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Mike McGrail's posts

Plugging in electric cars is easy, but paying for them might kill you

Mike McGrail · March 12th, 2013

Charging a plug-in vehicle is a lot like a middle school science project – except most middle school science projects don’t leave you stranded in a parking lot hundreds of miles from home.

Electric_car_chargingThat’s the implicit message permeating the public duel between Tesla Motors CEO and founder Elon Musk and New York Times writer John Broder. The former objects to the latter’s review of Tesla’s swanky Model S electric sedan. Broder’s travelogue legitimizes a central fear about plug-in vehicles: that they’re unreliable if they stray too far from a high-speed charging station. (Which, incidentally, aren’t all that speedy at 30 minutes for a 150-mile charge.)

Broder wrote that he did everything short of pumping magic beans into the Model S to keep it rolling. He drove at low speeds without the heat on for miles to get from one charging station to another. He stayed in almost constant touch with Tesla customer service. He took long breaks while the Model S slowly sipped from electric outlets.

Even with those accommodations, Broder claimed that the Model S ran out of juice and shut itself down in Milford, Conn., about two thirds of the distance from his starting point of Washington DC to his destination of Boston.

Tesla struck back – persuasively. Musk cited the car’s on-board activity log and Broder’s own communications with Tesla customer service to charge that Broder deliberately ran the Model S down for dramatic effect. Oh yeah, and he didn’t putter along at 50 miles per hour with the heat off in February, as he claimed. He drove at highway speeds with the heat on.

No matter whom you believe in this beef, the underlying issue is bogus. Electric cars are not going to fail for lack of places to plug them in any more than gasoline-powered cars failed for lack of gas stations at the end of the horse-and-buggy era.

When gasoline engines hit the scene, the technology was good enough to spur growth of an infrastructure around it. The same thing is happening with plug-ins. Nissan and Tesla Motors are rolling out coast-to-coast networks of high-speed charging stations for their electric vehicles. There are already gujillions of charging devices on the market. The Baltic nation of Estonia has made it a national priority to establish a network of charging stations and they’re off to a good start.

I know, Estonia doesn’t compare to the U.S. in size or population. Yet it has 1.25 million people and 17,000 square miles to cover, so it’s not a throwaway comparison either.

No, the issue with plug-in cars isn’t where to plug them in. The issue is also not that they plug into a grid powered largely by dirty-burning coal, which is the other popular red herring around plug-ins. The grid is getting more environmentally friendly and will grow steadily more so as more renewable energy sources come online.

The issue with plug-in cars is that they’re too expensive for large-scale consumer adoption. A Tesla Model S costs $54,000. A similarly tricked-out Mercedes Benz E-class sedan goes for $51,000. A Chevy Volt is $39,000, compared to $21,000 for a Chevy Mailbu. A basic Nissan Leaf costs $21,300 – and the Leaf is the econobox of the electric car set. A comparable conventionally powered car costs about $14,500.

These price points make plug-in vehicles irrelevant to most consumers. Even if they care for the environment, they can’t pay for a car with good intentions. So treat spitting contests like Broder versus Musk for what they are: entertainment. But when someone talks about making a plug-in that the average consumer can afford, you might want to pay attention. That’s the real obstacle for plug-ins.

Renewable energy is showing spark for 2013 and beyond

Mike McGrail · January 8th, 2013

2012 had all the ingredients for a bummer year in renewable energy, but instead it gave us a lot to be optimistic about for 2013 and beyond.

Sure, the renewable energy and conservation grants in the stimulus bill are going away. Consumer demand for alternative energy systems dropped. A glut of solar photovoltaic equipment on the international market helped fuel a trade dispute between the U.S. and China. That dispute raised uncertainty about solar’s long-term prospects as free trade collided with low prices.plug-in earth

Solar energy companies, some backed by government loans and grants, scaled back operations or shut down. Critics in Congress derided each failure as a waste of tax money. Some tried to prevent the military from investing in biofuels.

In the end, Congress restored the military’s freedom to explore alternative energy sources. That was emblematic of what happened in the U.S. and the world in renewable energy. It didn’t look good for a while, but by the end of 2012, there were a lot of positives on the scoreboard.

