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.

Project on local markets and social technologies

As part of the core subject of my uni course each semester each student undertakes a self-directed project.  The projects can be of varying shapes and sizes, ranging from more theoretical (such as my report on design thinking and sustainability) to the more practical.

This semester I’m undertaking something in between — part research, part practical — centred around this semester’s “theme” of sustainable food production.

Sharon Lee’s “FlavourCrusader” concept (then called “What’s for dinner”) was selected as one of the projects to be explored at the Australian Social Innovation eXchange (ASIX) Social Innovation Camp held in March 2010.

The long-term vision for the project is to:

  • connect urban food-lovers (“foodies”) with the origins of their food
  • increase consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables (with improved health outcomes)
  • strengthen local economies threatened by supermarket chains

It hopes to achieve this by using social technologies, such as mobile phone applications and Twitter to either promote in-season, fresh, locally-grown, and sometimes organic produce.

In the short-term — and as a first step — the project is seeking to develop a local in-season food guide with a mobile application form-factor.

Such a system has the potential to make purchasing in-season, local produce more convenient, with multiple flow-on benefits:

  • Provide additional marketing/selling opportunities for local producers
  • Reduce food miles
  • Create direct connections between the urban community and local growers, with social, economic and sustainability education benefits

The emphasis of the service, from the end-user perspective, is convenience and good, quality food, rather than the sustainability outcomes.  In this sense it differs from some existing products/services that are out there.

In keeping with my philosophy of human-centred design, I believe the service’s success is dependent on an understanding of motivations, barriers, needs and context of use for producers, local markets and customers.

My project this semester is designed to provide some additional insight into each of these participant groups, including exploration of:

  • What are the key drivers for existing customers (e.g. those that attend farmers markets) taking advantage of farmers markets
  • What are the barriers to existing customers buying local produce (e.g. of those motivated participants, what stops them from buying more regularly)
  • What level of interest exists in such a service among the existing customer base
  • What is the current level of use of social and mobile technologies with customers, producers and markets (e.g. @PrahranMarket on Twitter)
  • Similarly, what drivers/barriers/interest exist for such a service for potential customers — e.g. those that are interested, but for whatever reasons aren’t as active as they would like
  • What are the needs of producers (including local markets)
  • What level of interest/capacity is there to utilise such a service
  • How, if at all, would such a service link with other digital platforms such as FoodConnect

I’m posting all this as I could use some assistance.  Firstly, if you have any resources/pointers/contacts etc. that you think would be useful for the project, I’d love to hear about them.

Secondly, I’m looking for participants for some interviews related to purchasing locally produced food — either people that shop at farmers markets etc. and buy locally, or those that would like to, but for whatever reason aren’t able to do it as regularly as they’d like.  I’m also interested in folks that are using social media (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, blogs etc.) that fit this profile.

The interviews would be about an hour long (at most) and could be done via phone or in person, at a time that suits the participant.  I’m happy to pay for a meal if the interview happens around lunch or dinner 😉

If you are someone, or know someone, that might be interested, please leave a comment or email me on gyoung AT pobox DOT com.

 

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…

SMEs and environmental management

I’ve just completed my first “official” assessment item for my uni course, and I wanted to share it here for my own future reference, and because it may have potential interest to readers as well. It’s called Opportunities and challenges related to SME implementation of EMSs (PDF 176 KB) – and fair warning, it’s not exactly bed-side reading 😉

The format of the assessment restricted the length to 3000 words, though I could have gone into a lot more detail on a number of the points raised in the paper.

In particular I’m disappointed I couldn’t go into more detail about some of the thoughts I had relating to the implications of the findings and their application to encouraging SME uptake of sustainability practices. That said, I’m sure there’ll be plenty more opportunities throughout the course to do so.

As this was my first assessment, I think I overdid it on the reading front which was reflected in the ridiculous length of the first draft! All the same I really enjoyed all that extra reading – it’s more that I need to balance that with actually getting the writing done. Lesson learnt for next time I suppose.

Anyways, I hope it’s of interest and use. Now onto the next one…

Superfreakonomics – chapter 5

Given the popularity of Freakonmics, and the resultant sense of authority the authors have achieved, I wanted to point out for any potential readers that the chapter in their new book, Superfreakonomics, on climate change (chapter 5) is completely whack.

