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Energy COOL: Breaking news on the automotive front?

by a siegel Sun Jan 13th, 2008 at 02:22:34 AM EST

To be clear, there is NO Silver Bullet solution to our energy woes, to peak oil, to Global Warming.  

There are, however, approaches that, when combined together, can have a major impact on the challenges before us, that offer a path for rapidly changing our hurtling path toward catastrophic climate change, toward a prosperous, climate-friendly society.

Here are several Energy COOL developments that could, combined, foster a faster move to Energize America:

  • New Plug-In Hybrid announcements
  • '
  • Algae biofuel advances

Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEVs)

PHEVs are, to me and many others, a serious potential game changer, to foster a rapid move of as much transportation from fossil fuels to electricity. And, with each passing day, we have the potential to make the electrical grid cleaner while the liquid fuel, as long as it is fossil, will only get dirtier as time passes.

When it comes to Plug-Ins, expect to see some unveiling of concept cars at the Detroit Automotive 2008 Show that starts Sunday, with the media in the halls tomorrow. (Ahh, someone's decided I'm worth 'influencing' and I had invites for free hotels from several different automotive firms, resisted the temptation. At the moment, starting to get tidbits, regretting the missed opportunity.) Re concept cars, for example, Volvo will have a diesel plug-in concept car

More solidly, a Chinese manufacturer, BYD Auto, will be showing off a PHEV with a 100 kilometer (60 mile) range on electricity. A PHEV that will be going on sale in China by late summer and in the United States before 2010, now putting pressure on the Chevy Volt to introduce sooner rather than later and perhaps on Toyota to introduce a Prius PHEV in the near term.  

The most explosive release is AFS Trinity announcement of a modification of a SUV into an over 150 mile per gallon (<2 liter, 100 kilometer) vehicle using a system that could fully pay for its additional costs in about 3.5 years, even without any form of carbon fee raising the cost to polluters.

Might there be PHEVs entering the general market even earlier than late 2009?  

A 50 mile on electricity PHEV would, on average, reduce liquid fuel requirements by about 80-90%.  That would be a serious shift for the individual driver.  Mass introduction of PHEVs (including, for example, PHEBs (buses)) would create a path for rapidly reducing oil use for transportation.

In any event, I am keeping my 1996 car on life support (with over 30 mpg, above the EPA rating) until I can go into debt to buy a PHEV.  I'm hoping that it will be sooner rather than later.

Algae Fuel

As PHEVs begin to dominate the market, driving inefficient vehicles off the road, the amount of liquid fuel required for powering the transport sector will level off and begin to nose dive.  While there are tremendous challenges (problems, concerns) with the ever-mounting corn-ethanol, other paths exist for bio-fuels. There has been some positive news re cellulosic ethanol, which has a much better EROEI than corn ethanol. (EROEI: Energy Return on Energy invested.  Corn is somewhere between .7 and 1.5 (e.g, at best, 50% additional energy above that required to make it) while cellulosic might be a 6 to 10 EROEI, e.g., much better.)  As liquid fuel requirements fall, the increasing biofuel can be combine with growing electrification to ever faster displace oil, enable US to have Freedom from Oil, improving national security, economic strength, and reducing GHG emissions. A win-win-win strategy.

But, corn is a serious problem and cellulosic ethanol has yet to prove itself in the commercial marketspace.

Algae fuel has been an exciting prospect on the horizon, something to watch.  Recent news suggest that the horizon might be getting closer.  9 January, Petrosun announced that it will be breaking ground on a biodiesel refinery in Arizona later this year. The feedstock?  Algal oil from farms near by.

The refinery will have an annual production capacity of thirty million gallons and will produce 100% renewable biodiesel that will meet or exceed industry quality specifications for the domestic market. PetroSun BioFuels will process the residual algae biomass into ethanol.

About 750,000 barrels on an annual basis or about 3.5% of one day's oil demand.  That one plant certainly is not a silver bullet to solve the nation's challenges.  Take a look at those figures, that would be about 0.01% of US annual demand for oil. But, if this plant and production process works, we should expect it to be replicated, speeding the elimination of fossil fuels from the transport system.

