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.

Infographic: US renewable energy consumption on the rise

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

Can Google save the planet?

Yes, yes it can, if it can do for a malfunctioning ecosystem a fraction of what it’s done for information.
The search giant just invested in an ambitious wind energy backbone for the eastern seaboard. Atlantic Wind Connection aims to collect 6,000 megawatts of offshore wind – enough to serve nearly 2 million households –and deliver it to transmission nodes from New Jersey to Virginia. This project would act as a “superhighway for clean energy,” eliminating the need for every wind farm to string its own lines to shore. This is Google’s second major investment in wind, following investments in solar and geothermal.
Keeping its own house in order, Google has pledged to become carbon neutral. As part of that initiative, it has built energy-efficient data centers, installed solar installations at its offices, and purchased carbon offsets for emissions it can’t prevent. On the demand side, the company has created the Google PowerMeter to help consumers reduce their energy use. Oh, and for what it’s worth, the company uses 200 goats to mow an overgrown field at its Mountain View, Calif., headquarters.

The goats are clever, but what’s really important about Google is its uncanny ability to execute. Google wasn’t the first search engine, but it was the first to actually find what you were looking for. That prompted the world to rebrand the generic verb search (look it up).

Google is the company that put a chink in the armor of the Microsoft Office juggernaut with Google Docs. This is the company that lets you fly to anyplace on their planet (Google Earth) without a plane ticket (you might want to lower your window shades). Then there’s that kooky little site that plays videos.

What’s next? Google Earth Engine will analyze satellite imagery to monitor changes in forest coverage and other environmental bellwethers. Then there are the cars that drive themselves, and the TV that’s also the Internet.
Can Google save the planet? CleanSpeak Google is good. (Google is maybe too good sometimes, at things like managing personal data their servers pick up along the way.) Given Google’s feats, it was heartening to see Google’s wind investment news last week, especially after a withering review in the Boston Globe of the nation’s first offshore wind farm, Cape Wind, which is threatening to come in at $2.5 billion, or 2.5 times the original price estimate. Plenty of other wind projects are also facing strong opposition over cost, use of open land, wildlife impacts, noise and esthetics.
Google is not perfect. Other companies rank higher on greenest company lists, but do you see Dell saving the world? Is HP putting the Dead Sea Scrolls online?

I don’t really know if Google can save the world. I do know the planet isn’t out of the woods yet, and harvesting wind energy on a continental scale would sure be a nice start.


Toyota + Tesla = hope for the electric car

Bedfellows don’t get much stranger than Toyota and Tesla, who’ve just partnered to create an all-electric RAV4.

If viable, the machine would help Toyota get over the hump of its gasoline dependence while putting a Tesla power train into vehicles that regular people can own. Tesla is the only automaker in the U.S. that builds and sells highway-capable EVs in meaningful volume, claiming over 1,000 Roadsters driving emissions-free in more than 25 countries.
You already know about Toyota’s prim gas/electric hybrid.
Tesla’s racy Roadster, with an MSRP of $109,000, is an all-electric sports car that can go 0 to 60 mph in 3.7 seconds and travel 244 miles on a single charge of its lithium-ion battery pack.
Tesla plans to produce and deliver a fleet of all-electric RAV4 prototypes to Toyota for evaluation within the year.

Can the new RAV4 make people forget the runaway death Prius? Can it teach Toyota about harnessing reliable power from laptop batteries? Can  it bring the electric car concept (and price) down to earth? 

Let’s hope.

This has been done before, sort of. Toyota made 1,500 electric RAV4s between 1997 and 2003. Actor Ed Begley Jr. still has one:

SAGE's re-imagining of windows will help save $300 billion in energy

This morning Department of Energy (DOE) Secretary Steven Chu – joined by Senators Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar – announced $100+ million in DOE funding and IRS green manufacturing tax credits for our client SAGE Electrochromics.
These funds will help SAGE establish a new 250,000 sq. ft. facility in Faribault, Minnesota used to manufacture energy-saving, electronically tintable dynamic glass that  makes buildings more energy efficient and creates hundreds of new, skilled, green manufacturing jobs.
While hundreds of buildings have already installed SageGlass windows, this new government funding will enable the company to mass produce its glass and bring this energy saving technology to the world.
Secretary Chu has repeatedly said the biggest gains in decreasing this country’s energy bill, the amount of carbon dioxide and our dependency on foreign oil will come from energy efficiency and conservation in
SAGE Electrochromics' SageGlass

