Filed under: Events
Last month China’s electricity production fell, for the first time in years. Because American and European consumers have stopped buying imported manufactures, China’s industrial production is off sharply, with shut-downs in steel plants and other metal-smelting operations. To replace the foreign orders, China will pump almost $600 billion into their domestic consumer economy. They can do this more easily than we can because they actually have the cash. When we do a big stimulus package, we have to borrow it. Most of it from China.
One bright spot in all of this is that the cost of important commodities has plunged, and is likely to drop further. Copper and aluminum for electrical wiring, steel for powerline towers, even lead and lithium for whopping big batteries, are all going to be much cheaper for a few years. Now is the time to start building out that new smart grid and ramping up electric vehicle production.
On my way to work this morning I passed a gas station selling unleaded regular for $1.74. This makes me worry that folks are going to climb back into their SUVs. The polls say otherwise: Consumers are saving money everywhere they can now. The AAA forecasts that Thanksgiving travel will be down this weekend: air travel down 7.2%, road travel down 1.4%. If Americans drive over the river and through the woods in the smaller car, maybe gasoline purchases will drop 2% or 3% relative to Thanksgiving 2007.
My advice: Stay home. Watch football. Eat more turkey, and walk it off.
Yesterday’s New York Times contained a sobering assessment by Elizabeth Rosenthal on the impact of global economic turmoil on any progress toward a low-carbon energy future.
While Western governments seem determined to adopt meaningful carbon caps, she points out, several significant renewable-energy projects have already been stalled by the recent drop in the price of oil. One example: On Nov. 12, T. Boone Pickens announced he’s putting his West Texas wind farm project on hold until energy prices rebound.
Serious recessions have usually suppressed energy use. This time around, the serious slow-down in Chinese industrial production will forestall the construction of new coal plants there, while reduced driving worldwide should cut carbon emissions temporarily.
Nonetheless, according to Dr. James Hansen and his research team, the carbon clock is at midnight.
An update from the do-it-yourself scrounger:
Electric commuting: I now have a couple of months’ experience riding the Yamavolt electric motorcycle conversion to work and around town. The bike runs very nicely, thank you.
Real-world experience suggests that, in future, recharging infrastructure is going to be critical. I have no trouble riding to work and back because, thanks to our set-up at the office, I can recharge the bike in the warehouse. But running errands downtown is a problem, because I can’t recharge while shopping. When this set of batteries poops out I’ll invest in a NiMH pack to double the range.
If I worked in an office without a recharging outlet in the parking structure, or if I lived in an apartment building, electric commuting would be sketchy. I’d have to run a very long extension cord out some window and out to the parking lot.
Even with my own parking slot with a dedicated recharging outlet, I’d want the vehicle to have at least three times the necessary range — 30 miles for a 10-mile commute — to assure being able to get home if charging weren’t available at work. In future, every parking meter and garage space ought to be a charging station. In 20 years, parking vendors should be retailing kilowatt hours instead of renting tiny patches of real estate on an hourly basis.
If I were in the inverter/transformer business, I’d be gearing up now to serve the future auto-recharging market. If I were an architect, I’d be figuring out how to wire parking garages for overhead charging circuity.
Solar water heating: I made progress on my cobbled-up solar water-heating system over the weekend. The Butler Sun Systems heat exchanger wand was a ten-minute job to install in my water heater tank. Just open the 230-volt circuit breaker, shut the cold-water feed valve, drain a few gallons out the bottom of the tank through a garden hose, and disconnect the one-inch hot-water-out line. That revealed a collar inside the tank measuring 3/4″ across, too narrow to admit the heat exchanger wand, which has an outside diameter of 7/8″. I broached the thin steel collar with a 7/8″ hole saw, in about 10 seconds flat. Used the hole saw instead of a 7/8″ bit because its smooth sides wouldn’t damage the water-out threads. The wand then slipped straight in and snugged down quickly. I had hot water again in three minutes.