The biorefinery and algae farm complex will generate all of its own electrical and heat requirements, utilize non-potable or saltwater, consume no fossil fuels and will be carbon neutral.

So, to top it off, it will operate in a carbon neutral fashion throughout the production process ...

Now, in the longer, 2020s time frame, Sandia National Labs has released news of Sun-to-Fuel, a process that they are working on to pull carbon from the atmosphere to make liquid fuel.  

Summing up ...

Peak Oil means finding paths toward Freedom from Oil and to do so in ways that improve, rather exacerbate, our ability to deal with Global Warming.  Will there be a Silver Bullet, single point solution?  Maybe ... maybe ... but I wouldn't bet the farm (our future on the planet) on any single "solution".  

Instead, we should be thinking of systems-of-systems opportunities.  

PHEVs, using renewable fuels (from algae) for a far reduced liquid fuel requirement, offer a core element to developing a systems-of-systems response to Amreica's transportation challenges, Peak Oil, and setting us (US) on a path for real reductions in our GHG emissions.

Time for an automaker to give me a reason to go into debt to buy a new car!

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  • NOTE:  To be clear. I have been long aware of PHEVs, CalCars and others.  What is breaking is the potential of real change. Maybe commercial hype, maybe something more.

See Maginifico's diary for some recent discussion of cellulosic ethanol from switchgrass.
by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Sun Jan 13th, 2008 at 12:15:40 PM EST
It's good to see that people are working on these. However I worry that we are trying to find ways of keeping the same patterns of mobility that we had in the 20th century instead to trying to work out longer term strategies for reducing the need to commute or shunt goods all over the country when it isn't necessary.

keep to the Fen Causeway
by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Sun Jan 13th, 2008 at 01:25:19 PM EST
What's so bad about keeping doing the same at less impact? If it weren't for greenhouse effects, I don't really see the inherent problems with loads of mobility. You claim it's not necessary, but with gasoline at 1 euro 50 per litre and traffic jams at all-time highs people here are still driving as much as they used to, so they appear to value their mobility quite high.
by GreatZamfir on Sun Jan 13th, 2008 at 02:22:20 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Largely because I doubt it's sustainable in the long term. Equally, being mobile is good, but it also supports energy intensive behaviour elsewhere that eventually contirbute to the problem.

If I had any suspicion that we're beginning to recognise that we will need to evolve to different (not worse) patterns of beahviour then I'm sure this will form a part of the bridge and eventual solution. My concern is that if we don't evolve to a preferred different behaviour, we may eventually be forced into a circumstance which is far, far worse.

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Sun Jan 13th, 2008 at 03:02:51 PM EST
[ Parent ]
How much do they value their mobility when they're stuck in the traffic jams?

More seriously, to what extent is it really mobility that motivates people, or to what extent the illusion of freedom, prestige, privacy, sex, security, individual expression?

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Sun Jan 13th, 2008 at 03:20:55 PM EST
[ Parent ]
... amount of consumer sovereignty.

People value the choice they are making within the current transport system, more than the choices they are not making.

But that is exactly zero evidence on which coherent transport system they would prefer, since any individual can only choose their component in the system ... they cannot choose which system they would rather be choosing their component within.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Sun Jan 13th, 2008 at 06:40:42 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I think it's important to distinguish mobility as an option, and mobility as a necessity.

The first would be the ability for individuals to choose to go somewhere at their leisure.  For example, driving to a nearby town or to see a national park.  This is a generally good thing, even if it is rather costly.  While this may need to be far more expensive to be sustainable, it would be nice if it were still an occasional option for most people.

The second would be the necessity of substantial travel to survive on a daily basis.  Driving a few miles to the supermarket, driving several miles to work, driving several miles to the place were one's children go to school, driving several miles for shopping, etc.  These are all things that should be handled by better urban design, not by personal mobility.  This is also where the US is really screwed.

by Zwackus on Sun Jan 13th, 2008 at 07:39:58 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Jamais Cascio had a speculative piece on the future of the car on his blog last year. Before writing out his speculative scenario, he got the framing of the car issue pitch-perfect. The post organises various ideas about the car, why it is bad, why it is hard to replace, in a condensed but comprehensive manner and is the best I have read on the topic.

