Archive for the ‘Electric Car’ Category

INSURANCE INSTITUTE ONLY TELLS HALF OF THE HEADLINE

Tuesday, April 14th, 2009

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety released a report today stating that drivers of “mini cars” face an increased risk of injury in collisions with other cars. The accompanying New York Times headline declares: Study Says Small Car Buyers Sacrifice Safety. Both of these miss an obvious and important point: Smaller cars INFLICT FAR LESS DAMAGE ON THE CARS AND PEOPLE THEY HIT. If we were all to switch to driving smaller cars, there would be an immediate and massive reduction in the overall damage and injuries resulting from collisions.  The message shouldn’t be, “Don’t buy small cars.”  It needs to be, “Stop buying big ones.”

In conducting its study, the IIHS ran head-on collisions between regular-sized cars and mini-cars (ie. the Smart Car). They concluded that the occupants of the mini-car were more likely to be injured than if they had been driving larger cars. But what is missing in the press releases is any analysis of how much less damage or injury is caused  to the vehicle being hit by the mini-car.

I have been driving a hyper-shortened electric car for 11 years now. Though “Sparky” is faster than most gas driven cars, I have learned to drive it defensively (those of you who ride motorcycles knows what I am talking about). But in all, I am comforted by the knowledge that if I flub up and broadside someone, they are going to be able to jump out of their car and yell at me about the damage I just did to their door. If I were driving a Buick or a Lincoln, it would probably require the local fire department to remove them from the wreckage.

The real injury being done by this one-sided report and the way the media is presenting it is the impact on the critical need for all of us to be switching to smaller cars to reduce carbon emmisions. We need to be actively encouraging people to buy more fuel-efficient (smaller) cars rather than scaring them away. To declare that switching to a mini-vehicle involves “a sacrifice of safety” is to cripple this very important movement in its very infancy.

The IIHS should revisit their data and evaluate the significant reduction in damages and injury that results from being hit by a smaller car. That’s the big news that should flow from these tests. Perhaps, then, the New York Times headline might read: Smaller Cars Save Lives.

Richard

SUGGESTION NUMBER 9: RETHINK THE ELECTRIC CAR

Wednesday, February 11th, 2009

I’ve been driving an electric car for the past 10 years.  It’s fast and reliable, and it’s very gentle on Mother Earth.  Ten years ago, we electric car owners were considered weird ducks.  Today, everyone is eagerly awaiting the new generation of plug-in hybrids.  Ah, what a difference a decade makes.

When the auto industry began to seriously focus on the prospect of producing electric cars, you can easily trace the path that their thinking took (I call it “auto-think”).  First off, they took one look at lead/acid cars like my Sparky and immediately crossed them off the list of viable options.  A 40 mile maximum range, a 4-hour recharging time, and, for some of them, a 25 m.p.h top speed restriction.  Dead on arrival, right?

Well, not so fast, guys.  To begin with, Sparky can blow the doors off your Toyota.  He’s very, very fast (you other electric car driver know what I’m talking about), and he can cruise the freeway with the best of them.  The only thing he can’t do is drive from Olympia to Seattle (65 miles) without stopping.  Range — -that’s the single reason why the auto industry went looking elsewhere for an answer to its gas problem.

Like every lead/acid driver, I have spent considerable time thinking about the range issue.  How can I get from Olympia to Seattle without stopping (or stopping only for a few minutes — -like for a cup of coffee or something)?  Let’s address the second idea first.

There is a little-known phenomenon in the electric car world called “dump charging”.  It’s used in the electric vehicle racing circuit where a quick charge is needed for the next race.  It is simply a DC to DC charge (one set of batteries simply “dumps” its charge into a depleted set of other batteries).  It takes about 7 minutes to accomplish, and restores the depleted batteries to about 95% of capacity. 

Now let’s assume, for example, that I left Olympia with the morning commute, headed for Seattle.  I’d be looking for a charge along about the time I hit the Tacoma Mall (about 35 miles from my house).  For years now, I have looked over at the Krispy-Kreme outlet at the Mall and thought,  “If only they had a set of batteries over there, I could scarf down a couple lemon-filled donuts while Sparky took a dump.”  What would happen, I have thought, if not only Krispy-Kreme, but Starbucks, and Jack-in-the-Box had DC charging stations all over the place?  I could go anywhere and everywhere in my spiffy little bug.   

But actually, there’s a better way.  Think: bumper cars.

We’ve all ridden in bumper cars at the fair.  What a great way to release all that pent-up aggression.  But did you ever wonder why those cars had antennas sticking out of them?  When I was a kid, I always thought that it was strange — -there weren’t any radios in the bumper cars, and the antennas were always too tall for the ceilings.  It wasn’t until much later that someone explained to me that there was another antenna dragging on the floor under the car, and that that was how the car ran — -that it takes two wires to make their motors run (one from the floor and one in the ceiling). 

Actually, in Seattle, we have busses that operate that same way, only they go around town with their two antennas attached to a pair of overhead electric wires..  Those busses have been crisscrossing the city since long before I was born (1945). 

