Events of the last five years have shown us that living on the
grid, dependent on large utility companies, has been anything but
stable. Large electric companies, still reliant on fossil fuel to
generate power, have been forced to raise prices dramatically. An
antiquated series of electrical lines, transformers, and switches
have produced devastating blackouts that have cost our economy
billions. With global demand for energy expected to rise, and the
cost of upgrading infrastructure approaching hundreds of billions,
living off the grid may become a highly plausible and desirable
future for many people.
In order to live off the grid you need to tie production and
consumption together, creating small scale systems for water and
power that require no outside support. It also requires a heavy
dose of conservation and efficiency, utilizing a system that
operates within the constraints of a limited source. Living off the
grid requires a large up front investment in equipment and
expertise, and a pioneering spirit. Costs for solar and wind
generation systems routinely cost tens of thousands of dollars,
yielding a cost per kilowatt hour that exceeds that of the grid.
Nonetheless it is becoming an option many people are beginning to
consider as the marketplace changes. More and more people are
looking to raw materials for energy that are free, inexhaustible,
As innovation and subsidies collide in the market to create
critical mass for residential solar and wind systems, it is
reasonable to expect demand for these technologies to grow.
According to Solar Buzz, a San Francisco-based industry research
company, demand for solar power has grown 20-25% a year for the
last twenty years. Many of these applications of solar power come
in the form of on the grid solutions, however many of these are
distributed at the point of use. It is however the biggest choice
for off the grid applications. Demand has grown so fast that more
silicon now goes into photovoltaics than computer chips.
GM & Segway are hoping to commercialize a new category of smart micro-vehicles for urban environments by 2012 (See previous post). I love the application of Segway software, but am skeptical of a 'plug in' battery version.
I'm not sure how many wall sockets are accessible to urban dwellers who don't have garages! So I love the idea, but think the real potential is the 'access' business model. Let's keep the PUMA owned and operated by mobility service companies, not urban dwellers themselves!
Imagine standing in front of global auto executives in 1999 and presenting a forecast that within ten years an Indian Automaker would be planning to build and sell electric vehicles in Europe. You might have walked away with that negative ‘futurist’ stereotype of a fringe corporate strategic thinker thinking way too far ahead!
Now India’s Tata Motors has announced plans to build an electric vehicle for European markets in 2009.
The company’s UK subsidiary has acquired a 50.3% holding in Miljø Grenland/Innovasjon of Norway to advance solutions for electric vehicles. The move brings Tata closer to realizing its vision of building affordable, clean electric motor vehicles powered by a combination of batteries, fuel cells and capacitors.
The first generation of Miljø produced electric vehicles will use Electrovaya Lithium Ion SuperPolymer® batteries. Tata plans to launch Indica EV in Europe during 2009 as a 4 person vehicle with a predicted battery charge range of up to 200 km (125 miles) with an acceleration of 0-60 kmph (40 mph) in under 10 seconds.
General Motors and Segway unveiled a new type of small electric motor vehicle with advanced software that could shift how we look at mobility as a service.
In an effort to appeal to digitally connected urban audiences, GM describes Project P.U.M.A. (Personal Urban Mobility and Accessibility) as a low-cost mobility platform that 'enables design creativity, fashion, fun and social networking.' This protoype model travels up to 35 miles per hour (56 kph), with a range up to 35 miles (56 km) between recharges (though it's not clear how urban residents will access wall sockets!)
Vehicle-to-Vehicle communication systems that relay alerts and information to drivers to reduce congestion and prevent collisions are already being integrated into luxury vehicles. But within a decade or two we can expect low cost vehicles embedded with sensors and ‘situation awareness’ detection systems that make cars 'smarter' than drivers.
Access and Ownership (and Potential Chaos) A compelling vision of Personal Urban Vehicles is the emergence of personal 'mobility as service' companies that connect outer hubs with urban destination points (offices, retail, recreation, et al). In addition to owning personal vehicles, we can imagine paying for 'access' to fleets of vehicles that we don't have to park. (Of course, adding fleets of small vehicles could mean chaos in urban areas for pedestrians! Not to mention pushback from the Cabbies in New York!)