Germany again showed what a developed nation with a large, complex economy can accomplish in renewable energy. The country’s renewable energy output rose to 25 percent of its total energy production in the first half of 2012. Wind led the way at 9.2 percent, followed by solar at 5.3 percent. When the final numbers from 2012 are in, Germany expects to beat its 2011 clean energy output by 15 percent.

China, the world’s largest energy consumer, erected 36 wind turbines per day in 2012. One of its provinces alone generates as much electricity through wind power as the entire United Kingdom does from all fossil-fueled and renewable sources. The Chinese government quadrupled the amount of solar power it wants to generate by 2015 to 21 gigawatts.

In the U.S., total renewable energy output dropped slightly in 2012 because of lower water levels in the Pacific Northwest that cut hydroelectric energy production. However, renewable output is forecast to rebound to 2011 levels in 2013.

As of Nov. 30, 2012, new wind power installations in the U.S. outpaced natural gas and coal with 6,519 megawatts of new capacity. Natural gas was at 6,335 megawatts and coal was less than half of the wind power total. Wind power electric generation increased 15 percent in 2012.

As good as 2012’s lagging indicators were, the signs of what’s coming in 2013 and beyond were even more encouraging.

Investor Warren Buffet bought the 579-megawatt Antelope Valley Solar Project in California for somewhere between $2 and $2.5 billion. It’s the world’s largest solar photovoltaic development. When a guy like Buffet puts that much down on a venture, he’s clearly not afraid of government subsidies drying up, or market peaks and valleys.

On the technology front, there are encouraging signs that companies are plugging away at the limitations holding renewable energy back from mass acceptance. A U.S.-based company has applied for a patent on a wind turbine design that stores energy as heat instead of immediately converting it to electricity. The heat generates steam to drive turbines when the wind isn’t blowing, a stubborn drawback of wind power.

In solar photovoltaics, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and partner Solar Junction announced a solar cell that converts 44 percent of the light that hits it into energy. Efficiency has been a drag on solar photovoltaic; most panels only convert somewhere around 20-25 percent of available light into electricity. At the same time, the government research agency DARPA is experimenting with nano materials that can boost solar cell efficiency to 50 percent.

Politicians and economists are still guarded in their predictions about renewable energy. Even so, there’s a feeling of inevitability building around it. The feeling ebbs from time to time, but even during slack tides like 2012, the trend is for better and smarter renewable energy technology and a bigger renewable energy market.

 

U.S. military goes on the renewable energy offensive

Mike McGrail · June 7th, 2012

Under orders from President Harry Truman in 1948, the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines started a fundamental shift in American society by ending racial segregation well ahead of most civilian institutions.

A generation later, the military is at the forefront of another seismic social movement.

The U.S. military is one of the world’s top supporters of renewable energy. “Drill baby drill” isn’t hacking it among the military minds pondering the services’ long-term future. They see a basic weakness in relying on offshore energy resources. The military is funding some of the most basic renewable energy research going on in the world today, from solar to biofuels. The Air Force alone plans $7 billion in biofuel projects over the next decade. All branches of the military are  adding solar and wind power generating capacity on their land and buildings.

In other words, they’re way ahead of the civilian world on just about every level.

There has been a fair amount written about this development, but this piece is the most cogent and succinct assessment of the military’s importance that I’ve read. It’s by Nicole Lederer, a co-founder of national environmental and economic policy organization Environmental Entrepreneurs.

In a fairly short pieces, Lederer puts the military’s efforts in a broader context and lays out the issues that cut across military and civilian boundaries. Check it out and weigh in. Do you think the military’s renewable energy programs will nudge the civilian world ahead?

Smart gridlock in the Green Mountain State

Mike McGrail · May 15th, 2012

Sustainable energy and personal rights are colliding over smart meters, those long-touted pillars of energy-saving smart grids, on the unlikely battleground of Vermont.

Utilities and policy makers favor smart metering for its cost-cutting and energy-saving potential, but their entreaties are falling on granite ears in many quarters of the Green Mountain State.

