The German Energiewende – Modern Miracle or Major Misstep

Posted in Uncategorized at 7:52 pm by Administrator

There is an ongoing debate regarding the value and/or wisdom of the German Government’s implementation of an energy transformation – the Energiewende.  The primary driver for this initiative was the policy decision, first made in 2000, to eliminate nuclear power in Germany.  Nuclear generating stations contributed as much as 25% of the electricity supply in the late 1990’s.

Sorting out fact from fiction when assessing the Energiewende is not as easy as you might expect because most commentators put a significant “spin” on data that is admittedly subject to multiple interpretations.  In this post I will try and summarize the most salient points regarding the Energiewende that can be supported by publicly available factual information.  These are;
  • Germany has successfully developed a very significant base of renewable energy over a sustained period of time without going bankrupt or causing unbearable economic hardship to electricity consumers whether they be residential or industrial.  This is a very laudable achievement – one that many observers would have declared impossible.
  • The Energiewende in and of itself represented enough of a demand for wind turbines and solar panels to have resulted in very significant decreases in the prices for all of the components associated with these technologies.  As every country in the world develops their own renewable resources they will ultimately enjoy substantial cost savings due in large part to the Energiewende.
  • Germany has spent far more public money, in the form of direct grants, tax incentives and utility rate increases than was needed in order to attain the same level of renewable energy generation that it enjoys today.
  • Germany, like Denmark, has only been able to develop intermittent renewable energy resources because of the high capacity inter-connections with other large European energy providers/consumers.  In effect, Germany and Denmark have used the European and Nordic grids as a large battery.  It follows that if other European countries were to follow the path taken by Germany the system as a whole would soon run out of capacity to deal with the fluctuations in renewable energy production.
  • The German Energiewende has not resulted in less dependence on the burning of coal to generate electricity and will not do so anytime soon.
  • The preferential access to the grid that is given to renewable energy production has frequently pushed thermal generation off-line for extended periods of time, particularly at mid-day on windy days in the springtime.  These base-load plants were designed to run 7x24x365 and the business cases underpinning the financing of these plants assumed high utilization factors.  As a result these plants are marginally profitable at best.  The market response to this situation would be to close many of these plants to reduce capacity and stabilize wholesale prices.  That is not possible because all of the thermal capacity is required in the late afternoon and into the night on calm days.

These facts (see detailed discussion below) lead me to the conclusion that the Germany Energiewende has achieved remarkable changes to the energy economy of the largest country in Europe.  Unfortunately, I believe that the approach taken was far from optimal and has influenced many other jurisdictions around the world to follow a similar non-optimal path.  I also believe that without finding an economical and hugely scaleable energy storage system this approach cannot proceed much further.

The impact of the Energiewende on Wind and Solar Component Prices

I suppose you could argue that the impact of the Energiewende on Wind and Solar Component Prices has not been significant but given the scale of development and the timing it seems clear to me that there has been a large impact.  Until China got moving on solar panel installations Germany was purchasing about half the worldwide supply and still represents about 25% of installed capacity.

Germany has also been one of the largest purchasers of wind turbines consuming about 10% of the worldwide supply from 2004-2010 dropping to about 5% more recently as other countries have accelerated their development of wind resources.

Roof-top Solar: $100 Billion plus lost in translation

The biggest failing of the Energiewende has been the investment in subsidies of roof-top solar panel installations.

As I have argued in another blog posting even under the best of conditions in arid regions between 35 degrees latitude north and south roof-top solar does not make sense. Installations are complicated and expensive, roof pitch and orientation is never ideal and there is no ability to implement sun tracking.

In the case of Germany which is located between 48 and 52 degrees north latitude subsidizing roof-top solar panels is pointless. The graph below summarizes electricity consumption and solar power production in Germany in 2013.

Solar power production peaks at about the same time German electricity consumption is at a minimum. For those months solar can meet about 11% of total demand (as much as 30-35% at mid-day on sunny days).

The real problem comes in the winter months when German consumption of electricity is highest. In the months of December and January German solar production is about 500 GW-Hours which meets about 1% of demand. Even if Germany was to double the number of solar panels that have been installed over the past 15 years it could meet only 2% of winter demand and in that situation there would be a huge surplus of solar power at mid-day in the summer. There is no solution to this imbalance between winter and summer insolation which is the primary reason that solar power is so ineffective in Germany.

I am not alone in my criticism of the German approach. A recent report states that Germany has in effect wasted over $100 billion by focusing on solar power. The study suggests that if the same amount of financial support had been directed towards developing solar power in Spain together with additional transmission capacity in central Europe then northern European Countries would have access to much more renewable energy when they need it most in the winter.

It is undeniable that solar panels generate a lot of electricity in Germany. But it is also true that the return on the investment made in solar power has been very poor both in financial and environmental terms.

“Green power sets new record at 78% of German supply!”

Statements similar to this come out on a regular basis, usually in June or July.  They are factually correct and impressive but they can easily lead the reader to conclude that the majority of electricity in Germany can be generated from renewable sources quite often.  It is in fact a very rare event.

On very low demand days between May and August when winds are blowing strongly Germany can see renewables reach those levels for a few hours at mid-day.  However, there are many, many more days and even more late afternoons and evenings when renewables make almost no contribution to the electricity supply.  This can be seen by the annual average generation by renewables which stands at about 25%.

Renewable penetration of 25% of total generation would be very impressive if it was actually used in Germany.  However, just as in Denmark which makes similar claims regarding wind as a percentage of total generation, a large amount of renewable generation in Germany is of absolutely no value.  This is solar energy at mid-day and wind energy at night when there is insufficient domestic demand.  In those circumstances Germany has no choice but to export this surplus electricity at very low prices (sometimes negative) and Germany’s neighbours have to absorb this electricity whether they need it or not.  The Czech Republic, France, Poland, and Switzerland have been complaining quite bitterly about the negative impacts of these exports.  Stress on the regional grids, the need to cycle power sources in those countries in response to the fluctuations in German generation, and low wholesale spot prices are issues that are increasing in severity every year.

From the graph above you will note that German exports have increased about 35% since 2009 as more renewable energy has entered the market.  Note however that imports have decreased less than 10% since 2009.  This is because of the intermittent nature of renewables. Exports take place at times of low demand and garner low prices. Imports typically take place at peak demand times and at peak demand prices.  As a result German retail electricity prices have continued to rise despite the fact that generation capacity has exceeded domestic demand for a number of years.  In my blog I have called this combination of increasing supply, increasing or stable imports and increasing prices an Electricity Paradox – or Electrodox

Non-Renewable Sources Supplying More Electricity Than 25 Years Ago

One of the claims by supporters of the Energiewende is that the growth of renewables will allow Germany to reduce its dependence upon coal-fired generation thereby reducing CO2 emissions. That has not happened over the past fifteen years and reducing coal-fired generation will not take place anytime soon.

