Reduce Energy Dependence With Hybrid Cars, Plug-In Hybrids and Mileage Standards

More Bad News for Detroit:

China Intends to Own the Electric Car Market

April 6, 2009
As America was obsessing over whether or not to bail out Chrysler and General Motors or let them slide into bankruptcy, along came an announcement that brings Titanic deck chairs to mind. The government of China wants it known that their nation intends to become the pre-eminent producer of all-electrically powered autos within three years.
     The New York Times broke the story, but it could be seen in the tea leaves when in December the Chinese company BYD unveiled an all-electric car with a battery it claimed was two years ahead of the competition. BYD (it stands for “Build Your Dreams “)
started as a battery company making rechargeables for phones and laptops. In the sort of rapid metamorphosis now common in China that the U.S. hasn’t seen since the overnight conversion of its car plants to making tanks in World War II, the company is now making not just batteries but a car in which to put them. One interview quoted a BYD executives as saying that making a mobile phone is really hard. Making a car is easier.
     The car costs about $21,000. The lithium-phosphate battery, so says BYD, can take an 80% charge in 15 minutes and will take you 180 miles (300 kilometers). More astonishing still is BYD’s claim that the battery will sustain 2,000 charges, which equates to a lifetime range of about 375,000 miles (600,000 kilometers). Warren Buffett is a believer. He put $230 million into BYD in September.
     In contrast, there’s the Chevrolet Volt, the only all-electric offering from America’s rapidly shrinking big three. Long slated for introduction in November of 2010, the word is out that the schedule has slipped nine months to August 2011. And it will cost $35,000, possibly more, with a South Korean battery that drains after only 40 miles (at which point a gas motor kicks in to continue charging the battery).
     China is pumping research funds into the industry, is offering subsidies of $8,000 per vehicle, about a third of their cost, to taxi fleets and municipalities if they buy either electrics or hybrids, as well as tax credits to consumers who do the same. The government has set a target of 500,000 copies of hybrids or all-electrics by the end of 2011, says a consulting firm quoted in the Times, almost double the 267,000 that the U.S. will be making in spite of its head start in hybrids. The rapid ramping up of an industry attests to the power of China’s unique mixture of state-planning and a market-based economy.
     What about the U.S.? Congress’s 2007 energy bill allotted $25 billion to the Energy Department to spark electric car development. How is that going? Seventy-five companies have applied for funding but not a cent has flowed. The new energy secretary, Steven Chu, s trying to streamline paperwork and add staff.
     The Obama administration’s stimulus program allots $2 billion for battery research but the U.S. is far behind, which portends a future in which we import batteries instead of oil.

