Monday, 28 February 2011

The loneliness of the long distance EV enthusiast

On the one hand it is heartening to see mainstream electric vehicles finally coming to market after so many years of trying. On the other, maybe we have only just reached the starting line.

Last week BMW announced their new sustainable mobility brand,  BMW i. I guess the board of BMW were nervous about committing the ultimate driving machine to a 'green' future, hence the halfway house of the 'i' sub-brand. Plus ca change.

I often feel a sense of frustration at the way the VMs (vehicle manufacturers) present themselves and their products as green, ecological and good for the planet, when they are plainly anything but. This is balanced however by the acceptance that the emerging crop of pure electric vehicles, plug-in hybrids and range extended vehicles, for all their greenwash, soundbites and over the top eco-imagery, are offering us an order of magnitude improvement compared to our choices on the forecourt just 12 months ago.

Probably the most important statement to come out of the German headquarters last week was not the slick video voice over claiming that with BMW i a new movement has been borne (really?) - but that 100 miles is sufficient range for an electric car.

That's more like it.

The manufacturers have done such a superb job of persuading us that if we truly value our freedom then we really do need a big, heavy, powerful, 4 wheel drive SUV to collect that pint of milk from the corner shop. They are now going to have to work bloody hard to change our way of thinking, and they are feeling a little nervous about the task ahead. After all, they still have a lot of conventional cars to sell and therein lies the problem. It is not in their interests to do too good a job in persuading us that we must now abandon the products that sustain them.

Meanwhile, the rest of us should continue to jog alongside and push them to do exactly that.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

30g CO2 / km: the UK's Climate Finish Line?

In 2008 The UK Committee on Climate Change recommended that the UK should aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80% by 2050 compared to 1990 levels in order to avoid disastrous climate change.
Assuming for now that all sector reductions are to be equal, in the case of cars driven in the UK this means a move from 146g CO2 / km to 30g CO2 / km.
Is this achievable?

Today, the more efficient electric cars available to buy now in the UK emit approximately 50g co2 / km depending on the fuel mix at the time of charging (based on power station emissions, the cars themselves are emission free of course). The same cars driven in Iceland, Norway or France already deliver emissions well below the required UK 30% figure, thanks to the very high percentage of electricity generated from renewable or (in France's case) nuclear energy sources.

Clearly the target can be achieved then using existing EV technologies, what is needed is the political will and levers to force through a move to electricity generated from renewable and nuclear sources. Here in the UK nuclear is required in order to avoid energy shortages as we develop more efficient renewable technologies and implement renewables on the scale required. I don't like nuclear either, but I like the thought of power outs even less.

As regular readers of this blog are aware, I am in favour of a focus on pure electric vehicles rather than a broad spread of technologies that include the retention of the internal combustion engine. Simply put, ICE vehicles prolong our dependence on oil and I am not a fan of the 'bridge to pure electric' theory.

I am increasingly concerned that we are simply going to run out of time if we allow ourselves to develop 'faster horses' instead of putting more efforts into developing more efficient pure electric vehicles. Politically we continue to demonstrate a lack of willpower to take the really difficult environmental decisions whilst anyone who is not unnerved by the possibilities unravelling in North Africa and the Middle East has their head in the oil sands.

Meanwhile the Volvo V60 diesel-electric hybrid to be officially unveiled at next week's Geneva Salon International de l'Auto, offers a quite remarkable 50g CO2 / km, 124 MPGe and a range of 745 miles in hybrid mode. Clearly there are some brilliant automotive engineers out there and automakers can move quickly and produce impressive results when driven by legislators and the sniff of a new market. By all accounts the Volvo is a remarkable car and deserves all the praise it is about to receive. But, even though you can drive 'up to' 30 miles in pure electric mode, you will still have to hope that Gaddafi's foreign legions haven't been paid to blow up the Libyan oil fields and pipelines in an 'If-I-can't-have-it-then-neither-can-you' fit of pique and that next time you pull up to the gas station it is still open for business. The world record price for a barrel of oil was $147 in July 2008, we are currently heading north of $120 and analysts warn of $220 if Libyan oil production is halted.

I can't help feeling uneasy every time the focus shifts away from total oil independence.

Oil addiction: the only way is (cold) turkey

This from Bobby Llewellyn, one of the UK's more experienced, thoughtful and balanced EV pundits - but no less passionate for it - on the recent events in Egypt and Libya and the broader context that is oil. I recommend his blog.

