Just don’t call him an environmentalist

I was recently in Queensland visiting family and caught up with my Dad and step-mum for a few days. My Dad’s a straight-talking feller. He’ll tell you in no short terms that he doesn’t agree with those environmentalists and greenies. He doesn’t really like them much…

While we were there he reminded me how the three large water tanks they have on site provide all the water they need, year round pretty much. He complained that he was still having to pay council for “the pipes that run past my front door”, as he’s now off the grid for water supply.

Whenever we go fishing he’s very careful to make sure our catch meets the size limits set by government. If something is even close to undersize, it goes back in. He laments the big fishers’ impact on his local fishing grounds, and gets antsy when he spots local fisherman flaunting the rules. He’s friendly with the local patrols, while quietly cursing the Government for introducing Marine Protected Areas.

He’ll often suggest we go for a drive in his Toyota 4WD (on it’s third engine rebuild) around the local area (the Redlands Shire) and talk us through the changes he’s seen as this once rural farming area, with rich, volcanic red soil, is converted into suburban estates, townhouses and apartments. He’ll tell you about the farmers of the area, past and present, and how this productive, now peri-urban, land is being lost to developers. (He’ll also quip that they can’t afford to run the car as much as they used too…)

We’ll walk around his property and he’ll show us with (justifiable) pride the vegetable plot, the fruit trees, the mangoes coming into season, the massive avocado trees, the pineapples, the strawberries. Each season he notes he doesn’t have enough friends with which to share the abundant produce that comes off the land. (Thinking about this I’m lamenting not taking more photos when we were there…)

He shares an anecdote about how a friend got the water in the local creek, which runs through the bushland to the back of his property, tested for pollution and sent the results to his local member. He’ll mention how the recently released government report failed to mention his creek in it’s “report card” and how he and his friend took it to the local media resulting in pressure being applied and the figures being followed up by the local member.

While we’re sitting watching (his 80″ LCD behemoth1 of a) TV he’ll explain how they turn everything off of standby using a remote switch device, and explain with pride how efficient the consultant found their kettle. He explains how they’ve saved a lot on their energy bill (which is about 1/3rd what is being touted in the mainstream press as an “average” bill).

He demonstrated the in-home energy monitor that helps them to work out where their energy usage has gone. He’ll lament how the compact fluoros he installed don’t dim, and how the Government’s impending ban on new electric hot water heaters has forced him to go out and buy one now for when this one reaches its end of life. And don’t get him started on that carbon tax.

My life partner Angela ascribes many of my aspirations and environmental awareness to my Dad’s influence. I have to agree (and something that I’m proud to say). My Dad has more “environmentally friendly” features to his property than I could even dream of achieving. And, as is probably apparent, he’s full of contradictions (as we all are).

Just don’t call him an environmentalist. Or a greenie. He just wouldn’t stand for it…

  1. I actually don’t know what size it is, but it’s bloody huge…

Hydrogen car future?

I was interested to read Dan Gray’s take on the Top Gear team’s enthusiastic reception of the hydrogen fuel-cell Honda Clarity — suggesting that such a response in such a mainstream channel was a “profound” moment.

My interpretation of Dan’s key point is that the Honda is “just like the car of today” and therefore would be more accepted by the average punter due to reduced barriers (at least perceived barriers) of filling up and the speed of refuelling.

I have to respectfully disagree with the notion that hydrogen fuel cell vehicles will create a significant impact in the mainstream market (at least in the short- to medium-term — e.g. 5–10 years), and would like to throw a few points forward as to why I think electric vehicles, using battery technology, is more likely to become the new standard for cars in that period.

