Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Posts Tagged ‘electric cars

Study: ‘It’s hard to beat gasoline’ on Air Quality

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I saw this on Planetizen and couldn’t resist the video

Now, we don’t have much ethanol around here, and the electricity we use is mostly  from existing hydro. So some of these results from the US don’t exactly translate here. So if you can afford a Tesla, go right ahead and don’t worry about those “electric cars are not so green” articles. The only time we use dirty, coal fired electricity is when our generating capacity is stretched at peak periods. Charge up your car overnight with a clear conscience.

The ethanol they refer to is E85 (85% of the fuel is ethanol): the most we use is 5 to 10%. At one time this was only true of so called premium fuels. Now it is not unusual to see ethanol in regular fuel and you may have to buy premium to avoid it. Most cars, of course, do not need premium fuel.

While hybrid cars do cut fuel consumption, this gets negated pretty quickly if you drive with a lead foot, or use a vehicle much bigger than you need. A smart car is going to use less gas than a giant SUV or truck, even if they are hybrids. And simple precautions like checking your tire pressures and not hauling a load of junk in your trunk will also cut your fuel consumption. Walking, cycling and transit (even if it is a diesel bus) are all better for the environment – and your own health.

Published on 15 Dec 2014

Life cycle air quality impacts of conventional and alternative light-duty transportation in the United States

Authors: Christopher W. Tessum, Jason D. Hill, and Julian D. Marshall

Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the U.S.A.

Full text is openly available at: www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.140685­3111

 

Electric Cars Won’t Save the Planet

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Tesla Model S

There is a lively debate going on first as a result of some research at North Carolina State and then some rebuttals at web sites like Slate. I was going to join in there but there are already 197 comments there – and anyway I am going to drag this off. It is not about the emissions – or lack of them. As I have said here before, the problem is that they are still cars. Cars are the problem. An electric car is a little bit better than an internal combustion engine car – but then a Smart car is better than an SUV or a Car2Go smart car is better than either. And in actual experience the emissions performance is better than expected.

Smart EV front off

But cars are still a leading cause of death and ill health. They take up far too much space in cities – moving and parked. We can easily accommodate the next million people who are coming to this region, but not if they insist on driving everywhere. Even the President of the Ford Motor Co recognizes that. It is bad enough what cars do to us – as the result of collisions and the inevitable congestion – but even worse is what it does to the places we live in. The interconnectedness of society is irreparably damaged by infrastructure designed simply to get cars through urban areas as quickly as possible.

We can easily electrify our transportation systems using existing technologies. We could build streetcar systems within towns and interurbans between them – and still live like they did in the 1920s. We could add electric high speed trains to cover longer distances, and reduce not just car travel but jet aircraft too – and that really does make a significant difference to emissions.

But the greatest benefit would be the ability to live without owning a car and getting everything we need within walking distance. We would abandon the ideas that have been so bad for us – like separating out land uses, and building single family home subdivisions which waste so much valuable farm land (which we do not value properly). We could protect much more of the wilderness and watersheds as a result. The reduced need for fossil fuels may be what drives this progress but the benefits in terms of health and quality of life are going to be the unique selling proposition that gets people on board. The sort of places which keep cars under control and make them largely unnecessary are going to be the ones that are most successful. While we now think that being “Green” is good, I think that “livable” may have been a more accurate term for what we want from urban regions.

But as long as there are lots of  “thought leaders” being seen in their Leafs or Teslas, we will continue to think that we can continue to live as though it was still the 1960s.

Written by Stephen Rees

February 5, 2014 at 10:31 am

What holds energy tech back? The infernal battery

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Thanks to Sightline again for the link to an AP article in the Seattle Times. It is a very useful, non-technical review of the lack of progress in battery technology. “It’s why electric cars aren’t clogging the roads” which is a useful bit of reality check against the optimism expressed by the report I looked at yesterday.

As for the electric car industry, lithium ion batteries have proved to have two major drawbacks: They are costly, and they do not allow automobiles to go far enough between rechargings. A123, a maker of lithium ion batteries for electric cars, went bankrupt last year because of poor demand and high costs after receiving a $249 million federal grant.

I know I have covered this ground before, but it is worth re-stating. What we want is the comfort and convenience of the car without its environmental impact. It is based on the mistaken idea that if we could get rid of the internal combustion engine – or the fossil fuel it now runs on – all would be well. And that is not true. The problems we have due to cars include urban sprawl, health impacts from that as well as the direct impacts of vehicle collisions (even if we can bring ourselves to trust computers to drive the cars for us), huge economic dependency of both societies and individuals from over-investment in a movement device that spends nearly all of its time stationary,  congestion and delay. If every car was suddenly to become zero emission tomorrow, nearly all of the problems of motordom would remain to be solved.

 it has conflicting functions. Its primary job is to store energy. But it’s also supposed to discharge power, lots of it, quickly. Those two jobs are at odds with each other.

