The Ergosphere
Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Petroleum independence as a growth engine

Over at Winds of Change, I've been having a little discussion.  Jonathan Gewirtz of Chicago Boyz had this to say (emphasis in bold added):
I do not understand the concern about our "dependence on foreign oil." We depend on foreign oil because it is a good deal -- i.e., it's currently the cheapest way to satisfy our energy needs.
Me being me, I took this as an invitation to analyze the claim above.  (Most of this piece is taken from my reply which was directed conversationally at Jonathan, to whom I refer as "you".  Readers should interpret accordingly.)

Crude oil contains about 6.1 GJ/bbl, and is selling for about $60/bbl; call it $10/GJ in round numbers.  After 10% refining losses you're up to about $11/GJ; burned in a diesel at 35% efficiency each GJ at the output costs you about $31/GJ, or about $0.11/kWh in crude at the port of departure (at $2.50/gallon and 140 kBTU/gallon it costs about $.17 at the pump per kWh of engine output).  Gasoline cars average 17% efficiency, so those figures become 23¢/kWh of crude and 39.8¢ at the pump per kWh at the wheels (assuming 126,000 BTU/gallon HHV for gasoline).

We may soon look back on $2.50/gallon petroleum with wistful nostalgia.  (News from people of my acquaintance on the West Coast indicates that some already do.  Premium no-lead in the Seattle area is a squeak under 3 bucks, and diesel in California is over.  I'm happy that I can still fill my oil-burner for a smidge under two-fifty.)

Solar PV power costs about 25¢/kWh and is dropping steadily (there may also be quantum jumps as new technologies come to market).  Wind power is as low as 4.5¢/kWh and is also dropping as bigger turbines return more energy per dollar invested.  Crude was a good deal at $15/bbl, but is no longer.  Even if technical and political risks are ignored, it probably never will be again.

It's time to move away from petroleum.  I would already have moved, but there are no vehicles on the market that will let me "fuel" with electricity.  I expect this to change well before the 2010 model year, but that doesn't help today.

You don't even need to go AE [alternative energy] to benefit; if we had electric vehicles, we could use quite a bit less petroleum.  Combined-cycle gas turbines turn fuel into electricity at about 50% efficiency; allowing 7% for transmission losses, 10% each for charger and battery losses and 20% at the motor, the overall efficiency would be 30.1%.  Compared to burning fuel in a 17% efficient car you could burn the oil in CCGT plants, get 77% more miles per gallon and still have the steam-turbine exhaust for industrial process heat.  (Calculating more directly, if you burned straight crude in a powerplant which scrubbed the sulfur and whatnot and achieved 50% efficiency, the output energy would be 3.05 GJ/bbl or 20.2 kWh/gallon.  Given 7% transmission losses and 350 Wh/mile at the wall [about 35% more than the plug-in Prius+], an electric vehicle would achieve an effective 57.6 MPG.)

Crude oil at $10/GJ burned in a 50% efficient powerplant produces power at 7.2¢/kWh fuel cost.  If wind can substitute for 30% of this at 4.5¢/kWh, the average cost of the electricity would be 6.39¢/kWh (plus O&M on the CCGT).  The effective "mileage" of the aforementioned electric car would be 82.3 MPG; the plug-in Prius using 262 Wh/mile would get an effective 102 MPG on its all-electric driving.  Then you'd have all the air-pollution reductions coming along with that for free... can you list the market failures?

A vehicle achieving 57.6 MPG is getting more than double the CAFE standard for passenger cars; 82.3 MPG is approximately triple.  It appears that a change in the technology of transport energy delivery could cut the fuel required to run America's passenger vehicles by 2/3 with only a modest shift to renewables.  It would also replace a great deal of imported crude oil with much cheaper domestic energy supplies which have little or no price volatility.

The USA consumes about 134 billion gallons of motor gasoline per year (8.74 million barrels per day).  Eliminating 2/3 of this would cut 5.83 million bbl/day of demand, or over half a Saudi Arabia.  This in itself would reduce both world oil prices and price volatility.
The worst thing we could do would be to try and predict the future by shunting public resources, at the expense of economic growth, into this or that currently-favored technology.
If you mean that we should stop shunting public resources into defense costs for oil producers and routes and charge them at the pump instead, I could not agree more.  I can point to entire industries which have come to depend on that one market distortion, amounting to misinvestment of hundreds of billions of dollars.

Our current transport energy system is penny-wise and pound-foolish.  It evolved in conditions which are now history.  It's time to recognize this fact and move on.

What will happen if we do?  Replacing 11¢/kWh petroleum with 4.5¢/kWh wind electricity will cut the cost of the inputs by more than half, of course.  It will also make the future cost of the energy much more predictable.

The usual product of lower costs and greater certainty is more investment and economic activity.  The question has to be raised:  why are soi-disant advocates of growth opposing one of the biggest engines of growth of this century?  They should be its biggest fans. 
Please tell me you are either not serious, still in high school or a liberal-arts student.
Maybe it should be 30¢/pint after security fees and carbon taxes.