  • While most manufacturers have been working on hydrogen powered vehicles for some time, most have seemingly reduced their investment due to a number of critical issues (some of which I’ll expand on below).  On the flipside, most major manufacturers (Nissan, VW, Audi, GM to name just a few) have announced electric drive-train vehicles, or at least plug-in hybrids (in the case of Toyota and GM), as their preferred platform for alternative vehicle systems.  In the case of GM and Nissan, plans are to have production-ready vehicles as early as next year.  Honda is, I think, the only maker continuing to actively promote hydrogen fuel-cells as their platform of choice.
  • The infrastructure for electric vehicles already exists to a degree that is suitable for most people’s driving patterns (< 50 miles per day) — and it’s sitting in every person’s garage.  Additional infrastructure for in-transit recharging is required, but not as critical, for these common trips.  That’s what allows Tesla and Nissan to launch electric vehicles within a 12 month time-frame, not 5 or 10 years.  Hydrogen vehicles will need significant investment in hydrogen fuel distribution before the first vehicle can roll off the line.  This is what really annoyed me about Top Gear’s coverage — it completely ignored the fact that hydrogen vehicles can’t operate in the same way as petrol-fueled vehicles until this infrastructure is in place, and it will be sporadic at best in the early stages of deployment, in which case it has exactly the same issues as they claimed for electric vehicles.
  • Hydrogen fuel generation is an energy-intensive process, and my understanding is that it is far less efficient than battery technology in terms of energy conversion (i.e. while hydrogen has more energy per unit of storage, creating the fuel is less efficient than charging a battery).  For example, see the “Efficiency” section of this article for a summary — approx 22% efficiency for fuel cells vs. 85% for batteries.  Another paper (PDF 66 KB) from the European Fuel Cell Forum estimates the ratio as 22% vs. 66% respectively.  While I’ve read of some promising advances in using biological and chemical processes to generate hydrogen, these are still very experimental and are some years off production-ready.
  • Battery-powered vehicles can take advantage of long-running trends in battery technology improvement that is shared across the consumer electronics, electrical-industrial production and other industries.  Portable hydrogen fuel-cells are (mostly) automotive industry specific, which has a big potential to impact economies of scale and innovation moving forward.
  • Innovative concepts such as A Better Place are trialling alternative models to reduce the “recharge” time to an average of a a minute (technically this is not recharging — they switch over batteries that have been charged over a longer period).  While A Better Place relies on significant infrastructure investment, the experience will be closely equivalent to “refuelling”, overcoming the cognitive barriers that the Top Gear team claim hydrogen overcomes.  In other words, there’s more than one way to respond to the barriers to extending travel distance for battery-based vehicles.

Most importantly, though — electric vehicles and related technologies are available today and are viable given current infrastructure for a significant proportion of every-day use.  They are also a lot less expensive than hydrogen-based vehicles to produce, bringing them into range of conventional vehicles on a total cost of ownership basis, and even more so with government clean-vehicle subsidies (where available).  Economies of scale and technology improvements are likely to close the existing gap pretty rapidly.

As an aside, I think there are other significant issues with comparing the Tesla Roadster with the Clarity, especially in the context of a program like Top Gear.  For a start, the Tesla is a sports car, built on a Lotus rolling chassis modelled on the Elise, and the Top Gear team did give it a thrashing — I doubt expectations of performance would be so high for the Clarity.

As a counter-point to the finding that the battery lacked staying power, a Tesla Roadster here in Australia completed 500+ km (300 miles) on a single charge.  Additionally, the Tesla is the first vehicle from a new manufacturer that is deliberately provocative (thus the sports car styling and positioning that makes it much more expensive than comparable vehicles), and pioneered a new approach to battery technology that future electric vehicles are leveraging to achieve rapidly increasing ranges.

I think that a comparison between the Clarity the up-coming Tesla S will be a much fairer comparison, and the S will be taking advantage of newer battery technology and much learning by Tesla from the experience of developing, producing and rolling out the Roadster, so is likely to perform better on many levels.

