Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Great Britain won't freeze this winter despite coal plant closures, unlike the fearism pushed by Breitbart.com

Breitbart.com wants us to think that Great Britain is going to freeze to death this winter because chasing after green energy sources has meant shuttering that country's coal fired power plants.  Without the guaranteed electricity of coal, GB is going to run out of electricity, and all heck will break loose, apparently.   And, oh my gosh, that followed the billions of dollars (er.. pounds) that GB invested in wind turbines and the like.  Those windmills surely won't be enough to power the country through the winter.

These wires bring us the power to stay warm
Turns out the story is nowhere near as bleak, and that Great Britain plans to fall back on other electricity sources should the weather be bad.  (according to Reuters)

What happened is that the National Grid Plc released a report about how they'll keep the lights on and electricity flowing over this winter.  The primary cause for concern is that, yes, they've shut down several coal fired power plants.  That means the winter-time margin of excess electricity over demand is expected to fall to 4.1 percent, compared to a 5 percent excess the year before.

Yes, indeed, Great Britain expects to have an excess of electricity throughout the winter of 2014 above electricity demand.  The margin will be slightly lower than last year, but it's still an excess of electricity.

The risk in predicting the future is what happens if it doesn't turn out as expected.  What if the winter is colder than expected, or some of the wind turbines break, or something?  Will Great Britain face an electricity crisis?  That is what those fear-mongerers at Breitbart.com want us to believe.

According to the Reuters report, the National Grid paper discussed a wide range of fallback plans in case something unexpected happens.  Plans the Breitbart people either ignored or hyped out of proportion.

Again, the National Grid expects there to be an excess of electricity, but just in case it's needed:-

  • they plan to encourage utilities to restart "idle" power plants, if needed
  • a demand-response plan will compensate offices and factories for voluntarily cutting back electricity demand if the grid is overstretched
  • three power plants are on "standby" in England and Scotland - if needed
That would raise the margin of excess power to 6.1 percent.

The plans do rely on two nuclear plants coming back on-line by December.   According to Reuters there is a non-zero chance those plants will not return to service as expected.

There are a number of other risks that threaten the electricity supply not just of Great Britain but other parts of Europe.  One of those is an issue I've covered a lot on LongTailPipe - the looming natural gas embargo from Russia thanks to the tensions between Russia and Ukraine.  Previous tensions between those countries led to at two previous natural gas shutdowns over the last 10 years.

Long-range forecasts suggest a mild winter in Great Britain.  The country's natural gas storage tanks are 99% full.  That gives GB a strong position should Russia cut back supply to Europe.

Great Britain is in the midst of a long-term shift away from coal fired plants.  The Reuters report says the government and Ofgen predict tight electricity supplies over the next two years, but that the supply situation will improve by mid-decade (2016?) thanks to new "plants" 'coming on-line.

According to official sources it's all hunky dory, everything is within the reliability standards.  But the Breitbart people want us to believe it's going to be bad, that it's a man-made crisis, that Great Britain will freeze this winter thanks to green dogmatism, and that the country should suspend its unilateral green energy targets.

Is Breitbart being paid by the Coal Industry?

Friday, October 24, 2014

Sierra Club does a so-so job of telling you what electric car to buy

The Sierra Club has just unveiled a "quiz" that tries to help you know which electric car to buy.  While it's a good idea, and the questions make sense, the answers they give aren't very good.  Even so it's worth going to http://content.sierraclub.org/evguide/pick-a-plugin and seeing what suggestions they have.

There's an idea commonly held about electric cars - the typical EV's can only be used around town because the driving range is too short.  The quiz perpetuates this idea with two questions: "How many miles total do you drive in a typical day?" and "For long trips, would you consider using another car in household, renting, car-sharing, carpooling, or taking bus/train/plane?"

This is an important consideration.  If you routinely take long road trips, an electric car with only 80 miles range and no fast charging will be impractical.  A road trip in such an electric car is, tedious.  You drive 70-80 miles, stop for 3-4 hours, and repeat.  While the long distance trip can be taken it's going to take a long time.  Especially if you have kids - that 3-4 hour charge time will add a whole new dimension to "are we there yet".