Instead of implicitly asserting that we should pay some ridiculous sum for each GJ of sunlight that comes through the window, how about doing (you know) analysis?
The question is, however, whether after the U.S. finally gets tired of pooching Iraq's oil production, Saudi's regime stabilizes, America starts driving more reasonable cars (or, gasp!!, taking the train) and Asia's demand relaxes a bit (so far this year much of Asia saw a decrease in oil consumption, see Morgan Stanley's Global Economic Forum July 14), and oil goes back to $30/bbl (which it may well) will people buy the alternative power? What becomes of the investment?

Don't get me wrong, I think we should move to more ecologically friendly alternatives for a many reasons.

There's a big component of the current situation which many feel is because of the memory of $10/bbl oil. It takes a while from investment to production, and we may just be in a temporary squeeze.
SimonC, have you looked at the rates of production decrease from oilfields worldwide?  The North Sea is declining on the order of 10% per year!  Between the US and Britain, oil production fell by 430,000 bbl/day last year.  This is a systemic phenomenon.

It's happening in the ME too.  Saudi oil production from its big fields is falling about 0.5 million bbl/day each year, so another half-million bbl/day in new production has to be found just to keep the flow stable.  Next year you have to do it again, and the next year.

Crude might fall to $30/bbl for a little while after a financial meltdown in e.g. China, but this would be temporary.  It would only take a short period of idled drilling rigs to bring the supply back down to the $50+/bbl price level, and then you're playing catch-up again.

Capital is fairly cheap right now; it's time to build out AE and work on "omnivorous" energy consumption systems, like plug-in hybrid cars.  The beauty of having a lot of energy supply sewed up in the form of e.g. wind farms is that nobody's field depletion nor pipeline sabotage nor tanker sinking nor LNG carrier fire would be able to affect your supplies or prices, and you'd benefit from the certainty even if your costs were temporarily a bit higher.
What about getting rid of the mechanical transmission? If we're using electricity - even electricity generated by an internal combustion engine - we don't need differentials, half shafts, propshafts or gearboxes. And you get all-wheel drive into the bargain.

Better yet, ye can do dynamic traction control in software. I've heard various disagreements with this, but I don't think they stand up. Someone tried to tell me you couldn't make an electric motor that could get wet - well, I've worked with electric water pumps that were continuously submerged and that was no problem - or that was reliable - well, ask the railway engineers who've been using diesel-electric technology for donkey's years.

If there is a real obstacle, it's the suspension, although good dynamic traction control could help with that, and hub-drive would also change the design constraints for the chassis quite a bit. Another gain is that you can run the heat engine at its most efficient speed all the time.
You state one potential reason for oil price falls yourself: electricity is cheaper than oil.

With good batteries, 4.5 cents per kWh of electricity is easily 3 times cheaper than gasoline.

The problem is we don't have good batteries (not yet at any rate).

Iogen has a nice graph illustrating relative costs:

Iogen also has a nice way of phrasing the relative benefits of ethanol and hybrids:
"widespread use of the five percent ethanol mixture would deliver the same benefits as a 20 to 30 percent market penetration of relatively costly hybrid cars, which are powered by both gasoline and batteries."
E-P: I'm not insensitive to those arguments, but have run into enough contrary data to make me skeptical of the peak oil crowd. Two examples: Saudi started with 700 Gbbl oil in place, has pumped about 100 of that, and projects another 200 based on its 52% drilling success rate. They also don't have much in the way of enhanced oil recovery, they just pump it. There's huge potential for production increase.

U.S. Sen. Hatch isn't my favourite person in the world, but is getting behind some folks who claim they can extract the 3 trillion barrels of Colodado and Utah shale oil at $10/bbl. We're down to below that on the Alberta tar sands and Venezuela hasn't even started oil sands and shale extraction.

Yes, we're seeing a production and refinery bottleneck right now. I'm not convinced that it's permanent. We may see only a 20 year respite. I'm just saying that whatever plans move forward should take into account the possibility of oil getting cheap again for a while.

Alex: motors in the wheels work well on rails, but if your road or track is uneven you need as little weight as possible in the wheels. That, however, may mean one joint to a chassis-mounted electric motor on each wheel, yes.

Heiko: I'd forgotten about IOGen, thanks for reminding us. I remain unconvinced about the energy balance of even the cellulose ethanol process.
spudentity:  Solar PV has been competitive with peaking electric rates in some areas for a while now.  On the other hand, did you notice that your story didn't even mention cost per kWh?

(BTW, you make live links like this:  <a href="URL">LINK TEXT</a>)

Heiko:  You quote your source saying this:

"widespread use of the five percent ethanol mixture would deliver the same benefits as a 20 to 30 percent market penetration of relatively costly hybrid cars, which are powered by both gasoline and batteries."