Bucking an energy conservation technology like smart grids doesn’t sync with Vermont’s Ben & Jerry’s/Birkenstock/organic image. It does, however, sync with an even deeper stratum in Vermont’s social bedrock, where live-and-let-live and minding your own business have been around a lot longer than Messrs. Cohen and Greenfield. Where jokes like:

“Q. How are you this morning Mr. Smith?

A. None of your business, and I wouldn’t tell you that much if you hadn’t been my neighbor for 30 years.”

aren’t jokes, they’re guidelines.

The Vermont smart meter conflict highlights a seldom-explored dimension of environmental sustainability – privacy. Like the siting of wind turbines, it’s an issue that sustainability advocates have to address if our energy consumption habits are going to change for the better.

Smart meters and a smart grid are part of a future where technology helps us consume less energy. Energy efficiency advocates envision a future when sensors in energy-sucking appliances like water heaters can detect when they’re not used for long periods and automatically put themselves in a dormant mode. When refrigerators adjust their cooling levels according to how much food is on the shelves. When household energy management systems automatically reduce heating and cooling and turn off lights in rooms they sense are unoccupied.

Smart metering and smart grids don’t reach nearly that far into ratepayers’ homes. They provide broad consumption data to support energy-saving measures like large-scale load balancing and variable rates to encourage off-peak usage. Nevertheless, they have a lot of people creeped out.

Privacy advocates have pointed out that government and private companies could use data gathered by smart grids – to intrude on ratepayers’ lives. It’s not hard to intuit from energy use patterns when people are home and what they’re doing, even behind closed doors and drawn curtains, they say.

The Vermont ACLU has joined with individuals and other advocacy groups in calling for tight restrictions on meter data. They also want a free opt-out of smart metering programs, unlike the paid opt-out that states like California have implemented.

Smart-grid advocates in Vermont and California, where the same debate is raging, say the smart grid needs information to be smart, and if too many people opt out they won’t have enough.

This is a problem, but it’s not a problem with smart grid technology per se. There’s nothing more intrinsically intrusive about smart meters than there is about surfing the Web or giving a credit card number over the phone. The problem is that consumers have had their privacy pockets picked too many times to accept assurances from utilities that their information will only be used to save energy.

Vermont’s Green Mountain Power Company has devoted a section of its website to explaining consumer privacy protection around data collection. It points out where the company is constrained by existing utility laws and regulations, and that the meters can only measure a house’s overall electrical consumption, not individual appliances.

Even so, the company is shoveling against an avalanche. Spam-choked email inboxes and dinner-hour robocalls have made consumers wary about who collects their information and what they can use it for.

Like so many other pieces of the sustainability puzzle, this one needs government to put it in the proper place. Not all consumers will trust the government to protect their privacy any more than they trust private industry, but the weight of laws and regulations on their side is likely to win converts. Especially when they hear stories like Mike Butler’s and weigh the environmental upside.

Butler is a Houston homeowner who used a smart meter to cut his power consumption 36 percent during the summer of 2011, which was a scorcher even by Texas standards. “I found a few power hogs, such as leaving my laptop charging all the time,” Butler said. “I made some simple behavioral changes and checked my statistics weekly to verify the impact of my efforts.”

Privacy guarantees alone probably won’t carry the day for the smart grid. Privacy guarantees plus stories like Mike Butler’s just might.

 

The only drop in the bucket that matters

Mike McGrail · May 8th, 2012

This image from the U.S. Geological Survey shows what all of the water on the Earth would look like if collected into a single sphere. Underscore ALL of the water: oceans, seas, lakes, rivers, underground aquifers, what’s in plants and animals, what’s in the coffee cup on your desk … everything. Makes you wonder why we make such a big deal out of oil, doesn’t it?

Sheathing your debit card is the best way to celebrate Earth Day 2012

Mike McGrail · April 21st, 2012

My maternal grandfather was an old-line doctor who said the same thing every time a patient asked him about diets: they’re all gimmicks. The only way to lose weight is to eat less and exercise more.

I’m adapting my grandfather’s diet advice to Earth Day. Want to make your morbidly obese environmental footprint into an Earth-friendly hardbody? Then screw planting trees and cleaning beaches on April 22 and do something really hard, especially for an American.

Consume less.