That all started me thinking:  why don’t they install a couple of electric wires of some sort along the freeway from Olympia to Seattle — -or all the way from Seattle to Portland, for that matter?  Or everywhere the freeway goes.  You could start small — -Tacoma to Seattle, for instance.  Sparky’s batteries can get me from my house to Tacoma.  From there, I’d just hook up and head for Seattle.  It would be great!  As demand increased, you could extend the lines in both directions — -say, even to Canada. 

And here’s the really cool part:  not only would the freeway lines allow Sparky to make it all the way to Seattle, but Sparky’s batteries would get recharged in the process (very quickly if  the power supply were DC).  That means that I could leave my house and hook onto the freeway grid within 35 miles.  I could then drive to Seattle, unhook, and go anywhere within a 35 mile radius without needing a grid — -farther if there were a Krispy-Kreme out there offering a dump charge.  Heck, I could even drive to Arkansas once they extended the grid there. 

Come on, it can’t be all that hard.  I mean, aren’t we going to create some fancy new electric grid anyway?  We don’t have to extend the Sparky grid everywhere right away (though we would over time) — -we could start slow and grow.  And we wouldn’t end up becoming slaves to Bolivia.

Bolivia?  What does that have to do with anything?

Well, guess what, Yankee fans?  Our great auto industry channel-lock thought process is about to switch our present pusher/addict balance of trade from the middle east to a land-locked little country in South America.  It’s all because of something they have and we don’t:

Lithium.

When the auto thinkers decided that the lead/acid range issue was too much of a problem, they started to look for a battery that could give you much more mileage.  That line of thinking leads to just one place: the lithium-ion battery — -you know, that expensive little thing that runs your cell phone and your computer and occasionally catches on fire.  It’s the only battery now available that offers the promise of extended range in an electric car.  One electric car, the Tesla Roadster, claims a 220 miles/charge range.    But that battery pack can set you back a lot of money when it has to be replaced.

But the auto thinkers have struck a compromise:  they’ll get you 40 miles on a smaller lithium battery pack, and then a good ol’ gas engine will kick in and take you the rest of the way.  It’s the logical end product of the auto-thought process.  They’re hoping that you and I will be happy thinking we’re really helping Momma Earth by cutting down on our gas consumption, and at the same time, the auto companies will be able to keep building gasoline engines.  The problem is that the Suadis will just keep pumping it out of the ground because our ever-growing population will rise up and take up the slack.  End result: nothing really changes — -except the climate. 

But what does all this have to do with Bolivia? 

Well, Bolivia happens to be where the lithium is.  And guess what?  Just like the Middle East, the Bolivians don’t like us very much, either.

The sad truth is that most of the world’s lithium is found in just one place, Bolivia.  Kind of sounds like oil all over again, doesn’t it?  To be sure, it can be found in other places (like Tibet — -maybe that’s why the Chinese decided to annex the country and kick out the Dali Lama).  We even have some here at home, but not very much.  You can read about this most vexing question in a recent New York Times article.  http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/03/world/americas/03lithium.html?_r=1

My point is this:  we need to rethink this whole electric car thing.  We have an entire infrastructure already pumping out lead/acid batteries — -made by American workers, I might add (did I mention that lead/acid batteries are one of the most re-cycled products around?)  And since they are only planning on getting 40 miles from the lithium pack in the new hybrids, why not settle for the same thing from lead /acid?  

And where do we find the energy source for Sparky’s new freeway grid?  Well, I know of a nuclear power plant about 93 million miles away that can supply our entire planet with an endless flow of truly clean energy (did I mention that it already comes in DC?). 

So, perhaps we should all stop and think this thing through before we rush out and embrace the auto-think solution to our energy problems.    

Sincerely

Richard

SUGGESTION NO. 8: KEEP GORDON GEKKO’S HANDS OFF SOLAR

Monday, December 22nd, 2008

“It is more blessed to give than to receive.” — -Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

“Greed, for want of a better term, is good.” — -Gordon Gekko’s speech to the shareholder’s meeting of Teldar Paper, Inc. (played by Michael Douglas in the movie, “Wall Street”).

These two statements define the polar bookends within which humanity has sought to advance from the campfires of the Stone Age to the skyscrapers of the Modern World.  Today, we stand beneath the victory arch of Capitalism, its competing rivals lying discarded along the road of history — -Communism, National Socialism, even the humble commune of the 1960’s.  But if you look closely, you will see that today, we are also standing in the rubble of Gekko Gone Wild — -we are being  treated to the spectacle of  a shattered world economy that has been brought to its knees by exploding greed.   The problem is that the infant seeds of renewable energy must hope not just to germinate in this rubble pile, but to take hold and prosper.  As a nation, as a planet, and as a species, we must ask ourselves the critical question:  Can we afford to place solar, and wind, and all of the other renewable seeds in Gordon Gekko’s hands?

The answer is:  “Not a good idea.”

I first began my involvement with solar energy in the spring of 1974.  I was part of a small group of dreamers (Solar Steam, Inc.) that thought we could solve much of the world’s ills by creating a cost-effective solar energy collector.  To that end, we built a 28 foot solar concentrating dish which was completed in 1979.

 (Note the 30 year-old version of yours truly, complete with brown hair and beard).

