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Sunday, September 28, 2008

Dodge's Tesla knock-off

Chrysler has a long record of engineering successes, including muscle cars like the Charger and the Viper. As the smallest US automaker, it’s had to zig when others have zagged. It worked (at least for a while) with the Caravan, Cherokee, PT Cruiser and some other models of the past few decades.

Thus, it shouldn’t have been surprising that when it unveiled its (long-secret) electric car strategy last week, that one of the three vehicles was the Dodge EV sportscar, which claims to go 0-60 in less than 5 seconds and a 13 second quarter mile.

What seemed odd was that the EV (due “after 2010”) uses a Lotus chassis, from the British automaker known for small, fast and lights sports cars.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because there’s already a Lotus-based electric sports car, shipping today. It’s from Tesla Motors, and is currently being built for Tesla by Lotus — at least until Tesla’s (planned San Jose factory is done. CNET says Tesla is a Lotus Elise and the Dodge is the larger Lotus Europa. Perhaps that’s why the Dodge EV will initially be sold in Europe, rather than head-to-head with Tesla in the US.

In a major shift, Chrysler is using an open innovation strategy, depending on outside suppliers, including the batteries, electric motors and (in the case of the Dodge EV) even the chassis. What’s left? Perhaps just systems integration and control software, plus marketing and distribution.

Perhaps this is a time-to-market strategy that’s intended as a temporary expedient. (That didn’t work out so well when IBM did this with its 1981 PC). Perhaps it’s a recognition that cut free of Mercedes, Chrysler doesn’t have word-class technologies and so should buy the best it can on the open market. Or perhaps it’s permanent recognition that Chrysler is now a second tier car maker (akin to Mitsubishi) that lacks R&D and manufacturing efficiencies to do things on its own.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Your not so-green-blogger

A google news watch reported today that the website Zimbio has created a page for “Joel West”. The picture is the same as the one at right (and the one given below), and the first three entries are about a professor at SJSU. The fourth entry is about a fullback in Broward County high school football.

What I found most amusing was that the main summary for the page — listed next to the photo below — had nothing to do with the other four entries:
PortraitJoel West is a Green Party politician from Texas's 22nd Congressional District. Check back for more coverage of Joel West, congressional elections and Texas senators and representatives.
I have a strong interest in the economics of green issues, but I think hell will probably freeze over (now unlikely given global warming) before I’m a Green Party political candidate.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

EV News: Less Than Meets the Eye?

Today brought two major announcements on opposite sides of the country regarding electric cars.

This morning in Detroit, GM unveiled the real version of the Chevy Volt, promised to ship in 26 months. The announcement was timed as part of the GM centennial celebration.

Meanwhile, Tesla Motors made its own announcement here in San José. Tesla plans to employ 400 workers to build its eponymous product at a 90-acre site in Northeast San José. The site will include both the company HQ and (unless some details fall through) the factory for the Tesla Roadster now being assembled by Lotus in England.

While both are major milestones, below the surface are some details that suggest these announcements are less significant than claimed.

One report said that the Volt would save $1,500 a year in gasoline (vs. $180-$300/year in electricity) but could sell for as much as $40,000 — in other words, a 10-15 year payback period over a typical small car. Once upon a time, Americans bought small fuel-efficient cars because they were cheap, so the idea of paying a $20K premium for an electric car is going to limit the market. I think Honda’s plan for a sub-$20K hybrid is a much more important way to bring LEV/ZEV cars to the mass market.

“Mass market” and “‘Tesla” are not terms used in the same sentence, but the technologically advanced $100K sports car has certainly captured the imagination of local dot-com zillionaires (and some self-indulgent boomers who are slightly less affluent, like one of my neighbors). Although it’s a niche product, it’s a sexy product nonetheless.

Tesla was once going to build its factory in New Mexico, but when production delays hit, state and local officials began wooing it to stay here in the Bay Area. Two things about the deal were troubling.

First, the state is giving at least a $9 million subsidy and the city at least a $15 million subsidy to Tesla. Other firms that create jobs don’t get subsidies, so why are the (economically inept) government officials intervening for this particular employer?

The second problem is the justification for the subsidy, which is the claim is that this is the first of many such local employers:
While San Jose has been active in attracting solar companies to locate in the city, "this is a much bigger deal because of what it is and the technology it represents," [San José mayor Chuck Reed said. "It's not just another solar company. It's an electric car, which has tremendous upside for us, and a whole new area of job potential."
Reed is the most pro-business mayor we’ve had in decades, but he still seems (to put it charitably) misinformed.

The idea that the Bay Area will become a hub of manufacturing high-tech cars is just laughable. Because of labor, land, taxes and all the other costs, by the end of the year Intel won’t even have make semiconductors here — and they have a much higher technology content and value per pound.

Most of the parts for an electric car are shared in common with fossil fuel cars, and so if EVs catch on, nearly all of the electric cars in North America will be made in factories owned by the major world automakers (in Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky or wherever). Perhaps the Prius will someday be made at NUMMI in Fremont — and even the 2010 plug-in version — but today NUMMI is the only remaining auto plant in North America west of Texas.

There’s also the strong possibility that one car company will become zero, i.e. how long Tesla Motors will survive. It might last longer than the seven years of DeLorean Motor Company, since I assume JB Straubel has a more normal personal life than did John Delorean. Even so, I would bet $500 that Tesla will be gone by 2020 — whether dead or gobbled up won’t matter to the San José employees they leave behind. I suppose the best case is that its production moves over to NUMMI, but I think Ford or Chrysler seems a more likely buyer than GM (with its Volt) or Toyota (the world leader in hybrids and soon plug-in hybrids).