Germany is burning almost exactly as much coal today as it was 10 years ago.   A number of new coal-fired plants have actually come on stream in the last 5 years. The addition of natural gas fired plants means that Germany is now generating more electricity from burning hydro-carbons than it was 25 years ago.

From the graph it might appear that renewable generation has largely replaced nuclear generation but the situation is a bit more complicated than that.

Germany has had surplus capacity for many years (all responsibly regulated electricity markets have reserve capacity) and has exported electricity since before the turn of the century.  In the past those exports were primarily nuclear power at peak demand times and prices and German nuclear was a welcome addition to the central European energy mix.  Now those exports are renewables at off-peak times and very low prices which cause issues for Germany’s neighbours.

It is true that every day of the year renewables make a significant contribution to the electricity supply in Germany, reducing the need to burn hydro-carbons and/or generate power from nuclear stations. The positive impact on CO2 emissions and other forms of pollution is significant. But it is also true that there are many times when renewables contribute very little generation and Germany must make use of all its thermal generating capacity and import power from its neighbours. As a result it has not been possible to retire any significant amount of coal-fired or natural gas-fired generation capacity.

Can Price Volatility Guarantee Security of Supply?

With renewables pushing conventional generation off the grid frequently and with little notice it is very difficult to operate thermal power plants efficiently or profitably. Frequent and unpredictable cycling of coal-fired and natural-gas fired plants increases operating expenses, reduces service life, and introduces uncertainty into revenue projections.

In the absence of any kind of capacity plan utilities are making economic decisions that can be in conflict with the goals of the Energiewende. For example, highly efficient Combined Cycle Gas Turbine (CCGT) facilities are being closed while lignite coal-fired plants remain open. Natural gas is simply more expensive than coal in Europe. As a result the rational economic choice favours plants that emit more than twice as much CO2 as well as harmful airborne pollutants.

The heated debate over the need for a capacity market in Germany has been going on for several years. For the time being nuclear plants contribute to a significant oversupply situation. That will change in 2022 when the remaining nuclear plants are due to be retired. Making sure that there is adequate and reliable generation capacity available to replace the loss of the nuclear plants remains a work in progress.

The government position at the moment is to allow high spot market prices to be the primary incentive for utilities to maintain adequate generation capacity. German Energy Minister Sigmar Gabriel has stated that “high prices at times of scarcity would ensure that conventional power plants would remain profitable”. The idea is that if prices are allowed to go high enough when renewables are not available (for example on calm nights), then it will still be possible to make a profit running a thermal generation station if only for a few hours on a few days.

This is the same approach taken by Texas which has raised its ceiling spot price to $9,000/MW (the average price paid is $45/MW). The response of Texas electricity utilities has been “That dog don’t hunt”. In January, 2014 they took out a full-page advertisement warning of a future plagued by blackouts and system failures.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Of course nobody can reliably predict the future so the following comments are pure speculation.

I cannot see how Germany can continue to develop significantly more wind and solar resources in the next few years. The imbalances between supply and demand at different times of the day and different months of the year are becoming too extreme. And with so much generating capacity in place it is difficult to imagine utilities building any new plants. What that means when the nuclear plants shut down is anyone’s guess but it does not look like a pretty picture to me.

The ability for other European countries to move aggressively with renewal energy development also appears to be constrained by the challenges to regional grid stability introduced by Germany. The need for a pan-European strategy seems clear.

Setting up a capacity market in Germany might address the profitability of existing thermal generation but would raise electricity prices. Despite a small decrease in 2014 Germany consumers still pay the second highest retail prices in Europe. Any further increase to support a capacity market would not be welcome.

There is certainly plenty of potential to continue developing solar power in southern Europe – particularly CSP plants that can provide power after sunset such as the Gemasolar plant that runs 7x24x365. The potential to make greater use of Nordic hydro resources through conventional pumped storage schemes or by adding generation capacity in a concept I have termed “unpumped storage” also exists. Both of these approaches would require significant investments in the European grid infrastructure as well as an increased level of political co-operation amongst Euro-zone members.

My assessment of the German Energiewende is mixed based upon what I feel is the ultimate goal – an end to the burning of hydro-carbons to generate electricity. Reducing hydro-carbon usage is not sufficient and will not transform us to a truly sustainable energy society.

What Germany has achieved so far is impressive. It is impossible to deny that. But I would have preferred to see even 20 GW of renewable energy equipped with storage of some sort so that some coal-fired or natural gas-fired generation could be permanently retired. A financial and policy commitment to storage technology that was as firm as the position taken by Germany with respect to solar panels would have been more constructive in my opinion.


The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Truth about Batteries

Posted in Uncategorized at 7:45 pm by Administrator

If we had affordable and reliable utility-scale battery systems our energy problems would be over. We could easily develop enough wind and solar power to meet our energy demands by storing excess energy generated at mid-day and when the winds were blowing strongly. It would then be available to use at night and/or when the winds are calm.

Inexpensive and abundant energy from renewables would also go a long way to solving water shortages in coastal areas around the world because desalination on a large scale would become economically feasible.

One energy writer back in 2013 stated that we had already reached the promised land and that concerns about the reliability of wind were effectively over. She was talking about the building of the Notrees battery complex in Texas – the largest such facility in North America. At that time I pointed out the fact that the installed batteries could deliver only 25% of the capacity of the wind farm. More importantly, the batteries could deliver that power for a total of 15 minutes. The facility, which cost $44 million, was not designed to replace the energy output of the wind farm. It was intended to stabilize the output over very short periods of time and to allow for a few minutes to bring on other rapid response power sources when wind was ramping down such as when a weather front passes.

Despite the limitations of the Notrees battery complex it appeared to be a step in the right direction. That is, until it was announced that all of the batteries have to be replaced after less than 4 years of service.

Oh well, maybe they just got unlucky … or maybe not.

The Kauai Island Utility Co-operative also installed a large battery complex in 2012 using the same technology as that used at Notrees and all those batteries also have to be replaced. In both cases the replacement batteries will be lithium ion – from Samsung for Notrees and SAFT for KIUC. My personal experience with Lithium Ion batteries in laptops and smart phones does not make me confident that they can last more than 5 years but only time will tell.

Regardless of the potential longevity of large battery systems the cost of truly backing up renewable resources such as wind remains unacceptably high. It is worth considering a real world example in order to understand the scope of the problem.

Texas currently has over 12 GW of wind energy capacity, the largest amount of any state in the U.S. Many renewable energy advocates make the claim that “the wind is always blowing somewhere” so that periods of calm in one area can be handled by shipping electricity from distant locations where the wind is blowing. I would dispute that contention.

