29 June 2010

With Tesla IPO, Has the Age of Electric Vehicles Arrived?

Tesla Motors will have its IPO today. The Nissan LEAF electric vehicle sold out shortly after it was announced, many of the orders coming from first-time Nissan customers. The Chevy Volt may even hit the showroom later this year.

It certainly seems as if the age of the electric car is upon us. But hold on a minute. Let not all the hype keep us from seeing the speedbumps -- and maybe a few roadblocks in the way of a complete transition on our roadways.

Don't get me wrong, I believe the battery electric vehicle (or BEV for short) is the vehicle of the future. But this new generation of electric vehicles will have lots of challenges, including battery technology, range, and charging.

Let's take range. Today, we are used to driving 300 miles or so before having to pull into a gas station and, after inserting our credit card, choosing the grade, and popping the nozzle in the tank, we can be refueled and ready to go before we've had a chance to clean the windshield.

Contrast that with the currently planned charging experience for electric vehicles. Drive 100 miles and you need to charge it -- the LEAF will take 8 hours for a full charge at 200 volts -- and there is currently very little infrastructure to support electric vehicle charging.

You can get around this by increasing the number or density of batteries in a vehicle, which will add weight and cost, but as battery technology improves the weight and cost, life and range will increase.

Charging, however, still remains an issue. I'm concerned about the vision of the future that imagines hundreds of thousands of charging stations around the country, in cities, parking garages, and on-the-street parking (perhaps replacing the meters that have gone the way of the parking kiosk). That seems like an awful lot of infrastructure needing to be built.

And what about that volatile mix of bad weather and high voltage. Imagine the housewife, parking in the Whole Foods lot, plugging in while she goes in for groceries. She comes out, and some idiot parking next to her has dislodged the plug. Not only does she not have the charge she needs to go pick up Junior from day care, but now she's dealing with a live wire on a wet macadam. Doesn't sound like the way to go to me.

I've even seen plans for "battery replacement stations" where you drive in and your old battery is swapped out for a new one -- the batteries are on a huge circular conveyor. The Pep Boys, Manny, Moe, and Jack, are probably salivating at that prospect. But that doesn't seem feasible to me.

Which is why I was encouraged by this video from the UK-based HaloIPT of an alternative future featuring wireless, dynamic charging based upon inductive power transfer technology.

Momentum Dynamics, a Malvern, PA-based company I've written about before on this blog, also has a technology that may help advance the vision depicted above.

As Andy Daga, CEO of Momentum Dynamics said to me recently, the battery electric vehicle industry "Needs three things: improved battery technology (this is coming), improved vehicle integration of new technologies (also in the works), and finally, improvements in the technology and distribution of charging technology."

Of course, that is what Andy and his company are focused on, and which he feels "is absolutely critical to the industry."

I hope for the sake of the electric vehicle market that the Tesla IPO ($TSLA) goes well. I have concerns that, like $AONE, it will go from 0 to 60 and come to a screeching halt, like, well, a Tesla Roadster as it approaches a speed trap. (That won't be good for future cleantech IPOs -- some companies have already pulled their plans this year).

But I have larger concerns that we are ignoring the looming issues facing the electric vehicle industry that may well prevent it from going the distance.

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22 June 2010

Dark Ecosystems Nurtured by Oil (NYT)

"How much oil seeps up from the seabed, aside from oil spills? Quite a lot, and a fascinating group of sea creatures thrives on it," writes William Broad in the New York Times Green Blog about sea creatures that thrive on natural oil seeps in the deep, dark ocean: Dark Ecosystems Nurtured by Oil.

"In 2003, the National Research Council released a comprehensive study, 'Oil in the Sea III: Inputs, Fates and Effects.' The 265-page report paints a global portrait of the petrochemical flows, both natural and unnatural. It turns out that the largest contributors [of petrochemicals in the ocean] far and away are the natural seeps, like those across the bottom of the gulf that power the dark ecosystems."

Of course, as one commentator pointed out, the BP Deepwater Horizon spill has leaked "an amount equal to 75 percent of the annual natural seepage worldwide, except it has occurred in 2 months in one specific location."

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13 June 2010

Deadly Diet: This is Your Albatross on Plastic

Ah! well a-day! what evil looks
Had I from old and young!
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung.

--Samuel Taylor Coleridge, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"

Plastic, plastic, and not a drop to drink?

Photographic artist and activist Chris Jordan has had a lot of attention for his photographs of albatross chicks who perished on Midway Atoll from a diet of plastic. (That's one of his images to the right.)

Here is a slide show that appeared in the Spring 2010 issue of the literary journal Ecotone: Reimagining Place:

Midway: Message from the Gyre by Chris Jordan

This is a travesty about which we should all be ashamed. Will we be like the mariner, forced to pay for our treatment of these legendary birds?  Or will we wake up and clean up our own messes as our mothers instructed us to do as children.

Charles Baudelaire's poem "L'Albatros" ends with these prophetic words:

The Poet is not unlike this Prince of the Clouds
who rode out the storm and suffered the slings
and arrows; exiled on dry land, amid the jeering crowds,
again and again he's dragged down by the weight of those wings.

(Translated by from Paul Muldoon's translation; Muldoon's new book, Maggot, may feature one of Jordan's images on the cover)

Will we be dragged down by the weight of the albatross's wings? Those plastic-infused wings wrapped around our necks, choking us with the weight of our own detritus.

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11 June 2010

Pennsylvania: Keystone in America's Energy Future?

Cropped portion of image from USGS report show...Image via Wikipedia
Long known as the "Keystone State," Pennsylvania is fast becoming key to America's energy future.

