Monthly Archives: July 2014

The Real Reason Why EV’s Matter

ELF2

An example of one of the many new EVs on the market; a screenshot from Organic Transit’s webpage, about the ELF. According to the company, the ELF gets the equivalent of 1800 mpg.

I was at this year’s Solarfest this past weekend, and helped present two workshops about electric vehicles. The first one was a panel discussion hosted by Drive Electric Vermont, and the second was a presentation I did, entitled “Electric Vehicles: Beyond the Basics”. I think that my thesis, so to speak, is worth thinking about, so I thought I’d recap the presentation here as a blog post.

The quite-short-version, starting with some basics—

1) Whereas a few years ago there were essentially four mainstream production EV’s, (the Volt, Leaf, Tesla Model S, and the plug-in Prius) there are now about twenty, with many more on the way. The biggest recent news is perhaps BMW’s i3, a $40,000 car that is the most efficient in its class, partly due to its lightweight carbon-fiber cabin. The car has gotten extremely high customer-satisfaction ratings, and has been successful enough that Tesla just announced last week that is would be putting together a “Model 3” that will be quite similar. And, EV’s now encompass far more than just cars. There are electric motorcycles, electric pickup trucks, buses, bikes, scooters, school buses, tractor-trailer trucks, and more.

Zero

Zero Motorcycles, perhaps the leader in electric motorcycles.

Proterra

Bus-maker Proterra already has buses operation in several U.S. cities, including Reno, NV. With “One-fifth the fuel expense and one-third the maintenance”, these more-expensive buses can pay for themselves in two to five years.

EV owners’ customer satisfaction has been quite high; the Volt and the Tesla Model S have led Consumer Reports’ rating for the last three years.

2) Adoption rates have been brisk, though not quite as brisk as some predicted in years past. The number of EV’s on the road has roughly doubled each year since 2010, and that trend is expected to continue into the foreseeable future. There are currently about 250,000 EVs on the road today in the U.S., and about 500,000 worldwide. To keep those numbers in perspective, though, EV’s currently make up less than 1% of the cars being sold.

3) Charging infrastructure has grown at an extremely rapid pace, from less than 2,000 public charging stations in the U.S. in 2011, to well over 20,000 today, with many more coming into service daily. This has included a huge rise in the number of DC fast chargers, which can charge a vehicle like a Leaf to about 80% in about 30 minutes. A year ago Vermont had zero of these fast chargers, but today we have six, with more on the way. Further advances in charging technology are also on the way, one being inductive charging, which can charge an EV without a direct connection to the vehicle. As demonstrated by a bus system in operation in Seoul, South Korea, inductive charging systems can also be embedded in roadways and function while the vehicles driving above it are in motion.

4) Most EV’s are powered by lithium-ion batteries, and the price for these batteries has fallen dramatically in the past five years, from well over $1,000 per kwh, to about $500 per kwh today. Prices are expected to continue to drop, partly due to Tesla’s new “Gigafactory”, currently under construction. Tesla’s founder, Elon Musk, has predicted Li-ion battery prices in the $250/kwh range by 2015. (Nissan just announced $270/kwh prices for replacement Leaf battery packs.) Combined with economies of scale as EV production increases, I suspect that EV’s will approach outright cost-parity with gas-mobiles in the decade to come. Research is currently proceeding apace on all manner of battery technology, and these advancements have the potential to disrupt power companies, as well as automobile markets.

5) No battery lasts forever, but indications so far seem to show that EV batteries are exceeding expectations. Battery longevity is strongly influenced by many factors, such as average battery temperature, charging and discharge rates, depth-of-discharge, and the average state-of-charge during storage, and some of these are factors that owners can control. When the capacity of EV battery packs does drop below what is considered usable (typically considered to be 70% of its original capacity), power companies have working prototypes of grid-storage options that utilize used EV battery packs. Then, when EV batteries finally do reach the end of their useful life, virtually 100% of the materials in them can be recycled. Today the market value of lithium is such that it is not currently recovered, though the nickel and cadmium and other metals are. I suspect that this will change in years to come, though world reserves of lithium are quite ample, with the bulk of them in the “ABC Triangle”, an area in Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile. (See article “The Lithium Battery Recycling Challenge”).

