to spare. Simultaneously, natural events ran their course and oil fields became less productive, causing domestic production to peak in the early 1970s.
 
That about sums up the Export Land Model, a conundrum I touched upon in a previous post. Now, it seems to be playing out, with its own localized twists in the home of the current number one oil exporter, Saudi Arabia.
 
Earlier this month, a report by analysts at Citigroup echoed that assessment, saying that the world’s biggest oil exporter may become “an importer” by 2030 due to rising domestic use – which the Citgroup analysis estimated was growing by about eight percent per year.
 
Even more recently, a Reuters story notes that Saudi Arabia burned record monthly volumes of oil in June and July. The story notes that the reason for the increase is a need to produce more electricity for air conditioning. Unlike the United States and most other Western countries, Saudi Arabia uses oil to produce a large percentage of its electricity. Switching to solar would seem to be a no-brainer – they have a surplus of sun and the rise in oil prices is keeping the cash pipeline flowing. The trick is in the transition.
 
This Wall Street Journal article has some good numbers and perspective on the challenges the Saudis (and other OPEC countries) face in trying to transition up to a third of their electricity generation to alternatives by 2032.
 
Meanwhile, a story from this week quotes the Saudis as saying that they will be turning increasingly to natural gas for electricity generation to reduce their dependence on oil.
 
Ditching one fossil fuel for another to generate electricity? That sounds really familiar – where have I heard that idea before?

Why they were wrong

Today's blog is posted by guest blogger, Ed Marshall, a senior account manager at Beaupre. Check out his bio in our "About Authors" section.

Back in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, environmentalists warned of coming disaster. The air would soon become unbreathable, clean water would be as rare as unicorn dander. Didn’t happen. That these dire warnings failed to accurately predict our present-day circumstances is often cited as evidence that any similar such claims – about, say, climate change or peak oil – should be taken with more than a pinch of salt, if not outright ignored as the usual ravings of hyperventilating Cassandras.
 
So why were those earlier prognosticators of doom wrong? Because they were right. Environmental degradation was a growing problem. Rivers actually were catching fire in these United States. Air quality in major metropolitan areas truly was bordering on the Dickensian. Acid really was falling from the skies as rain and a hole was opening in the ozone layer. By raising the issues with urgency, passion and creativity, environmentalists of the day were able to engage the larger public in these problems and build support for solutions: the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act, for instance.
 
That public engagement and support for solutions helped ensure passage of legislation at the state and federal level that would guarantee those dire warnings of environmental Armageddon would not come true.
 
So, here we are again. Credible science and analysis points to real and pressing problems with the climate and energy supply. Dire warnings are being penned by those doing and as well as those interested in the science. Will their dystopian futures also fail to materialize? That, unfortunately, is an open question.
 
Unlike the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, today’s Internet-driven communications environment makes confusion and apathy as easy to create as clarity and action. What will finally ensure that today’s doomsayers are as inaccurate as yesterday’s? Compelling stories.
 
Those seeking to compel the actions that will ultimately prove their prophecy wrong must recognize that, for humans, story trumps data. For scientists and engineers, good data tells a compelling story. But for most people, a metaphor works better.
 
With the science established and consequences beginning to play out, bridging that communication gap may well be the first and most important problem those seeking change will need to solve.

Great green fleet under fire

Today's blog is posted by guest blogger, Ed Marshall, a senior account manager at Beaupre. Check out his bio in our "About Authors" section.

Staying on the military-meets-renewable-energy theme that my colleague Mike touched on, I felt compelled to offer a quick, if rather frustrating, update on a post I did at the end of last year. That post looked at the US Navy’s plans to deploy a “green fleet” in the Pacific this summer; green in the sense that it would be powered by a 50-50 blend of fossil and biofuel.

To fuel the green fleet’s cruise, the Navy contracted with a company out of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and broke out the checkbook to pay a per-gallon biodiesel price substantially above the price for fossil-based diesel. At the time I wrote of this arrangement:

And progress often comes at a price above the going market rate. So thank goodness the Navy understands the threat that reliance on a finite vital resource represents to its way of life (and/or death) and is willing to pay those higher prices as an investment in companies that demonstrate they might have a promising solution.

So the Navy gets it. Congress? Sadly, no. According to recent reports, the House Armed Services Committee, chaired by Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-California), is leading the charge on legislation that would prohibit the Pentagon from purchasing alternative fuels or building their own facilities to create them “if the cost exceeds the cost of traditional fossil fuels used for the same purpose.” Meanwhile over in the Senate, a former Navy airman weighed in to support Buck’s stoppage:

“It’s a job for the Department of Energy, not the Department of Navy,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in an interview. “You shouldn’t be paying $244 per gallon when we are having to retire ships early.”

Of course, efforts by the DOE to push renewables and alternatives haven’t met a warm pachyderm embrace. Fossil fuel is finite. Their cost curve, barring complete global economic meltdown, only points up. Alternatives will be needed.

