All posts by India Lassiter

The Who’s Who of Renewable Failures

Energy can neither be created nor destroyed. Its demand with humans will never be lost, from toasters to rollercoasters. But energy technologies and companies prove much more mortal. I cover some of the struggling technologies in another article.

In the green fuel sector, the failure of certain companies can be a political bomb. Solyndra, the first profile, is a dirty word nowadays. An observer of the fall of Fisker, our second profile, was most worried about the fallout to other electric vehicles (EVs).

And then some believe that, at least in popular energies, we should allow failure to weed out the losers.

Let’s take a look at some of the newsworthy crashes in renewable energy business and what they told us.

 

Failure: Solyndra

Tech: CIGs Solar Thin Film

Leaders: Brian Harrison, CEO & Bill Stover, CFO

Lifetime: 2005-2011

Solyndra is the elephant in the room. It’s usually the first example anti-renewable critics take up, and for an obvious reason. It received a $535 million loan as part of the stimulus, which aided green tech.

It started in 2005, received aid in 2009, and got visited by Pres. Obama. The controversy in hindsight was whether the rifts were starting to appear early on.

There are a few guesses at why it failed.

The leadership lacked people familiar with utilities who made reckless decisions after getting their government grant.

The CEO’s lawyer Miles Ehrlich blames China for making their competitor technology, traditional silicon solar cells, cheaper. While Bill Bathe, chief executive of U.S. Energy Services, sees it as something inherent to the age of the industry.

“There used to be 50 car companies in this country, but very few survived,” said Bathe to the Los Angeles Times. “For consumers, this is an exciting time, but for investors, this is still a very high-risk stage. You may hit a home run or be part of the experiment that delivers no payout.”

Others see it as intrinsic to the tubular design of their product, which may allow wind to pass through and snow fall off, but has other disadvantages.

“It was really a stupid idea when you got down to it,” Brad Ives, Vice Chancellor of UNC Chapel Hill’s Finance and Administration office, said. “The key thing with solar cells is you want the most surface area exposed to the sun. And with the cylinder, you weren’t directly gathering the sun because it was wrapped around a pipe, you had to have a mirror to reflect the sun. Rolling stuff out flat and making it cheaply was a lot better.”

Or maybe it failed spectacularly because it wasn’t allowed to fail before. The presidential administration wanted it to be a representative success, and the DoE extended a loan in late 2010. (More about these developments at The Washington Post during and after the fall.)

The good news for solar industry overall is that Solyndra was unusual. In technology and business certainly, in politics perhaps, but the verdicts differ. The FBI’s four-year investigation puts blame primarily on the company, no individuals named or charges brought. But others suspect more foul play from politicians.

“The actions of certain Solyndra officials were, at best, reckless and irresponsible or, at worst, an orchestrated effort to knowingly and intentionally deceive and mislead the Department,” the Office of Inspector General said.

Solyndra’s fall may reflect some of the issues with so-called cutting-edge technology, in conception and deployment. It may reflect the fault in ignoring the possibility of natural failure of these technologies. The FBI report and others point more towards human failures: greed and deceit.

 

Fisker

Tech: Electric cars

Leaders: Henrik Fisker and Niedzwiecki

Lifetime: 2007-2011

This political talking point at one point has a $529 million loan and Leonardo Di Caprio going for it. The loan fortunately went down to $192 million after failing checkpoint deliveries and producing its first car in Finland, not the US.

Fisker’s fatal flaw was its manufacturing. To keep costs down, they wanted to use “off-the-shelf” parts in its cars. But this cobbling together meant reliance upon and forced adaptation to its suppliers.

This is the opposite of the more successful approach of Tesla. Tesla breeds research, development, and patents from within. Sometimes they even sell it off.

What did the failure look like? A horrible review by Consumer Reports. An embarrassingly public fire and subsequent recall of a cooling fan. Seeing battery-supplier A123 fall away. Filing for bankruptcy.

But compare it to one of its suppliers, A123, maker of lithium phosphate batteries originally for electric cars. Solyndra 2.0, some where calling it when it too went bankrupt.

“There was accompany called A123 that everybody thought was incredible, it was poised to go public and it collapsed right at the end after having several hundred million dollars put into it,” said Ives. “A123 ended up being a cost issue with some technical problem. The batteries weren’t quite as good as they thought they were going to be and they cost too much.”

So what saved it?

Chinese company Wanxiang Group bought A123 but passed on Fisker. The company now also provides batteries to utilities and power plants. These deals are in California as well as Japan, China, and Spain. They are rebuilding their car batteries too, more in hybrids now.

An extensive review of its rebound can be found on Slate.

A123 was able to repurpose its technology and continue to take advantage of environmental limits.

Even without its leadership, Fisker’s business model and design was not worth saving.

 

Failure: KiOR

Tech: Biofuel

Leader: Vinod Khosla

Lifespan: 2007-2014

This company was its billionaire owner’s part in a “war on coal.” It created “biocrude” mostly from wood. Even former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice believed in Khosla’s dream, joining the board (but doing little else) from 2011 to 2013.

