Sunday, August 30, 2009

Storing wind energy

As most you reading this blog know, renewable energy is an integral part of the move to electric vehicles. Even though studies show that charging an EV from the existing grid is still much cleaner than driving a gas car, the goal is to run our cars on renewable electricity to the extent possible. One of the drawbacks to renewable energy is the intermittency of solar and wind. While this isn't much of a problem with solar since the peak demand for electricity closely follows solar production, it is a problem for wind. Wind is typically strongest at night when the grid has considerable excess capacity and prices are low.

Storing this low cost energy for the following day is therefore of great value to the utilities. Not only does it allow them to add to their portfolio of renewables, which they must do to meet ever more stringent environmental laws, but it can reduce the need to use expensive natural gas "peaker" plants.

Southern California Edison (SCE), the largest investor owned utility here in SoCal, has applied for a Department of Energy grant to utilize a massive battery storage unit supplied by MIT start up, A123 Systems, in an 8,000 sq ft building in the Tehachapi region of California. SCE intends to have as much as 4,500 megawatts of wind energy in this region by 2015. Plug-in vehicles will be charging mostly at night and will therefore constitute an ever growing market for this energy, but the numbers will be small for some time to come. It's necessary to store as much of this energy as possible so that we don't end up with the same problem they have in Texas and other states with their prodigious wind farms generating so many kiloWatt hours that the market can't absorb them and the price drops to zero. With daytime costs of kWh reaching into the 30-40 cent range, it make sense to store this clean energy for use during times of peak load.

See the whole story here:

On a related note, northern California's Pacific Gas and Electric, has applied for a grant to study the use of compressors to pump air into underground storage reservoirs with this excess night time wind energy, then using the stored compressed air to turn turbines the next day to generate kWh for peak demand. Same idea, different storage mechanism.

It remains to be seen how efficient these two techniques will be, but it's a good use of our federal tax dollars in my opinion.


Tuesday, August 25, 2009

BYD to come early to U.S. EV party

My good friend, Bill Moore of EV World, reports that China's BYD (Build Your Dreams) is planning on bringing their E6 EV to the U.S. market a full year ahead of time to compete with the roll out of Nissan's Leaf and GM's Volt. As reported earlier, BYD is the Chinese battery company that decided to build cars around it's Lithium Iron Phosphate batteries. They were the first in the world to begin selling a plug-in hybrid version (only in China so far), and now this pure electric version is expected to hit showrooms in the U.S. some time next year.

Warren Buffet's purchase of 9.9% of BYD last year catapulted the company to global prominence in the car world, especially after BYD stated that it intended to become a world leader in electric vehicles.

The specs on this crossover are pretty remarkable: 0-60 in less than 8 seconds, top speed of 100 mph, and get this, a range of 250 miles. I want to see this for myself, of course, but if it's even close, this is going to be a nice car. Let's hope the fit & finish is decent.

"According to the Wall Street Journal, the price of the car will be $40,000, which seems to be the current "sweet spot" for the first generation of consumer-available electric cars. This is right around the range Coda has been hinting at for their Chinese-made electric sedan."

This figure will be diminished by the $7,500 federal tax credit as well as some state tax credits (check your local listings). Additionally, the low cost of operation allows for even greater savings since electricity is generally sold for the equivalent of less than a dollar a gallon.

I think it's noteworthy that not only are more carmakers getting into the game, but now we're seeing timetables for bringing them to market accelerate. This can only be a good thing.


Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Toyota's Gamble

The New York Times reported today that Toyota could be falling behind its rivals in the race to go electric. They specifically mentioned rivals Mitsubishi, Nissan, Tesla and GM, but could have listed a dozen others (see Plug In America's EV Tracker for a complete list).

“The time is not here,” Masatami Takimoto, Toyota’s executive vice president, said during a factory tour this year. Electric cars “face many challenges,” he said, adding that “to commercialize pure E.V.’s, we need a battery that far exceeds the current technology.”

Coming from a VP of Toyota, this is an absurd comment. I'm still driving a Toyota-made EV that was designed over a decade ago. Hundreds of these RAV4 EVs continue running perfectly, and I can assure you these are not secondary vehicles but the primary vehicle for the families that own them. To make a comment like this doesn't show ignorance, there's something else behind it.

