Friday, August 24, 2007

From the outside in... or vice versa, I'm not sure

Another hydrogen fueling station opens next month, this time in NY, White Plains to be exact.

What do you think when you hear news like that? Does hydrogen seem too Jetsonesque sometimes? How many times have your heard people speak in multiples of a decade when talking about hydrogen's future? Do you equate this technology with flying cars?

Right now, hydrogen works well as an energy carrier (we can't call it a fuel). We can get it easily (though it takes significant energy to get it right now), the emissions are injestible by a human and the applications are countless (that's a lie, you could actually count them... figure of speech). Hydrogen is easier to store than electricity (though more dangerous in some forms) and can come from biological processes. All these facts together make it viable in a big way.

But does hydrogen work for everyone right now? Hahahaha... NO. Hydrogen works for vehicles that don't need to go more than 100-200 miles before a refill. Hydrogen does not work for applications that need a lot of torque (like, say, the trucking industry as it works right now). Hydrogen and electricity works for stopping and starting, quick trips and indoor applications (think micro-cars in Manhattan). Hydrogen does not work for long distance, energy-expensive transport (as in, this technology is not good for airplanes yet). Fuel cells and electric cars are not for everyone and everything…yet.

What we have been seeing (and, without a doubt, will continue to see) are examples of particular industries and applications coming out of the dark, so to speak, and adopting a piece of the hydrogen infrastructure. Universities and corporations and government agencies build their own filling stations, power them however they can (hopefully in sustainable ways) and use these cars as they need to use them. This is not regulation or coercion or unnecessary compromise. No, these are examples of early-adopters realizing the future on a very small scale.

Maybe a business entity decides they need 10 cars to run errands in a 15 mile range. Looking at their options, they can buy ten Kias at, say, $11K a piece, issue gas cards to the drivers and monitor gas expenditures. Or, they can accept a higher price of entry to build, say, solar collectors (on the roof?) and never pay for fuel generated. Buy 10 ZENN electric vehicles at $12.5K a piece and enjoy being free from both vacillating gas prices and heavy air quality impact from traffic driving. The freedom of transportation choice is finally reality and the barriers to entry are getting smaller; in some cases, it is more cost effective to go green.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Last ditch effort?

With panache and gusto, GM has tripped and fallen themselves into the worst title possible for a financial situation: death spiral. I am not typically one to mourn over the loss of any big corporation (particularly one that that has been implicated in the death of a very important little vehicle) but you may see my :( face if GM kicks the bucket too soon.

GM May Make 60,000 `Volt' Electric Cars in First Year

40 mile range, rechargable at home, lithium-ion batteries (more environmentally friendly, longer lasting and not "memory") and a funky design. As usual, lots of detractors and cynics, lots of supporters and customers. I'll say simply: I'd love to have one, bring it on!

More information here, straight from the source.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Rethink Saturn?

I saw a commercial for Saturn on TV last night which could be old or new, I wouldn't know. Either way, the ad asks you to "Rethink Excess. Rethink American." It immediately struck a chord with me and I found myself doing just that: rethinking American. America right now is the epitome of "biggerbetterfastermore" and, from the outside, it appears that we like it just the way it is. Bigger car, bigger house, bigger boat, bigger boobs... so many of us strive for the biggest, the best, the fastest. It's the topic of many conversations I've had, the subject of countless involuntary meditations and, arguably, the source (or at least agitator) of many of our problems.

What if you realized you didn't need or even necessarily want a 5,000 square foot house? What if you realized you could probably get away with a 4-cylinder Subaru instead of an 8-cylinder Tahoe? What if you made that choice not because you had to but because, somewhere inside, you wanted to? Could you live without statements of your financial status? Could you live with yourself if you were in the 80th percentile at the gym instead of the 90th? Would you be OK with taking the bus, with being SEEN on the bus? Could you walk even if you didn't need to? Even if it took twice as long? Three times as long?

Could you rethink your life even if you weren't being forced to?

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Old News Part 2

A year ago, Click & Clack (a syndicated automotive radio show) took on ethanol from a somewhat uninformed (their words) and objective (mine) view point. What they say is very important to consider when you are comparing, well, anything. LOOK AT THE BIG PICTURE.

Q: ...The report on this site says that 131,000 BTUs are needed to make one gallon of ethanol, but each gallon of ethanol produces only 77,000 BTUs. That means we're losing 54,000 BTUs for every gallon we produce...

RAY: From what we can tell, the basic issue is this: When you calculate how much energy it takes to produce a gallon of ethanol, you have to make certain decisions. Everybody agrees that you need to include the energy needed to plant the corn, water it, harvest it and convert the starch to alcohol. But, for instance, do you include the energy needed to manufacture the tractors that plow the fields? Scientists disagree about that.

TOM: They also disagree about the other side of the equation. The guy whose study you refer to, David Pimentel of Cornell University, is well regarded and has been studying this issue for years. He adds up his calculation of the amount of energy needed to grow the corn, subtracts the amount of energy you get from a gallon of ethanol, and gets a negative number.

RAY: But there are other credible researchers, such as David Lorenz and David Morris of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, who take Pimentel's research and say yes, but , a gallon of ethanol isn't the only thing you get from that corn. You also get stuff such as corn oil and gluten feed. So some of the energy that goes into growing the corn has to be assigned to those other byproducts. When they do the numbers, the energy ratio of ethanol comes out positive.

TOM: The answer is not clear. What everybody does agree on is that ethanol made from plants with more cellulose, such as switchgrass or sugar cane, will produce more ethanol per acre than corn will. And that will improve the case for ethanol -- no matter what your starting point.