The Washington Post even considers Khosla “one of the gods of high-tech venture capital.”

Let’s start with the science. Their key was “catalytic cracking” to break down wood and make cellusolic biofuel, meaning from inedible parts of plants. This is straight hydrocarbons, foreign from ethanol.

But when KiOR went public, possible yield was greatly overstated—and before fuel was being made. The CEO at the time warned management, and left.

Multiple people on the inside grew concerned, unlike with Solyndra. However, they were not heard. The CEO in 2011 was one, and left from being ignored. A hired engineer filed a whistleblower complaint, which was dismissed. Even the chemical engineer who had brought catalytic cracking to Khosla knew something was wrong.

“Vinod is a very visionary man,” O’Connor said about Khosla to Fortune Magazine. “Maybe too visionary.”

Combined with yields a third of promised, there were technical problems in the factory. Neither issue was resolved. Unable to find a buyer, KiOR closed.

Biofuels have not been doing well in the US. The valley of death between startup and commercialization has claimed far more than investors and even the EPA have expected. Oil prices at a low and less-than-friendly environmental policies do not help.

Some, like Fortune Magazine, see this failure rooted in Khosla’s ego. The governor of Mississippi, where the factory was located, sees their bankruptcy claims as near criminal. A class action lawsuit** does charge it as criminal.

Lack of transparency seems to have been the real killer here, for whatever reasons. One may also fault the very investment in biofuels. Whether this industry itself will continue is a question up in the air.

 

Failure: Peabody Energy

Tech: Coal

Leaders: Glenn L. Kellow, CEO and president

Lifetime: 1883-2016

This failure is a little different. The company is over a hundred years old, and filed for bankruptcy two weeks ago. It isn’t just a coal company—it’s America’s top coal company.

A quarter of coal companies in the US are currently in bankruptcy. The next-best filed for bankruptcy earlier this year.

Peabody Energy says they will continue to operate and then rebound*, which worries many about continued pollution for cents per carbon ton emitted. But their problems—natural gas competition, green energy regulations, and a weaker Chinese market—don’t look temporary.

There are more articles at Desmog and The Washington Post about the company’s failure. But it seems indicative of a larger failure: the failure of a fuel.

Somehow, the coal industry did not see change coming. And it is unable to adapt the way natural gas and petroleum companies have. It is too dirty, and too old.

 

Solyndra, Fisker, and KiOR were failures, but their industries will probably go on. Peabody’s failure is the symbol of a dying giant. It may be hard as an investor to find the right bet in the renewables field, but the field itself will continue to grow. Business learn from scandals and closings and the clean fuel industry evolves.

Renewable Runts: Lessons from Alternative Solar, Torrefied Wood, and Tidal Power

Renewable technology can come in many shapes and forms. There are a few that have everyone’s bets: solar, the golden child, and its precocious sibling wind. But what about the runt technologies?

Before going into some of them, let’s look at what can aid and what can hurt emerging green industries.

“The problem is you’re competing against well-established, large commodity markets for hydrocarbons,” said Brad Ives, vice chancellor of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Finance and Administration office. Because of the capital intensity of research and development, “It’s easier to do this from a large corporate [group] or to work out of government labs, because a lot of the technologies are going to take tens of millions of dollars to prove whether they’re right. It’s a very tough way to finance things out of the private capital markets.” The distribution will also be easier.

Ryan White, an undergraduate researcher of material science, agreed.

“There is kind of this paradoxical relationship,” White said. “When a new material is made, nobody invests because they don’t know if it’s good or not because it hasn’t been studied, and it’s hard to study because nobody will invest.”

Technologies’ success is influenced not just by its operation but also price, image, policy, and infrastructure. Some of the questions that get ask are: What are the government’s incentives? Disincentives? Can you keep supply steady? Who will be attracted to this product? How much will the status quo have to change to accept it?

Sometimes technologies fail because they are too “whizz-bang,” science experiments. Sometimes they fail because they are not whizz-bang enough. Research does not always take into account demand, and even investors can get it wrong.

“That’s just part of the nature of venture capital,” said Ives. “Well less than 50% of clean technology investments are successful, it’s probably more the order of 5 or 10% at the most. So if you think about that, that’s one in ten or one in twenty companies maybe make it.”

Here are some technologies that, while not dead, may never take off.

 

Alternative Solar – Will the Sun Come out Tomorrow?

“I think solar energy’s the future. I think that’s the technology,” White said. “The sun’s not going to burn out for millions of years.”

Solar energy seems like a strange thing to have on this list. Many people agree with White, and there’s something about the sun that captures the imagination.

But traditional solar panels are taken for granted. Why are those the harvesting technology of choice?

“What’s really worked with solar is traditional mono-crystalline silicon, for the most part. And it was just figuring out how to make it cheaper,” Ives said. “There are a couple technologies that were a bit more whizz-bang, out there, thin film technologies—that ultimately succeeded. But for the few companies that have done that there’ve got to be hundreds if not thousands of companies that had ideas that failed. They weren’t as cheap in the end as silicon.”

