Impressions from Plug-In 2011

July 26, 2011 § Leave a comment

Plug-In 2011 was held in Raleigh, NC, the first time ever outside California.  The attendance was just short of last year’s at San Jose.  The Public Night drew 1,300 folks, on par with the San Jose event.  So, the experiment may be deemed a success.  Next year:  Texas.  They will have tough shoes to fill.

On balance, the programming was a good mix of depth and breadth.  The competitive spirit between Nissan and Chevy was something short of collegial.  This was disappointing for a forum such as this.  At this stage, with just two entrants, the task is to get the public enthused about the genre.  The Volt and the Leaf have dramatic differences that allow choice.  Leave it at that.

One speaker made the observation that young girls were particularly enthused about electric vehicles.  This is interesting because cars and trucks used to be the domain of little boys.  When the observation was made from the floor that soon girls would be playing with zinc die cast cars, Chelsea Sexton wryly raised her hand from the podium.  OK, so Chelsea, unmistakably of the female gender, was one such, but we all know that she is unique!  The trend, if verified, holds the promise of another breach in the science and mathematics wall that young women face in today’s society.

Batteries will be the difference:  A prediction was made by a speaker that battery costs could drop to $200 per kWh by 2018.  This is in keeping with our own view.  A scant two years ago this figure was believed to be around $950.  A recent report from the UK offers evidence for Nissan batteries costing about $375.  The report cites GM, Ford and Toyota, all being bearish about numbers below $500.  Admittedly several factors are in play for this seemingly steep drop to date.  Mass production inevitably dropped the cost.  Further, Nissan, in partnership with battery giant NEC since 2007, could well have made breakthroughs in manufacturing.  This is all to the good because battery cost and performance will be the key driver for electric vehicle uptake.

Cost aside, the key attributes of batteries in play are range, energy density (size for a particular range), speed of charging and discharge characteristics as linked to ultimate life.  Depending on how these play out, the choice between hybrids such as the Volt and all-electrics such as the Leaf will be impacted.  Take speed of charging.  If a 22 kWh top up could be accomplished in say 20 minutes, Range Anxiety gets a dose of Valium.  This is because 22 kWh will give you about a 100 miles and one could envision “refueling” stations in sufficient number to allow longer drives.  Lest this sound like wishful thinking, know that at least two outfits are working on improving the lithium iron phosphate cathode to accept a blindingly fast charge rate.  If this came to pass, the comfort of the gasoline backup in the Volt could be less of a factor.  In fact, the 40 mile electric-only feature begins to look puny in terms of low cost emission free range.

An improvement in energy density helps both types of vehicles, but likely more the all-electric.  Presently the all-electric is advantaged in weight because it loses a lot of heavy equipment such as the internal combustion engine, transmission, gear box and so forth.  But the larger battery adds significant weight.  Energy density improvements will help, although the temptation may be to give more range for the same weight and volume.

Motors could be the difference:  Not in the same way as batteries, advances in motors could nevertheless have a material impact.  Shown at the conference were in-wheel motors.  Fitting in any 18 inch wheel, these allow elimination of the differential and could provide very precise four wheel drive capability.

Most of the motors today use permanent magnets with the Rare Earth elements Neodymium and Dysprosium in it.  In fact, the Prius has up to 25 pounds of Rare Earth elements.  Neodymium in particular is a problem because the price has quadrupled in the last year.  Substitute elements are being sought for the magnets.  But an entirely different avenue is to eliminate the use through the use of induction motors.  Nicola Tesla invented this back in 1888.  For proper functioning, it requires precise computer aided controls.  Only recently has it been rendered truly functional and economical.  The Tesla Roadster has one such and several companies including BMW are planning on having one.  Aside from non-reliance on Rare Earth elements, no permanent magnet means no need to cool the unit (permanent magnets do not function well at higher temperatures). This type of motor may not need a gear box, as is the case in the Tesla.

Plug-In 2011 exuded optimism.  All data to date, including consumer feedback, appears to justify it.


The Post-election Energy Future

December 19, 2010 § Leave a comment

This post is loosely based upon the November 18th RTEC Breakfast Forum topic, Implications of New State and Federal Leadership on Clean Energy Enterprise

The midterm elections produced dramatic shifts in the political balance in Congress and both legislative bodies in North Carolina.  The effect on energy policies can be expected to be significant as job creation will trump climate change.  Conventional energy will be up while ethanol will be down.  A price on carbon, barely possible in the previous regime, will now be off the table.  That will likely put the Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) variant of clean coal on life support.  It will be interesting to see whether son-of-SuperGen in Illinois will survive.

