“Power Hungry” is Filling, But Not Fully Satisfying

It had been on my nightstand for awhile, but I finally got around to finishing Power Hungry: The Myths of ‘Green’ Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future by Robert Bryce.

According to his own bio on the book jacket, “Bryce has been producing industrial-strength journalism for two decades” –whatever “industrial-strength” is supposed to mean.  And, by his own writing, he states that “I am neither a Republican nor Democrat.  I am a charter member of the Disgusted Party.”

Given his angst-ridden and self-assured stance, perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that Bryce’s narrative is laced with the type of adjective-overladen hyperbole that has come to dominate the media in our Michael Moore and Glenn Beck era – a rhetoric style that I personally find annoying and unhelpful in its seeming desire to provoke.  (Though, I would pay good money to see Bryce call someone like Dr. Gal Luft an “underinformed-but-persistent sophomore” to his face as he implicitly does in writing.)

If one can get past the sometimes maddening and offensive passages, the book has its share of merits.  Bryce is right to focus on facts, to seek to strip away untenable claims, and to decry the lack of clarity of thinking in the national energy discourse.  Part One of the book is an occasionally masterful primer on many of the basics about energy production and consumption in the modern world, studded with facts – mostly accurate by my superficial review.

But, as the Einstein principle implies, “A theory should be as simple as possible, but no simpler.”  And, in striving to simplify the energy topic by driving towards sound-bites from a massive but still incomplete set of facts, Bryce sometimes strides too far.  He sometimes pieces the facts together in such a way so as to draw skewed conclusions.  And, his lack of nuance – indeed, his distaste for nuance – leads ultimately to oversimplification and conclusions that are at best only partly correct.

Part Two of the book is consisted of chapters devoted to debunking “myths” about green energy.  I guess it’s fair to tackle this, in that some commentators supporting green/renewable/alternative energy really have been guilty of overstating the facts and creating too much unsustainable hype as a result.  Yet, for the most part, the myths that Bryce attacks are constructed in such a way as to be too easily knocked down like a cheap strawman. 

For instance, the chapter entitled “Myth:  Denmark Provides an Energy Model for the United States” is written as though someone actually thinks that Denmark and the U.S. are sufficiently similar that the Danish energy system can be largely replicated in the U.S.  Maybe some people do actually think that the U.S. should really pattern itself after Denmark, but most of us in the energy sector know that’s a naïve thought.  Even so, that’s not to say that the U.S. can’t learn valuable lessons from the Danes – and in fact, Bryce acknowledges as such in the chapter itself, though you might not notice because of the chapter title.

I could go on with a number of other examples of how Bryce makes himself a valiant protector of Joe Six-Pack by dismissing so-called “myths” that are portrayed as elitist ideals of little substantiation and hence value – even when the “myths” he’s debating are drawn in a hopelessly indefensible manner. 

Bryce can’t seem to accept that, just because some people have said stupid things about green energy, it doesn’t mean that green energy is stupid.

It’s clear that Bryce is an devout disciple of the Peter Huber & Mark Mills school of energy analysis, in which energy density is the primary factor driving winners and losers in the energy sector.  By this way of thinking, nuclear and fossil fuels are clearly superior to wind, solar and bioenergy, which require large footprints.  It’s an intriguing perspective, and definitely applies well to mobile and transportation energy, in which density is a critical driver of commercial acceptability. 

However, I’ve never been convinced that energy density is a significant factor in “stationary” energy to power, heat and cool buildings:  it’s all about economics, and if the cost of land and delivery is sufficiently cheap (i.e., in a remote area connected via a delivery system), who cares how dense the energy is? 

(Let’s not forget that Huber/Mills have been less than an infallible source of energy prognostication, as any reader of the fascinating but yet wholly inaccurate Huber-Mills Digital Power Report from the early 2000’s – sample forecast:  ubiquity of digitally-managed distributed generation – can attest.)

It’s equally clear that Bryce passionately hates several things:  virtually all political figures of all stripes, T. Boone Pickens, wind energy, and biofuels.  Bryce has no use for them, can find no virtue or benefits from any of them; the dislike seems to go beyond the rational. 

Putting aside politicians and Pickens, I’m well aware of the limitations of wind energy and biofuels, but that doesn’t justify throwing the baby out with the bathwater, as Bryce does.  Rebuttals to Bryce’s diatribes on wind energy and biofuels can be constructed to indicate where, how, when and why wind and biofuels can indeed make sense, but it would be a Herculean task just to overcome the volume of volleys he lobs.

