Archive for Hybrid Cars

The Gust Ceiling: How much wind is too much?

On Dec 13, the Midwest Wind Integration Study, (see article) which was required by the Minnesota legislature in 2005 to evaluate reliability and other impacts of higher levels of wind generation and carried out independently by EnerNex Corporation and WindLogics, found that the total integration cost for up to 25% wind energy delivered to all Minnesota customers is less than one-half cent ($0.0045 cents) per kWh of wind generation.  Great news, but it’s a little bit anticlimactic (as well as “anti-climatic change”) compared to the announcement on Dec 5 that Denmark plans to increase wind powerfrom 20% today to over 50% by 2025.  (All penetration rates are given as percentage of power supplied, as opposed to nameplate capacity, a measure which would make wind penetration rates seem even higher.)

That’s not to say this report is a total yawn.  First, Europe has a much more robust electric grid than the US (as the Northeast found out in 2003), and the fact that the study was sanctioned by a government body, rather than a renewable energy or environmental group gives it added weight.  Finally, by using extensive simulation, they came up with some relatively hard numbers on what it would cost to reach various levels of penetration.

 The study concludes that the total integration operating cost for up to 25%wind energy delivered to Minnesota customers is less than $4.50 per MWh of wind generation, or less than 1/2 of 1 cent per kWh.  Put another way, this is less than 10% of the average cost per kWh of wind energy.

As I alluded to before, when talking about Europe, we need to be careful when we generalize from one utility grid to another as to the costs of integration: Europe’s grid is not the same as America’s, and Colorado’s grid is not the same as Minnesota’s.  Costs for integrating wind into Colorado’s grid are likely to be higher than in Minnesota, because we are behind the rest of the country in terms of how robust and well integrated our grid is to the rest of the country.  Because of the limitations of out grid, all of the major wind farms now in Colorado or under construction have had to be scaled back.

 Nevertheless, the study is great ground for hope.  Colorado desperately needs to upgrade our transmission anyway, and the Minnesota study only takes advantage of one of the many possibile strategies that helps firm up the capacity factor of wind: geographical diversification: “the wind is always blowing somewhere.”

Other strategies not considered:

  • Time of use pricing, which can be used to shift demand to times when the wind is blowing.
  • Plug in Hybrids, which can be programmed to be charged when power is cheap, or even supply peaking capacity to the grid.
  • Energy storage, such as the Wind-to-Hydrogen project recently unveiled at NREL’s Wind Technology Center (in partnership with Xcel Energy.)  One interesting aspect of this project that did not make most of the articles on the center is that they are experimenting with directly connecting the wind turbine to the electrolyzer, without the intermediate step of a transformer which has to be used to convert the wild AC power from a wind turbine the regulated AC power used by the grid. 

In short, I see 25% as a good start, but given that wind power has already shown itself to be cheap, safe for the environment (despite claims to the contrary, wind kills far fewer birds than coal; just ask the Audobon society), and is proving much easier to integrate into the grid than skeptics imagine, we need to start thinking like Denmark, and aim for numbers much higher than 25%.  It will take creative thinking, and serious investment not only in wind farms, but also in our grid, and even behavioral changes on the part of consumers. 

The small sacrifices we will need to make in terms of our behavior to get large penetrations of wind onto the grid, such as checking our time of use meter before we start the dishwasher or dryer, are much smaller, in my mind, than the giant sacrifices we are currently making to coal fired generation in terms of the effects of pollution and global warming on ourselves and our children.  We just don’t see the current sacrifices, because we have become used to the death from a thousand cuts in the form of mercury and other pollutants, and the incremental year on year warming of our planet, lost in the noise of large local and seasonal variations.

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Vision of a sustainable energy future

I’ve been meaning to write an article outlining a vision of a sustainable energy future, where biomass is converted into fuel and electricity through pyrolysis and the waste product, carbon is used as a fertilizer a-la terra preta to produce more biomass.  The good news is I don’t have to.  The Engineer Poet did, and it’s just part of a much broader vision you’ll find here.   He also goes into a great discussion of transportation technologies and efficiency which would never have made it into the article I’d write.  I like it when other people crunch numbers, so I don’t have to.

Give yourself a half hour to read the whole article.  It’s worth it.

( Terra Preta: I got a comment from Erich J Knight on terra preta here that went into a lot of depth, but I deleted it by mistake.  Forturnately, he says pretty much the same thing in his blog.  I first heard about terra preta from Ron Larson, chair of the American Solar Energy Society, who is very active in the local (Denver) renewable energy scene.  If you haven’t heard about terra preta, and are concerned about globabl warming or soil fertility without fertilizers from fossil fuels, it’s worth looking into.)

