Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Banner Weeks for Electric Cars

The last couple of weeks have been big for electric cars. GM finally debuted the Volt (to be released in 2010) with a newly revamped exterior. It's more generic than the original design, but not nearly as ugly. They're still planning to get 40 miles off of a charge and they say, "The car will cost 'less than purchasing a cup of your favorite coffee' to recharge, and use less electricity annually than a refrigerator."

For those not in the know, the Volt is a series hybrid. Unlike the Prius (a parallel hybrid), the Volt does not use its gasoline engine to supply torque to the wheels. the gasoline engine in a series hybrid serves only to generate electricity to recharge the batteries. All of the motive force comes from the batteries/electric motor. The advantage to this is that you can travel the full forty miles of your charge without ever using any gasoline. It may not be great for those in the exurbs, but for carting around town it can't be beat.

Using this tool from the Brammo website, I calculated my daily miles. I found that on my heaviest driving days (go to Kung Fu in the morning, pick up the boy at school, bring him to his Kung Fu class in the afternoon, hit up Trader Joes in the mean time) I may do 30 miles. With a little bit of planning, I could easily stay below that. Now if I could just get a garage...

All fine and good for pure electrics, but if you already have a Prius, don't dispare! In other news last week, There's a Prius chop shop now open in San Francisco that will convert your prius to a plug-in. Luscious Garage is open for business and it sounds like things might really start to pick up for them. Converting your Prius costs around $7500, but that's down $2500 from the estimated cost from calcars about a year ago. Scroll down on this calcars page and find a list of companies who do conversions.

Conversions are also on the radar at Wired magazine.

And still there's more. Electrics made a grand showing at the Paris Auto Show. The Time article highlights the Nissan NuVu. More pictures of it can be found here.

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Wednesday, June 4, 2008


Mark Morford has a great column in todays sfgate. In it he speculates about our near future of petroleum deprivation. How will people react to 8 dollars per gallon? It seems that even though the price of crude is dropping (today anyway) the price at the pump is not expected to go down any time soon. CNNmoney offers Six Fixes for High Gasoline Prices. These fixes are rife with short-sightedness and are largely supply-side oriented. Most would be likely to have little impact at the pump, while some could have dramatic environmental impact. The article ends on a sage note:

The fact that these proposals have so many caveats, and would likely bring prices down only moderately or not at all, leaves some analysts saying there's not much the government can do to lower prices.

High gas prices are here to stay, and consumers are just going to have to bear the burden until they figure out how to use less fuel, they say.

""Like the president said, it's an addiction," said Lee Schipper, a visiting scholar at University of California Berkeley's Transportation Center. "There's going to be a time when going cold turkey hurts."

Moreover, even if the government could lower prices, it might not be in everyone's long-term interest.

"It's only when the price is high that people actually do things" to conserve, said Schipper. "Gas at $2 a gallon underprices the real cost to the environment and the nation."

Morford's speculation is entertaining, but here's what's happening NOW: People are driving less, driving more efficiently, and making better decisions about how to live. Hell, maybe we'll even get our rail and streetcar systems back.

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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

JetBlue goes Green

CSRwire reported this morning that JetBlue has announced a green initiative. The press release from carbonfund.org addresses several steps that JetBlue is taking to clean up their act. They will be making operational changes (read: increasing efficiency), working in conjunction with Airbus, Honeywell Aerospace and International Aero Engines to develop a sustainable jet-bio-fuel, and offering carbon offsets to their customers through carbonfund.org.

This move to help customers purchase carbon offsets for their flying is one that I have been expecting for a while. It seems natural. PG&E has an offset program that goes right on your monthly gas bill (I wrote about it here).

I have been wondering why car dealerships aren't offering Terrapass offsets right from the salesperson. They could even offer offsets as an incentive.

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conventional green

This popped up on CNN about a week ago. Convention and conference organizers are finally leaning green in response to their corporate clients. Big Business is starting to care:

But lately, greener practices have become a priority for businesses. Of the two-thirds of the world's top 500 companies that publish corporate social responsibility reports, 87 percent address climate change and 65 percent have a specific portion on climate change issues. Seventy-eight percent publish quantitative emissions data, according to CorportateRegister.com.

