Sunday, 18 May 2014

Are we nearly there yet?

Back in 2010, I spotted a hybrid human/electric-powered vehicle called the "Twike" in the wild and was intrigued enough to look up the specs. I concluded that it wasn't a practical or economic proposition for budget motorists like me and suggested that it made more sense for cash-squeezed road-users to use an actual bike for local journeys and a fuel-efficient car/public transport for journeys that were longer, or involved moving family, friends, or useful amounts of stuff around.

I had an irritated response from a Twike enthusiast, who said:
Once you study the impact of what the true cost of oil is, you quickly realize that NOT driving electric is simply unaffordable and unsustainable...

 I have commuted to work and all about town in Chamapaign-Urbana for the past 3 years in a 11-year-old Twike Active. I rarely take dead-dino conveyance, whether public or private... going to the hardware store, picking up groceries, picking up the kiddos...

I once heard a quote that summarizes fuel cell cars quite nicely: "Fuel cell cars were the car of the future 20 years ago, they're the car of the future today, and they'll be the car of the future tomorrow"

IF fuel cells do arrive, and WHEN new and better battery technology arrives, it will be a fairly easy retrofit for a well-designed 11-year-old Twike to upgrade, as it's just a different form of storing electricity!

There is no reason to wait once you know the true costs.
Unfortunately there is a reason to wait, namely that the true, global costs to planet, fuel stocks and society aren't necessarily related to the individual costs borne by the cash-strapped people/families trying to haul themselves + stuff around on a tight budget. It's these sort of privatised costs that drive a lot of us to some combination of bangernomics, bike and buses, not brainwashing by the petrocracy, or some self-destructive compulsion to keep on breathing in great bracing lungfuls of particulates.

2014 update; the car in front isn't a Twike; in fact I've not spotted a second example of the species since my first encounter in 2010.

That's not to say that electric transport isn't gradually getting there. I'm not seeing any Twikes, but I am seeing Milton Keynes' new electric buses on the roads, local electric car charging points (first introduced in 2011, with more to come, although still nowhere near enough to support a noticeable proportion of 'leccy vehicles for conurbation that's home to most of the quarter of a million people in the Milton Keynes unitary authority) and the pre-publicity for a trial of driverless electric pods for (slowly) shuttling people around the city centre, scheduled for the near future (I know, by the way, that Milton Keyenes still isn't a city to the pedants who point out that only the Queen can officially make it so - and she hasn't - but I don't need to wait for some archaic feudal convention to tell me what I can already see; that the place is a city by any reasonable definition of the term).

And, according to former petrolhead Robert Llewellyn, who keeps an eye on electrical vehicle developments, the batteries are the key and they're getting better all the time:
Batteries are getting smaller, lighter, more energy dense, longer lasting and above all, cheaper.

These increases are constant and low level at present. Battery energy density is, according to companies like Panasonic, Samsung and Tesla increasing by roughly 8% a year. No great shakes but in the 5 years I’ve been keeping an eye on this sector, energy density has increased by roughly 40%.

But if they still cost a fortune, so what?

Well, they are also getting cheaper, the cost per kWh of storage a few years ago was around $500 per kWh. It’s now around $400.
So engineers might get us there on the storage front - if their corporate bosses don't sabotage their good work by creating a problem that has nothing to do with the practical constraints of physics, chemistry and engineering, namely, the human-imposed cost of rents extracted via Digital Rights Management.

I'm sure there has to be a better way (for the many end users, rather than the few DRM owners). For example, in theory, you could get over the battery charging time/cost issue by treating electric car batteries in the same way that we now treat camping gas canisters. In this scenario, rather than tethering the car to a charging station for a tediously long period of time, your future motorist gets a low charge warning, pulls into the nearest battery station and has the depleted battery taken out from its quick-change slot and replaced with a fully-charged one from the stack of batteries the station keeps on its charging racks. The motorist gets debited for the price of the leccy + something towards infrastructure/costs/profit and drives off into the pollution-free sunset.

I can see plenty of objections to this scenario - for a start, batteries aren't fungible, like gas, so this would depend on manufacturers agreeing to standardise to a few battery designs, to make battery stations usable for all motorists who pull up (good luck with getting, say, Renault, on board with that). Also, do you give people some credit for changing batteries with some charge left (as opposed to giving them a perverse incentive to obstruct the highway because they want to squeeze every last electron out of their old battery before pulling over and having it replaced, then accidentally run out of juice a few klicks short of the nearest battery station) and what about scammers and blaggers finding ways to nick batteries and sell them on, rather than just having them on hire to exchange for a charged unit when they need to "fill up"?  More seriously, in the longer term, having one, standardised, interchangeable design would tend to slow, or even halt progress towards, and uptake of, the subsequent improvements in energy storage technology, in much the same way that the widespread adoption and dominance of the QWERTY keyboard standard strangled more efficient alternatives at birth.

The battery stations aren't a serious suggestion, but I just mention the idea to point out that there are more ways of killing a cat than hanging it, to use a charming old expression of my dad's.*

Fuel cells, running on fungible hydrogen might be another alternative but, on this one, Twike guy might be right, at least according to Robert Llewellyn, who echoes his scepticism:
Since 1972 when I first heard the term hydrogen is the future I have been waiting. I'm not even mentioning things like infrastructure, the various methods of producing hydrogen, the energy costs associated with splitting water etc etc.
According to  Llewellyn, the great thing about better batteries is that they're not just for cars, but might form part of distributed power networks, like the ones I heard Jeremy Rifkin talking about in a radio talk show plug for The Zero Marginal Cost Society:
However when I talk about batteries I’m not even thinking about them in relation to cars, I’m thinking about our houses, about the grid, about cities, dammit, I’m thinking of the whole country.

The effect that millions of widely distributed batteries would have on the way we generate and distribute power is immense.

Imagine a 100 kWh battery pack built into your house, you have solar panels on the roof which trickle charge them day after day.

Before I explain the difference this could make, let’s look at the cost. Your battery pack is made from ‘depleted’ car batteries and the cost is a great deal lower than buying new ones. It’s not impossible to imagine something the size of a small fridge that could store 100 kWh with no maintenance and 10-15 years of trouble free use.
Talking of decentralised power networks, it would be ironic, but not entirely irrational if progress was driven by that most centralised and statist of institutions, the military. Fewer strategically important power stations to defend, and greater resilience for every remotely defence-related asset - it wouldn't be the first time the military have been distributed network pioneers.

With the prospects for solar generation getting dramatically better, some version of a world with (realtively) cheap, efficient batteries eventually becoming ubiquitous in buildings and electric vehicles is sounding more plausible.

We're not there yet, but we're getting nearer. I still don't think we'll get all the way there in a Twike, though.

*No animals were harmed in the making of my childhood.