The Future is Solar

I have done a lot of research lately into various alternative diesel technologies as I was working on my renewable diesel chapter. One thing that became very clear to me is that the world will not be able to displace more than a fraction of our petroleum usage with biofuels. I already knew that this was the case with ethanol, but now I believe that is true of all liquid fuels. Consider this sneak preview (still in draft form) from the book:

There are approximately 4 billion arable acres in the world. There are many different feed stocks from which to make renewable diesel, but most biodiesel is made from rapeseed oil. Rapeseed is an oilseed crop that is widespread, with relatively high oil production.

Consider how much petroleum could be displaced if all 4 billion acres of arable land were planted in rapeseed, or an energy crop with an oil productivity similar to rapeseed. The average rapeseed oil yield per year is 127 gallons/acre. On 4 billion acres, this works out to be 33 million barrels per day of rapeseed oil. The energy content of rapeseed oil is about 10% less than that of petroleum diesel, so the petroleum equivalent yield from planting all of the world’s arable land in one of the more popular biofuel options is just under 30 million barrels per day. This is just over a third of the world’s present usage of petroleum, 85 million barrels per day. Yet this is the gross yield. Because it takes energy to grow, harvest, and process biomass into fuel, the net yield will be lower, and in some cases may even be negative (i.e., more energy put into the process than is contained in the final product).

The fundamental problem here is that photosynthesis is not very efficient. Consider the rapeseed oil yield above. A reader at The Oil Drum made a table that is basically the solar capture/conversion to oil from various crops. I tried to recreate the table, but it was taking far too much time (Blogger has a terrible quirk about tables), so here is a link.

Basically, the gist is that only a few hundredths of a percent of the incoming solar energy gets converted into liquid fuels. Of course some did get converted into other biomass, which could be otherwise used for energy, but generally when an acre of rapeseed/canola is planted, we get about 0.06% conversion of the sun’s energy into oil. (This exercise can still be proven by assuming the theoretical limit for photosynthesis. One must just make more assumptions and it is not as easy to follow).

Consider now direct solar capture. Let’s not even consider the record 40+% efficiency that Spectrolab announced last year. Let’s not consider any of the more exotic technologies that are pushing the envelope on direct solar capture efficiency. BP’s run of the mill silicon solar cells operate with an efficiency of 15%. That’s about 250 times better than the solar to rapeseed oil route. Or, to put it a different way, you can produce the same amount of energy with direct solar capture in a 13 ft. by 13 ft. area that you can by photosynthesis in 1 acre of rapeseed. And odds are that you have a roof with an area that size, which could be used to capture energy without the need to use arable land.

Of course the disadvantages are 1). The costs for solar are still relatively high; 2). We have a liquid fuel infrastructure; 3). Storage is still a problem. But in the long run, I don’t see that we have any chance of maintaining that infrastructure. The future is solar.

105 thoughts on “The Future is Solar”

  1. Solar photovoltaics are much more efficient to convert sunlight into energy (electricity), but electricity cannot be stored currently in large amounts in a practical way (except for pumped hydro, or compressed air storage, which are site specific).

    Bioenergy is much less efficient, and hence needs much more land, but produces an energy carrier that is storable and dispatchable.

    Yet another illustration that there is no such thing as a perfect energy source, and the sustainable energy solution is all in the mix of various technologies.

    See also:
    Renewable energy and food supply: will there be enough land?
    http://www.sealnet.org/seal/node/36

  2. Rape is grown in temperate climates. A better approximation would be to use a tropical oil crop, and predict a 100 to 200% increase in oil yields (due to genetic engineering). Not that it will solve the coming crisis. Photosynthesis is not the way. Plant live to live and not to produce oil for us.

  3. PD: I think the liquid fuel infrastructure is incredibly inefficient and already obsolete. The solution is to develope another kind of energy, maybe electricity. The salvation will come from the minds of physicists.

  4. Robert, may I ask why you seem to have done a 180 on microalgae?

    I just finished the algae section in the chapter. Not a complete 180, but just a more realistic assessment about the prospects. I don’t know if you caught the essay by one of the authors of the NREL report:

    Algal Biodiesel: Fact or Fiction?

    It is a bit of a reality check.

  5. Rape is grown in temperate climates. A better approximation would be to use a tropical oil crop

    The reason I didn’t do that is that most of the world’s arable land would not support tropical oil crops. So, I used rapeseed as a compromise – given that it is the largest current feed stock for renewable distillates. It is just a thought experiment to put scales into perspective.

  6. If the future must be solar, (or wind) then the future must be energy storage. That’s the single stumbling block that must be overcome to enable any realistic large scale applications of energy sources that are not (as liquid fuels are) transportable across space and time.

  7. I’ve always thought suburbia would be our salvation wrt distributed energy production. also, what works for small scale energy storage will not work for large so we will have 2 different systems (imho) I believe that small scale storage will be the same as PHEV i.e ultracap and battery. ultracaps hold short term charge and batteries hold longer term charge

    also pv arrays could be combined with thermal collection and reduce heating costs at the same time.

    it is all very exciting and yet another reason to remove trees near your house. that and trees hitting your house st 2:30 am is *not* fun as I discovered 3 weeks ago. 6k$ ins co estimate for a “light” impact. what would be the cost of a tree damaged pv array?

    country mouse

  8. Have you considered solar thermal providing the process heat for fermentaion? Of course that only improves EROEI, not supply. So, the future is mostly electric transportation, espically on short distances. But I don’t see why that is necessarily solar electricity. We still have a log future of coal, CO2 sequestered or not. And charging batties is a good use of unpredictable wind power.

  9. Robert – when you say “The Future is Solar” it all depends on which problem you want to solve.

    What we have (at least in the industrial world) is a transportation fuel problem. That is what biodiesel or ethanol means to address. I have done the same back-of-the-envelope calculations and have come to the conclusion that biofuels are pretty much all dead ends for replacing any significant amount of our transportation fuel.

    Which returns me to your original pemise, which I think should be “The Future is Electric”, or as hans pointed out: “The Future is Electric Energy Storage”.

  10. If the future must be solar, (or wind) then the future must be energy storage.

    Yes, I agree with that. Storage is a key problem that needs to be solved.

    As others have alluded to, what I really mean is that the future is electric transportation. We currently produce electricity with coal, but we should be able to transition that to a variety of renewable options. But we need to start moving to electric transport for that to really pay big dividends.

  11. The conclusion that we can’t use biofuels to replace more than a fraction of our transportation energy consumption is spot on. It seems obvious therefore that demand will have to be reduced, and that a large fraction of remaining demand will have to come from electricity. You should have titled the piece “the future is electric”. It’s not at all obvious that we can meet demand (which in the aggregate will rise despite conservation efforts in the developed world) with renewables alone. If we’re to reduce coal usage, we’re likely to need nuclear power. Assuming a solution eventually appears to store electricity, we can then consider whether or not we want to devote the land necessary to gather our power from solar, versus continuing to use nukes. I haven’t seen anyone do the math on that so it’s unclear just how much land we’re talking about (unless you think rooftops will be enough).

  12. I don’t think it’s wise to even talk about solar to biofuel conversion efficiencies and solar to electricity conversion efficiencies in the same paragraph.

    While astute readers will understand the difference, most will not.

    Comparing full cycles makes more sense.

    I don’t have the data right now, but I’d compare:

    1) Solar (e.g.) PV -> electricity -> hydrogen -> hydrogen fuel cell -> electricity ( -> motor, if needed

    2) The same for batteries using current battery tech (should be about the twice the best of hydrogen conversion cycle via electrolysis and hydrogen fuel cells).

    3) Direct photocatalysis of solar to hydrogen (no electricity vector in-between).

    This would show that even the PV route is completely useless via a hydrogen cycle, wanting via the battery cycle and potentially a breakthrough via the direct photocatalysis cycle.

    That is, IF we are talking about stored high-density fuels for transport (or on-demand electricity generation).

    Without storage calculations, the solar numbers will look way too optimistic for non-experts.

  13. But here’s the problem. Gasoline and diesel are incredibly energy dense. Batteries are not. Time for a little math.

    Gasoline has 125,000 Btu/gallon. In a 20 gallon tank that is an equivalent of 732.5 kWh of electric power.

    A typical lead-acid car battery has 100 Amp-hrs at 12 volts. Or, 1.2 kWhr. So to hold the same amount of power in a tank of gasoline, would require 610 CAR BATTERIES. OK, deep cycle batteries can run 200-225 Amp hours, but still, that is a LOT of batteries.