These types of corporate social responsibility mandates -- combined with some managers' genuine concern for the issue and a public demand that companies do their part -- has led to the growth of green meetings.

And here's a good reason:

Many companies and meeting planners have been pleasantly surprised that producing green meetings can be cost effective.

Some elements do cost more, but the increase in efficiency can offset the expense, Makower said.

For example, he said, using pitchers of water instead of individual bottles might cancel out the cost of organic food.

McKinley said a meeting client recently saved money by switching from plastic disposable service ware to compostable serving pieces, because the high price of petroleum increased the cost of plastic.

Again we see that green is good from both an economic and an environmental perspective. For those who are still skeptical about climate change, I'll say this: Take advantage while you can! It's a trend right? So no one can actually accuse you of caring about the climate (how embarrassing!). If they do, you can explain how you're taking advantage of the ignorant masses by using their desire for all things green to save you money!

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Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Enertia Creeps

I have a little Kymco People 50cc scooter that I use whenever I can. It uses less gas and is much easier to park than my normal car. I've always liked the idea of an electric scooter, but I haven't been impressed with the ones I've seen. The Vectrix is a little bulky for me (and expensive). The Zapino comes close, but I need a little more speed to feel safer. Others, like the X-Treme XB-500 don't have near the power or speed to drive safely in traffic. And that's important, because in my experience, if people see you on a scooter (at all) they expect you to be part of normal traffic, not off to the side. Denying people's expectations when you're at such an extreme disadvantage is not safe.

The Brammo Enertia looks pretty exciting. CNN Money/Fortune tells the story of how the Enertia came to be, and has pictures of some of the top contenders in the field. It's slightly more expensive than the Vectrix, but much better looking. Of course, for me, there's still the problem of where to plug it in...

Update (May 22): Terrapass wrote about the Enertia last year and it caused quite a stir, mostly people complaining that it was ugly, expensive, and slow.

Also, The Scooter Scoop has some good stuff on electric scooters/motorcycles.

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Monday, May 5, 2008

Auntie Em Goes Green

A small, tornado ravaged town in Kansas is realizing the benefits of going green. On May 4, 2007, Greensburg Kansas was virtually wiped off the map. Now the town is rebuilding with an eye towards renewable energy and energy efficiency and finding green isn't just for hippies anymore.

The local John Deere dealership lost nearly everything in the disaster, but is taking the opportunity to get LEED Platinum certified. This is not about taking the moral high ground though. From the Article:

Although "green" may be viewed as trendy and new by some, Mike Estes {owner of the John Deere dealership] knows that it is not for show.

"We're looking at saving money here; truthfully, we are. We're running a business. If we can't make this make sense, why would we do it?" he asked.

And he says the non-political approach of the city in encouraging energy efficiency has helped.

"I don't think it's red or blue to be green; I think green is green, and green makes sense. And green saves you green!" he said with a laugh.

He's right too. It's a wonderful thing to be able to run a business in accordance with your values, but it's not always possible. More often than not, economics force our hand. In the end, a business has to make money or it won't survive no matter what your values are. What needs to be recognized is that capital investment in energy efficiency can save a tremendous amount of money in the long term. And when it comes to the balance sheet, saving money is the same as making money.

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Dirty Secret

Tesla Roadster
Originally uploaded by jfraser
My dirty little secret is that I'm really into exotic cars. I have a particular soft spot for Aston Martins. For the last few years though, every time I see an exotic the initial drool is immediately followed by pangs of guilt and the knowledge that they are off limits to me forever because there is no way I can justify buying a car that drinks that much gas. If you look at this list of the most vs. least efficient cars, you'll see that eight out of the ten least efficient vehicles are exotics. My dream is tainted. Even if I had the money, I just wouldn't be able to justify the consumption. (even offsetting the carbon doesn't replace what you've consumed.)

In any case, my dream is alive once more! I've been eagerly awaiting the arrival of the Tesla Roadster since I first heard of it a couple years ago. And now the wait is over. The first Tesla store is opening next week in Hollywood, with another coming to San Carlos shortly thereafter. Now I just need 100 grand to buy it, and another 180 grand so I can add a garage to my house in order to have a place to plug it in.