If you happen to pick up a copy, do yourself a favour and read Brad DeLong’s take first (via Paul Krugman). As Krugman says: “in this crucial chapter, there’s an average of one statement per page that’s either flatly untrue or deeply misleading”. (More on the topic from Krugman)

Reader beware…

Blog Action Day: Climate Change

Today is Blog Action Day and this year’s theme is “climate change”. This post is my contribution, professional cross-posted on my blog.

For those that don’t know, world leaders are meeting in Copenhagen December this year to discuss climate change and their responses to it.

So far we have seen very little from world leaders in terms of real, concrete targets and changes. There is a lot of hope (though dare I say not a lot of expectation) that the Copenhagen talks will result in an updated global agreement that reflects the severity of the situation as outlined by the scientific and economic communities (although Obama’s recent executive order is a positive sign).

It seems that governments the world over are having a deal of trouble committing to targets that are decades away. But I suspect this is part of the problem – the focus on decade long cycles (e.g. “25% by 2020”) needs to shift binding 1 and 5 year targets and plans as well. Whilever plans focus on 10 or 20 years away, action will not be swift. Let’s reduce by 1% this year, an addition 2% next year and soon the totals will add up to the 25%+ that we need to achieve.

To most people it is clear that societally we need to rapidly (i.e. over the next 10 years) reduce carbon emissions across the globe. It is also clear that the costs of acting now will be much lower than later.

To put this into perspective, WWF-Australia recently teamed up with Climate Risk to produce an estimate that places the cost of transforming to a low-carbon economy in Australia at half the cost of the recent economic stimulus package – if we act now. If we allow the amount of carbon in the atmosphere to reach potentially catastrophic levels, the cost will be far, far greater.

Our government and business leaders know this. There is popular support for action. And yet things are still stalled…

What we do know

While there are a lot of unknowns, and acknowledging there is no “silver bullet” solution to reducing carbon emissions, there are a few things that are already underway and with further support will make a significant impact on our emissions.

Renewable energy

Renewable energy systems need to be developed and rapidly deployed to offset coal-based generation. So-called “clean coal” is not a long-term solution, yet it has a medium-term development cycle – the case just doesn’t stack up (you might consider joining GetUp’s “iCoal 2.0” campaign to let our politicians know we know).

Investment needs to be channelled to existing and emerging technologies such as wind, solar, and wave energy. Report after report shows how these, existing, technologies can service our needs. Google has stated that more early stage funding is required. But of course there are myriad ways the government could be supporting the industry – a “real” emissions trading scheme (one that doesn’t let big polluters off the hook) or feed in tariffs are a good start. But even better support for R&D in the area would be welcome.

Alternative fuel vehicles

Alternative fuel vehicles – especially electric vehicles powered by renewable energy – will play a significant role in the short-term transformation of mobility towards low-carbon goals.

It seems that the market has landed on electric vehicles – with the Tesla roadster launched and the Model S on the way in 2011, GM launching the Volt in 2010, followed hotly by the Nissan LEAF late 2012. Nissan’s concept is interesting as they plan to lease the battery – the most expensive component in electric vehicles – to reduce the up-front cost of the technology for buyers.

And of course A Better Place has a novel concept that they hope to launch in Australia, among other countries, soon.

There are longer-term solutions, including re-thinking our cities, something that City of Sydney council seems to be making a lot of noise about with their 2030 Sustainable Sydney plan. But in the short-term cars will be the transport option of choice for many people as our existing infrastructure is geared to best support this mode of mobility.

Energy efficiency

Energy prices will inevitibly increase over time – if not through government levies through geo-political and other factors. In addition, a shift to renewable energy will to an extent require us to be more efficient with our use of energy.

But being more efficient now can also have a significant positive impact by reducing consumption, or maintaining current levels of consumption as population grows, reducing the need for new capacity while new renewable energy capacity enters the mix and some emerging technologies gain a footing.

This is where individual action can make a big difference – if we all choose more efficient appliances, upgrade to more efficient lighting technology, and the like can reduce the need for new capacity, as well as reducing our bills.

Collective action

Over the past few years there’s been a lot of emphasis on individual action – in us as “consumers” playing our part in creating demand and making lifestyle changes. While individual action is important, this will only get us so far.

We need our leaders in government and industry to truly step up to the mark. This is why the Copenhagen agreement is so critical. There will be many, many actions that can be taken in the lead up to the Copenhagen talks – but on this Blog Action Day can I suggest writing or speaking to your federal government representative (you can user OpenAustralia to find out who your rep is) and telling them how important this issue is. Outline the ways that you’re doing your bit, and put forward your ideas about how you want the government to do theirs.