    Electric motors are a lot more efficient than internal combustion engines, so you don’t need to store quite as much energy in an electric vehicle.

  14. Refueling is another problem. Going back to my 732.5 kWh gasoline tank. How many amps of electrical power would it take to refill an equivalent amount of batteries?

    Assuming I can fill my car in 4 minutes (5 gal/min) – a 4 minute electric recharge or 1/15 of an hour would require 10,988 kW. At 12 volts, I would need a circuit capable of 916 amps of power. A typical U.S. home only has a 200 amp box to run the entire house. And that assumes the batteries could take the charge that fast.

    OK, so how long would it take on the typical 15 amp home circuit? 732.5 kWh /15 x 12 = 4 hours. And I haven’t accounted for any losses from AC/DC conversion. And forget about plugging in your toaster or any other appliance on the same circuit.

    So we need to seriously rethink the whole recharging thing. Now we zip into the local gas station for fuel, spending no more than 5-10 minutes. Maybe in the future we will buy our fuel at the local cafe or grocery store where we top off our tanks while we do something else.

  15. In the best of all possible worlds solar and wind would expand, freeing more natural gas for use as a transportation fuel.

    Will we get that? Probably not, I’d guess that solar and wind will expand only fast enough to slow coal expansion.

    (Surfing this weekend, I see that the Prius is the best selling car, of any type, in Silicon Valley. An interesting bellweather. I also see a number of interesting electric motorcycles appearing. So, maybe in a power-down scenario we’d still have solar-electric choppers.)

  16. odograph – my issue with the Prius is the hybrid synergy drive. It seems to me that a conventional drive train/transmission with an electric motor assist is needlessly complicated.

    The better solution would be power by wire. Essentially make it a plug in electric car with an internal combustion engine generator assist. The analogy would be a diesel-electric locomotive. The IC engine would be small (maybe 20-50 hp) designed to operate over a limited power range.

    Freed from the drive train, it would be possible for the car companies to offer various combinations of battery/IC engine size, fuel options, etc. If most of your driving is local, you might opt for more battery power and a smaller IC. If you have long commutes or take long family drives you might want a bigger IC engine and less battery capacity.

  17. Well, the Prius is here today, and is showing excellent real-world efficiency and reliability.

    Feel free to point me to other “here today” contenders 😉

  18. KingofKaty:

    1. 600 of the kWh in your 732 kWh gas tank gets wasted.

    2. Most days you only use 10 kWh.

    3. 10 kWH of modern batteries (plus a couple kWh reserve) only weighs as much as a half dozen regular car batteries.

    4. EV/PHEVs don’t need fast refill at home. After all, gas cars don’t offer home refill at all.

    5. PHEVs achieve fast refill on long highway trips via liquid fuels.

    Liquid fuels are bad for short trips due to awful warmup efficiency and emissions. A PHEV-40 uses batteries for everyday short trips and uses liquid fuels where they make sense — those rare trips on the open highway where long range and fast refill matter. PHEVs are just a smarter design, worth doing even if we didn’t rely on dictators and jihadists for petroleum.

    –doggydogworld

  19. KingOfKaty, the series hybrid you describe looks good on paper but turns out to make a pretty inefficient vehicle in practice.

    Even if you achieve 95% efficiency in your generator, battery, and motor, you’ve got conversion losses totaling almost 15%, compared with 1-3% with a mechanical transmission.

    Few people are going to buy a hybrid with 10% lower highway mileage than a non-hybrid, even if it has a nice, simple drivetrain.

  20. Toyota’s HSD is mechanically very simple. Ever seen a disassembled auto tranny? Scary! HSD replaces all that with a planetary gearset you can hold in your hand. The software is tricky, but from a mechanical viewpoint HSD is the simplest drivetrain on the road.

    Designs will evolve as batteries improve. The Prius battery maxes out at 25 kW. You need 3x that much for minimally acceptable performance, so the engine must put out 50+ kW. As a general rule, if the engine dominates you want a mechanical drivetrain.

    The Chevy Volt will sport a 100++ kW battery pack. The engine is not needed for acceleration and can be quite small (30-40 kW). Battery-dominant designs like the Volt match up better with electric drivetrains.

    Frank, mechanical transmission losses can be as low as 3% but Toyota HSD highway losses are higher because some engine power gets routed through an electrical path. A pure serial Prius would get pretty similar highway MPG.

    I’ve played around with PHEV-40 designs which run in pure serial mode at low speed but clutch the engine directly to the final drive on long highway trips. You pick up a few percent efficiency, but the overall effect is minimal because you travel so few miles in this mode.

    –doggydogworld

  21. The Chevy Volt will sport a 100++ kW battery pack.
    Not to rain on your parade, but that battery still needs to be invented. It’s typical Big 2.8: close your eyes and swing for the fences. Can’t say I have a lot of faith in that approach.

  22. Robert,
    This is a disturbing and IMHO flawed conclusion. It seems to be based on the premise that we know the limitations of technology X and it does not look good. The future must therefor belong to technology Y, because we don’t understand its limitations (yet). At this rate you are scheduled to burn through all the available technologies before the next presidential election! There has to be a better way!

    I also have to mention that I think you are limiting the renewable liquid fuels option by incorrectly transferring some of biodiesel’s limitations and applying them to all liquid fuels. Specifically:
    1. Based yield on available arable land. Arable land is for food production, period. Where possible food plant rests can be used for fuel production. But dedicating arable land to fuel production makes no sense (as you showed in part based on the low yield).
    2. Biomass based fuels need to a crop from which the entire plant can be used for fuel production – using only the seed, or even only the lipids limits the yield too much. This is where we can eliminate biodiesel as a serious contender: no plant has enough lipid in its biomass.

    The key challenge for biomass fuels is to find an efficient way to convert carbohydrate into liquid fuel. Here it should be obvious by now that we can eliminate any fermentation based technology, excluding anaerobic digestion. Ideally, we need to find a process that can readily be integrated into existing oil refinery processes. Prof Dumesic at UWisconsin-Madison is doing some good work in this regard. His technologies just seems to be based on relatively pure feedstock, unlike what is available in the real world.

    I notice that the table you refer to show that algae has a yield that is ~40 times higher than rapeseed. That leaves me with the conclusion that any biomass fuel has to be based on algal biomass. Algal systems do come with their own challenges, as I have pointed out before, but it seems obvious that this is the only biological solar collector worth investigating. Note: no arable land required.

    I think you are helping to show how a viable biomass fuel technology would look like. This should be required reading for anybody working on energy legislation. But let’s not give up on biofuels until we are very sure there is a workable alternative.

  23. Not to rain on your parade, but that battery still needs to be invented.

    Our parades are rain-free in South Texas today (finally!). This battery has not only been invented, it’s on the shelf at Home Depot. Actually, if you took A123Systems cells from the DeWalt 36V tools and put them in the Chevy Volt they’d put out more like 500 kW. In fact, the Killacycle pulls 500+ kW out of a battery pack HALF the size of the Volt’s.

    These batteries apparently exceed all PHEV specs for power, energy, safety, cycle life, etc. The only issue is cost. LiFePO4 materials are less expensive than the LiCo2 used in laptops and cell phones, so in theory A123 can build these cells quite cheaply. We’ll see.

    A123 isn’t the only game in town. Other LiFePO4 players include Saft and Valence; there are LiMnO2 chemistries from some Japanese companies and there’s always quirky little Altair Nanosystems with their lithium titanate spinel cells.

    –doggydogworld

  24. This battery has not only been invented, it’s on the shelf at Home Depot.
    I very much doubt it. Earlier this year GM was trying it’s best to get the Feds to sponsor the research necessary to develop the battery that the Volt needs. I guess we’ll have to wait and see. The Volt is supposed to hit the showrooms in three to five years. At that rate the battery better be on Home Depot’s shelves. And even then, its hardly a slam dunk…

  25. doggy – no doubt that ICEs are very inefficient, with most of the energy rejected as heat out the radiator, tailpipe and catalytic converter. Electric cars need less energy in the tank to go the same distance. But my 732 kWh of power comes in at just at 100 lbs. Whereas your PHEV is 500-1000 lbs for energy storage.

    PHEVs do make a lot of sense, particularly if you have a smart electric meter and can recharge them at night when rates are low.

    The motor/batteries on the Prius look to me to be a bit undersized. But 100+ kW on the Chevy Volt would be a pretty big ass battery.

    Frank – I looked at a cutaway of an HSD. It looked pretty complicated to me. If the mechanical losses truly are only a couple of percent that might be the better way to go. Does the 76hp HSD engine operate over a limited power range? Again, you need to take into account weight as well as efficiency.