Fast charging, even the CHAdeMO and CCS style, makes a big difference - if your local area has enough fast charging infrastructure.  The Sierra Club quiz didn't take that into account.

Bottom line is that medium range trips are quite possible with an electric car, so long as it has fast charging, there is fast charging along the way, and/or you can charge at the destination.  If you're a real hard-core road tripper, and can afford it, nothing electric beats the Tesla Model S.  Good news that in a few years (2017ish) we'll have more choices for proper road trip electric cars.

Where I got stopped on the quiz is with this question: "Do you have access to an electrical outlet in a garage or driveway at home or at work?"

My truthful answer to that question is "No -- that would be tricky" because I'm living in an apartment complex, and positioning the car next to the apartment to charge through an extension card means parking in a fire lane.  The Fire Department rightly would fine me for doing so.

The typical advice is to have charging at home for successful life with an electric car.  Charging at home is most convenient.  But it's quite possible to survive with an electric car if you lack home charging.  That is, if your public local electric car charging infrastructure is well developed enough.

I routinely see comments online from people moaning about public charging, and saying they never use it.  Those people are, then, trapped into driving within an area close to their house, at most 1/2 the range of their car.  The public charging infrastructure is what lets you drive further from home.

Please people - don't let yourself be trapped - use the public infrastructure, it's fine.  Well, okay, maybe it's not fine, but it's better than being trapped within a short distance from home.

Bottom line is that this Sierra Club quiz makes different assumptions about charging time than I do.  

I find it quite possible, with faster charging, to make longer trips, or to have an EV with no home charging.  Where the Sierra Club would tell you to get a hybrid or plug-in hybrid, I'm trying to say that with care fast charging makes a big difference.

Daimler, Toyota, cut ties with Tesla Motors, maybe to make room for BMW-Tesla tie-up

A few days ago Daimler announced it had sold its entire stake in Tesla Motors, and now Toyota has sold "some" of its Tesla stake.  That's Tesla's two major corporate backers, both the Daimler and Toyota investments were critical to Tesla's survival to this point, exiting their relationships with Tesla Motors.  At the same time some reports are circulating that BMW may buy a stake in Tesla Motors, and Tesla's growth rate makes the company look set to challenge the incumbent automakers sooner rather than later.   What's going on?

On the one hand it may be a simple case of cashing out.  Daimler's investment of $50 million in May 2009 turned into over $780 million, the proceeds Daimler received from selling its Tesla stake.  Toyota's investment of $50 million in May 2010 gave Tesla the money with which to buy the NUMMI plant from Toyota, but reports don't say what price Toyota got for selling its Tesla stake.

In other words, both companies could be doing what any investor does - cash out when they've got a huge gain on their hands.

At this level, corporations investing in corporations, the game is a little different.  For example, Daimler had some interesting leverage over Tesla because Daimler had the right to name a Director to Tesla's board.  For example, Toyota had an asset it no longer needed - the NUMMI plant - and the deal allowed Toyota to exchange that asset for a stake in a fast growing upstart, whose technology might have been of use to Toyota had that company been more willing to work with Tesla.

Both Toyota and Daimler enlisted Tesla for help with each company's electric vehicle programs.  For Daimler, Tesla provided components for the Mercedes B-Class Electric (and an earlier vehicle whose name I'm forgetting).  For Toyota, Tesla provided components for the Gen2 RAV4 EV.

In Toyota's case the Gen2 RAV4 EV had a limited lifespan from the outset - if only because it was built on the previous RAV4 platform.  For Toyota to produce more RAV4 EV's would mean redesigning the integration.  It's not, as some report it, an "abrupt end" to the Toyota/Tesla relationship.  It was known from the outset that Gen2 RAV4 EV production would be limited.

If Toyota were interested in continuing down the electric vehicle path, maybe the two companies would be seriously moving towards another Toyota/Tesla electric vehicle.  Instead, Toyota is making it clear they think the future is in Fuel Cell Vehicles while glowingly boasting of their successful hybrids.