There are frequent occasions when large high pressure systems cover much of the North American continent resulting in calm conditions over very large areas. For example, from November 22 to 26, 2013 the winds across the whole of Texas were calm even as electricity demand increased.

The average capacity factor for Texas is about 28% so for this period of time there was a shortfall of at least 1.5 GW of wind generation. In order to replace this “missing” wind generation with energy produced from storage it would be necessary to have 4 days x 24 hours x 1.5 GW = 144 GW-Hours of energy storage. The battery complex at Notrees cost $44 million for 36 MW x 0.15 hours = 9 MW-Hours of storage which translates into about $4.8 Million/MW-hour or $4.8 Billion/GW-hour.

The bottom line? It would cost 144 x $4.8 Billion = $690 billion to provide backup for a relatively short period of calm weather for just the state of Texas. If that enormous capital expenditure could be amortized over 30 or 50 years (as can be done with a hydro dam or a coal or natural gas fired thermal plant) then it might make sense. But it seems unlikely that any batteries implemented today would last more than 10 years.

Despite the many problems that have been encountered with large scale battery installations and the rather daunting costs there are still interesting projects under development. Once again, Kauai Island Utility Co-operative is blazing new trails with the proposed 52 MW-hour array at Kapaia. The batteries will be charged using the output from a new solar array which, for the first time, will not be used to provide electricity to the grid during the daylight hours. The project is going to break ground in the spring of 2016.

If successful this project will be the new benchmark for renewable energy storage based upon MW-Hours (the largest such facility currently in operation that I am aware of is a 36 MW-Hour iron phosphate battery project in China).

22-Nov-15: Update: I noticed that another large LI-ion battery project was commissioned in the fall of 2014. The Tehachapi Energy Storage Project came in at about $1.5/watt-hour, less than a third the cost of the Notrees complex so that is a major step in the right direction. Now if only the batteries can hold up we might be getting somewhere.


Dark Days Ahead for Roof-top Solar

Posted in Uncategorized at 10:53 pm by Administrator

If you have read any of my blog posts you will know that I am not a big fan of roof-top solar.

Roof-top solar panels are expensive and inefficient to install. These systems also cause major issues for utility grids because of the need to handle the bi-directional flow of electricity to and from the customer. This additional complexity unfairly imposes additional costs on all electricity users who do not have roof-top solar panels. I have also argued that the value of all solar energy, including roof-top solar will decline significantly between 10:00 am and 2:00 pm as supply begins to exceed demand.

Over the past 2 years some of these concerns have become reality in many parts of the world.

The problems associated with integrating large amounts of roof-top solar into the electricity grid on Oahu have led to a steady decline in installations.

On October 13, 2015 it was announced that the Hawaiian Public Utilities Commission was ending the Net metering program whereby customers with solar panels received a credit for any electricity they returned to the grid. The inequity of that approach was that it equated mid-day electricity generation that was increasingly problematic and would exceed demand on some circuits to expensive peak demand evening electricity that was required by all customers including those that had roof-top solar panels. The new system will pay customers something close to market value for their solar power generation – a value that will be much lower than what was received under the net metering system. Customers with solar panels will now also have to pay a minimum monthly bill to help cover the costs of servicing their more complex inter-connections. Most observers have concluded that the impact will be a further reduction in roof-top solar additions.

Hawaii is not the only place where roof-top solar installations are declining significantly.

The world leader in roof-top solar for most of this century has been Germany. I personally have never understood why a country at a latitude of 48 degrees would spend hundreds of billions of dollars subsidizing roof-top solar when there is very little solar power available in the winter – the peak demand season for electricity use in Germany.

I don’t know if this reality has finally become apparent to the Germans but subsidies have been decreased significantly in the last few years and solar panel additions have dropped pretty dramatically.

As in Hawaii, other jurisdictions with high penetration of roof-top solar utilities are requesting and being granted the right to charge customers with solar planels a fixed monthly fee. They are also being allowed to pay customers market based prices for excess solar power rather than a fixed feed-in tariff.

In Spain the government has dramatically cut subsidies and support for solar power development over the past few years most recently targeting residential battery storage systems. In September the Spanish government won a court case that was an attempt to force restoration of these subsidies.

Most recently the Tennessee Valley Authority published the most comprehensive study I have seen yet on the costs and benefits of residential roof-top solar. The study concludes that the amount paid by TVA for rooftop solar is still higher than the true value to the system despite the fact that the TVA has reduced the payments from $.22/kwh to $.12/kwh since 2012.

When you consider these developments it is difficult to see the installation of roof-top solar panels maintaining the pace of the last few years in the developed world (China is a different story where government mandates will ensure that solar installations continue at an accelerated pace). In my opinion that is a good thing. Development of solar power needs a reboot to take a more rational and less subsidized approach.

Believe it or not I am actually a big believer in solar power. At latitudes below 35 degrees N/S I think it is absolutely the best renewable source available. By pairing concentrated solar power installations which include molten salt storage with photo-voltaic solar panels to reduce costs it would be possible to build plants which can supply electricity 7x24x365 (the Gemasolar plant in Spain can already do that). Utility scale solar plants have the added advantages of being easily equipped with sun tracking which significantly increases plant output.

By centralizing solar panel installations it is also much easier to integrate this generation into the regional grid and to supply battery or other short-term voltage stabilization storage technologies. A recent example of how effective this approach can be is the Kauai Island Utility Co-op’s drive to install 30 MW of utility-scale PV solar by the end of 2015 some of which will have battery backup. These facilities will consistently generate more than 50% of the electricity required at mid-day on the island.

For many parts of the world including the Southern United States, Mexico, Southern China, all of India, north Africa, the Middle East and many other areas solar power is the obvious choice when it comes to renewable energy. Innovative projects such as the Khafji Saltwater Desalination plant point to a future where not only energy but abundant fresh water will be available in these areas. Energy storage systems based upon molten salt, batteries, or other technologies need further development and significant R&D funding needs to be directed towards this effort. But there is no doubt that in the long run solar power in equatorial regions has enormous potential.

North and south of 35 degrees latitude I believe that other technologies including wind, geothermal, and hydro-kinetics offer a better value proposition for both subsidies and R&D funding.


Planning for a World Without Work

Posted in Uncategorized at 10:08 pm by Administrator

I have read a couple of articles recently that have crystallized my thoughts about a topic that has me concerned about the future faced by my sons and daughter.

The article I read yesterday had the title The Raise that Roared. It is about an entrepreneur in Seattle that decided that he was not paying enough to his employees for them to live a middle class lifestyle. He came to the conclusion that the wage gap between himself and his employees was too large and as a result he lowered his own salary and made the minimum wage within his firm $70,000.

This move has been heralded as visionary and lambasted as cynical and/or socialist. But to my way of thinking it simply highlights the yawning gap between the rich and everyone else that has been growing for more than a decade (recall the “occupy” movement that started in 2011).