This assumes that a hybrid achieves only 17% to 25% reduction in fuel consumption.  This seems low; the Escape hybrid achieves about 33 MPG (in real life) vs. 25 MPG for the conventional model (25% reduction) while the Prius gets up to 50 MPG vs. a conventional vehicle of similar size getting around 33 MPG (33% reduction).

The plug-in hybrid option would easily double those cuts for most drivers.

The real issue is that ethanol comes at a high cost in subsidies and has a long logicistical "tail" which makes even a good accounting of its costs and impacts a very difficult exercise.  The hybrid is relatively easy, and the plug-in hybrid not much harder.  Last, the potential impact of electric propulsion goes up to 100% of motor fuel consumption compared to ~10% for conventional vehicles and only 85% for flex-fuel cars (you need 15% hydrocarbons to allow cold starting).

For those benefits as well as superior grid management, hybrids are the way to go.
I don't know how Iogen made their estimate, however:

there are hybrids which under real driving conditions average much less than a 25% gain.

"The buyer's guide rated the Accord Hybrid at 25 miles a gallon (10.6 kilometers a liter), versus the conventional V6's 23 miles a gallon (9.8 kilometers a liter). That's a savings of just under 9 percent."

I don't think that ethanol needs a subsidy at current gasoline prices it's cheaper than gasoline.

I also think it's quite reasonable not to levy federal or state gasoline taxes on ethanol. Gasoline use avoided through hybrids, after all, gets the same tax break.

Plug-in hybrids won't displace 100% of gasoline use, for that we'd need all electric cars.

In Brazil cars do run on pure ethanol, no gasoline added. And gasoline can be made from biomass via gasification and Fischer-Tropsch, it doesn't have to be fossil fuel based.

One popular concept is the biorefinery:
The starch from corn gets turned into ethanol, the corn stover is subjected to enzymatic hydrolysis, generating more ethanol still, a few speciality chemicals are produced as a side stream, and the lignin is gasified with tri-generation of process heat, electricity and clean liquid fuels via Fischer-Tropsch.

This holds the promise of zero net fossil fuel inputs and much higher ethanol yield per bushel of corn.

(I don't work on bio-ethanol, but I do bio-refinery related research)
Heiko:  The Accord hybrid is an inappropriate example because it was designed by Honda for superior performance at the expense of economy improvements.  Also, you appear to have understated the economy; my first search result claims 43% improvement city, 23% highway.

If ethanol doesn't need subsidies, why does the new energy bill keep the subsidies and expand the mandates?

Last, the evolutionary endpoint of the plug-in hybrid is indeed a complete EV.  Until batteries of sufficient capacity become cheap enough, hybrid tech will allow long-range driving while still achieving fuel savings as well as pollution reductions.


spudentity:  That's wonderful, but I think the application is wrong.  Such units shouldn't be installed in gigawatt farms, but on the roofs of buildings and over parking lots to provide both power and shade.  Moving production to the point of use eliminates transmission losses, and if installed by consumers rather than utilities the avoided cost would be greater and thus the attractiveness of the investment would also be greater.

If someone designed a mirror system for this engine which doubled as a shading device for south-facing windows (of which many office buildings have too many), that would achieve a triple payback.
They claim that under real world driving conditions the saving is much less for this hybrid.

With current gasoline prices ($1.9584 per gallon or over $82 per barrel, latest Bloomberg quote), ethanol can nicely compete. What the mandate does is give investors planning security. That shouldn't worry you, as you don't think, I believe, that gasoline prices will come down? So people might as well plan, as if current oil prices were guaranteed to continue.

Gasoline is, on average, taxed at 42 cents per gallon (though in some states it's about 50 cents). The 51 cent a gallon tax break effectively amounts to little more than not having to pay gasoline taxes, which is one of the subsidies in place for efficiency measures, such as hybrids (there are also direct subsidies for the purchase of a hybrid, and the CAFE standards). After all, no gasoline taxes are due on avoided gasoline use. The revenue loss is the same either way, it doesn't matter whether the gasoline is displaced by an alternative liquid fuel or by efficiency, or by electricity, which is currently also not subject to gasoline taxes, when it is used to fuel a vehicle.

If you are truely worried about the gasoline revenue loss from increased ethanol use, think about the revenue loss when we get to 100% electricity, as envisioned by you. Gasoline tax revenue would then go down by 100%, as well. Yet you don't seem to be overly worried by that, or to even consider that a "subsidy" in the first place.
Heiko, you miss the point several times over:

1.  Many states forgive taxes on the gasoline portion of gasohol; the petroleum also goes untaxed.
2.  Unsubsidized (but untaxed) ethanol would still use fossil fuel in several stages of its production.
3.  None of the petroleum used in its production is subject to road taxes; it's just a tax dodge.
4.  Aside from coal used in distilling, the marginal unit of fuel used in production (which would be eliminated if we did not grow the crops for ethanol) is imported.

The savings from a more efficient vehicle is 100% of the quantity seen at the pump.  That's the difference.

