>>Paris wants an electric car rental fleet
July 31, 2008, 6:54 pm
Filed under: Transport

Bertrand Delanoë, mayor of Paris, wants to buy 4,000 electric cars and turn them loose for casual rental in and around the city.

According to The New York Times, the fleet could be operational within 18 months. To use a car, you’d simply scan your credit card at a charging station located on one of 700 lots around town, climb in, buckle up and drive away. When you’re done, you’d park the car at any vacant charging station. Your account would be billed for the time you had the car.

The program is based on a wildly successful rent-a-bike system operating across the city for the past year.

Because Renault-Nissan is already gearing up to produce electric cars for use under the Project Better Place program in Israel, Denmark, Portugal and California, city planners are confident they’ll be able to get a fleet in place — if not from Nissan, then from some competing car company.

Parisian environmentalists are split on the merits of the electric car fleet. On one hand, it may mean people will dump their gas-powered small cars and taxis. On the other hand, it may contribute to traffic congestion as folks who can’t now afford to own a car rush to get drivers’ licenses.

>>MIT group turns flat glass into cheap solar concentrator
July 29, 2008, 3:53 pm
Filed under: PV technology

A team from MIT has announced an inexpensive technique for concentrating sunlight on solar cells, using flat glass. Details were reported in the July 11 issue of Science, in an article titled “High-Efficiency Organic Solar Concentrators for Photovoltaics,” by Michael J. Currie, Jonathan K. Mapel, Timothy D. Heidel, Shalom Goffri and Associate Professor Marc A. Baldo.

The team adapted coating techniques developed in lasers and organic light-emitting diodes. A thin coat of organic dye is deposited the upper surface of a glass plate, using a thermal evaporation process. This creates a luminescent solar concentrator (LSC), in which the dye layer absorbs some of the energy of incident photons, allowing the glass to “capture” about 80 percent of the photons coming through. Instead of transmitting straight through the glass, these photons reflect within the glass plate. The plate functions as a wave guide, analogous to fiber-optic cable. Photons are conducted to the edge of the plate, where they meet conventional high-efficiency polysilicon photovoltaic cells bonded in place.

The lab built test units in two layers, with one dye on top to capture short wavelengths and a second plate carrying a dye for long wavelengths. The stack is termed an organic solar concentrator (OSC).

In test panels 10 centimeters square, the team reported a 10-fold increase in power produced by the narrow edge-bound cells. That’s equivalent to a 20-percent boost in power over a conventional PV panel with the same 100-square-centimeter area as the OSC. As the plate grows larger, its area and the number of conducted photos rises geometrically, while the length of the perimeter – and therefore the area of PV cells – rises arithmetically. The larger the plate, the higher the multiplication factor. If the 10-centimeter plate can be said to have a 2.5:1 aspect ratio, a 1-meter plate would have a 25:1 aspect ratio.

The technology raises some interesting possibilities. Because 20 percent of light energy continues through the glass plate, a single-layer OSC could be used to front a solar water-heating panel, or in a window or skylight application, with the PV cells and their wiring protected inside the frame.

The work was sponsored in part by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science and the National Science Foundation. It will be commercialized by Covalent Solar, launched early this year by authors Mapel, Currie and Goffri. In April, the company won $30,000 in prizes at MIT’s Entrepreneurship Competition.

>>Electric bike rally
July 28, 2008, 6:42 pm
Filed under: Electric fun, Transport

The Denver Electric Vehicle Council held a meeting in Fort Collins on Saturday. I rode over to see if I could pick up any good advice on the YamaVolt electric motorcycle project.

About 25 people milled about in John Bidwell’s driveway, with about 14 electric vehicles. Represented were bikes, trikes, scooters, motorcycles, a PHEV-modified Prius, and a couple of push trailers. I rode several machines. The class act was an expensive souped-up Optibike, capable of about 40mph. The cheapest was a push-trailer, assembled from about $400 worth of motor and batteries. You attach it to any bicycle, fasten the throttle cable to your handlebar, and off you go. The rig handles like a normal bike, goes about 20mph, and hauls your groceries, or maybe a lazy pooch.

The simplest way to get an electric vehicle is to buy a hubmotor kit and bolt it to an old clunker bike. The most practical of these vehicles, for neighborhood errands, is some form of tricycle — it’ll haul a load of groceries, is comfortable and stable on a rain- or snow-slick street.

I was most interested in the motorcycles. The trick here is balancing performance against weight. If you start with a 400 lb sport bike — a Ninja or Katana for instance — then load it up with an Etek motor and 72 volts of deep-cycle batteries, you get a sexy-looking machine that may go 60 mph for 10 miles. It weighs about 550 lb without a rider. You need to do some fancy welding to support the batteries. Put yourself aboard and you’re way over gross weight, which makes me worry about the tires and brakes.

You could start with a lightweight dirtbike chassis and several thousand dollars worth of lithium batteries. You’ll have a 250 lb machine with good performance and about 40 miles of range.

