Carlo's Think Pieces

Reflections of a Filipino in the Netherlands

Posts Tagged ‘electric car’

Biofuels are not the Answer

Posted by butalidnl on 20 August 2011

Biofuels have been hailed as our way out of the dependence on fossil fuels. In the US, massive amounts of government funds have gone into making ethanol from corn. In the Philippines, the 2006 Biofuels Act targets the mixing of 5% ethanol in gasoline and 1% biodiesel in petrodiesel.

Biofuels as the solution to the energy problem is a myth, especially if you look deeper into its real prospects. Experts have computed that, in order to supply enough fuel for US’ transportation needs, they would have to grow corn in 3x the current cropland of the US. In other words, it is impossible for corn to do the job.

But why is that the case? Well, plants are actually (contrary to the myth) very inefficient transformers of solar energy. Plants transform only about 1% of the energy from sunlight into plant material. And of this plant material, perhaps only 20% (or 0.2% of the total) gets into the corn cob, which is what is processed towards ethanol. Then, the processing uses up energy. The end result is that only about 0.1% (one-thousandth) of the sun’s energy is transformed into ethanol.

Contrast this with silicon solar panels, which transform 16% of sunlight into energy. This is 160 times the energy obtained from corn! Some solar panels can even achieve 30% efficiency; but these are made with expensive Gallium Arsenide, and are thus only used for things like space satellites.

The main ‘problem’ that silicon solar panels face is that they still cost too much to make, making it cheaper to rely on traditional sources of energy. But the cost of making solar panels is rapidly going down; even to the point where it has reached ‘grid parity’ (i.e. solar costs the same as ordinary electricity) for some places or applications.  Reaching grid parity is important because this means that subsidies will no longer be necessary for these applications.

Cellulose and Algae
There are efforts aimed at using cellulose or algae as the source of biofuels. Using cellulose would mean that the full 1% of sunlight that the plant transforms will be used. Algae transforms up to 3% of sunlight, but they require expensive glass containers (which need to be regularly cleaned) so that the net yield of algae would be something like 1.5%.  Another problem with algae is that it grows slowly when it is producing hydrocarbons.

Algae is only marginally better than cellulose. And there is still a long road ahead, in terms of bringing either cellulose or algae to even get to 1-1.5% efficiency. It is a terrible waste of money to spend so much on biofuels of any kind. At the same time, solar is already 16 times more productive than algae and cellulose will ever be. And with further research, it should be possible to raise solar’s efficiency even more.

Use Other Technologies
The logical conclusion to all this would be that governments should stop all subsidies for biofuels immediately, and to rechannel the funds to more promising technologies. I suggest that these be solar, geothermal and wind. With a relatively small amount of research on solar and wind, their efficiency stands to improve a lot. Geothermal needs relatively big investments, but pays off well. Geothermal costs much less than traditional sources of energy to generate.  At the same time, the use of electric cars should be stimulated, so that gasoline and diesel will be replaced by electricity.

The Philippines should rescind the 2006 Biofuels Act. It is already a failure. Both ethanol and biodiesel are suffering from “volatile prices and insufficient supply”.  This is a natural result of the inefficiency of their production; and this basic inefficiency means that prices and supply will never be satisfactory, even with subsidies. Instead of biofuels, the Philippines should stress more on geothermal and solar, which are a lot more cost effective, and for which future price developments are growing more favorable.

Posted in electric car, electricity, environment, Philippine economics, Philippines, solar, solar energy, World Affairs | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

EVs Are Good for the Environment

Posted by butalidnl on 21 June 2010

I came across a comment in FB where the writer said that EVs are not really good for the environment. He said that we are in effect generating energy at a distance, and that could not be good, since there are inefficiencies in energy transport. Then, he said that EVs only transfer the source of pollution from gasoline to coal, and the latter is worse.

Well, I disagree with these positions, and here’s why:

Generation at a Distance
True, there is energy lost while transporting electricity from the power plant to your home or car, but we should also look at the energy savings we get from not having the energy source at every home or car. It is like the case where each home will have a diesel generator. This is not efficient, even though the transport cost for the electricity will be zero. Why? Because, for one, fuel needs to be brought to each and every house (and that costs energy). And also, the generator will be one which will produce electricity for your peak capacity; meaning that when you use less electricity, your generator will be running below its capacity, and will be quite inefficient.

With a car, it gets even worse. The car has to carry itself, and when the motor is set for your maximum power needs, it will be quite heavy. And this means that more power will be needed to carry both the rest of the car plus the engine. A hybrid or an electric vehicle has a much lighter engine. Even a hybrid will be lighter than an ordinary car because its engine is smaller – it will be built to provide the average power needed.  The battery will provide the necessary boost to power at times, but the rest of the time, the battery will be loading up, and the car will run using a lot less power. And since the engine of a hybrid will continue running at a steady speed, it will be quite efficient – any extra electricity produced will simply be stored. And using the engine always at its most efficient means that there will be less soot output due to unburned gasoline.