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There’s Ethanol and then there’s Ethanol

In the renewable energy community, Ethanol has a bad rap, due to some often-quoted, seldom checked studies on energy payback.

It’s received wisdom that ethanol from corn has an energy return on energy invested (EROEI) of somewhere between 0.8 and 1.0; i.e. you get less out than you put in.  The persistence of this idea is possibly due to some great cartoons.  I’m probably going to undermine my whole argument here, by including this one…

Then again, I expect that my audience is highly intelligent, and not easily distracted.  If you weren’t, you probably wouldn’t still be reading my extremely dense and often-tortured prose.  You deserve a good cartoon every now and then…

Back in the world of ethanol, times have changed.

Even though cellulosic ethanol is still very much in its technological infancy, a lot of companies and people are doing a lot of interesting things with corn ethanol to make the process more efficient, and, get those energy inputs in the form of “free” waste heat from some other process, or from renewable sources such as cow manure or landfill gas.

I’ve been educating myself a lot about this reading C. Scott Miller’s Bioconversion blog.  I admit I’m having to do a lot of catch up on this, because I was one of those people who believed ethanol was a total government subsidized boondoggle until recently.

All that said, even at an EROEI of 1.25 to 1.8, ethanol is not much of an energy “source.”  Sure, we’re getting a little energy out of the process, but one way to think about EROEI is how much effort it takes to get our energy. 

As a rough illustration, at an EREOI of 2, there has to be one person working to get energy for every person doing something else.  So if civilization were to exist one out of every 2 people would have to be employed in the energy sector… the other 50% would then have the energy they needed to do other useful things, like be doctors, politicians, soldiers, engineers, builders, investment advisers, bloggers, artists, manufacturers, scientists, psychologists, food farmers (as opposed to energy farmers), talk show hosts, etc.

 You might argue that some of those professions aren’t very useful (investment advisors and politicians perhaps), but even if we eliminate all those “useless” professions, I think the more useful professions like talk show hosts and artists might start finding themselves a little squeezed.

There is a reason that the human race was 95%+ farmers or hunter gatherers for most of of our history: the energy sources we were using were not powerful enough, with too low EROEI to sustain higher forms of civilization, such as talk show hosts.

If you don’t believe me, read this great article on “Peak Wood,” the cause of the iron age.

Back to ethanol: it’s not going to solve our world energy problem.  It’s a useful way to turn non-liquid fuels (manure, biogas, or coal) into something you can put in your car, but if we in the U.S. are  looking for a domestic source of energy that will wean us off the Middle Eastern oil teat, we can do it, only if we want to be a nation of farmers, witha much smaller population and lower standard of living than we have now.

Ethanol is big business these days, and it will make a tiny dent in our oil addiction, so all the investment is probably doing some good.  I predict that the biggest beneficiaries will be the farmers, and considering how hard farming is, that’s not a bad thing.  It’s probably better than out-and-out farming subsidies.

Basically, I’m no longer worked up about ethanol subsidies and mandates.  There are a ton of better ways we could be spending the money, but it’s hardly the stupidest thing our government does with our money.   I’d even be happy about it if they’d simply replace the money spent on all farm subsidies with subsidies for farm based energy.

I just don’t want it to distract from the important work we have to do to deal with the twin probems of peak oil and global warming:

  1. Improve energy efficiency (especially of our vehicle fleet.)
  2. Develop high ERoEI energy technologies: Wind, Solar concentrating, Geothermal.  PV will probably make it on this list as the technology improves.
  3. Displace some of that oil in transport with renewable electricity, via plug-in hybrids.  (Economic fuel cells are still too far away to make hydrogen a viable transportation fuel in the next 20 years)

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Paul Notari on confronting the Oil crisis

If you’re wondering about how the US should deal with the looming oil crisis, Paul Notari wrote an excellent overview on RE Insider this week.   His prescription for the US is exactly what we need.

High oil prices are starting to move us in the right direction, but not nearly fast enough.  We need to take action before Adam Smith’s invisible hand forces action on us, through demand destruction.  Demand destruction is a nice way of saying that when gas hits $20 a gallon, people will start taking their bikes to work because they can’t afford to do otherwise. 

Economists who pooh-pooh peak oil becase “demand destruction will take care of the problem” are forgetting the human element: demand destruction is incredibly painful.  We need to take proactive steps to solve the problem, such as those outlined in Paul’s article, or the problem will be solved for us… and it will hurt.  A lot.

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Why I Bought a Jeep

            First published on the Colorado Renewable Energy Society Website in April 2006.

            I started by looking at hybrids.  After all, I love my Prius to a degree most people reserve for friends, family, and pets.  While another Prius would not be big enough to haul the occasional sheet of plywood for my woodworking hobby, and lacked 4WD for


Denver snow, there are now four distinct hybrid SUVs on the market that would do quite nicely.