As it stands, I'm not a huge proponent of ethanol. I don't think it is going to be viable, plain and simple. The fuel you get is not all that great and the way you get it now sucks. I don't see a huge area of improvement with ethanol. I also believe we should not completely choose or completely eliminate any alternative to petroleum unless it proves to be a complete bust. Is ethanol a complete bust? Not in my opinion...

FYI, Pimentel's output to input energy ratio is calculated to be 0.78 (i.e. 78% of the energy put into ethanol production is realized during use). This sucks ("sucking" defined as "not currently preferable or sustainable"). An earlier study by Wang (1999) came up with 0.96; still crappy ("crappy" being generally synonymous with "sucking"). A more recent report (long source... Ethanol as Fuel: Energy, Carbon Dioxide Balances, and Ecological Footprint., By: Dias De Oliveira, Marcelo E., Vaughan, Burton E., Rykiel Jr., Edward J., Bioscience, 00063568, Jul2005, Vol. 55, Issue 7) gives a 1.1 ratio for corn grown in America and a 3.7 ratio for sugarcane grown in Brazil (which is why ethanol works in that country and not here). The report is technical but if you want some true information about it, search it out. It should be free for anyone (search through a university library; that's the easiest way to find it).

Austrailia rules

If you can judge an entire country on one news article that is. Actually, I'll judge it on the kind people I met while I was there over a decade ago.

This article starts off with my mantra for alternative fuel technology:

As an armada of doomsayers, zealots and those with vested interests promote blurred visions of the future of motoring, it's becoming difficult to separate genuinely viable alternatives to fossil fuels from the snake oil and dead-end technologies.

Of course, a wrangle over which fuels are better or worse, cleaner or dirtier, expensive or cheap is inevitable, and ultimately productive, because in the end the best technology will win. It usually does.

Brilliantly put... cutting through all the crap. The whole article sums up very well my thoughts on the industry as it stands.

Whatever we drive over the horizon, Lamb says the way to make a difference now is simply to use our car less. "By 2050, we need to achieve an 80 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions if we are to stop global warming becoming irreversible," he says.

"I think we can, and as a rich nation we have to show some leadership, but at present we just encourage waste. Large six-cylinder cars produced by the Australian industry are just so far away from what the rest of the world is talking about, and now we're going to get the Hummer. If that isn't an obscene way of doing business, I don't know what is."

Biggerbetterfastermore is now seeing or will soon see its twilight. Our culture goes through shifts and changes constantly. Right now, our country is very selfish, very narrow-minded. Everyone is an expert, we all want exactly what we want and have decided that it is our absolute right to get it. My country looks like a nation of 5 year olds sometimes: grabbing at everything, ignoring everyone else, delighted by shiny things and bright colors. Let's all grow up a bit, shall we? Let's act like adults instead of spoiled children.

... I think someone pissed in my rainbow lucky charms this morning...

Infinite promise

Supporting a cause, regardless of what that cause is, can be exhausting. Have you ever been convinced of something that was a little off the beaten path? Have you ever had a gut feeling that something was true? Have you ever seen a light at the end of a tunnel while others were facing the other way?

Want to sympathize? Pick something that you believe in, something you really, truly believe in, convince yourself it is utterly possible and then go out into the world and proclaim it for all to hear. Easy huh? Now, brace for the nit-pickers, the nay-sayers and the negative Nancys; watch out for the anonymous posters and the e-geniuses, the everything-readers and the blog watchers, the column writers and the editorialists; keep your guns drawn because here come the former execs, the MBAs, the at-home engineers, the politicians, the lobbyists and the team of experts.

How do you deal with this army of detractors? You have to be on point, stay informed, skim off the thick layer of bullcrap and stay flexible. Boil down the information to the bare facts, the real numbers, the straight dope. You have to read broadly about your cause but even more broadly about its obstacles. Stand firm but don't be blind; the moment you lose sight of the fact that no solution is 100% (even yours) is the moment you need to back up and reconsider everything. Don't let yourself be fooled by bad math, poor data collection or useless comparisons. Don't be dazzled by contrarians with grand metaphors, biting sarcasm and an eloquent vocabulary. Stick to what you believe in because you actually believe in it, not because you've got nothing else going in this world.

Having something to live for, having a cause to believe in, working towards a better community and environment and planet for everyone gives you a reason to live on. Your legacy might be continued by your kids but simply creating people contributes far more to the problem than the solution. Truly making your mark on the world means being just a small building block towards something better. It means educating those around you, it means teaching your kids and everyone's kids by setting an example. It means being proud of your choices not simply because you made the hard choice but you made the right one... for everyone.

This grand change starts on the inside, it starts small with changing a light bulb or taking a field trip to the dump to recycle or slowing down a bit on the freeway. It starts with reconsidering what you THINK you need and making what seemed like a comprise in the beginning feel more like a triumph. It means taking the blinders off and seeing what is possible, seeing what has already been done, seeing the depth of human ingenuity.

Close your eyes and imagine how you want the world to be. Now go live your life like that's how it is out there. Don't worry about everyone else; they'll get it eventually.

If this sounds hokey or cliche, that's fine by me. A little cheese goes a long way towards making the most sour of wines enjoyable.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Oh that's rich

I started reading this article and, after a couple paragraphs, found myself smiling. The reason why? It seemed like another hack journalist vomiting facts he/she could not back up supporting an intentionally contrarian argument. Then I scrolled down and read the author:

George Spaulding is a retired General Motors executive and distinguished executive-in-residence emeritus at the School of Business and Economics at the College of Charleston.

Pardon my strong language but George is a silly goose... there, I said it. There are no sources for his statistics, strike one. His secondary argument is the potential for loss of some choice (in some situations, sometimes), strike two. Finally, he appeals to our emotions with the sad song of automaker bankruptcy, strike three. This is the weakest argument against industry-wide MPG increases I've ever seen. No wonder GM has been tanking for years; they had idiots like this at the helm.