R-Squared Energy Blog

Pure Energy

Electric Vehicle Update

In 2009 and 2010 we should see a lot of hybrids and fully electric cars hitting the roads. I spent a little time this weekend reviewing the potential offerings. Here is where some of the more frequently-mentioned offerings stand.

1. The Aptera 2e

The Aptera 2e

This is probably the most unusual offering. I first mentioned the Aptera in a story last year, and the roll-out is still on target for Q4 of this year. It is a 3-wheeled vehicle, made of light-weight composites. The shape is very aerodynamic to minimize wind resistance. The batteries recharge in 8 hours, and the car reportedly has a range of 100 miles. The cost is going to be in the range of $30,000, and the company reports that they already have deposits down for 4,000 vehicles.

The company has put together a veteran team, and by all appearances they are building an impressive car. Road and Track recently got an exclusive look:

Exclusive: Aptera 2e

Some excerpts:

The business model looks sound; nearly 4000 deposits have been placed (Robin Williams among the clientele), enthusiastic investors are locked in, and co-founders Steve Fambro and Chris Anthony have assembled a team that balances Detroit low-volume niche-production experience with California “anything is possible” attitude. Chief engineer Tom Reichenbach was formerly vehicle engineering manager for both Ford GT and Shelby GT500 programs; and CEO Paul Wilbur has a storied history at Ford, Chrysler and ASC. And Fambro, a biotech engineer and private pilot intrigued by his aircraft’s composite construction, and Anthony, a composites specialist with a background in boat design and fluid dynamics, seemed predestined for this partnership.

There’s a large hooded digital speedometer and bar-graph battery state-of-charge indicator, along with a central infotainment screen that offers mind-boggling possibilities. Leg- and head room were surprisingly generous for even my 6-foot-3 frame. And safety is preeminent in the Aptera’s design — the final version will have both frontal and side airbags. And if there was any doubt about the strength of the composite construction, it was quelled as eight Aptera employees stood on the roof of a development shell. And that was after the shell had gone through government roof-crush testing!

The car will initially be available only in California, but I will be watching closely to see how well it sells. Will it be accepted by the public? I have given thought to how I would feel about driving one around. I think the police would pull you over a lot, thinking the car isn’t street legal. Regardless, I am certainly rooting for it to be a success.

2. The Ford Fusion

The big news over the past week is that the Ford Fusion has been put to the test, and three major publications concluded that it was the best hybrid yet built. Yes, better than the Toyota Prius, which has been the most popular hybrid for many years. USA Today writes:

The 2010 Ford Fusion hybrid is the best gasoline-electric hybrid yet. What makes it best is a top-drawer blend of an already very good midsize sedan with the industry’s smoothest, best-integrated gas-electric power system. It’s so well-done that you have to look to the $107,000 Lexus LS 600h hybrid to come close.

U.S. News and World Reports says:

If you’re in the market for an ultra fuel-efficient hybrid that makes a convincing family sedan, your best choice has always been a Toyota — until now. Toyota’s Camry Hybrid and Prius have been the only realistic alternatives for many. Most American-built hybrids simply haven’t matched their fuel economy, and the Nissan Altima Hybrid remains rare and hard to find.

The Fusion Hybrid qualifies for a federal tax credit of $3,400 until the end of March, but few of the cars will reach dealerships by then – if you’re in the market, you might want to consider ordering yours before the credit disappears. If any Ford product has your eye, you should be aware that Ford is offering some of the deepest discounts we’ve seen in years this month.

Finally, Car and Driver had this to say:

Ford has pulled off a game changer with this 2010 model, creating a high-mpg family hauler that’s fun to drive. That achievement has two components: First, the machinery is unexpectedly refined—call it Toyota slickness expressed with car-guy soul. Second, the electronic instrument cluster involves the driver, invites you into the hybrid game, and gives you the feedback needed to keep increasing your personal-best mpg number.

I have to say this is quite an exciting development. I am now in my 12th month without a car, but it may be time to go ahead and purchase one. Given that I could get the tax credit if I order by the end of March, I may go ahead and pull the trigger.

3. The Chevy Volt

GM’s Chevy Volt

First announced in 2007, the Chevy Volt looks to finally make an appearance in late 2010 (although 2011 won’t be a surprise). Per GM’s website:

The Extended-Range Electric Vehicle that is redefining the automotive world is no longer just a rumor. In fact, its propulsion system is so revolutionary, it’s unlike any other vehicle or electric car that’s ever been introduced. And we’re making this remarkable vision a reality, so that one day you’ll have the freedom to drive gas-free.

Chevy Volt is designed to move more than 75 percent of America’s daily commuters without a single drop of gas.(2) That means for someone who drives less than 40 miles a day, Chevy Volt will use zero gasoline and produce zero emissions.(1)

Unlike traditional electric cars, Chevy Volt has a revolutionary propulsion system that takes you beyond the power of the battery. It will use a lithium-ion battery with a gasoline-powered, range-extending engine that drives a generator to provide electric power when you drive beyond the 40-mile battery range.

So it isn’t a purely electric car, but does have a pretty good battery range for a full-sized car. Plus, there are apparently provisions in the auto bailout that make the Volt eligible for a $7,500 tax credit. But there are certainly skeptics that the Volt will ever live up to the hype.

4. The Tesla Roadster

Speaking of hype, the all-electric Tesla Roadster reminds me of some of the more exotic and overhyped biofuels. We have heard about it forever, but the costs keep going up and the roll-out date for mass production keeps getting pushed out. The price is now up to $109,000, and even though performance reports of the handful that have been built are very impressive, there are serious questions as to whether this experiment will ultimately be successful.