Federal fuel taxes come to 18.4¢/gallon; a 30 MPG vehicle pays about 0.6¢/mile in federal gasoline taxes (plus state taxes).  If the average EV consumed 350 Wh/mile at the charger, you could charge an equivalent road tax of about 1.8¢/kWh to EV's and GO-HEV's.  This would not seriously change the economics of electric propulsion.

One of the best presentations is:

Great detail on energy balances, costs and possible product combinations for biorefineries. Definitely worth a read, all right I should say so I work in the bioenergy field.

And now onto the quibbles:

1. Well yes, in some states it's a bit more than just being free from the gasoline tax, though not that much more.

2. It doesn't have to be fossil fuels, it could all come from renewables in principle.

3. Farmers and truckers do have to pay gasoline/diesel taxes. If they don't pay taxes on a petroleum product, it's because that petroleum product isn't taxed. That applies to other users as well, including battery manufacturers or oil refineries.

4. My main two quibbles here are, firstly, because nat gas is used now it doesn't have to be continue to be used. Secondly, it's still a major difference whether gasoline is displaced or nat gas, for a variety of reasons (different import dependence, transportation nearly entirely dependent on liquid fuels, other options for using nat gas in transportation, such as GTL, involve large conversion losses and/or investment in new vehicles).

(5.) The "savings": if you refer to reduced imports (as per point 4), you'll find that hybrids tend to be imported from Japan (nat gas tends to be imported from Canada and to a lesser extent Trinidad and Tobago, it's not the same kind of problem as with oil - and indeed dependence on imports from Japan isn't the same as dependence on petroleum imports). And efficiency may mean an upfront energy investment, for example for lightweight materials, or for batteries.

1.8 cents per kWh is similar to what wind is getting at the moment. And to paraphrase your criticism of ethanol, if EV's don't need the subsidy, why do EV's get one?

We just don't know which will be the best options in the future:

1. Better battery technology => Liquid transportation fuels become obsolete, considering the zero emissions nature of electricity non EV's might outright be banned, and considering the sudden solution of the storage problem intermittent renewables become much more attractive.

2. Improvements in genetics and biorefinery technology => Liquid transportation fuels from low fertiliser, low pesticide, low maintenance, high yield crops become so much cheaper than petroleum that they displace it fully.

hydrogen, zinc, nuclear power, fusion etc.... make much progress and neither 1. nor 2. comes to pass.

Or, how about a combination of 1. and 2. improved batteries make plug-in HEV's viable where the liquid fuel component comes from entirely renewable E85 produced in an integrated biorefinery, with both of these options together displacing petroleum entirely.
Back of the envelope gets a workout again.

So those SES solar dishes are 10m across, or about 78 m^2 and produce 60 MWh per year or about 6800 W averaged over the year. So they expect to pull 6800/78 = 87 W/m^2 out of the sun in the California desert. I take it there 40 units for 1 MW of power is under peak sunshine.

Here in sunny (not) Waterloo Ontario we get an 24x365 year's average of 250 W/m^2, I imagine it's more like 300-400 W/m^2 in the desert. So they are claiming what, about 25% to 30% efficiency?

That's pretty good... with the way folks use air conditioning these days the peak power can probably be used, as well.

So, 900 MW / 6.8 kW ~ 133,000 units to replace a single CANDU generating station. It's probably 50% more than that north of the border. Each unit from SES is $250,000 according to an article in Popular Science, so 133,000 units is a about a $33 billion project, for which we can easily build about 4-6 CANDU plants with 4x900MW reactors (each burning tasty, efficient thorium).

Hmmm... so SES has to get those units down to about $10,000-$15,000 to be cost effective... That might be doable...
Heiko, you've cited the Lynd presentation twice.  It is just a series of Powerpoint slides with little detail, some pretty pictures and no cites (glitz over substance).  If you are putting it forth as proof of anything, you should look for the supporting data instead.

"1. Well yes, in some states it's a bit more than just being free from the gasoline tax, though not that much more."

Some states have their own subsidies above and beyond the federal one; Iowa's is 1.7 cents/gallon compared to straight petroleum.  Forgiving 6.8¢/gallon in fuel taxes on a 10% mixture amounts to a $.68/gallon subsidy.

"2. It doesn't have to be fossil fuels, it could all come from renewables in principle."

At the 1.67 EROEI which is the best cited for ethanol, it would take 2.5 gallons-equivalent of gross production to produce 1 gallon net.  This is not a system which can run itself.

The energy payback time for land-based wind systems is 0.26 years (~3 months); it's 0.39 years (~5 months) for sea-based.  The EROEI of these systems beats ethanol within the first year of operation, and goes up to ~80:1 assuming a 20-year lifespan.

It would take a huge amount of energy invested in batteries to bring EV's down to the EROEI of bioethanol, and then you still have the .

"3. Farmers and truckers do have to pay gasoline/diesel taxes."

Off-road applications do not typically pay road taxes; this includes farm equipment, heavy equipment for earth moving, etc.  (They have historically not had to obey e.g. sulfur-content restrictions on fuel, either.  Non-road engines are in an EPA category of their own.)