SAGE Electrochromics' SageGlass
Courtesy photo

the next 20 years. SageGlass is a leading example of an energy efficiency technology.
SageGlass products transform windows from an energy liability to an energy source. The potential for energy savings is significant because energy loss through windows accounts for about 30% of heating and cooling energy. According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), electrochromic windows like those produced by SAGE can save one-eighth of all the energy used by U.S. buildings each year. This is equivalent to about 5% of the nation’s energy budget. This translates into savings of approximately $300 billion over the next 20 years.
That’s not chump change.
SAGE focused on something each of us experiences every day – glass – and re-imagined it, transforming glass into something innovative that helps make the world a better place and America more competitive.
This is a great example of how something seemingly mundane like a window can become highly transformational.

Getting off the grid and into green biz: one man's story

Dave BontaDave Bonta hasn’t paid an electric bill in 12 years. He has no heating bill, either.
That’s because he kicked his 40 kilowatt/hr electricity habit in the 1990s and used solar electricity to fill the gap. “I learned to live on less,” he told an audience at RiverRun bookstore the other night. “Surprise, I made it to one kilowatt. It wasn’t hard.... It’s kind of nice to think we can throw our electric bills away. It’s kind of empowering.”
To reduce his power usage, Bonta – who has since co-authored the “The New Solar Home” and created the USA Solar Store chain – replaced light bulbs, got an energy-efficient washing machine, switched from a vacuum cleaner to a broom, and tossed the electric toothbrushes. USA Solar Store - - Dave Bonta“Anything that could be done with human power we did.” Even the press he used in his printing business was human-powered. He pedaled it.
Once he’d shrunk his energy footprint, he installed a small-scale solar electricity system in his rustic Vermont home. Printing customers immediately peppered him with questions about his set-up. That’s when the light bulb went off. He could sell this stuff, along with the know-how. Which is exactly what USA Solar Stores do, and the chain now has 27 stores in 11 states. It’s “about to grow like wildfire,” he says earnestly.
Bonta models his stores after the crunchy old Gateway stores, where the PCs were displayed on barnboard tables and salespeople didn’t bug you till you had a question. At USA Solar Stores, you can get anything from a conversation to a compact fluorescent light bulb to a full-fledged solar electricity setup. Or you can come in, look and leave. No worries. In any case, Bonta’s team is eager to address what he calls the three solar bogey men: expense, viability, aesthetics.
Bogey Man #1: Solar electricity is too expensive. Bonta will look at your current electric bill, figure in current incentives, find ways to reduce your demand, and show you how long it will take to pay off your gear. Even if the incentives disappear, he says, it’s still a good deal. The joy of sticking it to the man? Priceless.
Bogey Man #2: It doesn’t work too well. Wrong, he says.There’s a myth that if you wait, solar technology will get less expensive and super technology will come along. “The way it is now is pretty good. The technology is there, and the only thing missing is people who will try it.”
Bogey Man #3: It’s ugly. No, Bonta says, solar is becoming increasingly “building integrated” – where it’s embedded in your roof, not tacked on like an afterthought. And you don’t need it on your house at all. Bonta’s panels are on his shed, which gets better light anyway. The homes in his book are of jaw-dropping beauty.

Bonta is a softspoken guy. Although he has the conviction of a preacher, he has the slickness of, well, the guy who melted down in his first speech to the Rotary. But in the bookstore, once he warmed up you could tell he will not be denied: “Everything we can do to get our country on a sustainable path, we’re going to do.” If not, he says, generations will hold us accountable for the demise of the world’s ecology. “We can either explain it to them from a wheelchair, or fix it now.”


How GM can get its groove back

In an interview this week with NPR at the 2010 Detroit Auto Show, GM Vice-Chairman Bob Lutz was bemoaning how the company lost its way from the days when GM made its greatest cars in 50s and 60s.

Later that day, my iPod Shuffle dished up Neil Young's "Johnny Magic," whose video takes place inside Young's electrified '59 Lincoln, the LincVolt. And that's when it struck me ... with so much of GM's future riding on plug-in hybrids, why not be like Neil?

UPDATE: Yes, I realize that Ford built the Lincoln, not GM. I'm just saying...