Based on a Lotus platform, and assembled at the Lotus factory in Hethel, England, the Tesla has been mired in controversy throughout its short history. The latest setback was that Tesla lost a legal ruling to up and coming competitor Fisker Automotive, themselves creating a worthy competitor to the Roadster in the Fisker Karma. The Karma is an extended range hybrid that can go 50 miles before the gasoline engine has to kick in. (The Karma is expected to hit the road in 2010).

By all accounts Tesla is building a car with impressive specifications, and they plan to follow the Roadster up with the Tesla Model S that will be quite a bit cheaper than the Roadster. But Tesla has had cash flow problems and has been forced to lay off people. From the various accounts I have read, I don’t expect the Tesla to be in the race in the long run. One website got so tired of the hype that they turned their ‘Tesla birth watch’ into a ‘Tesla death watch.’ Still, I think the company is to be commended for their innovation, and I hope they get the problems worked out. (On an amusing personal note, former CEO Martin Eberhard has reportedly read this blog, and got a kick out of my tangles with Vinod Khosla).

5. Plug-in Toyota Prius

I wanted to limit this list to 5 cars, and there were a number of contenders worth a mention. But I would be remiss not to include the next generation Prius among the list of offerings. While at least one private company has already been modifying the Prius to be a plug-in hybrid, Toyota is working furiously to be the first to put large numbers of plug-in hybrids on U.S. roads. Initially announced for 2010, Toyota has moved up the schedule for the plug-in Prius and plans to have the first 500 on the road by the end of 2009 (150 in the U.S.). The downside is that the first prototypes can only go about 7 miles on battery power alone, which is well-short of the average person’s commute. So you can expect the plug-in Prius to run on gasoline most of the time.

Other Contenders

There are a number of other electric offerings worth a mention. Nissan has announced plans to put electric cars on U.S. roads by 2010. BMW has begun producing all-electric versions of their popular Mini Cooper, and so far can’t keep up with demand. ZAP is putting a sporty 3-wheeled electric car out (the Alias), along with offerings such as an electric truck and sedan. The Alias can reportedly go 100 miles on a charge.

Finally, Toronto-based Zenn Motor Company says they will put an electric car on the roads in 2009. This one is particularly noteworthy because of their intention to use EEStor’s ultracapacitor to power the vehicle. EEStor claims that their ultracapacitor is 1/10th the weight and volume of conventional battery technology. While potentially a game-changer, many feel that EEStor is a classic case of vaporware, and many capacitor experts say that it will never see the light of day. In response, Zenn says that their electric vehicles are not contingent upon the success of the ultracapacitor. And in fact, according to their website I can buy an all-electric Zenn vehicle here in the Dallas area right now. There are two dealers to choose from in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, and one of the dealers claims a 260 mile range on a single charge. I think I will try to make a trip down to see if they really have something in stock.

Conclusion

Based on the large number of electric offerings to be rolled out over the next two years, I would be surprised if some don’t stick around for the long run. A return to $4.00 gasoline should accelerate public acceptance of electric vehicles. The Aptera looks like a winner, provided buyers embrace the futuristic design. The Ford Fusion hybrid also looks like it is ready to make major inroads into the market share of the Toyota Prius. And don’t be surprised to see lots of electric Mini Coopers showing up on the roads soon. Now I just need to figure out if I am ready to be a part of the experiment and buy one of these vehicles.

February 16, 2009 Posted by | Aptera, Chevy Volt, Ford, General Motors, Nissan, Prius, Tesla Motors | 36 Comments

Electric Vehicle Update

In 2009 and 2010 we should see a lot of hybrids and fully electric cars hitting the roads. I spent a little time this weekend reviewing the potential offerings. Here is where some of the more frequently-mentioned offerings stand.

1. The Aptera 2e

The Aptera 2e

This is probably the most unusual offering. I first mentioned the Aptera in a story last year, and the roll-out is still on target for Q4 of this year. It is a 3-wheeled vehicle, made of light-weight composites. The shape is very aerodynamic to minimize wind resistance. The batteries recharge in 8 hours, and the car reportedly has a range of 100 miles. The cost is going to be in the range of $30,000, and the company reports that they already have deposits down for 4,000 vehicles.

The company has put together a veteran team, and by all appearances they are building an impressive car. Road and Track recently got an exclusive look:

Exclusive: Aptera 2e

Some excerpts:

The business model looks sound; nearly 4000 deposits have been placed (Robin Williams among the clientele), enthusiastic investors are locked in, and co-founders Steve Fambro and Chris Anthony have assembled a team that balances Detroit low-volume niche-production experience with California “anything is possible” attitude. Chief engineer Tom Reichenbach was formerly vehicle engineering manager for both Ford GT and Shelby GT500 programs; and CEO Paul Wilbur has a storied history at Ford, Chrysler and ASC. And Fambro, a biotech engineer and private pilot intrigued by his aircraft’s composite construction, and Anthony, a composites specialist with a background in boat design and fluid dynamics, seemed predestined for this partnership.

There’s a large hooded digital speedometer and bar-graph battery state-of-charge indicator, along with a central infotainment screen that offers mind-boggling possibilities. Leg- and head room were surprisingly generous for even my 6-foot-3 frame. And safety is preeminent in the Aptera’s design — the final version will have both frontal and side airbags. And if there was any doubt about the strength of the composite construction, it was quelled as eight Aptera employees stood on the roof of a development shell. And that was after the shell had gone through government roof-crush testing!

The car will initially be available only in California, but I will be watching closely to see how well it sells. Will it be accepted by the public? I have given thought to how I would feel about driving one around. I think the police would pull you over a lot, thinking the car isn’t street legal. Regardless, I am certainly rooting for it to be a success.

