R-Squared Energy Blog

Pure Energy

Electrifying the USPS

I usually scan the energy headlines each morning, but had somehow missed the stories on the recently introduced bills to electrify the U.S. Postal Service fleet:

U.S. Postal Service to test a repurposed electric vehicle fleet

Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) introduced a bill Friday that would pay for 109,500 electric vehicles, though the cost of that program isn’t known yet. “This, to me, would be a very productive thing and . . . likely to produce jobs and revitalize an industry,” Connolly said.

In December, Rep. José E. Serrano (D-N.Y.) announced an “e-Drive” bill that would give $2 billion to the Energy Department and Postal Service to convert 20,000 mail trucks into electric vehicles.

I have always liked the idea of electric cars. I have written a number of essays around that theme, primarily because electric vehicles could in theory be adequate replacements for internal combustion engines as supplies of fossil fuels deplete. Imagine that our electric grid eventually moves more toward renewable energy, and electric vehicles could be a much greener solution than the majority of the vehicles we have on the road today.

But note that I use words like “theory” and “imagine” to describe this idealistic future. I firmly believe that we need to have a look at the data from time to time to make sure that our idealism isn’t in direct contrast to reality. Unfortunately, in this case it might be.

Study: Electric cars not as green as you think

The environmental benefits of electric cars are being questioned in Germany by a surprising actor: the green movement. But those risks don’t apply in the U.S., the American electric-car lobby asserts.

Today, the German plants that deliver marginal electricity are fueled by coal. That is the main problem, according to the study. The research adds that to produce the same amount of energy, coal emits more carbon dioxide than even gasoline.

“The irony is that you don’t need a lot more electricity for electric cars,” Raddatz, said. “But the problem is that if they cause these peaks, we would have to have power plants that would be ready to start (as) the massive charging starts.”

An electric car with a lithium ion battery powered by electricity from an old coal power plant could emit more than 200g of carbon dioxide per km, compared with current average gasoline car of 160g of carbon dioxide per km in Europe, according to the study. The European Union goal for 2020 is 95g of carbon dioxide per km.

I have been thinking about this a lot, as I have recently seen some electric car/combustion engine comparisons in a report that is about to come out. I won’t divulge much about the report, but when it comes out I will link to it. But I will provide a quote from the soon-to-be-released report:

New Zealand energy consultant Steve Goldthorpe estimates that if the entire New Zealand vehicle fleet were replaced with electric cars, the amount of electricity New Zealand needed to generate to power this fleet would be increased by about 60%. Only a small percentage of this electricity could be produced sustainably; the balance would probably have to be generated by burning coal.

I think this is where idealism clashes with reality. As I pointed out in The Nuclear Comeback, over the previous 10 years electricity demand increased by an average of 66 million megawatt hours per year. That is without adding electric cars to the mix. The growth rate for renewable energy over the past 5 years or so has only been about 10 million megawatt hours (although last year saw an impressive 20 million). Still, this is a far cry from just keeping up with normal demand growth.

So the idealistic side of me sees renewable electricity continuing to grow, and powering a fleet of green electric cars. The side of me that looks at the data says that in reality, a rapid ramp-up of electric cars will have to be driven by non-renewables because renewable energy growth won’t be able to keep up. I wouldn’t personally have a problem with a nuclear-driven electric fleet, but I don’t think that’s the vision many have for future electric vehicles.

I am not factoring in the possibility that conservation of electricity can help close that gap. On that I remain hopeful, but our history is one of ever increasing consumption.

March 5, 2010 Posted by | electric cars, electricity, electricity usage, nuclear energy, renewable energy | 1 Comment

The Energy Conundrum

The following is a guest post by Paul Winstanley, the Director of Energy Initiatives from the Stevens Institute of Technology.

1. Introduction

This paper was written as preparation for the recent Discover and Shell sponsored “Fossil Fuels 2050” event in October 2009 at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey.

Energy demand continues to increase rapidly. For example, the worldwide marketed energy consumption has been forecast to increase by 44% to 678 quadrillion British Thermal Units (BTUs) from 2006 to 2030 [1]. Within this period, fossil fuels (oil, natural gas and coal) are anticipated to remain the dominant energy source. Against this avaricious appetite for fossil fuel there is ambiguity over the reserves [2]. In addition to the issues associated with the demand for fossil fuels the environmental impact associated with burning these fuels is an equally large concern.

Therefore, the future energy challenge is complex and highly interdependent. Specifically, we need to:

  • Consider the continued availability of fossil fuels;
  • Whilst we introduce credible energy alternatives;
  • Whilst we ameliorate environmental damage.
  • These three themes will now be considered in more detail.

    2. Continued Availability of Fossil Fuel

    Exploration of hitherto difficult reserves will continue. This will be driven by increasing energy costs and the availability of new technology that enable economic exploitation. Examples of technological advances include:

  • Exploration in deep ocean water;
  • The production of hydrocarbons from oil sands and shale;
  • Directional drilling to access non-vertical reserves.
  • Additionally, there is considerable scope to reduce and prioritize fossil fuel usage. This approach will be different by sector and by time. For example, the short-term viable alternatives for aviation are very limited and it is only recently that flights partially supported by bio-fuels have taken place. This contrasts to personal and mass land transportation where credible alternatives such as hybrid and all electric vehicles already exist. Here greater usage of alternative fuel vehicles should be encouraged by policy whilst longer-term solutions for aviation are researched and developed.

    3. Credible Alternatives to Fossil Fuel

    The previous section raised the opportunity to reduce and prioritize fossil fuel utilization. Given the increasing energy demand, this approach can only be pursued if credible alternatives to fossil fuel exist.

    a. Bio-Fuels. Considerable emphasis has been placed on the development and implementation of bio-fuels. In this case the overall enterprise must be environmentally and economically acceptable. Specifically, issues such as increasing the price of food crops and increasing the utilization of other resources, such as water, need to be considered actively [3].

    b. Renewable Energy. Emphasis has also been placed on the development of renewable energies. With the exception of hydro-electricity the impact of renewable energy to meet the global energy demand has been minimal [4]. There are many factors that underpin this situation:

  • Renewable energy systems and supply chains can lack maturity;
  • There is no “silver bullet” renewable energy solution;
  • Generally, renewable energy systems are large complex installations (e.g. large wind farms) that demand significant capital investment and complex planning and permitting.
  • To overcome these limitations innovation is crucially required at all stages in the renewable energy enterprise. One innovative approach could be the systematic application of energy storage and renewable energy at a smaller scale as a micro-grid. In the residential context this could be applicable at a township level. The micro-grid approach has the potential to deliver rapidly increased energy security and resilience as well as enabling a significant reduction in emissions.