A second, larger 40 foot dish was completed in 1985.  The dish was highly innovative and effectively converted sunlight into high grade industrial process steam. 

(That’s high-grade, industrial quality steam pouring out the end of that hose — -a very marketable product for which millions of dollars are paid annually by American industry.)

We unveiled our marvelous invention to the world that same year and stood back, waiting to sign up the investors and customers.  No one came.  The investors were too busy making larger profits elsewhere, and the customers needed the cost savings of “economy of scale” production (which required investors to achieve).

In April, 1988 I created United Solar Technologies.  My goal was just what the name implies: an attempt to unite a number of competing solar companies into a single effort so that investors would recognize that somewhere within the company’s participants there was a true winner.  Our first project was to establish that solar energy could compete with any source of energy on the planet, whether it be coal, oil, or even natural gas.  To this end we went looking for a suitable site for our demonstration.

We settled upon Tehachapi Prison in California.  With laudable assistance from both the California Energy Commission and the California Department of Corrections, we were able to enter into a long-term (30 year) energy purchase agreement with the DOC.  Under its terms, we would be paid 95% of the money the state would have paid for the same energy from burning natural gas.  This point cannot be stressed enough:  Tehachapi has demonstrated that solar energy IS CHEEPER THAN BULK-RATE NATURAL GAS (THE CHEAPEST OF THE CHEAP)!

The entire purpose of the Tehachapi project was to demonstrate to the FINANCIAL COMMUNITY (the Gordon Gekkos of this world), that they could make a very respectable return on their investment by installing solar projects.  We were able to show that Tehachapi could return more money than an equal amount invested in the U.S. Treasury “long bond” (the 30-year bond — -then at 8.3%!) by competing directly with bulk rate natural gas (then at $4.30/MMBTU).  Right out of the starting gate we established ourselves as the world’s cheapest source of energy!

Once again we turned around to take the orders from the investing community.  Once again, no one was there.  As one high-roller explained to me later, “Why would I want to tie my money up for 30 years when I can get 20% a year or better right now?”  Remember those heady days of the mid-90’s?

We tried to do follow-on projects with the DOC, but the initiative eventually fell victim to bureaucratic red tape, and no further prisons were ever solarized.

Taking my cue from the Tehachapi experience, United Solar reloaded and dove into the creation of the ultimate solar collector, the PVT (photovoltaic/thermal concentrator).  The upshot of this unique collector is that it produces both electricity and industrial process heat simultaneously.

Again, with the help of the California Energy Commission, our first prototype was unveiled in the spring of 1995.  It held the clear promise of amortization in under 5 years (sooner, if the electricity is used to displace gasoline in an electric car like Sparky).  For a detailed examination of the PVT and the ECONOMIC thinking that went into it, see the final report to the California Energy Commission.

Once again we turned to the line-up of investors.  Gone — -off to lay their money on Dot.com, Inc.

All of this brings the focus to the impact of the investment community on the whole issue of renewable energy, and solar in particular.  Right now, you can hear the sound of a stampede heading our way as people are waking up to the realities of a world caught on the dual horns of a global climate crisis and a finite oil supply.  Let me share with you some of my concerns as the Gekkos approach:

1.  The price of the land:  Right now, the best solar land is virtually worthless — -it’s made up of hard-scrabble desert land that nobody wants and no one can use.  That is going to change once solar energy rises to its feet.  Gordon Gekko is going to see “gold in them thar hills”, and he will buy huge tracts of land at pennies an acre only to turn around and wring agregious profit from his far-sited investment.  My point here is simple: solar can rise to meet all of our planet’s needs if it is carefully and thoughtfully deployed.  DO NOT SADDLE SOLAR WITH THE BURDEN OF BUYING THE LAND IT SITS ON, especially at inflated Gekko prices.  In my mind, it is imperative that government act to acquire prime solar land (by eminent domain if need be).  It must be held for the common benefit of all of us.

2.   “Return on Investment”:  At the heart of Gekko’s world is the concept of “return on investment”.  It is this single concept that has hobbled solar energy from its very inception:  “Why should I invest in solar when I can make 20% on something else?”  Over the course of the last several blogs, I have tried to raise an awareness of the true power of solar energy as the path to energy freedom.  In “Suggestion No. 5: Try Solar Alchemy”, I pointed out that a solar device starts to produce real capital the very minute it is deployed — -dollar bills drop to the pavement the moment the sun rises.  But the problem is:  where  are the dollar bills going to go?  My personal experience from Solar Steam, through Tehachapi, and finally the PVT is that Gordon Gekko is going to want the first dollar…and the second…and the third.   In fact, Gekko is going to want assurances that he is going to have a guaranteed return on his investment BEFORE HE EVEN AGREES TO INVEST HIS MONEY.   It is this very fact that has prevented solar energy from rising to take its place as the primary energy source for the planet.  The real truth is that solar cannot effectively come to our rescue as a species if it has to do it by riding through the Valley of Gordon Gekko.  The greater the demands that you put on those infant solar collectors, the less able they are to rise to their feet.  When you ask a collector to pay off the land it sits on and then satisfy the demands of “greed is good” Gekko, you will find that, like the Solar Steam dish, the Tehachapi trough, and the PVT, it will never come into existence in the first place.