'As we all know, the slightest slip up or misinterpretation on the Twitters can lead to some serious upset. I have made many twitter boo boo’s but in my top ten all time stinkers was a mention on the 9th anniversary of the 9/11 massacre of the link between the attack and our dependence on oil.
This really upset people, I got a lot of very angry tweets, yet again surprising myself with my naivety and possibly stupidity. Many American’s admonished me for daring to make a connection. ‘It had nothing to do with oil, it was to do with terrorism and religion.’
I backed down pretty fast, what can you say to explain your position in 140 characters. Not much.
If you have more than 140 characters to play with it may be a little easier. 
The developed world needs a lot of oil, the Middle East has a lot of oil. Yes, there’s political and military interference, there’s Israel, yes there’s funda-mentalism, but behind much of this strife there is oil. I’m not saying it’s the only reason, or even the primary one, but it’s a pretty damn chunky part of the problem.
I won’t bore you with figures but we send a lot of money into the Middle East to buy oil, really a lot, let’s just agree that it’s billions of dollars every week.
I don’t think anyone of any political outlook can deny that the Western world has meddled in a very serious way for many decades with the internal affairs of these countries. 
We have either supported despots, bullies and screaming buffoons who have played along with us and sold us the back gold, or we have invaded them, killed hundreds of thousands of them and toppled the thugs we’ve spent the previous twenty years supporting and, ahem, clears throat just to hammer home the point, ‘installed democratic regimes.’
Like most people in the UK, I only have the faintest grasp of the incredible events currently taking place in the Middle East. I’m not going to pretend I have any special knowledge, I’m trying to take a broad, objective view of what is going on.
Essentially the despots we have been supporting, and when I say we I mean the UK and US governments chiefly, these brutal thugs have slowly lost their grip over the people they oppress with our direct military, technical and financial help. 
They sell us oil, we sell them guns, tear gas, ammunition and any other tools they might need to maintain their grip on power. Last year alone we (the UK) sold Libya £33,899,335 worth of military equipment. I didn’t make that figure up, it comes from the UK governments own Export Control Organisation that gives licenses to manufacturers of such equipment in this country. The bullets and teargas, the rifles, machine guns and night sticks being used to kill and beat the people of Libya are made in factories in this green and pleasant land. I don’t know about you, but I’m not proud of that fact.
Of course, as any drug dealer will tell you, if we didn’t supply them, someone else would, but the simple fact is, we did supply them, just like we supplied Mubarak and of course, our old favourite, Saddam Hussein. 
Our governments are under enormous pressure to make deals with people even they would probably rather not have to deal with because of one simple fact. We are massively dependent on what lies deep beneath the Middle East. We need their oil, simple as that, and we have to do anything and everything in order to secure that supply. If it destroys the country we get it from, that’s the price we, and obviously they have to pay. If the despots and power crazed loons we support cause such oppression and misery and some people turn to fundamentalist religion as an alternative, so be it. We must have the oil. Nothing else matters.
Did the endless flow of oil money help fund the fundamentalist fanatics? What do you think? Which incredibly powerful, mind numbingly rich family is old Osama a member of? Weirdly enough the same hyper rich family the Bush family have done business with for donkeys years. The jolly old Bin Laden’s. 
They are not all terrorists, far from it, but loony Uncle Osama is. He’s exactly the same age as me by the way, spooky. 
No one planned this ugly situation, no one is truly at fault, it’s just the way it’s happened. History has lead us here and we have to deal with it.
So when I said that the West’s need for oil had something to do with the 9/11 attacks I’m not citing some weird conspiracy theory, the history of the Middle East over the last 100 years has been at the same time empowered and destroyed by our addiction. 
Surely one solution to this seemingly never ending distress is to wean ourselves off the stuff. If we stopped buying it, the result would be catastrophic, not for us, not for the general populations of the Middle East, but for the rulers. The mass of people there derive little or no benefit from the billions we send there every day, in fact most of the time they derive palpable harm from that money. It has created a brutal, bloated, ruthless ruling elite who will, as we have seen, do anything to cling to power.
I don’t blame the oil corporations, they are under enormous pressure from us to keep the sweet crude flowing. There is only one tap that can turn this off, that’s us. If we stop buying it, they will stop supplying it. 
How can we stop buying it? Only by making an amazing effort and changing the way we live, travel and consume. I’m not saying it will be easy or cheap, but I am saying it is possible.
So, the factors behind the upheavals in the Middle East are many and complex, the factors behind the 9/11 and 7/7 attacks likewise, but however you look at it, oil is part of the equation.'