So in 5 years, the best case is that we will have dozens of solar photovoltaic firms in the Bay Area, and one electric car company. Perhaps the car company will be employing more people, but the PV companies will be providing higher-wage jobs that are more likely to stay here in the long run.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Electrifying general aviation

Our local CNN Radio affiliate carried a story about a new “green” technology: an electric airplane known as the ElectraFlyer. I couldn’t find the CNN footage, but there is 60 second ad on YouTube.

Obviously a few Lithium-Ion batteries used to power an ultralight aren’t going to get a 747 across the Pacific. There are also a few regulatory hurdles to be cleared, but it’s a start.

Friday, September 5, 2008

I’ve got a lovely ton of coconuts

In February, Richard Branson and Virgin Atlantic flew a 747 from London to Amsterdam using (some) biofuel. The effort was also publicized by partners Imperium Renewables (the fuel supplier) Boeing, while GE Aviation did not. One of the four plane engines was running a blend of 20% biofuel and 80% jet fuel. The renewable fuel came from coconut and babassu oil.

This is an obvious PR effort for airlines and aircraft makers to keep air travel relevant and politically favored. (Virgin Atlantic has a whole website section on sustainability). Planes will be burning hydrocarbons and spewing CO2 for decades to come, so the aircraft sector needs to come up with a way to help its image even if there’s not a lot they can do about the substance.

At the time, Wired was appropriately skeptical about the effort, with a balance of praise and criticism of Sir Richard’s stunt.

This morning, the NY Daily News reported some tidbits about the flight from an apperance by Sir Richard in NYC:
Branson, on hand at JFK yesterday [told] us that "the best way to reduce your carbon footprint is not to fly at all. But that's not realistic. You can't walk to England."

So what's the next best thing? "Fly Virgin," Branson laughed. "One hundred percent of all profits from all our airlines are reinvested into finding a cleaner fuel solution. We had an experimental 747 that ran on coconut oil ... but it took 150,000 coconuts for one flight. So now we're looking at developing fuel from algae. If you fly Virgin, you'll support this cause."
This suggested a simple back of the envelope calculation. Crude Google search suggested that the average weight of a coconut is 300-500g. So 150,000 coconuts is 45-75 metric tonnes, or about 100-165,000 pounds worth.

Let’s assume best case — 300g coconuts, negligible babbassu oil. Biofuel was only 5% (20% x 25%) of the fuel used on the flight, so pure biofuel would require 2 million pounds of coconuts for this flight.

The flight was 231 miles (or 370 km), while the average fight distance is probably closer to 1000 miles. Since fuel consumption is more proportionate to hours rather than miles, I’m guessing the flight was about half as long as normal, but a 747-400 holds more than twice as many passengers (416) as an average plane.

In 2007, there were 29 million flight departures last year. So if we assumed the world’s airlines together need 10 million times as much fuel as the Virgin flight used, that’s 2 trillion pounds (1 billon tons) of coconuts a year.

How big is that? To quote from an Indian website:
The world production of coconut currently is around 55 million tons, Indonesia having the highest production figures accounting up to around 30% in world figures. The nut is cultivated on around 26 million acres of land throughout the world in more than 90 countries of the world. The production of coconuts has increased significantly during the last decade with the increase in the world demand. The world consumption figure in context of coconut oil is around 3.8 million tons.

World trade in coconut complex is limited as most of the produce is consumed at the place of its production. The countries that have demand supply mismatch usually indulge in the trade of the fruit. The exports of coconuts fluctuates depending upon these factors and hovers around 1800000 tons per year.
[Mounds bar]So converting the global supply of coconut would supply only 5% of the world’s jet fuel needs, leaving nothing for Mounds bars and coconut milk.

Of course there is a broader question as to the economics (let alone energy budget) of the crops-to-fuel biofuel effort. But it’s a shame that people are not doing the simple math to see how little an impact some of these initiatives would actually have on global energy consumption.

Monday, September 1, 2008

EE/RE news sources

The focus of this blog is on renewable energy and energy efficiency. In coming up to speed, I’ve tried to find online sources of targeted news on these topics. Below are the most interesting pages I found, ignoring those sites that seem less relevant to the business of the field.

One obvious place to start is the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. The EERE has a number of news feeds and e-mail lists in addition to its news pages and data sources.

There are a few sources specifically related to the business of energy efficiency, such as Energy Efficiency Markets blog and the (global) news site Energy Efficiency News. Another news source is the Alliance to Save Energy, a 30-year-old bipartisan 501(c)(3) nonprofit which has a news page, monthly newsletter, and email newsletter.

When compared to efficiency, there seems to be more news on the alternative energy side. For example, Camino Energy has a blog logging the weekly status of publicly held sustainable energy stocks. Another weekly review is given by Alternative Energy Stocks. (Progressive Investor lists recent prices for a wide range of renewable energy and energy efficiency stocks).

More general blogs on cleantech that cover solar and wind include:
  • Venture investing news can be found in VentureBeat’s cleantech news and the Cleantech Investing blog.
  • The aptly named Cleantech Blog seems to take a more critical look at industry economics than most cleantech blogs.
  • The market watch section of  photovoltaic site PV-Tech.org summarizes business news related to solar energy.
  • Not specific to business, general news on solar power and wind power is repackaged by Alternative Energy News.
Original reporting on a wide range of a green and clean business and technology topics (including some renewable energy) is at the Business Week Green Business section, its Green Business blog, and on the CNET Green Tech blog.

Overall, it was a surprisingly short list of useful sites. For some topics, a Google news Alert (part of Google’s perpetual beta program) would seem to be the most efficient way to monitor key developments.