Yet there is another way.  Plug in the Sermon on the Mount.  To give, for want of a better word, is good.

I touched on this in my last blog, “Suggestion No. 7: Pennies from Heaven”.  If I were to buy a solar collector and place it in the desert, and just let go of it, those dollars that drop to the ground when the sun rises CAN GO TO CREATING MORE SOLAR COLLECTORS.  It is as simple as that.  Just imagine if every man, woman and child in this country were to GIVE a solar collector to the cause — -a mighty field of collectors would begin to rise up like a conquering army, producing more soldiers by the minute, each of which would go to work immediately producing more soldiers.  We would become awash in energy.  Eventually, there would be more energy produced than we could use, and all of those solar dollars would have to find a new purpose — -like cleaning up the earth of all of the petro-pollution that has taken place over the past century, or, perhaps, providing free health care.

And all of this because we choose to sit on the slopes of the Mount of Olives as opposed to the boardrooms of an island beside the Hudson.

Richard

SUGGESTION NO. 6: APPOINT A BUBBLE CZAR

Sunday, December 14th, 2008

I started out my last blog, “Fear, Damage, and Big Ben Rothlisberger”, with the intention of pointing out that the natural human reaction to a severe economic downturn is fear — -that the inclination is to pull our money out of the market and then run to the bank and turn our cyberspace dollars into real greenbacks.  I wanted to note that when one person acts like that, it’s called fear.  When everybody acts that way, it’s called a panic.  In pursuing that end, I did some mild research into the historic “Panics” that have reared their  ugly heads over the past century and a half.  I was quite stunned by what I found.

First and foremost, the panics seemed to come with regularity, like some sort of a viral financial flu.  1819, 1837, 1857, 1873, 1893, 1907, 1929….not exactly clockwork, but regular enough to recognize that they seem to be an unwelcome fact of life in a free-market reality.

But what struck me nearly speechless was the repeating pattern in the causes of the panics, and the extreme similarity to what is taking place in our present dilemma.  Every single one of them was brought about by undue speculation of one sort or another, most of them by speculation in real estate fed by a willing flow of capital to feed the frenzy.  Speculation lights an ember, excessive profit blows the ember into a flame, and eventually a stampede of greed whips the flame into a raging forest fire.  When the bubble finally bursts, houses are burned up in foreclosures and people are left to stand in unemployment lines and food kitchens.  Untolled damage is done.  But eventually people start to rebuild their lives until a new ember appears just beyond the conscious memory of those who lived through the last one.

As I reviewed the history of the panics, I kept asking myself why a supposedly intelligent species would allow such a thing to keep happening.  Do people get so blinded by the lure of profit that they can’t see a bubble when it’s staring them in the face?  I have to say that that is precisely the case.

Think back to our own experience over the past decade.  Remember the “Dot.com Bubble”?  There was a time when I probably could have created a company called Bubble.com and made a killing off it.  It was crazy!  Then, “Pop!”

Then came the real estate bubble.  I have to say that I was a participant in this one — -at least I was on the winning side of the equation.  While others were salting away their retirement cash in stocks, I was buying cheap rental units.  My plan was to fix them up, one at a time, and sell them off as needed to meet my needs in my “golden years”.  I started the fix-up stage just about the time the remnants of the dot.com cash started looking for another place to land — -and land was the place to land.  Infomercials began to extol the virtues of buying cheap houses, tossing on some paint and “flipping” them for massive profit. 

I recall clearly my first rental to be harvested:  I had paid $37,000 for it in the 80’s.  When I started the repair phase, I intended to put about $20,000 into it (plus a lot of free labor on my part).  I had visions of putting it out at $85,000.  That’s when the trash heap down the block sold for $110,000.  With a smile on my face, I began to think of a “For Sale” sign in front of my gem in the $125,000 range. While I labored diligently over a six month period, I saw houses exploding in value like popcorn all around the neighborhood.  I was only vaguely aware that the Federal Government was flooding the market with an ocean of cash that made it possible for anyone without a needle in his arm to buy a house.  All I knew was that my humble rental unit was taking off like a NASA shuttle.  I eventually sold it for $165,000.  I was ecstatic!  I couldn’t wait to get the other rental units going.

This went on for years!  I was able to pay off all my mortgages, tear up the credit cards,  buy a badly-needed dump truck for all my projects, and stash away a stack of bubble bills.  I even started looking for more of those dirt-cheap fixer-uppers.  And so was everyone else.  They didn’t exist any more.  The bubble popped some time in late spring of 2007, I think.  I was lucky — -I had a seat when the music stopped.

The rest is history.  We are all now standing in the middle of the bubble rubble.  And, of course, when the real estate bubble popped, the remnants of the money rushed over to the new gold rush: oil.  $60/barrel, $75/barrel, $100/barrel…$145!  “It’s gunna hit $250 by years end!”

Pop!

I ask again: Why can’t we see a bubble coming?  And I answer again: We get totally blinded by the profit of the moment.  There’s just something about having more money — -after all, we’re the species that puts melamine in baby formula. 