6) It is becoming easier and easier to build net-zero homes (post- “Net-Zero is Possible”), but what’s really exciting is that it’s now quite possible to build a home that produces enough power for both the house AND for electric-powered transportation. In fact, I currently know of at least three houses that fall into this category. With building and transportation together making up nearly 90% of U.S. energy use, this is truly an exciting development. And since PV panels operate with DC electricity, as do EV batteries, companies like Honda are working on equipment that allows EVs to charge with DC from PV panels, which avoids the conversion losses incurred by inverters.

Leslie science house cropped

Structures that produce most or all of the energy they require are now quite common. Leslie Science Center Nature House, Ann Arbor, MI.

7) EV’s have a huge potential role with regard to how sustainable power grids will function in the future. This is sometimes called “Vehicle-to-grid”, or “V2G”. A starting point for this is charging equipment that allows power from an EV to go in two directions, either into the vehicle to charge the battery, or out of the vehicle to power the house or grid. Several companies, including Nissan, already have such products on the market. With such a connection, an EV can serve as backup power during a power outage. Then, when this technology is coupled with smart meters, EV’s can serve a key role in reducing generation costs for power companies. In times of peak demand, a power company could remotely stop EV’s from charging, in order to lower peak demand, or, conversely, turn on chargers to soak up excess generation during off-peak hours. Power companies will likely pay customers for the right to control their chargers and EVs in this way, and several pilot projects are already underway. V2G capability also opens up the possibility that EV owners can charge their cars with cheap off-peak power, and sell this power back to the grid during hours of peak-demand.

8) Now, a bit of an aside, but I’ll come back to EV’s in just a bit—as we get higher and higher penetration rates of renewable power into the grid in the years to come, the nature of electricity pricing will steadily change. In the 1970’s it was thought that nuclear power would make electricity “too cheap to meter”. That did not happen, but it has indeed happened recently due to solar. Germany, with its huge amount of solar and wind production, has already seen wholesale electricity prices on sunny days dip into the negative. As these power production curves shift, it will present challenges to power companies. A visual of these upcoming changes was recently released by California ISO (ISO’s, or “Independent System Operators”, are groups that manage grid-power in particular regions), in the now-infamous “duck graph”—

duckgraph_page_3 cropped

The infamous California ISO “duck graph”. Shaded areas represent steadily increasing amounts of solar generation.

Proponents of renewable power delight in this graph, seeing steadily decreasing peak energy prices and less fossil-fuel use, whereas Continue reading

The Economic Taproot of Consumerism

Galleria

The Cambridge Galleria—about as non-Minimalism as one can get; a three-story temple to Consumerism.

(Note— I’ve written this post, but I’m not sure exactly what to think of it. This subject of how-much-advertising-is-too-much is one that cries out for nuance. I think I’ll go ahead and post it as food for thought; feel free to chime in with your two cents, sometimes there’s real wisdom in group-think.)

 

I always tell people, when they ask about our off-grid house, that “we live like normal people”. We cook, eat, sleep, work, wear clothes, drive cars, pay bills, etc., pretty much like everybody else. But maybe we don’t live like normal people. We recently took a short family vacation to the Boston area for four days, and my sudden exposure to other people’s “normal” was a bit of a shock.

First of all, we’re about one fast charger short of being able to easily take one of the Leafs to Boston (anyone listening, Lebanon, NH?), so we rented a gas-mobile. It was a Nissan Sentra, and it got really good mileage, over 40 mpg according to the readout. But, I haven’t had to pump gas into a car for well over a year, so that alone was something new.

And, this is probably true for anyone, but it’s hard to “live sustainably” while out of town. We ate lunch at the Boston Science Museum the first day, and the mountain of trash we generated was just shocking; probably more trash than we generate in days here at home. Plastic-ware, paper cups and bowls, lids, foam plates, napkins, little salt and pepper packets, ketchup containers… A good portion of it could have been composted or recycled, but alas, there were no bins for either. Our hotel had complementary breakfasts that were also served on disposable-ware, so that same trash scene got repeated every morning as well, and then other days while out for lunch. Worse, we twice brought food that we couldn’t finish at a restaurant back to the hotel in take-home containers, but there was no refrigerator in the room, so both times that too ended up in the trash. Then there were the paper cups in the room, the daily washing and drying of all the sheets and towels, and the running of the AC because there was no good way to open the windows. All told, we were “consuming” at way, way higher rates than we normally do.

