Deutsche Bank makes a bold statement about electric cars in the US

April 9, 2008

Old-fashioned lead-acid battery, \"Shaddack,\" Wikimedia Three Deutsche Bank analysts took a hard look at Project Better Place’s business plan for an electric-car recharging grid in Israel and Denmark, and they drew this unexpected conclusion: The electric car scheme is viable in America, too. The assumption that it would make a cost-effective investment only in tiny nations with sky-high taxes and outrageous prices at the pump is dead wrong. How do they know?

Because Deutsche Bank crunched the numbers and found this. It will cost no more than seven cents to drive one mile under the Project Better Place scheme, including battery and electricity costs. Compare that with 24 cents per mile in Europe in a gas-powered car, and 15 to 20 cents per mile in America. Hence this conclusion: From checking the Project Better Place business model, we are concluding that a pure electric car should not cost any more than a diesel- or a gasoline-powered car, and in most countries its operating costs should actually be lower….

Superconductivity at room temperature, with graphene

March 24, 2008

Graphene Graphene, a single-atom-thick sheet of graphite, is a new material which combines aspects of semiconductors and metals. University of Maryland physicists have shown that in graphene the intrinsic limit to the mobility, a measure of how well a material conducts electricity, is higher than any other known material at room temperature – and 100 times faster than in silicon. A team of researchers led by physics professor Michael S. Fuhrer of the university’s Center for Nanophysics and Advanced Materials, and the Maryland NanoCenter said the findings are the first measurement of the effect of thermal vibrations on the conduction of electrons in graphene, and show that thermal vibrations have an extraordinarily small effect on the electrons in graphene.In any material, the energy associated with the temperature of the material causes the atoms of the material to vibrate in place. As electrons travel through the material, they can bounce off these vibrating atoms, giving rise to electrical resistance. This electrical resistance is “intrinsic” to the material: it cannot be eliminated unless the material is cooled to absolute zero temperature, and hence sets the upper limit to how well a material can conduct electricity.

In graphene, the vibrating atoms at room temperature produce a resistivity of about 1.0 microOhm-cm (resistivity is a specific measure of resistance; the resistance of a piece material is its resistivity times its length and divided by its cross-sectional area). This is about 35 percent less than the resistivity of copper, the lowest resistivity material known at room temperature. “Other extrinsic sources in today’s fairly dirty graphene samples add some extra resistivity to graphene,” explained Fuhrer, “so the overall resistivity isn’t quite as low as copper’s at room temperature yet. However, graphene has far fewer electrons than copper, so in graphene the electrical current is carried by only a few electrons moving much faster than the electrons in copper.”

In semiconductors, a different measure, mobility, is used to quantify how fast electrons move. The limit to mobility of electrons in graphene is set by thermal vibration of the atoms and is about 200,000 cm2/Vs at room temperature, compared to about 1,400 cm2/Vs in silicon, and 77,000 cm2/Vs in indium antimonide, the highest mobility conventional semiconductor known.

“Interestingly, in semiconducting carbon nanotubes, which may be thought of as graphene rolled into a cylinder, we’ve shown that the mobility at room temperature is over 100,000 cm2/Vs” said Fuhrer (T. Dürkop, S. A. Getty, Enrique Cobas, and M. S. Fuhrer, Nano Letters 4, 35 (2004)).

Mobility determines the speed at which an electronic device (for instance, a field-effect transistor, which forms the basis of modern computer chips) can turn on and off. The very high mobility makes graphene promising for applications in which transistors much switch extremely fast, such as in processing extremely high frequency signals.

Mobility can also be expressed as the conductivity of a material per electronic charge carrier, and so high mobility is also advantageous for chemical or bio-chemical sensing applications in which a charge signal from, for instance, a molecule adsorbed on the device, is translated into an electrical signal by changing the conductivity of the device.

Graphene is therefore a very promising material for chemical and bio-chemical sensing applications. The low resitivity and extremely thin nature of graphene also promises applications in thin, mechanically tough, electrically conducting, transparent films. Such films are sorely needed in a variety of electronics applications from touch screens to photovoltaic cells.

Fuhrer and co-workers showed that although the room temperature limit of mobility in graphene is as high as 200,000 cm2/Vs, in present-day samples the actual mobility is lower, around 10,000 cm2/Vs, leaving significant room for improvement. Because graphene is only one atom thick, current samples must sit on a substrate, in this case silicon dioxide.