So this brings me (at last) to my simple point.  The new Administration and the new Congress are poised to appoint czars to govern everything from energy to the automotive industry.  I think what we really need is a Bubble Czar.  We should appoint some well-educated guy to the post and put him in an isolated room with a computer that feeds him information about where all the money’s going.  He can’t be allowed to buy anything himself — -just watch what’s going on.  A bubble can’t be that hard to spot.  I’m not saying that he should be ready to do anything about it — -that should be up to the policy makers.  His sole task should be a blow a whistle or sound an alarm or something.  Whatever it is, it should be an “Official Alarm”, requiring the policy people to do something — -like put a bubble tax on the transactions in the alarm zone. 

The point is that bubbles are bad for humanity.  Bubbles lead to bubble rubble.  It’s time we stop them before they grow.  I am particularly concerned about an “alternative energy” bubble laying waste to our very real need to accomplish a global transition in this critical arena.

Richard

FEAR, DAMAGE, AND BIG BEN ROTHLISBERGER

Wednesday, December 10th, 2008

 

 

When I get frustrated, things in my immediate vicinity are at risk of being broken.  That is why I don’t allow golf clubs or baseball bats in the computer room.  That %&#@! machine is a constant source not just of frustration, but outright rage at times.  For me, the equation can be written: frustration = broken things.

 

I bring up this personal failing because, right now, there’s another emotion out there preparing to unleash untold wreckage from one end of this globe to another: FEAR.  The Dow is tanking, unemployment is headed through the roof while property values go through the floor.  World governments are running around frantically throwing money they don’t have at every wobbly institution that’s big enough to wear the label “indispensible”.  Fear is in the air, and it holds the very real possibility of giving way to an escalated emotion: PANIC.

 

Historically, what’s happening today used to go by that very name: panics. 

 

The Panic of 1819:  This was the first of a succession of financial crises that shook the country from 1819 through the Great Depression of the 1930’s.   It was brought about by factors which may sound uncomfortably familiar:  a flood of easy credit  from the banking industry (and backed by the government) led to reckless land speculation and rapidly increasing real estate values.  A deluge of imported goods entered the country, outpacing exports, resulting in a precarious balance of trade that siphoned off massive capital from  the nation. http://mises.org/rothbard/panic1819.pdf   When the bubble finally burst, the result was a tidal wave of bankruptcies, mortgage foreclosures, bank failures, and massive unemployment. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panic_of_1819.

 

The Panic of 1837:  The 1819  pattern was repeated 20 years later.  Once again, rampant land speculation was spurred by reckless lending practices of the banking industry. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panic_of_1837.  The result was the same: bank failures, mortgage foreclosures and mass unemployment.

 

The Panic of 1857:  Once again, reckless land speculation fueled the crash of 1857.  The crisis was actually brought about by the failure of a large insurance company, Ohio Life Insurance and Trust Company (can you spell AIG?) http://blueandgraytrail.com/event/Panic_of_1857.  Foreclosures and unemployment followed until the outbreak of the Civil War brought an ocean of government spending to the rescue.

 

Is any of this starting to sound familiar?

 

The Panic of 1873:  This time, it wasn’t land speculation but railroad speculation.  The bubble popped on September 18, 1873 when a large banking establishment that was promoting stock in the Northern Pacific Railroad declared its insolvency.  http://thehistorybox.com/ny_city/panics/panics_article9a.htm  The same results followed.

 

The Panic of 1893:  Speculation again — -this time in industrial stocks.  Same results.  http://thehistorybox.com/ny_city/panics/panics_article10a.htm

 

The panic of 1901: More of the same, this time fed by pyramid stock schemes that created fortunes out of thin air.  http://thehistorybox.com/ny_city/panics/panics_article12a.htm

 

The Great Depression:  We all know about this one: stocks bought on margin, millionaires in every office — -th is bubble of bubbles spawned mass unemployment, home foreclosures and  bank failures.  All of it was so easy to foresee to anyone who had taken a look backward.

 

“Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.”

 

Isn’t that the phrase?  Well, it kind’a looks like we didn’t do much looking back either — -land speculation based on easy bank credit, stocks (even whole companies) bought on margin (we called it leverage this time), millionaires on every corner, a world awash in funny money.  And now our bubble has popped. 

 

It is not the intent of this blog article to point fingers or to go on ad nauseum about what has brought us to this unpleasant reality.  It is not the causes that concern me right now, it’s the effect.  It is the emotional reaction to this financial crisis and the potential for damage that is caused by that reaction.   Roosevelt’s oft-quoted phrase, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” has been told and retold so many times that we have forgotten what he was trying to say — -that it was fear that was doing all the damage in 1932-33.

 

We, too, stand poised to start breaking things.  And right now, the principal candidate for damage is the automobile industry.  Everyone seems ready to allow our nation’s ability to produce vehicles to go down the drain.  We must not allow this to happen.  We are going to desperately need an infrastructure capable of producing non-carbon burning cars.  Our future and the future of our children depends upon our ability to turn a corner on this critical issue.  If we trash the only industry we have that knows how to build cars (not to mention the tens of thousands of workers who actually do the work), we cripple our ability to create the very cars and trucks we will need to carry us out of a looming carbon holocaust. 

 

Enter Ben Rothlisberger. 