“In a world where vehicles run on electrons rather than hydrocarbons, the automakers will have to reinvent their businesses,” Russell Hensley, an analyst at the consulting company McKinsey, told clients in a recent report.

True statement.

"Toyota executives rattle off reasons to be skeptical of electric cars: They do not travel far enough on a charge; their batteries are expensive and not reliable; the electrical infrastructure is not in place to recharge them."

How far is far enough? Over 80% of American drivers don't exceed 40 miles a day. Tens of millions never drive long distances, and of those who do, a plug-in hybrid would suffice.

The batteries are costly, I'll give him that, but the prices are getting lower every day. As for not reliable, of all the RAVs Toyota has put on the road, virtually none have had battery failures. The batteries are exceptionally reliable.

This last bit about the infrastructure is laughable. The electric grid is everywhere. The cost and effort to install a charge station in a garage or driveway is minimal. The public charging will be built out as the cars are delivered. I recently attended a stakeholder's meeting at Plug In 2009 in Long Beach, CA where utilities, automakers and city planners were all discussing how they were going to build out home, workplace and public charge stations over the coming years. Toyota wasn't in the room. Maybe they should attend these conferences. They'd learn a lot and maybe stop making such boneheaded statements.

"Even when electric cars are sold widely, the company says, they will be suitable only for short trips and serve a decidedly niche market."

Short trips constitute the vast majority of all trips. A car suited for short trips of less than 100-200 miles per day does not serve a niche market, it serves the majority market.

"Meanwhile, Toyota’s new president, Akio Toyoda, has become a big promoter of the company’s fuel cells, which he calls the “ultimate” technology."

A huge mistake!

“You don’t see many competing technologies survive in a key market for very long,” said Mr. Shimizu, the Keio University professor.

And more often than not in the history of innovation, a change in the dominant technology means a change in the market leader.

“Electric cars are a disruptive technology, and Toyota knows that,” Mr. Shimizu said. “I wouldn’t say Toyota is killing the electric vehicle. Perhaps Toyota is scared.”

Here's what I think. Toyota is working feverishly on an EV to compete with Nissan's Leaf. They are going to release the plug-in Prius late next year to compete with the Volt. In the meantime, they'll make public statements about how the batteries and the infrastructure aren't ready to try and damp enthusiasm for plug-ins so they can continue to sell their hybrid models to the very demographic who are likely plug-in buyers. Then watch what they say when they hit the market with their own EVs.


Monday, August 17, 2009

Coda Review

On Saturday, Kevin Czinger, CEO of Coda, the new American car company that split off from Miles Automotive, brought the prototype of their new highway capable EV to our Electric Vehicle Assoc. meeting in Diamond Bar, CA. I have been following this car for over three years since hearing about it in the spring of 2006. Back then, I was told it would be available in a couple of years, but as these things go, it's still a year from delivery. Kevin assured us delivery would begin in August of 2010, putting this one ahead of both Nissan's Leaf and the Chevy Volt. He said they plan on selling about 2,000 units the first year thinking that will break into 40% fleet sales and 60% private. In year two, they will be prepared to make up to 20,000 cars.

The Coda's styling isn't going to turn heads on the highway, but since I often get asked why EVs have to look "so weird", I expect the vanilla styling will suit quite a few folks just fine. It's along the lines of a Toyota Corolla in size and looks. The fit and finish was better than I expected since it is coming off an assembly line in China. It appears the Chinese are improving quickly in this regard. Ultimately, they want to manufacture and assemble the Coda in California.

The range is a solid 100 miles based on the US06 driving cycle, a much more realistic test than the old EPA ratings used. The capacity of the 700 lb. Lithium Iron Phosphate (LiFePo) battery pack is 33.7 kWh which compares well to my RAV's 27 kWh. The batteries provide 333 volts and have been tested to over 1500 cycles which should be plenty for the 8 year, 100,000 mile warranty. One pertinent piece of info was his assertion that they are buying battery cells at "under $600 kWh". This is considerably less than most quotes I've seen and very close to the $500/kWh level at which I believe is the break even point with internal combustion at today's gas prices.

The weight is a bit on the high side at 3500 lbs. Kevin says they expect to drop that by several hundred pounds by the second generation. Porche engineering helped design part of the exterior and the interior, although the prototype didn't display all of the interior changes the final model will have.