    One important consideration is where geographically renewable energy systems could be developed. Much emphasis has been placed on the future energy demands of emergent economies [1]. It is important to recognize that these economies are generally not hindered by legacy. This is illustrated by the growth in cellular phones. For example, from 1997 to 2007 in emerging nations the number of cellular phones increased 18 times faster [5] on average than landlines and a technological generation was by-passed. Of greater relevance to this paper is rapid growth in London, UK of electric vehicles as a consequence of the introduction of congestion charging (which electric vehicles are exempt from). The dominant supplier of electric vehicles in London is G-Wiz [6], an Indian manufacturer. Therefore, the location of renewable energy system development may result in technological surprise.

    4. Amelioration of Environmental Damage

    The previous section raised the opportunity for an innovative micro-grid approach to reduce emissions. This approach could have a significant contribution to meeting the future emissions targets. For example, in the UK approximately 80% of the carbon emissions arise from energy consumed in buildings and electricity generation [7].

    As well as introducing renewable energy, reducing energy demands has the potential to reduce carbon emissions further. Approaches to reduce energy demands include:

  • Target setting on energy suppliers;
  • More stringent construction codes;
  • Energy labeling to highlight to consumers more efficient appliance;
  • Improved product standards, for example, minimizing power dissipation from appliances whilst they are in a “stand-by” mode;
  • Energy performance certification prior to renting or selling real estate;
  • Smart homes including smart meters and appliances to better inform users about energy consumption in order to highlight areas for energy reduction.
  • Building upon the latter point, it has been estimated that the domestic energy demand can be reduced by an additional 25% [8] by integrating appliances or products into the home so they can turn off automatically when not required. A key requirement is to realize effectively these crucial savings in a manner that is transparent to the occupants. This can be achieved by embedding intelligence and communications into appliances and is an example of an emergent systems engineering discipline – “cognition-centric systems engineering”.

    In order to meet the required 2050 environmental targets it has been estimated that 1% of the global Gross Domestic Product (GDP) needs to be invested every year from now until 2050. Given the technological element of meeting these target a shortage of skilled and experience staff is probable. At a smaller scale, this limitation has already been identified in the USA as a consequence of Stimulus Package Funding with the Department of Energy [9]. To overcome this there will be an increasingly urgent need to increase the availability of training and re-training at the technician, undergraduate and post-graduate levels.

    5. Discussion

    This paper has made the case that the future energy conundrum is complex and highly interdependent and the continued availability of fossil fuels needs to be considered along with the introduction of credible alternatives whilst ameliorating environmental damage. Pursuit of part of this triad is likely to result in an incomplete or inappropriate solution set. Therefore, it is essential to solve the future energy conundrum holistically and systematically. Moreover, the scope of the future energy challenge dictates that:

    1. Innovation will be required continuously through the energy enterprise. This is innovation in the broadest sense, not just technical, and will encompass areas such as systems to business process to supply chain.
    2. Advances are likely to happen in emergent economies that are unconstrained by the fossil fuel legacy; technological surprise could become a reality.
    3. Unless we act now there is a high probability that there will be a shortage of skilled and experienced staff, at all levels from technician to post-graduate. If this situation arises we will not have the number of skilled staff to realize our aspirations and needs.

    Paul Winstanley, Stevens Institute of Technology, November 2009

    [1] Report #:DOE/EIA-0484(2009)

    [2] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/warning-oil-supplies-are-running-out-fast-1766585.html

    [3] http://www.iwmi.cgiar.org/News_Room/pdf/Down_to_Earth__Rise_in_biofuel_demand_could_trigger_food_water_crisis.pdf

    [4] http://www.renewableenergyworld.com/rea/news/article/2009/09/renewables-global-status-report-2009-update?cmpid=WNL-Friday-September11-2009

    [5] ITU REFERENCE

    [6] http://www.greencarsite.co.uk/GREENCARS/GoinGreen-GWIZ-EV.htm

    [7] http://climatechange.cbi.org.uk/uploaded/Roadmap_SummaryDistance.pdf

    [8] http://climatechange.cbi.org.uk/uploaded/CCT_010_Buildings_v2.pdf

    [9] http://www.renewableenergyworld.com/rea/news/article/2009/04/if-we-want-more-renewable-energy-in-the-u-s-wont-we-need-more-engineers

    November 5, 2009 Posted by | alternative energy, electric cars, guest post, reader submission | 24 Comments

    ExxonMobil in the Electric Car Business?

    An interesting link from a reader this morning:

    The Maya 300: An Exxon-Assisted Electric Car

    If you’ve picked up a magazine in the last year, you’ve likely seen ads touting ExxonMobil’s (XOM) research into lithium-ion batteries.

    This week, you will get a further look into how that technology will come to the marketplace.

    Electrovaya on Wednesday will discuss its plans for the Maya 300, an all-electric vehicle coming in 2011. The car will run on lithium-ion batteries, charge in about eight to 10 hours, run for 60 miles and plug into regular 110-volt outlets. It will cost around $20,000 to $25,000. An extended-range battery option will run for 120 miles on a charge and cost $30,000 to $35,000.

    Turns out that ExxonMobil makes one of the components of the battery:

    Exxon Entering Electric Vehicle Market With Maya 300

    Electric vehicles have definitely hit the big time now that gasoline-slinging companies are getting involved. The Maya 300, an all-electric vehicle coming out in 2011, will feature a lithium ion battery separator film dubbed “the SuperPolymer” from Exxon-Mobil. The separator–a critical part of li-ion batteries–can withstand temperatures up to 374 degrees. That’s 85 degrees more than competing separator films can take.

    Interesting development. If you asked me which oil company would be involved in battery technologies for electric cars, I wouldn’t have guessed Exxon.

    June 22, 2009 Posted by | batteries, electric cars, ExxonMobil, XOM | 9 Comments

    Vinod Khosla at Milken Institute: Part III

    This will be the conclusion of Vinod Khosla’s (VK) recent lengthy interview at the Milken Institute 2009 Global Conference. The interview was conducted by Elizabeth Corcoran (EC) of Forbes and can be viewed here.