One of the contributors to this gap has been the increasingly obscene amounts being paid to corporate executives.

When I started working for Gulf Oil in the 80’s (one of the most profitable oil companies in the world at that time) the CEO of the company made something like 30-40 times the lowest paid worker stocking shelves in a warehouse or answering the telephones at the reception desk.

In the world of 2015 someone performing the lowest paid jobs for a company like that makes about $20,000 (or less) and CEO’s now regularly make $10,000,000 or more. That’s a multiple of 500.

Just last year Yahoo paid out a record $110 Million to executive Henrique De Castro. What incredible feat did he accomplish to deserve such a generous award? He was so bad at his job that he was fired after just 15 months.

I would attribute this rampant escalation in executive compensation to the growth of Mutual Fund ownership of the economy.

Mutual Fund managers rarely look past the last few quarters of results and really don’t have much interest in the long term viability of a company. They have been completely “hands off” when it comes to senior management. At some point the boys in the executive suite figured this out and started giving themselves massive raises and bonuses.

Initially they were probably somewhat surprised that there was no push back but now it is simply accepted that precedents set by the last insane salary increase at one company should be replicated by any company that wants to remain “competitive”. Sort of like elite athletes salaries except that in the world of sport athletes actually have to perform to keep getting their contracts renewed.

The other and perhaps even more disturbing trend is that increasing automation in every field is putting more and more power and control into the hands of those that can afford the tools that are used to replace human labour.

The story that got my attention in this regard was the recent announcement regarding the development of a robotic brick-laying machine. It is not surprising that such a machine could be built. In fact it was inevitable. But what this demonstrates is that even skilled labour jobs are not immune to automation.

It has often been said that technology does not eliminate jobs but in fact creates even more jobs. In my experience that is only because technology when first introduced doesn’t really work very well. Once it becomes mature there are very negative impacts on employment levels.

My father was an underground miner working for INCO in Sudbury Ontario. In the 1960’s INCO employed 17,000 workers. Today that number has dropped to less than 5,000 and the company produces more nickel than ever. Automation and robotics have replaced more than 7 out of 10 workers. Is that is a bad thing? I don’t think so. Those jobs were dirty, dangerous, and dull. But it makes you wonder what jobs will be left when robotics and artificial intelligence reach their true potential in perhaps 30-50 years.

Does anyone doubt that self-driving cars will be the norm within 20 years? There go all the taxi, bus, and truck driving jobs. The result should be more efficient and significantly safer travel and transport – that’s a good thing, right?

If you can imagine self-driving cars then isn’t it realistic to think that airline pilot jobs and many similar highly skilled jobs will also disappear.

You might counter that there will always be jobs where human intelligence and analysis will be required. Maybe that’s true. But back before computers were mainstream could anyone have imagined that a machine could defeat the most talented chess players in the world? And what about that 2011 episode of the game show Jeopardy where IBM’s Watson easily defeated two former champions.

I foresee the day where you walk into a neighbourhood medical clinic and stand in a booth where you are subjected to a full body scan involving multiple sensors. Within seconds a computerized diagnosis would be provided that will be much more accurate than human doctors could possibly come up with.

The widespread deployment of these advanced technologies will require energy – a lot of energy. I have written about many energy storage technologies on this blog and I am absolutely certain that one or more will become economical within the 30-50 year time frame. At that point it will be possible to generate all the energy we need and more from wind, solar, hydro, hydro-kinetics and geothermal sources at very low costs. Abundant energy will also mean abundant water because desalination of seawater will become viable.

In a world where robots and artificial intelligence have come to dominate large parts of the economy how does a social structure based upon humans earning a living by “working” continue to function? The short answer is “it doesn’t”.

Over the next 30 years structural unemployment will creep continually upward. Unemployment rates of 20%, 30% or more will become the norm. It will make no difference how well educated, motivated, skilled, or industrious young people are. They will not be able to compete with either automation or older, more experienced workers. The inevitable result will be social unrest at a scale not seen since the 1930’s. The “Occupy Movement” was only a dress rehearsal.
I don’t think this is a disaster in the making. Society will evolve in order to adjust to the new reality. But evolve it must and the sooner we accept that and start heading in the right direction the better. Allowing the wage disparity to continue to grow is exactly the wrong direction.

As the work available for humans decreases there must be a corresponding reduction in the amount of time that each individual is expected to work. A shorter work week, a higher minimum wage, and better benefits for part-time workers are not luxuries that we as a society cannot afford. These are evolutionary changes that must take place in order to maintain social order.

Personally I feel that shared ownership provides one opportunity to address both the executive compensation issue and the more equal distribution of wealth. Democratically controlled organizations, be they credit unions, co-ops, or not-for-profit organizations such as auto clubs providing insurance and even car-sharing services would never put up with outlandish executive compensation packages. And the one member, one vote structure of these organizations allows individuals to share equally in the responsibilities and the economic benefits that are the reason these organizations exist.

I’m sure that some people will consider this vision of the future to be radical and alarmist. It certainly will be different. I just don’t see any other way that things can turn out over the long run. And organizations as credible as the World Economic Forum and Oxfam seem to agree.

19-Oct-15: Update – Apparently $10+ million severance is “standard in almost every public company in every industry”

The proposed purchase of Hawaiian Electric Industries (the electrical utility for most of the Hawaiian islands) by NextEra will trigger a payment of $11.6 Million to Connie Lau, the CEO of HEI.

Maybe I’m crazy but it would seem to me that a “golden parachute” of that magnitude would be a very compelling incentive to do the deal whether or not it is in the best interest of Hawaiian utility customers. When this payment was questioned at a Public Utility Commission hearing Ms. Lau made the comment that this type of severance was “standard in almost every public company in every industry”.

I believe that many, many decisions impacting our economy are now made purely for the personal gain of executives. The poster child for that contention is Joseph Cassano who many analysts have identified as the architect of the speculative derivative trading that resulted in the financial crisis of 2008. During his 21 years with AIG he received compensation of $315 million and even after the dire consequences of his actions became apparent and he was forced to retire he continued to receive a consulting fee of $1 million per month.


Bike Share/Rent in Northern Europe – a sampler

Posted in Uncategorized at 9:52 pm by Administrator

I recently returned from a three week vacation in Northern Europe and during my visit I made a point of trying out the bike share/rental opportunities in a few different cities. In a previous blog post I mentioned using the bike share system in Chicago. In 2014 I was also able to try out a very similar system in Toronto. I think that after this last vacation I am getting a good sense of what works and what does not work so well with these systems.

Oslo, Norway. I think that the Oslo system would work very well for local residents who can purchase a smart card for the season for 150 Norwegian Krone (currently about $US 18). For tourists like myself the system does not work well at all.