After our meeting, Kevin graciously allowed 3-4 of us to pile in the car for a test ride over and over until about 30 of us had taken a turn. I didn't get to drive it myself, but he wasn't afraid to put the car through it paces for us. Even with four full sized adults, the car performed very well. Acceleration off the line was decent and at about 40 mph going up a hill, the car was still able to accelerate strongly. 0-60 is just under 10 seconds and top speed is 85 mph.

They do have a slight regenerative braking built in when you let off the pedal, but it's weak compared to the RAV and very weak compared to the Mini E or Tesla. I don't know if this is because they are using the UQM DC brushless motor/controller, or if there is another reason, but those who drive EVs love regen braking, so maybe they'll strengthen it later. All EVs should incorporate AC Propulsion's regen with a steering wheel control to allow freewheeling. The combination of the two will allow for the most efficient driving possible.

Charging will be at 6.6 kW, the same as our RAV and fast enough for most needs. High speed charging will be possible once the 50 kW chargers are deployed along the freeways.

Price? Good question. Earlier reports pegged it at $45,000, but Kevin hinted the car would sell for closer to $32,000 after tax credits, but when I tried to pin him down on an exact price, he hedged a bit. This is how all the car companies act when talking price. I understand and don't blame them since a year is a long time, and between component costs and competitive vehicles entering the market about the same time, I expect most will wait until about a month from actual delivery to lock down the price.

The Coda is nice looking, if not exciting. What's exciting is that is uses no petroleum.

The interior was comfortable and the instrumentation was suitable for a mid range car.

Backyard mechanics will find little to recognize under the hood. The UQM motor/controller sits in the middle with the motor under the controller driving the front wheels.

Kevin demonstrating the charging connector.

Thanks to Stefano Paris for the pics!

Monday, August 10, 2009

Plug In America's Fundraiser

Plug In America held its second annual fundraiser yesterday at the Thomas Fogarty Winery in Woodside, CA. Last year's party was held at the home of Director Chris Paine and was a big success. Yesterday's party matched that one in terms of excitement and surpassed it with an abundance of high-end EVs and plug-in hybrids. Pictured above is the t-Zero, considered to be the mother of the Tesla Roadster. The LiIon version of this rare, hand-made car from AC Propulsion is the only EV that can surpass the blindingly quick acceleration of the Roadster with a 0-60 time of 3.6 seconds.

Other vehicles on display were the stylistic Aptera, eagerly awaited by several thousand enthusiasts who have $500 deposits securing their place in line. An Aptera representative told me yesterday they fully expect to be in production by the end of this year. This was sweet news to several people in attendance who are early in line for the car. An interesting note, as we were leaving just after dark, we got the see the Aptera driving toward us on the winding mountain road. The profile and lights were unlike anything we've ever seen. I can't wait to see my first Aptera cruising the 405 here in LA.

Another rare EV is Rick Woodbury's Tango from his Commuter Cars company in Spokane, WA. There were two of these narrow two-seaters parked side by side taking up about the same space as a single passenger car. Looks aside, these babies can move! Acceleration approaches that of the Tesla, and with the batteries keeping the center of gravity super low, the car can corner much better than you would think seeing its tall, narrow shape.

Ten Tesla Roadsters rounded out the high performance EVs providing some flashy color to the line up, and the many RAV4 EVs driven to the winery from around the Bay Area once again flouted the contention of Toyota that these cars would not last 5 years.

In addition to the cars were several high performance motorcycles from Zero Motorcycles and Mission Motors. I rode the Zero off-road bike last year and was astounded at the acceleration. I told one of their reps that they should videotape a Tesla/Zero race to see how long the Zero would hold off the Tesla. I'm pretty sure it can take it off the line.

The Mission Motors bike is a monster! I've been invited to test drive it, so rather than tell you anything here, I'll save that for its own post.

EVs aside, the purpose of the party was to raise funds for Plug In America. We were successful in large part due to the many donations of goods and services that we auctioned off, so thanks to all who donated and who bought the great items at the live auction and the on-line auction. Attendees of note included many luminaries, but Google's Larry Paige had to be the highlight from my perspective. His brother drove one of the Tangos, and Larry drove over in his Tesla. I can only wonder whether any traffic laws were broken on the drive over.