 

I’ve been watching the Congressional hearings on the “Big 3” automotive “bailout”.  And I’ve been reading the vitriolic emails that the general public has been sending to the networks:

 

          “Those (expletive deleted) C.E.O.’s were warned that they needed to build smaller cars, and they chose to go on building Hummers!” 

           “Let them go bankrupt!” 

           “Those %#@*&!!s deserve everything that’s happening to them!”

 

Well, Ben Rothlisberger, the quarterback of the ‘05 Super Bowl Champion Pittsburg Steelers, was nearly killed in a motorcycle accident in June of ’06.  He wasn’t wearing a helmet.  Is there any doubt that he had been repeatedly warned that about riding a motorcycle without a helmet?  Of course he knew.  And it’s equally clear that he chose to ignore the warnings.

 

My point is this:  if you had come across his mangled body at the intersection of the accident, would you have stood there and yelled, “You idiot!  You were told to wear a helmet!  You brought this on yourself!” If you had been there, would you have let him bleed to death?

 

The truth is that someone went ahead and put him back together, and he’s been a pretty good quarterback ever since.

 

Our auto industry hasn’t been wearing a helmet either.  Now we can all stand here and yell, “You idiots!”, and let the entire industry bleed to death from its self-inflicted wounds.  Or we can remember Ben Rothlisberger, and give the industry an I.V.  Maybe they won’t win any Super Bowls for a while, but they will be in the running.  And if they’re in the running, we’re all going to be winners.

 

It’s a bit scary out there right now. But let’s not let our fears turn to anger and panic.  It’s time to start the IV’s,  not kick the bleeding dummies.   

 

Richard

SUGGESTION NO. 5: TRY SOLAR ALCHEMY

Saturday, November 15th, 2008

In the middle ages, early “scientists” spent years in medieval laboratories experimenting with crude instruments and processes in search of the holy grail of old world chemistry: a method for turning some common material into gold. These ancient alchemists labored in vain, of course, as not a single ounce of the precious material was ever produced.

If ever such a method was needed by the nations of this world, it is now. We are presently pouring billions (trillions?) of dollars into the economies of this planet in a desperate hope that we can restart the machinery of production that has propelled our civilization forward ever since Adam Smith cried out, “Gentlemen, start your engines!” The problem is that it’s not real money we are pouring into the tank, but “tomorrow money”.

Mankind rides a perilous plane whose engines are sputtering. It doesn’t take an aerospace engineer to tell us that if we don’t get those engines up and running soon, the plane is headed for an unpleasant encounter with the ground. So our governments are headed out onto the wings with their cans of make-believe gasoline, hoping that somehow, some future generation will come along and retroactively fill those cans with real hard-earned dollars. Oh, where are the alchemists when we really need them? If only we could create money out of thin air.

Well guess what, Yankee fans…we can!

I want you to picture an ancient alchemist laboring away in a modern garage — -think of a white-bearded Merlin hammering on a sheet of metal, and painting it with an exquisite coat of silver. He labors well into the night, and finally, he hauls his magic machine out onto the driveway and sits, waiting for the sun to come up. Slowly, the rays of the morning sun fall upon his magnificent invention. And lo and behold — -a gold coin drops to the pavement!

Merlin! You’ve done it! You’ve turned sunlight into gold!

Does it sound like fiction to you? A legend, perhaps? All too good to be true? Well, it is true. You can prove it to yourself by mounting your own solar cash machine on your roof — -put a solar thermal collector up there and watch your hot water bill drop like a stone. It will literally turn sunlight into gold. The $20 or $40 or $70 a month that you used to send off to your local gas or electric company now stays in your wallet. Sunlight falls on your roof and money appears in your wallet! It’s solar alchemy!

The same thing happens if you install a solar electric panel, or a wind generator. At then end of the day, real money shows up in your wallet.

So what are the considerations here? Clearly, if Merlin’s Magic Machine costs $100,000 and it only drops a dollar a day on the pavement, there wouldn’t be a big rush to buy one. Conversely, if it cost $100 and produced $10 a day, you’d better watch out for the stampede. So the very first consideration is this: can the machine pay for itself from the money it generates? Our experience with wind generators is a resounding “Yes!”. So, too, solar pays for itself over its lifetime, and then goes on to generate free money.

The implications of solar and wind alchemy are profound. Devices can be created and placed in the sun or the wind, and real capital is produced for mankind. The more devices, the more capital. This is a simple fact that our governments need to get a grip on. Instead of incurring debt for our grandchildren to pay off, try planting solar and wind seeds that will grow into money trees, ready to harvest by the time they are slammed with the credit card bill we have run up on them.

It is obvious that mankind is going to have to undertake a transition to a non-fossil reality. Our planet is going to die if we fail to act on this truth. What is important to recognize, and what I hope this blog comment brings home through its simple analogy, is that this transition is CAPITAL PRODUCTIVE! We are going to need trillions upon trillions of dollars in the future. If we simply start the process of harvesting sunlight and wind on a massive scale, the money will be there when we need it.

So, my dear government officials, don’t put imaginary gasoline in the sputtering engines. Try sunlight instead.