Monday, 21 February 2011

'Faster horses'

We are at a dangerous point in the creation of the electron economy. Just as when Henry Ford introduced the Model T many customers asked for 'faster horses', so will those who now oppose or delay the advent of electric cars and the creation of the electron economy be remembered.

Look around: rapidly rising oil prices, increasing demand for oil yet flat and soon-to-be-declining supply, choking pollution, severe climate events almost everywhere, falling renewable energy and EV battery costs and stalled living standards in western economies. It is clear to all but those who steadfastly refuse to see it that now is a time to embrace and encourage change and not cling to the status quo or incrementalism.

As James Murray, the editor of Business Green comments, 'investment in energy efficiency delivers net economic benefits within 5 to 10 years whilst low carbon business models and technologies tend to be more labour intensive, thereby creating significant employment opportunities' - something we desperately need as whole economies balance precariously on the edge of bankruptcy.

The just-published United Nations report: 'Towards a Green Economy: Pathways to Sustainable Development and Poverty Eradication' has a simple but powerful conclusion: global GDP and GDP per capita will grow faster in a green economy that seeks to cut greenhouse gas emissions and limit environmental impacts than it will if we continue to pursue business-as-usual.

Time for the Luddites still looking for more efficient petrol engines and plug-in hybrids to stand aside and forget about 'faster horses'. The cars of today are the horses of yesterday.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

EV stations for the garageless

This from Pete Danko at ReutersThe basic assumption is that most electric vehicle (EV) owners will do most of their charging at home, overnight. 350Green, by contrast, sees a world of urban drivers who don't have garages. So the US company is angling to lead the way with public charging stations, beginning with "fast charging station plazas" in the Bay Area cities of Albany, Menlo Park, Millbrae, Palo Alto, San Francisco and Sunnyvale. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District is helping make these stations happen with funding through its "Spare the Air" program.
The precise locations haven't been announced, but 350Green said it will focus on "parking lots of select, high-traffic retail locations" for charging plazas that will go in at no cost to the hosts. According to the 350Green website, its PowerDock offers up to four simultaneous charges, and it has an "Express Plaza" that can work off solar panels.

And how does 350Green hope to make money? Well, getting governments to fund its stations is a start in cutting costs. Beyond that, the company said "account holders can either pay by the charge or by the month, depending on their expected levels of use, and can use any of the 350Green stations in the local, national or global network."
While 350Green is positioning itself as something of a renegade in pursuing an away-from-home charging-station strategy, it's hardly alone in looking for retail and other public locations. I hope they succeed, 10/10 for trying.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

EVs: 1000 reasons why: No. 2

OK, here's another in my occasional series of reasons why you should drive an electric car:

No. 2: The smiles.

You know the way nobody lets the Porsche driver out of the side road on to the main road? Or the look of pity the 4x4 drivers get as they cruise down the Kings Road in Chelsea? Well the exact opposite happens when you drive an electric car. Other motorists smile at you, in fact just about everybody smiles at you. And when you are parking, they stop and talk to you! Now here in the UK that is a pretty weird and wonderful thing, strangers smiling and saying hello. Makes you feel good. Who would have thought?

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Wireless electric car charging in London

Hands free
Today there are approximately 1700 electric cars and 250 charging stations in London. Mayor Boris Johnson wants London to be the electric car capital of Europe however and has set a target of 100,000 electric cars on the city's streets by 2020, together with 25,000 charging stations by 2015. Of these, 22,500 charging stations will be workplace, 500 on-street and 2,000 in car parks. Targets schmargets. There should have been 1300 charging stations by now, so (as I have previously written) we should take such forecasts with a pinch of salt. For the whole of the UK the target of 13,000 charging stations by 2013 has already been scaled back to a more modest 8,500. We live in harsh economic times.

However, some very exciting news. About three years ago I met with a company called Halo IPT (standing for Inductive Power Transfer), which, together with Arup was promoting a new concept, that of induction (wireless) charging. It works like your electric toothbrush (or your old Scaletrix set), with pads buried in the ground and contactless charging to the underside of the car. A one year test commencing later this year is planned for London, whereby Transport for London's Mitsubishi imievs will be converted at a cost of £3,000 per car. Renault and Nissan are also 'looking at' incorporating wireless charging into the next generation of EVs.

It is early days and the system is not without challenges, but there are advantages with inductive charging: the absence of wires means safety is enhanced; street clutter is reduced; but the big benefit is this: by placing the inductive systems at traffic lights, at road junctions, at home, at work, in car parks and at the supermarket, every time you stop you get a charge. In future the system could even work on a drive-over basis. This means that you can use smaller battery packs and so reduce the cost of the vehicles, and/or, increase the effective driving range to a near limitless figure. At a cost of £2,500 per charging point to make and install they are not cheap, but could be another key to unlocking the electron economy.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Saudis running out of oil - Peak Oil 2012?