    In Part I, VK discussed the role of government money, capital intensity of renewable projects, and some of his solar investments. In Part II, VK discussed butanol, cellulosic ethanol, nuclear power, and cap and trade. Here in Part III, VK discusses his beef with electric cars, has lots to say about Black Swans, discusses his problems with nuclear in more detail, talks about green jobs, sugarcane ethanol, and weighs in on indirect land use issues for biofuels.

    EC (39:00): Let’s get to those electric cars. You don’t like the Prius.

    VK: Let me be clear, and I am going to sneak in my Black Swan. I do drive a hybrid, but not a Prius. I drive a Lexus hybrid. Hybrids are an uneconomic way to reduce carbon dioxide. If you go to hybrids or electric cars, your cost of carbon reduction is about $100/ton. If you have 10 ways of reducing carbon at $50/ton, why would you spend $100? My beef is not with hybrids; we are investing in hybrid batteries; there is a good market and we can make money at it. But do I believe it’s going to solve the climate change problem? No. (RR: None of the things that have been discussed are going to significantly rein in carbon emissions.) Save yourself the five grand, and instead paint your roof white. You will save more carbon that way.

    (RR: He cited this paper by Art Rosenfeld at Lawrence Berkeley Lab: “White Roofs Cool the World, Directly Offset CO2 and Delay Global Warming“).

    EC (41:10): Shai Agassi – a long time entrepreneur in Silicon Valley – has a very different approach to batteries. Are you involved in the work he is doing? Does that only work in small countries?

    VK: You know, Shai has a very intriguing start-up. (RR: EC interrupts to explain that Shai is developing stations where you can go and exchange batteries for electric cars; he owns the battery and you own the car. See more explanation here.) I mentioned earlier about diversity of opinion; I am glad he is trying it and I am cheering him on. If I can help him I will. It is important to try some of these experiments. He has a particularly clever way to do something that does have a shot at working.

    I want to add my Black Swan theory here. Most of you have probably read the Black Swan, or heard about it. The financial crisis is a negative Black Swan. I am a true believer that technology provides positive Black Swans. (RR: VK explains the concept of the Black Swan. Here is a link to the book at Amazon, which I have read and found to be very good). We will redefine energy because of the Black Swans of technology.

    (RR: VK then explains his problem with electric cars, and says lithium ion batteries are too expensive, are limited by electrochemistry, and will be for a long time. I would say that while VK seems to have a clear picture in his head on the issues with batteries, he suffers from a blind spot about similar limitations of cellulosic biomass. He then cites all of his investments into different areas, and concludes that sheer numbers mean something is going to work.)

    VK: The chance that each approach will succeed is small. The chance that all of them will cumulatively fail is vanishingly small. Mark my words: Vanishingly small, and that’s why we will have unsubsidized market competitiveness with fossil fuels. And the fossil fuel guys won’t know what hit them. I don’t see how by 2030 oil can compete. That’s why I think by 2030 oil will go to $30, because it will be the alternative cost of marginal technologies.

    (RR: I think he truly believes this. Yet it shows a failure to grasp issues of scale, biomass density, logistical challenges, and much more. If it were merely a numbers game, we could solve any technology problem by just throwing enough money at it. But there are fundamental issues here regarding biomass that will never – mark my words – never allow it to be produced for $30/bbl. Sugarcane ethanol, yes, can be produced for that in Brazil. But you will never turn cellulosic biomass into a liquid fuel, at scale, for $30/bbl – for the same kinds of fundamental limitations VK mentions for batteries.)

    EC (47:40): So by 2030, what will be the primary fuel?

    VK: I have a paper on my website that postulates about a technology race between biofuels and batteries. Whichever one makes the most rapid progress will get the larger percentage of the total passenger miles driven in the world.

    EC (48:30): Does government risk factor in? There has been a cautionary tale in biodiesel, where there has been great interest, lots of money pumped in, and yet due in part to vagaries of how the environmentalists and government regulations have crashed into each other, you have got more than 100 biodiesel fuels (RR: Biodiesel plants, I presume?) around the country, none of which are producing fuel.

    VK: You know, that’s true, but you also have bankrupt financial companies. Look, failure is the natural mechanism of capitalism. But you are right. There is government risk. But we fixed a lot of that last week when the Low-Carbon Fuel Standard passed. It will force the right decisions looking back.

    EC (50:18): There have been many technologies – and Kleiner invested in many early on – where the technology, the marketplace, and the government were not in sync. And the technology dies.

    VK: I think that’s the wrong way to look at it. Any start-up has risks. It has technology risks, market risks, it has financial risks. It has other risks; it has people risks and management risks. What you are doing as an active investor is balancing those risks. What we are tending to do is increase technology risk so we can reduce market risk. We will generally take on more market risks, have a bigger jump, and a larger probability of failing at the technology such that when we enter the market we have a larger competitive advantage.

    EC (51:30): What are you hearing from the limited partners, the people who invest with you? Is there a tolerance for that sort of risk?

    VK: Absolutely. My impression is venture capital has gone too far away from real technology risk. The limited partners are thirsting for more technology risk. The limited partners tell me that the earlier stage they can get in on the technology risk, the better they like it.

    EC (53:25): I am going to open it up to questions in a minute, but one more question from me. Let’s go back to nuclear for a minute. Aren’t there Black Swans in the nuclear industry? (RR: I was thinking the same thing earlier; Black Swans only appear to have been considered by VK in very specific situations. A positive Black Swan is going to make some of his technologies successful, but he seems to discount any positive Black Swans from other sectors).

    VK: There probably are. In fact, Bill Gates is funding one. The problem with nuclear, I think, is different. Because of the NRC it takes 20 years to build one. And I have to give them $100 million to approve every step of the process. The problem with nuclear is that the innovation cycle is very long. If I am building a nuclear plant, I think of something, 20 years later I build something and see how it performs. If I am building a solar thermal plant, six months later I change my manufacturing line. I can even do it half way through building a power plant.

    EC (54:40): And if you are building an ethanol plant, two or three years later it’s ready.

    VK: Yeah, though every six months people plan on changing the bug in their plant. Every six months you change the bug. Keep evolving it, improve the efficiency. The cycle of innovation – how long it takes – is a really important metric for judging how effective a technology will be in getting to market.