Richard

Suggestion No. 1: Put Solar Panels Where the Sun Shines

Sunday, November 2nd, 2008

In the weeks and months ahead, I hope to focus in on suggestions for our newly elected president and congress regarding actions they might wish to consider in addressing the world’s climate crisis.

My first suggestion is to establish a program whereby citizens who live in less than optimal solar zones might still be able to install solar collectors in areas where their energy (and hence financial) return is maximized.

I have been driving “Sparky”, my electric car for the past ten years.It is fast, reliable, and financially a success, particularly at gas prices above $4/gallon.Last year, in an offering to CNN’s Youtube Debate, I proposed to ask the candidates the single question:

“Why aren’t we all driving on sunlight?” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4_lSxhTatUU

The concept is simple:every electric car is capable of “running on sunlight” through the simple expedient of using solar panels to capture sunlight and delivering the electricity they produce to the batteries of the car.

In practice, it’s a bit more complicated than that.Several points need to be made here:

1) Can a car run on solar cells attached to the car?No.An important point needs to be understood — -there is only so much energy in a square foot of sunlight.Even if every square inch of a modern car’s surface were to be covered with some kind of “super solar cell” (one that could convert 100% of all the sunlight falling on it to electricity), it would not be able to supply the car’s energy needs.

2)How do you supply electricity to your car if your panels are at home and the car is on the road?You don’t.Driving on sunlight does not mean that a car is continuously hooked to its panels.Instead, it works like this:your panels collect the sunlight and convert it to direct current (DC).The DC current is then changed to AC current (the kind of electricity you use in running your home) by running it through an “inverter”.The inverter is then hooked directly to the electrical system of your home.What this does is to supply your home with usable electricity produced from sunlight.When this happens, your electric meter will actually slow down or even begin to run backward because you are not drawing power from your utility (“the grid”).In reality, you begin to build up a “bank account” of solar-generated electricity.The size of that account will depend upon how many panels are on your roof, and how much sunlight falls on them.Your electric car arrives home after work and you plug it in.It then withdraws the electricity you collected during the day and stores it in the car’s batteries for tomorrow’s commute.

3)What happens when the sun doesn’t shine?No problem.You install a large enough solar collector system to provide more power than the car can use when the sun shines to cover those days when no power is collected because of clouds.This is an important point to understand:a solar powered car is based upon annual solar collection, not daily solar collection.So your collector system is sized based upon the number of amp hours needed by your car in a given year.In Sparky’s case, he needs 2 amp hours of power to go one mile.If I intend to drive 10,000 miles per year, I need a system that will generate 20,000 amp hours of electricity in a year, most of which will be collected in the summer months.

It should become immediately obvious from this, that the amount of sunlight falling on the panels over as given year is the critical defining factor in the size of a solar system needed to create a truly “solar powered car”.This brings me to the specific point of this discussion:don’t put your panels where the sun doesn’t shine.

I live in Olympia, Washington.Several years ago, I was stunned to find that my city has less sunlight than any other major city in the world — -I was scanning a list of cities arranged by their solar standing, and there it was, drop dead last!My initial reaction was:Well, if I can demonstrate that solar works in Olympia, Washington, then that will show the world that it can work anywhere!Maybe that makes a great PR point, but it makes a terrible financial one — -it would only demonstrate how expensive it is to drive a solar powered car.

So that brings up the central point for policy makers:the government needs to establish a mechanism whereby a person who drives an electric car in Olympia, Washington, can buy solar panels and install them in Yuma, Arizona…or Needles, California.I submit that government needs to obtain large tracts of solar-rich land and create a “solar farm” where individual citizens can install solar equipment that sends electricity into the grid so that they can in clear conscience declare that the electricity they are pulling off the grid at their house is indeed “solar energy”.It makes no real difference that the specific electron that enters Sparky didn’t actually come from my Yuma solar panel — -the important point is that, on a national basis, I am putting as much electricity into the system as I am pulling out.

There are many advantages to this concept.

1) By centralizing the solar collectors of car owners from all over the country, a single maintenance man can service a large number of customers, reducing the maintenance costs of owning solar collectors;

2) A standardized model of collector can be decided upon which will result in the benefits of specialized large scale production (economies of scale);

3) Individual power inverters (one of the expensive components of a stand-alone system) would be replaced by large scale inverters, thereby substantially reducing this cost center;

4) Eventually, individual solar panels will be replaced by community solar collection systems (solar generating plants) which will further increase the return on the solar dollars invested.

It should be immediately apparent that this concept would not be limited to electric car owners.It is equally applicable to homeowners and businesses that want to “operate on sunlight”.While government is the logical candidate to be the entity to facilitate the creation of these solar farms, it can just as easily be accomplished by a co-op of car and/or home owners.

One thing that government can do, as a matter of policy, is to insure that the money paid per amp hour from an owner’s panel be equal to that he must pay at home when he withdraws his electricity from the local grid.In other words, retail for retail.Indeed, it seems like a great candidate for a tax-type credit that would encourage all of us to convert our cars, our homes and our businesses to solar.

Richard

Defining Moment in History

Monday, October 6th, 2008

“A defining moment in history”. We have all heard that phrase linked to some event, usually a major one.

December 7th, 1941, November 22, 1963, 9/11.