     Stephen Wilson

With All-Electric Cars, Israel, France Show the Way

September 24, 2008
While our national search for energy independence is driven by multiple factors — the transfer of national wealth to unstable and unfriendly countries, the specter of peak oil and a concern about the effects of burning more fossil fuels — the state of Israel has even greater reason to seek alternative sources of energy.
     Spurred by the efforts of successful American-Israeli software developer, Shai Agassi, the Israeli government has promised to support the development of an infrastructure to facilitate the use of all-electric cars throughout the country. While most of the focus in the automobile industry has been on hybrids, many agree that it is only an interim solution before new battery technology is available to power all-electric cars with adequate speed and range.
     While all-electric cars have been around more than a 100 years, other attempts to mass produce electric cars in today’s world have been limited by current battery technology. Agassi, however, realized that even with a limited range of 100 miles, most trips are shorter and, meanwhile, the batteries could be recharged or replaced at charging stations or parking areas. In a sense, he saw the battery as a fuel tank which could be replenished during the day, though this will require as many as 500,000 charging installations scattered at parking lots throughout the country.
     Much like a cell phone network, Israelis would subscribe to a monthly service whereby they sign up for so many miles and be charged for the power they use at recharging stations. Using power generated from solar installations in the Negev desert, drivers will be able to either recharge the batteries in their cars or exchange used batteries for fresh ones in special charging outlets.
     Not only will this arrangement reduce the consumption of imported fuel and make Israel more independent of Middle East oil producers, but it will provide a cheaper form of transportation which is emissions free, assuming that the electric power would come from renewable sources.
     Agassi’s company, Project Better Place of Palo Alto, California, will manufacture the batteries and has already contracted with Renault of France and Nissan of Japan to produce 500 cars which will be available next year. Under this arrangement, the owner buys the car from Renault-Nissan and subscribes to a Better Place service which includes use of the battery and the electricity from the charging stations. Denmark and Portugal are considering similar schemes and Renault-Nissan has already committed itself to producing an all-electric car for the U.S. market by 2010.
     Because Better Place owns the battery, a major cost in electric cars, and Israel will provide a 10% tax credit for electric cars through 2015, the price of electric cars will be comparable to regular cars. Since some of the recharging would be done at night, when electricity is cheaper, and the only cost to the consumer would be the energy consumed in driving, the cost of operation should be much less than driving a gas-powered car, especially if gas prices continue to spike. Gasoline currently costs over $6.00 a gallon in Israel.
     A pilot program involving a few dozen cars will start later this year in Tel Aviv and Agassi promises that there will be several thousand electric cars on the road by 2009 and 100,000 by 2010 in Israel.
     Granted, Israel is a relatively small country, with no great distances between destinations, and has more potential for solar power than most countries, but why wouldn’t this model be relevant for larger countries with the potential for wind, solar, hydroelectric or ocean-wave power? It also provides a concrete model for public-private sector cooperation, based on national or public interest.
     If the Israeli model succeeds, Renault-Nissan plans to develop models for other small countries or large urban areas like Paris, London or New York. Even China, with its increasing problems of traffic, pollution and energy costs, is being considered as a potential market for electric cars.
T. Boone Pickens Proposal      In the United States, T. Boone Pickens, who made his fortune in oil, has proposed creating wind power factories in the Midwest wind corridor to replace the use of natural gas for generating electricity and then using natural gas, of which there is an adequate supply, for powering trucks and cars. Many public utilities, transit authorities and businesses have already switched to natural gas for their fleets since it is cheaper and pollutes less. While his declared motivation is stopping the flow of billions of dollars to foreign oil producers, Mr. Pickens has also invested millions in wind farms in the Texas Panhandle.
     Following the Israeli example, and assuming government support for such a program, however, why not convert our automobile fleet to electricity generated by wind and solar power, and perhaps supplemented by natural gas, which, while a fossil fuel, burns cleaner than gasoline or diesel. Given the size of our country, the limited range of electric cars and the problems of transmitting electricity over long distances, switching to all-electric vehicles might not be feasible, however, especially in the West. On the other hand, a combination of electricity-powered vehicles and recharging stations might meet the needs of urban commuters whose daily trips average less than 40 miles.
Parisian Rent-A-Car      The mayor of Paris has proposed a rent-a-car system in which electric cars would be available for rent from outlying suburbs for travel into the city. Thus, rather than owning and insuring a personal car, individuals could go to a rental station and pay for a one-time trip into the city, dropping off the car when they reach a metro station or their destination, thereby making the car available for other trips throughout the day.
     Given Paris’ excellent public transit system, this arrangement might reduce traffic, certainly in the center of the city and eliminate the need for parking lots and the stress of finding a parking place. The idea is that the drop-off vehicle would be rented by another driver going in a different direction, rather than sitting idle in a parking lot for 8-10 hours. Commuters would not have to own and insure their own vehicles, but only pay a small fee for the temporary use of an electric car when it is needed. Many urbanites rely on public transit, yet occasionally need a vehicle for special trips, which this system would provide without the inconvenience and expense of maintenance and storage.
     Since Parisians have readily adopted to a system of sharing bicycles, the Mayor contends that providing safe, community owned and operated electric cars would attract those living outside the city but working in the center of Paris. Called Autolib, the project has plans to have a fleet of 4000 electric cars by 2010, 2000 in Paris, another 2000 in suburbs, at 700 different locations.
     While opponents object that it will increase the dependency on individual vehicles and increase traffic in an already congested city center, one of the central ideas of the concept is to discourage potential car buyers from purchasing their own vehicles, especially a gas-powered car -- in other words getting away from individually-owned vehicles which pollute and require space. But, will there be enough demand for outgoing cars, that is, leaving or entering the city center throughout the workday?
     On another positive note, this arrangement would not require an elaborate new infrastructure, other than providing recharge facilities at the rental and drop-off locations. Since 70% of the electrical power generated in France is from nuclear plants, it would rely mainly on nuclear power.
     For car-crazy Americans, the idea of not owning a car and driving a shared rental car would require a major adjustment, though the savings, convenience and relief might outweigh the rites of ownership for young urbanites.
Nissan Tests Electric Car in Bay Area      Nissan, which has committed to producing all-electric vehicles, has targeted the environmentally sensitive San Francisco Bay Area to test the all-electric car it hopes to make available to the general public in the United States and Japan in 2010. These cars are not just light golf carts; they would hold 4 or 5 people and have a range of 125 miles, more than enough for most daily trips.
     Nissan has plans to introduce 60 different electric models by 2012. Though they will start with smaller cars, the Nissan electric fleet will include a large range of vehicles. They will be powered by a new 80-kilowatt motor with advanced lithium-ion batteries twice as powerful than current conventional ones.
Local Government Agencies Interested      Since all the municipalities in Sonoma County in Northern California have pledged to reduce carbon emissions to 25% of the 1990 level by 2015, county agencies and municipalities are exploring the use of electric cars, vans and trucks for their fleets. While many of these agencies have already purchased hybrid vehicles in order to reduce operating costs and meet emission targets, hybrids still use gasoline and release emissions.
     Though the specifics are not available, these government agencies are now working closely with Nissan and may lease or purchase test models from the company for trial use. From the company’s perspective, Sonoma County provides a unique opportunity for it to road test its vehicles in a friendly environment, and it hopes to be the first major manufacturer to market an emissions-free vehicle in the United States. Imagine the ads featuring quiet, emissions-free cars winding through the wine country or along the coast.
National Priorities      In view of the above, and many other examples of successful new energy technologies, does it make any sense to make a major campaign issue out of offshore drilling in coastal areas or in Alaska, or tapping the Strategic Oil Reserve, when the effect of these efforts would be minimal at best, and certainly problematic? Given the repercussions of recent price hikes, we should explore all options, but why not make a serious proposal for a government-private sector initiative to subsidize and develop new energy technologies and the infrastructure to wean us from not only imported fuels, but also fossil fuels in general? The wealth saved and the jobs created would reinvigorate our economy while contributing to the reduction in greenhouse gasses and their impact on the planet’s health.
     Tony White

Just Hot Air?