    EC (55:20): OK, good. First question.

    Q1 from audience (55:30): My question is on nuclear. You said you weren’t interested in building, but how about the services component, i.e., servicing the waste and so forth?

    VK: I think it’s a limited investment opportunity. I don’t think it’s an explosive opportunity. (RR: I suppose that depends on whether critical mass is reached.)

    Q2 (56:10): What about superconductivity?

    VK: It’s an interesting area, I just haven’t seen the pace of innovation. Sometimes it’s self-fulfilling. If you are not interested, nobody funds it, then nothing happens. I would love to see a breakthrough in room temperature superconductivity. (RR: He then said Kleiner invested in a couple of companies in the late 80’s; he mentioned American Superconductor).

    Q3 (57:20): With respect to cellulosic ethanol, this question of indirect land use that has ended up in the standards; do you think that will continue?

    VK: It’s a fairly complex issue; the science is very uncertain. I think it is figured into the California Low Carbon Fuel Standard. The end result is a reasonable compromise. It’s also something that is fairly uncertain right now. I think the California Air Resources Board (CARB) came up with something that’s a reasonable answer on indirect land use impacts. The corn ethanol guys wanted to have zero. They didn’t get that, so they are now complaining in Washington. I think CARB could have phased it in more slowly because the numbers are so uncertain, so I would not agree 100% with CARB. But I would agree 90% with them.

    Q4 (59:10): That’s corn. How about cellulosic?

    VK: I think cellulosic should be measured the same way, but I think the impact will be fairly small, and over time it has the potential to be the biggest opportunity to sequester carbon in the soil. I don’t want to get into the details – there are papers on my website about this – but it is possible to change agronomy practices to raise biomass and sequester carbon at the same time. It is the annual crops, where you till up the soil ever year, that you have a problem. Perennial crops, and sugarcane is such a crop, you have a much better chance. Also, a lot of cellulosic crops can be grown without a lot of water and on marginal lands.

    EC (60:20): So the amount of land we would need, if we were to truly replace gasoline, how much land would we need?

    VK: Under optimistic scenarios we need zero land in this country to replace all of the gasoline in this country. (RR: He referred to this paper – Where Will Biomass Come From? – on his website for a detailed explanation). Look, this is really important. We can’t do linear extrapolation of the past. (RR: Because it doesn’t give the desired answer). If we do, we are sure to fail. We have to do things a new way. The best way to predict the future is to invent it, not extrapolate the past. (RR: Audience starts to applaud). And this is a fundamental difference.

    Q5 (61:22): Is the lack of seed capital – especially in Europe – a bottleneck, and how do we reengineer this so that funds are available?

    VK: Lack of seed investment in Europe may be a problem for the Europeans, but it’s an opportunity for us. Let me give you an example. I ran into a guy who was a senior director of research at Exxon, who had moved to Europe – Amsterdam – and was struggling with a new idea to make fuel from biomass. He wasn’t producing ethanol. He called me, and said “Nobody in Europe understands me. I have been looking for money for two years.” He had been begging and borrowing space at various labs and universities to do his research. He said that he thought we had it all wrong, that instead of turning biomass into ethanol you should turn it into crude oil. This is exactly the same thing nature does; all crude oil comes from biomass. He said the only problem with nature is that it takes millions of years. He said he could do it in minutes. Now that’s a seed idea. I would have guessed that there was less than a 10% chance that he was going to be able to pull this off. It didn’t take very much for me to write him a check, because if he is right it’s transformative. He moved to Houston and went to work.

    I like to joke that I am the only Indian in-sourcing jobs. We have in-sourced three technology companies: One from New Zealand, one from Amsterdam, and one from Australia. The same thing happened with the solar thermal technology in Australia. We funded it and they moved to Palo Alto. Every news channel in Australia carried that story. What was the story? “Why isn’t Australia funding this?”

    EC (64:40): Are you seeing more competition at the seed level from other venture capitalists?

    VK: It’s starting to increase, but not that much. That’s why we love the seed opportunities. They are the most promising opportunities anywhere. (RR: He then mentioned that the company in Houston is KiOR, which I mentioned previously in Vinod Khosla Scoops Me. Incidentally, VK e-mailed me after I posted that essay and we exchanged several e-mails over KiOR and some of his other ventures.) Nobody wanted to invest in the Internet until the Netscape idea. After Netscape, everybody was interested.

    EC (65:40): You have said that you like being a seed investor. Do you think there are enough investors at the 2nd and 3rd tier? These companies are going to need more than just you at that point.

    VK: You don’t know for sure, but we see increasing interest. If you see one or two successful IPOs, the amount of money will increase dramatically. Wall Street bounces between fear and greed; we are in a fear cycle.

    Q6 (66:40): What are those Ph.D. students looking into right now? In 2005, I did an informal survey at UC Berkeley. Nobody in the engineering department – graduate students or professors – were interested in energy. We did an informal survey in 2006 and suddenly more than 50% were interested in working in energy. That’s why I am very bullish with respect to the new crops of Ph.D. students coming out. It’s the number one choice. Number one used to be nanotechnology, genetics, computer science; it’s now material science, it’s chemical engineering, it’s all kinds of fundamental processes. What I have noticed is physics, chemistry, biology are becoming a lot more important, and that will drive transformation in energy over the next 20-25 years. (RR: I guess I was way ahead of my time since I studied biomass to energy in graduate school at Texas A&M in the early 90’s).

    Q7 (68:00): I agree with your urgency about climate change, but it’s interesting to think about other countries, who already realize that we have already baked in about two degrees C in terms of the thermal momentum of the earth. Is there a technology opportunity in adaptation to climate change?

    VK: I haven’t spent enough time on adaptation. It’s unfortunate that the people who have the least are the most impacted, like Bangladesh. But there is an interesting area that I have avoided, called geoengineering. I have just been asked to speak at a geoengineering conference, and I haven’t decided. It is a touchy subject; to engineer the climate of this planet. Some people think we have to do it, others think there will be too many unintended consequences. I subscribe to that view.

    EC: We will take two more questions.

    Q8 (70:22): Could you talk about job creation?

    VK: Most of the studies say that job creation per dollar invested is higher for renewable technologies; higher than dollars invested in fossil fuel technologies. I don’t know why that is, but all of the data seem to indicate that this is in fact true.