Trapped electrical charges in the silicon dioxide (a sort of atomic-scale dirt) can affect the electrons in graphene and reduce the mobility. Also, vibrations of the silicon dioxide atoms themselves can also have an effect on the graphene which is stronger than the effect of graphene’s own atomic vibrations. This so-called “remote interfacial phonon scattering” effect is only a small correction to the mobility in a silicon transistor, but because the phonons in graphene itself are so ineffective at scattering electrons, this effect becomes very important in graphene.

“We believe that this work points out the importance of these extrinsic effects, and creates a roadmap for finding better substrates for future graphene devices in order to reduce the effects of charged impurity scattering and remote interfacial phonon scattering.” Fuhrer said.

Article: J. H. Chen, C. Jang, S. Xiao, M. Ishigami, M. S. Fuhrer, ‘Intrinsic and Extrinsic Performance Limits of Graphene Devices on SiO2, Nature Nanotechnology published online: 23 March 2008 | doi:10.1038/nnano.2008.58

Graphene crystals, “Vinograd19,” from Wikimedia Commons

Transmission issues — the key to alternative energy?

March 20, 2008

PowerlinesThis Yakima Herald Republic story highlights a major obstacle to the acceptance of renewable energy – transmission lines: … Renewa bles — wind, solar and biomass — make up about 2 percent of the state’s current energy sources. Customer interest also is adding to the push for wind. “On the customer side, we have heard that they want their utility to be moving into the area of clean power,” said Andy Wappler, senior public relations manager for Puget Sound Energy, which has 1 million utility customers in Western Washington and Kittitas County and has the most wind capacity developed. Puget Sound is in the hunt for another 1,000 megawatts of wind energy to meet the 2020 target.

But the biggest reason for the growth of wind lies just out of sight from Wild Horse: the Columbia River with its huge hydroelectric generating capacity and the transmission lines that crisscross the state and region. Because of its intermittent nature, wind energy needs a solid base of other sources to sustain delivery of power to homes and businesses. Hydro dams are that base.

Other states, principally Montana and North Dakota, have better wind than Washington. But the lack of transmission is stunting development . The nonprofit Renewable Northwest Project, a primary proponent of the initiative, estimates Washington, Oregon and Idaho have potential for 20,000 megawatts of wind energy. Montana has as much as six times the potential as the three other Northwest states combined.

“The Northwest, I think, proves to be more attractive than you would think based on the wind potential because wind is very compatible with the hydro system,” said Tim Stearns, a senior energy policy analyst for the state Department of Community, Trade and Economic Development. While wind development has taken off in the last couple of years, developers have long been looking at the region, said Doug Carter, senior vice president for Chicago-based Invenergy Wind North America LLC.

…Energy planners agree the region has the existing facilities to handle up to 6,000 megawatts of wind energy with minor improvements to the system. But near the 6,000-megawatt barrier, major investments will be needed to keep the energy coming for a growing region.

The federal power-marketing agency, the Bonneville Power Administration, estimates the cost of new transmission lines range from $300,000 to $2 million a mile depending on costs due to terrain, capacity and land acquisition. Bonneville is preparing to take those costs into account when it proposes new rates for 2009.

“What it gets down to is we owe it to our customers to make sure the proper parties are being charged for the cost of running the system,” said Scott Simms, Bonneville spokesman in Portland. “As we look at some of these wind farms, where they are located and where they are going, a large part of the wind is serving customers beyond BPA borders.” The search for new wind sites has brought developers to Yakima County. The county hearing examiner is mulling a request by Northwest Wind Partners, a joint venture between Goldendale’s Ross Management and EnXco, a French company, to place meteorological stations on four parcels, three north of Sunnyside and the other south of Moxee….

Power lines, Tony Boon, Wikimedia Commons 

A smart grid plan for the city of Boulder, Colorado

March 18, 2008

Boulder, ColoradoClean Edge: Xcel Energy announced recently it will put in motion its vision to make Boulder, Colo. the nation’s first fully integrated Smart Grid City.

The advanced, smart grid system – when fully implemented over the next few years – will provide customers with a portfolio of smart grid technologies designed to provide environmental, financial and operational benefits. Xcel Energy anticipates funding only a portion of the project, and plans to leverage other sources including government grants for the remainder of what could be up to a $100 million effort.

