Category Archives: Gas Savings

Which came first, the Chicken or the Egg? The Cars!

chicken or egg1Its hard to be dispassionate about the things we love, but to be successful we must constantly question and search for the truth.

It’s been an interesting week for two reasons.  ECOtality filed for Chap 11 Bankruptcy and GM released a story plans to create a PEV that travels 200 miles per charge and costs $30,000, to rival the success of Tesla.

Let’s discuss both developments.

ECOtality received over $110m from the US Dept of Energy to create the EV Project, designed to deploy private and public charging infrastructure in select U.S. markets in conjunction with sales efforts of Nissan and GM.  Providing Idaho National Lab with data from over 100m electric miles, that aspect of the project has been an unqualified success.  In addition, when the EV Project started, 17,000 PEVS were sold for the entire year (2011)!  By comparison, 10,800 PEVs were sold just during August 2013.  So the average consumer in 2011 didn’t see electric vehicles on the street and had no knowledge of chargers. With the EV Project, we now have regions of the country where charging is available, common and car sales are sturdy and increasing exponentially.  Can ECOtality get all the credit for promoting the technology?  Surely not. But they were an integral part in making charging conspicuous, and worked hard to streamline state regulatory structure, promote supportive policy and simplify  bureaucracy.

The real reason ECOtality’s business collapsed is that people were unwilling to pay for public charging (in Oregon, some of their level 2 chargers were used only 5x per month!), there are still too few cars and PEV owners do not rely on public charging routinely – they can charge at home, at night, daily. So in many ways the collapse of ECOtality is a message to charging station providers who are literally banking on creating large subscriber-based networks as a revenue stream that they best re-think their model. PEVs can be charged conveniently and cheaply at home or the workplace. Public charging needs to offer something competitive: better parking access, free electricity, advertising, features consumers and vendors are willing to support.

As cars improve, the need for a broad-based public charging will diminish. We need strategic DC fast chargers as insurance for those of us who forget to plug in the night before or who travel longer distances. But the longer we wait, the more strategic and appropriate our investments in charging technology will be, on the consumer and EVSE industry level.  The good news is – cars are NOT going away.  In fact, we’re seeing PEV sales at twice the rate of hybrids in their first 3 years.

Had ECOtality failed a year ago, we’d be in a different situation in terms of deployment – because a risk existed that consumers wouldn’t figure out that they really didn’t need public charging to fully use the vehicles. Now that they have,  I predict little impact on car sales as a result of any bad ECOtality press.  As a result we also may well have gotten full value from our meager public investment in the EV Project ($110m is frankly nothing in the scheme of government boondoggles and bailouts).

At the same time that we see the ECOtality business plan unraveling, we see GM brazenly step to the microphone to say it will create a 200 mile range BEV costing $30,000!  Besides the question of “when?,” my first thought was that the 200 mile number is apparently the Holy Grail of PEV range.  My wife and I debate the sweet spot of mileage range to accelerate a mass market for PEVs.  My thought is that a 150 mile range would be the threshold, provided all other costs are equal.  I now see 200 miles gets me to 99.9% of my annual destinations.  I don’t want to drive much more than 200 miles in a day if I can avoid it.  If I can drive 200 miles without needing to stop, the BEV’s usefulness dramatically increases.  This distance probably is sufficient to link most major metropolitan areas together, those sister cities where people commonly visit or commute to and from.  And the gas savings would be extreme.

Three years ago, here in Portland Oregon, we believed we needed the public infrastructure to jump start consumer demand.  Today, I believe we now see the cars are the place to put incentives and emphasis.  If cars arrive, infrastructure will follow organically to meet consumer demand.

ECOtality should be lauded for being first to test the public charging model. Now we are in the position to learn from this failure and push this technology to the next level.




Dirty Electricity; The New Oxymoron

A recent Headline from the NYT Sunday paper-How Green are Electric Cars? Depends on Where You Plug In.  suggests that EVs may not be the cleanest form of transportation available and cites a soon to be published Union of Concerned Scientists study.   As an example of the tone- “[W]here generators are powered by burning a high percentage of coal, electric cars may not be even as good as the latest gasoline models — and far short of the thriftiest hybrids.”

(Portland General Electric’s Boardman Coal Fired Plant, now slated to close.)