First problem: getting a smart card. These are only available at the Oslo Visitor Center in the east part of the city center. And the smart cards must be returned to the same location. They also cost 100 Krone (about $US 13) per day which is a little expensive for this kind of service.

There are more than 100 bike stations throughout the city but sadly none at the Maritime Museum/Kon Tiki/Fram location which is where I wanted to go. I had to drop off the bike at the Viking museum about a 15 minute walk away.

My final complaint – no bike locks. This is very typical of bike share systems and frankly this is a big problem. Not being able to comfortably leave your bike for even a few minutes to make a purchase or grab a quick snack is a real drag. You end up spending more time trying to find a nearby bike station than you would making the stop. There are a few systems that do provide bike locks and it is a major advantage as far as I am concerned.

Port of Nynashamn, Sweden. After cruising for 9 days and having visited 6 cities we were feeling like a relaxing day when we got to Sweden. As a result we did not go into Stockholm. Instead we enjoyed some of the best desserts ever at the Jannis Cafe after which we burned a few calories biking along the waterfront.

Bike rentals in Nynashamn are through one of the two tourist offices – one at the waterfront at the foot of Centralgatan and the other further east near the industrial port. The staff at both offices were incredibly helpful and the bikes came with built-in locks and helmets. At about $US 2.40/hour these bikes were also relatively expensive but gave us the freedom to explore this charming little port. The short ride over to the outstanding Nynäs Havsbad Spa is very rewarding even if you don’t go for a sauna or massage. Watch out for the troll under the bridge.

Copenhagen, Denmark. Of course we had to try biking in the bicycle Mecca of the world. In our case the hotel we were staying at had rental bicycles so that was easier than using the pedal assist electric bike rental service which is also somewhat expensive at 25 Danish Krone (currently about $US 3.75)/hour.

Most of the streets in Copenhagen have bike lanes which are physically separated from sidewalks and the street by a small ledge with the result that you are never jostling with automobile or pedestrian traffic. The sites in central Copenhagen are easily reached by bicycle and getting around on two wheels is definitely the right way to see the city.

Both the rental bikes we used and the rental electric bikes come equipped with the same kind of “clasp” locks that we had seen in Sweden.

Paris, France.The Paris bike sharing system is very heavily used by locals and tourists alike. That is a good thing and a bad thing.

Getting a bike is very easy. You go through the menus on the screens at any bike station, swipe your credit card, and the system provides you with an ID number and requires you to select a PIN number. For the duration of your pass you just enter the code and PIN to unlock a bike.

One thing I loved about the bikes in Paris is the built in cable lock. That allows you to feel comfortable leaving your bike while you pick up some croisants or better yet some very affordable French wine. It is a simple system with a key to lock and unlock and I wish more bike-sharing systems offered this feature.

In Paris the cost for bike-share is 1.7 Euros for 24 hours or 8 Euros for a week. Those prices are as good as I have seen anywhere.

Like most true bike-sharing systems (Chicago, Toronto, London England) you only get to use the bike for 30 minutes for free. If you keep the bike longer than 30 minutes you pay an additional fee. In the case of Paris it is 1 Euro for the first additional 30 minutes, 2 Euros for the 2nd, 4 Euros for additional 30 minute periods. That means that if you keep the same bike for 2 hours you would end up paying additional fees of 7 Euros – not so cheap. But the whole concept of bike sharing is that you keep the bike for as little time as possible – essentially to get from “A” to “B”, then return it to a bike station so that someone else can use it. If you need a bike for a longer trip you can just park the first bike at a station and take a second and so on – in theory at least.

But that does raise one issue that can make bike sharing a very frustrating experience; bike stations that are full.

Bikes tend to accumulate at tourist sites in the early part of the day. I first encountered that problem in Chicago at the Field Museum. In Paris I encountered full bike stations on several occasions. The operators use trucks to haul bikes away from popular destinations but that seems to be a somewhat unreliable service especially in Paris.

So what do you do if you encounter a full bike station? In Paris you can enter your ID and PIN and get an additional free 15 minutes if the station is full. That may or may not be enough time to get to the next bike station on your route and that station could also be full. The struggle to find a spot at a bike station can get pretty annoying very quickly.

One thing you can do to reduce (but not eliminate) the “full bike station” problem is to pay for one more bike than you actually need. At 8 Euros for a week that is a small price to pay in Paris. With that approach if you encounter a full bike station along your planned route then you can just check out a bike using your “surplus” ID and PIN then check in the bike that is reaching its 30 minute limit.

If the bike station nearest your final destination is also full then you are still hooped. You can use your “surplus” ID and PIN to get an additional 30 minutes free rather than the 15 minutes you could get normally. But you would still have to just wait around and hope that someone shows up to take a bike leaving a spot open for you. If you are traveling with a group the wait to get enough empty spots is unpredictable and in the meantime precious vacation time is wasted.

There is a free mobile phone app (most bike-sharing systems have one) that lets you monitor the bike stations to find one that is not full. If you have a local SIM card or a good roaming plan that is an option. But the status of a bike station will change very frequently as bikes come and go so even that option does not provide a lot of certainty for planning purposes.

Given how busy bike stations can get in Paris would I still recommend using the system? Absolutely! Despite a few short waits to return a bike I never really experienced a serious problem and it was a gas to bike through the narrow streets of Paris. Motorists and pedestrians alike are used to dealing with the shared bikes (although they may not like them) so I never felt that I was in an unsafe situation despite not having a helmet.

London England.The bike sharing system in London is also heavily used. In fact, the website claims that there are more than 10,000 shared bikes available at 700 locations in the city.

A bike-sharing plan can be purchased at any bike station and costs 2 pounds stirling (currently about $US 3) for 24 hours. Additional fees of 2 pounds/30 minutes apply if you keep a bike longer than 30 minutes.

One minor annoyance with the London system is the requirement that you swipe your credit card to identify yourself every time you want to take out a bike. In my case I was traveling with a group and we put all the bicycle rentals on one credit card. That meant that we had to be together to get bikes and there were a few times when that wasn’t convenient. Having a code (Chicago, Toronto, Paris) provides a more flexible approach.

As with many systems the London bikes do not have locks and they also lack the baskets that Paris bikes were equipped with.

After this last trip I am now addicted to bike sharing. In many cities, especially in Europe, riding a bike is literally the fastest way to get around. That means that you can see more in less time which is awesome. Much as I also really enjoy walking in these cities it can get pretty tiring and hard on the feet. Biking for part of the way provides some relief.

If you have considered using bike-sharing but are nervous about traffic I would recommend that you give it a try. In the cities where there are bike-sharing programs everyone is getting used to pesky tourists that flip from street to sidewalk whenever it is convenient. If you want to enhance your experience take along a small backpack, lightweight cable lock and helmet.