2. The Ford Fusion

The big news over the past week is that the Ford Fusion has been put to the test, and three major publications concluded that it was the best hybrid yet built. Yes, better than the Toyota Prius, which has been the most popular hybrid for many years. USA Today writes:

The 2010 Ford Fusion hybrid is the best gasoline-electric hybrid yet. What makes it best is a top-drawer blend of an already very good midsize sedan with the industry’s smoothest, best-integrated gas-electric power system. It’s so well-done that you have to look to the $107,000 Lexus LS 600h hybrid to come close.

U.S. News and World Reports says:

If you’re in the market for an ultra fuel-efficient hybrid that makes a convincing family sedan, your best choice has always been a Toyota — until now. Toyota’s Camry Hybrid and Prius have been the only realistic alternatives for many. Most American-built hybrids simply haven’t matched their fuel economy, and the Nissan Altima Hybrid remains rare and hard to find.

The Fusion Hybrid qualifies for a federal tax credit of $3,400 until the end of March, but few of the cars will reach dealerships by then – if you’re in the market, you might want to consider ordering yours before the credit disappears. If any Ford product has your eye, you should be aware that Ford is offering some of the deepest discounts we’ve seen in years this month.

Finally, Car and Driver had this to say:

Ford has pulled off a game changer with this 2010 model, creating a high-mpg family hauler that’s fun to drive. That achievement has two components: First, the machinery is unexpectedly refined—call it Toyota slickness expressed with car-guy soul. Second, the electronic instrument cluster involves the driver, invites you into the hybrid game, and gives you the feedback needed to keep increasing your personal-best mpg number.

I have to say this is quite an exciting development. I am now in my 12th month without a car, but it may be time to go ahead and purchase one. Given that I could get the tax credit if I order by the end of March, I may go ahead and pull the trigger.

3. The Chevy Volt

GM’s Chevy Volt

First announced in 2007, the Chevy Volt looks to finally make an appearance in late 2010 (although 2011 won’t be a surprise). Per GM’s website:

The Extended-Range Electric Vehicle that is redefining the automotive world is no longer just a rumor. In fact, its propulsion system is so revolutionary, it’s unlike any other vehicle or electric car that’s ever been introduced. And we’re making this remarkable vision a reality, so that one day you’ll have the freedom to drive gas-free.

Chevy Volt is designed to move more than 75 percent of America’s daily commuters without a single drop of gas.(2) That means for someone who drives less than 40 miles a day, Chevy Volt will use zero gasoline and produce zero emissions.(1)

Unlike traditional electric cars, Chevy Volt has a revolutionary propulsion system that takes you beyond the power of the battery. It will use a lithium-ion battery with a gasoline-powered, range-extending engine that drives a generator to provide electric power when you drive beyond the 40-mile battery range.

So it isn’t a purely electric car, but does have a pretty good battery range for a full-sized car. Plus, there are apparently provisions in the auto bailout that make the Volt eligible for a $7,500 tax credit. But there are certainly skeptics that the Volt will ever live up to the hype.

4. The Tesla Roadster

Speaking of hype, the all-electric Tesla Roadster reminds me of some of the more exotic and overhyped biofuels. We have heard about it forever, but the costs keep going up and the roll-out date for mass production keeps getting pushed out. The price is now up to $109,000, and even though performance reports of the handful that have been built are very impressive, there are serious questions as to whether this experiment will ultimately be successful.

Based on a Lotus platform, and assembled at the Lotus factory in Hethel, England, the Tesla has been mired in controversy throughout its short history. The latest setback was that Tesla lost a legal ruling to up and coming competitor Fisker Automotive, themselves creating a worthy competitor to the Roadster in the Fisker Karma. The Karma is an extended range hybrid that can go 50 miles before the gasoline engine has to kick in. (The Karma is expected to hit the road in 2010).

By all accounts Tesla is building a car with impressive specifications, and they plan to follow the Roadster up with the Tesla Model S that will be quite a bit cheaper than the Roadster. But Tesla has had cash flow problems and has been forced to lay off people. From the various accounts I have read, I don’t expect the Tesla to be in the race in the long run. One website got so tired of the hype that they turned their ‘Tesla birth watch’ into a ‘Tesla death watch.’ Still, I think the company is to be commended for their innovation, and I hope they get the problems worked out. (On an amusing personal note, former CEO Martin Eberhard has reportedly read this blog, and got a kick out of my tangles with Vinod Khosla).

5. Plug-in Toyota Prius

I wanted to limit this list to 5 cars, and there were a number of contenders worth a mention. But I would be remiss not to include the next generation Prius among the list of offerings. While at least one private company has already been modifying the Prius to be a plug-in hybrid, Toyota is working furiously to be the first to put large numbers of plug-in hybrids on U.S. roads. Initially announced for 2010, Toyota has moved up the schedule for the plug-in Prius and plans to have the first 500 on the road by the end of 2009 (150 in the U.S.). The downside is that the first prototypes can only go about 7 miles on battery power alone, which is well-short of the average person’s commute. So you can expect the plug-in Prius to run on gasoline most of the time.

Other Contenders

There are a number of other electric offerings worth a mention. Nissan has announced plans to put electric cars on U.S. roads by 2010. BMW has begun producing all-electric versions of their popular Mini Cooper, and so far can’t keep up with demand. ZAP is putting a sporty 3-wheeled electric car out (the Alias), along with offerings such as an electric truck and sedan. The Alias can reportedly go 100 miles on a charge.

Finally, Toronto-based Zenn Motor Company says they will put an electric car on the roads in 2009. This one is particularly noteworthy because of their intention to use EEStor’s ultracapacitor to power the vehicle. EEStor claims that their ultracapacitor is 1/10th the weight and volume of conventional battery technology. While potentially a game-changer, many feel that EEStor is a classic case of vaporware, and many capacitor experts say that it will never see the light of day. In response, Zenn says that their electric vehicles are not contingent upon the success of the ultracapacitor. And in fact, according to their website I can buy an all-electric Zenn vehicle here in the Dallas area right now. There are two dealers to choose from in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, and one of the dealers claims a 260 mile range on a single charge. I think I will try to make a trip down to see if they really have something in stock.