With Daimler, it's not so clear what the future there is between the two companies.

Over on BenzInsider they suggest three possible reasons Daimler sold its Tesla stake:
  1. Tesla's plan to share patents for free made it less necessary for Daimler to keep hold of its Tesla stake
  2. Feeling that Tesla's stock is overvalued
  3. Tesla had eliminated Daimler's representative on Tesla's board, eliminating the leverage Daimler had over Tesla
Daimler did issue a fairly lengthy statement on the matter.  Daimler says they're pursuing a strategy for "emission-free driving" of which "electric vehicles are one component" and that Daimler's relationship with Tesla will continue.  Specifically, an investment in Tesla by Daimler is not necessary for the cooperation between the companies to continue.

In what we can take only as a wild-assed guess, ValueWalk suggests that BMW may have bought Daimler's stake in Tesla Motors.  ValueWalk offers no proof for this assertion, but reminds us that BMW did meet with Tesla last summer around the time Tesla opened its patent portfolio, and additionally wouldn't it be cool if Tesla were to use BMW's cool carbon fiber technology in building the Model 3?  A Forbes contributor gives a similar theory about a possible tie-up between BMW and Tesla.

In other words, all we clearly know is that Daimler & Toyota are exiting from their investments in Tesla Motors.  It's not clear why this happened.  If you happen to be an insider to the deals, and want to let us know, there is a comment box below.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Tesla Motors might franchise dealers, while monopolizing repair of salvage-title Tesla cars

Last April I suggested an agreement between Tesla Motors and New York State was in effect a capitulation by Tesla, and that the company had lost its argument over its preferred model of selling cars directly to customers.  The ebb-and-flow of events since have made it unclear whether that's indeed the case, even though popular opinion says Tesla Motors should have the freedom to sell directly to customers.  A few days ago Michigan passed a law banning Tesla Motors from selling cars in that state, and it seems Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk is on the brink of agreeing to set up franchised dealerships.  Finally, the company seems to be exercising its control over Model S repair services in a way that might lead Tesla to evil practices just as I theorized some time ago.

Tesla Motors has a huge positive image right now.  The company is doing wonderful things, and are successfully navigating the extremely difficult terrain of launching an automobile manufacturing startup company.  This line is business is so difficult to enter there have been zero successful automaker startups in the last 60+ years (in the U.S.).  That Tesla Motors has gotten as far as it has is nothing short of amazing.

At the same time we should always be on the watch for whether Tesla Motors turns evil.  There was a time Google, for example, could Do No Evil and had a hugely positive image.  It's fair to say that Google's image is tarnished nowadays, and it's possible that company is doing Evil.

The laws governing car sales were ostensibly meant to protect consumers.  While the laws vary from state-to-state they generally implement the system of car sales we see today in the U.S.  Every car dealership is independent from the car manufacturer, is required to carry used cars, is required to have a service department, etc.

Keeping car dealers independent from car makers means we are insulated from the manufacturer acting like a monopoly.  We have the freedom to buy from a range of dealers, and can play dealers off one another to get a better deal.  We also have the freedom to service the car anywhere we like, or to do the service ourselves.  We can even rebuild cars, swapping the gas engine for another one, or even an electric drive train, and to rebuild cars with salvage titles.

It's not that car dealerships are angels - far from it, that industry has a hugely negative image.  A recent study from the Institute for Transportation Studies at UC Davis goes into some of the huge negative baggage hanging around the necks of car dealerships.

It's clear the NADA's fight against Tesla Motors is more about protecting NADA's power over the process of selling cars, than the protection of consumers.  With that power, they've perpetrated an extremely unpleasant system of buying and servicing cars.

On Oct 1, 2014, the Michigan Legislature passed a law that will prevent Tesla Motors from opening any kind of gallery or store in Michigan, and may even prevent the company from doing anything to inform Michigan residents about Tesla's cars.  Tesla Motors says they got a "Raw Deal in Michigan".  The blog post calls on people to directly lobby Gov. Snyder to not sign the bill, but he has since done so.