If that’s too much, consider casting your vote with EarthHour, or support an environmentally-focused non-profit who is doing good work in the area.

In either case, let’s give our political leaders the support they need to ensure that we get the right result at Copenhagen.

Emissions trading objections

In my (admittedly limited) reading about the proposed emissions trading scheme here in Australia, I get the impression there’s two primary objections (mostly from business, but also the opposition party – coincidence?) to the trading scheme.

The first is that a scheme will raise prices for the Australian public for goods from high-emissions industries, like electricity. I suspect this is to raise public opposition to the scheme, but I think that we’ve mostly overcome this objection.

The second seems to be that the scheme will negatively impact exports for these products, which in Australia will have a significant impact on exports. An extension to this argument is that producers in countries that don’t have such impediments will be able to undercut the price of Australian companies’ produce.

Over the jump I’ve put together some initial thoughts on these objections and the Government’s proposed approach…

More

Where’s the green vision?

In a recent post, Joel Makower points to the seemingly missing vision of what a “bright green” future might look like as playing a significant role in the lack of on-the-ground support for sustainability.

There’s long been a fundamental problem with the green world — the myriad companies, activists, evangelists, politicians, clergy, thought leaders, and others who, each in their own way, have prodded us to address our planet’s environmental ills. And it explains why, after four decades of the modern environmental movement, only a relative handful of companies and citizens have joined in, while many more have dragged their heels to slow, or even reverse, environmental progress.

The problem is this: No one has created a vision of what happens if we get things right.

I couldn’t agree more – I think it is something that is sorely lacking. For me, one of the inspirational elements of Cradle to Cradle was it’s appeal to our sense of aspiration for a better life. It presented concrete examples of what a bright green future might look like, that there was an alternative to business as usual that met our aspirational needs without bankrupting the planet.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, and I’m more and more convinced of the need to reframe the debate about “growth” and sustainability.

Instead of spreading a message of “less”, we need to appeal to our natural, innate, human sense of aspiration – replacing the aspiration for “more stuff” to focus on what really does constitute a “better life”.

Can we do a judo move (I’m channelling Naomi Klein in No Logo here), to take the weight and momentum of this idea of “growth” and “aspiration” and hurl them towards sustainable goals?

Maybe it’s possible, but to do this we absolutely need a vision of what the future could be like – something to aspire to (rather than away from) – as Joel suggests.

In an earlier TED video, Barry Schwartz talks about the paradox of choice – that as we get more options (which, he points out, is often equated with “freedom”) we are actually less happy.

I think many people recognise that our drive for “more stuff” isn’t working. Certainly in my day-to-day interactions with friends and family we collectively recognise the problems in the banking system, in the corporate payouts for un-performance, in deteriorating public health and education systems, of layoffs following multi-million (if not billion) dollar profit announcements. And of course in the global financial meltdown.

A lot of us intuitively know this is wrong. It grates against our sense of justice, of our ideals of meritocracy and our social values. But we feel trapped – lost without an alternative. If only we had… a compelling alternate vision.

This is a latent force that, I think, has yet to be fully tapped. If we can reframe the debate – from the oppositional framing of “growth vs. sustainability” to the inclusive and aspiration embracing “wellbeing and a better life” – I believe we can go a long way to leveraging this sentiment to achieve significant, and rapid, change in our world.

Live Local

Last time I was around at the Igloo (Digital Eskimo‘s HQ) I was excited to hear that a new project of there’s, focused on sustainable living, was close to launch.

The other day Dave announced that it’s live – the project is called “Live Local” and it is a community driven site where people can share their experiences with living more sustainably.

I’m quite excited about the site because in many respects it extends my original vision for the (now very different) Future is man made.

The site already has a bunch of great ideas on it. You can share your own story, comment on others’ stories. or join in the action by “re-creating” the idea in your world. For example, I’ve re-created the Riding my bike between work and home idea – this is something I’m already doing and it was easy to add my name to the list of people participating.

While this is a simple example, I think the site has a lot of potential. For other activities, like the Bristol Street Party or the Permablitz in Newtown, re-creating gives you an opportunity to try some different things and share your experience in more detail, including adding videos and photos.

Collectively we can be inspired and inspiring, and share our learnings to make it easier for the next person who wants to do something a bit more, or a bit different, to help make their small part of the world a bit more sustainable.

I do hope that a community grows around the site. I’ll certainly be contributing when I can – I hope you will too 🙂