Electric Vehicles – The Promise and the Problems

Posted in Uncategorized at 8:56 pm by Administrator

Most people who think about what a sustainable energy future would look like see a big role for electrically powered vehicles; and with good reason.  The days of the internal combustion engine are numbered.

Oil is a non-renewable resource and it will inevitably run out.  Maybe not in 30 years, maybe not in 130 years, but sooner or later all of the oil that can be discovered will have been extracted and used up. It’s as simple as that.

As someone that worked in the oil industry for more than 20 years it makes me a bit sad to think of a world without oil.  It is, in a way, another example of human greed destroying something that nature created.

Over a period of tens of millions of years plants lived and died, decayed and were transformed by heat and pressure into peat moss, then coal, then oil, and finally natural gas.  It would be fair to say that the hydro-carbon resources of the earth represent a giant natural battery that has been charged by the power of the sun over the past 100 million years or so; a battery that we will have drained in a matter of less than 200 years.

Nothing epitomizes our profligate use of this precious energy resource more than the automobile.  Starting near the beginning of the 20th century the automobile completely and irrevocably changed human society.   Human settlements were rapidly reconfigured to meet the needs of these mechanical marvels.  The spaces between buildings, formerly places where people could meet and interact, became, quite literally, kill zones to be traversed by humans as quickly as possible at considerable risk to life and limb. The pollution created by tailpipe exhaust fumes eventually overwhelmed mother nature’s ability to provide clean air so that the inhabitants of cities like Los Angeles, Mexico City, and more recently Beijing have sometimes been unable to venture outdoors without risking serious health consequences.

This has led some people, such as ardent bicycle riders, to brand automobiles as unnecessary, perhaps even evil.  I do not share that opinion.

Automobiles have given us the freedom to experience the world as never before.  Where previously a person might live their entire life within a long day’s walk from where they were born, today a family can visit half a continent on a single vacation.  Automobiles allow us to live where we want to live, work where we want to work, and play where we want to play.  And who can deny the allure of a beautiful sports car or the excitement (and terror) of driving a twisting mountain road.

Automobiles truly represent the best and the worst of human innovation and technological achievement.

So the challenge is this.  How do to retain the positive aspects of owning automobiles while reducing the negative impacts on the environment?

Better public transit and much better financial and technical support for car-pooling are part of the answer and will be covered in a future blog.  But the most important change will be moving from internal combustion to electric powered vehicles.

That transformation has been edging towards a tipping point for more than a decade.  Continual improvements in battery technology have been the key.  The refinements to lithium-ion battery technology at the start of the 21st century finally allowed for the development of  a high capacity rechargeable battery with enough energy storage to make electric vehicles practical.

The Toyota Prius, a hybrid vehicle that uses both internal combustion and electric engines has sold more than 2.8 million units since its global rollout in 2000.

The Nissan Leaf has sold more than 38,000 units and the Chevrolet Volt hybrid has sold more than 30,000 units.  Both were introduced in 2010.  As battery prices continue to fall and mass production reduces manufacturing costs electric vehicles will become more and more competitive.

So one might conclude that the world is unfolding as it should and electric motors will replace the internal combustion engine just as surely as the steering wheel replaced the buggy whip.

But there is a dark cloud associated with every silver lining.  In the case of electric vehicles that dark cloud takes the form of very large lithium-ion batteries that will lose their ability to hold a full charge over time.  Anyone that has ever owned a laptop computer or a smart phone might question GM’s estimate that a Chevy Volt battery will only lose between 10-30% of its charging ability after 8 years (Toyota Prius batteries have had a remarkable track record but they are nickel metal hydride).  But if we accept GM’s longevity estimate then these batteries will be swapped out after 8 years.

In a purely electrically powered vehicle it might well turn out that advances in battery technology will entice owners to replace their batteries even more quickly.  The performance of these vehicles in terms of range would get a big boost if the trends in energy density and cost for lithium ion batteries continue as they have for the past 10 years.

And finally, every manufacturing process produces defective units that don’t meet the required specifications.

Considering all of these factors the reality is that there will soon be 10’s of thousands of used but still useful automobile batteries becoming available every year.

That reality is the focus of research being undertaken at the University of Western Michigan.  The “Green Manufacturing Initiative” has developed a detailed proposal (now defunct) which would see post-consumer and factory reject batteries being used to provide storage for excess wind generated electricity captured in off-peak demand time periods.

Visualize the “human battery” scene from “The Matrix” but substitute mattress-sized lithium ion batteries for the human “energy slaves”.  It might seem a bit weird but that is what makes this concept a “Black Swan”.   And, believe it or not, the economics of this scenario actually make sense.