Hybrids, Hydrogen, Electrics, and Now a Car Powered by Air

For years the public has fantasized about cars that run on water. Thanks to a French invention, the future may now include cars that run on air.
     In the Air Car, compressed air, stored in a reinforced tank, is released slowly to propel pistons, much like in a steam engine, in a super lightweight car of composite materials. Since air expands when heated, an on-board gas engine will heat the air, thereby extending the range and power of the stored air. According to the developers of this concept, this heating process will not only allow the car to reach 95 miles per hour, but also extend the car’s range to 800 miles, with minimal emissions.
     Although still consuming gasoline, diesel or a biofuel, the company estimates the vehicle would get 106 miles to the gallon, far better than existing or proposed hybrids. But, at citywide speeds of 35 miles per hour or less, it could operate almost entirely on air, with the fuel-powered engine kicking in at higher speeds or for longer distances.
     In order to be operational, two tanks would have to be filled: a gas tank and one or more air tanks. Since it would probably take an hour to fill the air tanks, the Air Car would come with an at-home charger in order to avoid hour-long waits at a fueling station. Since the charger would be powered by electricity or other fuel, additional energy would be consumed and emissions released, depending on the source of that power.
Market Potential      MDI, the French company which developed the air car, recently announced that Tata Motors of India has purchased rights to produce and sell the Air Car in India and Europe. An American company, New York based Zero Pollution Motors, has acquired the rights to develop its version for the United States. The announced price for its American designed six-seater Air Car is $17,800, to be available in 2010.
     According to Zero Pollution Motors, the American version would be lightweight, a combination of fiberglass and injected foam, mounted on a lightweight frame of joined aluminum rods. Although challenging current consumer preferences in design and safety, computer models suggest that it would meet national safety standards and be comfortable.
     The process of manufacturing would be in the form of a franchise in which regional lease holders would purchase a license to manufacture the Air Car and establish a factory to produce cars for that market. The cost of a franchise alone would be around $460,000 and production would be limited to 4000 units for sale in that market. The first plant will open in New York in 2010.
     Though skeptics concede that air can be used to propel a car, no one has yet demonstrated that an air-powered sedan will get the mileage or range claimed by MDI, especially for larger models. Others assert that the amount of energy needed to charge the air tanks would equal that of charging an all-electric vehicle. While still in the prototype stage, it also appears that the Air Car’s primary utility would be in urban settings, where speeds and distances would permit the use of air as the major propellant.
     As Congress dithers, President Bush pushes for offshore drilling and American automobile companies struggle to survive in a fuel-conscious market, private initiatives like the Air Car may provide a practical answer to our reliance on fossil fuels and the problems of air pollution and climate change. Although hybrids, electric and hydrogen-propelled cars have received more publicity and funding, this French invention may not only provide a cheaper, cleaner, even silent store of power, but also reduce the transfer of national treasure to unstable and unfriendly suppliers and the loss of American lives and wealth to defend access to those sources.
     Given its still developmental and experimental phase, however, don’t hold your breath for your first car running on hot air. Will it run on regular or super?     - Tony White

All-Electric and Plug-in Hybrid Cars Are Happening Sooner Than You Probably Expected

Thanks to recent corporate decisions and technological breakthroughs, the prospect of actually owning and driving a fully-electric or plug-in hybrid car is closer to reality. And, if some of the latest models are any indication, you won't have to sacrifice speed or power or worry about the price of gasoline. While some of the major automobile companies are leading the way, other, smaller startup companies or organizations, especially in the San Francisco Bay Area, have also made their mark.
     After announcing the iQ car, Toyota President Katsuaki Watanabe announced that Toyota would also be selling a plug-in hybrid with a lithium-ion battery by 2010, at the latest. Because the crucial technology for plug-in hybrids or purely electrical vehicles is an adequate power storage capacity, Toyota's engineers still have to design a more efficient lithium-ion battery that can be mass produced and be cost effective.
     General Motors and Daimler AG also revealed plans at Geneva to develop lithium-ion hybrids in which an electric motor assists combustion but does not propel the car. Spurred by tougher European fleet standards by 2012, Daimler plans to make a hybrid version of its Mercedes-Benz top-of-the-line model available by 2009. Though it will not match the emissions performance of smaller, more efficient cars, it will be the most efficient luxury car available.
     General Motors' version is a Saab concept car which releases very low carbon emissions running on gasoline, and slightly less on ethanol. Unlike the GM's Volt, in which an electric motor powers the wheels and the gasoline motor recharges the battery, the Saab uses a smaller battery which assists the internal combustion engine. While GM plans to have a market-ready model by 2010, both GM and Daimler AG will have to perfect batteries that do not overheat, and at a reasonable cost.
     Rumors were also circulating that Toyota is working on another concept car that will combine plug-in hybrid and flex-fuel technologies, weigh one third of the Prius, and go 140 miles on a gallon of gas.