Conclusion

Based on the large number of electric offerings to be rolled out over the next two years, I would be surprised if some don’t stick around for the long run. A return to $4.00 gasoline should accelerate public acceptance of electric vehicles. The Aptera looks like a winner, provided buyers embrace the futuristic design. The Ford Fusion hybrid also looks like it is ready to make major inroads into the market share of the Toyota Prius. And don’t be surprised to see lots of electric Mini Coopers showing up on the roads soon. Now I just need to figure out if I am ready to be a part of the experiment and buy one of these vehicles.

February 16, 2009 Posted by | Aptera, Chevy Volt, Ford, General Motors, Nissan, Prius, Tesla Motors | 36 Comments

Detroit Gearing Up for Electric Cars

The Dodge Circuit Electric Vehicle

Regular readers know that I am hopeful that electric cars can start to become one of our transportation options in the next few years. There are several reasons for this. First and foremost, it is because there are so many different options for making electricity. We currently make it primarily from coal and nuclear power, but over time renewable electricity production is expected to grow sharply. The car performs the same way whether the electricity comes from coal, natural gas, wind, geothermal, or solar power.

The second major factor behind my desire to see us move toward electric transportation is that the efficiencies of electric motors are much higher than for gasoline engines. In an essay that I wrote last year, I linked to an analysis that showed that the overall efficiency of an electric vehicle is about double that of the internal combustion engine.

The final reason I favor a move toward electric vehicles is that it simply diversifies our transportation options. I want to see us develop expertise in that area, but also in the areas of improving diesel hybrids, CNG vehicles, etc. In an age of limited fossil fuel supplies, diversification provides more protection against supply disruptions.

Over the weekend, the New York Times published a story on the electric vehicles in the pipeline:

Detroit Goes for Electric Cars, but Will Drivers?

Some excerpts summarizing what we should expect:

DEARBORN, Mich. — Inside the Ford Motor Company, it was called Project M — to build a prototype of a totally electric, battery-powered car in just six months. When it was started last summer, the effort was considered a tall order by the small team of executives and engineers assigned to it. After all, the auto industry can take years to develop vehicles.

But Ford was feeling pressure from competitors, and decided it could not afford to fall behind in the rapidly expanding race to put electric cars in dealer showrooms. Ford plans to make only 10,000 of the electric vehicles a year at first — very few by Detroit standards — to test the market cautiously.

The competition over electrics is picking up speed and players. Toyota, which has so far focused its efforts on hybrid models, will display a battery-powered concept car at the Detroit show. Nissan’s chief executive, Carlos Ghosn, has promised to sell an electric car in the United States and Japan as early as next year.

Two Japanese automakers, Mitsubishi and Fuji Heavy Industries, the parent company of Subaru, are also testing electric cars. And Chrysler, the most troubled of Detroit’s three auto companies, has vowed to produce its first electric car by 2010.

Of course one of the major limitation is the energy density of the batteries, which by fossil fuel standards is quite low. However, the push by the auto industry has boosted investments into storage technologies:

The surge toward electric vehicles also appears to be jump-starting investments in advanced-battery production in the United States. General Motors will announce plans at the auto show to build a factory in the United States to assemble advanced batteries for its Chevrolet Volt model, which it expects to start selling next year.

Ultimately, though, whether consumers will embrace these vehicles will come down to cost and convenience. At the $40,000 price tag that was mentioned in the story for the Chevy Volt, consumers aren’t going to embrace them. There is also the matter of convenience. Ford indicates that it will take six hours to put a charge on that will give the vehicle a range of 100 miles. While that’s a pretty good range, what if I forget to plug my car in? Running out of gas is preferable to that. But as the article goes on to point out, the average American drives less than 35 miles a day, so even if I forgot to plug in overnight, I still have a 2nd (and maybe 3rd) chance to get the vehicle charged overnight.

We will always need liquid fuels, though, as long-haul trucking and airline transportation are well-suited for the high energy density of liquid fuels. Here’s hoping, though, that the electric vehicle can finally make some inroads.

January 12, 2009 Posted by | Chevy Volt, electric cars, electricity, Ford | 46 Comments

Detroit Gearing Up for Electric Cars

The Dodge Circuit Electric Vehicle

Regular readers know that I am hopeful that electric cars can start to become one of our transportation options in the next few years. There are several reasons for this. First and foremost, it is because there are so many different options for making electricity. We currently make it primarily from coal and nuclear power, but over time renewable electricity production is expected to grow sharply. The car performs the same way whether the electricity comes from coal, natural gas, wind, geothermal, or solar power.

The second major factor behind my desire to see us move toward electric transportation is that the efficiencies of electric motors are much higher than for gasoline engines. In an essay that I wrote last year, I linked to an analysis that showed that the overall efficiency of an electric vehicle is about double that of the internal combustion engine.

The final reason I favor a move toward electric vehicles is that it simply diversifies our transportation options. I want to see us develop expertise in that area, but also in the areas of improving diesel hybrids, CNG vehicles, etc. In an age of limited fossil fuel supplies, diversification provides more protection against supply disruptions.

Over the weekend, the New York Times published a story on the electric vehicles in the pipeline:

Detroit Goes for Electric Cars, but Will Drivers?

Some excerpts summarizing what we should expect:

DEARBORN, Mich. — Inside the Ford Motor Company, it was called Project M — to build a prototype of a totally electric, battery-powered car in just six months. When it was started last summer, the effort was considered a tall order by the small team of executives and engineers assigned to it. After all, the auto industry can take years to develop vehicles.