    My wife saw a TV ad yesterday for a Nissan. She commented that for a small car it didn’t get very good gas mileage. I replied that in order to get the performance Americans wanted, they had to put in a big ICE. Sure enough, the ad claimed 275 hp (206 kW). You would only rarely need that much engine for acceleration into traffic. The rest of the time you are lugging around a big old piece of useless metal.

  26. “Sure enough, the ad claimed 275 hp (206 kW). You would only rarely need that much engine for acceleration into traffic.”

    In the mid-eighties I owned a 1981 Porsche 928 (v8 5spd), which was close to the fastest production car in the country … at that time.

    That car only had 245 hp (though certainly more torque)

    I think we’ve had some serious grade inflation since then, and now people think cars that are surely “scary fast” wide open, are needed to “merge into traffic.”

    I really think that’s because CAFE slipped, and put performance into the mainstream. With a higher CAFE it would only be the exotics with 250+ hp.

  27. Hold the phone. I guess GM might build the car I was describing. Doggy was right, it is the Chevy Volt.

    Chevy Volt

    They talk about a 16kWh Lithium ion battery pack (1,333 amp-hrs). with a 120 kW peak electic motor (take that Toyota!) and a 3 cylinder, 1-liter turbocharged 70 hp (52 kW) engine with NO mechanical connection to the drive train.

    Production is targeted for 2010. Depending on how much, I might consider it. Looks much cooler than a Prius.

  28. My friend and I had a 1969 Chevelle SS 396 with a Holley 4 barrel carb and Muncie 4-spd shifter. Something like 360-375 hp. Damn Arab oil embargo and insurance “surcharge”. It got a whopping 8 mpg.

    American muscle car – now those were scary fast – and affordable.

    The ad was for a Nissan Altima Coupe with a V6 and 270 hp. They do make the 175 hp engine as well.

  29. My dad had a 1964 Pontiac Catalina 2 door with a 396. He sold it shortly before I got my drivers license … and got me a 2L Pinto Wagon, automatic, as my first car.

    I think he remembered his own youth when he got me that car.

    BTW, did you notice that the 2010 Volt is pretty close to 5.2 years from my 2005 Prius 😉

    I win whether they produce or not.

  30. Another pertinent issue is that without cheap fuel cells, all liquid fuels create polluting byproducts in processing and burning, and that is something that this world can ill afford on the edge of catastrophic climate change.
    As demand for energy increases in China and India (and eventually in Africa), we better have means of providing it that don’t involve pumping more CO2 into the atmosphere.

  31. They talk about a 16kWh Lithium ion battery pack (1,333 amp-hrs). with a 120 kW peak electic motor (take that Toyota!) and a 3 cylinder, 1-liter turbocharged 70 hp (52 kW) engine with NO mechanical connection to the drive train.
    Those are impressive numbers, but is it more than just pie in the sky? Looks like GM has just awarded two contracts to develop these batteries. Who knows what will come out of that development? “This technology is developing rapidly,” said Denise Gray, GM director of hybrid energy storage devices. “These contracts are an opportunity to deeply understand the differing battery technologies before making a production decision.” These are early days.

    Comparing a yet-to-be-developed battery with one that has been in existence for several years is a tad unfair.

    Like I said, it’s still wait and see…

  32. Our parades are rain-free in South Texas today (finally!). This battery has not only been invented, it’s on the shelf at Home Depot. Actually, if you took A123Systems cells from the DeWalt 36V tools and put them in the Chevy Volt they’d put out more like 500 kW. In fact, the Killacycle pulls 500+ kW out of a battery pack HALF the size of the Volt’s.
    More precisely, the Killacycle draws “over” 260 kW (350 hp) from the 161 lb of battery pack. Also note, the energy stored: 7.5 kWh. As King pointed out, for about the same weight as a tank of gas you only get 1% of the power.

    Let’s hope A123 Systems keeps working at it!

  33. Robert- Your assumed yields are way too low. Corn is getting close to 400 gallons per acre, three times what you are using as your standard with rapeseed. Jatropha promises even more, and the tree doesn’t die every year (like the corn stalk).
    Moreover, with biomass we can get ethanol, and not even use arable land. More and more outfits are saying they can produce ethanol at $1 a gallon or less, from wood chips, whatever (great time to buy tree farms for pulp, by the way). Even with crummy corn, we plant no more acres today than we did at the end of WWII, despite a gigantic increase in our population. That is becuase crop yields have been increasing. Crop yields are almost certainly rising thanks to higher CO2 levels also, a sordid little truth.
    And, as I predicted, corn farmers are glutting the market one more time. Corn prices are steady, and actually corn sold in this range ($4 a bushel) in 1980, and that is not even adjusting for inflation.
    We are set to go to 6 percent ethanol by volume in two years in the United States, and I don’t even think we have broken a sweat yet.
    I do not think 6 percent is marginal. I think it is a rel contribution, and we can easily go to 15 percent, and we almost certainly will if oil hits $100 a barrel.
    You cannot have it both ways: Either you say biofuels boom as oil stays in the $60-$80 range or even higher, or you say oil prices dump.
    You cannot say oil hits $100 and biofuels do not boom.

  34. A Few Comments:

    I think using the correct units is very important. I hope you could write this study using SI units, or related metric units. Eg. liters not barrels, areas in m^2, hectares or km^2. Google can do the conversions.

    I note that the habit of quoting production in barrels per day is worse than usual anglo-saxon usage. I would suggest that production numbers should be expressed in annual terms, especially bio-fuels as their production cycle is annual.

    Further, no business quotes its results per day. Annualize.

    ======

    Life Cycle Inventory of Biodiesel and Petroleum Diesel for Use in an Urban Bus

    NREL/SR-580-24089; May 1998

    =========

    You quote the amount of arable land in the world. However, most of the earth’s surface is ocean, and much of that is “desert” because of lack of nutrients. That area could be cultivated by spraying it with fertilizing minerals and the resulting blooms, mostly algae I presume, could be harvested. I have no idea of the feasibility of this kind of activity, but it certainly would render land areas irrelevant.

    =================

    I agree with the King on batteries. I am very skeptical that we will ever see a practical battery powered vehicle, even a phev, that can approach the level of utility and cost of modern sedans.

    My Great-grandmother drove a Baker Electric in the early 20th century.

    Electric cars went out of production because liquid fueled vehicles were more economical and practical. I see nothing that makes me believe that battery power will ever make up the disadvantages that it has. We are too close to the chemical and electrical limits of battery technology to expect the kinds of improvements we need to see for a practical battery powered vehicle.

    Liquid hydrocarbons make excellent transportation fuels, irreplaceable in some uses such as aircraft. The technology to produce such fuels from inputs such as pyrolized bio-mass or coal is old and well understood. Hydrocarbons including coal should be prioritized for use as transportation fuel. Industrial processes, residential uses, and even railroads can be can be powered by electricity, which can be generated by nuclear, solar or wind machines.

    =======================

  35. I was looking at the table you linked and I noticed the listing for the Chinese Tallow Tree:

    Triadica sebifera, also referred to as Sapium sebiferum, is commonly known as the Chinese tallow tree, Florida aspen and Popcorn tree. …

    It is the second or third most productive vegetable-oil-bearing seed crop in the world, after oil palm and algae, therefore useful in production of biodiesel to combat climate change.

    … The plant is found throughout the southern United States. It was introduced in colonial times and has become naturalized from South Carolina southward along the Atlantic and the entire Gulf coast, where it grows profusely along ditch banks and dikes.

    … It is not choosy about soil types or drainage, but will not grow in deep shade. It commonly grows all over Japan, and is reasonably hardy. It is prized for its abundant and often spectacular autumn foliage.

    … The tree is highly ornamental, fast growing and a good shade tree. It is especially noteworthy if grown in areas that have strong seasonal temperature ranges with the leaves becoming a multitude of colors rivaling maples in the autumn.

    ======================

    The table showed that it produces 5500 kg Oil/ha with an implicit solar efficiency of 0.35%, about 5 times as good as rape.

    How about planting the margins of interstates with this plant?

  36. Your assumed yields are way too low. Corn is getting close to 400 gallons per acre, three times what you are using as your standard with rapeseed.

    Actually, rapeseed is very appropriate. I showed in an earlier essay that a gallon of biodiesel is worth about 2.25 gallons of ethanol. That’s because the energy content is about double for the distillate class, the energy balance is much better, and the efficiency of the diesel engine is higher. So, your 400 gallons of ethanol is worth 400/2.25 about 178 gallons of ethanol. Furthermore, as I pointed out rapeseed is the most universal oil crop for biofuels. If you look at the list of oil yields for biocrops, it is actually in the upper quartile.