    Q9 (71:52): Do you think Brazil has a chance with sugar ethanol?

    VK: Sugarcane ethanol, under the Low Carbon Fuel Standard, comes out looking reasonably good. But, having said that, I think sugar is too valuable a commodity to use. We will get to things other than sugarcane as our source of fuel. I suspect sugarcane will be more lasting than corn ethanol, but even that will be a passing phase. In the end, non-food technologies are likely to be the source of our fuels. Partly because the politics are right; more importantly because the science is right. I evaluate biofuels on one metric: How many miles can you drive per acre? With most food crops, you can get to 10,000 miles driven per acre. Cellulosic technology offers the opportunity to go 100,000 miles on an acre, and then land becomes a non-issue. (RR: Two words: Net energy). Now we promised to take one last question.

    Q10 (73:30): A lot of these new technologies are going require someone to install all of this. Are there plans to look at human capital opportunties?

    VK: There are clearly opportunities in services. We are not funding them because, partly because I am a techie nerd; I like the technology and everyone should do something they have fun at. But there are clearly opportunities, and others are doing it. Thank you all very much.

    May 4, 2009 Posted by | batteries, biomass, Black Swan, cellulosic ethanol, electric cars, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, nuclear energy, Prius, Vinod Khosla | 28 Comments

    Vinod Khosla at Milken Institute: Part III

    This will be the conclusion of Vinod Khosla’s (VK) recent lengthy interview at the Milken Institute 2009 Global Conference. The interview was conducted by Elizabeth Corcoran (EC) of Forbes and can be viewed here.

    In Part I, VK discussed the role of government money, capital intensity of renewable projects, and some of his solar investments. In Part II, VK discussed butanol, cellulosic ethanol, nuclear power, and cap and trade. Here in Part III, VK discusses his beef with electric cars, has lots to say about Black Swans, discusses his problems with nuclear in more detail, talks about green jobs, sugarcane ethanol, and weighs in on indirect land use issues for biofuels.

    EC (39:00): Let’s get to those electric cars. You don’t like the Prius.

    VK: Let me be clear, and I am going to sneak in my Black Swan. I do drive a hybrid, but not a Prius. I drive a Lexus hybrid. Hybrids are an uneconomic way to reduce carbon dioxide. If you go to hybrids or electric cars, your cost of carbon reduction is about $100/ton. If you have 10 ways of reducing carbon at $50/ton, why would you spend $100? My beef is not with hybrids; we are investing in hybrid batteries; there is a good market and we can make money at it. But do I believe it’s going to solve the climate change problem? No. (RR: None of the things that have been discussed are going to significantly rein in carbon emissions.) Save yourself the five grand, and instead paint your roof white. You will save more carbon that way.

    (RR: He cited this paper by Art Rosenfeld at Lawrence Berkeley Lab: “White Roofs Cool the World, Directly Offset CO2 and Delay Global Warming“).

    EC (41:10): Shai Agassi – a long time entrepreneur in Silicon Valley – has a very different approach to batteries. Are you involved in the work he is doing? Does that only work in small countries?

    VK: You know, Shai has a very intriguing start-up. (RR: EC interrupts to explain that Shai is developing stations where you can go and exchange batteries for electric cars; he owns the battery and you own the car. See more explanation here.) I mentioned earlier about diversity of opinion; I am glad he is trying it and I am cheering him on. If I can help him I will. It is important to try some of these experiments. He has a particularly clever way to do something that does have a shot at working.

    I want to add my Black Swan theory here. Most of you have probably read the Black Swan, or heard about it. The financial crisis is a negative Black Swan. I am a true believer that technology provides positive Black Swans. (RR: VK explains the concept of the Black Swan. Here is a link to the book at Amazon, which I have read and found to be very good). We will redefine energy because of the Black Swans of technology.

    (RR: VK then explains his problem with electric cars, and says lithium ion batteries are too expensive, are limited by electrochemistry, and will be for a long time. I would say that while VK seems to have a clear picture in his head on the issues with batteries, he suffers from a blind spot about similar limitations of cellulosic biomass. He then cites all of his investments into different areas, and concludes that sheer numbers mean something is going to work.)

    VK: The chance that each approach will succeed is small. The chance that all of them will cumulatively fail is vanishingly small. Mark my words: Vanishingly small, and that’s why we will have unsubsidized market competitiveness with fossil fuels. And the fossil fuel guys won’t know what hit them. I don’t see how by 2030 oil can compete. That’s why I think by 2030 oil will go to $30, because it will be the alternative cost of marginal technologies.

    (RR: I think he truly believes this. Yet it shows a failure to grasp issues of scale, biomass density, logistical challenges, and much more. If it were merely a numbers game, we could solve any technology problem by just throwing enough money at it. But there are fundamental issues here regarding biomass that will never – mark my words – never allow it to be produced for $30/bbl. Sugarcane ethanol, yes, can be produced for that in Brazil. But you will never turn cellulosic biomass into a liquid fuel, at scale, for $30/bbl – for the same kinds of fundamental limitations VK mentions for batteries.)

    EC (47:40): So by 2030, what will be the primary fuel?

    VK: I have a paper on my website that postulates about a technology race between biofuels and batteries. Whichever one makes the most rapid progress will get the larger percentage of the total passenger miles driven in the world.

    EC (48:30): Does government risk factor in? There has been a cautionary tale in biodiesel, where there has been great interest, lots of money pumped in, and yet due in part to vagaries of how the environmentalists and government regulations have crashed into each other, you have got more than 100 biodiesel fuels (RR: Biodiesel plants, I presume?) around the country, none of which are producing fuel.

    VK: You know, that’s true, but you also have bankrupt financial companies. Look, failure is the natural mechanism of capitalism. But you are right. There is government risk. But we fixed a lot of that last week when the Low-Carbon Fuel Standard passed. It will force the right decisions looking back.

    EC (50:18): There have been many technologies – and Kleiner invested in many early on – where the technology, the marketplace, and the government were not in sync. And the technology dies.

    VK: I think that’s the wrong way to look at it. Any start-up has risks. It has technology risks, market risks, it has financial risks. It has other risks; it has people risks and management risks. What you are doing as an active investor is balancing those risks. What we are tending to do is increase technology risk so we can reduce market risk. We will generally take on more market risks, have a bigger jump, and a larger probability of failing at the technology such that when we enter the market we have a larger competitive advantage.