All the conservation areas we build and the light bulbs we replace on Earth Day are spitting in the ocean compared to the good we can do for the planet by buying, using and discarding less. In my grandfather’s parlance, it’s the gimmick of a diet versus the reality of shoving less into your pie hole at the dinner table, tearing yourself away from the flat screen and getting on the bike.

Consider what environmental journalist Marc Gunther discovered by analyzing the most recent sustainability report from Walmart.

Gunther recognized Walmart’s accomplishments in waste reduction, energy conservation, and creating markets for locally grown produce as the substantial progress that they are. Yet in spite of its sustainability accomplishments, Walmart’s CO2 emissions are growing. That’s because of the brand of consumption that Walmart promotes, according to Gunther.

“(Walmart) sells lots of efficient light bulbs and compact laundry detergent,” he writes. “What if it tried to sell more durable clothes and shoes? Or less meat? Or fewer crappy toys?”

Gunther isn’t picking on Walmart and neither am I. Walmart does more in sustainability than most companies. The point is that Walmart is us and we’re Walmart, and we both need to change.

If Walmart (and Target and JC Penney and Sears and Kmart et al) have the market clout to make manufacturers reduce wasteful packaging, then they can also get them to produce more durable products. When they do, it falls to retailers to sell those products at accessible prices instead of charging a premium for clothes that won’t go out of style in one year or appliances that won’t break in five and can’t be fixed. At that point, it’s all of our responsibility to ask ourselves that dreaded question before buying: “do I really need this?”

Senator Gaylord Nelson created Earth Day in 1970 to focus public attention on his era’s most important pollution threats, which were industrial facilities, wastewater systems and internal combustion engines. The environmental legislation of the ‘70s helped turn the tide on those polluters. Now it’s time for us to tackle this generation’s environmental culprits: you, me, Walmart, and our debit cards. Legislation isn’t going to do it this time. It’s up to us.

If you need more convincing about why we need to curb our hyperactive consumption, and you haven’t done it already, go to the post above this one and listen to a birthday message from the Earth Mother herself. The old girl makes a good case for keeping that debit card at parade rest as often as possible. Happy Earth Day 2012!

When the sun don’t shine and the wind don’t blow, tides go with the flow

Mike McGrail · March 9th, 2012

When the sun doesn’t shine on the beach it wrecks your tanning index. When the sun doesn’t shine on your solar panels you’re taking cold showers and eating soup out of the can – assuming you have a manual can opener.

The same goes for wind power. A wind turbine is a fine thing when the wind is blowing, but when the wind isn’t blowing the turbine is an overgrown, albino lawn flamingo.

Tidal power is not as flashy as solar and wind, but it’s insanely reliable. Tides come in and go back out without fail, no matter whether it’s cloudy or sunny, windy or calm. As they flow in and out, tides generate huge amounts of energy that can be converted into a predictable renewable energy stream.

By mid-March, up on the northeastern tip of the U.S., in Lubec, Maine, tidal turbinea company called Ocean Renewable Power Co. will begin operating the first grid-connected tidal power plant in the U.S. The 300-kilowatt (kW) tidal energy project consists of turbine generator units (TGUs) mounted on the sea floor. The 20-foot tide drives the turbines as it ebbs and flows. Check out what the Portland Press Herald wrote about the project. The coverage has a lot of good details.

Ocean Renewable’s Cobscook Bay Tidal Energy Project or is a fairly small pilot program that will produce enough electricity to supply 100-125 homes. The project’s larger purpose is to help determine the feasibility of larger-scale tidal power. The outlook is good, but what jumps out at students of renewable energy is what Ocean Renewable CEO Chris Sauer said about tidal power’s likely future.

“It’s never going to be the dominant power-generating resource in the state of Maine, but it’s going to be a significant contributor,” Sauer said.

That’s the kind of no-b.s. candor that the renewable energy industry is often missing. Too many rosy predictions about renewable energy’s prospects set unrealistic expectations. (Remember when “clean, safe” nuclear power was going to make electricity “too cheap to meter”? I do.)

Dissect Sauer’s observation and you find the likely shape of our energy future. Most of our energy won’t come from massive, centralized power plants like we have today because none of todays’ renewables have the energy density of fossil fuels. Instead, we’ll get electricity from a larger number of smaller renewable sources, each doing what they do best. Solar and wind will produce when the conditions are right. Tidal, biomass and players-to-be-named will fill in the gaps. And we’ll be consuming less because our homes, appliances and vehicles will be more efficient.

