Posts Tagged ‘Add new tag’


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.



Saturday, November 8th, 2008

A decade or so ago, my best friend, Rick, won Washington State’s Teacher of the Year. He was being recognized for his pioneering work in the field of computer science. He had constructed an elaborate computer learning center for his school district. What was unique about the center was that it wasn’t designed to teach children how to use computers — -it was created for the express purpose of teaching teachers how to teach the children to use computers. It may seem strange in today’s world, but when Rick embarked on his computer center, we were all trying to acquaint ourselves with that strange voodoo world called dos. Rick was one the first to recognize that teachers have to learn a subject before they can be expected to teach it to kids.

A similar reality exists today in the world of renewable energy. Our political candidates have just spent the past two years declaring that our country has to free itself from imported oil and that we need to convert the nation to operate on non-fossil sources of energy. The knowledge on just how this is going to be accomplished is apparently believed to exist out there somewhere, and that all that is needed is a for government to push a magic button and it will all start to happen (the push of the button is to accomplished with copious quantities of cash, of course).

The truth of the matter is that a global transition to a non-fossil reality is going to be an extraordinary undertaking. And it’s not going to be done overnight — -it’s going to take generations to accomplish. My question is this: is there really any concerted effort under way to teach renewable energy to the generations moving their way through our public school systems? More importantly, how many teachers are there out there that know the difference between a gallium arsenide solar cell and one made of amorphous silicon, and why the distinction is important. Do they know the difference between thermal and electric solarized energy, and what part of the spectrum produces each? Even more basic: can they quantify the energy savings of insulation based upon its R-value?

Are you starting to see the problem? If we are to have any hope of truly freeing ourselves from the toxic grip of fossil fuel, that means that we are going to have to educate ourselves on a massive scale. It means that we are going to have to teach our kids, and before that happens, we have to teach our teachers first.

And so my Suggestion Number 2 to the powers that be is this: Establish a meaningful nationwide program to teach teachers about renewable energy. This includes how to insulate homes, how to recognize energy-efficient appliances, how to install solar collectors (thermal everywhere, and electric where appropriate). Grade school teachers need to send their legions of children back into their homes looking for lights to turn out in a quest for gold stars on some flashy certificate. We need to teach our kids to think in terms of energy conservation using positive reinforcement to instill these and other values in them.

Let us recognize early on that the quest for a non-fossil world is nothing short of an arduous marathon. By the time it is accomplished, today’s kindergarteners will likely be drawing social security.


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?”

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.