    I don’t think I have to point out that there are numerous favorable assumptions in this thought experiment. For instance, are we going to plant all of the world’s arable acres in biofuels? The key point is that the efficiency of direct solar is orders of magnitude greater, and we don’t have to use arable land to capture it.

  37. This is a disturbing and IMHO flawed conclusion. It seems to be based on the premise that we know the limitations of technology X and it does not look good. The future must therefor belong to technology Y, because we don’t understand its limitations (yet).

    No. The premise is that we would be better off, today, if we were going down the solar route. I have held this position for a long time, and made the argument for moving toward electric transportation for a long time. We can make electricity out of numerous starting materials – renewable and otherwise – and we can transition to a greater and greater percentage of renewables over time. We don’t have to wait for new technologies. Furthermore, we have nuclear there helping with the transition.

    My fear is that we are losing years on this biofuels experiment, and the powers that be are going to wake up to this very late in the game.

    Arable land is for food production, period.

    And it was used because you are unlikely to see the kinds of yields of off marginal lands that you will off of arable lands. I think it is a good baseline. I can’t take marginal lands and assume they will have good yields. Arable lands is a best case scenario.

    Biomass based fuels need to a crop from which the entire plant can be used for fuel production

    And the reason I didn’t do that is that you can’t remove all of the plant from the soil and not erode and deplete the soil. So, I just extracted the oil. I think that’s a reasonable compromise.

    Biomass based fuels need to a crop from which the entire plant can be used for fuel production

    I notice that the table you refer to show that algae has a yield that is ~40 times higher than rapeseed. That leaves me with the conclusion that any biomass fuel has to be based on algal biomass.

    But that conclusion assumes that it won’t be 40 times more problematic to manage an algae farm. I don’t think that’s a good assumption. In fact, we don’t really know the level of difficulty, because nobody has done it. All of the algae stuff is based on speculation from some very modest yields obtained in the NREL program. They concluded with “if we make some very aggressive assumptions, etc., then someday this might work.” People have run with that.

    As far as liquid biofuels, I do think a waste-based system, particularly a gasification technology (of course it would be more efficient to use that gasification to produce electricity), may be viable long-term. I am specifically thinking of something like what Choren is doing.

  38. I think using the correct units is very important. I hope you could write this study using SI units, or related metric units.

    Don’t worry, I am. I wrote the essay the first time through in mixed units, but always had the intention of going back and making everything consistent in SI units. But gal/acre is good for a general audience here.

    I note that the habit of quoting production in barrels per day is worse than usual anglo-saxon usage.

    Again, that’s not how it will be in the book, but people are more familiar with our oil usage in bbl/day.

    How about planting the margins of interstates with this plant?

    There are a number of potential candidates, and more pop up every day. I used rapeseed because it is well-established. We could find something unpleasant about one of these alternatives. I was pretty enthusiastic about jatropha in the book. It falls into the well-established region, but we don’t really know the limitations of how much we can grow, and to what overall impact.

  39. fat man said: I agree with the King on batteries. I am very skeptical that we will ever see a practical battery powered vehicle, even a phev, that can approach the level of utility and cost of modern sedans.

    I’m not so sure any more. The Chevrolet Volt comes very close to what I’m looking for. It will depend on the price and the final production specs.

    For probably 80-90% of the American public, the electric car would meet their daily needs. We already have an electric infrastructure that is underused from about 8pm to 8am every day. I would think you could build an electric refueling station for less than the cost of a pump alone in a conventional gas station.

    Looking forward, I see solvable problems to the electric car with today’s technology and today’s infrastructure. For biofuels, ethanol, and other substitutes I keep running into roadblocks or dead ends.

  40. Looks like GM has just awarded two contracts to develop these batteries.

    Optimist, these contracts are to design the battery packs, not the batteries. GM execs stated six months ago they had batteries which met all specs at the cell level.

    More precisely, the Killacycle draws “over” 260 kW (350 hp) from the 161 lb of battery pack.

    1575A * 375V = 591 kW

    That’s what they pull from the pack. Actually there’s some voltage drop at peak current, which is why I said 500 kW. The 350 hp (260 kW) was measured at the rear wheel, not the battery pack. Killacycle’s controller and motors are inefficient and I’ve read their dyno was limited to 350 hp (which is why they say “over 350” instead of an exact number).

    Also note, the energy stored: 7.5 kWh. As King pointed out, for about the same weight as a tank of gas you only get 1% of the power.

    NOT 1% of the power!!! 1% of the raw thermal energy, yes. People confuse power and energy enough without you mixing the terms. Anyway, raw thermal energy is important if you’re smelting iron but for cars it’s miles that matter. 7.5 kWh will push a Prius-sized car 30 miles. You need 10 kWh for a PHEV-40 plus a few more kWh reserve. That’s about 300 lbs (Note, the Volt spec is 16 kWh and 350 lbs).

    You also add a couple hundred pounds for power electronics and motor/generators which dwarf the starter motor and alternator in current cars. On the minus side of the ledger you get rid of the starter battery (50 lbs) and a couple hundred pounds of auto transmission. Downsizing the engine and associated systems (e.g. cooling, gas tank) also saves weight. It should be possible to end up at the same weight, but GM’s first iteration will probably carry about 200 lbs extra.

    Odograph, the current Saturn Vue Green Line is a Belt-Alternator-Starter (BAS) system which I call a “faux hybrid”. GM’s claims were accordingly modest, something like 10-15% improvement over the standard model. As to whether GM will actually build the Volt I have no idea. It has support at the Lutz/Wagoner level, but their track record in such matters is spotty at best. My point is that PHEV-capable batteries now exist, and I’m confident some automaker will use them..

    –doggydogworld

  41. I guess I was late to summarize my position. Rather than:

    “The Future is Solar”

    I am not alone to say:

    “The Future is Efficiency”

    And by that I mean we will move our 9,000 to 11,000 kwh/year American households down to something like the European average of 4,000 to 5,000 kwh/year before we “make up the difference” with solar.

    (The lawyers made me add the following:

    This blog entry contains forward-looking statements that involve risk and uncertainty. All statements other than statements of historical fact could be deemed forward-looking statements, including the expected benefits of “efficiency” or “solar energy” and any other statements of expectation or belief.)

    ((Doggy, whenever we switch to batteries “here today” why do we drop price discussions? ;-))

  42. A lot of car manufacturers are betting on a future hydrogen economy.
    Fuel cell technology is improving as is the technology to create the fuel via solar powered electrolysis.
    Hybrid Solar concentrators which combine solar thermal energy with solar PV to electrolyse water and should be able to deliver a sunlight to hydrogen conversion efficiency of 40%.
    For example, see http://www1.eere.energy.gov/solar/pdfs/mcconnell.pdf

    There will be additional losses in the fuel cell so you won’t get an end to end 40% efficiency, but with local generation of fuel from solar energy and clean emissions there is a lot of promise in this approach.
    There is still much work to be done however before this is a commercial reality.

  43. qI agree, we have to get off the liquid fuel energy path. To pursue this path we would have to convert so much land area currently in natural landscapes that provide ecological and environmental services of much greater value than our being able to fill our fuel tanks. Man already is managing too many domesticated landscapes that are energy intensive and resource hungry.

    The use of corn for ethanol is already putting stress on critical ecological areas globally. Case in point — Brazil. The rise in corn prices had the effect of reducing soybean acreage and raising soybean prices in the US. The Brazilians view the higher soybean prices as an added incentive to convert more of the Amazonian rainforests into soybean production.

    So this “green” corn ethanol is having serious downstream environmental effects that few people realize.

    Robert is exactly right, there is no way the earth can sustain a fuel economy based on photosynthesis. Attempting to do this is only making us more dependent on oil. We are definitely headed down the wrong path here. A major course correction is critical.

  44. Odo – “The Future is Efficiency”

    And by that I mean we will move our 9,000 to 11,000 kwh/year American households down to something like the European average of 4,000 to 5,000 kwh/year

    We could also say that Americans need to give up their irrational fear of nuclear power and be more like the Europeans who produce 50% or more of their power from nuclear.

  45. We could also say that Americans need to give up their irrational fear of nuclear power […]

    I would guess they will move in that direction, but not quickly enough to overcome inertia.

    Isn’t this a “wedges” thing? Can solar or nukes climb fast enough to keep prices “low” and just forestall the kind of efficiency flight I foresee?