Thin film has some hope. Cadmium telleride film is doing well. But CIGS thin film (copper, indium, gallium and sellenide) has been called the “black sheep” of solar. Solyndra made these films, after all.

Markus Beck, CTO of Siva Power, explained the difference between traditional silicon photovoltaics and their technology.

“CIGS came out of academic institutes. They know what they’re doing but they never had an operational focus, a manufacturing focus,” Beck said. They had to develop the tech, tools, and distribution chains from scratch. Traditional cells used prior semiconductor tech for its jump start.

But despite several companies crashing, the latest this summer, this runt may still grow. It tried to go too big too fast. But with interest in solar still constant, there is room in the market.

Another solar technology having trouble is concentrated solar power (CSP), also known as solar thermal power. After all, the sun doesn’t just give off light. This technology uses mirrors, often times fields worth of them, to create and store energy. That can be in steam power, molten salt, and so on. A promise of round the clock energy excited many years ago.

But now MIT says, “concentrated solar could be a fading technology.”

It is often water intensive, but works best in hot, barren places. It takes up room. It needs capital, and that is always hard to come by. A $2.2 billion project called Ivanphah in California has been consistently underperforming since opening. Simply put, the gamble is not working out.

The investment website Motley Fool sees the struggles of both CIGS thin film and CSP as indicative of the green industry at large. Rather, renewable companies as “stodgy” as they get are safer bets.

Travius Hoium of Motley Fool writes, “Investors should look more for known technologies than new technologies to disrupt the industry. Because the history of these promising breakthroughs leaving holes in investors’ pockets is a bad one.”

 

Torrefied Wood Pellets – What’s Its Fuel Potential?

Wood is a contradictory fuel. It is an ancient source, but not used to full potential. It is not clean, but is renewable. Wood pellets or briquettes are a new form of biomass fuel.

Ives likes to think of wood torrefaction like roasting coffee beans.

“So torrefaction is the way you roast coffee, same technology. You’re heating something up in an absence of oxygen and causing it to become brittle. Think of a green coffee bean, if you put that on a desk and hit it with a hammer, you get this mushy, fibrous stuff. But if you take a coffee bean that’s roasted and hit it with a hammer, it powderizes it,” he said.

Then you create a pellet or briquette. This makes it a perfect substitute for coal, with basically no change needed to power plants.

“Then you wouldn’t have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars at modifying the coal plant to have a different way of burning wood pellets… You want it to be as much like coal as possible,” Ives continued. However, “The question became how you pack this stuff back into pellets or briquettes. And that’s been a huge technical problem the market’s not been able to solve.”

UNC-Chapel Hill’s Director of Energy Services, Phil Barner, said the university has been considering wood pellets for a long time.

“Because of [UNC’s] plant size it would be difficult to try and do some of those more mainstream biomass opportunities. So we really kind of settled on torrefied wood and have been struggling with that market and what has happened with that market, which is not much,” Barner said, with a laugh. “We’re talking of costs that are two to three times more what we pay for coal, typically where we’d be in. It’s really hard to justify… You expect some of that, as these things develop to come to commercial, but it’s lasted a lot longer with torrefied wood.”

Wood pellets worked best as a coal substitute, with far less pollution; think the veggie burger to coal’s McWhopper. It can store, grind, and burn the same.

The International Energy Agency noted a long series of issues to improve on if torrefied wood will get anywhere. The sector is lucky that policies, image and infrastructure work for it, but no investors are coming along, especially when natural gas is so much cheaper.

 

Tidal Power – The Current Isn’t Strong

The wind power of the sea, but powered by the moon’s pull, there are a lot of things going for tidal power. Its source is constant and strong and it is out of sight.

There are a lot of forms of this technology. The most common is underwater turbines, which, thanks to water’s density, produce well even at low speeds. Tidal barrage installations instead use a sluice gate to create a water differential between tide times, storing the energy. Then there are tidal kites, screws, and so many more ideas. They can be attached to vessels, or float, or attach to the sea floor.

Perhaps that very variety undercuts tidal energies. The technology also got off to a late start. And it works best on rocky coastline, benefiting Scotland, Alaska, and their sort of places more than others. The installation and materials cost a lot to withstand their power production. However, it has no image problem, nor policy problem—it’s hardly known.

Robert Thresher, a fellow at the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory, admitted drawbacks.

“People thought that, given the wind turbine experience, the tidal technology would be fairly simple,” Thresher said in the Boston Globe. But it has proven far less successful, at least so far.

 

Conclusion

Alternative solar, torrefied wood, and tidal power are all successful energies in theory and in labs. However, they have not taken off. In the case of alternative solar, the sector seems dominated by those first on the scene. Torrefied wood cannot totally replace coal nor compete with natural gas. Tidal power is simply not garnering much interest.

Think of the energy industry as a forest. Fossil fuels are the well established trees, throwing shade around. But as they get chopped down, there are opportunities for new technologies. The problem is, it gets Darwinian.