“If you want high storage, you can’t get high power,” said M. Stanley Whittingham, director of the Northeast Center for Chemical Energy Storage. “People are expecting more than what’s possible.”

At this point I expected a diversion to fuel cells: mercifully that isn’t there – but again yesterday’s report was full of optimism about hydrogen. Which is not a fuel at all but simply a way of storing and transmitting electricity – and not a very good one at that. It is horrendously expensive and very inefficient – simply because hydrogen is the smallest molecule and thus extraordinarily hard to store.

#5 layover

That does not mean we cannot expand the use of electricity in transport – just that we will have to concentrate on technologies that we know work, even if they are not quite a perfect replacement for the convenience and mobility of the private car. What we need to convince ourselves about is that neither of those things is a project killer. We don’t actually need so much mobility if we only could redesign and retrofit our cities to be more accessible. If what we want was in easy reach by walking – or cycling – and both modes were safe and attractive – we will do a lot more of both, reducing both our carbon impacts and  the size of our waistlines. For longer journeys, fixed route public transportation that is unhampered by single occupant vehicles can be readily powered by very long extension cords – trolleybuses, streetcars and trains. As long as these have adequate priority the expense of grade separation can be avoided. Yes, private cars will be delayed. Good. That improves the case for modal shift and saves lives.

V9486 Hybrid

I also think that by now somebody ought to have taken the step of putting a set of lightweight trolleypoles on the roof of a hybrid bus – or shoving a hybrid power plant into a trolleybus. Then we in Vancouver could see extensions of trolleybus routes to useful destinations – and redeployment of diesel buses to the suburbs. So the #41 to UBC gets converted, the #9 extended to Brentwood – and the inner set of “express bus” wires along Hastings get used for SFU services instead of being an historical anomaly of earlier faster trolley bus service to the PNE.

For one group, the use of lightweight cheaper batteries is already paying off handsomely. In general I do not think that electric bikes are such a great idea. For better health outcomes alone, I favour human power as much as possible. But we have an aging population. When you are young, you have time but no money. In middle age you have money but no time. Then, just when you have money and time, your knees give out. That is when a power assisted pushbike makes all kinds of sense.

So we can indeed reduce the use of oil (and other fossil fuels) in transportation – and it doesn’t require any kind of technological advances. We already have “good enough” technologies which are getting better. Information technology has done a great deal to reduce much of the frustrations inherent in using transit, and for facilitating things like bike shares and car shares which could be so effective in increasing its range and effectiveness if only they were integrated properly.

Bike rack at Langara 49th

What is missing is not some whizzo battery – or personal rapid transit or a cheap fuel cell. It is political will and resources. And that has been the case for nearly all of the time I have been conscious of the issues – over fifty years! Conservatism – the power of the special interest group we refer to as “the elite” – the 1%. That is the root cause of the problem – however you decide to define the problem. Unaffordability of housing, traffic congestion, bad air quality, environmental impact, global warming. All of these issues are based on the incredible selfishness of a very small group of people. Many of who spend a great deal of time and money telling us how much they care about these issues but none of which ever seem to get solved. Even though the solutions have been staring us in the face all that time.

Are electric cars bad for the environment?

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1912 Detroit Electric

I was alerted to this story by the Globe – which this morning is trumpeting going behind the paywall as “access for all” (Orwell would be proud: newspeak lives). I am not going to link there since they were in any event simply recycling something. Not – I hasten to add – plagiarism. Just what we all do – and in this case adequately cited, though without the necessary web links. Which of course Google gets quite quickly.

The Comparative Environmental Life Cycle Assessment of Conventional and Electric Vehicles is available from the Wiley online library – and since it has yet to appear in the paper version of the Journal of Industrial Ecology you can get the whole thing as a pdf though that may not last for long. What the Globe was doing was reporting on an on line discussion on Leo Hickman’s blog – part of the Guardian’s web presence – and one that I freely admit I had missed.

The study looks at both the potential of increased emissions from the manufacturing process – especially for batteries – as well as the source of the electricity. The EV has often been criticized as an “elsewhere emission vehicle” (49 million google hits on the phrase) – it may have no tailpipe emissions but if the electricity comes from a coal fired power station …

Here are the key conclusions

The production phase of EVs proved substantially more environmentally intensive. Nonetheless, substantial overall improvements in regard to GWP [global warming potential], TAP [terrestrial acidification potential], and other impacts may be achieved by EVs powered with appropriate energy sources relative to comparable ICEVs [internal combustion engine vehicles]. However, it is counterproductive to promote EVs in regions where electricity is produced from oil, coal, and lignite combustion. The electrification of transportation should be accompanied by a sharpened policy focus with regard to life cycle management, and thus counter potential setbacks in terms of water pollution and toxicity. EVs are poised to link the personal transportation sector together with the electricity, the electronic, and the metal industry sectors in an unprecedented way. Therefore the developments of these sectors must be jointly and consistently addressed in order for EVs to contribute positively to pollution mitigation efforts.