There currently is no Tesla store or gallery operating in Michigan, but was hoping to open one next year (according to the Detroit Free Press).   According to that piece, Gov. Snyder claimed the law he signed did not change the conditions for Tesla Motors.  It reports Diarmuid O'Connell, Tesla's Vice President of Business Development, saying that Gov. Snyder wants to see a robust debate in the Legislature next year.

Several voices in the piece suggest it's silly to think this didn't change conditions for Tesla Motors.  If it didn't make any changes, then why was the Michigan Auto Dealers Association so keen on inserting language in the bill that harmed Tesla Motors?

But there's a bigger question - will Tesla Motors have to adopt a franchised dealer model anyway?

Ponder what it will take for Tesla Motors to be selling a half million cars per year by 2020.  The company has repeatedly stated this goal, and it's a whole lotta cars.  Can Tesla Motors sell that many cars through store fronts in upscale shopping malls?

According to Autoline Daily, Elon Musk is considering a "hybrid" approach of selling through franchised dealerships in some cases. Here’s Musk’s exact words: “We may need a hybrid system, with a combination of our own stores and some dealer franchises.”

Over on Cleantechnica, they combined that bit of news with comments supposedly made during a closed-door regulatory meeting a year ago, and come to the conclusion that it's foregone that Tesla will have to adopt some form of franchised dealerships.  According to that piece, the Auto Dealers Associations are claiming it will be impossible for Tesla Motors to scale to the half million per year sales level on their own shoulders.

The final bit I want to cover today is an indication that Tesla Motors is conducting some minor evil in the service department.

I'm referring to the fate of people who attempt to self-service the Tesla Model S, or to buy wrecked Model S's with salvage titles and attempt to resurrect their car.  What Tesla has done several times now is send letters to these people requiring Tesla's sign-off before they can drive their cars.  In at least one case the charging system was remotely disabled.

Traditionally one can buy a salvage title vehicle, repair it, and get it back on the road.  Tesla Motors insists on inspecting such cars, to determine whether the car can be repaired.  If so, the work can be done at a Tesla repair center or at a certified repair shop.

I know of two instances where there are problems and salvage title Model S owners being left unable to drive or use their cars.

Peter Rutman bought a wrecked Model S for just $50,000 then spent another $8,000 repairing it, according to Auto Blog Green.  But Tesla Motors insisted on an inspection, and has remotely disabled the charging system, leaving Mr. Rutman steaming mad and refusing to undergo the inspection.  Rutman is afraid that Tesla will take the car away from him, but Tesla insists that's not the case.  Instead, the company is concerned over improperly repaired cars being on the road (Rutman had the repairs done at a non-Tesla-Certified shop).

Tesla gave this statement to ABG:
Safety is Tesla's top priority and it is a principle on which we refuse to compromise under any circumstance. Mr. Rutman purchased a vehicle on the salvage market that had been substantially damaged in a serious accident. We have strong concerns about this car being safe for the road, but we have been prevented from inspecting the vehicle because Mr. Rutman refused to sign an inspection authorization form. That form clearly states that in order for us to support the vehicle on an ongoing basis, we need to ensure the repairs meet minimum safety standards.
Regardless of whether or not the car passed inspection, Mr. Rutman would have been free to decide where to conduct any additional repairs and to leave with his vehicle. There was never any threat to take away his vehicle at the inspection or any time thereafter and there is nothing in the authorization form that states or implies that we would do so.
Additionally, Mr. Rutman opted to have his vehicle repaired by a non-Tesla affiliated facility. We work with a network of authorized independent repair facilities to ensure our safety standards are met. It is also worth noting that Mr. Rutman is not on any "blacklist" for purchasing Tesla parts. While we do sell certain parts over the counter, we do not sell any parts that require specific training to install. This is a policy that is common among automakers and it is in place to protect customers from the risk of repairs not meeting our safety standards.
The other case concerns Otmar Ebenhoech, a long-time pioneer in the DIY Electric Vehicle conversion industry.  He's the designer of the Zilla controller widely used in electric vehicles.