National energy security will move up on the agenda.  Steve Chu and his aggressive research agenda will go under the microscope.  Business friendly policy will be in and energy efficiency should be unaffected.  In the “anybody’s guess” category is the federal subsidy on electric cars.  In North Carolina, oil and gas exploitation will be in.  Wind could be buffeted because of fervent championship by the past administration; hopefully they will rise above that.  These and more are discussed below.

Energy security considerations are likely to lead to encouragement of domestic resource exploitation.  This will entirely be in the province of oil, and to a lesser degree gas.  Replacing imported oil with domestic fuel substitutes will create jobs. The obvious implications will be toward deep-water exploitation related policy.  Also, expect considerable pick up in oil from tight rock, such as the Bakken and Eagle Ford prospects.

Electric vehicles fall in the category of oil replacement.  The current subsidy of $7,500 per vehicle will probably be kept, but the timetable for taper off and elimination will probably accelerate.  General Motors has been reborn and their results, including the post IPO stock price, are healthy.  Their considerable bet on the Volt and the attendant job creation will be a factor.  Some corporations, most notably GE, are doing their bit in this regard.  GE recently committed to purchasing 25,000 electric cars from GM and Nissan by 2015.  Their purpose was to give the manufacturers the certainty to move into mass production.

Biofuels will be a mixed bag.  Drop-in fuels such as alkanes from plant matter will be favored over ethanol, and mixed alcohols will be somewhere between.  This is because of the plug-and-play convenience of drop-ins; nothing different about the engine, the fuel pump or the distribution infrastructure.  A story in the Economist expands on this point.  Alkanes made with sugar as feedstock may be advantaged by the fact that Brazilian sugar has no import tariff.  In fact, there is a good chance that the 50 cents per gallon tariff on Brazilian ethanol will go away, as may the 52 cents subsidy to blenders of corn derived ethanol into gasoline.  In a burst of candor, Al Gore admitted recently that his Senate tie-breaking vote for it was solely for the purpose of being elected.  He now says the subsidy for first generation ethanol, read corn based, must go away.  The new Congress will likely make this happen.  But not any time soon.  The recent Obama compromise on taxes contained an extension of the ethanol subsidies.

Low carbon sources of energy will be disadvantaged by carbon not having a price.  However, the cap and trade system in Europe has not really worked either.  The price has fluctuated and has generally been too low to make much difference.  Consequently, the responsibility will shift to clean energy, making it purely on economic terms.  This is not all bad because if and when carbon emissions carry a penalty, the alternatives will be even more advantaged.

Wind energy from certain sources is already very competitive with coal, especially if externalities relating to the environmental cost are considered.  Help in the form of federal support for research and development could be helpful.  The recent report from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology suggests major funding initiatives and associated models in revenue generation for this.  But the revenue models are in fact taxes on existing energy units.  While modest in size, the new Congress will likely be opposed unless job creation is pitched as a principal benefit.  Healthy skepticism of federal coffers of this sort will also be an impediment.  The fund created previously by a tax on nuclear energy was not seen as spent wisely.  Even France has gone away from this model.  The French Petroleum Institute (IFP) used to be funded by a tax on vehicle fuel.  Similarly, the Gas Research Institute in Illinois was funded by a tax on natural gas transport.  Both models are now defunct.

In North Carolina, offshore drilling will potentially become permitted but is unlikely to lead to any actual activity because past exploration of the Atlantic coast has not been promising.  Even if allowed, the oil industry will probably invest elsewhere.  Shale gas drilling might find a home in the state.  It is not believed to be as prospective as the Marcellus in Pennsylvania and New York.  But economic accumulations are plausible.  Pennsylvania leaning on regulation to assure environmental security will likely have to be studied and used as a basis for policy.

Many see the new sheriff in town as a blow to sustainable energy goals.  Climate change based policy may well take a back seat. Energy security drivers and energy efficiency measures, however, will have an important impact.  The International Energy Agency has forecast that well over 40% of carbon mitigation will need to come from using less; carbon dioxide sequestration will account for only about 10%.  In conclusion, energy efficiency measures are important and largely unaffected by the political shift.

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