Well, at least I can dream again.

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Friday, May 2, 2008

Towards a Unified Theory of American Problems

AP (via CNN) this morning provides evidence that our economic woes are tied to our national security problems and our environmental issues. The article, entitled "Planes Slow Down to Save Fuel," states that several airlines are slowing their aircraft (by approximately 10mph) in order to save fuel. According to the article, this change, while adding just minutes to the average flight, can save hundreds of gallons of fuel. Airlines mentioned in the article are said to be saving in the tens of millions of dollars per year on fuel.

What the article does not acknowledge is the reduced carbon footprint that goes hand in hand with the cost savings. It's pretty obvious though: use less fuel, produce less CO2. The EPA says that fossil fuel consumption made up about 94 percent (pdf) of CO2 emissions from the US in 2006. According to Wikipedia, the aviation industry is responsible for 11 percent of greenhouse gases (mostly CO2) emitted by the transportation sector in the US. This makes it about 3.6 percent of the total CO2 emissions in the US (again using the 2006 figures (pdf)).

Jet fuel produces approximately 23 pounds of CO2 per gallon. So saving 162 gallons of fuel (from the article) not only saves the airline $535, but it spares us 3726 lbs of CO2.

This is evidence that a very small change (minutes per flight) can have a significant economic impact, reduce our carbon footprint, and simply by virtue of conserving help to ease our dependency on foreign oil.

If JetBlue saves $13.6 million in fuel per year and they pay about $3 per gallon (at a guess), that could mean as much as 4.5 million gallons of fuel conserved by a single airline. And of course, the less we use, the less money we send overseas. It's interesting to note that this conservation need not be motivated by politics or concern for the environment. Pure economics is enough to drive the change in this case, but the by-products are great.

Addendum 5/3/08: McCain claims to have an energy policy that will end our dependency on foreign oil and admits that (well, ok, the first one anyway) the gulf war was about oil.

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Monday, April 28, 2008

Foreign policy and fuel alternatives

One of the important points of Sherry Boschert's "Plug-in Hybrids," is the significant overlap between national security interests and environmental concerns. Something Glenn Beck said this morning reminded me of this. Beck laments the fact that America is beholden unto countries who share neither our ideals nor our interests and who in some cases, use the money we pay them for oil to attack us. He goes on to harp on how we should have started tearing up Alaska years ago so that we could get at the oil there (ANWR), but then he says something surprising:

But ANWR is not the answer, it's a Band-Aid, and I worry that our shortsighted politicians would use it as an excuse not to look for viable replacements for oil, which is what we really need.

He's right. But here's where we diverge. He believes in synthetic fuels (essentially burning coal in our cars) whereas I think combustion is a mistake altogether. Mr. Beck seems concerned about the high cost of oil and the foreign policy implications of our dependence on oil, but thinks the solution can be found by burning other things.

This 'if you run out of fire wood, burn the furniture' approach is fine if it's the dead of winter and you need to keep warm, but if you burn the furniture just for ambiance you're being a little short sighted. I think that a hefty percentage of fuel consumption in this country is unnecessary. We're using up our fire wood because we can and it's nice to have a fire. But if we want to make sure we can make it through the winter, maybe we should use less wood now.

It is through conservation and thoughtful use of alternatives that we will reduce our dependence on oil. I suggest that at a time when alternatives are still a bit hard to come by, and the economy is in the toilet, conservation might make the most significant difference in the near term.

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Wednesday, April 23, 2008


Yesterday was a big day for green things. CNN had two items that I found to be of interest, both were about green building and one of them ties in with my question regarding our culture of consumption.

The first was a little "explainer" about green building ideas and practices. It mentions the National Home Buyers Association's Model Green Home Building Guidelines, as well as the US Green Building Council's LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating system.

Some of the comments on this piece are interesting, with most people solidly in favor of green things, while a scattered few decry it as a big scam. "Mike" had an important point regarding "todd's" comment of "...It's not about the price morons, it's about doing the right thing." He says:

"Take it easy todd. How much do new Toyota Prius's start at $22,000? I am just starting out in the world and I for one could not afford that price when I was in the market for a new car in 2006. I care about the environment and I wanted to do my part, but at that price it was not possible for me. I bought a 2006 Honda Civic because it gets great mileage and I could afford it. Why does the price of "being green" have to be so much more than everything else??"