Investments in green technology have a lot of factors to juggle. Appeal, infrastructure, and policies are just a few hurdles. Sometimes there just isn’t the time or capital to make a promising technology work optimally.

But let’s remember the failures as the successes grow strong, for a humble history of renewable visions.

Can Wind Energy Blow NC Away? FAQs about Wind Energy in Our State

The winds of change could be felt at North Carolina’s Clean Technology Summit February 18-19, but some were stronger than others.

Most Clean Technology Summit attendees already had the sympathies that make them open to wind energy’s development in North Carolina. But if there is a real victory to be won, everyone will need to be reached.

“While it’s wise for us to acknowledge that some of [the opposition’s] techniques may have some potential, so to speak, we also need to acknowledge that fear and misinformation is kind of the core of their approach,” Don Giecek of Apex Wind Energy said. “And we can’t afford to, nor do we want to, utilize those approaches. It’s important for us to stick to the facts and to be transparent—we have to do better.”

Green technology has been an unpredictable field for a while, particularly for wind energy. Several speakers, most from The Path Forward for NC’s Emerging Wind Industry panel, emphasized this point.

“In 2007 I was hired by a client to go out and prospect sites,” April Montgomery, owner of Renewable Energy and Preservation, said. “Today, if somebody called me with that same question and said, ‘We wanted to build a wind project in North Carolina,’ I would say, ‘Why?’”

But they have not given up yet. Here are five frequently asked questions North Carolinians have about wind energy as addressed by the experts:

How expensive is it?

“‘You guys are expensive, you’re just a government-funded program and, you know, your business is wholly supported by Obama and his policies.’ Well—it’s simply not true.” – Craig Poff, Iberdrola Renewables

Upfront costs of wind farms are  very high, even on-shore.

Poff said this makes building them hard without start-up capital.

“Wind is a special beast,” said Wayne Harris, spokesperson from Pasquotank County Economic Development Commission, whose county is one of the two hosting the Amazon wind farm. “It has a multi-hundred million dollar upfront cost that doesn’t really work well with the existing property tax.”

But if it is allowed to grow, it could blossom. Lazard, a financial advisory firm, puts the unsubsidized, levelized cost of wind between $32 and $77 per megawatt/hour. That’s the lowest cost for either conventional or alternative, Poff said.

How does it affect local communities?

 “We found that, almost unanimously as a matter of fact, people were very happy with the deals that they had struck with the wind industry.” – Wayne Harris, Pasquotank County Economic Development Commission

The first utility-scale wind farm in North Carolina, the Amazon Wind Farm US East, will begin work this year. It is in Perquimans and Pasquotank counties.

Harris, Pasquotank’s representative, said education helped locals get used to the idea.

“We looked at what other communities in other areas with stronger wind had done for Iberdrol and we talked with those people, we found that, almost unanimously as a matter of fact, people were very happy with the deals that they had struck with the wind industry,” Harris said.

He said he found profit because farmers are getting $300,000 annually and still being able to farm their land. And very little investment comes from the county to support that tax investment.

The panel moderator said a tax spillover is an added benefit for the communities.

“Regardless of that incentive grant pack, generally these projects are of the capital investment nature that make them still the largest taxpayer in that area,” Katherine Ross of Parker Poe said. “And we are talking about counties that don’t get a lot of capital investment projects”

The panelists continued to try to balance the public knowledge out.

“There’s an information asymmetry,” Harris said.

Is this a good energy source for NC?

“We can’t go make the wind blow harder… The sites are getting tougher, the wind is what it is, so we have to constantly up our game in terms of technology in the way we built projects, the way we design them, and everything else to maximize it.” –Craig Poff, Iberdrola Renewables

Even as the cream of the East Coast crop, North Carolina winds don’t always blow you away. Midwestern winds are around 8 meters per second, while North Carolina winds range 5.5-6 meters per second.

But technology has evolved to meet this need.

Don Giecek talks mechanical advancement in lighter, longer blades and stronger foundations for height:

“The combination of being higher up and having a bigger windswept area, put those together and those are a couple of the significant reasons why wind resource, while at a previous time in the past might have thought to be not particularly strong, now it is clearly strong enough with these advancements to be profitable and to warrant the investment.”

Kellan Dickens of GE Renewable Energy promotes cutting edge smart farms.

“Part of the value of having a farm that can both predict and kind of adapt to changing wind environments is that it operates much better in lower wind conditions,” Dickens said.

He expects this to rise in the southeast in particular.

Other objections in North Carolina are the effects on agriculture, the military and wildlife.

“You can have a project that has 25, 30,000 acres as part of the project, but loses less than 50 acres out of ag production,” Montgomery said.

She has a lot of experience in shared usage. It also helps her with the other two mitigating factors.

“There’s a lot of minutiae in there that you have to get into to figure out the right site,” Montgomery said.

She said for the military, not every area of interest—recently claiming 80 of 100 counties—is completely off limits. And for animals, it is dependent on location and species.