  46. No one is saying (well, not me) that we go 100 percent biofuels. I am saying that PHEVs in the USA could get a third of what liquid fuel they use from biosources, including corn, biomass, and even pig dung.
    So, we get radically reduced demand for fossil oil, and even that demand is cut by one-third by biofuels. Solar power is fed into our grid.
    If oil hits $100 a barrel (not likely soon) then this scenario will play out, inexorably.
    But, you cannot say we will have an oil crisis, and that there won’t be huge increases in biofuels output. Either there is no crisis, or we see biofuels boom.
    Same thing with demand. Either oil retreats from this price regime, or we see Peak Demand. It happened after 1979, an 11 percent decrease in fosil oil demand. Demand did not recover for a full 10 years, and then only when oil was cheap again.
    I expect fossil oil demand has already peaked. Sure, there will be clumsy steps on the way to a post-fossil society (I define as permanent annual declines of fossil demand). Corn ethanol comes to mind. The first battery cars will probably have clunky elements.
    But think beyond a few years. If oil stays at $60 and above, there is tremendous impetus for alternatives. I think venture capital funds have allocated $75 billion for alternative fuels in 2006. And much will be wasted, but we are not talking about government grants. We are talking about some serious investors who want their money back.
    Remember, you cannot have it both ways: Eiher oil comes down in price, or demand for oil shrinks, while conservation and biofuels pick up the slack.

  47. No. The premise is that we would be better off, today, if we were going down the solar route.
    Solar collectors don’t self propagate (yet?) the way biomass does. Biomass also acts as storage medium for the collected energy. How to optimally get from the biomass to the user of energy is the subject of ongoing research.

    My fear is that we are losing years on this biofuels experiment, and the powers that be are going to wake up to this very late in the game.
    I guess I don’t share the urgency you seem to be feeling. We may well be heading for a huge energy price spike – that will bring its own innovations, solutions and sense of urgency. And the problem with that is what again?

    I see it as the moment the hogwash gets drained from the system. Until then there seems to be too many vested interests, lobbyists and other dishonest and twisted political players for any real progress. I share your frustration with that.

    And the reason I didn’t do that is that you can’t remove all of the plant from the soil and not erode and deplete the soil. So, I just extracted the oil. I think that’s a reasonable compromise.
    Nutrients can be recovered from the byproducts of fuel production. It can also be recovered from wastewater. Current wastewater treatment consists of using energy (electricity) to burn up energy (BOD) and to convert ammonia to molecular nitrogen! Spot the waste!

    But that conclusion assumes that it won’t be 40 times more problematic to manage an algae farm. I don’t think that’s a good assumption. In fact, we don’t really know the level of difficulty, because nobody has done it.
    Objection! I think the argument can be made that growing algae would be at least slightly less than 40 times as complicated as farming. Factors to consider:
    – The crop can be moved using pumps. Doesn’t get much easier than that.
    – It has been demonstrated that using screens a screenable (filamentous) algae can be selected.
    – Just because nobody’s done it, does not mean it can’t be done.

    All of the algae stuff is based on speculation from some very modest yields obtained in the NREL program. They concluded with “if we make some very aggressive assumptions, etc., then someday this might work.” People have run with that.
    The NREL study included some serious systematic flaws, such as the assumption that biodiesel is the fuel of choice. As you acknowledge, a Choren type system would be way more efficient.

    In the end you have to select for the fastest growing algae. Forget lipid content.

  48. Optimist: “We may well be heading for a huge energy price spike – that will bring its own innovations, solutions and sense of urgency. And the problem with that is what again?”

    Well, at some point if we continue down this current path, the world is going to be a poorer place and we may be spending so much of the earth’s energy and resources on maintaining the unsustainable that we do not have excess capacity to get our tit out of the wringer. It will be a triage environment with scarce resources devoted to slowing the inevitable — collapse.
    There will be a tremendous lag time involved in turning this beast and if we don’t start now, or if we get off on the wrong path, we’ll be limiting our future options. We are talking prevention here while it is still feasible. Once the long emergency really sets in we are pretty well cooked.

  49. “Well, at some point if we continue down this current path, […]”

    I see the world as changing it’s path, pretty much continuously.

    Last year the Prius was not the best selling car in California’s Silicon Valley, this year it is.

    It is kind of absurd to take that kind of change as affirmation of “steady state.”

  50. ((Doggy, whenever we switch to batteries “here today” why do we drop price discussions? ;-))

    I did sneak in a mention of price as an obstacle in a post above, but gave no numbers.

    A123 sells developer kits at an inflated $20/cell, or $2600/kWh. DeWalt wholesales the battery packs at about $10/cell. I estimate DeWalt’s cost at $7.50/cell, I figure they make money on the tools vs. cell markup. That’s still $1000/kWh.

    GM and others have indicated the Volt’s 16 kWh battery pack will cost $5000-8000. That’s $300-500/kWh, roughly the wholesale price for standard Li-ion cells you find in laptops. As I mentioned before, A123’s material cost for LiFePO4 is much less than standard LiCoO2 because iron and phosphorous are dirt cheap compared to cobalt. But A123 cells use more twice as much material per kWh, and they have some special “nano” technology so it’s not a lock their final cell cost will be less than LiCoO2. Based on info from GM/A123 and other advanced lithium chemistry vendors I use $400/kWh as a high-volume cost, but there’s a wide error band. Note that AltairNano is at $2000/kWh now but claims $400/kWh by next year. As I said they’re pretty flaky.

    At $400/kWh the Volt battery pack costs $6400. $6400/car * 16m new cars/year = $100b/year, roughly what we spend on the Iraq War. Unlike the Iraq War, PHEVs would cut the $300b/year we spend importing oil by more than half almost overnight as oil prices collapsed, and would cut it to zero over time. I find that ROI pretty compelling.

    –doggydogworld

  51. Doggyworld:
    Yes, yes, yes. Everyone does the waa-waa about how much solar farms would cost, or switching over to PHEVs, or biofuels. No one talks about the $1 trillion we will have blown in Iraq when all is said and done, and of course even that number is trivial next to the human consequences.
    Even more compelling, solar farms and solar power n general has low operational costs. Yeah, we may pay too much to install, but what if you factor in energy security costs, and pollution?
    The United States can develop energy domestically, and obtain higher living standards, and reduce pollution. It seems like a win, win, win to me.

  52. Odograph: per your steady state comment, the Prius is just a pimple on the elephant’s butt in the overall energy and transportation picture. So, how representative of change is Silicon Valley to the rest of the world?

  53. Every day we live is a “pimple on the butt” of all that history that came before … but slowly, over time, trends emerge and things change.

    People generally don’t see that, and generally think they are in a fixed trend. But we’re not, and that’s the reason we don’t all live in a future predicted in the 1920’s, 1930’s, 1940’s, …

    Heck, even if you look at someone as shrewd as Toffler and Future Shock … he got some right but more wrong. He admitted as much when his follow-on book, The Third Wave took a new direction. That book was also excellent, predicted a lot … but … again missed a lot.

  54. doggy – I pulled some quick numbers for lithium ion batteries. Capacity is 160 WhH/kg and cost of $2.80 /Wh. That would put the 16.6 kWh Volt battery pack at 103 kg or 228 lbs. Not too bad. The cost of the pack would run $5,900. Economies of scale for production vehicles could improve this.

    Here could be the drawback. Lithium batteries degrade over time losing as much as 35% of their power per year. This means the battery packs would need to be replaced every 3-4 years. They also don’t like heat very much, it speeds up the degradation. Well that and their tendency to burst into flames (Lenovo/Dell battery recall).

  55. doggy – I pulled some quick numbers for lithium ion batteries. Capacity is 160 WhH/kg and cost of $2.80 /Wh.

    King, these are typical lithium cobalt oxide (LiCoO2) specs. LiCoO2 blows. As you noted, it suffers from low cycle life and a rather spectacular “flamethrower” failure mode. Power density is also too low — a Volt-sized pack of standard LiCoO2 cells would not put out 120 kW. At least not for long. These shortcomings aren’t showstoppers for laptops and cell phones — low drain devices that are obselete by the time the battery wears out anyway — but cars are a different story.

    Toyota recently decided to stick with NiMH for the initial versions of the Prius III. Articles on the decision indicate Toyota originally planned to use LiCoO2. I was stunned to read this, it was well known they were switching to lithium but I naturally assumed they’d use one of the newer, safer chemistries.

