Sane Personal Transportation

3 08 2010

A couple weeks ago I beat up electric automobiles for being overpriced and unpractical due to their short driving ranges and cripplingly long charge times.  This week I present a saner approach to substantial energy and emissions reductions.

The electric car is the equivalent of installing renewable energy sources before making conventional systems and technologies as efficient as possible in buildings.  Like buildings, we can cost effectively cut personal transportation energy consumption substantially, without sacrificing anything with readily available technologies – rather than pouring gobs of money into technologies that are just five years away from prime time; like they have been for the past 30 years.

Automobiles have gotten much more efficient over the past 20-30 years.  However, the miles per gallon have hardly budged.  Automobiles have grown continuously larger and more powerful.  The modern Honda Civic, for example, is much larger and probably heavier than the “larger” Accord from 30 years ago.  The modern version is most likely much more powerful as well.

Public enemy number one on this front is the explosion of the sport utility vehicle, which sort of peaked out just before hurricane Katrina, after which the $3-4 and upward gasoline prices caught peoples’ attention.  SUV buyers can be split into two groups: the family haulers and the egocentric.  A small group of SUV owners actually need it for regularly poor driving conditions (snow for instance) and/or towing.  Maybe we need to make SUV owners pariahs akin to smokers.  We’ll have parking lots, ramps, and garages that ban SUVs.  Or maybe we put scales where you pay the parking attendant and pay a tonnage penalty for overweight vehicles.   Or we could make the entrance to these spaces so small that only a Porsche 911 size car will fit through the gate.  Speaking of Porsche and SUVs, the Cayenne was an awful development.  How about LEED points for a SUV-free workforce?  I’m not so much in favor of these things although the LEED thing is intriguing.

I have been a big advocate of gas-electric hybrids since the beginning, especially for city driving applications where brakes are applied 40 times per mile.  My question though is, why do they make so many of them so goofy looking – like the Prius and the Insight.  Other models include hybrid versions of the common all-gasoline vehicles like the Civic, Camry, and Cadillac Escalade (which is a joke).  How about some sporty smaller cars like the Celica, 240 SX, Prelude, and Integra?  Unfortunately these reasonably-priced snappy fun-to-drive models are all defunct.

As a kid, I remember the late 1970s / early 1980s and the cars of the times.  When I was first old enough to drive, my older brother was nice enough to lend me his relatively new 1979 Mercury Cougar.  Look at that behemoth.   It had rear wheel drive and handled like crap.  The closest I ever came to an accident was driving this thing down a slushy road when I wandered out of the track.  Think of going down a waterslide trying to stop by digging in your fingernails.  The next year the thing was downsized by 50%.  The gas mileage probably doubled.  BTW, I don’t know why they put that woman on there.  The car is already hideous enough.  The last thing it needs is a supermodel next to it to make it look even worse.

Another blow to petroleum consumption could be dealt with the Diesel engine.  All else equal, the Diesel engine is substantially more efficient than the gasoline (Otto) engine.  Why?  It has a higher compression ratio, which generates a higher combustion temperature.  Like steam-driven power plants, efficiency is limited mostly by the highest temperature relatively cheap steel can withstand.

Later, after ditching the Cougar and suffering through three years with a 1983 Ford Mustang, I purchased a 1984 Ford Escort Diesel.  The Focus is the descendant of the Escort.  In fact, I think the big pitch for the Escort (gas version) was its fuel economy.  Most people I’ve talked to regarding the Diesel version are amazed to know there was such a thing.  Yes – 48 miles per gallon – 1984 – 27 years ago in car terms.  We don’t need rocket science or even some mythical magical battery.  We just need somebody with a brain promoting sane solutions to saving personal transportation energy.

Diesels faded from the American auto-makers’ lineups of cars for whatever reason.  General Motors somehow took a gasoline engine and turned it into a Diesel engine for its first shot at Diesel engines for light vehicles.  This was about 1982.  I remember driving my brother-in-law’s Diesel Silverado pickup truck and pulling a trailer.  It would literally take ¾ of a mile on flat terrain with no wind to get up to 55 mph.  It was the most pathetic excuse for a truck I had ever experienced.

