At a speech this week in Detroit, Energy Secretary Dr. Steven Chu made some very hopeful predictions about the electric car industry, namely that the cost of electric car batteries would drop by 70 percent by 2015 compared to 2008 prices.
Secretary Chu said that we were on track to see the cost of a battery for a plug-in hybrid EV with a 40-mile range drop to $3,600 by 2015 compared to $12,000 in 2008. By 2020, he said we would see that cost drop to $1,500, an 87.5 percent drop from 2008 prices.
What industry experts have been saying all along seems to be finally coming true. As manufacturing has ramped up and technology has advanced, the cost of EV batteries, the most expensive part of the vehicles, has dropped. Soon enough we'll hit a major turning point where EVs are less expensive to buy and own than conventional cars.
Secretary Chu also sees breakthroughs coming in batteries other than the current standard lithium-ion such as lithium-air, lithium-sulfur and different metal-air versions. The DOE is opening a new research lab later this year called the Energy Innovation Hub which will bring together scientists, engineers and experts on the business side of things to develop more advanced, quicker charging and longer lasting batteries that cost less. The lab will focus on developments that would bring about large leaps in performance that could be prototyped this decade, not on small incremental improvements.
The U.K. is now even closer to having a high speed rail line that connects the farthest corners of the English countryside. The first phase of the High Speed Two line, which will link London and Birmingham, has been approved.
The new Y-shaped rail network will ultimately connect Leeds, Manchester, London, Birmingham and a port that uses the Channel Tunnel to cross over to mainland Europe. The network will also include a direct route to Heathrow Airport and link to existing rail lines.
The trains on the line will run at speeds up to 250 miles per hour, making the trip from Birmingham to London in just 49 minutes compared to the 84 minutes it takes today. Other popular routes will be cut in half as well. The government expects 9 million car commutes and 4.5 million plane commutes to be replaced by train commutes every year when the rail line is completed.
The first phase will start construction soon and could be running by 2026. The second phase, which will reach Manchester and Leeds, could start construction as soon as 2014 and be running by 2033.
A 30 MW solar farm in Webberville, Texas began generating power on December 20, 2011. The project is the biggest in the state, the largest solar project of any utility in the country and one of the largest in the country overall.
The 380-acre Webberville Solar Project contains 127,000 PV panels that track the sun to maximize electricity output. The project has a 25-year power purchase agreement with Austin Energy, the country's leading utility for renewable energy. This new solar farm will put the utility well on its way to getting 35 percent of its portfolio from renewable sources by 2020.
The project is expected to generate 1.4 billion kWh over the first 25 years and prevent the release of 1.6 billion pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere in that same time frame.
Two years ago, automakers were scrambling to out-green each other and to emphasize their green halo, and the show's main floor included an 'Electric Avenue' with all manner of unusual vehicles (most of which have not returned). But the age of the bamboo thumb drive has already passed. As we noted last year, hybrids and electric drive vehicles now just seem to be an expected part of the mix in a manufacturer's line. Along with this, relatively simple features like auto-start/stop are becoming more prevalent in more models.
A couple of new companies on this year's show floor were particularly interesting. These include Coda, a company that is selling electric drive cars. They seem to have just a single model, but the company looks like a more complete contender than BYD, another Chinese manufacturer that has been at show the past couple of years, was not present at this year's show. (The Coda body and battery are manufactured in China, but final assembly takes place in the US.)
VIA Motors is another newcomer to the main floor. Like AMP Motors, VIA is modifying existing vehicles (in this case GM pickups, SUVs and vans) to convert them into extended-range electric vehicles. With the improved efficiency and all electric drive, VIA states their vehicles get "over 100 mpg in typical daily driving."
Some of the other green entries appearing at this year's show include:
Honda - although the Civic Natural Gas is this year's Green Car of the Year, it seems to be a sideshow to the rest of the Honda display.
Ford - the Focus is being built in a variety of configurations, with gasoline, hybrid and plug-in hybrid powertrain versions all available. The Ford C-MAX is a multi-activity vehicle (MAV) that will be Ford's "first dedicated hybrid vehicle line."
Chevrolet - the Volt is there, but not with a big display, and Eco options for the Malibu and Cruze are also sharing the green attention. Small cars are also a part of the Chevrolet program, but with more of an emphasis on appealing to young buyers than on efficiency.
Volkswagen - unveiled the Jetta hybrid with a combined fuel economy of 45 mpg. It's a mild hybrid with only very limited electric drive range, but gives VW another high mileage option to diesel. Also, the E-Bugster EV.
Toyota - the Prius c was unveiled as the smallest member of the Prius series with an under $20k price tag. Other Prius models include the third-generation base Prius, the larger Prius v, and the plug-in Prius.
Nissan - after not appearing at last year's show, Nissan had a presence this year that included the LEAF, which was also available on the Ride & Drive track.
Tesla - the Model S sedan was on display, along with a bare frame showing the battery platform.
Both the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) in Detroit and the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas are underway this week. I went to the auto show (largely because it's closer), but a lot of this year's emphasis seems to be on the integration of cars with cloud computing.
Green cars are present, but they aren't the focus they have been in previous years. In their floor displays, Chevrolet's Volt, Nissan's Leaf, and the Toyota Priuses (among others) are just another part of the lineup, without a lot of special attention. The Honda Civic Natural Gas car, which won the Green Car of the Year, sits off to the side of the Honda display like a tacked on afterthought. Everyone may still have EVs and hybrids, but it seems that they're an expected part of a complete line, and don't need to be emphasized as in previous years.