A New Detroit in the Bay Area

Better known for its breakthroughs in electronics and personal computers, Silicon Valley is also leading the way in developing new car technology. In the last few years, venture capitalists have invested several hundred million dollars in startup companies developing electrical vehicles in the South Bay.
     Using the lessons from designing a solar-powered car for the American Solar Challenge, a team of former Stanford students formed Tesla Motors five years ago and designed a two-seater electrically-powered sports car. The prototype runs on a large lithium-ion storage battery that weighs 1,000 pounds; nevertheless, it can reach 60 miles per hour in 4 seconds, go 120 miles per hour and travel 200 miles on a single charge.
     Because of its fast acceleration, without noise or exhaust, the engineers had to develop a new transmission, and it is hoped that new battery technology will not only reduce the size of the battery and its cost, but also make it lighter and more efficient. While the electric power unit is adequate for most daily trips, an on-board generator would be available for longer trips.
     Although a number of celebrities have made deposits for cars that will be delivered this spring, including Governor Schwarzenegger, Tesla Motors' future may not be in competing with the large car manufacturers, but in selling its power train technology to them. Like CalCars in Palo Alto, this startup company has helped to convince major car manufacturers to develop more fuel-efficient and less polluting cars. Tesla may have its $50,000 White Star sedan in showrooms in 2010, when GM plans to sell its sporty Volt.
     Also using lithium-ion batteries, Santa Rosa's Thunderstruck Motors in the North Bay has produced an electric powered motorcycle which recently set two records at Infineon racetrack. It is silent and emits no exhaust. A small company, it provides electric kits to convert gasoline motorcycles or scooters to electricity.
     Using the schematics developed by CalCars and made available free, Plug-in Supply in Petaluma, California, sells kits to convert a Toyota Prius Hybrid into a plug-in hybrid vehicle which can go up to 40 miles on a single charge from a household circuit. For faster speeds or longer distances, the gasoline motor kicks in, but the conversion kit increases mileage from 45 to 100 miles per gallon. Though the cost of conversion (as much as $12,000) outweighs the savings, and currently invalidates the Prius 101ty, buyers feel good about protecting the environment and Toyota plans to market its own plug-in hybrid next year. As the technology improves and more kits are produced, the costs will also come down, while the price of gasoline continues to rise.
     One of the question marks about electric vehicles is how the electricity is produced to power the car. Since a much greater amount of the electricity generated in California is from renewable sources -- solar, wind, hydroelectric and geothermal -- electric cars effectively run cleaner than they would in the Midwest, where much of the power is generated by coal-burning power plants. In fact, because of the heightened interest and already extensive use of electric vehicles in the Bay Area, Project Better Place in Palo Alto raised $200 million of new capital in 2007 to develop fuel stations for electric vehicles.

Plug-In Hybrids

As CalCars and others have demonstrated, the technology for plug-in hybrid (PHEV) vehicles already exists, and this non-profit seizes every opportunity to present the plug-in Prius hybrids which it introduced in 2004. Unlike ethanol, other biofuels or hydrogen, the infrastructure for plug-in hybrids is already in place: an electric grid, a 120-volt household socket and an extension cord. By adding a larger battery and some electronic connections, you can convert a Prius to a PHEV which can go up to 40 miles on an electric charge without kicking in the gasoline engine. This will greatly reduce the cost of driving, produce fewer emissions even when taken off the national grid (50% coal), and reduce costly imports of oil.

Technological Revolution

Clearly, the automobile industry is capable of gearing up and developing more fuel-efficient and cleaner vehicles. Encouraged by higher government emissions standards, public awareness and increasing costs of fossil fuels, we may be on the brink of a revolutionary breakthrough in automobile propulsion. Thanks to more renewable sources of energy, new fuels and energy technology, not only private transportation, but all forms of transport, power generation, lighting, heating and air conditioning, as well as manufacturing, are likely to be transformed.
     While the development of more efficient high-end luxury cars is noteworthy, is it progress when smaller, more fuel-efficient automobiles or public transit would consume less energy and pollute less, thereby harming the planet less? The owner of the luxury car may feel better about releasing fewer emissions than driving an old model, but he or she is still contributing significantly more to global warming.
     Whether traveling in private jets and purchasing carbon offsets or building a huge second home using green materials and techniques, those who consume more put more pressure on the planet to produce those extra resources and in the process, generate more greenhouse gasses. While China and India are catching up, it is the wealthy industrialized countries which have released the greatest quantity of carbon emissions and created the threat of global warming. According to most scenarios, it will also be the poorest of the poor who will suffer the most from climate change.
          - Tony White