    EC (51:30): What are you hearing from the limited partners, the people who invest with you? Is there a tolerance for that sort of risk?

    VK: Absolutely. My impression is venture capital has gone too far away from real technology risk. The limited partners are thirsting for more technology risk. The limited partners tell me that the earlier stage they can get in on the technology risk, the better they like it.

    EC (53:25): I am going to open it up to questions in a minute, but one more question from me. Let’s go back to nuclear for a minute. Aren’t there Black Swans in the nuclear industry? (RR: I was thinking the same thing earlier; Black Swans only appear to have been considered by VK in very specific situations. A positive Black Swan is going to make some of his technologies successful, but he seems to discount any positive Black Swans from other sectors).

    VK: There probably are. In fact, Bill Gates is funding one. The problem with nuclear, I think, is different. Because of the NRC it takes 20 years to build one. And I have to give them $100 million to approve every step of the process. The problem with nuclear is that the innovation cycle is very long. If I am building a nuclear plant, I think of something, 20 years later I build something and see how it performs. If I am building a solar thermal plant, six months later I change my manufacturing line. I can even do it half way through building a power plant.

    EC (54:40): And if you are building an ethanol plant, two or three years later it’s ready.

    VK: Yeah, though every six months people plan on changing the bug in their plant. Every six months you change the bug. Keep evolving it, improve the efficiency. The cycle of innovation – how long it takes – is a really important metric for judging how effective a technology will be in getting to market.

    EC (55:20): OK, good. First question.

    Q1 from audience (55:30): My question is on nuclear. You said you weren’t interested in building, but how about the services component, i.e., servicing the waste and so forth?

    VK: I think it’s a limited investment opportunity. I don’t think it’s an explosive opportunity. (RR: I suppose that depends on whether critical mass is reached.)

    Q2 (56:10): What about superconductivity?

    VK: It’s an interesting area, I just haven’t seen the pace of innovation. Sometimes it’s self-fulfilling. If you are not interested, nobody funds it, then nothing happens. I would love to see a breakthrough in room temperature superconductivity. (RR: He then said Kleiner invested in a couple of companies in the late 80’s; he mentioned American Superconductor).

    Q3 (57:20): With respect to cellulosic ethanol, this question of indirect land use that has ended up in the standards; do you think that will continue?

    VK: It’s a fairly complex issue; the science is very uncertain. I think it is figured into the California Low Carbon Fuel Standard. The end result is a reasonable compromise. It’s also something that is fairly uncertain right now. I think the California Air Resources Board (CARB) came up with something that’s a reasonable answer on indirect land use impacts. The corn ethanol guys wanted to have zero. They didn’t get that, so they are now complaining in Washington. I think CARB could have phased it in more slowly because the numbers are so uncertain, so I would not agree 100% with CARB. But I would agree 90% with them.

    Q4 (59:10): That’s corn. How about cellulosic?

    VK: I think cellulosic should be measured the same way, but I think the impact will be fairly small, and over time it has the potential to be the biggest opportunity to sequester carbon in the soil. I don’t want to get into the details – there are papers on my website about this – but it is possible to change agronomy practices to raise biomass and sequester carbon at the same time. It is the annual crops, where you till up the soil ever year, that you have a problem. Perennial crops, and sugarcane is such a crop, you have a much better chance. Also, a lot of cellulosic crops can be grown without a lot of water and on marginal lands.

    EC (60:20): So the amount of land we would need, if we were to truly replace gasoline, how much land would we need?

    VK: Under optimistic scenarios we need zero land in this country to replace all of the gasoline in this country. (RR: He referred to this paper – Where Will Biomass Come From? – on his website for a detailed explanation). Look, this is really important. We can’t do linear extrapolation of the past. (RR: Because it doesn’t give the desired answer). If we do, we are sure to fail. We have to do things a new way. The best way to predict the future is to invent it, not extrapolate the past. (RR: Audience starts to applaud). And this is a fundamental difference.

    Q5 (61:22): Is the lack of seed capital – especially in Europe – a bottleneck, and how do we reengineer this so that funds are available?

    VK: Lack of seed investment in Europe may be a problem for the Europeans, but it’s an opportunity for us. Let me give you an example. I ran into a guy who was a senior director of research at Exxon, who had moved to Europe – Amsterdam – and was struggling with a new idea to make fuel from biomass. He wasn’t producing ethanol. He called me, and said “Nobody in Europe understands me. I have been looking for money for two years.” He had been begging and borrowing space at various labs and universities to do his research. He said that he thought we had it all wrong, that instead of turning biomass into ethanol you should turn it into crude oil. This is exactly the same thing nature does; all crude oil comes from biomass. He said the only problem with nature is that it takes millions of years. He said he could do it in minutes. Now that’s a seed idea. I would have guessed that there was less than a 10% chance that he was going to be able to pull this off. It didn’t take very much for me to write him a check, because if he is right it’s transformative. He moved to Houston and went to work.

    I like to joke that I am the only Indian in-sourcing jobs. We have in-sourced three technology companies: One from New Zealand, one from Amsterdam, and one from Australia. The same thing happened with the solar thermal technology in Australia. We funded it and they moved to Palo Alto. Every news channel in Australia carried that story. What was the story? “Why isn’t Australia funding this?”

    EC (64:40): Are you seeing more competition at the seed level from other venture capitalists?

    VK: It’s starting to increase, but not that much. That’s why we love the seed opportunities. They are the most promising opportunities anywhere. (RR: He then mentioned that the company in Houston is KiOR, which I mentioned previously in Vinod Khosla Scoops Me. Incidentally, VK e-mailed me after I posted that essay and we exchanged several e-mails over KiOR and some of his other ventures.) Nobody wanted to invest in the Internet until the Netscape idea. After Netscape, everybody was interested.

    EC (65:40): You have said that you like being a seed investor. Do you think there are enough investors at the 2nd and 3rd tier? These companies are going to need more than just you at that point.

    VK: You don’t know for sure, but we see increasing interest. If you see one or two successful IPOs, the amount of money will increase dramatically. Wall Street bounces between fear and greed; we are in a fear cycle.