And then, there is the regenerative braking which only hybrids and EVs have. When you brake, using a normal car, the kinetic energy is merely turned to heat. When braking with a hybrid or EV, the kinetic energy is stored as electricity, which you could use later.

From Gasoline to Coal?
With regards to the accusation that we will be mainly using electricity from coal to run EVs, well he has more of a point. But the objection here is that this is quite a static way of looking at things.

The first wave of EV owners will not overload electricity systems, they will merely “level it out”. They will mostly recharge their cars at night, when the rest of the grid doesn’t use too much electricity; thus, they will not cause the electricity utility to build new capacity just yet. However, as time goes on and there are more EVs, then daytime electricity will be used more often, with people recharging at work or while shopping. This will be the time when extra generating capacity will be needed. But then, the question will be: what will be the source for this new electricity? Well, chances are it will not be coal. It will most likely be something like a natural gas or fuel oil plant, which are faster to set up, and with less delays due to environmental hassles.

Grid electricity is a combination from all kinds of sources: from solar and wind, to hydro, nuclear, geothermal, natural gas, fuel oil, and then coal. The question is not whether an individual EV will use up more coal or alternative energy.  But rather if the coming of EVs in general will lead to more coal plants or to more wind, solar, hydro or geothermal plants. I think the latter will be true.

And then there’s the battery which EVs use are also used for solar installations. It’s the same technology. This means that as EVs get manufactured in scale, the price of batteries will go down, and that lower price will affect both the price of cars and the price of solar power. Thus, EVs will indirectly cause the price of solar electricity to go down. And of course, lower prices for solar power will mean that more people will install solar panels.

And there is also the matter of having a smart grid. By smart grid, I mean having software and regulators that optimize the flow of electricity, that is capable of delaying some uses when there are peaks, that is capable of storing excess capacity when needed.  An economy with many EVs will really need a smart grid to cope with the varying loads caused by the charging of autos. The same smart grid will also be needed to handle alternative energy – where the variability will not only be on the use of electricity, but also on its generation. This is the same technology, which I suspect will be put in place first to handle EVs, but which will serve both EVs and alternative energy management.

EVs in use in Europe can be set to only use “clean energy”.  Here, consumers have a choice of electricity suppliers. I expect that buyers of EVs will also choose to tap electricity that is “green”, for their household use. Since most EVs will probably be charged at home (at the beginning, at least), this means that most EVs will be running on green electricity also from the beginning. Of course, in the US or in developing countries, you may not have the chance to choose for green electricity. But perhaps this is something that your electricity net should also do.

EVs will promote and stimulate the growth of alternative energy. We won’t see this right away, or in such a dramatic way, but it will happen. Look from it from another way: how else will society shift from “dirty” gasoline to alternatives, except through EVs? It will happen, and that is going to be good for the environment.

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Electric cars will dominate road in a few years

Posted by butalidnl on 6 September 2009

There is a lot of talk about electric cars these days, but many people believe that the whole thing would blow away once the oil price goes down, or the crisis is over. Government leaders in the US and elsewhere sound as if they have high expectations of electric cars, especially when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But, when it comes to concrete policies, or their projections, they are quite modest (realistic?).

Well, I don’t agree with such modesty. I think that the electric car “revolution” will radically change transportation, and make a major contribution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Going even further, I would say that by 2020,  up to 80% of new cars sold outside the US would either by hybrid or electric. (the US is generally more wasteful than other countries, so perhaps only 30% would be hybrid or electric there by 2020)

High Oil Price
The price of oil and oil products is bound to go higher in the future. Right now, while we are in the midst of a deep recession, the price of oil is able to maintain itself at more than US$ 70/barrel. While this may be low when it is compared to the US$ 140/barrel it achieved last year, this is still quite high historically. And after the recession is over, the price is sure to go up again, most probably beyond the highs of last year.

With the high price of oil, many people will opt for cars that either use a lot less oil, or even no oil at all. Thus, the choice will go more and more for either hybrids or plug-in electric cars.

Pollution Control
The world is more conscious of global warming, and many countries are taking steps to lessen their greenhouse gas emissions. This will mean stricter rules for CO2 emissions. There would also be more measures taken by cities to reduce other emissions, from other gases to fine particles, and even the level of noise produced.  All these would be good for electric cars, which do not produce these kinds of pollution.  Of course, this would mean that the pollution is transferred to where the power is produced e.g. power plants; but these are either easier to control or are outside the city. At the same time, there should be some increase in alternative energy sources for electricity to partially compensate for the increase in electricity demand.

Technological Breakthroughs
Although there are still technical problems connected with electric cars e.g. the limited range a car can go on a full charge, these are most likely to be solved in the next couple of years.  In addition, competition will drive technical innovations, resulting in cars which are competitively priced and easy to use.  When this happens, why would people choose the old-style internal combustion engine cars when the new electric cars gives a better performance at the same price?

These factors, taken together, would make it almost ridiculous not to by either a hybrid or an electric vehicle by 2020.

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