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With Cheap Gas, Again Come Proposals
for a Gas Tax

February 6, 2009
The plunge in the price of gasoline once again imperils companies that are producing and developing hybrid and electric autos and alternative fuels. Battery-driven electrics, especially, will cost more. It is generally recognized that pricey gasoline is needed to drive people to adopt transformative technologies. With the per gallon price of gas hovering around $2, pioneering companies can’t compete and are in danger of extinction.
     That has given rise once again on editorial and op-ed pages for a tax on gasoline. If a tax were added such that the price per gallon never dropped below a legislated floor, people would drive less, use public transit more, buy more efficient autos, and those hybrids and electrics would become more economical.
     Time was, before the 2007 price spike, that $3 a gallon was thought to be the number that would change America’s habits. But when $3 gas came along, it hardly made a difference. Not until gasoline prices rose to $4 a gallon in late spring 2007 did sales of SUVs plunge some 30% and Americans begin driving less — 112 billion fewer miles in a 13-month period ending November of last year, a 5.3% year-to-year drop.
     But how to keep and increase those gains? First and foremost, any form of tax must be made permanent; no sunset clauses, as with wind and solar subsidies. From auto manufacturers to Silicon Valley, industry needs a consistent future to rely on so it can plan and invest.
     One type of gas tax would simply add a hefty fixed charge to every gallon. That’s the form Richard Lugar (R-IN) favors in a recent Washington Post op-ed piece. He backs a “revenue neutral” tax — $1 a gallon is mentioned -- so-called because 100% of the cost would be offset by payroll tax reductions “so workers would see extra money every payday”. But under this plan prices would gyrate much as now. Moreover, if in place today, gas would cost $3 instead of $2, a charge that, as seen above, is not enough to change America’s habits. Whereas, if the price rose steeply again, the added fixed tax would make the price unduly onerous.
Instead, a Floor Price?      Better to set a minimum price per gallon, others say – perhaps $4 for argument’s sake. To do so is a political impossibility at a time when millions are losing their jobs unless, like Lugar’s proposal, there were hefty rebates right back into the pockets that just paid the $4, which makes one wonder just what would be accomplished. New York Times columnist Tom Friedman makes his $4 price floor “painless”, offsetting “the gas tax by lowering payroll taxes, or phasing it in over two years at 10 cents a month”. (That would add $2.40 to the $1.60 price in effect when he proposed his $4). Instead of rebates to only those who are truly damaged by $4 a gallon, Friedman thus would give refunds to everyone (and nothing to those who’ve lost their jobs). Or, he believes that somehow people will be better able to afford the tax if it comes at them gradually.
     Across the fold, the editorial page of his paper says, ”the fuel taxes could be offset with tax credits to protect vulnerable segments of the population”. Pundits tend to toss off these compensation schemes without the effort of exploring just how a rebate could equitably be distributed only to those who need whatever is meant by “tax credits”, and only to the degree that they need them.
Can Big Oil Be Trusted?      There’s another concern with setting a minimum price for gasoline: It was oil peaking at $147 a barrel that led to gasoline peaking at $4.11 a gallon in mid-July last year. But if oil is trading at only $40 a barrel and the floor is set at $4 a gallon, what’s to prevent the oil companies and refiners from pocketing most of the difference by setting the price to wholesalers close to the $4 threshold? Right now the gap between the wholesale and retail price is about 32 cents a gallon. If today’s price at the pump were mandated at $4/gallon, the wholesale-to-retail spread would be about $2.25, which would invite all manner of unseen mischief.
     So the law that sets that minimum price would have to set a maximum markup above daily world oil prices above which oil producers would not be allowed to sell their product. Such a law would never fly, of course, and however much we may bridle at oil company profits, do we really want even to contemplate that degree of a controlled economy?
     There’s an approach much simpler than a gas tax: a surcharge on new (and possibly used) cars and light trucks geared to their Environmental Protection Agency miles-per-gallon rating. Essentially, the buyer would be made to pay for the right to pollute: the worse the mileage, the higher the penalty. At its maximum, such a tax would add several thousand dollars to the price of a low mileage SUV. This surcharge for guzzlers would be another blow to auto manufacturers; higher prices would mean lower sales of the vehicles that deliver their biggest profits.
     But these penalty fees could be returned to the public in the form of rebates to buyers of fuel-efficient cars – the higher the mileage rating, the bigger the rebate. (Rebates would actually be a reinstatement of a government program begun in 2005 and since allowed to lapse.) Rebates would help the industry sell the more fuel-efficient cars and trucks at prices that make them profitable. Combine surcharges and rebates and we could see America convert to a more efficient auto fleet.
     Oil, and in turn gasoline, has always been too cheap. No value is ascribed to Nature having made this induplicable and finite resource. Had we ever any leadership that set about changing the American mindset (Europeans have for decades been paying three times as much for gas as we), we long ago could have been educated that cheap gas is a bargain we cannot afford. Instead, we have developed a habit that sent $430 billion to other countries last year. Will the Obama administration and this Congress finally take action?
     Stephen Wilson

By 2020 More on Volts Than Gas?