I believe Volkswagen has offered diesel vehicles since way back.  To demonstrate how a sane approach to efficient transportation makes the insane look stupid, consider the Diesel versions of the VW Golf, Jetta, and Jetta wagon are rated at about 42 mpg, highway.  The tiny tin can lawnmower on wheels, the “Smart Car,” is rated at a pathetic 41 mpg.  You don’t even have room for an extra pair of shoes in one of those things.  They haul groceries as long as it is limited to Ramen noodles and canned tuna.

So how about these qualities to easily get to 60 mpg with virtually no sacrifice in performance, convenience, or ego:

  • Shrink cars back to where they were in the late 1980s with a proportional shrunken engine
  • Diesel engines
  • Hybrids
  • Styling that that doesn’t scream “I am a snooty college professor and I am better than you”.

These vehicles would result in SUBSTANTIALLY LESS EMISSIONS than a $40,000, 40 mile per charge ELECTRIC VEHICLE.  If you are thinking, “but we can power electric vehicles with windmills”, it doesn’t work that way.  Windmills and other renewable energy will always be fully utilized.  The incremental increase (or decrease) in electric consumption will come from conventional sources regardless of how you want to pretend you’re charging your batteries with a windmill.  In other words, electric cars will be charged with coal, natural gas, or nuclear power.

written by Jeffrey L. Ihnen, P.E., LEED AP

A Frivolous Novelty

20 07 2010

For this week’s publication, I was trying to think of an expensive, short-lived, duplicative, inconvenient, limited use, frivolous novelty.  Did I mention expensive?  After a half-hour of wonderment, the best I could do is a Homer Simpson bottle opener.   But really the Homer Simpson bottle opener will last longer and at least be useful (note, I didn’t say serve it’s purpose, which is to make people laugh) probably for a far longer period than the electric car.

Twenty years ago “they” were talking about developing electric cars, I guess to save us from carbon dioxide, but I don’t recall the CO2 debate being as intense then as it is now.  I recall arguing with my roommate, who was a perfect match for me (we shared best men duties at each other’s weddings), that the electric car is a stupid idea because once again our friend Pesky Reality will not allow this bad idea to ever go mainstream.  You know, Pesky is going to be our imaginary friend from now on.  I’ve never had one actually so we will see how this goes.

I already have a 20 year winning streak, but “they” are making another futile run at this doomed idea.  Of course this is being served up by the connoisseurs of bad ideas.  The factory of remedies that are worse than the disease: Washington DC.

GW Bush’s dopey idea for the next miracle of personal transportation was the fuel cell.  The only emission would be water vapor – egads! The number one greenhouse gas.  Maybe the next time this stupid idea comes back to life Pesky can start a campaign advertising the greenhouse gas thing and it will crash and burn faster the Hindenburg.   Hmmm.  Hindenburg.  Hydrogen.  Bad idea.  Crashing.  Seventy years later here we are again!  I would call that an overt, as opposed to a subliminal message from Hephaestus, the god of fire.

I’ll just mention a few of Pesky’s problems with the fuel cell.  First consider the fuel, hydrogen.  Where does it come from? Where can I buy it?  How do I store it?  How is transported?  What is the driving range on a full tank?  Answers: splitting the water molecule with electricity (?), ?, ?, ?, and 36 feet.  So there it is.  You can’t mine or drill for hydrogen.  Well, I guess you can, but just not successfully.  As I recall, from what was it, 9th grade chemistry, it is the first element on the periodic table and a mole of any gas takes the space of roughly 1 cubic foot.  In other words, this is an extremely sparse gas and fuel source.  Liquid hydrogen?  Sure, at about minus 270C.  I just pulled that number out of the air but trust me, you won’t be able to make -270C with some standard plumbing pieces parts and household chemicals from Home Depot and Wal-Mart.

Back to the electric car.  I am aware of the Nissan Leaf, Chevrolet Volt, and Tesla something or other.  The first two have a driving range of 100 miles.  The Tesla has a more conventional driving range of 300-400 miles.  Price tag: about $100,000.  The Leaf and Volt can be had for a song: $40,000.

Yeah, yeah, yeah.  As soon as someone is able to push Pesky aside and develop a long range battery that weighs less than the sculpture of Abe Lincoln in his monument on the national mall, we’ll be home free.  I don’t think so.