Back in the late 90's he built a Stretch Vanagon, by welding together the front half of one Vanagon to the back half of another Vanagon.  At the time he meant to make it a hybrid vehicle, running an electric drive train on one of the axles.  However, that did not come about.  A year or so ago he bought a wrecked Tesla Model S with the intent of transplanting its drive train into the stretched Vanagon.  The result is meant to be called the Stretchla.

Otmar spent quite a bit of time piecing together parts, some bought through the local Tesla repair center, to resurrect his car.  He calls it the Wreckla, and it can currently be driven and even charged at a Supercharger station.  But it has a cracked frame, and he had to disable the air bag system.

In a blog post dated in mid-July 2014, Otmar explained why he'd parked the Wreckla after receiving a letter from Tesla's service department.
Due to the salvage status of your Model S, I have been instructed to cease providing you with parts. Tesla is very concerned about vehicles with salvaged titles being improperly repaired. Going forward, all salvaged vehicles must be inspected by us or our approved body shop, Precision Auto Body. If declared a candidate for proper repair, reconstruction must be completed by a Tesla-Certified Body Shop.
Otmar had previously been receiving much help from the local repair shop.  He'd been able to buy quite a few parts "over the counter" as Tesla said in their statement concerning Mr. Rutman.  In this case, as in Mr. Rutman's case, the company is expressing a concern over proper repairs.

Otmar went into quite a long bit of writing about some concerns Tesla might have.

He asks us to consider what would happen if an improperly repaired Model S were to wreck, killing some people.  Would the typical news report tell us the subtleties between a regular Model S and a salvage title vehicle?  No, it will focus on whatever fire or blood was spilled.

That's what we saw in the media frenzy following the Model S fires over the last year.

In other words, Tesla Motors has a motive of heading off potential negative press.

It's not quite a sign of Tesla Motors being evil.  But, the company is exerting quite a bit of control over the right to repair a Tesla car.  Perhaps...in the due course of time....?

By the way, there is an organization named Right To Repair advocating for policies requiring car makers to support the repairability of the cars they sell.  We as consumers are, theoretically, better off in a system letting us repair the car ourselves or at any car repair shop.

Tesla Motors is quickly developing into a mature automaker.  As a result the company is facing two kinds of growing pains, as shown here, in sales and repair of Tesla's cars.  We don't know how it will turn out, but perhaps Tesla's growth will eventually convert it into a regular car company with all the warts that implies.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Batteries can catch fire in the most unusual ways - iPhone 6 bent in half, catches fire in mans pants

In the electric car field we're worried about public perception of electric car safety.  Despite the fact there's over 200,000 gasoline car fires per year in the U.S. alone, causing hundreds of fatalities and property damage costs, there is inordinately outsized attention paid to the very small number of electric car fires.  On the one hand gasoline powered cars are carrying a tank of explosive liquid, and it's automaker engineering prowess preventing there being more gas car fires.  Since electric vehicles don't carry explosive liquids, they're supposedly safer, but obviously batteries can catch on fire.

On October 11, 2014, Phillip Lechter reports that he and his family had gone to Tuscon, AZ for the Univ. of Arizona family weekend and football games.  He was carrying a brand new iPhone 6 in his pants pocket.  While riding in a bicycle-drawn-richshaw he says the rickshaw driver accidentally tipped over while crossing trolley tracks.  That caused Mr. Lechter to wedge himself against the rickshaw frame such that not only did his iPhone 6 bend in half - it caught on fire, in his pants, causing bad burns, etc.

It comes on the heels of the whole iPhone 6 bendgate problem.  Being an iPhone 6 owner, I've studied the design and understand the flaw.  You can see it in this picture clearly - there are buttons on the side for adjusting volume etc.  Follow the crease to the top of the phone, and see the bit of silver button stuff sticking out the top?  That's the button in question.  The iPhone 6 case is weaker at that point than elsewhere in its structure.