    Q6 (66:40): What are those Ph.D. students looking into right now? In 2005, I did an informal survey at UC Berkeley. Nobody in the engineering department – graduate students or professors – were interested in energy. We did an informal survey in 2006 and suddenly more than 50% were interested in working in energy. That’s why I am very bullish with respect to the new crops of Ph.D. students coming out. It’s the number one choice. Number one used to be nanotechnology, genetics, computer science; it’s now material science, it’s chemical engineering, it’s all kinds of fundamental processes. What I have noticed is physics, chemistry, biology are becoming a lot more important, and that will drive transformation in energy over the next 20-25 years. (RR: I guess I was way ahead of my time since I studied biomass to energy in graduate school at Texas A&M in the early 90’s).

    Q7 (68:00): I agree with your urgency about climate change, but it’s interesting to think about other countries, who already realize that we have already baked in about two degrees C in terms of the thermal momentum of the earth. Is there a technology opportunity in adaptation to climate change?

    VK: I haven’t spent enough time on adaptation. It’s unfortunate that the people who have the least are the most impacted, like Bangladesh. But there is an interesting area that I have avoided, called geoengineering. I have just been asked to speak at a geoengineering conference, and I haven’t decided. It is a touchy subject; to engineer the climate of this planet. Some people think we have to do it, others think there will be too many unintended consequences. I subscribe to that view.

    EC: We will take two more questions.

    Q8 (70:22): Could you talk about job creation?

    VK: Most of the studies say that job creation per dollar invested is higher for renewable technologies; higher than dollars invested in fossil fuel technologies. I don’t know why that is, but all of the data seem to indicate that this is in fact true.

    Q9 (71:52): Do you think Brazil has a chance with sugar ethanol?

    VK: Sugarcane ethanol, under the Low Carbon Fuel Standard, comes out looking reasonably good. But, having said that, I think sugar is too valuable a commodity to use. We will get to things other than sugarcane as our source of fuel. I suspect sugarcane will be more lasting than corn ethanol, but even that will be a passing phase. In the end, non-food technologies are likely to be the source of our fuels. Partly because the politics are right; more importantly because the science is right. I evaluate biofuels on one metric: How many miles can you drive per acre? With most food crops, you can get to 10,000 miles driven per acre. Cellulosic technology offers the opportunity to go 100,000 miles on an acre, and then land becomes a non-issue. (RR: Two words: Net energy). Now we promised to take one last question.

    Q10 (73:30): A lot of these new technologies are going require someone to install all of this. Are there plans to look at human capital opportunties?

    VK: There are clearly opportunities in services. We are not funding them because, partly because I am a techie nerd; I like the technology and everyone should do something they have fun at. But there are clearly opportunities, and others are doing it. Thank you all very much.

    May 4, 2009 Posted by | batteries, biomass, Black Swan, cellulosic ethanol, electric cars, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, nuclear energy, Prius, Vinod Khosla | 48 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

    The Solar-Powered Prius


    Solar-Powered Prius (Source: http://www.solarelectricalvehicles.com/)

    At the end of my recent essay on Nissan’s electric car announcement, I wrote “For my next calculation, I need to see how much power I could generate by putting a solar panel on the roof of my electric car and letting it recharge all day.”

    In response, a reader wrote and told me that a feasibility study has been done for this on a Toyota Prius. The paper was the source of the above picture of the prototype:

    Prius White Paper

    From the paper:

    Abstract

    The major automobile manufacturers are producing hybrid automobiles, which are part electric and part gasoline powered. Could these automobiles take another step and obtain some of their fuel from the sun?

    Solar Electrical Vehicles has developed a prototype PV Prius to help answer that question. The PV Prius is fitted with a custom molded fiberglass photovoltaic module as shown in Figure 1. Solar Electrical Vehicles has applied for a patent on the PV Prius solar system.

    The photovoltaic module is rated at 215 watts at AM 1.5. The module is connected to a DC-DC converter and peak power tracker. The output of the converter is directly connected to the primary motive NiMh battery.

    The daily power production available for charging the Prius primary motive battery is estimated to be between 850 and 1,300 watt-hours. The car uses 150-175 watt-hours per mile. Thus, the expected range per day that the PV Prius would have on solar power alone would be between 5 and 8 miles. Based upon a nominal daily trip length of 28 miles the gasoline consumption of the PV Prius would be reduced by 17% to 29%.

    The following section was of particular interest to me:

    Can a PV Prius obtain all of its fuel from Solar?

    The answer to this question is a definite yes providing that the stock Prius, in addition to having the solar modifications described in the previous section, increase the size of the secondary battery and the DC-DC converter used to deliver solar energy to the NiMH battery. Using a maximum depth of discharge of 50% to provide some reserve power and extend the cycle life of the enhanced Lead Acid battery, the capacity would have to be increased from its present 3 kWh rating to 8 kWh.

    In addition, the 48 to 240 V DC-DC converter capacity would need to be increased to at least 2000 watts. With this battery capacity, increased energy from a residential photovoltaic array could be used to recharge the battery at night when the car is parked in the garage. This complete system is the Total PV Prius.

    How can this be? How can you recharge your Total PV Prius at night parked in the garage? The answer to that is net metering with your local electric utility. That is if you live in a region of the country which net metering is offered for residences with a grid connected photovoltaic array, then the owner of the Total PV Prius would be able to supply energy to the utility grid during the day light hours and have it returned to him in the evening. While the energy returned to the homeowner may be produced using fossil fuels, the energy supplied to the utility during the daylight hours would have reduced the use of fossil fuels by an equivalent amount.

    Some of you solar guys take a crack at that, and let’s discuss what some of the hurdles might be. The economic analysis isn’t all that promising, as the expected gasoline savings over the lifetime of the vehicle is estimated at somewhere between 300 and 600 gallons. That’s not going to warrant much capital on a purely economic evaluation. No cost estimates are given for the required modifications, but I am guessing the cost is more than can be justified by the gasoline savings.

    It’s a start, anyway. Keep in mind that this is a Prius, and a lighter car can have a much greater range. The economics may look a lot better if the range is higher, and so is your daily commute.

    May 28, 2008 Posted by | electric cars, phev, solar power, Toyota | 34 Comments

    The Solar-Powered Prius


    Solar-Powered Prius (Source: http://www.solarelectricalvehicles.com/)

    At the end of my recent essay on Nissan’s electric car announcement, I wrote “For my next calculation, I need to see how much power I could generate by putting a solar panel on the roof of my electric car and letting it recharge all day.”