            So my wife and I looked at the Ford Escape and the Toyota Highlander. 

I did extensive web research.

We took test drives.

We got sticker shock.

Value for money is very important to me.  In fact, it is a central passion in my life.  As an investment advisor, I know that finding great companies is not particularly difficult.  Great companies are all around us.  Finding a great company that’s also a great value is another thing altogether, but that is where the real money in investment is made.

The problem with all the hybrid SUVs out there is that they are targeted at Blue Sun Libertythe luxury market.  Rather than using hybrid technology to primarily boost efficiency, the makers instead decided to focus on power.  The end results are fun to drive, but the relatively small boost to economy does not justify the increase extra $8,000 to $9,000 you can expect to pay when you leave the dealer’s lot.

At current gas prices, buying a hybrid SUV saves only about $0.02/mile, so the vehicle would have to last for about 450,000 miles to make back the extra cost of the vehicle, and that does not count the cost of replacing the battery pack once or twice in that time.  I believe that gas prices will continue to rise, but not enough to make the miniscule savings from a hybrid SUV justify the sticker price.

But what about the environmental benefits?  Were my wife and I doomed to squander our planet’s resources just because we wanted a roomy vehicle with four wheel drive?

Then I thought of diesel.  Diesel engines are more efficient than gasoline engines to begin with, and the newer “common rail” diesel (CRD) engines start quicker and create less particulates than the old diesel engines we remember from the last gas crisis.  Using B20, or 20% biodiesel, further reduces emissions, and since it comes from soy and canola, it is renewable, and the amount of energy necessary to make it is lower than the rather controversial ethanol.

While it is possible to cook up biodiesel from used cooking oil, I have neither the time nor confidence in my rusty chemistry skills to try that for myself.  Fortunately, we have a local company, Blue Sun, (www.gobluesun.com) that pays farmers to grow soy and canola for use in biodiesel, and sells it through about 15 gas stations throughout
Colorado, including in Denver, Boulder, Golden, Fort Collins, Colorado Springs, and Pueblo.  My only complaint about Blue Sun is that it’s private, so I can’t invest in it.

I would have to plan my fill ups (although I could use regular diesel in a pinch), but it would be quite possible to fill up with B20 most of the time, with a little planning.  As an added benefit, I would know I was aiding the distribution of a renewable energy technology.  My B20 purchases would encourage the expansion of the biodiesel-at-the-pump network, to the point where it wouldn’t just be compulsive renewable energy advocates like myself who fill up with B20.

I had a vision of a day when every gas station had a biodiesel pump, and diesel engines running on B20 were as popular as…, well, as popular as hybrids are today, with people paying way too much for them.

There was only one thing to do, and I looked up diesel SUVs on my favorite car research site, Edmonds.com, looked under diesel SUVs…And found the Hummer H1.

My heart sank… until I scrolled down the screen.

Below the Hummer, looking very out of place, was the Jeep Liberty.  Apparently Daimler decided to equip a few models from its recent Chrysler acquisition with their diesel engines.  It was a match made in renewable energy heaven, as far as I am concerned.

I ended up paying about $25K for my Jeep Liberty CRD, or about $8,000 less than I would have paid for a comparably equipped Ford Escape Hybrid (the
Toyota costs more.)  I’ll be spending about 50% more for fuel for the Jeep than I would be spending had I bought the Escape, but it will be 100,000 to 200,000 miles (depending on how quickly fuel prices rise) before the extra fuel costs add up to $8K. 

In addition, diesel engines last longer and need less maintenance than gasoline engines, and using biodiesel only adds to their longevity.  Hybrids, on the other hand, need an expensive battery pack replacement around 100,000 miles.

How does the diesel Jeep Liberty compare to the base model?  Fuel for the diesel engine costs about the same as gas for the standard V8, because B20 currently costs more than regular gas, although the diesel gets about 20% better mileage.   There are some savings in maintenance for a diesel engine over a gas engine, and the vehicle will probably last longer, but unless diesel prices fall, it probably won’t make up for the extra cost (about $2000… the diesel option costs more than that, but the current high cost of diesel fuel meant that the salesman was happy to get it off his lot, and I had more bargaining power.)

I paid about $2000 over the base model Jeep so I could feel good.  People buying Hybrid SUVs are also paying extra so they can feel good, too.  I think that’s wonderful, but even when you’re paying extra to feel good about your purchase, it’s important to keep in mind how much extra you are paying.

Is my Jeep better for the environment than the Escape I didn’t buy?  Probably not, but it’s not much worse, and I can leave that $8,000 I saved invested in one of my favorite renewable energy companies.  The earnings may even pay for that extra $.04 a mile I’m spending on B20… it would only require a 5% return if I drive 10,000 miles a year.

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