Shai Agassi’s Audacious Plan for Electric Cars

February 27, 2009
He aims to spark nothing short of an automotive revolution, whole countries at a time. Former software executive, Shai Agassi, a 40-year-old Israeli transplanted to Silicon Valley, has so far been invited to 30 countries to propose his radical plan for converting to all-electric vehicles.
     What has caught their attention is less about the car than about its support system. Car makers have focused on how to build electric cars, which for Agassi is the wrong way round. For him the quest is how to run a country without oil, and that means putting infrastructure ahead of cars: the facilities out on the road that tend to the cars’ batteries. If the support platform is built “after people buy the product, people just won't buy the product".

     The key idea that sets Agassi’s scheme apart is an electric car with batteries not included. Car companies don’t know how to assess the life of the batteries needed to power electrics, and that complicates pricing and
warranties. So “just as you don't sell a car [along] with the oil for the life of the car", he says to separate the car from the battery.
      In this arrangement we would effectively rent our car’s battery from a company such as his, named Better Place (as in make the world a better place). Agassi’s infrastructure blueprint would put battery recharging outlets just about everywhere — retail store parking, company parking slots, park-n-ride parking fields, etc. That’s not unheard of: far north places like Sweden already have such outlets — to heat frozen engine blocks in their cold winters. While in a store or at the bank, we’d plug in, top up the battery, and continue on our way. And usually no need even for that: we would plug in overnight at home. With almost all trips that we make averaging less than 100 miles, that would be all that is needed.
Road Trip       For longer trips what happens? The time it takes to recharge the large, heavy batteries needed to power a car would be unacceptable to a motorist out on the highway. We are accustomed to spending about 5 to 10 minutes at gas stations, and that is the criterion that led Agassi to the second level of his infrastructure plan: with the dashboard showing that the battery is nearly drained, we would pull into a swap station where a hydraulic lift would drop down from our under-carriage the universally standard size battery and hoist in a replacement from the station’s stock of swapped-out batteries that other cars had left behind for recharging.
      No charge — money that is. It’s part of the usage plan, marketed like those for cell phones, charged by the mile with the charge covering the battery, the electricity, battery switching, and access to the Internet where software continually reads the car’s location and guides the driver to open parking spots with power outlets.
      Agassi knows that battery swaps must be fast. When the Better Place team visits car companies, instead of the battery engineers, “we always call on the Formula I team”, the guys who know how to change all four tires in 7 seconds. “We are dealing not with electrons, but with mechanics”.
      The irony is that this new world would save us time. Swap station stops for the typical driver would be rare (how often do we drive over 100 miles?) compared to the 40 to 50 times a year we stop for gas now.
     Agassi shows a strong awareness that for the electric revolution to take hold, any plan must honor that "invisible social contract we have with our cars” or else “it's not a car, it's a souped-up golf cart”.
     • So they have to be fast. That’s not a problem with electrics. They sprint from a standing start and don’t go through gear changes. He says a prototype does 0-60 mils per hour in about 7.5 seconds.
     • They must be as spacious as today’s cars. We seldom need to use five seats but we want to think that “road trip with our college buddies” can still happen.
     • They must be affordable not just to buy and to operate, but "can we afford to be seen in them? When we were teenagers we wouldn't be seen in our father's Oldsmobile. Today we wouldn't be seen in a Hummer". Agassi envisions “a day when we don’t want to be seen in any car with a tailpipe”.       Job #1: Israel       In December 2006, Agassi gave a talk in Zermatt. He followed Daniel Yergin, who can always be counted on to tell the world not to worry, there’s plenty of oil and we’re going to use lots more of it. He spoke of Israel as a likely laboratory for his ideas and word of the talk reached Shimon Peres, who woke him with a phone call two weeks Continued next column