All of which is fair enough since all they are doing is comparing one sort of car to another sort of car. Which is why the big problem of electric cars gets completely missed. As I have often written on this blog the problem is the overuse of cars – far more than how those cars are powered or constructed. As a policy issue in urban areas – and after all most of us live in urban areas – what we need to confront – here and elsewhere – is that when most people use a single occupant vehicle for most of their trip making, the consequences are dire. Traffic congestion is the one that gets most noticed, as it is the most obvious, but add to that the horrendous toll on life and limb caused by collisions, the health impact of not using your own muscles enough and being sedentary for most of the time, and the sprawl of urban areas onto productive farm land and essential natural areas (loss of biodiversity and the greenhouse gas collection function of forests are merely examples).

I find it offensive that I am being accused of “a rapture of techno-narcissism” when I have long been advocating some very old fashioned ideas. Electric trains, trolleybuses, and trams as well as human powered bicycles were all widespread at the turn of the 19th into the 20th century. Not to mention the somewhat obvious wisdom of building places where it was both possible, safe and pleasant to walk – something humans were able to do for millennia prior to gadarene rush to rebuild cities to accommodate the automobile. Or even something that seems revolutionary in Vancouver but has always been instinctive in older cities – places to sit down comfortably outside in public spaces without any payment being required.

Something similar seems to be going on with the debate about the pipeline. I really do not think that the main issue is the possible impact of spills on either land or sea. It is the problem of burning ever more fossil fuel that worries me. The oil sands are one of the worst offenders simply because of the amount of energy it takes to convert tarry sands into liquid fuels. If we had better ways of moving ourselves around – and we could have very easily and relatively cheaply – then the oil could stay in the ground. Possibly not forever – since there are so many other really clever things we can do with petro-chemicals, for which there often fewer readily available alternatives. Burning the stuff or making non-biodegradable plastic bags  is simply profligacy, given the increasingly precarious future we face.

Or as Bill McKibben states

“We also figured out that we’re not going to win just fighting one pipeline at a time. We have to keep all those battles going, but we also have to play some offense, go at the heart of the problem.”

Modo’s Electric Vehicle

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I recently posted a Press Release from Modo about their new electric vehicle acquisition – a Nissan Leaf. I did not write much and I used their picture. Today I was pleased to go for a ride in the car and take some pictures of my own. I was going to change the original post but maybe a photo gallery with comments is a better way to go.

Nissan Leaf rear

I found the car in the parking lot north of City Hall. Modo has a row of reserved parking spaces here along the 10th Avenue side, but the EV charging station is roughly in the middle of the lot. Modo also organizes the City’s own car sharing program.

Mitsubishi MIEV

The City chose a Mitsubishi iMIEV for its program. I think if I had been parking this car, I would have backed into the stall, just to make the cable shorter and reduce the tripping hazard. In fact, if you have a choice, backing into a stall is always a better way to park, as most collisions in parking its occur due to people backing out.

EV sign

$1 an hour including juice seems a good deal to me.

Unlike the Modo stalls, anyone who has a plug in vehicle could use the station. And it is probably worth noting here that at 2pm on a Friday afternoon a lot of the Modo spaces were empty. (It may not be be strictly relevant but while I was there I saw a postie in uniform take a CAR2GO – which shows that Canada Post is perhaps a lot smarter than many people give them credit for.)

Leaf charge port in hood

The choice of the City Hall lot was based in part on Modo’s knowledge of their existing car use from it. The average length of trip is 14km. The Leaf we used was fully charged with a range of 140+ km available, so the probability of running out of juice for most users should not be an issue.

Charge Point

On my flickr stream I have been collecting images of EV charging stations. This one seems neat enough to me

Charge Point display detail

Modo members will find their charge card tucked into the driver’s sun shade. (By the way, if you are a Modo member and you have to refill the tank of an IC car, the cost of fuel (and a car wash) is reimbursed.)

Leaf being charged

You can see the empty line of reserved Modo parking spots behind the car.

The red Leaf with some red leaves

I was not a Modo member when I wrote this so I had to be content with the passenger, not the driver’s, seat. My impression is that this is a very comfortable, easy to drive and quiet vehicle. Electric cars can have quite startling performance simply because an electric motor has a great deal more low end torque than any IC motor. Since we were driving in mid afternoon city traffic, there was no speed or acceleration trial. The car does include a central display, which when I was in it either had the rear view camera (when backing up, which also included a parking guide) and when in forward motion a GPS real time map.