I learned that I’m on the right track with my D&D motor and Alltrax controller. I’ll spend under $200 for four lead-acid motorcycle batteries, weighing a total of 50 lb. I’ll have a 210 lb street bike — well within the stopping power of its oversize racing brakes.

Thanks to Janice Arnold of DEVC for the photos, and to DEVC president Graham Hill of 21 Wheels for the hospitality.

>>Energy stocks “the only way to make money”
July 27, 2008, 10:11 am
Filed under: Investing

For years, SOLAR TODAY has run articles about investment opportunities in renewable energy — see Rona Fried’s regular column, for instance. We’re so close to the issue that sometimes we neglect to state the obvious.

Here’s an article by investment analyst Chris Nelder that states the obvious with unusual vigor and cogency. In today’s economy, he tells stockholders, energy stocks are the only way to make money. And he’s blunt about why that is: oil production has peaked, while demand for energy has not. This creates an insatiable market for goods and services that reduce demand for energy and increase its supply.

Nelder points out that while stock prices for traditional energy companies have risen 50% to 75% over the past year (on the spike in petroleum prices), stock prices for renewable energy companies have doubled and tripled. And he notes that a few vast energy sources — geothermal and marine energy — are just now becoming investment opportunities.

Over at The New York Times, Thomas Friedman likes it that two business geniuses, T. Boone Pickens and Shai Agassi, are busy promoting vast new energy schemes. It’s not a coincidence that the Pickens scheme attacks the problem of increasing supply, while the Agassi plan attacks the problem of reducing demand.

>>T. Boone overwhelms oilers
July 24, 2008, 5:53 pm
Filed under: Fossil fuel, Policy

Tim Egan’s piece in The New York Times is a must-read.  T. Boone Pickens, he says, has been very effective in debunking the drill-offshore-now message. The stalwarts at the Grand Oil Party are hopping mad — they thought T. Boone, who backed the Swift Boat libel, was one of their own. Now Pickens looks ready to hand energy policy — and maybe the election — off to progressives.

>>Project YamaVolt: Week 1
July 24, 2008, 4:40 am
Filed under: Electric fun, Transport

After riding the Spark, I began to lust for my own electric commuter bike. I don’t want to wait two years for Boulder ElectroRide to get all their approvals from DOT, and I can’t afford to drop several thousand bucks on a newly-manufactured high-tech lithium-ion motorcycle.

The solution lurked in my own garage. Last weekend I excavated back to the 1976 level, and rolled out my old Yamaha TA125. This was, in its time, a screaming little 130mph road racing machine. It weighs 180 lb dry and with Don Vesco pipes put out 29 horsepower. To get that power you had to wind the two-stroke engine over 13,000 rpm. It was NOT a commuter bike. It wasn’t street legal.

I hosed it off and dropped the engine out. The frame and wheels weigh about 100 lb. I’m going to bolt in a golf-cart motor and four 12-volt batteries, and I’ll have a silent little shark to ride to work. I’m hoping for 45 mph and 20 miles of range.

Watch this space.

>>GM seeks alliance with utilities
July 22, 2008, 4:21 pm
Filed under: Transport, Utilities

At the Plug-In 2008 Conference in San Jose, General Motors today announced a collaboration with 34 electric utility companies around the country, along with the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). The goal is to figure out how to charge a coming generation of electric vehicles without overtaxing the grid.

This is important news. It’s one more major indicator, along with the Pickens Plan and the Gore Plan, that major alliances within the American economy are finally pulling in a productive direction.

For generations, corporate alliances have included fossil fuel interests. In the 19th century, the railroads would have gone nowhere without a coal industry. In the 20th century, Henry Ford could never have built up America’s auto industry without a close collaboration with John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil monopoly. That partnership had some pernicious outcomes, among them the destruction of America’s system of streetcars and interurban trolleys by National City Lines, a bus company owned by GM, Firestone, Standard Oil and Phillips Petroleum. The sole cultural memorial to that scandal is the film “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?”

It’s heartening to see an alliance emerging around a potentially clean energy source.

“Engine Charlie” Wilson, president of General Motors in the ’40s and secretary of defense under Eisenhower, famously said “For years I thought that what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa.” As long as he thought that what was good for oil companies was good for General Motors, he was wrong. But if what is good for America is electricity from renewable sources, then that should be good for General Motors, too.

Irony here is that General Motors, along with the entire American auto-and-truck industry, have been betrayed by the oil bidness. By betting the company on SUVs and light trucks, the auto companies in effect expressed confidence that the oil business would keep gas prices down indefinitely. It turns out that oil companies have a higher commitment than to their former co-conspirators, or to a tax-paying public that subsidizes Middle Eastern oil wars.

GM now plans to put promotional samples of its Chevy Volt PHEV on the road by next spring, with sales to begin in 2010. At about $40,000, the car will compete with PHEVs from Toyota, Honda, Nissan-Renault, and the German factories. $40,000 is a big hit for the average American family. It’s time to start advocating for a tax credit to support PHEV sales, patterned after the tax credit that supported SUV sales for so long, to such destructive effect.