“Wind has a low impact level on wildlife,” she said.

What is the current NC wind policy?

Appalachian State University installs the new ARE110 with Robert Preus from Abundant Renewable Energy.
Appalachian State University installs the new ARE110 with Robert Preus from Abundant Renewable Energy.

“For me, who’s responsible for spending money to take risks and develop projects, I’m not going to go to a place where it’s kind of like whack-a-mole. I wanna know I’m whacking something.” –Don Giecek, Apex Wind Energy, speaking in particular about House Bill 484 in the 2013 NC General Assembly session

Despite popular support for renewables in-state, and against claims of anti-renewable politicians, incentives are very low for wind energy now.

“We don’t get a red cent until we have invested—in the case of the Amazon Wind Farm US East, approximately $400 million—and began producing energy,” said Poff.

In fact, politics is not supporting wind energy—it is the only thing stopping it. Senate Bill 484, known as the Wind Bill, is the current enemy. Its proposed goal is to preserve military flight training spaces and bird habitats.

Montgomery said there are no longer issues of land, lack of a market or mitigating effects. She, like other panelists, disagreed that the bill was actually helpful to the military or wildlife.

“It comes down, legislatively, to this bill, this is the stop-gap,” Montgomery said.

“There is nothing in 484 that is additive but uncertainty,” added Poff. He also said that, regardless of politics, all the processes the bill claimed to regulate were already accounted for legislatively.

Legislation on the issue stays in flux, making investment and planning difficult.

What areas in the state are the best for wind energy?

The Middelgrunden Wind Farm off the coast of Denmark
The Middelgrunden Wind Farm off the coast of Denmark

“We don’t have a land issue. I can tell you that I personally have worked on over a hundred thousand acres of wind lease in this state with owners that are willing. We don’t have mitigation issues… It comes down to legislatively.” – April Montgomery, REAP

The coastal plain is for now NC’s biggest area of interest. But what about the mountains and the sea?

“[Smart wind farming] typically works better in ridge-line areas,” Dickens said.

Dickens said whether it can get there is another issue in itself.

Ridge-line laws, based on scenic preservation, prevent the construction of large turbines on mountains. It’s clear that southeastern communities are protective of appearance and wary of the change in job makeup

So what about off-shore capabilities?

Dickens said they are a whole other kind of industry.

The panel addressed it very briefly.

“If you go to the store and there’s two gallons of milk, one is twelve bucks and one is four bucks, which one are you gonna buy? That’s where the challenge is right now with offshore,” Poff said. “I mean, it is out-of-sight, out-of-mind, it’s politically expedient because you can be for wind energy, just, ‘Do it out there.’ But it doesn’t work in the market.”

 

How does wind energy stand up to solar?

“Wind has had a slightly more turbulent road than solar in this state.” – April Montgomery, REAP

With issues of mitigation and land seeming unsolved, solar seemed more popular for a while. Lazard saw this to be a trend despite the higher overall cost.

“The military is taking great pride over the years in growing to be an innovator,” Paul Friday of Marine Corps Installations East said. “Our emphasis has been in geothermal, solar, biofuel end of the equation on the renewable side. Wind has been a challenge for us.”

But for reasons explored previously, the way is getting paved faster. Certainly both are complementary.

Wind energy advocates do not see it as a contest.

“Wind energy doesn’t compete with solar. Wind energy competes with natural gas,” Poff said.

 

 

 

The American Dream and Driving in the 21st Century

American culture has had a long love affair with the car. It symbolizes freedom, independence, success, leisure, and even machismo—think the Great Gatsby. It is one of the fixtures of the American dream.

“When I think of America, when I think of this country, and we see the car commercials that we see on TV, it’s selling this dream of car ownership and independence and autonomy,” John Richardson, planning manager for sustainability for Chapel Hill, said. “How do those values stack up against the alternative?”

“Part of the reason why the American landscape looks the way it does is because is because we made decisions that favor cars over other forms of travel,” Heather Brutz, Clean Transportation Specialist of NC State’s Clean Energy Technology Center, added.

But driving is being reinvented.

The most imminent change is the adoption of electric vehicles (EVs).

Ideal Electric Car Co. advertisement 1911. US Public Domain.
Ideal Electric Car Co. advertisement 1911. US Public Domain.

“Electric vehicles have actually been around since the twentieth century, but they were never mass-produced,” Richardson said. “[The technology] has obviously gotten so much better.”

The EV industry has been growing every year despite failing to reach Pres. Obama’s hopes. Every automaker is racing to cheapen and strengthen their models. General Motors, Tesla, and others seem to have reached the tipping point: a car that costs at most $35,000 and gets at least 200 miles of range per charge.

It isn’t just the car itself, though. From Google’s hyped attempts at autonomous driving to the light rail, the transportation landscape is changing. What does that mean for the American lifestyle?

Here are a few of the ways in which EVs will transform America—and a few ways it will fit right in.

How Much Driving, and Where? 