The fuel source for electric cars is widely distributed and you can get it pretty much anywhere.  However, Pesky requires a rectifier and transformer to turn AC current delivered over the power lines to DC and then step the voltage down or something like that to “fill” the battery.  Price tag: $2,000.   Ok. Maybe you can buy one of these things and use it until the next ice age.  But it takes 8 HOURS to charge the batteries.  It takes 3 minutes to fill the tank with gasoline.  One hundred miles in 8 hours: 12.5 miles per hour of filling.  Gasoline: 340 miles in 0.05 hour: 6,800 miles per hour.  If I remember correctly, that is roughly Mach 10.  This is like making 30-year aged, single-malt scotch compared to thawing, or as my wife calls it “de-thawing”, a bagel in the microwave.  What happens if you forget to plug in when you get home at night?  Call in to work dead? As in dead battery?

Where are you going to charge once you leave the home-base 30 mile radius?  Who is going to install all $2,000 charging stations for you?  It will be like the Amish when they all get together for their Sunday services.  All the buggies are parked in the yard while the dozens of horses that pulled them there are packed in a shed munching hay, drinking water and lying about for 8 hours.  They are recharging their batteries, man.  That’s beautiful but is the modern American going to put up with 12.5 miles per hour of charging time?  Does anyone root for both the Vikings AND the Packers?  (If so, he/she should be locked up)

Assume engineers are able to speed up the process.  Charge time will still be constrained by the electric “pipes” coming to your home.  An electric water heater or clothes dryer probably pull the greatest demand in a typical house.  The water heater input is limited to 4.5 kW, equivalent of about 6 horsepower.  My lawnmower has at least 3x as much power.  See why it takes such a long time to charge, and it’s not ever going to change without a bazillion dollar modification to the electric grid?

And then there is this little problem:  You probably haven’t thought of it this way but your gasoline-powered automobile is a little and very efficient combined heat and power plant.  That’s right.  I’m going to guess a car is about 20% efficient with maybe 10% burned up in friction and the other 70% dumping heat out the radiator, just like a power plant.  Everyone north of the Florida panhandle needs heat and even if you don’t mind wearing a snow suit and big furry hood, you won’t be able to see where you are going with out lots of heat to keep the windows defrosted or defogged.

Well how much heat does it take?  When I first drove my little (2002) Honda Civic to work in -20F weather, as I coasted down the “big hill” (at least a mile long, maybe 500 feet vertical), the water temperature gage went from “50%” to about “20%”.  I thought crap, the thermostat is probably stuck.  No.  The heater just sucked all waste heat out of the engine while it wasn’t “working” in about 70 seconds.  Where is that kind of heat in an electric car coming from? – from the battery.  But the gas car has 70% of its energy consumption available for space heat.  Once the same heat is extracted from the Abe Lincoln battery, you’re hundred mile range is now down to about 30 miles.  Well guess what the average commute distance is in the U.S., Pesky.  Its 16 miles, 32 round trip.  I guess that car is good for a drive to the convenience store for milk and bread, but just make sure it’s fully charged so you can make it back up the hill.

Recently, Obama has been doing photo ops at an electric delivery truck factory in MO and a battery factory for electric cars in MI, neither of which would be a shadow of themselves without hundreds of millions of free money from the “stimulus”.  I don’t give investment advice but if I were an investment advisor, I would put a strong sell on these stocks.  Then I would short them.  I would buy put options.  If I worked at these places, I would be looking for another job.  The government gave these guys a big push to get going but there is no engine under the hood.

I never like to just thrash things and leave it be without offering alternatives.  Sooner or later we will have no choice but to use alternate fuel sources.  There is no infinite source of oil, although there is probably a 200 year supply if we decided to remove restrictions and technologies allow us to extract oil in more extreme places.  Remember, in the late 1970s we were on the verge of running out of natural gas.  Forty years (40) hence we have a bigger glut of natural gas than ever.

Like efficiency in buildings, in the short term we can make huge gains with existing “technologies” – have heat, have a driving range limited by the driver, and refuel in three minutes every four hours.  In the long term, the alternate fuel source will be in liquid form.  Sources may be algae, wood, (not corn ethanol), garbage or other waste material like dog hair.  I have a bottomless and continuous supply of free dog hair.

Unless something riles me up more in the next week, I will discuss the interim.  Pesky will have the week off because he will have no say in these matters.

written by Jeffrey L. Ihnen, P.E., LEED AP