Monday, May 4, 2009

Honk! Brains Not Included

Context: New York Times, The Green Issue, April 16, 2009
“Batteries Not Included”

Will electric cars, plug-in electric hybrids, new mobility vehicles, fuels and power sources in general deal with the massive systemic challenges of transport in cities in all their 21st century fullness: climate change, environment, public health, noise, pollution and traffic reduction, energy, petroleum and import dependency, fair mobility, costs to individual s citizens, and to the collectivity, efficient mobility, and quality of life for all?

And if they have a role, what is their relevance in today’s priority time frame – namely the need for large scale impact improvements in the several years directly ahead?

The sad truth is that when it comes to the real bottom line they have no relevance at all. However . . . sexy new product ideas have little difficulty in getting strong media support. They combine what appears to be "pragmatic" – i.e., a product you can see, feel and in this case maybe drive – together with a certain dreamlike sense of a very different future. (It is said by some psychologists that this approach is far more likely to bamboozle men than women. Certainly worth thinking about but we can dig into that another day.)

Here you have an example of high profile coverage by the New York Times of a concept, Shai Agassi’s clean-energy company’s “Better Place” electric car project. Some five thousand words of unfiltered technology optimism that, at the end of the day and given the time horizon to which we above all need to be giving attention, will make very close to ZERO difference to the real bottom lines.

Now I invite you to turn to the New York Times article of 16 April 2009:
Batteries Not Included:

* * *

The trick from a sustainability perspective with almost all of this “sit back and let technology take care of it” approach is that it promises us a pristine future in which we do not have to change ourselves. We change the technology but keep on in our old ways.

Would that this could be so, but it is not possible. To have a different future, a sustainable future, we have to start by changing ourselves. It’s that simple. Fortunately we can, and that is what World Streets is all about.

Lee Schipper* comments:

Here in Silicon Valley there is a lot of interest in battery electric vehicles. Unfortunately there are these little catches that my students at Stanford and Berkeley have picked up:

Each mile of range from an electric-car battery costs $200 to $500. A battery supplying the 40-mile range of the GM Volt is said to cost $20,000. The batteries are valuable and should not be discarded, which makes Agassi’s “Better Place” a good model for keeping tabs on them.

Society will need to tax the electricity to pay for roads. If an electric vehicle goes 5 miles on a kilowatt-hour, then at California’s average fuel tax of 64 cents/gallon and M.P.G. of 21, we need to pay almost 15 cents/kilowatt-hour to make up for lost revenue.

Plug-in hybrids present the best features of gasoline and battery vehicles, but the real oil savings depend on how people drive.

The overall energy and carbon- dioxide savings from any battery vehicle depend on where and when it is charged. Smart utilities will charge less for cheaper nighttime charging and more for daytime charging.

From an energy-efficiency standpoint, electric cars are more valuable because they use fewer overall resources. Why can’t we just move to equivalent, existing gasoline cars that get 50 M.P.G. first, then decide if the jump to electricity is worthwhile? At the cost of electric vehicles, small Fords and Hondas are a bargain.


* Lee Schipper, Senior Research Engineer, Precourt Energy Efficiency Center, Stanford University, Stanford, Calif. (You can find Lee by clicking here to the World Streets “Eyes on the Street” Sentinels map.)

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