But Ford was feeling pressure from competitors, and decided it could not afford to fall behind in the rapidly expanding race to put electric cars in dealer showrooms. Ford plans to make only 10,000 of the electric vehicles a year at first — very few by Detroit standards — to test the market cautiously.

The competition over electrics is picking up speed and players. Toyota, which has so far focused its efforts on hybrid models, will display a battery-powered concept car at the Detroit show. Nissan’s chief executive, Carlos Ghosn, has promised to sell an electric car in the United States and Japan as early as next year.

Two Japanese automakers, Mitsubishi and Fuji Heavy Industries, the parent company of Subaru, are also testing electric cars. And Chrysler, the most troubled of Detroit’s three auto companies, has vowed to produce its first electric car by 2010.

Of course one of the major limitation is the energy density of the batteries, which by fossil fuel standards is quite low. However, the push by the auto industry has boosted investments into storage technologies:

The surge toward electric vehicles also appears to be jump-starting investments in advanced-battery production in the United States. General Motors will announce plans at the auto show to build a factory in the United States to assemble advanced batteries for its Chevrolet Volt model, which it expects to start selling next year.

Ultimately, though, whether consumers will embrace these vehicles will come down to cost and convenience. At the $40,000 price tag that was mentioned in the story for the Chevy Volt, consumers aren’t going to embrace them. There is also the matter of convenience. Ford indicates that it will take six hours to put a charge on that will give the vehicle a range of 100 miles. While that’s a pretty good range, what if I forget to plug my car in? Running out of gas is preferable to that. But as the article goes on to point out, the average American drives less than 35 miles a day, so even if I forgot to plug in overnight, I still have a 2nd (and maybe 3rd) chance to get the vehicle charged overnight.

We will always need liquid fuels, though, as long-haul trucking and airline transportation are well-suited for the high energy density of liquid fuels. Here’s hoping, though, that the electric vehicle can finally make some inroads.

January 12, 2009 Posted by | Chevy Volt, electric cars, electricity, Ford | 46 Comments

Toyota Promises Plug-in Hybrid

Move over, Chevy Volt. You have some very serious competition:

Toyota Will Offer a Plug-In Hybrid by 2010

DETROIT — The Toyota Motor Corporation, which leads the world’s automakers in sales of hybrid-electric vehicles, announced Sunday night that it would build its first plug-in hybrid by 2010.

The move puts Toyota in direct competition with General Motors, which has announced plans to sell its own plug-in hybrid vehicle, the Chevrolet Volt, sometime around 2010.

Katsuaki Watanabe, the president of Toyota, announced the company’s plans at the Detroit auto show as part of a series of environmental steps.

Mr. Watanabe said Toyota, best known for its Prius hybrid car, would develop a fleet of plug-in hybrids that run on lithium-ion batteries, instead of the nickel-metal hydride batteries that power the Prius and other Toyota models.

Given Toyota’s experience, my money is on them to deliver before GM has the Volt ready for the mass market.

Despite its decision to step up its plug-in hybrid development, Toyota is not sure how much more consumers will want to pay for it, Mr. Lentz said. The Prius starts at $21,100. Some after-market companies are charging nearly that much to convert Prius models into plug-ins, he said.

Given that, it is more likely that Toyota would offer plug-in technology as an option on the Prius, at least in the short term, rather than switch all of its hybrids to plug-in models.

Ultimately, Toyota must determine “do people want to plug in their car?” Ms. Chitwood said.

Yes, I want the plug in my car! Sign me up. And as long as gas prices continue to stay high – which I think they will – a lot of others will sign up as well.

January 14, 2008 Posted by | auto industry, Chevy Volt, General Motors, phev, Toyota | 33 Comments

My Top 10 Energy Stories of 2007

First, thanks to all who contributed ideas. You may have an entirely different opinion on the most important energy stories. Feel free to share it. Many of these stories were contributed by various readers. Comments by readers are italicized. If you want to know who wrote what, you can see the entire comment thread here.

Here are my Top 10 Energy Stories of 2007

1. Oil price soars as media becomes Peak Oil aware

One reason I felt pretty safe in making the $1,000 bet on oil prices is that a move from $60 – the price in January – to $100 – the price at which I would lose the bet – would be unprecedented. Of course a worldwide peak in oil production will also be unprecedented, and I expect oil prices to soar when that happens. While I still don’t think we have quite peaked, what did happen is that Peak Oil awareness really hit the mainstream in 2007. I started noticing a great many stories on Peak Oil (and quite a few on Peak Lite), especially following the ASPO Conference in October. This was right in the middle of the sharp run-up in prices. So I believe that a major factor contributing to the fast run-up was the sudden realization by a critical mass of people that Peak Oil is on top of us. In that case, the value of oil will be much higher.

In addition to record oil prices, back in the spring we saw record-high gasoline prices as a result of sustained, record-low gasoline inventories. Conditions are currently favoring new record-high gasoline prices in 2008.

2. Criticism of biofuels mounts

The bloom comes off the biofuel rose. European studies showed oil-palm biodiesel was actually worse for the environment due to tropical rainforest destruction, and US corn ethanol plants lost money because of overbuilding. A general biofuel backlash took root due to higher food prices and other side effects.

While I was criticizing corn ethanol before criticizing corn ethanol was cool, in 2007 the media started asking critical questions about water usage, pollution from industrial corn farming, and the impact of ethanol mandates on food prices.

3. The Chevy Volt is announced

GM has dedicated a full product team and allocated a plant for mass production — the first time in history an electric car has achieved such status.

Years after GM killed the electric car, they are bringing it back in the form of the Chevy Volt. I have long advocated the need for the electrification of transportation as one of the key elements in any Peak Oil mitigation plan. Therefore, I am very pleased to see GM making another effort at electric cars.