I think that both of them are right. For those who have the luxury of flexibility in terms of pricing, why not focus on doing the right thing? That said, I think that given Mike's limited resources, he made a great decision. He did the best he could with what he had. The problem we face as a nation and a culture is that people tend to buy far more than they actually need. this is a good segue into the next piece.

CNN's Sr. Environment and Technology Correspondent Miles O’Brien wrote a piece on Green McMansions, 8000 Square foot homes that are alleged to be ecofriendly. This, from the article:

'The home we toured has geothermal heating and cooling, incredibly tight and efficient insulation… sustainably- harvested lumber…lots of LED and natural light and the home sites are built in clusters- to preserve the woods.

“I think we’ve pushed the envelope of green pretty far,” Robbins [president of the Windermere development] told me.'

Here I think the point is not so much "How green is it compared to another house of its size?" but "Is its size antithetical to green ideals?" So far my thinking is this: If you need a place for 10 to 15 people to live comfortably, this might be a great way to do it. However, American's lust for all things big does not seem to extend to families. The Average number of children under 18 for American families (with children) is 1.86 according to the 2000 Census (pdf). This means that odds are pretty good you don't have a giant family. Why then, the urge to buy so much more than you need?

Two years ago my wife and I came into a bit of money. We were going to add a floor to our relatively modest San Francisco home. After careful thought, we realized that we really didn't need another floor, we just wanted another floor because it would be nice. We recognized however that if we added another floor we would have to heat another floor and light another floor. Since we didn't really need it it seemed wrong to consume all that extra. Instead we saved our money and invested about a third of what we would have spent on that extra floor on solar instead. Now we don't pay for electricity.

Everybody has to make the choices that are right for them. I believe in this. However, I urge people to consider why they are choosing something. If you truly need it, go for it. If you don't, then think about your motivation, and think about what else you could do with your money.

O'brien wraps up his piece with this:

'Our homes are our castles - and they are the cornerstone of the American Dream. Now is not the time to stop dreaming big - but maybe it is time to stop building that way simply for the sake of telling the world we have arrived.'

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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Gas Tax "Holiday"

Well it looks like McCain's been reading Glenn Beck (yes, the same article cited in my first post). While Beck seems to be a true believer in trickle-down economics, McCain I think, is just pandering.

There were two quotes in this article that I found particularly relevant:

"It's a quick fix for people who believe cheap gas is their birthright," said Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst at the Oil Price Information Service, a research firm. "It's not a prudent thing to do."

If money from the general fund is used, it could in some ways be a fairer tax. The gas tax is a flat tax that impacts poor people more than rich ones, while money from the general fund is raised in a system where people who earn more are supposed to pay more.

These two quotes get at the heart of my "primary questions." The acknowledgment that there are people who believe that cheap gas is their birthright is an important one. I think the very concept of "birthright" is partially responsible for the mess we're in. Could it be that we're so wrapped up in the things that we have a right to do, that we forget to ask ourselves if we should do them? I have the right to disperse my social security number, my mother's maiden name and all of my bank account information right here in this post. It's guaranteed in the constitution. That doesn't make it a good idea. Knowing when not to exercise one's rights can be even more important than knowing when to exercise those rights.

The second quote addresses the disparity between rich and poor in this country. It's indicative of the kind of trap faced by the poor, the trap I'm interested in exploring:

It's difficult to invest in something that will save you money in the future if you don't have any money now. A new Prius, solar panels, a tankless water heater, all these things are expensive in terms of capital outlay but they depreciate slowly and significantly reduce long term expenses. What this amounts to is that a family that pays a higher percentage of its income for gasoline, electricity, and natural gas is trapped into paying that higher percentage because that can't afford to make the investments that would decrease those expenses. Poor people often drive older, less fuel-efficient vehicles, thus paying more in federal gas tax (by way of higher consumption) and in paying more are further limiting their ability to get out of the trap.

I'm looking for a way out.

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