Now, all of that above-mentioned consumption and waste was mostly a function of sustainable systems not being in place. But, when we went to the Galleria mall in Cambridge, I was once again struck by how there is a whole other class of consumption out there. The Galleria contains a hundred stores or more, glitzy signs and ads, seemingly almost completely centered around fashion, appearance, or the latest gadgets. A veritable Temple of Consumerism; shoes for women who probably already have closets full, clothes that will likely only get worn a few times, high-priced sportswear with all the desirable designer labels. Some of the women shopping, judging from their appearance, would rank fashion and cosmetics as a driving force in their lives. The whole place just gave me an overwhelming sense of shocking superficiality, of uselessness, of waste. And most of those purchased items, in their specialty packaging, were being carried around in largish plastic or paper bags emblazoned with yet more designer logos, with both packaging and bags soon to go into the trash after their few minutes of use, where they would be transported still more before being buried in some landfill by fossil-fuel burning machines.

Then, back at the hotel, we were treated to the latest in cable TV; channel after channel of high-definition distraction, our modern day “opiate of the masses”. In fact, every single restaurant we went to, for four days, also had a television prominently blaring. Every single one, even the nice ones, and the hotel breakfast area as well. Inane “news” reporting, hyped up and rather ridiculous game shows, reality-style fix the house shows, morning shows, the list went on.

But, there’s a common thread between the TV and the mall. In 1904, J.A. Hobson wrote “The Economic Taproot of Imperialism”. Well, I believe what we have today could be called “The Economic Taproot of Consumerism”. The TV shows are evaluated and re-evaluated by the networks, to see which ones get the biggest share of the viewing audience. If a show (or the news) doesn’t “perform”, it gets replaced. The result is that every show, on every channel, is expressly designed to hold people’s attention (and it works; try having a meaningful conversation with your family while a TV is on nearby). And the purpose of attracting this audience? To sell advertisements, in the form of commercials, which play for huge chunks of every broadcast hour. And, the commercials themselves, created by America’s 300-billion-dollar ad industry, are scientifically designed and focus-group tested to ensure their own effectiveness at holding people’s attention. They are all finely tuned to convince people that they need this product, that food, this image, that vehicle. They are also finely tuned to convince people that what they already have isn’t good enough, so that those people have to go to… the mall. They have to go to the mall to shop, to replace, to keep up with the moving target of fashion, all carefully crafted by the puppet-masters in the looming skyscrapers above. Thus, the Galleria. (And this isn’t a new idea, Herbert Marcuse discussed this exact topic in his 1969 book “An Essay on Liberation”. A short and insightful excerpt—“…The so-called consumer economy and the politics of corporate capitalism have created a second nature of man, which ties him libidinally and aggressively to the commodity form…”)(Good short overview of his book here.)

Marcuse bookAnd to pay for all this consumption, for all that stuff and the big houses to store it in, people work, forty hours a week or more.

Then, in Boston, there were the many, many disadvantaged people we walked past every single day, waiting on buses and living in the poorer parts of town, who would clearly be unable to shop for much of anything at the Galleria.

So, waste and uselessness on one end of the spectrum, and privation on the other. It sometimes makes me wonder about our system.

Anyway, the above is a bit of a rant, but it seems that this media/consumption cycle isn’t in any way helpful in moving our systems and social structures toward some semblance of sustainability. I realize there’s a middle ground in terms of how to think about this topic—the market system creates the wealth and choices we all enjoy, name brands and advertising convey information that serve some useful purposes, and I enjoy a funny TV show just as much as the next guy. I also realize that human nature drives much of this; biology causes us to attempt to exhibit our evolutionary fitness and status with our clothes and belongings, and we all have hardwired conceptions of beauty that the fashion and cosmetic industries tap into. But, just as we have to use some self-control when eating, because evolution wires us to enjoy eating salt, fats, and sugars, we all need to use some self-control in the media and consumption arenas.

So, if you want to be part of the solutions, it might be good to turn off that TV, and give some thought about what the root motivations are that drive your purchases. And for me, the next time we go on a vacation like this, I might want to throw a recycling tub into the car. After all, why be normal?

veggie grill

Hanging out with George this evening, grilling garden veggies. Simple pleasures, and much less consumption than in the big city.