The barrel's half full

I have been waiting for this. An article in The Guardian newspaper (reprinted verbatim here) that: The US fears that Saudi Arabia the world's largest crude oil exporter, may not have enough reserves to prevent oil prices escalating, confidential cables from its embassy in Riyadh show. The cables, released by Wikileaks urge Washington to take seriously a warning from a senior Saudi government oil executive that the kingdom's crude oil reserves may have been overstated by as much as 300bn barrels – nearly 40%.

The revelation comes as the oil price has soared in recent weeks to more than $100 a barrel on global demand and tensions in the Middle East. Many analysts expect that the Saudis and their Opec cartel partners would pump more oil if rising prices threatened to choke off demand.
However, Sadad al-Husseini, a geologist and former head of exploration at the Saudi oil monopoly Aramco, met the US consul general in Riyadh in November 2007 and told the US diplomat that Aramco's 12.5m barrel-a-day capacity needed to keep a lid on prices could not be reached.

According to the cables, which date between 2007-09, Husseini said Saudi Arabia might reach an output of 12m barrels a day in 10 years but before then – possibly as early as 2012 – global oil production would have hit its highest point - Peak Oil.
Husseini said that at that point Aramco would not be able to stop the rise of global oil prices because the Saudi energy industry had overstated its recoverable reserves to spur foreign investment. He argued that Aramco had badly underestimated the time needed to bring new oil on tap.
One cable said "According to al-Husseini, the crux of the issue is twofold. First, it is possible that Saudi reserves are not as bountiful as sometimes described, and the timeline for their production not as unrestrained as Aramco and energy optimists would like to portray."
It went on: "In a presentation, Abdallah al-Saif, current Aramco senior vice-president for exploration, reported that Aramco has 716bn barrels of total reserves, of which 51% are recoverable, and that in 20 years Aramco will have 900bn barrels of reserves.
"Al-Husseini disagrees with this analysis, believing Aramco's reserves are overstated by as much as 300bn barrels. In his view once 50% of original proven reserves has been reached … a steady output in decline will ensue and no amount of effort will be able to stop it. He believes that what will result is a plateau in total output that will last approximately 15 years followed by decreasing output."
The US consul then told Washington: "While al-Husseini fundamentally contradicts the Aramco company line, he is no doomsday theorist. His pedigree, experience and outlook demand that his predictions be thoughtfully considered."
Seven months later, the US embassy in Riyadh went further in two more cables: "Our mission now questions how much the Saudis can now substantively influence the crude markets over the long term. Clearly they can drive prices up, but we question whether they any longer have the power to drive prices down for a prolonged period."
A fourth cable in October 2009, claimed that escalating electricity demand by Saudi Arabia may further constrain Saudi oil exports. "Demand [for electricity] is expected to grow 10% a year over the next decade as a result of population and economic growth. As a result it will need to double its generation capacity to 68,000MW in 2018," it said.
It also reported major project delays and accidents as "evidence that the Saudi Aramco is having to run harder to stay in place – to replace the decline in existing production." While fears of premature "peak oil" and Saudi production problems had been expressed before, no US official has come close to saying this in public.
In the last two years, other senior energy analysts have backed Husseini. Fatih Birol, chief economist to the International Energy Agency, told the Guardian last year that conventional crude output could plateau in 2020, a development that was "not good news" for a world still heavily dependent on petroleum.
Jeremy Leggett, convenor of the UK Industry Taskforce on Peak Oil and Energy Security, said: "We are asleep at the wheel here: choosing to ignore a threat to the global economy that is quite as bad as the credit crunch, quite possibly worse."

US vs China compete for 1 million EVs

The race is on as the US and China have each set the goal of 1 million electric vehicles.

The US wants one million EVs on the road by 2015, while the Chinese want to manufacture one million EVs per year and have five million EVs on the road by 2020, which in my book means much the same as the US target. Both governments are pouring grants into the sector to support this with charging infrastructure.

 The US Dept of Energy based their number on the automakers projections, roughly 50% of which come from GM'S Volt, 23% from Fisker (really?), 6% from Think and the balance made up from as yet to be declared sales numbers from Chrylser, BYD, Coda, Honda, Mitsubishi, Hyundai, Toyota, VW and Volvo.