I re-raise this issue of whether an EV from well to wheel is the greenest transportation alternative because we are now parsing it down region by region, yielding some very interesting variations. See the national graphic found at Carbon In, Carbon Out, Sorting out the Power Grid. For example, Buffalo, NY’s electricity has THE highest per mile equivalency of any region in the country, which means that its kWh generation is the cleanest in terms of carbon emissions and it would take an ICE vehicle having 86 mpg to equal the carbon emission of a Nissan Leaf charging in that region. (Thank you, Niagara Falls) Which zipcode(s) are the worst? Hmm. Think Red States- a swath that cuts from the Dakotas to the midwest to the Southeast.  These are regions heavily reliant on coal generation.  Perhaps most interestingly, Hawaii had one of the worst carbon equivalencies- it would only take a 37 mpg vehicle to equal the carbon emission of a Leaf in Hilo, HI.  Apparently Hawaii needs to accelerate its transition away from non-renewable, imported oil and coal if it is to truly benefit from BEV’s zero emission potential.  And I believe that will happen, as it has adopted several progressive laws incentivizing consumers to buy EVs and landowners to get charging infrastructure in place.  [Note- Denver apparently has a coal problem and is the dirtiest electricity in the country, needing only a 33 mpg vehicle to equal a Leaf.]

But back to the point.  I see that even a 37 mpg ICE is a high efficiency engine compared to the national average, which in 2008 was 25 mpg.  So, even in a region hosting the most dirty electricity out there, in order to beat the emission savings of a Nissan Leaf,  a consumer would still have to buy a small economy car capable of very high mileage.  In most other jurisdictions, few mass marketed vehicles exist (other than a hybrid Prius perhaps 53/46 city and highway mpg) that are capable of attaining the 50 mpg range equivalency.

The transition to renewable energy and away from coal burning plants will continue to raise the mpg equivalencies, region by region. It will also mean that EVs will get cleaner the longer you drive them.  Consider the other benefits.  All the money we spend on electricity, in even the dirtiest jurisdiction, stays in the United States and gets fed into a virtuous loop of economic activity.  Electricity  is domestically produced, comes from diverse and renewable resources and has traditionally been viewed as a quasi-public resource such that it’s pricing structure is extremely stable.  Charging station infrastructure uses an existing electric grid and utilities already have built in excess capacity to meet the load demands of millions of EVs.

We just need consumers (and National newspapers) to start recognizing that clean coal and dirty electricity are both oxymorons.




The Strait of Hormuz… and Our Spending Habits

Have you ever really looked at your electric bill? Take PGE’s monthly bill and look at the line items of charges that comprise it.  There are roughly thirteen categories of energy charges and adjustments on my monthly bill, ranging from transmission and distribution charges to energy efficiency funding adjustments to city taxes to even rate charges derived from repaying the debt on mothballed nuclear reactors from the seventies.  Now consider what you know about your gasoline “bill” when you fill your tank. Do you know what the state taxes per gallon you pay for  road maintenance and repairs?  Do you know how much the gas company pays to import, refine and ship it for distribution?  Would you even want to know?  What if you had to limit yourself to one energy bill, what would it be and why?

Despite the thirteen line items in my electric bill, I see that much of the money actually goes to a local electric utility and hence my state’s economy; more if you fall within a public utility district rather than an investor owned utility (like PGE or Pacific Power).  Of the money we spend on gasoline each year, how much stays local? Where does the oil come from and what is its real cost?  What would happen if your car’s gas tank was paid through your utility bill and it cost less than a 1/5th  per mile to operate than a similar mile traveled using gasoline?  Would this awareness change how you viewed energy?  How would each dollar you spend impact your community differently?  What would you do with the money you save on transportation?

Well, the Electrification Coalition published the Electrification Roadmap and it contains many of the answers to these questions.  American households spent on average $3,597 on gasoline in 2008. Our transportation system relies on oil for 94 percent of its fuel source.  In 2008 the United States spent more than $900 billion on gasoline, diesel, and other petroleum products.  I think we know where the vast majority of this amount goes.   Add to this, the cost of defending the oil transit routes which amounts to another $67-83 billion annually.  The Strait of Hormuz is perhaps the most expensive piece of real estate on Earth.  This means the real price of gas per gallon is easily $2 more than the pump price.  In addition, the Department of Energy estimates that every $1b of the U.S. trade deficit that accrues from buying imported oil equates to the loss of 27,000 jobs.

I have been driving my EV for five days and saved on  having to purchase 7 gallons of gas for a total cost of $27.  I have used 49.9 kWh at an avg cost per kWh of .14 cents  for a total cost of $3.50 (and I subscribe to the more expensive Green Source program which uses renewable energy generation sources and which allows me to say I am truly a zero emission driver).  That means I now have $20.00 in my pocket that I would have spent on defending the Strait of Hormuz (see inset Nasa Photo circa 2000) or a combination of other nefarious interests.  I might take it down to my local farmer’s market (forget about Whole Foods when the growing season is under way) or almost buy a share of stock in PGE ($23.17 as of today); they pay a dividend.  More importantly, it makes me wonder how much money will I save after a year of driving and what would happen if we spent it on each other?