4. Nanosolar begins to deliver

Cost-effective solar power would be a very big silver BB in a Peak Oil mitigation plan. Nanosolar has the potential to deliver a game-changing thin-film photovoltaic technology. If you don’t know much about Nanosolar, check out this interview with their CEO: 10 Questions for Nanosolar CEO Martin Roscheisen

However, the potential for cost effective solar power also highlights the desperate need to tackle and solve the problem of energy storage for intermittent sources of energy like wind and solar power. Hopefully we will see some breakthroughs there in 2007.

5. LS9 starts up

For years I have dreamed of a microbe that eats garbage and excretes hydrocarbons. The beauty of such a system would be that the hydrocarbons would just phase out of solution, thus ensuring a low-energy purification step. If you think about it, the concept is not that far-fetched. The human body produces fats and fatty acids that are not too far-removed from the hydrocarbons that make up gasoline or diesel. There is no reason, in principle, that a microbe couldn’t be designed to do just that.

The difficulty lies in understanding the metabolic pathways well enough to modify them to produce the target molecule without severely compromising or killing the microbe. This is exactly what LS9 – the “Renewable Petroleum Company”, is attempting to do. And they have certainly assembled a team that just may pull it off.

6. Range Fuels breaks ground

In November Range Fuels – formerly Vinod Khosla’s Kergy venture – announced the groundbreaking of the first commercial “cellulosic” ethanol plant in the U.S. While I dispute the terminology (as I explained in this essay, it is actually a gasification process, which is not specific to cellulose), the process does have a chance to be a success in the long-run. Short-term, I believe they will remain highly dependent on generous subsidies because the capital costs for gasification processes are so high. But on down the road I think gasification makes a lot more sense than most fermentation processes.

One thing that I would have done differently would have been to produce diesel instead of ethanol. Once syngas is produced in a gasification step, there are many different products that can be made. It is not particularly efficient to produce ethanol in this process, but this is the kind of thing you end up with when the government is picking technology winners.

I do think Range Fuels has a high likelihood of becoming a significant technology. What little information is available certainly sounds promising, including the result from EBMUD that the Klepper gasifier was the most efficient.

7. First application for US nuclear plant in 30 years

NRG announces first application for US nuclear plant in 30 years:

NRG South Texas Nuclear

They propose to use GE’s Advanced Boiling Water Reactor technology.

My personal belief is that we are going to need nuclear power to continue making a significant contribution toward our electricity needs. This will be especially true if electric transport takes hold. Therefore, I think it is a very big story that 2007 saw the first application for a new U.S. nuclear plant in 30 years.

8. Carbon capture & sequestration moves forward

The FutureGen alliance announces the site for its demonstration plant on Tuesday, Dec. 18:

FutureGen Announcement

For those not familiar with it, FutureGen is a clean coal demonstration plant that will include carbon capture and sequestration. There are 4 finalist sites. Two in Illinois and two in Texas. The purpose of the project is to demonstrate commercial scale CCS technology.

FutureGen selected Mattoon, IL for their site.

FutureGen runs a combined cycle instead of the single cycle of existing coal plants. Combined cycle plants can achieve 50-60% thermal efficiency vs. the 33% typical of single cycle, so it’s quite possible FutureGen will deliver more kWh/ton of coal than existing plants.

9. Progress on next generation biofuels

The biofuel spotlight turned to the future. Dozens of startups focused on cellulosic ethanol, gasification and other next-gen processes competed for headlines with “green diesel”, butanol and other biofuel initiatives from the oil majors.

Most of the oil majors have taken a pass on the ethanol craze, but they are looking at other biofuels. 2007 saw announcements from BP that they would team with D1 Oils to produce biodiesel from jatropha; from ConocoPhillips that they would team with Tyson Foods to produce “green diesel” from waste animal fats; and that BP and Dupont would team up to produce bio-butanol. (I wrote a reality check on bio-butanol here).

10. US Navy funds Bussard Fusion

I think you have to include the US Navy funding Bussard Fusion in there:

http://www.defensenews.com/story.php?F=3139619&C=navwar

Bussard died a couple months ago. I had really given up on fusion, but his work actually appears to have a reasonable change to work. Hopefully with more funding his team will be able to make it work.

Yes, Dr. Bussard’s work will be carried on. First step is to construct WB-7 and replicate the results achieved with WB-6. Hopefully by the end of April 2008. If that works, then on to WB-8, and then an actual power generating plant.

The rest of the list (in no particular order), many of which could have easily been in the Top 10 list:

11. King Coal is still king

If we look for the stories that did not attract attention, surely one of the big ones has to be the continued surprising vitality of the international coal industry. King Coal has officially been dead for a long time. Who would have predicted that, 10 years after Kyoto, coal would once more be where it’s at, supplying more Btus to the world than ever before?

12. US Coal Plant cancellations, headlined by TXU cancelling 8 of 11 planned plants.

CO2, the primary driver behind the other half of our top 10 stories, has long played in Europe but will only achieve global influence by spreading through the US into the developing world. 2007’s coal plant cancellations marked the tipping point.

13. Al Gore wins Nobel Prize for work on Global Warming

Gore’s tireless efforts to educate the world on Global Warming was recognized with this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. Tiny Carthage, Tennessee now claims two Nobel Laureates. (Cordell Hull is the other).

14. Shell releases details of their shale oil process

Probably the most important energy announcement was Shell’s release of info on their proprietary in-situ process for generating oil from oil shale. Could open a whole new branch of the oil industry, put a cap on the price of oil from conventional fields, and thereby inject some realism into windy dreams. But it turns out that Shell has been working towards this for about a quarter of a century. “Incremental advances” indeed!

