Thursday, July 31, 2008

New Ads from We Campaign

Al Gore’s “we” campaign plans to run new ads in major newspapers this week, suggesting that three current problems – high gas prices, soft economy, and what they call the “climate crisis” – can best be solved if they are tackled together. Here's a link to the PDF of the ad.

They are also promoting a “remix” of Al Gore's challenge to America and in the last week, and say that over 100,000 people have already watched it. Watch it here.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

F1 Goes Green

Formula 1 cars are not known for economy, but the major teams met yesterday at Ferrari headquarters to discuss new rules for the 2010 season. The intention is to limit the amount of fuel which can be used in a race, instead of limiting the capacity of the engines, putting the emphasis on fuel efficiency and encouraging innovation relevant to today’s world. This follows changes for 2009 to allow regenerative braking.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Nissan's Electric Car Plans

Carlos Ghosn, CEO of Nissan, reaffirmed the company’s commitment to pure electric vehicles rather than hybrids in a recent speech marking the opening of Nissan’s new factory in Tennessee. He said he expected to have these on the market by 2010 and that he expected them to be price-competitive and profitable from the outset. I think this is the way to go, because adding a range-extending gasoline motor adds weight, cost, and complication.

It is also a bold move given the current state of battery technology, because the range is likely to be somewhat restrictive. Ghosn said that vehicles would be tailored to individual countries’ needs. He stopped short of saying that the cars would be available in the US, saying only that any car sold in the US would have to have a range of at least 100 miles. He thought some European markets might accept shorter ranges. It seems to me that this is at best acceptable only in a second car. But that would be a good start, and battery technology will surely improve over the next few years.

No doubt sister-company Renault’s deal with the Israeli government to provide the infrastructure to allow quick battery changes at a network of “filling stations” will help provide the volume necessary to be profitable from the outset.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Gores' Speech

Al Gore’s much-awaited speech yesterday proposed making US electricity generation entirely carbon-free in ten years. He is right to focus on electricity generation rather than on cars and other transport, if only because the most promising alternatives to gasoline pre-suppose a clean supply of electricity. But one has to doubt the feasibility of making this change so rapidly, especially as he seems to eschew nuclear power as part of the solution.

Gore is also right in saying we need to act now, but that does not mean that we could or should change a whole industry in ten years. Already, most of the new coal fired plants planned in the past few years are on hold and these are unlikely ever to be built. Gore seems to favor clean coal power station, using sequestration, but this is hardly proven technology. We can and should press ahead with wind and solar power, but we still need to solve the problems of storing electricity produced when the sun shines or the wind blows, and of transporting it to where it is needed. Without this, these renewable sources cannot be relied upon for a base load.

In contrast, nuclear energy is a proven technology which can be relied upon to provide clean energy when and where needed. It should be a major part of the solution in the short term, while other technologies are still in the development stages. Meanwhile, the lowest-hanging fruit is energy efficiency, where big improvements could be made very quickly.

A carbon tax or cap-and-trade system is the best way for government to promote all of these efforts: efficiency; nuclear power for base-load power; solar and wind power; and research into sequestration and into new storage and transmission technologies.

Perhaps most importantly, doing more to help the developing nations, especially China, to build clean power stations would be more cost-effective than replacing existing power stations in developed countries like the US. Ratifying Kyoto might be a good start!

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Ghost Flights

Various UK media report that British Midland, Britain’s third largest airline, plans to fly empty or near- empty planes during next winter in order to retain valuable slots at Heathrow airport. This is just an extreme example of what all airlines expect to be doing; namely not reducing flight schedules in the face of the anticipated reduction in demand. (Some airlines may cancel individual flights, which would be a major inconvenience to the few passengers booked on such flights. And there is a limit to how much they can do this, because a flight must operate at least 80% of the time in order to retain the slot.)

This situation is crazy, both on economic and environmental grounds, but it is difficult to know what to do about it. Some advocate requiring a certain average percentage of seats to be filled, but when this was tried at the much smaller Norwich airport at least one airline responded by hiring actors to fill the seats.

Another suggestion is to change the way airport taxes are charged. Currently, they are charged per passenger, whereas a charge per seat (regardless of whether it is occupied) or per plane, would provide an additional disincentive to flying empty planes. It is not at all clear that this would work, however, as there is already a substantial financial cost to flying empty planes. Indeed it seems doomed to failure; if an airline is prepared to pay an actor to fill an empty seat, and to pay the tax for that actor, it would save money if it were able just to pay the tax on the empty seat.

The real problem is the use-it-or-lose-it policy on slots. This might make sense when slots are at a premium, but if flights are leaving empty in order to retain slots, that is clearly not the case and the policy should be suspended while demand is reduced. Better still, the policy should be abandoned altogether and slots auctioned afresh each year.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Piezoelectric Dance Floor

The BBC and others today report the opening of an allegedly eco-friendly night club in the Kings Cross area of London. This area used to be rather sleazy but is being gentrified, a process stimulated by the new high speed rail line to the channel tunnel. The night club features a piezoelectric dance floor which the owners say will harness the energy of the dancers to provide about half of the club’s electricity. Since the energy has to come from somewhere, I am wondering whether the dancers will tire more quickly than on a regular dance floor. If the idea catches on maybe it could be used in airports; those who eschew the moving walkways could help power those walkways for the less mobile, or more lazy.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Car's that run on water!

This is my second post of the day, but I think I need to make a comment about an ad which appears frequently on this blog. (Unfortunately I have no control over the ads except to suppress them altogether.) It's headline is "Run Cars on Hydrogen" but actually claims that cars can run on water. Anyone with any scientific training at all will know that these two conepts are more or less directly opposite to one another; chemical energy is released when hydrogen combines with oxygen (in combustion or otherwise, as in a fuel cell) to produce water, so running a car on water is not a promising idea. As far as I can tell, the proposition is to use the car's battery to produce hydrogen from water and then burn the hydrogen in the engine, which presumably charges the battery. In other words, perpetual motion! Needless to say, this is a scam.

Boris Johnson and London's Congestion Charge

Boris Johnson, London’s new mayor, announced yesterday that he would not implement his predecessor’s plan for a two-tier congestion charge based upon fuel consumption. The current charge, applied in central London between the hours of 7am and 6pm on weekdays, is £8 a day. The proposal was to raise this to £25 for gas-guzzling vehicles and I argued (February 27th) that this was a misuse of a system designed to control congestion. Porsche had also mounted a legal challenge, alleging among other things that the policy was counterproductive insofar as it encouraged people to drive around central London rather than straight through it.

I am not sure I agree with Porsche’s argument, and I am not entirely happy being on the same side as Boris, but I think this is the right decision for reasons expressed in my earlier post. Greenhouse gas emissions need to be addressed at national level – indeed at an international level – rather than in a few square miles of one city.

Perhaps I should ad that I am very much in favor of the original congestion charge which will remain. (Actually I think it should not have been extended to the more residential areas to the west of the city, which I think has been counterproductive for reasons that do not concern us here but that is an entirely different argument.)

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Honda CR-Z

Last week’s mention of the Honda CFX Clarity Hydrogen fuel cell vehicle prompted some controversy over the worth of such technology compared to batteries. To redress the balance a bit, it should be noted that Honda is hedging its bets and is also very active with hybrids. The next generation of Civic hybrids is on the drawing board and expected to reach US shores by 2011. The range should include a sports version based upon last year’s CR-Z concept car, though this may not be called a Civic.