later. Fast forward and Israel had decided to adopt his plan for the whole country.
     Israel is an ideal candidate, a country small enough to convert entirely, effectively an island surrounded by enemies. “If your car goes outside Israel it's been stolen”, says Agassi. Israel passed a law in January of last year to make the plan happen, a law that has other countries calling for copies. It sorts cars into 15 categories, levying a tax of 72% on the heavy gas burners like SUVs and only 10% on electrics. The tax on electrics will rise over time, because the country needs the money, but that encourages early adopters to buy electrics sooner, not least because the resale value of their cars will rise as the tax rises.
     Better Place will manufacture the batteries and has contracted with Renault of France and Nissan of Japan to produce 500 cars that will come on stream in 2009. The company is already installing electrical outlets and switching stations, armed with original seed capital of $200 million. The owner buys the car from Renault-Nissan. Because Better Place owns the battery, a major cost in electric cars, and because Israel has steeply reduced the car tax through 2014, the price of electric cars will be comparable to regular cars.
     Better Place is also already building changing stations in Denmark and Japan, and the Macquarie Group, Australia’s largest investment bank, is raising $1 billion for a project there. In Denmark the company signed with the largest utility, DONG Energy. The country is a world leader in wind turbines, and 18% of the utility’s production comes from wind. When the wind bows, DONG generates excess power with nowhere to store it, and even gives it away to Germany and Sweden. Instead, the company sees a lucrative answer in storing that surplus in car batteries. What About the U.S.?      Several U.S. cities have conferred with Agassi, and a cluster of nine have banded together in an agreement in the San Francisco Bay Area. A metropolitan area — a circle of 100 miles — qualifies as a kind of “island” for electric car purposes, considering that almost all movement and commuting occur within that circle's confines. In the case of California, battery switching stations along the interstates could link the metropolitan circles of San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego.
     Hawaii could be the first state to follow the Israel example of total conversion. Oil accounts for a higher percentage of Hawaii’s gross domestic product than any other state, all of it of course coming by ship. Rather than just swap one form of CO2 emitting power for another, to seal the deal Better Place has offered to pay a premium for power developed by wind and solar. Even so, the 1 to 2 cent a mile cost of clean electricity and the 4 to 6 cents a mile cost of the battery, amortized over its lifetime, equate to about $25 a barrel oil for the avergae U.S. auto.
     Could Agassi’s plan be considered, even hypothetically, for the mainland? How could the U.S. electrical industry possibly expand to power the nation’s auto fleet? You will probably blink to see if you’ve read it correctly, but his answer is that, if all the autos in the U.S. were to convert from gasoline to electrons, we would need only 6% more juice flowing on the grid.
The Catch     But the real power problem for the U.S. is the battery. The stimulus program just passed by Congress provides for long-overdue support for battery research, but the eight years of the Bush administration’s emphasis on oil have once again seen a major future industry thrive offshore, with the most advanced battery technology coming from China. Lacking a major attempt to turn that around, we’ll just be importing batteries instead of oil.
- Stephen Wilson
For our earlier article on Better Place, click here.

What Are They On?

Airlines Are Trying Weed as the Next Jet Fuel

February 27, 2009
A  sinking economy is expected to cause Americans to drive 6% fewer miles over the next two years despite a return to bargain gasoline prices, but the airline industry hasn’t forgotten last summer’s stratospheric rise in the price of oil. They know it can happen again. An 80% increase from the previous year caused jet fuel to rise to 40% of their costs (up from 15% in years past) resulting in heavy losses, so the airlines set about looking for substitutes.
     What they may have found is so unlikely that, like Jonathan Swift’s quip that “It was a
brave man who ate the first oyster”, one wonders how what they tried could have occurred to them as an alternate fuel: an ugly weed called jatropha that grows a poisonous fruit and sprouts leaves sufficiently toxic to be used as a pesticide. Grown mostly in India and Africa, it has historically been used as a hedgerow and somewhat as a parasol shading coffee plants.
     But the seeds of the fruit contain oil in abundance, exceeding that of other plants that are being converted to fuel such as soy and corn. Soy yields 60 to 100 gallons of oil per hectare (2.5 acres). Jatropha yields about 600 gallons. And like any plant that calls itself a weed, it can grow in non-arable soil under unforgiving conditions that would cause cultivated plants to shrivel, which means it doesn’t compete for land with food crops. Add to that a 40-year lifespan.
     Three airlines — New Zealand, Continental and Japan Airlines — have tested jatropha in the past few weeks. New Zealand put a Boeing 747 through a 2-hour test using a 50-50 mixture in one of its engines, and pilots have even tested engine shutdowns and restarts, with all aircraft having “performed flawlessly”, according to Boeing’s head of sustainable fuels research.
     Beyond a push to avoid the volatility of oil prices, the airlines are conscious of pressure the future may bring to reduce their contribution to the warming climate. The International Air Transport Association of 230 airlines has set a target of 10% alternate fuel use by 2017.
     Elsewhere in these pages we’ve observed that the government has a terrible track record picking winners. The 2007 energy bill mandated a doubling of the use of corn ethanol, and legislated a conversion from corn to cellulosic ethanol that begins as soon as next year even though the technology barely exists. The result was a rush to cash in that diverted corn to fuel, first raising food prices, then leading to over-capacity and now ending in plant closings in the wake of the economic collapse and the return of cheap gasoline. Not even subsidies and a guaranteed market are proving enough to prop up the industry, as a number of companies have filed for bankruptcy.
     The stimulus package just passed by the U.S. Congress will channel more than $40 billion into clean energy and efficiency. It remains to be seen whether, this time around, more sensible choices are made. The airlines could be pointing the way.          - Stephen Wilson

Exploring Options:

We Don't Have to Re-Invent the Automobile to Make It More Efficient

As most of us know, the second largest U.S. source of CO2 emissions is our ubiquitous motorcar. Only coal-fired electricity plants are worse. In this country, not only do we own the largest number of cars per capita, but we also have, on average, the most inefficient cars. Then, because fuel is cheaper here than in other hydrocarbon-importing countries, we drive our cars more than others do. The net effect is that we are by far the world's worst offenders in terms of vehicular per capita contribution to global warming.
     Beyond the damage caused by the sheer volume of our emissions, this dismal performance relegates us distinctly to the "moral low ground" from which it is impossible for us to play a worldwide leadership role in curbing human-caused environmental change. Not a pretty picture, particularly when viewed from abroad, where the population suffers from our emissions as much as we do, but can do little to change it.
     How should we deal with this? We can walk, bike and use public transport (easier to argue if gasoline were to rise to $5 per gallon). And we can drive more efficient cars. The potential in the latter approach is greater than most Americans yet imagine, as this article will try to illustrate.