"if you refer to reduced imports (as per point 4), you'll find that hybrids tend to be imported from Japan.... "

And diesels from Germany, but even if they could never be built domestically (ha!) those nations aren't centers of hostile movements.

The energy required to build a vehicle is about 1/10 of its total lifetime consumption.  Adding a bit of energy for efficiency or electric propulsion could slash lifetime energy consumption.  Unfortunately, bio-fuels tend to be made with petroleum (cultivation and chemicals) and gas (fertilizer and distillation), both of which come increasingly from hostiles.  I'd like to see you demonstrate the same for e.g. batteries.

"1.8 cents per kWh is similar to what wind is getting at the moment. And to paraphrase your criticism of ethanol, if EV's don't need the subsidy, why do EV's get one?"

Prove the relevance of that point.  What fraction of that subsidy goes to road vehicles, versus the ethanol subsidy?

Last, regardless how good biorefinery technology gets, it's not going to produce as much energy from a given area of land as solar or wind.
Ethanol doesn't get used to provide any of the inputs.
At the moment 0.6 kWh of fossil energy are used to produce 1 kWh of ethanol (or if you like that's 1.6 kWh of gross production for 1 kWh of net production).

Now, to get to 2.5 kWh of gross production for each 1 kWh of output, you have to assume that ethanol would be used for all the inputs, which is hardly the best way to do it.

Instead, let's consider your ideas in the zinc post. We could use solar power as the input. For each kWh of solar insolation we could thermochemically split 0.5 kWh worth of hydrogen and I should think use most of the rest still as low grade process heat. And we could also run a combined cycle plant with the 1200 degrees Celsius solar input, getting say 50% efficiency for electricity generation, leaving 50% for low grade heat. And using heat pumps we could use some of the electricity so generated to provide even more low grade heat.

So to produce that 1 kWh of ethanol, we could get away with a surprisingly low amount of solar input, maybe 0.4 kWh.

And that is assuming, we don't apply greater efficiency to ethanol production itself (such as wider use of molar sieves to reduce the energy requirements for distillation).

Which begs the question why the process isn't optimised energetically already, why isn't say biomass burned for process heat, or turned into slow release fertiliser (one of Aston's past projects - my employer -), why use nat gas?

Energy quality matters (including the aspects of convenience and low monetary investment requirements).

If you looked at net energy alone, the way to go for biomass would be to displace fuel oil, preferably in combined heat and power schemes that try to replace applications using electricity to generate heat (washing machines, driers, electric hot water, cooking, baking).

This way biomass with net energy about 40:1 would be replacing coal and fuel oil at a ratio of 2 kWh of coal and fuel oil displaced per kWh of biomass burned.

It seems perverse to be burning coal in a power plant to heat water to raise steam to generate electricity, which then gets used to boil a kettle of water in somebody's home.

Yet, it's done that way, because of capital investment and convenience. There's value added justifying the extra energy expenditure.

It's not just vehicles that could be made more energy efficient with low energy investment. This applies to ethanol plants as well, the penalty is higher capital investment, which at the moment pays in neither case.

The reason ethanol is produced the way it is at the moment is because it's cheap, because the plant investment is low (a Dollar forty a gallon or so, ie one year's worth of sales is all the investment required, not to mention that it's proven technology). And present cars can take a 10% mix with no modification, and new cars that can take E85 cost virtually the same as gasoline only cars.

But this is a prelude. It's about getting a foot into the door for biofuels, at low cost.

The end game can very well be the kind of scheme you are talking about in "going negative". There you are also talking about taking biomass and processing it with renewable energy (solar) to provide a liquid fuel, or to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, while also generating electricity and heat.

I know you have argued that, well, ethanol isn't really low cost, but it's the truth, at the moment, other liquid fuel replacements are more expensive and/or less convenient (eg CNG requires frequent refilling, extra tank space, EV's have even more limited range, long recharging times) and/or require massive investment (Fischer-Tropsch from biomass could compete with ethanol on price in Europe, but investment costs are massively higher dominating the overall cost, while with ethanol it's the feedstock and other variable costs that dominate). Solar concentrators to turn biomass into liquid fuel (be it methanol or ethanol or Fischer-Tropsch liquids) is somewhere in the stratosphere cost wise.

In Brazil, ethanol's now doing exceedingly well. In July FFV cars got nearly 60% market share in the new car market. Ethanol produced in Brazil has virtually no fossil fuel input (bagasse gets burned for process energy rather than nat gas) and it now beats petrol cost wise by a wide margin.
Heiko, where is your blog? You seem to make excellent points and have a good understanding of biofuels and I would be interested in reading your own posts as well.

E-P, why do you continue to be hostile to biofuels? Noone here (at least not Heiko nor myself) are offering biofuels as THE solution to displace petroleum. My best estimates after doing research is that we could probably displace about 20% of our consumption economically with biofuels (based on available biomass supply, see this report for estimates of available biomass) using integrated cellulosic-refining methods like those being developed by Iogen. I, like yourself, see GO-HEVs as a viable solution to the rest of the problem, especially (and there are still a lot of gains to be made here) if battery technology continues to improve.