“Smart Grid City is the first step toward building the grid of the future,” said Dick Kelly, Xcel Energy chairman, president and CEO. “In Boulder, we’ll collaborate with others to integrate all aspects of our smart grid vision and evaluate the benefits. The work we’re doing will benefit not only Boulder, but also customers throughout our eight-state service territory. We’re pleased to partner with the city and our Boulder customers as we begin this journey.”

…In addition to its geographic concentration, ideal size and access to all grid components, Boulder was selected as the Smart Grid City because it is home to the University of Colorado and several federal institutions, including the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which already is involved in smart grid efforts for the federal government.

Smart Grid City could feature a number of infrastructure upgrades and customer offerings – for the first time fully integrated through the partnership’s efforts in Boulder – including:

  • Transformation of existing metering infrastructure to a robust, dynamic electric system communications network, providing real-time, high-speed, two-way communication throughout the distribution grid;
  • Conversion of substations to “smart” substations capable of remote monitoring, near real-time data and optimized performance;
  • At the customer’s invitation, installation of programmable in- home control devices and the necessary systems to fully automate home energy use; and
  • Integration of infrastructure to support easily dispatched distributed generation technologies (such as plug-in hybrid electric vehicles with vehicle-to-grid technology; battery systems; wind turbines; and solar panels).

The potential benefits of the Smart Grid City include operational savings, customer-choice energy management, better grid reliability, greater energy efficiency and conservation options, increased use of renewable energy sources, and support for plug-in hybrid electric vehicles and intelligent-home appliances.

Clean Energy Trends 2008

March 14, 2008

Clean Energy Trends 2008Joel Makower’s blog: The latest annual edition of Clean Energy Trends has just been published. My colleagues and I at Clean Edge have identified five key trends affecting clean-energy markets and produced our annual forecast of markets for four clean-energy technologies. And, working with our partners at New Energy Finance, we’ve analyzed the investment trends of the past year.As we point out in the free, downloadable report, 2007 was a very strong year for clean energy technologies, with no signs of a slowdown in 2008. That said, with all of the uncertainties facing the economy, there are some potential speed bumps. One of the biggest is whether and how U.S. policies will extend the production tax credits for wind and solar, both of which are expiring at the end of the year. If these credits aren’t extended before they expire, we could see the growth of solar, wind, and other renewables come to a standstill in the U.S., much as markets for wind power did at the end of 2006, when those credits expired for several months. During that period, the wind market simply flatlined. According to research by Navigant Consulting, more than 100,000 jobs within the solar and wind industry are in jeopardy, if the same thing happens again.

The problem is that Congress, in its infinite wisdom, seems to have an appetite to extend tax credits for only two years. That’s not long enough to do the long-term planning that any emerging industry needs to scale up.Critics of clean energy like to point out that without subsidies and regulation, clean-energy sources would never be getting a foothold in the market. But that misses an important and critical point: all energy technologies are subsidized – some to the tune of billions of dollars a year. What would happen to oil and gas prices if those industries had to do away with federal subsidies and tax credits (not to mention the costs of fighting wars in oil-rich countries).

The five trends we cover in this year’s Trends report cover electric cars (how all of the action seems to be from smaller players, not the major automotive companies); sustainable cities (the emergence of new, fossil-fuel, carbon-neutral cities – in the Middle East, of all places); wind (how the U.S. market is being driven by foreign companies); geothermal energy (it is experiencing a global renaissance, particularly as large, utility-scale projects); and shipping (the new push to create cleaner oceangoing transport, including putting sails on freighters).

You can download the free report here.

We should leave oil before it leaves us

March 2, 2008

Dr Fatih Birol is chief economist at the International Energy Agency, writing in the Independent (UK): We are on the brink of a new energy order. Over the next few decades, our reserves of oil will start to run out and it is imperative that governments in both producing and consuming nations prepare now for that time. We should not cling to crude down to the last drop – we should leave oil before it leaves us. That means new approaches must be found soon.

Even now, we are seeing a shift in the balance of power away from publicly listed international oil companies. In areas such as the North Sea and the Gulf of Mexico, production is in decline. Mergers and acquisitions will allow “big oil” to replenish reserves for a while,and new technologies will let them stretch the lives of existing fields and dip into marginal and hard-to-reach pools. But this will not change the underlying problem. Oil production by public companies is reaching its peak. They will have to find new ways to conduct business.

Increasingly, output levels will be set by a very few countries in the Middle East. This does not necessarily mean an immediate return to the price shocks of the 1970s, because producing countries have learnt that stability is in their interests. Even so, it is not certain that they are ready to increase production to meet growing world demand. Building new capacity takes time.