While the world went about its day-to-day routine, a major, critical defining moment came and went, virtually unnoticed by the media in the U.S., barely noticed in the rest of the world. May 1, 2008 was truly a date that provided definition.

On that date, Shell Oil Company announced that it was pulling out of the world’s largest wind generating project, the London Array, to pursue “more profitable” endeavors — -arguably, the black gold rush now taking place in northern Canada where the “tar sands” of Manitoba have become economically feasible in the new world of $100+/barrel oil.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2008/may/02/renewableenergy.royaldutchshell

The sands represent the world’s second largest oil field (second only to Saudi Arabia), and Shell will want its share of the gold. The wind farm was only “marginally profitable”, Shell declared as it threw the project under the bus. The withdrawal of its $1.3 billion share, roughly one third of the project cost, jeopardizes the entire project, leaving its other participants to scramble to fill the giant financial hole left by Shell.
Lost in the tiny headline was the fact that Shell’s contribution represented only a fraction of the profit it had announced just two days earlier: $8 billion dollars had been generated in three months, the largest return in company history.

The London Array was to have been the largest wind field ever constructed. It would have produced enough electricity to power one quarter of London’s homes. And, of course, all that power would have been generated without the emission of carbon into the atmosphere. Shell’s decision to abandon its share of the undertaking throws a brilliant spotlight onto a decision that mankind must make: just what is our future source of energy going to be? May 1, 2008 is a day that brings exceptional clarity to bear on that decision — -it is a Day of Definition.

Mankind has arrived at a true fork in the road. For the past 200 years, humanity has travelled a path based exclusively on carbon — -first coal, then oil. We have prospered beyond expectation because of this. But in the late 1970’s, we began to come to the realization that carbon might be toxic to the Earth’s atmosphere. As far back as 1896, it had been realized that a buildup of CO2 in the atmosphere could result in an increase in the world’s temperature. A scientist named G.S.Calendar tried raise public consciousness about the matter in the 30’s, but the whole issue went largely unnoticed until the environmental movement of the 70’s began to take a fresh look at the potential for disaster inherent in the atmospheric data. Those numbers, coupled with ominous data streaming in from the Venus probes (showing the disasterous effects of a runaway greenhouse), created a growing sense of alarm that man’s use of carbon could have a profound impact on the planet’s climate. Finally, in 2001, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its findings, confirming that global warming was real, and that man’s use of carbon lay at the heart of it.
Enter the point of this discussion: the central issue presented by Shell’s withdrawal from the Array is one of criteria: upon what criteria should our future energy decisions be made? Shell’s decision to abandon the Array demonstrates that Shell considers the sole decision criteria to be one of “profitability” — -that it placed the Array in one pan of the scale and oil in the other. The scale promptly tipped in favor of carbon. Hence, Shell has packed its London bags and headed for Manitoba.
But the decision criteria can no longer be “what path is going to lead to the greatest return on investment?” Mankind stands at a perilous crossroad. We can turn to the left and continue to burn carbon, because it is cheaper, because we have a lot of investment in carbon-burning infrastructure, and, well, life can go on as it always has — -just pull up to the gas station and fill’er up.

Or we can make the right turn: bite the bullet and begin a global transition to a non-carbon reality. It’s not that it’s going to be some drastic, tighten-your-belt descent into a horse-and buggy world — -far from it. I have been driving an electric car for ten years now and have found it to be quite reliable and satisfactory http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4_lSxhTatUU. “Sparky” is a bit of a throw-back in the world of convenience — -it has all of the creature comforts of a ‘75 Volkswagen, but I am sure that Detroit can come up with a state-of-the-art version of Sparky if they put their mind to it (GM’s Chevy “Volt” holds significant promise in this arena).

But I return to the central issue of this discussion. What is the decision criteria that we, as a species, are to use in determining which fork in the road should take for our future? It can no longer be simply one of profit. That mind set has led us to the cliff. It is time for all of us to demand that a finger be placed on the scale of that mode of thinking — -that we demand that the equation include the true cost of burning carbon. No one has ever required that the cost of cleaning up after carbon (global warming) be added to the up-front cost of a gallon of gas or a ton of coal. If it were, even the “profit” scale would tilt away from coal and oil.

We need to demand that our collective decision-makers, whether government or private industry, take the right fork in the road. We need to demand that the basis for making a decision as to which direction to go not be based upon profitability but upon the common good of future generations.

Shell’s decision to withdraw from the London Array provides us with a true “defining moment in history”. It provides a pair of glasses from which we can see into one of the most basic considerations facing mankind: is our future to be based solely upon the bottom line?
Post Note 1: It has been announced that German-based E.ON and Danish-based Dong Energy have agreed to take up Shell’s 1/3 interest. http://www.treehugger.com/files/2008/07/worlds-largest-offshore-wind-farm-london-array-back-on.php

Post Note 2: My local paper has just reported that on October 1, Pfizer Inc., one of the world’s largest drug companies, has announced that it is “shifting its research focus to diseases that have a high potential for big profits” http://www.theolympian.com/business/story/602879.html. The Shell Oil decision process is not restricted to energy. Perhaps we should all pray that if we contract a serious disease, that it not be an obscure one. There just ain’t no money in it.