15. Resource nationalization grows

While the seizure of the assets of international oil companies by Hugo Chavez got the most press, many other countries are moving to nationalize their oil resources. Many other countries, and even states like Alaska, are also passing laws to increase their tax revenues from the extraction of oil. The U.S. needs to sit up and take notice, because this will further constrain supplies. We can’t continue to count on a steady supply of oil from countries who don’t like us, yet we lack the political will to reduce our dependence on these countries.

16. New efficiency record for silicon PV – 42.8 percent from sunlight at standard terrestrial conditions

http://www.physorg.com/news104501218.html

The highly efficient VHESC solar cell uses a novel lateral optical concentrating system that splits solar light into three different energy bins of high, medium and low, and directs them onto cells of various light sensitive materials to cover the solar spectrum. The system delivers variable concentrations to the different solar cell elements. The concentrator is stationary with a wide acceptance angle optical system that captures large amounts of light and eliminates the need for complicated tracking devices.

In a way I find the Nanosolar story more compelling since they are actually in commercial production now. Still, the prospect of high efficiency PV without using exotic and/or toxic materials gives me hope.

17. Manpower shortages in the energy sector

Big Oil’s Talent Hunt

From the article:

ConocoPhillips (COP) has grand plans. With demand for oil soaring, the company announced on Dec. 7 that it will boost its exploration and production budget by 8%, to $11 billion, a war chest intended to fund massive projects from Canada to China to the Caspian Sea.

But there’s a potential obstacle to the company’s vision: not enough people to get the work done. Half of Conoco’s employees are eligible for retirement within five years. Unless older workers can be replaced, Conoco’s expansion could be costlier and slower than planned. In an interview with BusinessWeek, CEO James J. Mulva said that the lack of talent is one of the most dangerous threats to his company’s long-term health. “People are a big concern,” he said.

This is not just a big oil story. Lack of workers is hitting all sectors of the energy industry. It seems that college students would rather be lawyers or investment bankers than scientists and engineers.

18. Texas surpassed California in wind energy

This signals a shift in wind from high-cost, subsidized eco-darling to cost-effective energy source. As the low-cost provider, wind now thrives in low bureaucracy states such as former oil-king Texas. Meanwhile high-regulation states such as California lag behind.

19. Potential PV improvement

Potential improvement on PV front

Transparent electrodes created from atom-thick carbon sheets could make solar cells and LCDs without depleting precious mineral resources, say researchers in Germany.

Solar cells, LCDs, and some other devices, must have transparent electrodes in parts of their designs to let light in or out. These electrodes are usually made from indium tin oxide (ITO) but experts calculate that there is only 10 years’ worth of indium left on the planet, with LCD panels consuming the majority of existing stocks.

“There is not enough indium on earth for the future development of devices using it,” says Linjie Zhi of the Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research in Mainz, Germany. “It is also not very stable, so you have to be careful during the fabrication process.”

20. Study analyzes off shore wind in US Northeast

http://www.physorg.com/news89650495.html

The wind resource off the Mid-Atlantic coast could supply the energy needs of nine states from Massachusetts to North Carolina, plus the District of Columbia–with enough left over to support a 50 percent increase in future energy demand–according to a study by researchers at the University of Delaware and Stanford University.

The study marks the first empirical analysis in the United States of a large-scale region’s potential offshore wind-energy supply using a model that links geophysics with wind-electric technology–and that defines where wind turbines at sea may be located in relation to water depth, geology and “exclusion zones” for bird flyways, shipping lanes and other uses.

21. A123Systems mass produces next generation lithium batteries

Shipping in DeWalt’s 2007 line of 36V cordless power tools, these new cells mark the 5th wave of rechargeable batteries (lead-acid, NiCad, NiMH, Li-ion and now advanced lithium). Advanced lithium chemistries from A123 and dozens of other vendors offer the possibility of cost-effective plug-in hybrids as well as applications in the electrical grid.

22. Electricity shortages, particularly in the developing world

Some appear to be related to climate change — droughts that require major hydro cutbacks. Some are clearly due to oil prices/supplies — poor countries that burn heavy diesel in their power plants and can’t afford it at the new world prices. Some are due to bad bets on fuel sources — natural gas generators put in, and the gas supply declining sooner than planned.

23. Solar thermal heats up

For decades the SEGS parabolic trough plant in California’s Mojave desert stood alone as the only large-scale CSP plant on earth, but 2007 saw a rebirth of this technology with the inauguration of the 64MW Nevada Solar One plant and construction of plants in Spain, Australia and elsewhere. California utilities have ordered up to 1750 MW of capacity from dish-Stirling purveyor Stirling Energy Systems and startups such as Ausra are pushing the price/performance barrier with linear Fresnel architectures.

24. First Solar market value hits $20 billion

As the first mass producer of non-silicon thin film PV, FSLR cashed in big-time in 2007. Their $1.40/W manufacturing cost is a huge competitive advantage, yielding fat profits and an eye-popping 200% growth rate. True to their name, First Solar got out of the gate first, but other non-Si players are still in the race. Companies using CIGS, including the much-hyped but yet-to-deliver Nanosolar, promise to break the $1/W barrier.

25. Cooper Pairs in insulators

http://www.aip.org/pnu/2007/split/849-1.html

One of the AIP’s top stories of the year, this discovery may well help us reach a better understanding of superconductivity and insulators both. Superconductivity is of course a holy grail in energy research, and while this discovery doesn’t directly lead to a room temp superconductor, it does add to the fundamental knowledge of material in the solid state.

26. Medvedev slated to take over from Putin

http://en.rian.ru/russia/20071217/92858987.html

Essentially Putin’s Russia will continue, and that has direct implication for all the fossil fuel industry in Asia, regarding everything from global warming to export control to defense postures. Putin’s Russia, one of an energy oligarchy, will continue to express those policies likely for a good portion of the 21st century.