Move over Earth Day, Thanksgiving is the real green holiday

Mike McGrail · November 22nd, 2011

If you believe in environmental preservation, Thanksgiving has to be your favorite holiday. No offense to Earth Day, but Thanksgiving is the only day of the year with major holiday cachet that hasn’t been conquered by the profit motive and reduced to a fertility dance of selling, buying and throwing away.

We don’t wake up to Thanksgiving trees harboring Thanksgiving gifts swathed in Thanksgiving ribbons and wrapping paper on the last Thursday of November. There are no Thanksgiving baskets stuffed with Thanksgiving eggs, jelly beans and marshmallow turkeys all nestled in neon-colored plastic “grass” made from enough petroleum to power a Humvee. There are no Thanksgiving costumes, no Thanksgiving-themed candy bars to be hustled door-to-door. DeBeers diamonds and Hallmark don’t bull-rush the airwaves every November to cajole you into buying a tennis bracelet and a greeting card for your Thanksgiving sweetheart.

No, Thanksgiving is built around the primal pleasures of a good meal, good company, and gratitude for good fortune. Since there’s only so much money to be made in selling turkeys and cranberry sauce, the chances are pretty good that Thanksgiving will soldier on in the shadow of Christmas and Halloween, less ballyhooed but safe from the ravages of marauding commercialism.

Even though Thanksgiving is pretty environmentally friendly on its own, it also harbors opportunities for the environmentally conscious to help biodiversity by “voting with their dollars,” in the words of John Forti, a nationally known garden historian, herbalist, and museum curator based in CleanSpeak’s home of Portsmouth, N.H. Forti is a mover in the Slow Foods movement, an international effort to re-build the lost bonds between eating and community. One of the fallouts of the modern food economy, he explains, is the loss of genetic diversity in agriculture. When huge populations depend on a narrow range of food sources – one or two breeds of cows for milk, for example – they are vulnerable to disasters like the Irish Potato Famine of 1845, when fungus wiped out the main variety of potato the country’s poor lived on. Over the last 100 years, 75 percent of the genetic diversity in agricultural crops has been lost, according to Unhabitat.com.

“Buying products like heirloom produce and heritage-breed turkeys at Thanksgiving helps preserve the past, and if we don’t preserve the past we’re not equipped for a sustainable future,” Forti says. “If we narrow genetic diversity too much we’re going to end up with more disasters like the Irish Potato Famine. We lost regionalism to agribusiness – those varieties of crops that grew in our different geographical areas. In the post-peak oil economy, we’re not going to be shipping food thousands of miles the way we do now, so it’s important to preserve those regional varieties.”

In other words, paying extra for a pedigreed turkey or mashing up locally grown parsnips and potatoes this Thanksgiving isn’t just a status symbol, it’s a way to ensure that there are turkeys and parsnips and potatoes to put on tables 10, 20 and 30 years in the future. So belly up to the Thanksgiving table, raise a glass to the Great Environmental Holiday and stuff yourself comatose for the environment. The future is counting on you.

Solar: We need it cheap, but we want it American

Mike McGrail · October 27th, 2011

If you want a quick lesson on the funhouse mirror that is the world of solar energy economics, look no further than the trade complaint against the Chinese solar industry filed with the Obama Administration by the American solar industry.  china industry graphic

Seven U.S. solar panel manufacturers claim the Chinese government and solar industry are dumping cut-price solar panels in the American market. Dumping claims are as common as flies in international trade, but dumping solar panels has larger implications than dumping consumer electronics or agricultural products. The U.S. needs a domestic solar manufacturing industry. We can’t trade energy dependency on one imported commodity – oil – for dependency on imported solar panels. At the same time, the U.S. also needs market-rate solar power. As this case shows, those two are mutually exclusive as the game is being played right now. Here’s the basic economic and political arithmetic that makes solar such a hairball:

1.) Solar energy = Too expensive

2.) Cheaper solar panels = Cheaper solar power

3.) Chinese solar panel prices < American solar panel prices

4.) Chinese solar panels = Cheaper solar power

5.) Chinese solar panels ≠ America solar manufacturing jobs

Different people will identify different root causes of this problem, and most of them go right back to China. I tend to agree up to a point. The Chinese government’s solar policies – stated and implicit – will lead to Chinese dominance of solar markets on every continent they care to play in. The Chinese, recognizing solar energy’s long-term importance, are developing a deep solar manufacturing base in their country. They offer capital equipment financing, land and facility leases for little or nothing. Like it or not, they’re writing the rules of the game. We encountered the same thing with Japan in the 1980s when the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) targeted key industries for Japanese dominance. They bent trade policies and funneled money toward companies to further their goals, and succeeded in areas like cars and consumer electronics.

The problem isn’t that China is stacking the deck, it’s that the U.S. won’t even sit at the table. With its traditional skepticism toward government economic planning, the U.S. has no integrated government-industry policy to build a solar manufacturing base. So we’re not going to get one, and if we think we are, then we’re delusional. The Chinese are writing the rules of the game and they’re winning by making long-term investments in a manufacturing infrastructure. The U.S. has to do the same. We can’t compete if we’re not in the game, and right now we’re playing checkers while everyone else is playing chess.

Clean coal? Waiting to exhale – and inhale, and exhale, and inhale…

Mike McGrail · September 29th, 2011

Take a celebratory breath if you don’t live in the Iranian city of Ahwaz or the Mongolian capital Ulan Bator. According to the World Health Organization’s survey of world air pollution, the air in Ahwaz and Ulan Bator has so many particles in it that you could collect them in a salt shaker. If you plan to travel to either place, you might want to brown-bag plenty of Visine and surgical masks.

The easiest headline out of that WHO survey was to name the cities with the dirtiest air, the way I just did in the previous paragraph. But the media missed the bigger story in the survey: coal burning in India and China, why it’s going to get worse, and where technology might succeed and fail in efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

The world’s two largest countries and largest emerging economies account for 43 of the top 100 most polluted cities in the WHO survey – 24 for India and 19 for China. The survey ranked cities on the amount of particulates in their air. The biggest single source of airborne particulates is coal-fired power plants, the top source of greenhouse gases. Ahwaz and Ulan Bator may be the most obvious goats on the list, but India’s and China’s growth potential make them the much more serious pollution concern. India approved 173 new coal-fired power plants last year alone, even as complaints about air quality and health problems near coal facilities turn into open protests. As early as 2006, environmental advocates were documenting the damage that emissions from China’s coal-burning power plants were doing to environments thousands of miles away.

A common response is to blame loose environmental regulations and obsolete technology for the high pollutant levels coming from Chinese and Indian coal plants. If they’d adopt higher standards, they wouldn’t be dumping as much carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide into the air. But at least in China’s case, that isn’t true. A research team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology documented in 2008 that China’s new coal-fired plants were built to Western standards and employ the latest scrubber technology for removing pollutants. The problem is that scrubbers aren’t enough when a country is burning low-quality coal, as China does. In a surprisingly frank assessment from a quasi-state-controlled newspaper, China Daily reported that more than 71 percent of Chinese coal-fired power plants have scrubbers, yet the country isn’t making much progress toward cleaner air. The Economist magazine was even blunter this past January: “The power stations frantically being built in China to feed the country’s new electricity grid will be relatively efficient and thus less polluting than older coal plants around the world. But that is a rather low bar. Coal is the filthiest fossil fuel and is cheap only because its dirtiness isn’t included in the bill.”

What’s happening in China and India underscores the fact that neither scrubbers nor any other currently available technology can make coal a wholly clean energy source. The smart money in curbing coal plant emissions shouldn’t be chasing better coal-burning technology. It should be focused on lowering the demand for electricity so we don’t have to burn as much coal. Compact fluorescent light bulbs and Energy Star appliances are an acceptable start, but they’re a bare fraction of what needs to happen to curb the demand for coal-fired electricity. Until the full weight of the industrial and scientific communities gets behind energy efficiency in everything that uses an electric current, the dirty air in Ahwaz and Ulan Bator will be symbols of a problem that extends far beyond the city lines.