The next step was to pressure-test the 30-year-old collector boxes on the roof. I bought these at salvage a couple of years ago for $30 each, and they’re a standard 4’x8′ insulated-box design with copper fin tubing inside and tempered glass outside. I have two of them canted 40 degrees from vertical facing dead south, and soldered them together last week. I rigged plastic tubing to the four outlets with a pressure gauge, a ball valve and a fitting to take the garden hose. When I turned on the water, the system filled up quickly. I closed the valve and checked the gauge: it showed 130 lb, the city water pressure.
But the water heated up quickly and at 140 lb. one of the soldered joints between the two panels began to weep. Then it bubbled. Then one of the plastic tubes blew off at the top, with a sound like a very large champagne cork headed for orbit, and a geyser of steam shot out.
You should have been there.
I drained the system into a five-gallon bucket and found I’ll need about three gallons of propylene glycol.
Next step is to separate the panels and connect them again with solder-free unions. Soldering those joints is tough for two reasons: They butt right up against the aluminum frame, so it’s hard to get at them; and the internal fin-tubing functions as a fabulous heat sink. It takes a long time and a hot flame to make the solder flow evenly. The end of the copper pipe sags and doesn’t want to stay round.
Anyway, it’s nice to know that this system will boil water even on a late-November day in Colorado.
Filed under: Policy
The weekend saw plenty of frightening economic news, but the president-elect dropped an early Christmas gift on renewable energy.
On Saturday, Barack Obama outlined an economic stimulus package that will invest billions to rebuild roads, bridges and schools — and to develop renewable energy. The projects are intended to save and create 2.5 million jobs over the next two years. He was expected to provide more details on Monday when he presents his team of economic officials and advisers.
What this means for renewables is that important government investments will be moved up for congressional action in January and treated as part of the administration’s first-priority efforts, rather than proposed later as a separate energy-policy package.
See part of the press conference here.
Press release, 11/20/08: Today, Mayor Gavin Newsom, San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed and Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums announced a nine-step policy plan for transforming the Bay Area into the “Electric Vehicle (EV) Capital of the U.S.” In conjunction with the news, Better Place, a global electric transportation company, announced that it would enter the U.S. market with California as its first state, beginning in the Bay Area.
“Our aim is to make the Bay Area — and eventually California — the electric vehicle capital of the U.S.,” said
San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom.
Commercial availability of electric cars is targeted to begin in 2012, and Better Place estimates its network investment in the Bay Area will total $1 billion when the system is fully deployed. The three Mayors said they welcomed Better Place’s announcement and anticipate many other EV companies will focus on the Bay Area as a top-priority market.
“In these times, it is critical that we identify solutions to address both our economic and environmental challenges,” said Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. “Promoting the use of electric vehicles will help forward our nation’s goals to achieve energy independence, to protect the environment by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and to boost the economy by providing jobs in an emerging manufacturing sector.”
Joined by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s special advisor David Crane, the Mayors announced that they would take unprecedented action beginning in December to work with the region’s cities, counties, regional governmental organizations and private sector partners to position the region’s economic and environmental future around electric transportation.
“California is already a world leader in fighting global warming and promoting renewable energy,” said Governor Schwarzenegger. “This type of public-private partnership is exactly what I envisioned when we created the first ever low carbon fuel standard and when the state enacted the zero emissions vehicle program.This partnership is proof that by working together, we can achieve our goals of creating a healthier planet while boosting our economy at the same time.”