Part Three of the book provides Bryce’s (over)simplifying conclusion to our whole energy problem:  we’re finding immense amounts of natural gas in shale, more than we could have ever expected a few years ago, so we need to use all of this to bridge to a nuclear future, which is the ultimate long-run solution and for which technology and economics will ultimately prevail.  As Bryce calls this vision of natural gas to nuclear, N2N.

I’m not intrinsically against increased utilization of natural gas and nuclear energy.  I’m more sanguine about the natural gas – though I don’t know if the shale plays will have the duration Bryce expects, due to the steep decline curves encountered so far – than I am about nuclear energy, which both has poorer current economics and lower public acceptability than the wind energy that Bryce damns to high heaven.  (And, Bryce is super eager to gladly accept all the hype he can accumulate on nuclear energy, especially about waste management safety and fuel recycling technology advancement.)

The problem I have with Bryce’s N2N synopsis – the oversimplification resulting from his lack of appetite for nuance – is the “silver-bullet” mentality about energy that has played a large part in getting us to where we are today.  Bryce seems to think that there should be one answer for most if not all our energy needs:  natural gas in the immediate future, nuclear in the longer future.  He doesn’t see a future for renewable energy, in large part because he seems to think that something that represents only a part of the solution isn’t really a solution.

I disagree, and believe we need a highly diversified all-of-the-above energy strategy, as I don’t see a one-size-fits-all energy approach as workable.  For example, if wind can supply 15% and solar 15% of our needs (at prices that are likely to decline with volumes to levels approaching competitiveness with fossil fuels), that shouldn’t be pooh-poohed just because it doesn’t supply a majority of our needs.  Indeed, going from less than 1% to more than 10% in either of these forms of energy represents a huge growth potential and huge wealth creation opportunity.

Notwithstanding its flaws, I do recommend cleantech advocates read the book.  It is cited widely by opponents of renewable energy and media articles and outlets unfavorable to renewable energy, so it’s good to have read the raw source material. 

Though you may need to have some industrial-strength antacid at your side when reading his so-called “industrial-strength journalism”.

Gas Chamber

Recently, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce released its prescription for U.S. energy policy.

“Facing Our Energy Realities:  A Plan to Fuel Our Recovery” is a more balanced document than what I might have expected.  Given the Chamber’s ardent undercutting of all efforts to deal with climate change in a thoughtful manner during the last Congress — see, for instance, this Washington Post article from late 2009 profiling how Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) decided to leave the Chamber due to its strident positions — I was prepared to title this post “Chamber of Horrors”, expecting the Chamber to call for continued status quo on energy, only perhaps a little better.

The outline of their recommendations is as follows:

I.  Maximize America’s Own Energy Resources:  Promote Energy Efficiency.  Produce More Domestic Energy.  Improve Access to Federal Lands.  Allow Development of New Resources.

II.  Make New and Clean Energy Technologies More Affordable:  Commit to Innovation.  Demonstrate New Technologies. 

III.  Eliminate Regulatory Barriers Derailing Energy Projects:  Create A Predictable Regulatory Environment.  Streamline, Not Weaken, Environmental Reviews.  Prioritize Siting and Permitting of Interstate Transmission.

IV.  Do Not Put America’s Existing Energy Sources Out of Business:  Ensure Adequate Supplies of Energy for a Smooth Transition. 

V.  Encourage Free and Fair Trade of Energy Technologies and Resources Globally:  Promote Free Trade.  Eliminate Trade Barriers.  End Discriminatory Content and Trade Policies. 

To be sure, the primary message of the Chamber in this pamphlet is “more”:  especially, more production of fossil fuel based energy from domestic sources.  And, to be sure, this stance is being greatly enabled by the recent promise of a surge in natural gas available by producing from heretofore uneconomic shale plays due to advancements in new drilling/extraction technologies.

I have nothing against producing more natural gas domestically, particularly if it can be economically used to displace more environmentally-damaging coal-based energy or strategically-damaging petroleum-based energy.  However, we can’t put all our eggs in the natural gas basket — if for no other reason than we’ll end up painted in a corner someday from over-reliance on gas, just as we’re painted in a corner now from over-reliance on coal and oil. 

I’m glad to see that the Chamber has made some room and recognition available for energy efficiency and renewables (e.g., by supporting the suggestion of a Clean Energy Bank) in its public platforms, but the Chamber is clearly full of gas.

Oil Price Soars – Electric Car Sales Zoom

People dance in the streets of Cairo. A dictator has fallen. In recent weeks, a world dependent on oil has watched to see if a cascade of Mideast unrest would stop the flow of petroleum necessary for gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel.