Top and bottom images: Me

A Sort-of Minimalism Day

mustard cover crop

Beautiful views off of Rt. 100.

Six months ago, the state of Vermont had quite a few Level-2 charging stations, but zero fast-chargers. Fast chargers, or Level-3 chargers, use 440 volts and will charge an EV like a Leaf to 80% in about 30 minutes. We got our first two this spring, but I checked the other day, and that number had grown to six. The new ones are all in a line right near I-89, in Burlington, Middlesex, Montpelier, and Barre.

So, last Saturday it was a beautiful day, and I decided to take a mostly-solar-powered EV drive in a big loop, and go find the new chargers. A Sunday drive on a Saturday, if you will. My wife and two of the kids went along, and we spent most of the day driving and sitting in parks reading and looking at various sights and visiting farmer’s markets along the way. I’m not sure how much of the drive was powered with renewable power—we charge with solar here at home in the summer, and some, but not all, of the public chargers are net-metered to solar panels. Though, even standard grid-power here in Vermont is partly hydro, solar, and wind. Suffice it to say that a good chunk of our motive power was renewable.

In terms of Minimalism, the walking and nature and sitting in parks qualifies, but we did go to a restaurant for lunch in Montpelier and had a nice meal. I suppose we could have had simple picnic food in the park, but we didn’t quite plan that all out. So, we’ll just call it a “sort-of renewable energy, sort-of Minimalism day”. Some pictures—

camperdown elm

A Camperdown elm in Bristol. These unusual trees are all descendants of one single tree in England. They don’t propagate naturally, and have to be grafted onto rootstock from another elm.

black walnut

A beautiful, thriving black walnut in Bristol. They aren’t overly common here; we’re at the northern edge of their native range. This is the largest one I’ve seen in Vermont.

Local produce at one of the farmer's markets.

Local produce at one of the farmer’s markets.

The new fast charger at Red Hen Bakery, in Middlesex.

The new fast charger at Red Hen Bakery, in Middlesex.

The farmer's market in Montpelier.

The farmer’s market in Montpelier.

Local and organic...

Local and organic…

The red Leaf, headed up Lincoln Gap.

The red Leaf, headed up Lincoln Gap.

One of the popular swimming spots on the New Haven River.

One of the popular swimming spots on the New Haven River.

So, we drove about a hundred miles on mostly solar power, got sidetracked on some dirt roads outside of Warren, found all the new chargers, and juiced up while we were eating lunch. In the end, a nice day, and some signs of progress on our collective road to more sustainability—charging stations, renewable power, and farmers markets full of organic, local food. Not a bad day.

DSCN0724

(Note, 20 Jul 2014— I’m removing references to cover crops in this post. While mustards are sometimes planted as cover crops for pest control, I’m not sure the mustard in the top image was planted intentionally. I don’t know enough about the subject; I plan to look into it.)

Photos: Me.

Soil Carbon and Its Disincentives

“The most meaningful measurable indicator of the health of the land, and thus the long-term wealth of the nation, is whether soil carbon is being accumulated or lost.” —Courtney White, from his book Grass, Soil, Hope: A Journey Through Carbon Country.

3710702365_ab030b381a_b tractor plowing cropped

Plowing is, by many accounts, soil-carbon destruction in action.

Courtney White has written an interesting book. Here’s a very short overview—plowing is destructive to soil. It exposes it to erosion from water and wind, ruins its structure, kills microbial life, and burns up the carbon. The more we plow, the worse the soil gets. Add chemical inputs, as modern industrial farming does, and the problem worsens still further. As White puts it, “Turning soil into dirt . . . is quick and easy. Just follow the recipe: Plow. Add chemicals. Mix well. Repeat.” With less carbon and microbial life, soil loses much of its ability to support plant growth and to absorb and retain moisture. In addition, minerals leach away and become less bio-available. Worse, all of that carbon goes into the atmosphere (30% of recent centuries’ increase in atmospheric CO2 is from human changes in land use—deforestation and plowing). Carbon isn’t inherently bad, as White points out repeatedly—carbon is absolutely vital for life; “carbon IS life”. But, we’ve gotten our carbon cycle out of whack, and conventional agriculture is making the situation worse, year after year, plow pass by plow pass. We’ve got too much carbon where we don’t need it, in the sky, and too little where we do, in the soil. It’s quite an insiduous feedback loop—when farmers degrade the soil, the result is that even more soil-killing applications of chemicals become required, just to get the land to produce. The longterm implications of this are somewhat dire; it’s a situation that might imperil humans’ very survival.