To take out the first paragraph:

Even among many of the generally tech-friendly and realistic bright green types, the automobile remains an irritant. It's not simply that the petroleum-powered internal combustion engine is an ecological disaster; the automobile, historically, has been a catalyst for many of the more damaging developments in our social geography, from the spread of suburbia and exurbia to the elimination (in many locations) of light rail lines, and continues to enable the proliferation of economic and social institutions of dubious long-term benefit (such as big-box retailers). In many ways, the automobile is the canonical example of a trigger for long-term, unanticipated and undesired results. If we think of the car in this way, it's clear that even shifting entirely to electric cars, biofuel cars, or cars that ran on pixie dust, would still enable many of the larger social pathologies that damage our climate, ecological, and social systems.
by nanne (zwaerdenmaecker@gmail.com) on Mon Jan 14th, 2008 at 08:09:15 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Everybody seems to have piled on to your remark, so I might as well join the fun ;-)

My concern is that even assuming sustainable carbon-neutral fuels, western-style mobility is not sustainable on a global level on account of resource consumption. Even assuming small cars, we would be talking about 800 kg of highly refined metal, plastic and ceramic per 2.somthing people with the attendant consumption of materials, energy and manufacturing capacity, not to mention consumption of land for streets and roads.

The fact is that what we're experiencing right now is a top-down disaster. -Paul Krugman

by dvx (dvx.clt št gmail dotcom) on Mon Jan 14th, 2008 at 02:04:01 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Actually, cars about the best recyclable items we currently have. Almost all of the metal in them can be reused, and this is already happening.

Now, I am not a big fan of cars. I see the trouble  they create for urban planning, the ugliness of parking lots.

But cars are also extremely useful. Or public transport is not, choose whatever you want. Here in the Netherlands public transport is not really bad, I think. But visiting my grandmother takes me 3 hours or more, including 10 minutes cycling, two trains, a bus and 15 minutes walking . My parents, who live farther away then me take the car and are there in less than 2 hours. And while public transport is subsidized and cars heavily taxed ( far beyond the cost of roads), cars are usually not expensive once you are taking 2 persons or more.

This is not a 'worst case' story, but very typical. When it comes to door-to-door traveling, public transport just isn't as good as a car by a long stretch, except in city centres where bikes are usually faster.

by GreatZamfir on Wed Jan 16th, 2008 at 05:19:27 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I just read the GM will produce by 2010 a 150mpg hybrid vehicle that runs 40miles on a battery powered electric motor and then uses a small gasoline one as an option to recharge the lithium ion batteries.  It can also be plugged in to recharge.

I can swear there ain't no heaven but I pray there ain't no hell. _ Blood Sweat & Tears
by Gringo (stargazing camel at aoldotcom) on Sun Jan 13th, 2008 at 08:52:15 PM EST
GM is a bit notorious for promising new technologies that somehow never materialize. Compared to all the technologies companies have shown in last decades, the Toyata Prius is nothing special, but it has the benefit of existing in the real world.

I don't know if it's the case here too, but all carmakers and Americans especially tend to promise new technology when politicians starts talking about stronger regulations. There is a lot of tech that can be used for one-off show models, but to scale it up to industrial production at affordable costs is the real challenge.

by GreatZamfir on Mon Jan 14th, 2008 at 03:12:59 AM EST
[ Parent ]
  1.  The Chevy VOLT is in the GM contract with the unions to start construction in 2010 for, as I understand it, the 2011 model year. 60,000 units / year. Sadly, there are many (MANY) fuel hogs in the contract as well.

  2.  Believe GM has stated that they will have four new hybrids/year for the next several years.  (Four?)

  3.  There is discussion that GM, itself, will have a plug-in hybrid variant of the Saturn VUE in the near term.

  4.  AFS Trinity came out with a modified Saturn VUE that is a plug-in hybrid.  See Energy Smart for more info.

Blogging regularly at Get Energy Smart. NOW!!!
by a siegel (siegeadATgmailIGNORETHISdotPLEASEcom) on Mon Jan 14th, 2008 at 08:06:06 AM EST
[ Parent ]

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