More Images and Related Posts on The Future of Auto Industry
Hawaii might be the perfect market environment for transforming its vehicle fleet from liquid fueled combustion engine vehicles to electric cars powered by batteries and fuels cells. There is strong support for ‘green’ policies, most vehicles trips are over short distances, and the islands’ fixed boundaries make it easy to plan out the cost of infrastructure. There are a number of strong cleantech startups and state has aggressive plans to expand its own local renewable energy production from solar, wind, geothermal and bio energy so it could tap this locally produced energy into electricity or hydrogen to fuel electric vehicles. Now it appears to be planning new fueling infrastructure for the coming wave of electric vehicles.
Today, the Honolulu Advertiser is reporting that electric vehicle infrastructure builder Better Place (Palo Alto, CA) has plans to build a network of electric recharge units and battery ‘swap out’ stations to service Hawaii’s first wave of battery powered electric vehicles.
Is this good news? Yes.
Will it be easy? No.
The Good News
We appear to have taken the first step – getting the auto industry on board. Every major automobile company has announced plans to release its first generation electric vehicles between 2010-12 around lithium ion batteries. Automobile companies appear ready to leverage the manufacturing cost benefits of killing of the combustion engine and adopting more modular electric motors powered by lithium ion batteries, capacitors and hydrogen fuel cells. Auto engineers are now taking the next step towards integrating all systems- to make a viable electric propulsion platform for the 21st century. With this commitment we can expect other companies to start developing infrastructure. The problem? Overcoming the politics of utility power generation.
Forcing Change on Big Utilities
While this news might feel good, the saying “It’s not a revolution if nobody loses” is certainly relevant. Transforming how we fuel our vehicle fleets is not going to be easy or conflict free. But where might we anticipate pushback?
Common sense says ‘Big Oil’, but the real challenge in accelerating this shift towards electric vehicle infrastructure might be ‘Big Utilities’ who are now struggling to imagine their place in a world of fueling homes and vehicles.
By the fall of 2008, every major automanufacturer from GM to Nissan to Tata--and a few startups such as Tesla and Aptera--had announced production model plans for all manner of electric vehicles, from all electrc vehicles, to plug-in hybrid electrics, to fuel cell vehicles, with deliveries to consumers starting in 2010. 2008 could well be known as the nail in the coffin for the bulky combustion engine which has plagued the auto industry with its manufacturing and design liabilities, and association with volatile oil markets.
How quickly might the world re-tool the global auto industry to build new vehicle chassis based on electric motors and advanced energy storage systems?
Continue Reading other Top Energy Stories from 2008
It’s tough as an everyday consumer to participate in changing how we generate and use power. If you don’ t work for an automobile manufacturer, an energy company, a utility, or the government, it seems you’re pretty much out of luck in affecting real change. For transportation, you can either ditch your car and use public transportation, ride your bike, or buy a Toyota Prius or other hybrid vehicle.
But soon, there will be another choice, which takes a Prius from 40-50 mpg to 100+ mpg. By adding more batteries to a hybrid and giving it a plug, you now have what’s known as a “Plug-in Hybrid Electric”, or PHEV. But you can’t buy one…yet. You could build your own from plans on the Internet today from the PriusPlus Project, but not every Prius owner is into DIY car hacking, or violating their warranty. You can hire an after market company to convert your Prius for $8,000 to $24,000. Or, you can wait 18-24 months before the first vehicles arrive from Toyota, etc.
The basic idea is this: for the average driver, most trips during the day are surprisingly short. Let’s say less than 10 miles. Errands, grocery shopping, chauffeuring kids, etc, all generally happen within 10 miles for the average driver. A PHEV has at least a 10 mile capacity with its additional battery packs, so effectively, for 80% of typical driving, a PHEV is an electric car because it will will not need to to turn on its gas engine. The benefits: no fossil fuel combustion to foul up our air, or burn up our dollars…at a cheaper price per mile. It’s the best of both worlds: an electric vehicle for most of your day to day driving, plus a gas engine as back up when you need it.