To get things moving the US is planning to shift the $7,500 incentive from a tax credit to an on-the-spot rebate (discount) at the point and time of purchase. In a clear signal of intent, Obama has cut the 2012 Clean Diesel Programme from $80 m to zero. With battery costs set to decline 30% to 40% over the same period, that should make EVs very attractive to fleet buyers and private purchasers alike.

I have not seen any details on the Chinese government's target, presumably it will be part of a state plan for production and mandated accordingly to the country's fifty or so car makers. Wan Gang, China's Minister of Science and Technology is aiming for annual production of 1 million EVs per year by 2020 and roughly  1 million on the roads by 2015. A subsidy of approximately $9,000 per car is available to support this.

Monday, 7 February 2011

EVs: 1000 reasons why: No. 1

Sometimes the debate about electric cars can focus too much on the big stuff. You know, we need electric cars because without them the world will descend into war as we fight for the remaining oil. And so on.

So every now and then I am going to focus on the little things instead. The fun reasons why you should drive an electric car.

No. 1: The Silence.

The first time you get into an electric car the biggest impact on you will be the absence of something: noise. When you turn the key, or more likely push the start button, or maybe simply engage Forward (thanks to keyless entry and start), there is a wonderful, joyful silence. The sound of no engine, no exhaust, no clutch and no gears. As you pull away the crunch of the tyres on the gravel, or swoosh on the tarmac sounds luxurious. Your senses are relaxed and so are you. You will start the day in a different way. Go on, try it.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

Transport Evolved podacast

In case you are not aware of this, there is a weekly live podacast programme on EVs hosted by Nikki Gordon-Bloomfield, called Transport Evolved.

This week Jeff Landor, one of the first Nissan Leaf owners in the US and myself were the guest pundits. Lots of topics covered including the forthcoming EV taxation plans based on mileage. Worth a look. Episode 36

Thursday, 3 February 2011

The first EV fuel tax

The only certainty in EVs.
I have been waiting for this. According to, the State of Oregon is planning to implement a fuel tax on electric cars of 0.6 cents per mile. Under a bill in the Sate Legislature, the fee would take the place of the gas tax that electric car owners don't pay and be designated for road maintenance.

Spokesperson Marie Dodds at the Oregon Triple A, which favors the concept of the fee, says an electric car being driven 15,000 miles would rack up $90 a year in mileage fees.

Meanwhile over in Seattle a bill has been proposed to place a $100 annual up-front 'fee' for owners of electric cars, in lieu of gasoline duty. The fee represents approximately half the annual fuel taxes that would normally be paid by a driver filling up at the pump.

What do you think?

Motorists tend to be cash cows and much of the money raised from motorists is not reinvested in transport related projects. Is now the right time to be imposing taxes? In the medium to long term governments will need to find a way to raise revenue from EV motorists, but to do so before the market is even established risks the market itself. Or do you think it is better to get this out in the open from the very beginning? And that a tax based on usage i.e. miles driven, is the fairest approach?

Is saving the day taking precedence over saving the planet? Or is this part of the EV solution?

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Don't trust the forecasts & don't believe the experts

If you have been following the EV market for the past ten years, you will have noticed the universal inability to predict the future. Really, the timing, pace and just about everything else has been predictably unpredictable. In recent months, the EV market has been forecast to account for anything between 2% and 100% of new car sales by 2020. If you are a betting man, that's a big spread.

Superstar venture capitalist Vinod Khosla recently explained some of his operating principles when speaking in India: Don’t trust forecasts. Don’t believe the experts. And invest in companies that have a 90% probability of failure.

Khosla co-founded Sun Microsystems and funded telecom company Cerent, which sold to Cisco for $7 billion. For almost two decades he was an active partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers; in 2004 he formed Khosla Ventures, now his net worth is $1.3 billion. If you get the opportunity to hear him speak, it's worth listening.

Khosla quotes a favorite book, Expert Political Judgment by Philip Tetlock, in which the author studied 80,000 forecasts over 20 years and found the average accuracy was about the same as that of dart-throwing monkeys. “Forecasts get in the way of disruption,” said Khosla.

Khosla said that by 2025 there will not be a lithium ion battery because there isn’t enough lithium in the world to power the batteries needed for electric vehicles. He reckons that the forecasts for oil and energy consumption for 2030 and 2040 are “wrong by a factor of three.” “We’ll have 5 billion people who want an energy-rich lifestyle, but there isn’t ten times the oil available today. The only answer is technology disruption and resource multiplication.”

PS: My forecast for 2020? 50% of all new cars sold will be electric. But then I'm no expert.