    LiFePO4, LiMn2O4 and Li4Ti5O12 are examples of new lithium chemistries. (A123 uses LiFePO4 as do Valence, Saft and several others). The bad news is energy density of only 100 Wh/kg vs. the 160-250 Wh/kg typical of LiCoO2. But the new chemistries offer much higher power, faster recharge and longer cycle life. I’m not talking 20% improvements here, but order of magnitude improvements (e.g. 5000 cycles vs. 500). Finally, the new chemistries are all MUCH safer than LiCoO2.

    The new chemistries aren’t in high volume production, so cost data is kind of sketchy. Companies claim they can meet or beat LiCoO2 on cost based on their materials cost advantage, but only time will tell.

  56. Well, at some point if we continue down this current path, the world is going to be a poorer place and we may be spending so much of the earth’s energy and resources on maintaining the unsustainable that we do not have excess capacity to get our tit out of the wringer. It will be a triage environment with scarce resources devoted to slowing the inevitable — collapse.
    There will be a tremendous lag time involved in turning this beast and if we don’t start now, or if we get off on the wrong path, we’ll be limiting our future options. We are talking prevention here while it is still feasible. Once the long emergency really sets in we are pretty well cooked.

    Sorry, I don’t buy that.

    You seem to think that earth’s energy is a resource that will soon be exhausted. The good news is that we can’t, even if we try. There will always be a bit of oil left that we can pump. Ditto for coal and NG. It’s not as if we would wake up one day and go: “Hey, where did all the oil go?”

    You should also remember that earth is not a closed system with regard to energy. We get a ton of energy from the sun. So humans used the equivalent of less than 0.2% of the Sun’s energy striking the Earth’s surface in 1995. We just need to get smarter about how we use that energy. And we will.

    Likewise your concern for earth’s resources is unfounded. Those resources tend to move in cycles. We just need to get smarter about closing some of the cycles and making some of them smaller. Hint: Think toilet to tap. Bigger hint: It already happens!

    I don’t see a long emergency coming: I just see periods where we are going to have (extremely?) expensive energy, which will motivate some to get creative and come up with ever more efficient solutions. There is no other way: when energy is cheap we waste it.

    Not to say that collapse is completely impossible, just that it would not happen for lack of technological solutions. It can only happen for political reasons, as a review of the recent history of Africa will prove.

  57. NOT 1% of the power!!! 1% of the raw thermal energy, yes. People confuse power and energy enough without you mixing the terms.
    Mmmmm, I’m off to make an omelet with this stuff on my face…

  58. (Note, the Volt spec is 16 kWh and 350 lbs).
    and
    That would put the 16.6 kWh Volt battery pack at 103 kg or 228 lbs. Not too bad.
    The real world is not as optimistic (for want of a better word) about the Volt’s future:
    The hurdle is the battery itself. Lithium-ion batteries, like those used in cell phones, can run much farther between charges than the nickel-metal hydride batteries used in the Prius and similar vehicles.

    But the Volt will need at least a 400-pound battery, which hasn’t yet been developed. And, besides, some lithium-ions can suffer what GM euphemistically calls “thermal runaway” — that is, they have an unfortunate tendency to explode.

    GM hopes to solve that problem in time to sell 1,000 Volts by 2010 to establish the market, projecting that it could then turn a profit by selling 1 million more by 2015.

    It would be great if this works out, but let’s not hold our collective breath…

  59. Doggy – you are correct sir, the numbers I pulled were for laptop batteries. It appears that GM has a bit of work to do on the battery systems. But it looks like there are solutions out there. I think it would be hard for Odograph to argue the Volt won’t work and at the same time he advocates for the Prius. If nothing else GM could switch back to NiMH at least for the first production year or two.

  60. I think it would be hard for Odograph to argue the Volt won’t work and at the same time he advocates for the Prius. If nothing else GM could switch back to NiMH at least for the first production year or two.

    I think I can be comfortably agnostic about the Volt technology. At the same time I think I can be comfortably cynical about the Volt marketing.

    Why are we told again and again about a car that won’t be here for years?

    So we won’t buy a Prius, of course.

    I’m sure many of you have honest interest in technology. It really is fun to trade predictions on which strategy will win in the long run.

    On the other hand, the Prius is here today, it fits most (if not all) households, achieves 50 mpg in daily driving, it’s inexpensive and reliable.

    The Prius really should be the best selling car in America. Based on the numbers I’m seeing around me … it might even get there …

    Volt mojo not withstanding.

  61. I see a pattern, and it’s not a pretty picture.

    Here’s my (admittedly cynical) prediction: We are living the script of the sequel to Who killed the electric car? This one will be called: Who killed the Chevy Volt? Due for release somewhere in 2017…

  62. More news from the real world, this time regarding a Toyota Plug-in, which they are testing in Japan: The Plug-in HV displayed Wednesday runs on the same nickel metal hydride battery as the Prius and has a cruising range of 13 kilometers (8 miles) on electricity. Takimoto said tests will help in deciding the range consumers want.

    The maximum speed of Plug-in HV is 100 kph (62 mph) as an electric vehicle. The batteries require about 1.5 hours to recharge at 200 volts and three or four hours at 100 volts, and the company recommends recharging overnight when power costs are cheaper in Japan.

  63. Odo – I saw this op ed this morning:

    Prius Politics

    It looks to me like GM is trying to tamp down some of the Volt hype.

    I watched “Who killed the Electric Car” a couple of months ago. GM is quick to say that lessons learned on the EV1 are incorporated into the Volt.

    Watching the show it struck me that the activists had no clue how to pitch to GM. With their typical “Prius politics” approach they thought that holding rallies and embarassing GM was the way to get what they wanted. I would have gone to the state and negotiated laws exempting GM from product liability suits, and done other things to reduce GM’s long term exposure to leaving the cars on the road. I would also have crafted agreements to protect GM’s proprietary information and trade secrets concerning the EV1. GM isn’t stupid. They would have sold the cars if that created more value for them than destroying them. I’m sure they didn’t want the long term commitment.

  64. As you can imagine, that op-ed rankled. It’s true that early adopters tended to be affluent.

    But even while Samuelson talks about the $22K price tag, he ignores the other factoid, that most cars sell for more. As I keep mentioning, the average new car in America sells for something like $27K.

    It’s simple math that a $22K car is withing reach for most car buyers.

    And given that the fleet mileage is still 23 MPG, it is a cheap (easy and reliable) way to double that.

    And of course you enjoy recurring benefits from reduced fuel bills every year thereafter.

    I don’t know, as I think about it more, is it just that Samuelson doesn’t know the $27K number, and assumes that it is lower? Maybe with that data missing he thinks the median income of early adopters makes his case …

    (I suspect that GM is going to back off plug-in hype now out of the fear that they won’t be first to market, and will end up essentially building market for someone else’s car.)

  65. More news from the real world, this time regarding a Toyota Plug-in

    LOL! A few hundred Volt product engineers are just a fantasy but Toyota slaps a 2nd battery pack into a few Priuses for meaningless tests and we’re talking “real world”, baby!

    This rather pathetic announcement shows just how much Toyota is having to scramble. When their decision to use LiCoO2 went up in flames (pun intended) it set them back a couple years. Despite a 10 year head start, Toyota incredibly finds themselves playing catchup. Of course their dominant franchise in conventional hybrids isn’t about to disappear, and if anyone can be counted on to blow an early lead it’s GM. Still, it’s a remarkable turn of events.

  66. This rather pathetic announcement shows just how much Toyota is having to scramble.
    LOL! Now that’s entertainment!

    Call me when the Volt hits the road, like the Toyota I referred to. Until then I’m betting on Volt being a figment of Bob Lutz’ imagination.

  67. Odo – I saw this op ed this morning:

    King, the “fashion statement” charge is an old one. Samuelson fails to mention the Prius is larger and has an automatic vs. the manual Civic he cited. Yet the Prius STILL gets 22% better city MPG. The mystery is not why more people buy the Prius, it’s how Honda manages to sell any Civic Hybrids at all.

    Also unmentioned is the fact that the Camry Hybrid likewise outsells the Civic Hybrid. Is the Camry Hybrid also a “fashion statement”? LOL. The reality is that Toyota’s HSD system simply delivers better value than Honda’s IMA. Customers figured this out, even if Samuelson can’t.

    As for the Volt, GM has tamped down expectations since Day 1. They’re paranoid people will make silly claims and then organize protest marches later on when GM can’t deliver. Listen to some EV-1 zealots for a while and you’ll understand this fear. That said, GM did completely botch the EV-1 phaseout — Wagoner calls it his biggest mistake.

  68. I will admit the Honda hybrids are pretty silly. The Insight was a joke, a 2-seater with a maximum capacity of 350 lbs.