Our speakers this year included California Public Utilities Commissioner, Rachelle Chong, and Congressman Jerry McNerney (CA-11). Both were very positive on the outlook of plug-in vehicles, but it was Chong who got me excited. The Public Utility Commission isn't known for its advocacy of electric vehicles, but Chong impressed me with her personal passion for EVs stating that the PUC was going to be soliciting public input starting this month on charging infrastructure as well as EV-friendly electrical rates. These are very important issues that can accelerate or slow down implementation of plug-in vehicles. Knowing the PUC has on its agenda these two items gives me even more hope that EVs are imminent.

The momentum continues to grow!


From left to right, Felix Kramer's iconic PHEV Prius, Don Cox's red Tesla, followed by the bright orange Roadster and then one of the Tangos.

Zan hiding in shadow between two of Tom Gage's vehicles, the super fast t-Zero and a converted Toyota Scion xB, now called the ACP "E-Box". The E-Box is a real sleeper. Driving one of these around LA, you can smoke most Beemers off the line without a sound. It's running the same drive train as the t-Zero, the vaunted ACP 150.Here I am sitting in the cockpit of the cool Aptera. I hope to drive one soon so I can tell you all about it. Those who have driven it have been saying good things.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Nissan LEAF charging and price concerns

As many of you have already heard, the new Nissan EV is called the "Leaf". Nice green name and the car itself is attractive in a Prius sort of way. I don't have any pictures myself, but Wired's Autopia site has a few good ones and a lot of good info on the car as well. A couple of items not discussed, but important to know have to do with the final price and how fast the cars will be allowed to charge.

First, the price. Some speculation centered around whether Nissan would sell the car and lease the battery in order to keep the cost down. When we were first told of the price range being between $25K and $34K, leasing the battery was not mentioned. Some mention of battery leasing has been made, however, mostly centered around the deal Renault/Nissan has with Shai Agassi's Better Place. When I posed this question to my Nissan contacts, the answer was "... at this point, we can't offer the level of precision on that topic that many people would just is too early."

I wish they could be more specific, but I do understand the need to be circumspect this far in advance of delivery. The people I know who drive EVs are mostly in favor of owning the batteries as long as we can get a good 7-10 years out of them. We see the downward trend in costs and fully expect a replacement pack 7 years from now will be quite affordable.

My biggest worry is the speed at which Nissan will allow charging. The car will come with a cord allowing charge from a regular 120 volt outlet, but this will be painfully slow. Households that buy the car will have a charge station installed on their 240 Volt circuit, but the charge will be limited to 3.3 kW. This is marginally faster than charging from a 120V circuit, but half the speed of our RAVs that charge at 6.6 kW. We've gotten used charging at this speed, but even 6.6 kW is slow compared to Teslas which can charge as high as 16 kW.

Now, to Nissan's credit, they are going to be deploying lots of very fast level three chargers in the communities that receive the initial several thousand cars. These are 480V systems that charge at 50 kW, very fast indeed! So, to the extent customers have access to these chargers, they may find home charging at 3.3 kW to be acceptable, but I think that's a big risk.

The reason given for starting the first year with the slow charging had to do with cost and availability of cord sets. This may be something we have to accept, but I'm afraid it'll give the wrong message. With a range of 100 miles, the speed of charging becomes more important.

This link will take you to a story on Renault's Frankfurt Auto show all-electric line up. The first time a major automaker is showing nothing but EVs. This is great news from this EV powerhouse, Renault/Nissan.


Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Bright Idea

This past Friday, I got to drive an Idea.

Bright Automotive, a start up based in Anderson, Indiana, about as heartland USA as you can get, is poised to become a very successful company. I've written about them a couple of times based on news items and their own press releases, but this time, I'm writing based on first hand experience. Full disclosure, they paid my airfare and bought me lunch.

The team at Bright consists of many of the same engineers responsible for the EV1. Starting with CEO, John Waters, and including engineers like Sean Stanley and Jeff Ronning in addition to battery experts like Kurt Rogge. Several members of the team have spent time at the prestigious Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), Amory Lovins' think tank in Snowmass, CO dedicated to efficiency. Other team members, such as Dave Busch, come from equally sterling backgrounds at engineering powerhouse Aerovironment where he worked on the precursor to the EV1 under the tutalege of "Engineer of the Century", Paul MacCready, whose biography is entitled, "Doing More With Less". This seemed to be the mantra at Bright Automotive, a company with one of the most competent teams of EV engineers anywhere.