Renewable Energy Highlights for the 2nd half of 2014 – Few and Far Between

Posted in Uncategorized at 9:56 pm by Administrator

I haven’t posted anything to the Black Swan Blog for 8 months. One reason is that I have had a few other projects that have really monopolized my time.  But the other reason is that I usually write blog posts in response to something that interests me in the world of renewable energy.  Frankly, not much has been happening since last summer.

I was pretty certain that Texas would be encountering severe problems because of the fluctuations in their wind energy generation.  In fact, they had no problems at all last summer.  That was helped by the addition of 1.3 GW (Net of reductions) of Natural Gas plant capacity (according to the December, 2014  Report on the Capacity, Demand, and Reserves) and a maximum peak demand of only 66.5 GW in August 2014 as compared to a peak demand of 67.25 GW in August, 2013 and an all-time peak of 68.3 GW in August, 2011).

I did find it interesting to note that ERCOT has now redefined the peak capacity percentages for wind resources.  This is essentially the percentage of nameplate wind capacity that can be relied upon during peak demand times.  Based upon 6 years worth of data and a large installed generation base this value is 12% for onshore resources in the summer, 19% for the winter.  For offshore resources the values are 56% in the summer and 36% for the winter. Unfortunately the vast majority of Texas wind farms are onshore and peak demand is in the summer.

Some of my most popular blog posts have been about the experience with renewables in Hawaii and on that topic there have been a number of interesting developments. In many ways, at least with regards to solar energy, Hawaii is on the bleeding edge with regards to dealing with the opportunities and the problems associated with incorporating large amounts of solar energy into their utility grid.

The issues I had raised in an earlier post have started to reach a critical stage. The “success” of the rooftop solar program has brought many of the circuits in the state to the point where they are at risk of becoming unstable, possibly leading to failures or equipment damage. As a result new permit requirements have been put in place and in the last quarter of 2014 there was a dramatic drop in the number of rooftop solar installations, continuing a trend that started in January, 2013 (Note: I am not a big supporter of rooftop solar even in Hawaii for a number of technical and social equity reasons that I have discussed previously. The law suit between Solar City and the Salt River will determine whether or not a fixed infrastructure charge for solar panel owners will hold up in court).

In another blog post I was very critical of the Hawaiian Electric Company’s approach to renewable energy. It seemed to me that they didn’t have a realistic plan and were basically completely lost with regards to creating a sustainable energy environment. So it was no surprise to me that the company was sold to NextEra in December, 2014. NextEra brings economic clout and a track record of successful renewable projects to the Aloha state utility but will also bring a focus on the “bottom line” that was missing.

Meanwhile, Kauai Island Utility Co-op (KIUC) is taking what I believe is a much different and better approach to the development of solar power. A major focus has been on utility-scale solar installations. In December, 2012 the largest solar installation in Hawaii came on-line in Port Allen. On a sunny day the 6 MW facility is able to provide almost 10% of Kauai’s daytime energy needs.

KIUC recognized that solar power output can vary by as much as 70-80% because of passing clouds. As a result the Port Allen facility was designed to have a large battery backup component that could compensate for short-duration power drops. Through real-world operational experience they found that their initial battery configuration could not stand up to the rapid cycling experienced when trying to stabilize solar power. As a result the utility is replacing the lead-acid batteries in the initial configuration with lithium-ion batteries.

KIUC has not been deterred because of the operational problems it has experienced. The utility is taking the sensible position that these kinds of issues can be expected when trying to really push a new technology. They are in the process of commissioning an addition 24 MW of utility-scale solar which will provide up to 80% of Kauai’s daytime electrical needs. And if the new batteries prove to be cost-effective the utility can start to extend the impact of the solar array by releasing stored energy to the grid in the late afternoon and early evening.

As far as I am concerned KIUC is on the right track. Now if only they would combine a Concentrated Solar Plant with their PV installations they could provide solar power 24 hours a day as they do at the Gemasolar plant in Spain.


Doing the “Green” thing on 2 wheels for the environment and for charity

Posted in Uncategorized at 7:15 pm by Administrator

I have been biking to work from time to time for many years first in Calgary (which has a truly awesome bike path system) and now in Vancouver (which has a pretty pathetic bike path system despite lots of hype and money spent on downtown bike lanes). But I have never biked more than a few times per month on a consistent basis.

Here at the Black Swan Blog I have discussed lots of interesting applications in the field of electrically-powered transportation: everything from cars to planes and boats. I have also been keeping a close eye on developments in the area of electric bikes.

The announcement of the e-bike by the folks that make Smart Cars seemed to me to legitimize the whole concept. And after I published my blog on electric cars my good friend and high-tech guru Steve Darden pointed me in the direction of the Copenhagen Wheel. This looks like a fascinating concept but unfortunately (?) they have been so successful at generating interest that they have deferred actual delivery of their product until 2015. (by the way, do not visit Steve and Dorothy’s site unless you are really comfortable with escape fantasies and feelings of envy).

I started looking really seriously at electric bikes and after doing a bit of research I paid a visit to Evolution Bikes and test-drove a couple of different bikes manufactured by BH Bicyles. Although the brand is best know for racing bikes their line of electric bikes offers outstanding technology and design.

These bikes are “pedal assist” meaning you have to actually pedal to engage the electric motor. But with the BH bikes you won’t be breaking a sweat no matter how fast you pedal. The bike senses the pedal pressure and provides more boost the harder you push – you feel super-human as you climb moderate hills at 25-30 kph.

In the end I purchased a BH EasyMotion Neo Carbon like the one pictured above. At about 20 kg it can easily be carried on a bike rack and the 30 gears mean that the bike is a very comfortable ride even without the electric assist (I can’t say the same about the Smart e-bike which felt slow and clunky under electric power and was really not a fun time in manual mode).

The best part about having the electric bike is that it allows me to use my Cannondale Synapse Road bike more as well. I have an 18 km commute each way with several large hills and a rather long and nasty bridge to contend with. I found biking both ways on the Cannondale took just a bit too much time and energy for me to do on a daily basis. But now I am able to take the Cannondale one way and the EasyMotion the other.

Since buying the electric bike I have only driven to work once. The 4,000 lb van can now be used for what it is really good at – hauling around 5 adults plus dog and luggage when we go on family outings and road trips.

Biking every day has been good for my fitness level too. This past week my wife brought to my attention the Vancouver Rotary Club Bike-A-Thon in aid of Deaf and Hard of Hearing in British Columbia. It is a 120 km ride and I now feel that is something I can take on (we’ll find out if that is true on July 13). Of course that will be on the Cannondale, not the electric bike.

P.S. Should you be interested in supporting me on this ride for charity you can make a donation at my Ride-A-Thon page.