Barron’s interviewed long-time oil analyst, Charles Maxwell, to gain insight into the future of petroleum. The article was titled “Whatever Happens in Egypt, Oil Will Hit $300 by 2020.”  Maxwell based his forecast on long-term supply and demand forces. Oil production is peaking; demand is not. From today’s $85-plus per barrel, Maxwell forecasts $95 by 2012, $115 by 2013, $140 by 2014, $180 by 2015, and $300 by 2020.

The United States is the world’s largest consumer of oil. Over 95 percent of our transportation depends on oil. Over 80 percent of our U.S. transportation spending makes us more dependent with taxpayer money focused on widening highways and airports. Shifting more dollars to electric transit connected with electric high-speed rail would greatly reduce our oil dependency. Yet the same members of Congress that encourage subsidies to oil companies block improved transportation. If some members of the U.S. Congress get their way, they will either shutdown the EPA, or they will shutdown our government by refusing the increase the debt ceiling.

It will be the American people, not Congress, that free us from oil dependency. We survived oil prices peaking at $147 per barrel in July 2008. It is argued that the shock waves are still rippling through our economy. When consumers are stretched, the demand for oil is elastic. Vehicle miles traveled have peaked. Americans reduced their car ownership by 3.5 million vehicles. We are at record use of flexible work, car-pooling, car sharing, and transit use. More fuel-efficient cars are bought. The success of hybrid-electric cars is paving the way for electric cars.

Fortunately, as oil prices rise, lithium battery prices fall. Ford forecasts that by 2020, ten to 25 percent of its car sales will include lithium batteries and electric motors. Ten to 25 percent will be hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and electric cars. Next year, Ford may be the first car company to sell 100,000 lithium battery packs as it brings out new hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and electrics all using lithium battery packs. Or the first to sell 100,000 may be Nissan or General Motors. As demand increases, better chemistry and volume manufacturing have lowered the price of automotive lithium battery packs from $1,000 per kilowatt-hour to $500.

Prospects for electric vehicles are boosted by efficiency. A gasoline engine drive system is only about 15 percent efficient. Using natural gas a bit less. Using E85 ethanol, even less. A diesel engine drive is often about 20 percent efficient. A hybrid drive system can be 25 or 30 percent efficient. An electric drive, 80 percent efficient.

Although electric cars currently are more expensive than the average gasoline car, that may change in this decade. Many automakers project that when battery packs fall to $250 per kilowatt-hour electric cars will be less expensive than gasoline cars to own and operate. The precise tipping point depends on the price of oil. If Mr. Maxwell’s forecast is correct, EVs will be the winner in this decade.

Keep your eye on the ratio of battery pack kW price to gasoline price. The current ratio is around 500/3 = 166:1. In two years, it might be $400 kW packs and $4 gasoline at the pump for a 400/4 =100:1 ratio. $250 packs and $5 gasoline is 250/5 = 50:1 ratio. Be on the watch for a 50:1 ratio as the tipping point where electric car sales begin to dominate.

Breakthrough innovation may also accelerate the tipping point. Next generation biofuels could fuel hybrids. More efficient inductive electric motors could be free of rare earths like neodymium and dysprosium. Electric cars could have their range extended with fuel cells, solid-state batteries, ultracaps, or new battery chemistries.

As oil becomes more challenging to extract from troubled regions, deep oceans, and frozen tar sands, we see increased use of natural gas power plants, renewable energy, and efficient hybrid and electric vehicles. Welcome to our electric future.

Green AND Sustainable; not Green OR Sustainable

Guest blog by Stan Seelig, Seelig and Associates

To Be or Not To Be; To Be Green OR Sustainable or To Be Green AND Sustainable; which ever be cheaper or more profitable!

I am an Industrial Chemist. Over the last 30 years, I have seen relatively green chemicals come and go. Chemicals safe for you and me that destroyed the ozone layer were replaced by others that were more toxic to you and me. Chemicals that contribute to global warming are being reduced or eliminated for safer processes. The safest chemical of all kills more people than any other. More people drown, slip, crash and die from the various forms of water. The time has come to know the life cycle of all chemicals from cradle to grave.

But today we have become a global environment. Where every family in the USA could own a car, not every family in the world could afford one, whether financially or environmentally. Green Chemistry has been the buzz word for many in the Cleantech environments but green does not always imply sustainable. Green Chemistry in the USA means we can dump millions of gallons of drinking water down the drain. Hey, we can flush our human waste down the drain with drinking water. Imagine how those in the other parts of the world feel who have trouble getting clean, drinkable water!