On the demand side, we see two big transformations. Wherever possible, people have already switched from oil, particularly for industrial use, home heating and electricity generation. In future, oil will mainly be used in the transport sector, where we have no readily available alternatives.

The other transformation is that the bulk of demand growth is coming, and will come in the future, from China and India. Here again, car ownership is the main driver. By 2020, India will be the world’s third-largest oil importer, and we expect China will be importing 13 million barrels in 2030, which means another US in the market. In terms of car sales, we estimate that by 2015 at the latest, more cars will be sold in China than in the US.

What will all this mean for the price of petrol? The indications are that if the producers don’t bring a lot of oil to the markets, we may see very high prices – perhaps oil at $150 a barrel by 2030. If the governments do not act quickly, the wheels may fall off even sooner.

The developed, oil-consuming countries can do several things to ease the transition to the new energy order. One would be to boost vehicle efficiency. Another would be to make better use of biofuels, although to be helpful, these need to be produced cheaply in developing countries like Brazil, not by heavily subsidised farmers in the developed world.

High prices also make it profitable to produce fuel from unconventional sources such as tar sands. But to do this requires plenty of energy, mostly from natural gas, and the process emits lots of CO2. Tar sands are attractive, but like biofuels, they will never replace Middle East oil.

In the long term, we must come up with an alternative form of transport, possibly electric cars, with the electricity being provided by nuclear power stations. The really important thing is that even though we are not yet running out of oil, we are running out of time.

Offshore platform located in the Gulf of Mexico, port location Cd. Del Carmen, photo by Chad Teer, Wikimedia Commons

Eliminating coal from the electricity equation

March 1, 2008

This caught our eye — but would it work? From Energy Smart: … Very simply, 50% of US electricity comes from coal at this time. This is a serious portion of the overall US carbon load. It is also a major source of mercury and other pollutants worsening our lives. Now, the United States is referred to as the “Saudi Arabia of Coal”. So, how can we eliminate the US dependency on coal-fired electricity while improving the economy and not increasing dependency on foreign energy sources?

The United States’ greatest reserve of energy potential is not our coal, but our wasteful energy use patterns. Inadequate building standards (inadequate insulation, leakage, windows), inefficient appliances/electronics burning up vampire power, McSUVs and McMansions, etc …

Efficiency: The United States can achieve, without any leaps in technology required, a 20+% reduction in current electricity use via energy efficiency even accounting for projected economic growth over this time period. (If the United States becomes quite serious, with a “culture of conservation” joining aggressive efficiency, this is likly a serious understatement of what could be achievable.)

A shift in transport: A large-scale penetration of Plug-in-Electric Vehicles (PHEVs), Electric Vehicles (EVs), and electrification of rail helping to “end our oil addiction”. This would increase electricity use, perhaps in the range of 5%. A where are we moment. This 5% increase would mean a net 15% reduction from today’s electricity or 30% reduction in coal-fired electricity.

Combined-Heat-Power (CHP): One of the interesting challenges before us/US are all of the regulatory and such barriers that need to be changed so that “making the right choice is the easy and preferred choice” when it comes to energy issues. One of those obstacles are the obstacles that ’small’/’medium’ producers can face in selling to the grid. Many industries require significant amounts of heat. The energy burned for heat could be making electricity as well as that heat. But, other than it ‘not being how business has always been done’, selling excess electricity (and moving it around) isn’t necessarily easy. If we could change this non-technological barrier, these “heat” requirements could be combined with electricity generation (not just in industry, but in many large institutions related to, for example, their hot water heating). With sensible regulatory change, CHP could provide 5% of today’s electricity (low-end of potential). That 5% puts US to a 40% reduction of today’s coal power.

Renewable Power: Okay, it is time to take renewable power seriously. Very seriously. Wind Power is growing at 25+% per year. Solar is 40% and, from the contracts going out, actually looks to be accelerating. Ocean systems are emerging. And, there are some bright prospects for Geothermal.

Wind power penetration: 15+% penetration, now at a minimum of 70% elimination of today’s coal-fired electricity

Biomass/waste electricity: 10+% of today’s electricity, now at 90% elimination of coal.

Solar (PV, CSP, hot water (displacing electric water heaters)); Ocean (tidal, current, wave power); Geothermal; other …: 10+% of today’s electrical demand, now at 110% of today’s coal-fired electricity…..

Image of coal from US Geological Survey and Mineral Information Institute, Wikimedia Commons