For years Apple has been chasing a thinner-is-better design model.  But, really, I don't want structural integrity to be sacrificed on the altar of thinness.  You hear me Apple?  You've taken thinness too far!

Let's get back to battery pack safety.

The battery pack on this phone caught fire, and you can see the burns Mr. Lechter suffered over on his blog post.  There's nothing flammable (that I know of) on an iPhone just as there's not much flammable on-board an electric car.  How, then, can electric cars or iPhones catch fire?

It's the energy in the battery pack which, if released "correctly", can cause fire.  I've experienced this myself.  It's absolutely amazing when you accidentally touch battery terminals with a wrench, the blinding flash of light, and how quickly the wrench vaporizes.

For this iPhone, as for the Tesla Model S fires last year, all that's required is battery terminals shorting out.  One look at that phone tells you the battery got shorted somewhere.  The release of energy would have caused heat, igniting something to cause an actual fire.

In the case of the Tesla Model S fires, Tesla Motors sent instructions to all Model S's to increase the ride height and then developed a new titanium shield decreasing the risk that battery packs would be skewered by road debris.  How will Apple mitigate this risk?

By the way - "cell phone catches fire in mans pants" incidents have been happening for years.

In fact - In February 2014 an incident occurred to a teenage girl at school.  Her iPhone was in her back pocket, and when sitting down she heard a crack/pop after which the phone caught on fire.  That phone was at most an iPhone 5s so we can't attribute the fire to weak structural integrity.

The intersection of smart grid services, energy storage systems, and electric cars, contains a huge economic opportunity

At the intersection of smart grid services, on-site renewable energy generation, on-site grid energy storage, and electric cars, is the new energy energy model.  I've recently written a few posts about the stone age energy model, where we burn things to create heat, motion or light.  Most cars, trucks, etc are one way we are remaining stuck in the stone age model, by burning liquid fuels.  Even electric vehicles keep us stuck in the stone age if the electricity comes from burning fossil fuels.  Burning things, especially fossil fuels, causes many problems.

We want our electric cars to take part in the new energy model, rather than the stone age model.  That's why they're often pictured next to wind turbines and solar panels.  Here's an image I created a few months ago demonstrating one method of powering electric cars with properly renewable energy - the new energy model.


Let's focus this picture on the key elements


What we're looking at are electric car charging stations not connected directly to the grid, but indirectly through a grid-connected energy storage unit.  That is, a large battery pack.  There are several reasons for this, all of which are compelling:

  • Eliminating the demand charges which plague fast charging installations
  • Earning revenue on smart grid services - both demand response as well as sending energy into the grid
  • Protection against blackout - cars can be refueled even if there's a large scale power outage
  • Erase the stigma of coal powered electric cars
  • Serving a large number of electric cars without straining service panel capacity



The key is co-locating the grid energy storage unit (large battery pack) with the charging stations.  That energy storage unit can be charged from the grid at a modest rate - one that's low enough to not trigger demand charges - while charging the connected cars at a high rate.

There's a huge potential to earn significant revenue from the grid energy services, and to benefit from the spread between night-time and day-time electricity rates.  In many places there's so much excess electricity at night that the cost goes negative ("dollar cost negative") meaning the utility company is paying people to take that electricity.   This might be enough that the charging networks could afford to give away charging services for free.

It's been promised that electric car owners would be able to earn money by leaving their car connected to the grid full time.  In the due course of time it may be that every parking space in every parking lot has electric car charging service.  A question would be - what would motivate every parking lot owner, and every car owner, to build that infrastructure and to ensure their car is constantly connected to the charging infrastructure?  Is there enough money earning potential from smart grid energy services to make it worthwhile?  We don't know yet, but let's think about a few things which can be done.

Demand charges are levied by some utility rate plans on intermittent high-load services.  For example, the person who pulls up to a DC Fast Charging station and plugs in their car - they're suddenly pulling 50 kilowatts from the grid.  The utility providers have to quickly switch gears or pull levers or something to handle that sudden demand spike.