They are singularly focused on one goal, to make the most efficient and cost effective plug-in hybrid delivery van in the world.

I was surprised to learn that much of the work on the EV1 had been conducted in nearby Indianapolis. Turns out, Indiana has been home to over a hundred car companies in years past and once vied with Detroit as the car capitol of the U.S. John Waters drove me to a nondescript group of buildings on the north side of Indianapolis where he told me he had worked on the battery pack that powered the EV1 and spoke at length of the historic efforts of their team that created the "Car That Could".

Toward the end of "Who Killed the Electric car?", Ralph Nader lambasts GM executives for their part in killing the EV1, but he pointedly excepted the engineers who he says really did want to make a better car. These are the guys Nader was talking about.

After GM's bean counters unceremoniously killed the EV program, Waters spent some time at RMI where he again got the bug to get back into electric vehicles. RMI's "Hypercar" program had piqued his interest in efficient vehicles, and a key meeting with Amory Lovins and people from Google and ALCOA convinced him to make the leap. They arranged a meeting with the head of the postal service's fleet services and came away convinced they could make a plug-in hybrid that could economically compete with existing postal delivery trucks and save a lot of energy in the process. In early 2008, Waters assembled his team with ex-EV1 engineers from RMI, Aerovironment and at least one protege of Professor Andy Frank of UC Davis, the "Grandfather of the plug-in hybrid". Thus was born Bright Automotive.

With Paul MacCready's "do more with less" mantra constantly in mind, they set about to design a vehicle that could haul a full ton of cargo with 180 cubic feet of space, yet travel up to 30 miles on electric power alone before the internal combustion engine kicked in. This would enable most postal vehicles to deliver their routes without burning any gas, and allow fleet operators needing more range to average as much as 100 mpg.

The key to success lay in doing this without making the vehicle cost too much relative to the existing internal combustion vehicles. With a judicious use of aluminum for the frame and skin, they were able to keep the weight to a remarkably low 3200 lbs, and their design team managed a drag coefficient of less than .3, very slick for a delivery van. This meant they could achieve their 30 mile all-electric range with a very modest 10 kWh battery pack.

The team is replete with experts in design and drivetrains, but it's their battery expertise that sets them apart from most start ups of this nature. They have decided to remain agnostic as to the cell manufacturer and will try out any LiIon cell that comes their way, although they are currently using lithium iron phosphate cells from EIG in Korea. Their testing equipment is the state of the art ABC 150 from Aerovironment which can replicate charging profiles of an infinite nature, and their dynometer room can test batteries in both hot and cold weather conditions. Their expertise with batteries is such that they will offer to package cells into battery packs for hire since not all OEMs have their depth of knowledge.

So, how did the test drive go? I've had the opportunity to drive both the Tesla Roadster and BMW's super quick Mini E, so I had to re-calibrate my expectations some, this is a delivery van after all, but I'll give them a strong B+. The acceleration was pretty good, but when the internal combustion kicked in, it was noticeable. Talking to the drivetrain team of Sean Stanley and Patrick Kaufman, they assured me that would be smoothed out soon. All in all, I was very impressed that they've come this far this fast. I fully expect they'll have the vehicle in A+ shape in a matter of months.

So, how soon will these clean-running vans begin replacing the noisy and dirty postal carriers plying our roads? Well, like Tesla Motors, they've applied for a loan from the Department of Energy's Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing Incentive Program. Telsa, along with Ford and Nissan have already been awarded their loans and they are all in the process of hiring thousands in California, Michigan and Tennessee, respectively, to staff up to build plug-in vehicles and batteries. Bright has not yet heard about their loan yet, but I would be amazed if the DOE didn't see the promise I saw in this company. The fleet vehicle niche is a large one consisting of hundreds of thousands of vehicles used by private and public fleets throughout the country. The sooner these fleets get vehicles that allow them to use cleaner, cheaper, domestic electricity instead of dirty, expensive, foreign oil, the better.