Electricity generated at night very often cannot find a market and actually causes major problems for regional grid operators (I will be posting a blog on this topic in November).  As a result it is almost worthless.  If this energy was stored in the battery bank it could be sold the next day during peak demand times for a net price of $40-$50/MW-Hour or more.  That is enough revenue to cover the costs of constructing the warehouse and operating it.

This is definitely a “Black Swan” that deserves financial support.



Scary Energy Scenarios (Hallowe’en 2012)

Posted in Uncategorized at 6:15 pm by Administrator

Given that in today’s world every major and many minor disasters “go viral” in minutes rather than hours or days it is worth taking a moment to reflect on how widespread the impacts would be if any number of “scary energy scenarios” were to take place.   It should be noted that these events are themselves “Black Swans” because although they are predictable they are so unlikely that they are ignored by politicians and the general public until they occur at which time there is typically a huge, global over-reaction.

First, by way of example, let’s review the consequences of the Fukushima Nuclear plant disaster.  Twenty-five years after Chernobyl the general public had largely managed to put nuclear nightmares behind them and the development of nuclear power was continuing at a steady pace.  By 2009 there were more than 430 nuclear power plants in the world providing a truly scary amount of electrical generating capacity concentrated in a few countries; the U.S. – 19% of the country’s total electrical generation – the largest generator of nuclear power in the world; France – 80% of total electrical generation – the largest percentage of any country; Japan – 28% of total electrical generation before the Fukushima disaster, 7.5% since.

It is important to note that the tsunami did not directly impact 75% of Japan’s nuclear generating capacity – Fukushima represented only 17%.  However, the disaster eroded if not destroyed any trust the Japanese people had in the nuclear energy industry and its ability to run plants safely.  As a result only 2 of Japan’s 54 reactors have been allowed to continue to operate as of September 2012.

The short-term consequences of Fukushima have included a 17% rise in CO2 emissions putting at serious risk Japan’s ability to meet its stated objectives regarding reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.  Residential power rates are slated to increase by as much as 10% in 2013 – industrial rates have already gone up by almost double that amount.

But increasing costs and CO2 emissions are the tip of the iceberg.  The nuclear industry is a large and pervasive component of the Japanese economy.  If all of Japan’s nuclear plants are permanently shut down then the trillions of Yen tied up in those assets will become worthless.   Japan’s banking and financial sector will have a difficult time dealing with the large and potentially non-performing loans taken out to build these plants.  Thousands of skilled jobs will be lost and Japan’s balance of trade will be impacted negatively.

And the impact has not been contained to Japan.  All around the world the development of nuclear energy has essentially stopped.  Germany has made a commitment to shutter all 17 of its nuclear plants despite having no realistic plan for replacing that generating capacity and despite the fact that Germans already pay twice as much as the French for electricity.

The lesson – scary energy events can and do lead to even scarier consequences!  So, without further ado, here are some scary energy scenarios that might make you wake up in a cold sweat tonight.

1) A serious incident at the Fessenheim nuclear plant in eastern France, resulting in radioactive coolant polluting the Rhine River.  Although the region has been seismically stable for hundreds of years the plant does sit in a rift valley.  As we have seen in Indonesia and Japan the behavior of major faults is not totally understood so the possibility of a major earthquake in the area is real if very unlikely.  A failure at France’s oldest operating nuclear plant would further undermine public support for the nuclear industry in Europe and might well lead to rapid shut-down of plants throughout the continent.  The economic impact of losing such an important energy source (15% of EU electrical generating capacity in 2005) would be a nightmare scenario particularly given the financial difficulties being faced by the European community.

2) An explosion and fire at the Senboku Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) terminal in Japan.  This is one of the safest LNG terminals in the world but that does not mean it is invulnerable to accidents.  As described in the documentary film  “The Risks and Danger of LNG” a catastrophic failure at an LNG terminal could lead to a large loss of life.  In the case of Japan, which was already dependent upon LNG for more than 25% of its electrical generation the potential impact of such a disaster on an already nervous and skeptical public could lead to significant reductions in the use of LNG.  Without nuclear or LNG power sources the world’s third largest economy would take a major hit and the global economy would suffer as a result.

3) A landslide in the northeastern portion of West Virginia essentially wipes out a small town with more than a thousand killed.  The source of the slide is quickly identified to be the “fracking” operation of a company producing shale gas from the Marcellus formation.   This disaster causes the federal government to impose a moratorium on shale gas development.  The result is an immediate spike in natural gas prices resulting in significant disruptions across a number of industries. 

These are all hypothetical situations which are very unlikely to occur.  But the question that must be addressed when planning for any disaster is “are we prepared for it?”  When it comes to these “Scary Energy Scenarios” I’m not so sure that the answer is “Yes”.