At Least the U.S. Is a Good Place to Start

The conditions prevailing when our car designs were developed were so different from what exists today, that it is almost good news. Our cars are remarkably inefficient: so much so, that squeezing out better gas mileage can be amazingly productive, if we take it seriously.
     To really get results, we need simultaneously to work on vehicle weight and drag; and we need to think differently about the engine.

Weight and Drag

Carbon fiber construction, which is now being used in airplanes (like Boeing's 787 Dreamliner) holds great promise for making cars that weigh as much as 50% to 70% less than current cars. And since the power needed to drive the car is proportionate to drag, and most of the drag varies with weight, these cars will use much less fuel, despite still being roomy and safe in crashes, owing to the so-called "crush characteristics" of the material. Finally, in high volume production, they will cost little more than a steel car, if at all. Signs that auto companies are beginning to see the light include the recent appointment of Alan Mulally, formerly CEO of Boeing, as CEO of Ford.

Engine Changes

Driven both by the need to merge into high-speed traffic, and by the sheer fun of it, Americans demand fast acceleration. Given our current car designs, this calls for a large capacity, high torque gasoline engine. Such engines burn lots of fuel at normal cruising throttle settings, because they are operating at a tiny fraction of their maximum power output. If good acceleration could be achieved with a smaller engine, running at a consistently higher percentage of rated power, significant savings would take place. This is precisely why hybrid electric vehicles (HEV's) are appearing here and abroad. A smaller than normal gasoline engine runs only when it is needed to recharge batteries, and when it runs, it is at a higher throttle setting than the traditional large capacity pure gasoline engine.
     These early hybrids offer improved gas mileage, but not by much. And the battery system produces spirited acceleration when desired. But there is still a long way to go in developing these designs. To provide some idea of what the future might be in these cars, let us examine the hybrids in three categories: a) big engine, small battery bank; b) small engine, big battery bank, and c) plug in, small engine, big battery bank.

Big Engine, Small Battery Bank:  The Toyota Prius is such a car. It gets 40-45 mpg, compared to 25 or 30 on conventional cars that cost less. The battery can go short distances, after which the engine kicks in and both drives the car and recharges the batteries. It is a good product, and a big part of the benefit is that it makes the owner "feel good" that he or she is doing something about the problem. But, frankly, making an old fashioned car lighter would have achieved essentially the same result.

Small Engine, Big Battery Bank:  This configuration makes more sense and will be emerging soon. It permits the engine to operate more continuously and at a higher power setting when operating. Both contribute to greater efficiency. Battery design issues such as power to weight, cost to weight and final disposal of battery materials, when the car is retired, are problematic and the solutions are evolving quickly enough that companies are reluctant to "freeze" designs. But cars in this category promise fuel performance approaching double that of the Prius.

Plug-in, Small engine, Big Battery Bank:  When this configuration is introduced, which is some years away, the limits of efficiency of gasoline-powered vehicles will be close at hand. In this design, the car (whether at work or at home) is plugged into a normal 110v wall plug that is connected to a "smart meter". When electric power is not in high demand, and is therefore cheaper, the car "buys" and stores energy from the grid. When it is driven, it uses less gasoline because it runs farther on stored electricity from the grid. If it is not driven, it can "resell" the stored electrical power through the smart meter to the grid, possibly even at a small profit, thus allowing the electrical system to avoid the need to build for peak load. Thus, cars become integral to the electrical power generating and storage system, for the benefit of both that system and the cars. These cars, if built of light materials, will be capable of getting 150 to 180 mpg! The gain from 30 mpg to 60 mpg is achieved from making lighter cars, and the rest comes from a power train comprising an efficient and small internal combustion engine, coupled with a plug-in rechargeable battery bank, and electric motors that both drive and brake the car. The braking retrieves some of the energy from forward motion, rather than losing it as heat from conventional brakes.

Bottom Line

It is easy to see how we can have good, safe, affordable cars, which are five times more efficient than our current cars. If we couple these vehicles with fuels from biomass and non-polluting electricity generating plants, we can even be optimistic about cutting greenhouse gas emissions dramatically and reducing our dependency on imported hydrocarbons from hostile exporting nations.
     But it will take a population who understand the stakes and the complexities, and who hold themselves and their leaders to a high standard.      - Douglas Ayer