Cuttyhunk says 'YIMBY' to wind power

Unlike the new NIMBYs, selectmen in the town encompassing Massachusetts’ Cuttyhunk Island say they will support a wind farm off their shores, a position directly at odds with many of their neighbors to the immediate east on Martha’s Vineyard.
Residents seem to back the decision:
“I don’t think you can just say, ‘Not in my backyard,’ and expect that will be OK,’’ said resident Nina Brodeur. “If I had my preference, I’d choose not to see them. But I understand the needs of the state, and if it’s not in my backyard, it would have to be in somebody else’s. We can’t close our eyes and think we’re more special than anyone else.’’
At issue is Cape Wind, the embattled wind farm proposed for Nantucket Sound. Opponents say the landmark project will be a blight on the horizon and ruin a historic Native American site. The project also help Cuttyhunk residents, as part of Massachusetts’ poorest community, pay their utilities:
“I think the wind farm is a great idea,’’ said George Isabel, 59, who has lived on Cuttyhunk since 1968 and serves as police chief and harbor master. “People here can’t afford to turn on their air conditioners or electric heat. Something has to give, because it’s hard to survive. There could be big benefits for us.’’ (Source: Boston Globe) 

Maine may be next for offshore wind. The state just announced three offshore wind test sites.

A couple other developments in the wind arena:

Endangered bat concerns stall another wind farm

A West Virginia judge just halted progress of an Appalachian ridgeline wind farm because the developer failed to account for endangered Indiana bats on the property. Developers don’t have to prove that nobats will die in the project, just that the damage – presumably from construction, displacement and/or turbine blades – is minimized. That means potentially years of surveying, planning and permits. Plaintiffs in the case said the project would kill 6,746 bats of all kinds annually. Source: New York Times.
Report: Turbines are annoying, perhaps, but not sickening
An expert panel issued a report this month questioning the validity of wind-turbine syndrome, the constellation of symptoms – including sleep problems, headaches, dizziness, anxiety, ringing in the ears – sometimes associated with turbine noise.
“There is no evidence that the audible or sub-audible sounds emitted by wind turbines
have any direct adverse physiological effects,” says the report, prepared by a multidisciplinary panel of medical doctors, audiologists, and acoustical professionals for the American and Canadian wind energy industry associations. The 85-page document does admit that turbine noise can be annoying.
“An annoyance factor to wind turbine sounds undoubtedly exists, to which there is a great deal of individual variability. Stress has multiple causes and is additive. Associated stress from annoyance, exacerbated by the rhetoric, fears, and negative publicity generated by the wind turbine controversy, may contribute to the reported symptoms described by some people living near rural wind turbines.”

Source: Wind Energy


Meet the new NIMBYs

All good people support renewable energy, right?
It depends.
As the country gets serious about solar, wind and other renewables, and the government steps in with subsidies, parties that traditionally fell in line on eco issues are increasingly squaring off.

Cape Cod's oldest windmill dates from the 1600s and is located in West Yarmouth

The Nature Conservancy, for example, describes how a 7,900-acre wind farm in Kansas brought in 20 miles of roads, 100 towers, transmission lines and a substation, threatening habitats for endangered birds and devouring a big chunk of the country’s disappearing prairie. The organization warns that new energy development will occupy nearly 80,000 square miles of land by 2030 – larger than Minnesota. One state director’s job is seen as mostly “reforming wind power.”
Rural Nevada got a shocker when it learned that two large solar farms, in addition to creating hundreds of jobs, would need 1.3 billion gallons of water per year, or about 20 percent of the desert valley’s supply (via New York Times).
Water plays a huge, underpublicized role in solar and many other forms of energy production, prompting one analyst to introduce an ominous new eco buzzword: “water footprint.”
Water plays a different role in Cape Wind off Massachusetts, potentially the country’s first offshore wind farm, which last week was threatened by a move to place Nantucket Sound on the National Register of Historic Places. “The identity and culture of the indigenous Wampanoag (Native Americans) are inextricably linked to Nantucket Sound,” according to a Massachusetts Historical Commission opinion.

CNET sums it all up perfectly, saying, a “new breed of NIMBY (not in my backyard) is emerging: opponents of wind or solar installations who generally support renewable energy, just as long as they are built somewhere else.”


Wind power and one African boy's astonishing story

I’ll keep this wind energy post as short as my last one was long. I’m speechless and inspired by the story I just read of a self-educated African boy from Malawi who in 2002 cobbled together bike parts, gum tree wood, an old shock absorber and other junk to bring the first sparks of electric power to his village. Fourteen-year-old William Kamkwamba of Masitala had spent so much time tinkering and dump-picking in preparing his wind turbine that his neighbors thought he was smoking pot. But when he scaled the rickety 16-foot tower and sparked up a car light bulb, he became a village sensation. He has since created the village’s first water supply and irrigation system. Read the BBC article. There’s a video, too. And a book.

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