However, why does using GO-HEVs in any way preclude using biofuels as well? As Heiko wrote, "improved batteries [can] make plug-in HEV's viable where the liquid fuel component comes from entirely renewable E85 produced in an integrated biorefinery, with both of these options together displacing petroleum entirely."

An integrated solution to our energy problems is necessary and promoting a single solution at the expense of other possibilities serves little purpose. And again, most of the complaints you bring against ethanol are still based on older refining methods, not the one's that are beginning to hit the market (stay tuned for a LOT of news on biofuels in the next two years) and that I am advocating as a truly viable biofuel refining process.

Finally, as to your question about why ethanol is still subsidized if it doesnt need it, a lot of things are subsidized that dont need it. The new energy bill includes multi-billion dollar subsidies for the coal, natural gas and oil industries despite their enjoying record profits. Additionally, subsidies are often given to provide quicker market acceptance of products that would already enjoy growth on their own but that the government decides would be beneficial if they expanded faster. Lastly, these subsidies are still going (almost entirely) to biofuels produced by the less-efficient refining methods that will (hopefully) soon be replaced by the more efficient methods I continue to reference.

On a more congradulatory note, thank you for providing the numbers comparing gasoline costs versus electricity costs for GO-HEVs. These numbers are very convincing and you are the first I have seen to lay them all out.

Well, a bike's got zero fuel cost and doesn't cost very much to buy.

If you want a car with the same performance, it's gonna cost an awful lot more, overall, to run it on battery stored electricity than on liquid fuels.

That's a fact, and for battery stored electricity the most important hurdle is battery technology, not the cost of electricity.
I agree with E-P here on biofuels. Plants aren't optimal at capturing solar energy and there isn't enough regular farm waste out there to supply our civilization as is. So we'd end up having to grow crops for the express purpose of harvesting for biofuels. That's an inefficient process.
Well, a bike's got zero fuel cost and doesn't cost very much to buy.

Incorrect on the fuel cost. The cyclist burns energy and has to eat more as a result. Food is the fuel here. OTOH, they're only moving (with low friction wheels) their weight plus the bike and perhaps a little cargo. That makes the bike much more efficient than many forms of transportation.
Joe:  Your neighbor would probably have handled his cardboard differently if he was paying for garbage removal by the cubic yard.  Externalities make a difference.

I think Heiko may have a serious point regarding the efficiency of inexpensive, high energy-density batteries like Zn-air.  (That explains the oddly low cell voltage of the Electric Fuel units compared to the energy of formation of zinc oxide.)  It will require recalculation of the energy inputs to see how economical they would be - I suspect that this isn't a killer by any means, but I won't be certain until I've run the numbers.
Well, the conversion efficiency of sunlight to stored energy in the form of organic matter is low compared to what you can get with PV or a Carnot cycle.

But, at the moment, it's by far the cheapest way to produce liquid transport fuels from energy sources other than petroleum or from entirely renewable energy sources.

Solar power and wind would, at present, be best leveraged into liquid fuels by producing hydrogen, or by furnishing process heat, required to upgrade biomass.

Batteries and fuel cells are currently just not up to the task of providing consumers with what they want in personal transportation at an acceptable price point.

I know this is a matter of "convenience" for the consumer, if people had to, they'd accept an electrified transport system relying on electrified rail for long distances, and glorified golf carts for getting to the local shops and to the station.


Interesting press release about an ethanol plant to be built this year that will use cow manure instead of natural gas to fire its boilers:
Heiko, you're assuming the very thing at issue:  whether liquid transport fuels are the best way of bringing renewable energy to the transport system.

"Batteries and fuel cells are currently just not up to the task of providing consumers with what they want in personal transportation at an acceptable price point."

That's unequivocally true for hydrogen fuel cells, but for batteries (and Zn-air FC's) it depends on what kind of application you have and what kind of battery you're trying to use.  The average commuter (whose daily round trip is 22 miles or less) could drive something like a Tango, which uses lead-acid batteries.

This situation appears very likely to change.  Cobalt-free Li-ion batteries (e.g. Valence Technology's Saphion) appear to have no inherent barriers to becoming very inexpensive.  They are perhaps 1 order of magnitude away from being as cheap as a conventional drivetrain for 300 miles of range.  Solar PV achieved a 1-order-of-magnitude reduction in per-watt cost in what, 20 years?  Given the amounts of money at stake, it may take quite a bit less for Saphion.

I also note that you deliberately exclude consideration of hybrids.  Hmmm....

"if people had to, they'd accept ... glorified golf carts for getting to the local shops and to the station."

Why would they do that, when a Prius+ would do it all?
Getting back to things I missed, Joe Willemsen writes:  "You're comparing a price which most people don't pay (US average is about 9.5 cents per kWh)...."