And we complain about our wastewater streams overflowing. Laundry, dishwasher and toilets use over 50% of a home owner’s usage of clean, fresh water. What was possible in the past will not be possible in the future. Closed-looped processes must be incorporated into our way of life. This means either we recover the water from our wastes personally or we change the process. No more should we take the water from the river, treat it, use it, treat it and dump it back in for someone downstream to follow the same procedure.

We, as a people, must take advantage of rain/sleet/snow from the sky even if its just to wash our cars or water our lawns. Prices are going up. Water will be the next oil. We need to learn to be Green AND Sustainable for future generations. We pat ourselves on the back sometimes but on a global basis, we are losing the war to protect the environment. This is a nation of great ideas…we need to implement those ideas to save the world…even from itself!

In Defense of the Venture Capital Herd Mentality

Every few conversations about venture capital, someone laments the “herd mentality” of the venture capital sector.  That is, the tendency of venture capital investors to invest in similar areas.  It’s a favorite topic of cleantech afficianados as well, both before cleantech got hot, and since then.  I’d like to ask though, are we sure the herd is a bad thing?

I’ve personally invested in and raised money for companies in hot areas, in passe sectors fallen well out of favor, and in sectors way before their time.  And while part of me would love if all investors always liked my deal, and all companies wanted to sell to me cheaply because no one else was interested, the other part respects that the herd mentality probably exists for very good reasons.  Maybe it’s just a form of better managing risk and creating value.

A couple of reasons why a herd of venture capitalists may not be bad:

  1. Supply chain / ecosystem development – It’s always rough for a new technology company to have to develop everything itself.  The herd or trend investing typically means if you are investing in or building a company in a hot area, there are more resources available to help.  More suppliers.  More partners.  More customers.  (Even more bankers and lawyers and accountants that don’t look at you funny when you use jargon.)  More innovation.  More collaboration.  More of all of them investing in parallel.  Better predictability in planning.  Better predictability in exits.
  2. Capital accumulation – The whole concept of the joint stock company helped advance the entire idea of capitalism, and the industrial revolution, buy creating a way to accumulate capital of an appropriate level at an appropriate pace for the next ventures.  Venture capital syndicates provide the same type of value, enabling pooling of resources, sharing of risk, and staging of capital and risk, in a predictable, long run, sustainable way.  Let’s give them credit.  The herd might be just a symptom of a sophisticated capital accumulation system working well, as opposed to a cause of a malaise.
  3. Scale matters / changing the world matters – Let’s assume part of the point here is for innovation to change the world and make it a better place (I’d like to believe that).  In cleantech for example, the underlying sectors are so massive that a few investors and a few companies are unlikely to make a dent before I retire.  They’re going to need billions, and build things that make skyscapers look small.  Maybe it takes a herd.  In this view, once an area of game changing innovation is identified, don’t we want to see it fly and scale? Like, now?  If we think we’ve got the next big thing in our sights, how about making sure the whole world focuses on it?  Oh wait, that would be the herd.
  4. De-risk future fund raisings / recruiting – One of the big risks for both investors and startups is recruiting top talent and raising the next round, ie not running out of money just when you’ve figured out what to do.  When was the last time you tried to do either of those in a sector that didn’t have dozens of funds hot after it?  That really sucks.  The herd mentality has a hugely positive impact on derisking a startup launch and derisking the staging of capital needs for both founders, investors, and customers.  Think of the valley of death concept- the other favorite complaint of all startups.  Good herd management means a bridge over the valley of death (albeit often a creaky one!)

In the cattle business, cows by themselves away from the herd are a double edged sword they mean 1) you’re about to have a calf, or 2) you’re about to have a problem.  I think we should remember herds aren’t all bad, they generally exist to protect and nurture.  That’s why lion prides out compete cheetahs, and why wildebeests survive the Serengetti migration, right?  Yes, that creates trade-offs, and there are plenty of approaches where the herd is the enemy of the innovation.  But don’t ding the herd out of hand.  Respect the power of the herd.

1,500 Reader Comments on Renewable Energy that will Really Work

Our Cleantech Linkedin Group, over 20,000 members strong, has had a seven month running discussion started by Robert Drummond entitled “Renewable Energy that will Really work”, asking for readers views on what’s practical in renewable energy.  Kind of crowd sourcing opinion and facts on the subject of renewable energy.  Robert’s discussion reached a staggering 1,500 comments this month.   It’s a real “cleantech democracy”, and a testament to the passion we all have for this sector, so I wanted to share it with you.  Throw your own comments in here or back on LinkedIn, but definitely participate!