There is going to be less driving, period. The US’s consumption of cars peaked in 2000. Though there has been an increase in buying this last year, the trend is towards less investment. Why? Probably a combination of financial insecurity and cultural shifts.

For example, the Complete Street movement campaigns for public transport, bikes, pedestrians, and cars to share roads.

A critical factor in the success of EVs is expanded range. This means beyond cities. Charging stations are, for now, rare and time-draining. Level 2 chargers take 3-6 hours for a full charge, while rarer DC fast chargers take a half hour.

But, these changes are not necessarily destructive.

A more walkable, bike-able city is very traditional. Europe, from London’s vast tube system to Amsterdam’s bike lanes, links cultural experience to not driving.

As for public transport, green movements have always backed it; does this new option of green ownership hurt that?

Brutz saw electric, autonomous, and/or shared cars as a supplement, not competitor, to public transport.

“They help solve what they call the Last Mile Problem,” she said. “The bus or train gets you from point A to point B. You don’t live at point A and you’re not going exactly to point B. You are 1.5 miles away from point A and 1.8 miles away from point B. How do you go and solve that last mile problem? Things like Uber can be amazing at solving that.”

As for the range, the Great American Road Trip is not off limits. Firstly, charging stations are getting faster and more plentiful. Secondly, them being slow and few has its advantages to developers who install them.

“Attracting customers is a big deal,” Brutz said. “For example, if you are a hotel that has an electric charger and someone is doing a cross-country trip with an electric vehicle, they will actively seek out hotels where they can charge overnight.”

Towns can use this too.

“I have heard of towns and places that were putting in chargers specifically with hopes that the people who are travelling along would stop, eat lunch at the restaurants, charge their electric vehicle, and then keep on going,” Brutz said, and added that Rocky Mount, NC was one town with such an economic tool.

 

Sounder in Body

The hybrids were the first to change over. Richardson compared this transition to TVs that took both video cassettes and DVDs.

“We’re in that transition period right now. I wouldn’t be all that surprised if the batteries and recharging speeds and all that get us to a place where the EV doesn’t become much of a thought,” he said.

The engine is currently the heart of a car. An electric car has a battery, but the complete re-imagining of what a vehicle can be has opened up new methods. It’s more than fewer explosions in action movies.

“Nearly everything changes when you opt for a fundamentally different power train,” Alex Davies of Wired said when reviewing GM’s new Volt. “The engineers didn’t have established tests to follow.”

We already expect our cars to be able to power our AC, play music, and even call home. With a battery-powered car, this power transfer is more intuitive. Smart cars—those with a degree of autonomous driving—will certainly be compatible with EVs. Apple, for example, has long-term plans to incorporate autonomy but plans its EV named “Titan” to be ready in 2019.

More reinventions include using lightweight and/or printed material for car frames and using braking to power the car further.

 

Safer in Mind

Car manufacturers are ready to really put the “auto” into “automobiles.”

Despite Google’s recent, high-profile crash of its self-driving car (at 2 mph), the march onward seems inevitable. Ten major automakers just agreed to have automatic emergency braking systems in nearly all American cars by 2022. Uber is eyeing self-driving cars for a 24-hour, driver-free business model.

This appears to be the most revolutionary change coming. What is a car without a driver?

But the rise in safety predicts thousands of lives saved yearly. And while taking autonomy away from some, it gives it to others; the blind, the elderly, the young, and the unlicensed.

It is also important to note that no self-driving car so far is without overrides; nor are they predicted to become a monopoly, even if they make the norm. The driver has a choice.

 

The Cool Factor

Tesla Model S (left) and Smart ED (right) charging in Amsterdam; Picture by Ludhiana E. Moreira Sales and Mario Duran (Mariordo)
Tesla Model S (left) and Smart ED (right) charging in Amsterdam; Picture by Ludhiana E. Moreira Sales and Mario Duran (Mariordo)

“Most people currently purchase EVs to make an environmental statement, rather than for economic reasons,” said Jessica Robinson of UNC Chapel Hill’s renewable energy special projects committee.

“Some people want a car that looks different because they want to look like they’re making the eco-friendly choice. So they don’t want their car to look like everyone else’s,” Brutz agreed.

There will be new values attached to what car you own. As prized as vintage cars are, they do not do well on the green side of things. But just imagine a “Pimp My Ride” where car frames were fitted to new power trains.

But, all the cool criterion apply still.

Brutz says the real difference is in the power train, and automakers can adapt according to fashion.

“They’re probably going to want to appeal to different sorts of customers. Do you want to have something that’s just a little bit quirky? Do you want to have something that’s luxurious? Do you want something that’s just like a regular car that kind of blends in with the crowd? And I think there are different consumers that would want all of those,” she said.

If you want a luxurious status symbol, you can count on Tesla, who opened the previously mentioned “cool” doors way back in 2006 with its Roadster. Initial reviews, such as this one by the New York Times, agreed this green machine had “a dollop of Bruce Wayne and a generous helping of James Bond.”