The Mayors announced policies that they will advance, beginning in December:
- Expedited permitting and installation of electric vehicle charging outlets at homes, business, parking lots, and other buildings throughout the Bay Area;
- Incentives for employers to install EV charging systems in their workplace and provide similar incentives to parking facilities and other locations where EV charging stations can be installed;
- Harmonize local regulations and standards across the region that govern EV infrastructure to achieve regulatory consistency for EV companies as well as expanded range for EV consumers;
- Establish common government programs that promote the purchase of EVs;
- Link EV programs and infrastructure to regional transit and air quality programs;
- Establish programs for aggressive pooled-purchase orders for EVs in municipal, state government and private sector fleets and future commitment of purchasing preference for EV vehicles;
- Expedited permitting and approval for facilities that provide extended-range driving capability for EVs in the region through battery exchange locations or fast-charging;
- Identify and secure suitable standard (110V) electric outlets for charging low voltage EVs in every government building in 2009; and
- Identify roll-out plan for placement of 220V EV charging equipment throughout each city including city
parking lots and curbside parking.
The Mayors said they will work with other cities throughout the region, regional government organizations such as the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and Association of Bay Area Governments, as well as many private sector partners, including the members of the Bay Area Council and Silicon Valley Leadership Group.
Also see this AP story.
In a press release on Wednesday, the German photovoltaic manufacturer SolarWorld offered to buy the Opel division from General Motors for $1.25 billion. GM promptly scorned the offer.
Opel makes very efficient cars and trucks. The very existence of Opel technology legitimizes GM’s request for a share of the auto industry’s $25 billion federal loan to cover retooling costs to build smaller, fuel-sipping cars. GM wouldn’t be near bankruptcy today if it had begun two years ago to replicate the Opel tooling in Detroit. Opel is in fact the future of the company, so I can understand why they’d think $1.25 billion is too little.
On the other hand, GM’s stock sold for under $2.80 on Thursday. That’s a market cap of $1.9 billion. If SolarWorld is serious about the automobile business, it could buy a controlling share of GM stock for under $1 billion, put the American divisions into bankruptcy, liquidate most of it but keep enough of the infrastructure to make and sell Opels rebranded as Chevrolets.
With its request for another $25 billion bail-out, on top of the $25 billion they’ve already been promised to help with small-engine retooling, Detroit’s travails have turned into a black comedy. We’re asking the big car companies to improve CAFE standards and make plug-in hybrid vehicles. The infuriating thing is that they already build efficient small cars for sale in Europe, Brazil, Korea and China. Why not build those cars here? They want us to pay the costs of conversion, up front, because they don’t believe people will buy small cars. Right now they’re justified in believing that we won’t buy cars at all, at least not from Detroit.
In December, 1941, Detroit had just introduced the 1942 model cars. After Pearl Harbor the government asked them to build tanks, and then airplanes. They did it with enthusiasm and efficiency. The difference is that they had a qualified buyer: the government.
So here’s an idea. Let’s offer Detroit the $25 billion. For that price tag, we’ll expect the factories to replace the entire federal fleet — tanks, trucks, postal vans, limousines, Forest Service jeeps — with flex-fuel plug-in hybrid electric vehicles. Last year, the feds operated some 642,000 vehicles. Subtract the 8,800 Abrams battle tanks, which would soak up the whole budget by themselves, and add a few hundred thousand vehicles for state and municipal fleets to round the production up to 1 million vehicles. So $25 billion would replace the whole fleet for an average of $25,000 per. Not a bad wholesale price, especially when you figure in the fuel savings and then balance the cost of a Forest Service fire truck against a cheap sedan. A big chunk of the cost could be covered by selling off the old fleet to equatorial countries where palm-tree mechanics will happily convert them all to run on sugar ethanol.
The flex-fuel requirement is important. It means that a gasoline engine would also accept ethanol or methanol, a diesel would also accept jet fuel or vegetable oil, and a natural gas engine would also run on propane or methane. It means that every fuel source has market competition, and a fleet operator can look further afield for low bids.
A federal flex-fuel plug-in hybrid-electric vehicle is a FFFPHEV. I can’t wait to hear a senator pronounce that. And a five-year replacement plan for flex-fuel plug-in hybrid-electric vehicle replacement plan is a FYRPFFFPHEV.
Below, an electric postal van from Baker Electromotive of Rome, N.Y.