One last gripe with the Top Gear comparison — Jeremy took great pleasure in dissing the Tesla for its likely reliance on coal-powered electricity, which of course also produces greenhouse gas emissions.  This is demonstrably misleading.  Based on the US energy mix an electric vehicle, even if powered by coal-generated electricity, an electric vehicle still achieves approx. 30% less emissions.  Buyers can choose GreenPower (offset) or have renewable capacity installed — in fact I believe that Tesla offer solar and renewable energy options as part of the purchase of the vehicle in the US — and given both the price premium and the nature of the market for such a vehicle, one would expect most owners would opt for a zero-emissions option.

Old ideas painted new

Over the past few years I’ve been following the automotive industry, especially in relation to electric cars and efficiency improvements.  I have had a long time love of cars from an aesthetic/design perspective, probably rooted in the many drawings and lego vehicles I made when I was a kid.

Perhaps it was watching Who Killed the Electric Car, the talk of biofuels (and their positive and negative aspects) and hydrogen (with many questions relating to hype vs. reality) – I’m not sure which, but something clicked over the past few years that really opened my eyes to just how little innovation had actually been happening in the space, and I suppose piqued my interest from a sustainability perspective.  I also think that the industry is somewhat of a bellweather for the broader market shift to sustainable technologies.

I was interested to note that this week Lotus Engineering have unveiled a concept car design, based on the Toyota Venza, that achieved a 30% weight reduction – a critical component of efficiency – over the Toyota design.

2020 Toyota Venza concept by Lotus Engineering

GoAuto.com.au reports:

With a combination of lightweight materials and efficient design, Lotus claims to have achieved a 38 per cent reduction in vehicle mass, excluding the powertrain, for only a three per cent increase in component costs.

In other words, the Venza’s 1290kg mass was reduced to just 800kg on the Lotus-engineered 2020 concept.

… The company’s findings were released this week by the International Council on Clean Transportation and show how significant reductions in fuel consumption and CO2 emissions can be achieved for a regular mass-market vehicle through means other than the powertrain.

(egmCarTech has published an article of their own exploring the concept with further pictures.)

Over the past few weeks I’ve been reading the excellent book Natural Capitalism by Paul Hawkins and Amory and L. Hunter Lovins.  In the chapter entitled Reinventing the Wheels the authors outline how lighter materials, better aerodynamics and alternative drive-trains (hybrid-electric) can radically improve the efficiency of cars.  They call this concept the “Hypercar”, and note:

Detroit has long focused on improving the efficiency of the drive-line – the fraction of the fuel’s energy that’s converted by the engine into torque and then transmitted by the drivetrain to the wheels.  But there is an even better approach.  The Hypercar concept attacks the problem from the other end, by reducing the amount of power that is needed at the wheels in the first place.

They go on to outline how efficient use of more expensive but lighter, stronger and more adaptable materials can reduce weight and manufacturing complexity with only mild increases in costs while at the same time reducing the resource intensity (how many resources are required in energy, labour and natural resources) of the car.  Lotus’s concept seems to be taking this approach directly:

Still committed to founder Colin Chapman’s ethos of “performance through light weight”, Lotus Engineering says the 2020 vehicle architecture uses a mix of stronger and lighter weight materials, a high degree of component integration and advanced joining and assembly techniques.

Whereas the benchmark Venza’s body-in-white contained more than 400 parts, the 2020 model reduced that number to 211.

Body materials in the Venza were 100 per cent steel, while the 2020 concept uses 37 per cent aluminium, 30 per cent magnesium, 21 per cent composites and seven per cent high-strength steel – which Lotus says reduces the structure mass by 42 per cent, from 382kg to 221kg.

This is great news, and fantastic that Lotus is taking the initiative.  It’s noteworthy, I think, that Lotus are heavily involved in Tesla Motors‘ development.  However, I can’t help but have a twinge of disappointment that it’s taken over 10 years since Natural Capitalism was written (it was first published in 1999) for these techniques to be seriously considered, for a 2017 horizon.

Perhaps the technology and costs are only just starting to catch up to the vision, but I suspect it has more to do with the recent spur of activity in the automotive industry around electric vehicles that have resulted in this approach being applied.

Hopefully more of the ideas in the book start to come to fruition in the same way soon…