The demand response service is the flip side of demand charges - because it's the demand response providers who often provide the capacity to handle demand spikes.  That signal is sent by grid operators to cooperating partner organizations when there load on the grid (the demand) is momentarily too high, and needs to be lowered.  Typically a company will respond to demand response signals by turning air conditioner or refrigeration or lighting units to a lower setting (or off) momentarily.  Responding to such signals can earn quite a few dollars.

An electric car charging station operator can perform demand response by adjusting the charging rate for electric cars.  The charging rate adjustment is simple to implement by sending a command signal through the charging interface to the car.

But in this picture it's not the car that's connected to the grid, but the energy storage unit.  Whether that unit is pulling power from the grid depends on the storage unit's size relative to how frequently it's used to recharge electric cars.  The storage unit need not be big enough for a full day of electric car charging w/o pulling power from the grid.   It just needs to be big enough to avoid a large demand spike.

That means the on-site storage unit will probably be charging most of the day from the grid, unless there are also on-site solar panels.  This means demand response revenue can be earned from the on-site energy storage unit.  If there is excess energy, say from on-site solar or on-site wind generation, that energy could be sold into the grid to earn additional revenue.

What's meant by "without straining service panel capacity" is a situation in many public or workplace charging situations.   Parking garages typically aren't provisioned with huge electricity supply circuits.   Instead, in most cases, the electricity service is either nonexistent or just enough for the overhead lights.   Since we're going to be adopting electric vehicles in large numbers within a few years - how will there be enough electricity supply in parking lots when the vast majority of parking lots have inadequate electricity?

That brings us to the back room filled with grey electricity service boxes.  What happens there is crucial to the success of this project of getting electric vehicles adopted everywhere.

The current rule is that each charging station is assigned to one circuit in the service panel.  The calculation is simple - multiply the amps per circuit (typically 40 amp capacity) by the number of charging stations, and that's the size of the required service panel.  It's relatively cheap to increase number of charging stations until you hit the limit imposed by the service panel capacity.  Upgrading the service panel is relatively expensive, an amount the parking lot manager is unlikely to pay.

What if power could be apportioned out to the charging stations, allowing there to be more charging stations than indicated by the service panel capacity?  A controlling unit would be required that can adjust the charging rate as needed to avoid overloading the service panel.  For example, with a 1000 amp service panel and 100 electric cars connected to charging stations, each car could be adjusted to charge at 10 amps, 50 cars adjusted to charge at 20 amps, and so on.

In March, Honda showed off a house implementing a small form of this idea - which they're using as a research lab to study the intersection of smart grid, photovoltaics and electric cars.  Everything is sized for the needs of one house, and one or two electric cars.  The house has a solar electricity system on the roof, a grid energy storage system in the garage, and uses CHAdeMO for DC charging the car.  Everything in the system is DC power to avoid conversion losses.

Last weekend Valery Miftakhov, CEO of Electric Motor Werks, presented to the EAA Silicon Valley chapter over a project implementing just the demand response portion of this model.  EMW is part of a pilot project in California combining smart grid services with electric car charging stations.  Participants get a free charging station, and EMW will act as a "demand response aggregator" earning its revenue from responding to "demand response" signals.

Miftakhov suggested to us that when there are a significant number of electric cars (1 million?  2 million? etc) that, summing together all their battery packs, would be an energy storage capacity equating to a huge chunk of the electricity running through the electrical grid.  That fact represents a lot of power, not only electrical power, but economic power.

Demand Response is a small example of that power.  That signal is sent by grid operators to cooperating partner organizations when there load on the grid (the demand) is momentarily too high, and needs to be lowered.  Typically a company will respond to demand response signals by turning air conditioner or refrigeration or lighting units to a lower setting (or off) momentarily.  Responding to such signals can earn quite a few dollars.

For better or for worse what motivates companies to do things is money, and earning profit.

The simple model (buy electricity, sell to customers) for electric car charging service might not offer enough revenue-earning potential to make a profit.  But the picture above affords many more revenue earning opportunities.