    In response, a reader wrote and told me that a feasibility study has been done for this on a Toyota Prius. The paper was the source of the above picture of the prototype:

    Prius White Paper

    From the paper:

    Abstract

    The major automobile manufacturers are producing hybrid automobiles, which are part electric and part gasoline powered. Could these automobiles take another step and obtain some of their fuel from the sun?

    Solar Electrical Vehicles has developed a prototype PV Prius to help answer that question. The PV Prius is fitted with a custom molded fiberglass photovoltaic module as shown in Figure 1. Solar Electrical Vehicles has applied for a patent on the PV Prius solar system.

    The photovoltaic module is rated at 215 watts at AM 1.5. The module is connected to a DC-DC converter and peak power tracker. The output of the converter is directly connected to the primary motive NiMh battery.

    The daily power production available for charging the Prius primary motive battery is estimated to be between 850 and 1,300 watt-hours. The car uses 150-175 watt-hours per mile. Thus, the expected range per day that the PV Prius would have on solar power alone would be between 5 and 8 miles. Based upon a nominal daily trip length of 28 miles the gasoline consumption of the PV Prius would be reduced by 17% to 29%.

    The following section was of particular interest to me:

    Can a PV Prius obtain all of its fuel from Solar?

    The answer to this question is a definite yes providing that the stock Prius, in addition to having the solar modifications described in the previous section, increase the size of the secondary battery and the DC-DC converter used to deliver solar energy to the NiMH battery. Using a maximum depth of discharge of 50% to provide some reserve power and extend the cycle life of the enhanced Lead Acid battery, the capacity would have to be increased from its present 3 kWh rating to 8 kWh.

    In addition, the 48 to 240 V DC-DC converter capacity would need to be increased to at least 2000 watts. With this battery capacity, increased energy from a residential photovoltaic array could be used to recharge the battery at night when the car is parked in the garage. This complete system is the Total PV Prius.

    How can this be? How can you recharge your Total PV Prius at night parked in the garage? The answer to that is net metering with your local electric utility. That is if you live in a region of the country which net metering is offered for residences with a grid connected photovoltaic array, then the owner of the Total PV Prius would be able to supply energy to the utility grid during the day light hours and have it returned to him in the evening. While the energy returned to the homeowner may be produced using fossil fuels, the energy supplied to the utility during the daylight hours would have reduced the use of fossil fuels by an equivalent amount.

    Some of you solar guys take a crack at that, and let’s discuss what some of the hurdles might be. The economic analysis isn’t all that promising, as the expected gasoline savings over the lifetime of the vehicle is estimated at somewhere between 300 and 600 gallons. That’s not going to warrant much capital on a purely economic evaluation. No cost estimates are given for the required modifications, but I am guessing the cost is more than can be justified by the gasoline savings.

    It’s a start, anyway. Keep in mind that this is a Prius, and a lighter car can have a much greater range. The economics may look a lot better if the range is higher, and so is your daily commute.

    May 28, 2008 Posted by | electric cars, phev, solar power, Toyota | Comments Off on The Solar-Powered Prius

    The Solar-Powered Prius


    Solar-Powered Prius (Source: http://www.solarelectricalvehicles.com/)

    At the end of my recent essay on Nissan’s electric car announcement, I wrote “For my next calculation, I need to see how much power I could generate by putting a solar panel on the roof of my electric car and letting it recharge all day.”

    In response, a reader wrote and told me that a feasibility study has been done for this on a Toyota Prius. The paper was the source of the above picture of the prototype:

    Prius White Paper

    From the paper:

    Abstract

    The major automobile manufacturers are producing hybrid automobiles, which are part electric and part gasoline powered. Could these automobiles take another step and obtain some of their fuel from the sun?

    Solar Electrical Vehicles has developed a prototype PV Prius to help answer that question. The PV Prius is fitted with a custom molded fiberglass photovoltaic module as shown in Figure 1. Solar Electrical Vehicles has applied for a patent on the PV Prius solar system.

    The photovoltaic module is rated at 215 watts at AM 1.5. The module is connected to a DC-DC converter and peak power tracker. The output of the converter is directly connected to the primary motive NiMh battery.

    The daily power production available for charging the Prius primary motive battery is estimated to be between 850 and 1,300 watt-hours. The car uses 150-175 watt-hours per mile. Thus, the expected range per day that the PV Prius would have on solar power alone would be between 5 and 8 miles. Based upon a nominal daily trip length of 28 miles the gasoline consumption of the PV Prius would be reduced by 17% to 29%.

    The following section was of particular interest to me:

    Can a PV Prius obtain all of its fuel from Solar?

    The answer to this question is a definite yes providing that the stock Prius, in addition to having the solar modifications described in the previous section, increase the size of the secondary battery and the DC-DC converter used to deliver solar energy to the NiMH battery. Using a maximum depth of discharge of 50% to provide some reserve power and extend the cycle life of the enhanced Lead Acid battery, the capacity would have to be increased from its present 3 kWh rating to 8 kWh.

    In addition, the 48 to 240 V DC-DC converter capacity would need to be increased to at least 2000 watts. With this battery capacity, increased energy from a residential photovoltaic array could be used to recharge the battery at night when the car is parked in the garage. This complete system is the Total PV Prius.

    How can this be? How can you recharge your Total PV Prius at night parked in the garage? The answer to that is net metering with your local electric utility. That is if you live in a region of the country which net metering is offered for residences with a grid connected photovoltaic array, then the owner of the Total PV Prius would be able to supply energy to the utility grid during the day light hours and have it returned to him in the evening. While the energy returned to the homeowner may be produced using fossil fuels, the energy supplied to the utility during the daylight hours would have reduced the use of fossil fuels by an equivalent amount.

    Some of you solar guys take a crack at that, and let’s discuss what some of the hurdles might be. The economic analysis isn’t all that promising, as the expected gasoline savings over the lifetime of the vehicle is estimated at somewhere between 300 and 600 gallons. That’s not going to warrant much capital on a purely economic evaluation. No cost estimates are given for the required modifications, but I am guessing the cost is more than can be justified by the gasoline savings.

    It’s a start, anyway. Keep in mind that this is a Prius, and a lighter car can have a much greater range. The economics may look a lot better if the range is higher, and so is your daily commute.

    May 28, 2008 Posted by | electric cars, phev, solar power, Toyota | 34 Comments