But Joe, that is what we pay!  (Wholesale.)  The lowest-cost producers of wind power do produce it for 4.5¢/kWh, and crude at $67/bbl is about $11/GJ.

If you want to talk retail you should also count petroleum's price at the pump.  Regular no-lead has been running about $2.699 in my neighborhood, which is 7.3¢/kWh of heat or 43¢/kWh at the wheels (17% average efficiency).  Electricity at 10¢ or even 20¢/kWh at the wheels is a bargain by comparison.
Well, battery and fuel cell vehicles aren't being accepted by consumers at the moment.

The Tango is vapour ware:
"This car has not been designed yet ..."

What I can buy here in the UK is the g-whiz, which we've discussed before.

I've been looking around for a nice electric car to buy for ages. In the case of the g-whiz, my wife and me got onto a coach to London at 7 in the morning, to take a test drive at 13:00 and travelled back in the late afternoon - I am exceptionally keen on electric cars, know what's available, and if anything am biased in their favour, I am just not blind to facts.

You know that Toyota does not like plug-in hybrids, because they think that batteries aren't up to the job.

Batteries are just about at the point where hybrids make marginal sense. I now see two reasons why they are more popular in the US than Europe. Firstly, diesel is the option of choice in Europe and the efficiency gain is comparable and achievable at lower cost. Secondly, I think Toyota is selling the Prius at a low cost point in the US for marketing purposes, and, to more easily meet CAFE standards, ie SUV's are cross-subsidising hybrids in the US.

Batteries might make progress, of course, as might competing technology. We can all practise wishful crystal ball gazing.
"Well, battery and fuel cell vehicles aren't being accepted by consumers at the moment."

Yes, the lines of people who turned in their EV-1 vehicles early and picketed GM dealers for foisting such lemons onto the public were quite a phenomenon.

Wait, that didn't happen.  People were picketing GM to keep the EV-1's from being crushed and called instead for selling them to the public.  Ford's remaining electric Ranger pickups are being sold to the lessees or the public.  I hear that the latter will have to pay $6000 for the privilege of owning one.  I haven't heard of any glut on the market.

Does that sound like non-acceptance of battery vehicles to you?  (I can't speak for fuel cells, they are intrinsically expensive and no major manufacturer is selling them either.)

"The Tango is vapour ware:
"This car has not been designed yet ..."

You seem to have an... interesting take on reality.  I quote from the Commuter Cars main page today, all emphasis in original:

---- BEGIN QUOTE ----

Update 8/9/05: George Clooney excitedly drove his new Tango T600 for the first time earlier today. This sale of the first Tango kit is a major milestone for Commuter Cars. Mr. Clooney is proud to be driving a high-performance pure electric vehicle and intends to drive it regularly.

---- END QUOTE ----

Yup, vaporware.  Uh-huh.  You did see that the T600 is being built in Warwickshire, didn't you?

What's not available yet are the small, cheap versions (T200 and T100).  This is because Commuter Cars is undercapitalized and needs to make some money in order to grow big enough to enter mass production.  It goes almost without saying that a company like Toyota, Ford or GM could have gone straight to production with something like the T100, just because they have the money to do it.

"You know that Toyota does not like plug-in hybrids, because they think that batteries aren't up to the job."

Toyota makes noises, but I can't help but notice that their hybrids are very conversion-friendly.  OTOH, their marketing people might still be thinking that a grid-feeding car would have "plug stigma", or not want to re-engineer a vehicle to make room for larger packs of cells less expensive than the NiMH they're used to.

"Batteries are just about at the point where hybrids make marginal sense."

Both hybrids and pure EV's make sense in today's environment.

Depending on the mission, $2.00/gallon gasoline was enough to make something like the Tango highly cost-effective for short trips.  Fuel prices are heading for $3.00/gallon.  At 50% discharge (roughly 40 miles range), the Yellow Tops in the Tango would get about 1100 cycles; call it 44,000 miles lifetime on the pack.  Replacement of 25 cells at $100 each would cost $2500.  Electricity at 10¢kWh and 250 Wh/mile (at the charger) would cost 2.5¢/mile, cost of electricity $1100, total cost $3600 or 8.18¢/mile.  A car burning $2.669/gallon gasoline at 30 MPG costs 9¢/mi for fuel alone - nothing for oil, filters or the other things an internal combustion car needs and an electric does not.

Cost of the lead-acid electric is very sensitive to trip length; the Tango could potentially get 88,000 miles out of a set of batteries if they were only drained 22%.  The fussiness of batteries is why hybrids are so popular; they take care of the management and eliminate worries about draining them too far.

Unless you Brits get totally gouged on things like batteries and vehicle registration fees, I'm certain that electrics have been far cheaper than ICE for some time.  I'll bet the lack of uptake has more to do with lack of parking which has access to electricity than anything else; that is the sine qua non for both electrics and plug-in hybrids.
There's no question that electrics are "cheaper", my electric bike cost £200 or so ;-)

I missed the update on the Tango luxury kit for self assembly, partly because they still talk about an "expected" price and only provide a link to a reservation form.