The design can be scaled to any size from a single family home up to installations supporting thousands of cars.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Lockheed promises compact fusion reactor, cheap and safe enough to remake society according to the hype


Today Lockheed-Martin announced new Fusion Reactor technology which could shift humanity's energy supply from the stone-age mentality to the modern energy paradigm.  Some of my recent postings have drawn a distinction between the old energy paradigm, that I've called the stone age energy mindset (burning things to get light, heat or motion), and the new energy paradigm that's based on electricity, electromagnetism and similar forces for everything.  This distinction is important for electric car owners because we want these cars to make a big environmental difference, but overwhelmingly the electricity we use is generated by burning fossil fuels negating some of the benefit.

Electric cars powered by renewably generated electricity, where no fossil is burned, are highly desired.  That's why electric cars are often pictured with a backdrop of solar panels or wind turbines.

Getting back to Lockheed's Fusion Reactor announcement - this isn't about Fusion Reactor research such as is happening at Lawrence Livermore National Labs.  Traditional fusion energy research, like at LLNL, involve huge magnetic fields containing ultra hot plasma's and huge amounts of energy in huge facilities and it's taking decades to work through all the bugs.  That sort of research may eventually produce a large scale fusion reactor that makes a huge beneficial impact on society.  What Lockheed announced is at the opposite end of the spectrum.

The press release describes a compact reactor.  They believe that Lockheed Skunk Works will be able to build a test reactor within a year, and deploy production reactors within 10 years.

How "compact" is compact?  How about a unit producing 100 megawatts that's roughly the size of a big rig tractor trailer?  Specifically - transportable reactors measuring 23 feet by 43 feet.  Within the realm of electricity generation plants, that's extremely tiny.  Typical natural gas plants that size consume dozens of acres of land housing the necessary large building.

Aviation Week has an exclusive in-depth presentation of the details.  Basically, the Lockheed team went over all published research into fusion reactors, took the best bits of each, combining them in an ingenious way in a novel new reactor design.  The key is a different magnetic field geometry for holding the plasma, that's inherently safe and stable, resulting in a tremendously smaller system design.

Very little material is required to run these reactors - 25 kilograms of "fuel" is enough for a year of operation. The fuel is made of Deuterium and Tritium, both of which are plentiful.  Fission reactors are fueled by rare materials (Uranium, Plutonium).

While the reactor parts do become radioactive through normal operation, the half-life is rapid enough that the radiation dies down within 100 years.  By comparison Fission reactor equipment stays radioactive for thousands of years or more.

There's also no chance of a nuclear meltdown, and the threat of proliferation is basically nonexistant.

In short it sounds like the perfect sort of nuclear reactor.  No negative side effects, small enough to be sited anywhere, and a huge power-to-size ratio.

This could potentially be a big game changer in the quest to completely replace fossil fuels.  However with the mind-set prevalent among the decision makers the cost will have to be lower than the incumbent fossil fuel plants, right?

Over on the ThinkProgress blog they try to position this technology within the quest to avoid climate catastrophe from our addition to spewing carbon into the atmosphere from burning so many fossil fuels.

Staying within 2 degrees C of global temperature rise means peaking greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, and rapidly falling shortly thereafter.  The developed countries (the U.S. etc) may have to peak as early as next year, 2015.

This fusion reactor won't, if it develops as Lockheed-Martin thinks, even be ready for production use until 2025.  Meaning that we cannot depend on this particular technology to save us.

The technology currently available - solar power, wind power - work today and it's just a business exercise to deploy the systems.  There are no technological hurdles to overcome, just the willpower to build out solar and wind power systems at the scale necessary to move the needle on greenhouse gas emissions.

Further, there's a risk this technology could be entrapped by Lockheed's usual customer base - top secret military projects.  Will Lockheed commercialize the compact fusion reactor for civilian deployments, or will it be relegated to powering nuclear powered warships?

Bottom line is that we collectively must abandon fossil fuels as quickly as possible, and if we want to avoid reverting our society to the middle ages we must rapidly deploy clean electricity generation systems.  We can't afford to trust Lockheed's claims because their fusion reactor design might not work out, or may take longer than they think to refine and productize.