    But for the fashion statement, what is the point of the Prius? Saving money on gas?

    I have a spredsheet that compares the Prius to the Corolla. The Corolla gets a respectable 28/37 MPG compared to the Prius at 60/51. Assuming you drive 12,000 miles/yr split equally city/highway, and gas costs $3.00/gallon – you save a whopping $476 per year. But you spent $7,000. What is your rate of return on your investment? A -26% over a 6-year life (Odo said Americans trade every 5.2 years).

    So a Prius is not a Corolla. OK, fine, let’s compare the Camry Hybrid to a Camry SE with the ECT-i transmission.

    Camry Hybrid is $26,200 for 40/38 mpg. SE is $22,140 for 24/33. Again driving 12,000 miles per year you save $371 in gas with the hybrid. The return on your investment is -19%. Wel that’s better than owning the Prius but you would have done better leaving your $4,000 in the bank. If you are borrowing money to splurge for the hybrid it just gets worse!

    So what is the point of owning a hybrid?

    Unless the price difference comes down to around $2,000, there is no savings. I must conclude that vanity must figure into the calculation.

  69. King,
    Let’s hope the point of a hybrid is a stepping stone on the way to PHEV, hoping again that these would get out of the single mile electric ranges. Of course, if gas over $5/gal soon, that would help.

    Are you being generous to the hybrids? Are you using the latest EPA milage ratings? EPA put a serious crimp on hybrid milage with its more “realistic” milage ratings…

  70. Allow me to introduce to you my next vehicle:
    King of Katy Hybrid Vehicle

    So follow me here. I am foregoing the Prius for this fine commuter vehicle. In the process I will save $9,074 by NOT buying the Prius. True, I will be paying $718 more per year in gasoline. But I have a plan for that.

    I will take the $9,074 in savings from NOT buying the Prius and buy 98 shares of ExxonMobil common stock (closed at $92.79 today). XOM is currently paying a dividend of $1.40 per share, so every year they will send me a check for $137.20 to buy gasoline (ok $99 after tax). But that doesn’t count for any capital gains.

    The 10-yr average total shareholder return on ExxonMobil is 14.7%. The 14.7% return would pay my ENTIRE gas bill! Yippee its like getting FREE gas from ExxonMobil!!!

    My hybrid kicks your hybrid’s ass;)

  71. Optimist – I used the Toyota figures on their website. So perhaps it is a bit generous.

    Even at $5 the numbers don’t work(-13% return). The breakeven (0% IRR) is $7.30 for the Corolla/Prius.

    For the Camry SE/Camry Hybrid it is $5.50/gallon, but the price difference is only $4,000.

  72. I need a fold-down rear seat. A corolla or civic wagon would be a contender, but for some reason they don’t make them.

    I considered the Ford Escort wagon … and I actually think they missed out. That was probably their best platform to make a high MPG hybrid.

    And here’s hoping you beat the odds with that Ranger.

  73. Odograph – We had a 1987 Camry Wagon, 2 liter, 5 speed manual. It got 30-35 mpg. It was a great car. Very functional. They quit making the wagon I think in 1992. We traded it in at 188,000 miles. Would have gotten another Camry wagon if they made them.

    I’ve never owned a truck before.
    The Ranger doesn’t do too bad in crash tests. 5 Stars from the gov.
    Ford Ranger safety

    If driving a Prius makes the owners happy then that is great. I’m all for it. I have a bunch of crap I can’t really justify on cost savings.

    I think the Volt is pretty cool. But it will likely be priced so high that the fuel savings don’t make any sense.

  74. I’m at 48.4 mpg on this tank, though 46-50 is kind of small change +/- 2 mpg.

    As far as the Ranger, if you need a truck, you need a truck. I like the Ranger well enough.

    I do trust the ‘per million miles’ statistics more than ‘expert opinion’ though.

    At the same time I know that a demographic can tip that ‘per million miles’ result. The truck probably is a little less stable than a car (Prius), but it probably also is driven by a lot of high-school males behaving badly.

  75. King, a Prius/Corolla comparison made sense pre-2004, but the current Prius is larger than the Corolla. It sits about halfway between the Corolla and Camry. You can do some averaging, but the math gets fuzzy.

    Comparing hybrid and regular Camry makes more sense. The hybrid version has more power than the 4 cyl but less than the V-6. If you adjust for this and equip the two cars the same you’ll find the hybrid premium is about $1500. The “new EPA” annual fuel cost for the non-hybrid is $1830 for the 4 cyl and 2082 for the V-6. Camry Hybrid is $1345, for a $600 annual savings. That’s a 2.5 year payback, based on a 15k mile year. Pretty impressive.

    Of course the tax credit previously improved ROI considerably but our brilliant Congress decided it should only apply to companies selling token quantities of hybrids. God forbid someone might sell enough to actually make a difference! (Actually you can still get $650 on the Camry Hybrid, but on SEP30 it goes to zero).

  76. Doggy – It is difficult to make an exact comparison even between the Camrys because they are equipped slightly different. The gap is only $4,000 so you could maybe rationalize it down a little.

    In California you could use your hybrid to get a free pass on the HOV lane, until they ran out of permits. Now that would make a big difference. If you saved even 15-20 minutes a day that might be worth it.

    So far I haven’t seen anything that beats the King of Katy Hybrid. I think my hybrid will have much better resale value!

  77. So far I haven’t seen anything that beats the King of Katy Hybrid. I think my hybrid will have much better resale value!

    For what it’s worth, I paid $22K for my 2005 Prius. Kelly Blue Book just told me that after 2 years and 26,000 miles the retail value of car is $23K.

    … must be the car pool stickers 😉

    (new priuses, no stickers also go for $23K)

    As far as future prices … I’m sure that very much depends on gasoline price.

  78. Odo – you have a couple of years left on your battery pack. I checked locally. There are 6 Prius (what is the plural for Prius? Prii?) in the area selling from $18,500 – $22,000. Checked local Toyota dealers. They have 30 available between all the dealerships priced at between $23.4 – $29.0 MSRP.

  79. Doggy – It is difficult to make an exact comparison even between the Camrys because they are equipped slightly different.

    Yes. Last year I went through the entire standard equipment list for Camry Hybrid. The best match was the XLE non-hybrid, if I recall. I then priced the options needed to bring the cars to equivalent equipment levels. There were two or three minor differences not available as options. For example, I think the XLE had a power front passenger seat while the Hybrid did not. I threw in $100 or so for that and ended up with the aforementioned $1500 “hybrid premium”. I was surprised, I expected more like $3000.

  80. Weird, that’s the first time I thought about my Prius not having power seats. I guess I like that when I have it, and don’t miss it when I don’t.

  81. Prius PHEV not so ‘Real World’

    But the world’s biggest automaker said the car, called the Toyota Plug-in HV, was not fit for commercialization since it uses low-energy nickel-metal hydride batteries instead of lithium-ion batteries …

    I earlier called Toyota’s announcement “pathetic” because:

    1. It doesn’t lead to a commercial product,

    2. Hobbyists added battery packs to Priuses five years ago, and

    3. Today there are companies which will upgrade your Prius to have much more EV range than this effort from Toyota.

    If Toyota put this model in showrooms I’d consider it a big step forward. A few people could get real benefits even with such extremely limited EV range and it’d be symbolically important to have PHEVs with factory warranties available at Toyota dealerships. A PHEV-8 in the hand would beat two Volt PHEV-40s in the 2010 bush, so to speak. But this move does nothing to advance PHEV state of the art or bring PHEVs closer to showrooms.

    Toyota has stumbled, but they’re hardly out of the race. They can leverage the cost advantages of their million-hybrid infrastructure. Costs aren’t just battery and motor, PHEVs also need unique items like AC compressors driven by electricity instead of a belt. Toyota makes/buys stuff like this in 100k+ quanitities, GM does a handful at a time.

    Will GM sell the Volt? They’ve ramped the product team up enough to convince me they will. By 2010? Don’t count on it. The real question is whether they’ll prepare to build 100k Volts per year or give it niche treatment. They’re headed for mass production now, but four years is a long time for a company like GM to maintain their focus. We’ll see. Meanwhile we need to get Honda, Ford and a couple others into the game.

  82. Doggy, do you think that the companies that will add $6-8K worth of batteries might essentially fill that small niche?

    How many takers do you think are beating down their doors?

    (I expect that it would be the presence of customers, not companies, that would lure Toyota 😉

  83. Odograph,

    I think PHEV coversion shops charge $10k (and up). True EV operation is limited because the Prius engine kicks on before 40mph and during all but the most gentle acceleration. Aftermarket conversions also void the factory warranty. It’s really only for fanatics and organizations doing fleet studies (e.g. Google).