So if plowing isn’t a good idea, then how do we grow food? Isn’t plowing “how it’s done”? Well, it turns out that there are indeed other ways to produce food, and the bulk of White’s book is in the form of a travelogue, as he goes from place to place and meets farmers and restoration specialists who are doing things differently. He call them all “carbon farmers”, and some of them aren’t growing food—some restore riparian areas, or wetlands, or mangrove swamps, or beaver habitats, all in ways that increase soil carbon and improve environmental health. But many of them are farmers and ranchers, who have learned to produce food in ways that also improve the soil. Their techniques include rotational grazing, the use of native or perennial grasses, grazing herds of mixed animal types, carbon-zero farming with biofuels made on-site, year-round cover cropping, pasture cropping, organic no-till, composting to recycle nutrients, and edible forest gardens, among others. As White says, many of these ideas aren’t new. In fact, the idea that plowing damages soil isn’t new, either; White discusses Edward Faulkner’s 1943 book, “Plowman’s Folly”, that warned (and was ignored) of soil depletion caused by plowing (and this was largely before the problem was made that much worse with pesticides, herbicides, and harsh chemical fertilizers).

plowman's folly cover

First published in 1943, and still in print.

Trying to increase soil carbon and humus isn’t a new idea either, and has been practiced since Roman times. Today, farmers like Joel Salatin and Mark Shepard, and organic farmers everywhere, are using many of the same techniques as the farmers in White’s book, and for the same reasons (see my post about Mark Shepard’s work, “An Important Piece of the Puzzle”). Unfortunately, a great many more are plowing ahead (pun slightly intended) with business as usual.

White concludes with a somewhat radical idea—since more carbon in soils can only be attained by regenerating the land, and increasing carbon in soils has the potential to be a huge step in reducing atmospheric CO2 as well as safeguarding our ability to feed ourselves, why not pay landowners to increase the carbon content of their soils? The money could come from something that I, and White, and nearly all environmentalists think is a good idea—a carbon tax. (See post: “A Price for Carbon: Ask and You Shall Receive”). Such a tax would let market forces reduce carbon pollution on one end, and the revenue that would result could be used to provide incentives to restore the land and sequester carbon on the other end. And according to White, soil carbon is relatively easy to measure, and the numbers don’t lie; you can’t fake it. Doing the right things for the soil increase soil carbon, and abusing the land decreases it.

Compare this system to what we have now in the U.S.– agricultural subsidies that incentivize farmers to do just the opposite—in effect, we pay farmers to plow more, by rewarding short-term production over long-term stewardship of the land. (Some quotes from Earl Butz, the architect of many of  today’s agricultural policies- “What we want out of agriculture is production…” and “Plant fencerow to fencerow, boys…” )This results in cheaper food, but at the expense of the environment and nutrition. And, as a result, too many farmers are following White’s soil-to-dirt recipe as fast as they possibly can– plow, add chemicals, mix well, repeat. For now, chemical inputs mask the gathering problems, but the time will come to pay the Piper. (Typical article in this vein, “Loss of Soil Threatens Food Production, UK Government Warns”).

So, I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again—fix energy, and we’ll fix half the planet, fix agriculture, and we’ll fix the other half. And to fix agriculture, we could do worse than go down the path that Courtney White outlines. We can all do our part, by supporting organic agriculture with our food dollars, by composting, by planting trees, or by refusing to put chemicals on our land, lawns, or gardens, and by voting for representatives who hold land stewardship in high regard.

grass book cover

(Courtney White also has a blog, “The Carbon Pilgrim” , that has a great deal of additional information about “carbon farming”.)

Top image credit: “Tractor Plowing Fields” by Sam Beebe, Flickr Creative Commons at https://www.flickr.com/photos/sbeebe/3710702365. Image has been cropped.