Or you could go the more flamboyant route, as BMW’s i3 and a few others embrace.

Either way, there will be diversity. This green machine will be for everyone who can afford it.

And as to that, the US government has weighed in with a $7,500 carrot for customers and stick for the industry. Purchases are subsidized to the tune of thousands of dollars (the carrot). Emissions standards are threatening and public opinion enticing automakers to produce more affordable EVs. The electric car will be available to the middle class, for one way or another.

 

The Green Factor

Brazilian charging station, powered by solar.
Brazilian charging station, powered by solar.

Green cars and their advocates prefer green energy, “the electric elephant,” as the BBC has called it. That can be tricky, especially in fossil fuel-dominated USA.

Brutz knows that the use of EVs will encourage the adoption of renewable energy, and not just from environmentalism.

“There are people who talk about having much larger fleets of electric vehicles and essentially having them going to serve as storage for some of the renewable energy during those off-peak hours when it’s otherwise not being used, as a way of basically increasing the percentage of our energy being used from renewable sources,” she said. More on that is continued in the next segment.

“Personally I think renewable energy—specifically solar—should be incorporated with EV charging stations,” Robinson said. But, “There are concerns that the current electrical grid could not handle the load from EVs if there is a massive widespread adoption. Imagine thousands of vehicle owners returning home from work and plugging their vehicle into the grid on top of turning on air conditioning, running their dishwasher, turning on lights, etcetera, simultaneously. There could potentially be blackouts.”

Therefore, widespread adoption of EVs could change the very electric grid, as well as electricity generators.

There will be a cultural change to be more conscious of what energy is used, how much, and from where.

“There is continued interest in these vehicles despite the fact we’re seeing gas prices go down,” Richardson said. This implies motives beyond financial.

But most of the changes will occur behind the scenes. Green industry is working hard to keep things simple for the consumer. Plugging into a charging station is intuitive as pumping gas or charging your phone. The grid will stay as invisible as before, but with a security of mind for the conscious user.

 

Own a Car, Own a Business

Nissan LEAF charging at the Freedom Station in Houston, TX. This is an eVgo Network station with both Level 2 and DC fast chargers. Picture by EVGo Network and Mariordo
Nissan LEAF charging at the Freedom Station in Houston, TX. This is an eVgo Network station with both Level 2 and DC fast chargers. Picture by EVGo Network and Mariordo

Instead of car ownership being seen as a right or requirement of being an American over the age of 16, it will be come a privilege and/or business.

Consider the new shared economy, with Air BnB and Uber as two successful examples. Empty space and unused time for an expensive purchase like a house or car is financially wasteful. Zipcar is the major company betting on quick and easy car rentals taking off.

EVs offer an even more unusual financial possibility; selling electricity back to the grid. This would pair well with more renewable energy (often a fluctuating supply), as mentioned previously.

“As we’re having more electric vehicles, we’re having basically a lot more powerful batteries that are plugged into the grid, generally overnight. And so what some people who are kind of like futurists are thinking about is essentially, like, one of the challenges of implementing large scale renewable energy is energy storage,” Brutz said.

But while this may sound radically new, it is very much in the spirit of the American dream. By buying this status symbol and tool of freedom, you open up the possibility of managing a one-person business.

When you rent a car, you will have freedom at your fingertips without the long-term burden. When you rent a car to others, you will be making the most of your once unused time to generate profit. When selling energy back to the grid, you would even have the choice of when and how it is sold. In this future, you are consumer and boss. What could be more American dreamy?

 

Conclusion

“It’s not necessarily a gigantic cultural shift,” Brutz said.

Sometimes it’s as UNC-Charlotte having maintenance workers give up pick-up trucks for golf cart-like GEMs (global electric motorcars).

“That’s the sort of cultural shift I’m seeing [here]. People saying, Okay, it’s okay for me to not have a regular vehicle that’s just mine. I’m going to use this other one on a relevant basis,” Brutz said.

Though it may take decades to get old cars off the road, and subsidies and PR to incentivize individual buyers, EVs are coming. Consumers and automobile aficionados should not mourn the passing of the old American car, however. In many ways, EVs improve and complete the concept of the car as a tool of freedom, status, and self-expression.

And if you still don’t like EVs, ride-sharing, or autonomous cars? You don’t have to buy them. It’s your choice, but that choice is made from increasing options. And that’s the American way.

Energy in 2050: Chapel Hill’s Predictions

Question: In 2050, what fuel do you think the US will mostly be using for energy?

Emily

Emily

Nuclear. Because coal and fossil fuel energy resources are unsustainable and I think science can catch up to make nuclear energy safe for the mass population.”

 


RichardRichard

Probably fossil fuels. Probably. I don’t think there’s enough time to switch over. I don’t think people are willing to buy different cars or electric cars, they want their big trucks and other vehicles.”

 


EbonyEbony

I would hope that we would move towards more sustainable energy resources, but…considering the results of the 2015 goals set by the United Nations, almost ten years ago, considering how those goals are largely unmet now…I feel like we’ll still be on fossil fuels and dependent upon them for the future.”