VW a while back presented a 1 litre car prototype (1 litre per 100 km, 250 miles per gallon or thereabouts), also a two seater. They never offered it to the public though.

I also recently noticed a prototype electric natural gas hybrid:

You see they've also got an actual car standing there. They also quote a price, whether and when the public can actually buy at that price though is rather unclear.

Coming back to the Tango, an "expected" $85,000 for an extremely small car with 80 mile range is pretty hefty, but at least it gets great acceleration.

If you are an environmentally conscious film star, you might buy one, I doubt they'll get you or me as customers. And it certainly doesn't make financial sense to buy one for commuting.

As people have been lining up for electric cars, and it's such a good deal, how come you aren't driving one (as I gather from your 42.5 mpg comment)?

For that matter, have you at least put a deposit down for one of the cheaper versions of the Tango, knowing how great a deal they are (or make that might be, who knows when they'll ever be built and at what price)?

You know that the EV1 didn't sell well, and that GM's been busily crushing the vehicles, as they think they aren't worth the hassle of keeping spare parts and maintenance, and that the only people "lining up" have been a few leaseholders who'd like to keep their cars rather than have them scrapped. I understand their feelings, but that doesn't amount to widespread consumer demand for new electric vehicles, which is pretty much non-existent, including over here in the UK.

Let me tell you a bit more about my troubles with goingreen. After the test drive, I talked to them about maintenance, and asked, why I couldn't do it myself. They said, if I did, they'd void my warranty. Only an approved service engineer would do. So I said that a friend of mine would love to become an approved service engineer for the West Midlands. They wouldn't even dream of it.

Now, they've decided that they do servicing within the M25 (ie in London), and people living outside of London have got to bring their cars to London to have them serviced. The fact that the car only has a 40 mile range means you'd have to truck it in ...

What's the problem with recharging? Electric sockets are extremely ubiquitous, if you've got a garage for your car, most people will have a socket in it. Pretty lame excuse that one.

That's my electric bike, which is gathering dust at the moment (I got it for less than £300, a bit over £200 I think).

Reason: I used it in winter to get to work, an 8 mile journey, and recharged it there.

The battery and charger lasted about a month, ah well, shouldn't have tried to use the bike extensively in winter, the batteries don't like cold weather, and they don't like deep discharges either, so better to only do 3 or 4 miles and store away the bike for winter, keeping the battery somewhere nice and warm, not forgetting, mind you, to top up the batteries every month or so, because they discharge on their own and don't like to be left discharged ...
It sounds like your only problem with goinggreen is that you don't live in London.  They do have a point; they only have so many people and have to have them working to make money.  London is the city with the congestion charge, making it the right place to establish themselves.  When (if) they have proven their business model, you're likely to see them establish a dealership and maintenance facility near you.

"an "expected" $85,000 for an extremely small car with 80 mile range is pretty hefty"

Hand-built anything is going to carry a big pricetag.  The million-dollar prototypes made by the auto companies wind up costing a few percent of that when they're in production.

There appears to be nothing inherently expensive about a vehicle like the Tango.  A concerted cost-engineeering effort (like the auto companies do on most everything) would probably get that figure from $19000 down into the low teens; mass production of the batteries alone would probably get the entire pack to less than $1000, if the price of similar units is any hint.

"how come you aren't driving one.. ?"

It would have to be my second car, and I can't justify two cars.  I was considering the Prius when I was shopping but I couldn't even find one to sit in.

"You know that the EV1 didn't sell well"

I'm sorry, that's complete bullshit.  GM never let anyone buy an EV1 despite their popularity with the people who had them.  They were only leased, and were destroyed over public protests.

Ford's electric Rangers seem to have a resale market.

"if you've got a garage for your car...."

That's the big one.  Until there are enough EV's or GO-HEV's out there to justify a public infrastructure, the vehicles are only useful to people who own housing or have assigned parking with electricity.  This system is far easier to grow than it is to create e.g. hydrogen stations, but it still remains to be done.
"Economic considerations are pointless?"

Joe, that wasn't my point at all. Of course economic considerations are extremely important if we are looking for real life practical solutions. My point was only that it is not very accurate to break things down on a price per mile assuming the current US average of around 20 mpg when the alternitives we are comparing to would likely get much better mileage than that. That's kinda the whole point of developing these alternitives isnt it? So we need some better common comparison, like maybe price per vehicle mile traveled with different (accurate) mpg assumptions for each vehicle (why standardize mpg when these vary across different vehicles?) or maybe cost per megajule of energy consumed at the tires or something like that.

I also ment that it was not very accurate to compare an EV's cost including electricity cost AND battery cost against an ICE's fuel cost alone because the battery also replaces much of the function of the ICE's engine (i.e. converting energy to work).

So yes, economics are important. You just aren't offering a very accurate method for comparing the economics of these models and I think we should try to come up with a better one. Everyone feel free to chip in with your ideas. Cheers...
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