Renewable Energy that will Really Work

By Robert Drummond

“I want to start a discussion about renewable and clean energy supply and distribution that will work in the forseeable future. I have read so much rubbish that I want to hear the views of people that know about each possibility and are not afraid to tell us all.

Since I have a lot of hang-ups and opinions that need to be checked I will fire-off first.

Renewable energy sources

Hydro. One of the best but not many places left in the world where it will make much of a difference. Some people hate dams so it isn’t universally loved.

Nuclear Fusion. This is the holy grail but seems too far away and even when it comes (if ever) it will be full of dangers and risks both real and political. The thought that it is just doing what the sun does appeals but I am not holding my breath.

Nuclear Fission. This is not really renewable and whether it is green or clean is equally debatable. Most major economies are renewing their commitment to it and it will play a bigger part in energy production in the future. The fear of mis-use of the technology and the huge capital investment and decommissioning costs will ensure that it never gets to become the big success that some would like.

Solar – Photovoltaic. This is the flavour of the year since everyone understands it and it seems to be as clean as you can get. Of course it does “pollute” the countryside and the materials used are not as benign as we would like but it works and is getting cheaper as the technology improves. This may be the first major alternative to pass the fully commercial test. However it is not portable and only works in the daytime. So we have to capture the electricity for use at night (or have alternative sources to match). Also it will not answer our prayers for a replacement to fossil fuels for transport until we have a better way of storing electricity efficiently with light weight devices.

Wind. I am told that the big problem with wind is that the off-shore farms (which everyone likes since they don’t want one in their own back-yard) suffer from three problems. Firstly the very large generators that are most efficient are extremely heavy and constructing them off-shore is mighty expensive. Secondly they are prone to damage and wear (particularly due to UV and salt and the problems of transmitting the rotary power to an effective generator). Thirdly the electricity is likely to be some way from the consumer which means loss in transit.
We also have the same problems about intermittant power generation and lack of portability of electricity.

Wave. Most of the technology is highly suspect and my friends say it wont work except in a limited local way with simple up and down pstons for pumping for uses such as desalination.

Tidal/Current. These seem quite hopeful but there are only limited places in the world with sufficient water flow to achieve anything worthwhile. Even if they succeed and do not foul-up or kill all the fish they will like hydro-electric soon run out of available good locations. They have the advantage of being hidden from view. Again the problems of intermittancy in most places and also they generate electricity.”

Join our Cleantech Linkedin group and view the 1,500+ comments here, or post in the Cleantech Blog comments below.

Honda Fit Hybrid Challenges Toyota Prius Leadership

Honda Fit Outsells Prius

In January, the Honda Fit outsold the Prius in Japan. Prius had been the number one selling car in Japan for 20 months. Half of the Fits sold were the new Fit Hybrid, which delivers 71 miles per gallon (MPG) using the Japanese JC08 test cycle. In 2012, both the Fit Hybrid and new Fit EV are expected to start selling in the U.S.

The Honda Fit has been a popular small hatchback, with over 3.5 million sold globally. With five doors, seating for five, and flexible cargo space it is big enough for most, yet small enough to fit in those precious city parking spaces. Drivers like the sport fill and handling. Starting at around $15,000, the Honda Fit delivers 31 mpg, the mileage of many hybrids.

Honda Fit Hybrid 71 MPG

The Fit Hybrid removes pain at the pump with the 71 mpg in the Japanese test cycle which emphasises slow city driving at 16 mpg; by comparison the Prius is 77 mpg. Power is delivered from the IMA electric motor and from an efficient 1.3-liter i-VTEC engine. The battery for the hybrid system is located under the rear cargo and enables the Fit to share the same flexible seating configurations as the rest of the lineup without sacrificing interior comfort that is unique to Fit.

The Fit offers more room than outward appearances suggest. It has a B-segment exterior, but a larger C-segment interior. In the back is 20.6 cubic feet of cargo, but drop the back seat and you have 50.7 cubic feet. If that still is not enough for your ladder, home project, or surfboard, then you can flatten the front seat for added feet. In Japan, the passenger seat can even rotate for easy in-and-out or socializing with others.