The US military spends a lot of time war gaming future scenarios and positioning for those most likely to develop. The investment it’s been making in efficiency and alternative energies could rightly be read as a positioning exercise. The move by green opponents in Congress could be seen as a depositioning exercise – for the country.

U.S. military goes on the renewable energy offensive

Under orders from President Harry Truman in 1948, the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines started a fundamental shift in American society by ending racial segregation well ahead of most civilian institutions.

A generation later, the military is at the forefront of another seismic social movement.

The U.S. military is one of the world’s top supporters of renewable energy. “Drill baby drill” isn’t hacking it among the military minds pondering the services’ long-term future. They see a basic weakness in relying on offshore energy resources. The military is funding some of the most basic renewable energy research going on in the world today, from solar to biofuels. The Air Force alone plans $7 billion in biofuel projects over the next decade. All branches of the military are adding solar and wind power generating capacity on their land and buildings.

In other words, they’re way ahead of the civilian world on just about every level.

There has been a fair amount written about this development, but this piece is the most cogent and succinct assessment of the military’s importance that I’ve read. It’s by Nicole Lederer, a co-founder of national environmental and economic policy organization Environmental Entrepreneurs.

In a fairly short pieces, Lederer puts the military’s efforts in a broader context and lays out the issues that cut across military and civilian boundaries. Check it out and weigh in. Do you think the military’s renewable energy programs will nudge the civilian world ahead?

Where's that confounded bridge?

Today's blog is posted by guest blogger, Ed Marshall, a senior account manager at Beaupre. Check out his bio in our "About Authors" section.

Hey, want to buy a bridge? How about a bridge fuel? It burns cleaner than coal for generating electricity, can heat homes and power a truck or a car. Best of all, we’ve got an embarrassing surplus of the stuff priced so low it’s sinful. It’s natural gas from shale, and it’s the answer to our energy problem for the next 100 years while we figure out this alternative energy stuff.

Or not.

The rosy assessments above are based on current consumption levels and an overly optimistic estimate of what we can get out of the ground at anything resembling a reasonable cost. In addition, the dollars don’t add up. The fracking that produces shale gas is expensive and when successful yields a short gusher of gas followed by a steep drop off, requiring a re-frack and repeat. It’s “an unprofitable treadmill.” The sheer number of wells drilled in the fracking frenzy has created a gas glut on the domestic market and, in turn, low prices that cannot support the expensive production model. Most companies producing shale gas are relying on steady inflows of investment cash to support their profit-challenged efforts.

Already used for cooking, heating homes and hot water as well as generate electricity and to provide feedstock for industry, expanding these uses of natural gas and creating new ones – such as in fleet trucking and even personal vehicles – is usually cited as a key way to put the shale gas glut to good use; lowering our national carbon footprint and increasing our energy independence. The big hope for producers, however, is in export. Clearing a few political and regulatory hurdles and building new facilities would allow for natural gas export in liquid form to foreign markets like Great Britain, Northern Europe and even Asia.

All of which would raise consumption levels well above current levels, reducing, in turn, the projected years of supply. Some estimates suggest shale may provide fewer than 30 years of additional natural gas supply when all is said and done. And as the glut diminishes, users will begin to be exposed to the true dollar costs of fracking extraction.

As this process plays out, a major concern is the effect on alternative energy. Another three decades of embracing the fossilized status quo aren’t going to help us achieve energy sustainability. People are fundamentally change-averse. Tales of “100 years of cheap energy under our feet” will resonate. And if the hype lures investment capital to shale companies, what does that do to the attractiveness of investment in green tech companies? Will cheaper natural-gas-fired electricity generation put further funding pressure on large-scale solar and wind projects?

If markets pick winners, then it’s hard to understand how an embrace of shale gas creates a bridge to a new energy regime, rather than to a familiar dead end. It’s time to stop digging for scraps in the past and find a new way forward.

Infographic: US renewable energy consumption on the rise

Today's GoFigure infographic looks at renewable energy consumption in the United States.
Source:LiveScience

Incisive infographic

I love this infographic on wind turbine noise (or stealthiness, depending on your perspective). It’s clear, cogent and relevant.

Click here for a larger image.

Although the infographic medium is by nature concise, this one is a paragon of efficiency, using just one picture statement to make the case. No scrolling required. (Many infographics, though well done, take a couple of minutes to digest and can really test your patience.)

This one also puts arcane statistics in a familiar context, something communications pros too often forget to do. The average person hasn’t the faintest idea how loud 40 decibels are. Oh, equivalent to refrigerator at 150 meters. I get it now.

I also like the prominence of GE’s logo. We don’t have to wonder who’s behind this because they’ve already told us. If we had to search for fine print or track back the source by the URL, we’d suspect  the author is hiding something. Does the logo make the info seem canned? Not really. Sure, we know GE has a dog in this fight.  GE knows we know. They’re entitled to the floor from time to time. It’s all good.

What important message do you need to convey that might best be articulated graphically? What stats could you put in better context?

Via Treehugger

More Entries

Powered By: BlogCFC via Ray Camden.    Design By: Harbour Light Strategic Marketing      Privacy policy    Terms and conditions