40,000 “Reads” at energyblogs.com

Posted in Uncategorized at 5:36 pm by Administrator

Earlier this month the Black Swan Blog registered it's 40,000th "Read" on energyblogs.com. I took the opportunity to compare the most popular blogs now with those from August, 2013 when I celebrated 20,000 "Reads". I found it interesting to note that only 4 of the Top Ten from 8 months ago are still in that group of most popular blog postings. For example, the blog I wrote after the first anniversary of the Black Swan Blog has moved very quickly to sit at number 4. The complete list of the current Top Ten follows:

  1. We should use Concentrated Solar Power ONLY after sunset

    This posting is the only one to have maintained its position in the ranking. In this posting I discuss how photo-voltaic solar panels could be used in conjunction with a Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) plant to provide relatively economical and dispatchable power.

  2. Post-secondary Institutions Harvest Underground Energy

    This posting climbed one spot. It describes how Post-Secondary Institutions are using Geoexchange (sometimes referred to as Geothermal) systems to provide heating and cooling to their campus buildings. In my opinion all new commercial and industrial buildings should be required to implement Geoexchange systems which use about half of the electrical power as compared to traditional HVAC systems.

  3. What if "Climate Change" is the next "Y2K"?

    This posting from July, 2013 is new to the "Top Ten". It might seem from the title of this blog that I don't believe that climate change is real or that it is at least partially caused by burning hydro-carbons. That is not the case. My point in this posting is that the considerable "hype" around climate change may be distracting us from focusing on the real fundamental problem – we are consuming non-renewable resources in an unsustainable way. I am concerned that should the climate change concerns cool down we would lose interest in what I believe to be the more important problem.

  4. Reflections on one year of blogging

    This posting from October, 2013 discusses my experience with blogging. I am a little surprised at how fast it has surpassed much older postings.

  5. Hawaii Renewables Facing Cross-Currents and Headwinds

    This posting has slipped from the #2 spot but still remains very popular. In it I discuss some of the opportunities and challenges facing the renewable industry in Hawaii. In many ways the Aloha State is leading the movement to a more sustainable future but I am not convinced that they are taking the optimal approach.

  6. The Next 5 years for Renewables – A Best Case Scenario

    This posting from July, 2013 is new to the "Top Ten". It is the second of a pair of postings where I speculate about developments in the renewable energy industry. Interestingly, the "Worst Case Scenario" posting is much less popular. I guess that means we are either eternally optimistic or unwilling to "face the music".

  7. Power Generation – There's No Place Like Home

    This posting slipped from the #4 spot. It discusses several approaches to reducing residential energy consumption and distributed generation such as solar panels, Geoexchange, and community wind projects. I need to revise this posting soon because my views on roof-top solar panels have changed.

  8. How Much Battery Storage is Enough for Roof-Top Solar Panels?

    This posting is also new to the "Top Ten". It discusses the ebb and flow of power between the utility grid and a residential roof-top solar array. It provides a link to a couple of tools that can be used to estimate the amount of battery storage needed and the net electricity generated at different latitudes.

  9. The Hawaiian Electric Company Integrated Resource Plan – Welcome to Fantasy Island!

    When HECO published its IRP I was surprised at how unrealistic the assumptions and development plans were. I reference an independent consultant's report that takes issue with the almost exclusive focus on computer-generated models of supply and demand. As far as I am concerned this plan is not realistic.

  10. The Fright Before Christmas

    This is my Christmas blog posting from 2012 – it has grown steadily in popularity.

Thanks for your continued interest and support.


The Future Ain’t What It Used To Be

Posted in Uncategorized at 6:31 pm by Administrator

Almost exactly 6 months ago The Black Swan Blog celebrated its 1st anniversary. It is about to achieve another milestone – 40,000 “reads” on the first site that I began blogging at – energyblogs.com.

At the same time that I was wondering if I should acknowledge this milestone I was attending the BCNET Conference in Vancouver which had the theme “Building Value Through Collaboration”. The presentations by two of the keynote speakers made me consider the value of my blogging and how I might be able to increase that value.

Jesse Hirsh made the case that traditional sources of “authority” from governments to professors to the legally recognized “professions” (i.e. doctors, lawyers, engineers, etc.) are being challenged and in many cases discarded or ignored. He suggested that we are entering an age in which a person’s expertise and their ability to influence will allow them to become a “Cognitive Authority”. And he further suggested that by identifying such “Cognitive Authorities” each of us can “tune in” to the “signal” – the useful information – that is becoming more and more difficult to separate from the cacophony of facts and opinions that we are bombarded with every day.

The key message I took from Jesse’s remarks is that there is an important role and even a responsibility for those of us who express opinions on forums such as The Black Swan Blog. In order to earn the right to be considered a “Cognitive Authority” we need to provide significant value for those that choose to read the material that we post.

As far as I am concerned that “value” must incorporate the following principles:

  • The information should be presented with the intent to broaden the reader’s perspective and base of knowledge on the topic being discussed. There are many sides to every story and it is perfectly normal and even useful to forcefully support one point of view. But that point of view must be reasonable. In our legal system we use the concepts of “preponderance of the evidence” and “balance of probabilities” to determine the truth about a body of factual evidence. With The Black Swan Blog I mentally test the ideas I am writing about using those concepts before I publish a blog posting.
  • The information and opinions should be original to at least some extent. I would much rather provide a link to an existing “in depth” study than simply regurgitate ideas that have been expressed previously. The ability to easily refer to other material on the Internet is perhaps the most powerful new capability available to us in the information age. In my postings I make a real effort to refer to original material wherever possible.
  • In responding to comments from readers it is essential to be respectful in all cases and positive and supportive of comments that provide additional insights into a topic, whether or not they support the premise of the posting. However, there is also an obligation to firmly refute statements that are clearly factually incorrect or deliberately misleading. I would also not hesitate to delete any comment that belittles or is otherwise disrespectful of another participant in a discussion.

Another keynote speaker at the BCNET Conference was Dr. Alec Couros, Educational Technology & Media Professor. Alec challenged the audience to truly “think different” about approaches to learning at all levels. He used the example of the Nyan Cat to demonstrate that the content of a work was insignificant compared to the creativity and innovation that the work can inspire. He also emphasized the power of Youtube and Twitter to support rapid learning and the organic creation of groups of people with shared interests.

Alec urges us to move beyond the exchange of data and facts to begin “sharing our collective human experiences”. In a world where knowledge is becoming a commodity, with handheld computing devices leveling the playing field, a deeper understanding of the human experience is perhaps becoming the most important goal we can aspire to achieve.

I consider myself to be a “techie” venturing dangerously close to “Nerdville” but I have to admit that I have not been a very active user of either Twitter or Youtube. Based upon the what I saw at BCNET, including a great presentation on Enterprise Social Collaboration I will be trying to make better use of these tools in the future.