Bigger and Better – Honda Fit Shuttle versus Toyota Prius

Toyota has no intention of letting Honda hold the number one spot in Japan, the U.S., or anywhere else. Toyota has expanded the popular Prius into a family of four models:

* 2011 Prius – world’s best selling hybrid
* 2012 Prius v –midsized wagon with 40 mpg goes on sale Summer 2011
* 2012 Prius c Concept – city car hybrid goes on sale by Summer 2012
* 2012 Prius Plug-in Hybrid – best mileage of any Prius goes on sale by Summer 2012

If you’ve been looking for great mileage from an SUV, crossover, or wagon, take a look at the new Prius v. It will share the current generation Prius’ platform and Hybrid Synergy Drive technology. Featuring a compact exterior yet spacious interior, the Prius v will feature over 50-percent more interior cargo space than the current Prius, while being almost as aerodynamic. The Prius v will compete with new crossover hybrids like the Ford C-MAX Hybrid. The Prius v will use NiMH batteries, just as the 2011 Prius. Next year, Ford will start delivering lithium batteries in all hybrids and electric cars.

Honda has countered by unveiling a longer Honda Fit Shuttle available with the current efficient ICE drive system and the new hybrid drive system. This compact wagon can be examined on Honda’s new Fit Shuttle Japanese website.  The wagon is expected to be unveiled at the Geneva Auto Show next month. Unfortunately, Honda is unlikely to offer this larger Fit in the U.S., at least for now.

Honda Fit EV

Honda unveiled the all-new Fit EV Concept electric vehicle at the LA Auto Show in November. In 2011 the Fit EV will be in fleet trials at at Google, Stanford University, and possibly others. In 2012, the car will no longer be a concept as customers go to dealers and buy the Fit EV. The Fit EV will compete with the larger Nissan LEAF, the Ford Focus Electric, and the Toyota FT-EV.

The Fit EV is designed to meet the daily driving needs of the average metropolitan commuter and utilizes the same 5-passenger layout found in the popular Fit hatchback. When the Fit EV production model is introduced, it will be powered by a lithium-ion battery and coaxial electric motor.

The high-density motor, derived from the FCX Clarity fuel cell electric vehicle, delivers excellent efficiency and power while remaining quiet at high speeds. The Fit EV will have a top speed of 90 mph.

The Fit EV will achieve an estimated 100-mile driving range per charge using the US EPA LA4* city cycle (70 miles when applying EPA’s adjustment factor). Driving range can be maximized by use of an innovative 3-mode electric drive system, adapted from the 2011 Honda CR-Z sport hybrid. The system allows the driver to select between Econ, Normal, and Sport to instantly and seamlessly change the driving experience to maximize efficiency or improve acceleration. While in Econ mode, practical driving range can increase by as much as 17 percent compared to driving in Normal mode, and up to 25 percent compared to driving in Sport mode. Acceleration improves significantly when in Sport mode, generating performance similar to a vehicle equipped with a 2.0-liter gasoline engine.

Hybrid and Electric Car Battle with Toyota and Ford

In their battle for hybrid and electric car leadership, both Honda and Toyota are learning a lesson from Ford – price matters and therefore manufacturing cost matters. Ford is offering 10 to 14 new models on a global C-car platform  with many chassis and components being common across a range of cars, SUVs, and crossovers. Ford will lower manufacturing costs, use high-volume common parts, and improve efficiency. Ford will increasingly enable customers to select a vehicle, such as the Focus, with powertrain options ranging from efficient engine to hybrid to plug-in hybrid to pure battery electric.

C-MAX Energi and C-MAX Hybrid are two of 10 to 14 new models that Ford will launch around the world based on its new global C-car platform – Ford’s first truly global One Ford platform. Ford’s new generation of C-segment vehicles will be sold in more than 120 markets and will account for more than 2 million units annually. The C-segment accounts for one in four cars sold worldwide today and, in conjunction with the B-segment, Ford expects it to rise to 50 percent of all cars sold globally by 2013.

Honda is wise to expand its popular Fit into a family that includes a larger wagon, a 71-mpg hybrid, and an exciting electric car with the potential to become the EV price leader. In a growing battle for fuel-efficient family offerings with Toyota and Ford there will be one clear winner – the customer.

Hola, Tres Amigas!

by Richard T. Stuebi

Something grand is emerging on the vast dusty plains of West Texas and Eastern New Mexico.

Tres Amigas is an ambitious scheme to interconnect the three primary power grids in the U.S. — the Western grid known as WECC, the Eastern grid known as the Eastern Interconnection, and the Texas grid known as ERCOT.

As profiled in an article called “A Highway for the 21st Century” in the recent edition of Energy Biz magazine, Tres Amigas aims to incorporate high-voltage direct current (HVDC) and grid-scale energy storage technologies to enable synchronization and massive power transfer capability across the three grids — which are almost completely separated today.