But today, about the only thing you can do is follow the news, read bloggers, or read, Plug-in Hybrids: Cars That Will Recharge the America by Sherry Boschert (2006, New Society Publishes). In it, Boschert weaves the story of the GM EV1 electric car and it’s demise with a number of related stories including one about how a group of enthusiastic hackers, makers, and activists converted a Prius into a PriusPlus PHEV, with another story of how activists and a former CIA Director are stumping for PHEV’s as the best way to help us out of the energy crunch. Along the way she brings to light how the automobile companies change (or not), how a small group of people can help affect change, and how the PHEV activists trash hydrogen.
Electric vehicle infrastructure start up Better Place continues to grab headlines with projects in Israel, Denmark and Hawaii. Now the company announced plans to build out infrastructure in Australia.
Infrastructure for Electricity & Hydrogen
Electric cars are coming but we will need to develop new infrastructure and business models that go beyond today’s notions of corner gas stations delivering liquid fuels to combustion engines.
Electric cars are likely to be powered by a combination of batteries, hydrogen fuel cells and capacitors. Not one energy storage device is expected to rule them all. And while the short-term strategy of extending the world’s electricity grid to vehicles seems logical, in a few years we might turn to the chemical storage of electricity via hydrogen to overcome cost and performance challenges of electron storage in batteries.
Electrification in Australia
Startup Better Place has announced agreements with AGL Energy and financial advisor Macquarie Capital Group to raise $1 billion (AUD) and begin deploying an electric vehicle (EV) network powered by renewable energy.
Australia has the world’s seventh highest per capita rate of car ownership, the country has nearly 15 million cars on the road after adding over a million new cars last year.
Victorian Premier John Brumby said, “The Victorian Government supports any initiative that will have positive outcomes in reducing emissions in the transport sector and welcomes this innovative approach to help make broad adoption of EVs in Australia possible.”
If there’s one thing people desire, it’s a simple mode of transportation that doesn’t make them look like a total dweeb. Packing this onto a scooter is hard enough, but designer Sarah Park may have done just that.
The most striking thing about this concept, besides the Bat Pod-like angles of the thing, is that it incorporates four tires into its design. Some of you may remember this kind of setup from Dodge’s incredibly fast Tomahawk. The parallel tires angle themselves depending on the angle of the vehicle — this allows the vehicle to have four tires instead of two for greater stability and balance.
Also equipped with headlights and taillights, a device such as this guarantees if you’re caught riding around on it you won’t get the laughs the Segway does.
This is not game-changing news, but certainly worth noting since expectations are that Asian energy storage manufacturers (not US-based) are likely to dominate the first generation battery-power vehicles.
This news arrived close to a NY Timesfront page article covering China's aspirations to lead the world in electric vehicles by 2011.
It is an obvious win for A123 Systems, which was passed up by General Motors for Korea's LG last Fall, for GM's Volt battery pack. But it is still unclear how the battle over energy storage will play out in the long term.
Today's lithium ion battery batteries are better thanks to nanostructured components and membranes, but I'm doubtful that they will be the only power system in next generation electric vehicles.
Fuel cells and capacitors will eventually have their day as pieces to the complex engineering puzzle of powering cars. So let's not waste too much money extending 20th century wall socket cords to 21st century vehicles! We should decouple transportation fueling from the grid, not add excess strain to an aging grid with no storage mechanism!
How Should US Automakers Respond? I am a big fan of A123 Systems, but would rather see their nano-enhanced products used in non-automotive applications. Let's get Li-ion batteries right for laptops before we head into automotive applications!
Energy storage is the key to accelerating the era of electric vehicles powered by a combination of batteries, hydrogen fuel cells and capacitors. Of these three, batteries are expected to be the primary energy storage device for the first generation of commercial electric vehicles like the GM Volt.
Big Auto turns to Big Chem
According to a Reuters report General Motors has selected Compact Power Inc a Detroit-area based unit of South Korea’s LG Chem Ltd to supply lithium-ion batteries for its Chevrolet Volt which the company expects to produce 10,000 vehicles in 2011 before scaling up.
The Future of Energy Storage Startups
Many energy pundits had hoped that General Motors might go with new nanostructured lithium ion batteries from start up A123 Systems. That news would have been welcomed by cleantech energy investors hoping that at least one start up might break into the energy storage sector. But now it appears GM has gone to a bigger, more established chemical company and industrial battery maker. This is a harsh reminder to startups that ‘scaling’ matters and incumbents are likely to hold that advantage.