On a related topic I have been in discussions lately with a number of people about the urgent need for digital curators on the Internet. Within the context of a discussion thread a “Cognitive Authority” can play a role. But in the broader sense of information management there is a need to categorize, prioritize, and sort through the millions of documents, photographs, videos and other digital assets that are strewn across the Internet like the contents of a teenager’s bedroom. It is, I realize, an impossible task to complete but any efforts in this area will improve the current situation.

In the academic world authors provide abstracts and in the corporate world we use “Executive Summaries”. But within the Wild, Wild West of the Internet the closest thing we have would perhaps be sites like Wikipedia. We need to do more.

Having taken that position I have to examine The Black Swan Blog with a critical eye. My conclusion, to paraphrase Pogo is  “I have seen the enemy and he is me” .. or is it “I”?  The Black Swan Blog has no table of contents and no abstracts so, as usual, I am as guilty as anyone when it comes to implementing an action plan based upon my own recommendations.  But at least in this case I can remedy the problem relatively easily.  So watch out for a table of contents including abstracts which should be in place within a week or two.


How Quickly will the Electric Vehicle Revolution Come?

Posted in Uncategorized at 3:45 pm by Administrator

In a previous posting I stated my belief that the pure electric vehicle was the way of the future and that this sector of the automobile industry would grow more or less continuously for the foreseeable future. I decided to do a bit more investigation into how quickly that could happen given trends in vehicle sales over the past few years. I also decided to look into what has been happening with fuel economy rates given that retail gasoline prices have more than doubled in North America in the last ten years. Unfortunately, what I found was not terribly encouraging.

The chart below displays U.S. vehicle sales since the turn of the century.

There are a couple of things of note.

First, the shift from passenger cars to “trucks” (which includes SUVs) between 2000 and 2005 was significant. This trend did not slow down until the price of gasoline hit about $2.30/gallon and even then the impact was not dramatic. What was very dramatic was the decline in vehicle sales in the U.S. as the financial crisis of 2008/2009 battered the economy.

In those years, when cash was scarce for so many Americans, vehicle sales dropped almost 30% sending almost every U.S. automobile manufacturer into bankruptcy. Truck/SUV sales were hit particularly hard, dropping below sales for passenger cars for the first time in the 21st Century. Presumably this reflected a recognition that the cost of owning and operating a truck/SUV was hard to justify in tough economic times.

As the economy gradually recovered it could have been the case that this lesson would have had a lasting impact; that more economical and fuel-efficient vehicles would continue to dominate. Sadly (in my opinion), this has not been the case.

Sales of Trucks/SUVs have rebounded even more quickly than sales of passenger cars and have regained their leadership position. There is every indication that the gap will continue to grow despite historically high gasoline prices.

What impact have these buying patterns had upon the average fuel consumption for the U.S. vehicle fleet? The trends are shown in the graph below.

The gap in fuel economy between trucks/SUVs and passenger cars is large and has actually increased from 6 MPG to over 7 MPG since the turn of the Century. This is primarily because the two categories of vehicles are treated differently under the Energy Policy and Conservation Act which mandates certain levels of fuel economy for vehicles manufactured in the U.S.

The bottom line is that despite having made some progress in the past few years Canada and the U.S. continue to exhibit the worst vehicle fuel economy in the world (for an in-depth analysis see “International comparison of light-duty vehicle fuel economy: An update using 2010 and 2011 new registration data”). And despite record-breaking retail gasoline prices, tough economic times, and an increasing awareness of environmental issues we keep slipping back into the habit of driving fuel-hungry vehicles.

There are justifiable reasons for that purchasing pattern. We do get some nasty weather in much of North America including snow and ice which makes a four wheel drive vehicle a safer ride. And because there are so many SUV’s, pickup trucks and 4×4’s on the road driving a smaller, lighter passenger car can be more than a little intimidating. To some extent the whole situation becomes one of “I need to drive a big, strong vehicle because everyone else has a big, strong vehicle.”

Is there any realistic hope that vehicle buying habits will change in North America anytime soon? The incentives for such change could include significant increases in retail gasoline prices (very likely in the next 5-10 years), significant changes to the CAFE rules (unlikely because of intractable opposition from automobile manufacturers and conservative politicians), and/or a real change in public attitudes towards CO2 reductions that could moderate climate change (I have seen very little evidence of this as described in another blog posting).

Taking all factors into account the prognosis for a significant change to more fuel-efficient, generally more expensive and smaller vehicles is poor. That does not bode particularly well for EV’s which are even more expensive and often smaller than fuel-efficient gasoline, diesel, or propane-powered vehicles.

It was recently announced here in British Columbia that the the “Clean Energy Vehicle Program Rebate” has depleted its funding pool and would not be extended. These rebates provided up to $5,000 in direct government grants for EV’s, representing about 14% of the price of a Nissan Leaf. Even with this fairly generous rebate program less than a thousand EV’s were sold in BC in the last two years – and BC considers itself (perhaps incorrectly) to be the “greenest” province in Canada.

There is another concern that may start to become apparent over the next year or two. The new breed of EV’s rely upon Lithium-ion batteries – the same type of battery that is used to power mobile phones, laptop computers, iPads and other tablets. Having used these types of devices extensively over the past 10 years I have never had a single device where the battery was not essentially useless after about 3-4 years. Perhaps automobile batteries will perform better – I certainly hope they do. But as the early Nissan Leafs and Tesla’s start to age they may degrade significantly; And that would have a chilling impact on EV sales around the world (note that the Prius uses a NiCad battery that has proved to be extremely reliable over 10 years or more).

So have I changed my opinion on EV’s? The short answer is “No”. I still believe that we have embarked upon a revolutionary change that will take place at a steady pace. However, it could well be that the pace of that change will be slow for most of this decade. Only a serious spike in the price of oil, which is always a possibility, could radically speed up the EV revolution. But that would have all kinds of other negative economic impacts that we would all probably like to avoid.


Less than a week after writing this post I was on a business trip to Anaheim and finally was lucky enough to find a Nissan Leaf “in the wild”. It’s owner, Matt Buchanan was kind enough to spend a few minutes talking to me about his beautiful “Felix”. In fact he stated that he was always happy to talk to people about the car and has had lots of questions about it.

Matt has had the car for a few months and is very pleased with it. He noted that the acceleration was particularly impressive and he feels that the Nissan Leaf is the best engineered car he has ever driven.

In terms of range Matt feels that the 75 mile range on a charge is a reasonable claim although he has not driven more than about 50 miles with the car yet – hasn’t had the need to in his normal driving.

One issue that Matt highlighted was the situation with fast charging stations. Originally almost all the stations were free but some are now charging a fee – typically a monthly subscription plus a per minute charge. So this will impact the economics of driving the car if the trend continues.

Overall Matt is very satisfied with his “Felix” and would recommend a Nissan Leaf to anyone considering purchase of an EV.

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