Although it might seem straightforward to tie together three power grids, this is actually a very challenging technological problem.  AC to DC to AC converter stations are required at the interfaces, relying upon HVDC technologies that, while beginning to be more commonly employed, have never been deployed at the scale — 5 gigawatts initially, up to 30 gigawatts eventually — contemplated by Tres Amigas.  And, to absorb the large swings in generation provided by wind and solar projects in the Great Plains, Texas and the Desert Southwest, Tres Amigas aims to install utility-scale batteries, a still-developing area of technology.

Not surprisingly for a large and first-of-a-kind project, it’s not cheap.  Tres Amigas is forecasted to require up to $1 billion in capital.  The question will be whether the investors in Tres Amigas can make good returns. 

Presumably, the business model is based on a combination of wheeling charges (revenues from renewable energy project developers seeking to move power from source to load centers) and ancillary service fees (charges to the three grid operators to keep each of them more stable in the face of shifting supply and demand conditions).  A “merchant project” of this type and magnitude has never been tried.  No doubt, it’s a very risky bet. 

Not surprisingly, American Superconductor (NASDAQ:  AMSC), whose technologies are at the core of Tres Amigas and who would stand to benefit big-time from its success, is an investor sponsoring the development team.  It wouldn’t surprise me to see the battery supplier, when chosen, also joining the mix.

The upside of Tres Amigas to renewable energy interests is big.  If the project is completed, works well, and remains financially solvent, it will debottleneck many limits to adding further wind and solar projects in the Southwestern U.S.  There’s plenty of sun and wind out there, but the constraining factor in tapping it has been the ability of the power grid to cope with the inherent fluctuations in power output. 

With its energy storage capability and linkage across three grids, Tres Amigas would be big and bold enough to enable many heretofore thwarted renewable project developers West of the Mississippi to effectively reach a broader spectrum of potential customers from L.A. to Dallas to St. Louis, while mitigating the operational problems — such as those at the infamous congestion point near McCamey TX — that grid operators and other skeptics use as a basis for criticizing or objecting to renewable energy development.

Cleantech and the Future of GM

Jon Lauckner, President GM Ventures, said that GM now has a straightforward vision, “Design, build and sell the world’s best vehicles.” I took notes as he gave his keynote speech at the Clean Tech Investors Conference and asked him about GM’s investment priorities. To achieve GM’s vision, focus is now placed on four strategies: (1) a culture that is more aggressive and flexible, (2) customer focus, (3) Team GM, and (4) technology.

Mr. Lauckner is focused on investing in innovative and early stage companies. He has been busy since GM Ventures was established last June and he was promoted from head of GM global product planning. GM Ventures has invested in Bright Automotive, which has designed an advanced plug-in hybrid delivery van with much greater cargo space than Ford’s Transit Connect Electric. GM has invested in two advanced next generation biofuel corporations – Mascoma and Coskata. Given the success of the Amyris IPO, these investments could should a high return for GM.

GM has the potential to drive down lithium battery cost and weight with its strategic partner LG Chem, supplier for the Volt. The two corporations recently licensed cathode technology from Argonne National Lab that can lead to better energy density and make future cars like the Chevrolet Volt even more cost effective.

GM is also looking beyond today’s lithium technology. GM Ventures has invested in SAKTI3, which has developed a rechargeable solid-state battery with the potential to lower the cost of manufacturing batteries.

All of these innovators are creating offerings that could accelerate GM offering a wider range of vehicles, lower the carbon footprint of GM vehicles, and make electric cars less expensive than gasoline powered in this decade. So far, all of these innovators are U.S. based and already creating hundreds of new jobs. GM is open to investing globally and often partners with venture capitalists such as Khosla Ventures, corporate private equity such as Itochu Technology Ventures, and public economic development such as the Michigan Economic Development Corporation.

The technology will not necessarily become a GM offering, but that is a potential value-added in partnering with GM Ventures. For example, Powermat is not only receiving a $5 million investment from GM Ventures, Powermat will be offered in many 2012 GM cars. Powermat solves that problem of trying to keep many mobile electronic devices charged. Forget using the cigarette lighter. Powermat’s technology allows electronic devices – smart phones, MP3 players and gaming devices – to be charged inductively by just placing them on the Powermat.