27. Conditions in Iraq improve enough to get the oil industry back online

http://www.rigzone.com/news/article.asp?a_id=54099

Opening the possibility that Iraq just might return to a functioning member of OPEC has direct implications on the availability of oil for import around the world.

28. USAF test flight of transport aircraft C-17 using CTL synthetic fuel

http://www.enn.com/pollution/article/24117

This heralds the onset of CTL and likely portrays our (US) future over the next couple of decades.

29. And now, for my wildcat speculation of the most important news item:

Namibia: Expert Confident About Oil Reserves

Southwest Africa will turn out to be a major oil exporting region over the next couple of decades, slowing the decrease in available net exports of oil.

30. The response of the global economy to the large increase in oil prices

Most people would have probably assumed that $90 oil would have caused mayhem in the global economy a year or two ago. Yet the effect has been relatively muted. I think this says a lot about how effectively individuals, businesses (and hats off to alternative energy firms), and governments have responded to increasing oil prices over the long term. Oil now has a much smaller (I believe around 50%) impact per GDP than it did in the 1970’s in most of the big western economies, including the US.

31. Tesla troubles

A not-positive but nevertheless noteworthy story is Tesla Motors recent troubles with putting the final touches on its long-awaited car, particularly with the transmission failure and the management shuffling.

And I love this suggestion for 2008. What a great idea this would be:

My favorite energy story for 2008 would be — Congress recognizes they cannot pick winners, and instead sets up a multi-billion dollar X-Prize competition for the first three alternate energy sources to supply reliable commercial-scale power at costs competitive with fossils.

So those were the energy stories that I, or various readers thought were significant in 2007. Were there other significant stories that we missed?

Looking back at the list, many (most?) of the stories were not anticipated at the beginning of the year. So, who knows what 2008 will bring. Any thoughts?

December 22, 2007 Posted by | Al Gore, Chevy Volt, ConocoPhillips, ethanol, food prices, LS9, nuclear energy, oil prices, Peak Oil, range fuels, reader submission, solar efficiency, solar power, Tyson Foods | 12 Comments

Help Brainstorm the Top Energy Stories of 2007

While Platts has done a great job listing all of the major oil company stories of 2007, I am working on a Top 10 list for energy in general. I am about to be offline for a few days, so I thought this would be a good opportunity to gather input on the top energy stories of the year. My short (non-oil company) list of potential candidates would be Nanosolar, the Chevy Volt announcement, the LS9 start-up, the Range Fuels groundbreaking, the BP/D1 jatropha announcement, and the COP/Tyson green diesel announcement. Those are some that spring to my mind.

What else? I am struggling to remember any major developments in wind, tidal, or geothermal power. What about coal? Nuclear? Feel free to debate the list as well. I will check in later on next week and start crafting a post around the list.

December 15, 2007 Posted by | Chevy Volt, ConocoPhillips, LS9, Nanosolar, range fuels, Tyson Foods | 116 Comments

The Chevy Volt Rolls On

General Motors is moving forward with the Chevy Volt:

Novel Batteries Get a Boost

General Motors has announced it will work directly with A123 Systems, a start-up based in Watertown, MA, to develop batteries that are fine-tuned for the Chevrolet Volt, an electric vehicle scheduled for production in 2010 or 2011. The new agreement between the companies is designed to speed the vehicle to market.

GM has announced a series of contracts with various battery makers in recent months. The deal with A123 is viewed as an indication that GM thinks they can deliver the batteries that the Volt will require to achieve the desired 40 mile range on a single charge. A123’s advantage is explained as:

A123 uses a new lithium-ion chemistry that allows its batteries to be much lighter and more compact than the nickel metal hydride batteries in existing hybrids today, and safer than the conventional lithium ion batteries found in consumer electronics.

According to the GM link, 78% of all commutes are less than 40 miles. If GM can deliver a reasonably-priced vehicle that can achieve this range, then it could be a huge step toward the eventual (and necessary) electrification of our transportation infrastructure. I say “could be”, because people are still going to have to buy them. If, for instance, the battery packs are incredibly expensive to change out, or there are other issues with the car, all bets are off. But I am optimistic about their chances. However, reading some of the statements GM has made, I don’t think they will have them in production until after 2011.

August 13, 2007 Posted by | Chevy Volt, electric cars, General Motors, phev | Comments Off on The Chevy Volt Rolls On

The Chevy Volt Rolls On

General Motors is moving forward with the Chevy Volt:

Novel Batteries Get a Boost

General Motors has announced it will work directly with A123 Systems, a start-up based in Watertown, MA, to develop batteries that are fine-tuned for the Chevrolet Volt, an electric vehicle scheduled for production in 2010 or 2011. The new agreement between the companies is designed to speed the vehicle to market.

GM has announced a series of contracts with various battery makers in recent months. The deal with A123 is viewed as an indication that GM thinks they can deliver the batteries that the Volt will require to achieve the desired 40 mile range on a single charge. A123’s advantage is explained as:

A123 uses a new lithium-ion chemistry that allows its batteries to be much lighter and more compact than the nickel metal hydride batteries in existing hybrids today, and safer than the conventional lithium ion batteries found in consumer electronics.

According to the GM link, 78% of all commutes are less than 40 miles. If GM can deliver a reasonably-priced vehicle that can achieve this range, then it could be a huge step toward the eventual (and necessary) electrification of our transportation infrastructure. I say “could be”, because people are still going to have to buy them. If, for instance, the battery packs are incredibly expensive to change out, or there are other issues with the car, all bets are off. But I am optimistic about their chances. However, reading some of the statements GM has made, I don’t think they will have them in production until after 2011.

August 13, 2007 Posted by | Chevy Volt, electric cars, General Motors, phev | 66 Comments