Several manufacturers presentations focused on making the car a connected platform, emphasizing smart features like navigation and integration with social media. Ford's 'Cloud' presentation is a 12-seat ride that raises up above the show floor into a 360 degree panorama presentation about the connectedness of their systems.
More broadly, this starts to present the car as a service rather than just a product; the connectivity the car offers instead of a thing that one has. One of Ford's displays around the 'Cloud' exhibit graphically shows the percentage of automobile owners in several world cities. If automakers are starting to see this as a trend, there could be something more revolutionary going on, and even more overlap between NAIAS and CES may be forthcoming in the coming years.
The Obama administration has officially banned any new uranium mines in the land adjacent to the Grand Canyon for the next 20 years. During the Bush presidency, mining companies filed thousands of new land claims in northern Arizona near the national park. In 2009, Secretary Salazar ordered a temporary ban on any new claims, but now those lands are safe for at least 20 years.
The ban protects one million acres of land surrounding the Grand Canyon from new mining claims, but the 3,200 existing mines will not be affected and 11 new mines already under construction will be allowed to continue to develop.
Although this ban seems like a no-brainer, there was a decent amount of opposition since the price for uranium is high and the area is rich in uranium deposits. This ban doesn't just protect the beauty of the place, but more importantly the health of the ecosystems and millions of people who live within the Colorado River Basin. At least one creek in the park has been found to be contaminated by uranium and high levels of arsenic have been found in the area from old mining operations.
The Chevy Volt has hit its first snag, but GM seems to be handling it in stride. After some battery fire issues during crash testing, GM is taking steps to ensure that Volt drivers have a safe vehicle on their hands.
According to the AP, GM is encouraging Volt drivers to bring their vehicle into a dealer where mechanics will "strengthen the structure around the batteries." Extra steel will be added to the plates that surround the batteries making them better protected during an impact and preventing any coolant leaks that were the cause of the crash test fires. The fix has been confirmed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Agency.
This isn't a formal recall, but affects about 8,000 cars out on the road and another 4,400 for sale.
Initially after the test fires, GM offered Volt drivers an opportunity to sell back their cars or to be provided a loaner replacement. To prevent fires after any real-world crashes, GM has been sending out teams to drain batteries after being notified by the vehicles' OnStar system.
If you wanted something else to blame on the internal combustion engine, you can now add tornadoes and hailstorms to the list. Scientists have found that both weather events are more likely to occur during the week than the weekend due to the higher levels of pollution in the air from our workday commutes.
The study, published in the Journal of Geophysical Research - Atmospheres, looked at summer storm patterns in the eastern U.S. from 1995 to 2009 and found that hailstorms were occurring at a rate of about 20 percent above average midweek and about 20 percent below average on Saturday and Sunday. The team then looked at EPA records of summertime air pollution in the eastern U.S. and found that it peaks midweek.
The reason is that water particles cling to pollutants in the air, floating up higher in the atmosphere where it's colder and creating more hail. Pollutants also create tornado-friendly conditions by making the air warmer.
The western U.S. doesn't experience this same phenomenon since the air is dryer and cloud masses are too high and cold for the air pollution to interfere with.
Grid parity in cost between solar power and grid-supplied electricity is likely to begin being reached in the US in as little as 2 years, and within the next 25 years, many of the largest metropolitan areas will reach the point where solar is less expensive. An animated map from Energy Self Reliant States shows the picture.
This timeline includes no government subsidies in the calculations. It uses a baseine cost of solar power in 2011 at $4.00 per watt, installed. Using the average residential grid supplied electricity price for each metro area, it makes the two assumptions based on present trends to determine when the price of solar drops below grid: the cost of solar decreases by 7% per year, and the grid electricity price increases by 2% per year.
Based on these assumptions, the San Diego CA metropolitan area will be at solar parity in 2013, and within the next 25 years, many of the largest metropolitan areas will reach the point where solar is less expensive.
A concept to turn the Eiffel Tower into a giant green wall has been proposed as a symbolic statement of "the reconciliation of nature and mankind."The plan calls for 600,000 plants to be attached to the structure using hemp sacks filled with soil as the growth media. An irrigation system comprising 12 tons of tubing would be used to provide water for the plants.
The installation would not be permanent, and would be removed after a few years. But, once in place, the installation would help remove an estimated 87.8 tons of CO2 from the atmosphere.
"Should it not be the duty of engineers to imagine a new future where nature is brought back into the heart of the city," said a statement from Ginger, the company behind the proposal. With an estimated cost of nearly 100 million dollars for the project, that's more than a million dollars per ton of CO2. Hardly the most cost effective carbon sequestration, but certainly a visible one.
A new optical furnace that uses intense light rather than a conventional furnace to heat the silicon to make solar cells saves about half the energy needed. The process uses a furnace with "highly reflective and heat-resistant ceramics to ensure that the light is absorbed only by a silicon wafer, not by the walls inside the furnace." The process was developed by scientists at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).
In addition to providing improved efficiency in the production of the cells, the optical furnace also does a better job at removing some impurities, which makes for better output from the finished panels. Eventually, researchers on the project believe that this could provide a four percentage point increase in the efficiency of the solar cells produced with this method.