With some of the world's largest and best natural gas reserves found in the northwestern part of the state, significant coal reserves already providing electricity for much of the northeastern US, and the country's largest grid operator (PJM) located in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania is already an energy powerhouse.

Increasingly, Pennsylvania is attracting and growing companies in the emerging cleantech arena, including two of the world's largest wind companies (Gamesa and Iberdrola), smart grid and demand response (such as Viridity Energy), and emerging technologies from biofuels to batteries and storage.

Why this convergence? According to Pennsylvania Secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection John Hanger, several key policy decisions made over the past several years, along with efforts and incentives to attract companies from as far away as Spain and Greece, combined with the existing energy infrastructure to make the Commonwealth very attractive.

"Over 50 percent of the inquiries the state is getting from companies looking to relocate here are from the cleantech sector," Secretary Hanger told a group of business leaders at the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce's "The Future of Energy" briefing yesterday.

His remarks were echoed by Alice Solomon of Select Greater Philadelphia, who noted that of the 124 companies she's talking to about the region, 20 percent are alternative energy companies. Solomon, speaking at last week's Clean Energy Conference hosted by PennFuture in Camp Hill, said that strategic market location and a rich infrastructure are attracting these companies.

Part of that rich infrastructure statewide is the vast natural gas reserves that lay a mile-deep under much of Pennsylvania and adjacent states, known as the Marcellus Shale formation.

"Natural Gas is the bridge to the clean energy future," Secretary Hanger noted at last week's conference. "And Pennsylvania will soon produce 10 percent of the nation's natural gas. Marcellus is a game changer."

Wither coal? As my pal Gregor MacDonald pointed out in his Gregor.us post yesterday, "global coal consumption was flat in 2009, as consumption of oil and natural gas fell. Coal remains the big story, and will become an even bigger story as we head to 2015."

Secretary Hanger, when asked at yesterday's Chamber briefing about coal's future in the "clean energy" mix said two things. First, that Pennsylvania has policies in development focused on carbon capture and storage (CCS), and second, that the "coal industry must decide whether to fight a carbon constrained future or to get behind CCS and embrace that future."

The coal industry is not alone in resisting change. The natural gas industry continues to fight Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell's push for a severance tax on natural gas extracted from the state's reserves. Rendell's cause may have received a boost earlier this week when a gas well explosion and fire shut down drilling in Clearfield County.

"We needed a severance tax even before the accident," Rendell told reporters from the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Secretary Hanger's remarks at the Chamber were more pointed, "Every other state has a severance tax on their resources extracted. It's crazy that Pennsylvania doesn't have a severance tax in place for this incredible reserve."

Clearly, as we've argued on this blog before, there is no silver bullet to meet our energy needs and security. So, too, is there no one place that will meet those needs. Pennsylvania, however, with its combination of resources, infrastructure, supportive policies seems poised to become a "keystone" in the future of energy in the United States.

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09 June 2010

Beyond Possible: Are the Plumes on Fire?

Live Stream from BP's Deep Water Horizon oil spill. Is that really fire under water?

Live Broadcast by Ustream.TV

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MIT Energy Conference 2010 - China: The Cradle of New Energy Technology?

One of the best conferences I've been to in a long time was the MIT Energy Conference in March. As I have written on this blog, there was an excellent panel discussion about China's role in the New Energy Economy. Here is a video of the panel (it's an hour or so long, but worth every minute):

Excellent insights from inside and outside China. Thanks MIT!

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08 June 2010

Happy World Oceans of Plastic and Oil Day to You Too, Sucker

World Oceans Day seems like a joke in the face of the BP oil spill, the Pacific Garbage Gyre, and oceans that contain "more plastic than plankton," as Oceanographer Captain Charles Moore, founder of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, puts it.

To have a day to "honor the world's ocean, celebrate the products the ocean provides, such as seafood, as well as marine life itself for aquariums, pets, and also a time to appreciate its own intrinsic value" is a travesty. We are soiling our own house and will have to live in it -- or not.

World Oceans Day is a day of mourning, not celebration. In many ways, it is Beyond Pathetic.

Here is Charles Moore's TED talk on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch:

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04 June 2010

Terry Cooke on China, Cleantech and US Readiness

Terry Cooke spoke to the Cleantech Alliance Mid-Atlantic last week. I'm hoping to do a more extensive piece or interview with Terry at some point, but for now I wanted to share one of his points from the talk:

"Any CEO working on anything related to cleantech has to be thinking about China. China is the world’s largest market for needed application and deployment and that will not change next month, next year or next decade.

On the investment side, China is investing in absolute terms $2 for every dollar of U.S. private and public investment in cleantech. (Adjusting for the relative size of our economies, this mean China is currently out-investing the U.S. by a six-fold factor).

Technologically, the innovation and trade-flows are increasingly becoming a two-way street (as witnessed by the U.S. federal government’s commitment to a $150 million joint research center with China for jointly-developed and jointly–owned cleantech intellectual property).

As these facts sink in, we will all need to get prepared – at the company level, the regional level, and the national level – to sell our cleantech products and ideas to Chinese organizations."

Terry Cooke is currently a 2010 Public Policy Scholar with the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington D.C., researching policy implications of U.S.-China clean energy cooperation/competition. He is the founder of GC3 Strategy, which works with U.S. companies seeking to partner in Greater China. Terry was a Director of the World Economic Forum from 2006-08, responsible for Asian Corporate Partnerships, and a career-member of the U.S. Senior Foreign Commercial Service from 1988-2002.

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