JeremyJeremy

In 2050 I would say it’s going to be a combination of multiple energy sources, combination of wind, solar, hydroelectric—I don’t think we do enough of hydroelectric—fossil fuels, probably. Honestly, some things you’re not gonna be able to get away from. But definitely more of renewables.”


SamanthaSamantha

I’d say probably not fossil fuels. That certainly doesn’t seem feasible in thirty-five years, or at least not wise… It seems like there’s a lot of progress, especially in biological resources and like waste products with current processes and paper mills and things like that, so maybe there’s a chance to come up with creative solutions that involve potentially renewable resources… A lot of people talk about wind power, but I’m thinking it’s going to be more subtle.”


LukeLuke

I would certainly hope it would be wind or solar or hydroelectric something like that, at that point, but I feel like we’ll still be winding down fossil fuels. Hopefully we’ll be at the tail end of it. But I’m not sure which renewable energy source at that point, so I’ll say natural gas or fossil fuels at this point. As kind of a safe guess. But hopefully I’m wrong.”


Vincent Vincent

“I hope it’ll be clean and renewable. I think it will be a mix of clean and still fossil fuels, I don’t know which ones. Natural gas might be on the increase.”

 

 


StephanieStephanie

I guess solar energy would probably be used much more than it’s used now and I feel like we’ll have the technology to be able to use it in more areas in our lives.”

 

 


 

ReggieReggie

Probably the sun. Solar power. It’s gonna be easier to absorb and there’s going to be less problems because everything’s going solar now. At 2050, probably cars going to be solar. Gonna have a big panel on there and it’s gonna be driving by then. It’s a good thing because it’s good for the environment.”


2016-01-26 12.29.36Blake

“I’ve got no clue. I guess I’ll say solar power or something, why not. I guess we’re sort of moving in that direction [renewables]. By 2050, with all the new technology that will come out over the years, it seems like it’s sort of heading that way.”

 

Hydroelectricity: The Carbon Black Sheep of Renewable Energy – Draft

Renewable energy is usually seen as radically new and pure harnessing of earth’s elemental forces. But one renewable energy has always stood apart in history, politics, and market share. Hydropower has millennia of history, longer than coal’s, though hydroelectricity did come after coal-powered electricity.

Hydroelectricity has been politically and financially separated from renewable technologies. In 1993, the World Energy Council’s alternate fuels only listed nuclear, biomass, and hydro energies. With biomass and nuclear energies losing popularity while others fight for footholds, hydroelectricity stands unique.

In the USA, though renewable energy is a politically colored, hydroelectricity is not. Jay Faison, conservative donor and businessman, says Pres. Obama could “change the clean energy debate.” How? With proposals Republicans see as more neutral, like hydroelectricity.

If you want an established, big business energy that’s not fossil fuel, hydroelectricity is it. It provides 16% of the world’s energy and is considered essential in many countries.

China, Brazil, Canada, Russia, and America have the greatest hydropower capacity, China highest of all. But it is also seen as a possible middle way to poorer countries’ development-versus-environment conundrum. World Bank Pres. Jim Yong Kim sees it as resolution to “the tension between economic development and…tam[ing] carbon use.”

However, the World Bank takes a risk putting this forward again after the 1990s failure. Sierra Club spokesman Justin Guay warns, “There needs to be a clear shift from large, centralized projects.” While centralized, symbolic dams may be just what countries want, the effects can be dire.

Dams are on the bank notes of countries like Mozambique, Kyrgyzstan, and Sri Lanka. The Amazon, Congo, and Mekong river basins are seen as rich frontiers for hydropower. In 2015, India did not outright reject any proposed hydroelectricity projects.

Unfortunately, federal governments can overlook damages both in greenhouse gases and to localities. For example, Colombia’s government has continued to support El Quimbo Dam’s operation despite environmental damage. It was shut down in December—now reopened provisionally—for failing to remove reservoir biomass.

Reservoir biomass is a source of the greenhouse gas methane just like livestock and landfills. Filling reservoirs inevitably destroys habitat, creating the biomass as well as damaging biodiversity and fisheries. Such environmental costs aren’t well studied, but people are asking, Is hydroelectricity even green energy?

Then there is the human impact, with locals getting displaced and leapfrogged by profits. Everything from fishing to living space can be affected. China’s Three Gorges Dam, the world’s most productive dam, spent $26 billion on environmental offset.

Then there is the question whether it’s sustainable. With climate change—which dams may boost—water flow will become rarer and more erratic. Bhutan, India, and other areas are concerned with reduced capacity.

It is possible that dams or dam systems could help manage freshwater. Generally, hydroelectricity is seen as a good backup system for other types of renewable energy. Or they could spread energy by storage support with pumped storage hydropower.

Hydroelectricity investing countries need to know, is hydroelectricity salvageable in the world to come? Yes, say International Rivers, if there is more research and dams are smaller and installed considerately. With humility and willingness to research, hydroelectricity may ripen green yet.