What will be the next General Motors investment? Speaking to over 400 executives at the Clean-Tech Investor Summit,  co-produced by International Business Forum and Clean Edge with CleantechBlog as a media sponsor, Jon Lauckner said that GM Ventures is looking for promising innovation in these areas:

Automotive Cleantech

  • EV
  • Fuel cell
  • Charging
  • Emission controls
  • Motors
  • Smart grid
  • Energy efficiency for vehicles
  • Biofuels

Infotainment

  • Vehicle HMI
  • Voice recognition technologies
  • In-vehicle advertising
  • Cloud services
  • Personal device integration

Smart Materials

  • Cost
  • Mass
  • Lightweight materials
  • Eco-friendly materials

Automotive-Related Technologies

  • Innovations for unmet consumer needs
  • Advanced sensors for autonomous driving
  • Safety features

Value Chain / Business Model

  • New automotive business models
  • Leverage GM technology and assets for upstream and downstream revenue

I asked Jon Lauckner about alternatives to rare earth elements. Currently, the motors in electric cars and hybrids are permanent magnet motors. To improve weight, efficiency and heat resistance, rare earth elements such as neodymium and dysprosium are used in these permanent magnets. Such rare earths are currently mined in China, but the big money is not in the mining, it is in the final products. China is restricting rare earth exports, and giving priority to using rare earths in its own manufacturing of turbines and motors for products ranging from military systems to high-speed rail to electric cars.

Toyota Motors is developing inductive car motors that do not use rare earths. Although Lauckner was carefully non-committal about whether GM is also working on inductive automotive electric motors, he did say that he would be “very interested” in such motors requiring no rare earths. Smart materials, nanotechnology, and advanced powertrain components are all strategic to the future of GM.

In one decade, transportation will be very different from today. With GM Ventures, General Motors is positioned to invest, integrate, and deliver to global customers better cars and services that include innovations in cleantech, infotainment, materials, autonomous driving, and new business models.

The New Big Three in Cleantech Funding?

by Richard T. Stuebi

Last month, three behemoths in the energy sector — GE (NYSE: GE), NRG Energy (NYSE: NRG) and ConocoPhillips (NYSE: COP) — announced that they were forming a joint venture to invest in cleantech opportunities.

The creatively named Energy Technology Ventures plans to fund 30 companies over the next four years, based on a $300 million financial commitment from the three partners.

The ETV website is barebones, just a single home page, other than the launch press release, offering no indication of the team responsible for its success.   

According to the sole page on the site, ETV is interested in “venture- and growth-stage energy technology companies in the renewable power generation, smart grid, energy efficiency, oil, natural gas, coal and nuclear energy, emission controls, water and biofuels sectors, primarily in North America, Europe and Israel.” 

The first three investments of ETV are in Alta Devices (materials to reduce costs of solar energy), Ciris Energy (biochemical conversion of coal to methane), and CoolPlanetBioFuels (conversion of low-grade biomass into fuel and carbon). 

If you’re interested in introducing yourself to ETV, contact them here — though they warn it’s a “don’t call us, we’ll call you” situation.

Tesla Roadster Test Drive – Smooth and Stealth

John Addison Unplugs for a Test Drive

It’s easy to slide behind the steering wheel of this Tesla Roadster because the top’s removed for this January day. I don’t mind. It’s 70 degrees here in Palm Springs, California. A perfect day for a test drive.

Tesla gives me the ground rules for the drive – have fun. Yes, I can floor it if I pay for my own traffic ticket. I can take tight turns. Hit the brakes hard. Yes, I can go 20 mph over that speed bump that would trash many low-profile speed bumps.

Handling S-curves is smooth and effortless even though this sports car has no power steering. I go over a speed bump at 20 mph. No scraping sounds. No damage. These shocks are worthy of a race track.

On the highway, I press lightly on the accelerator and I’m going 60. Yes, the Roadster 2.5 can go zero to 60 in 3.7 seconds. There was no screeching tires, no whining engine, and no swerving. Just a light touch and stealth speed.

Any downsides? The Roadster that I’m driving cost over $120,000. The premium stereo is extra, as is the backup camera. Yes, only two seats and very little cargo. You’ve got room for your golf clubs, a travel bag, and your attaché. Unlike the Nissan LEAF the GPS display will not show you nearby charging stations, but the Roadster has a 245 mile range between charges thanks to the light aluminum frame, carbon fiber body, and 56 kWh lithium battery pack. One owner set a record of over 350 miles. The Roadster that I’m driving went from Orange County to Los Angeles to Palm Springs on one charge.

If you can afford to enjoy a luxury sports car, then take the Tesla Roadster for a drive. You will enjoy the smooth handling, stealth acceleration, and 245-mile electric range. After the ride, you can have fun explaining to friends about why you’re still smiling.

My test drive was at the The Clean-Tech Investor Summit, co-produced by International Business Forum and Clean Edge, with Cleantech Blog as a media sponsor. Keynoting the event, Tesla CEO Elon Musk discussed the new Model S Sedan and hinted about the Tesla Model X SUV when he keynoted the Clean-tech Investor Summit. He then gave me an interesting answer about Tesla’s future.