One of the great advantages of car share membership is the wide range of vehicles available. Not only do you not need to own a car, but you can get a vehicle that meets the needs of the trip. Car coop members make far fewer trips by car than car owners – because they do not have the perverse incentive that ownership provides (“I have spent all that money, I might as well get some use out of the thing”). You can have a coop membership and not feel that you have wasted money if you decide that its a nice day for a bike ride, or that transit would be more convenient for some trips. For that reason Modo concentrates on the City – high population density and frequent transit is a good mix for the coop. They are not trying to encourage car use, but recognizing that for some trips in our metropolis a car is the best choice. But it has to be a real choice, not one forced by circumstances.

Modo is trying to get into the suburbs. They would dearly love to have a car at Brighouse Station, for instance. Trouble is that most of the land devoted to parking in the centre of Richmond is private land. Indeed, as I have often lamented here, you are forced by the rules of the parking lots to take your car with you when you leave. You must not park in one place and then walk to complete several errands. That is one of the main reasons why traffic on Number 3 Road is always dreadful. Most of those drivers are making very short trips.

Modo also is getting more and more approaches from developers, who like to provide car coop memberships out of the condo fees and thus reduce the number of parking spaces they have to supply. Quite how we could retrofit existing condos, by getting strata councils to adopt a car coop space as part of the amenities – the same way they provide swimming pools and recreation rooms – presents an interesting challenge. But some of those spaces thus released could be chain link fenced bike compounds.

Car sharing is already good for the environment, due to the reduction of car trips. Making those trips zero emissions (and in BC most of our power comes from existing hydro) is a worthwhile bonus. And coop members get to try a EV before most people – geeky transportation bloggers excepted.

For what its worth, of the OEM EVs I have been in, the Leaf is by far the nicest. The Chevy Volt is not all electric – and it will be a long time before we see any hydrogen fuel cell cars here. Plug in – for hybrids or all electric – does seem to be the best choice for now. Trouble is at present there are only ten Leafs in Canada. Lucky Modo members, then.

UPDATE December 4, 2013

There is a blog post by another modo member on her experience of driving this car

Written by Stephen Rees

November 4, 2011 at 5:59 pm

B.C. should allow low speed vehicles on all streets

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Craig McInnes in the Vancouver Sun

This opinion piece is worth attention – certainly more than the associated news item. And in general he gets most of right and I agree with him. But he also gets one thing wrong

They [low speed vehciles] are, however, the only kind of electric car you can buy here now.

No – you can get hold of vehicles which have been converted to be all electric. Or you could buy an older vehicle, take out the engine and replace it with an electric motor and a bunch of lead acid batteries. People have been doing this for many years, and the vehicles are legal on all roads and are capable of highway speeds. However, range is limited, and the weight of (and often space taken up by) the batteries also reduces carrying capacity. The reason they are not more widely used is that the cost of the batteries – which need to be replaced every two to three years – means that they cost as much to run as a gasoline vehicle. Lithium Ion batteries will better than lead acid – better energy density and more power, but also greater cost.

There is also nothing new about low speed electric vehicles – they have been around for over a hundred years. Battery cars outsold petroleum in the early years of the twentieth century – until the starter motor was invented. In England they were used for delivering milk – for as long as door step delivery persisted. When I was growing up in East Ham the Borough Council also used them for collecting salvage – both paper/cardboard and waste food (which was fed to pigs).

What is hard to understand is why Transport Canada has been so obsessed with the “safety” of LSVs. Yes these vehicles have not been crash tested or fitted with the latest safety features, but at low speed they do not need to be. What we should be concerned about are the number of vehicles on the road that are capable of operating at speeds far in excess of the legal maximum. And that is not just the boy racers with the often illegal modification kits but cars straight off the production line. Why does TC obsess about vehicles which pose very little threat – if any – yet turn a blind eye to lethal weapons? Why is there no mandatory speed limiter required on high performance cars? (I know the answer, I am being rhetorical).

Written by Stephen Rees

October 2, 2008 at 9:20 am

Canada short circuits electric car sales

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Mike De Souza, Canwest News Service

Transport Canada denies it of course, but Ian Clifford of Zenn Motor Co, is blaming them for the fact that he still cannot sell his electric cars here, even though he has been selling them in the US for quite a while. Something about the definition of low speed vehicles and crash worthiness exemptions or somesuch. Bureaucratic twaddle of course. For most things automotive we just accept the US standards – but add daytime running lights and speedos in km/hr. No doubt the US also had to co-ordinate federal and state requirements, since it is the states that look after the roads – and only the interstates get federal funding. Not that you can take a slow speed vehicle on a freeway of course. So don’t buy a Zenn if your commute takes you across the Port Mann or through the Massey tunnel.

Written by Stephen Rees

March 17, 2008 at 11:32 am