    A factory warranteed PHEV-8 that stays in EV mode during moderate acceleration up to 60 mph is something a normal person would buy, especially at a $2000 price premium. That’s not a lot to pay for 20% more peak power and perhaps 10% better MPG even if you never plug it in. My wife drives 4 miles each way to work, many days she’d burn no gas at all.

    So while the Plug-in HV would have symbolic importance if Toyota commercialized it, they probably won’t. It’s a technological dead end and a distraction from their long-term goal.

  84. Odo & Doggy – I have never run my little economic model on a PHEV.

    I ran my little economic model on a PHEV. I assumed I owned a Prius (big assumption there) and made my normal 30 mile round trip commute 230 working days per year (52 weeks less 10 days paid holiday plus 4 weeks vacation) for 6,900 miles. Rounded up to 7,000 to get my pure electric commute miles. For the remaining 5,000 miles I said that at least 1/2 of those would run electric only. That makes 9,500 electric miles and 2,500 hybrid miles per year.

    I found in the literature estimates of 200-250 Wh/mile for all electric operation. So I assumed 225Wh/mile. I then assumed $0.10/kWh electric costs and $3 gasoline. Furthermore, I estimated $5,000 in cost to convert the Prius to a PHEV.

    Under this scenario, the Prius uses $622 in gasoline. The PHEV uses $125 in gasoline and $214 in electricity for a savings of $283 per year. Over 6 years that is a -30% rate of return.

    That wasn’t so good, so I made some adjustments. If you had a smart electric meter and recharged at night at $0.05/kWh that would save an additional $108 in fuel costs. Then I assumed that you could sell your Prius battery pack or otherwise reduce the PHEV costs to $2,500. That takes the return down to -3%. At $2,000 in conversion costs it actually returns money.

  85. I wrote most of my post during lunch and then went to a meeting before posting. Should have edited better.

    Bottom line for me is that PHEV conversions don’t work either. They would only make sense if gasoline gets MORE expensive, you can buy cheap off-peak power, and if the price of conversions come down to $2,000-3,000.

    My 225 Wh/mile figure holds up pretty well. The Volt is supposed to go 60 miles on electric only. Assuming 80% discharge on the battery with a 225 Wh/mile consumption, you would need a 16.8 kWh battery. That’s pretty close to what GM says will be on the Volt (16.6 kWh).

    The King of Katy hybrid vehicle is looking better and better. Assuming I NEVER bought gas, and drove 12,000 miles electric only at $0.05, I would spend $135 on fuel vs $1371 in the Ranger. So I could afford to pay maybe $25,000 for the Volt. My bet is that it is going to cost a lot more than that.

  86. To summarize, we need to blue-sky lower PHEV conversion prices (~$2K) in order to make them reasonable.

    That’s basically what I expected going in, and why I’m playing “show me” with the market.

    I’ve been in the technology business for 25 years now, and reading Popular Science style visions of the future for longer. I’ve heard a lot of promises. Some come true and some do not.

    I think people tend to remember more that they got than that they missed. It’s a kind of hindsight bias.

    We certainly do not get everything we wish for. We certainly did not find that Moore’s Law applied to every field of human endeavor.

    So, show me with a real product at a real price. In the meantime I lucked out. I’ve got a car that has not depreciated in 2 years, and for which I spend about $10 a week on gas.

    Gar’s summary at gristmill is not exactly as I’d say it, but I like that he also closes with ‘upgrade now’ and ‘not later.’

  87. King,

    It’s true the cost/benefit for aftermarket PHEV conversions is not good. But a Toyota-built PHEV-40 based on the Prius platform would look better.

    At $400/kWh in volume a 12 kWh lithium battery would cost $4800, or $3300 more than the existing NiMH battery. You save $1000 by downsizing and simplifying the engine and a couple hundred eliminating the PSD. That brings us to a $2000 cost premium. Call it $3000 on the sticker.

    The EPA’s “new” MPG estimates put annual Prius gas cost at $785. Annual savings are thus $450, or $550 with off-peak rates. That’s a six year payback, not terrific but not bad since the car will last twice that long.

    If you compare a PHEV-40 to a non-hybrid the premium goes up to $5000 or so but the annual fuel savings are more like $1200/year so the payback period drops to 4 years.

    The real benefit, however, is national. Switching to hybrids en masse could cut gasoline consumption 30%. That’s good, but that’s not enough to eliminate imports. Switching to PHEVs could cut consumption 80%, which IS enough. At $5k per PHEV the annual cost of a complete switchover is $80b, less than we spend in Iraq. Not to mention the $300b we spend on oil imports, which would fall by more than half almost overnight as oil prices collapsed and drift to zero over time as PHEVs took over the entire fleet. It’s a no brainer. The key is having the gumption to stick with the program even after oil prices collapse.

  88. Robert,

    Recognizing the thrust of your post is trying to drive real-world solutions with predictions based on known data, and not that I’m quite a member of the “technology will save us” crowd, but I still find the unpredictability of scientific research to be fascinating. Check out this article from the SD Union-Tribune on photosynthesis-producing bacterium:
    (http://hosted.ap.org/dynamic/stories/
    N/NEW_BACTERIUM?SITE=CADIU&SECTION=
    HOME&TEMPLATE=DEFAULT)
    (excuse my lack of sophistication in posting, such that I have to post the whole web address). More can be found in the journal Science, here:
    (http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/
    abstract/317/5837/523)
    Although we shouldn’t be betting the farm on these sorts of things, the exciting part is never knowing what breakthrough will come when to provide us with a new toolkit in solving our energy problems. Have a nice weekend…

    BKM

  89. Doggy – I would agree with you that Toyota should be able to create a lower cost PHEV. It appears to me that they would need to keep the price between $1,000-$2,000 to make it attractive.

    The other technology that must be deployed is smart electric meters. PHEVs do poorly if you are charged peak rates. The elctro-mechanical meters most of us have are 19th century technology.

    It would be very interesting if President Bush gave a major foreign policy speech where he said it was the intention of the US to reduce the price of oil. But for your scenario to work, we need some kind of floor oil price so that those who switch won’t be harmed. We could assess oil import fees to keep the price at say $40.

    When Ali Rodriguez was the head of OPEC they worried about this. Oil at the time was around $28 per barrel. I remember Rodriguez saying that at over $30 they started to destroy demand, some of it permanently. OPEC appears so drunk on oil profits that they really don’t care about the long term health of the market.

    At least we have alternatives (more fuel efficient vehicles, hybrids, PHEVs, mass transit). Major oil exporting countries have little else to offer the world.

  90. King,

    A lot of people confuse car ownership with VMT (vehicle miles traveled). Even more assume that owning a car means consuming some fixed amount of fuel every year.

    I believe that ownership implies a lot less driving, and fewer miles, over there.

    (The standard argument that we can’t be more like that is essentially a tautology: we can’t because we haven’t.)

  91. what about algae: it is purported to have the potential of upwards of 20,000 gallons/acre? It would be the souce of all bio-fuels as well as jet engine fuel.

  92. Yes! Keeping in mind the drastic environmental changes and rising fuel prices going Solar is one option open to all at minimal investments. The Solar Water heating systems are so easy to install and most of them come in a Do-it Yourself kit, With the technological advancement the once heavy, bulky hard to move panels are now available widely in light weight easy to carry by one personal only packages. The advancement in technology is not only limited to light weight, but for those concern about the asthetics of the panels, the good news is that the panels are now available with a variety of teim colors to choose from and can be easily matched to your roof. Saving about $25.oo on ones electricity bill on a residence of 4. We all use hot water, as one of our basic needs and what can be a better way, than helping our environment, saving our resources and ourself’s some money other than by investing in a Solar Water Heating System.
    There are a couple useful websites I’m aware off, that I would like to share with you
    1. http://www.dsireusa.org – is a comprehensive source of information on state, local
    , utility ans federal incentives that promote renewable engery ans energy efficieny.
    2. http://www.powerpartnerssolar.com – one of the many manufacturers of certified Solar Water Heating Systems available. One place I saw the light weight panels and trim color options I was mentioning earlier.
    Lastly, the local utilites in some areas also provide additional rebates and incentives for adding a Solar Water Heating Sytem to your exisitng water tank.
    Keep the look out on. Feel Good and save- money for you, environment for us.

  93. Realistically, there won’t be just one future energy source but I think the main point to remember is how important solar will be.

Comments are closed.