Make That A Double Espresso In The Tank

Espresso: Gets you going, gets your car going (image by Demion, CC 2.0 licensed)

I thought this was a fun one. Last month Science Daily reported that researchers in Nevada found that diesel oil could be recovered from used coffee grounds.

Spent coffee grounds contain between 11 and 20 percent oil by weight. That’s about as much as traditional biodiesel feedstocks such as rapeseed, palm, and soybean oil.

Growers produce more than 16 billion pounds of coffee around the world each year. The used or “spent” grounds remaining from production of espresso, cappuccino, and plain old-fashioned cups of java, often wind up in the trash or find use as soil conditioner. The scientists estimated, however, that spent coffee grounds can potentially add 340 million gallons of biodiesel to the world’s fuel supply.

U.S. diesel usage is around 40 billion gallons per year for on-road transportation, so at 340 million gallons, biodiesel from coffee grounds represents just a drop in the coffee cup. I wonder if it makes your exhaust smell like a Peet’s Coffee shop?

Zero Net Energy Homes Part 4 – Honda Accord Versus Solar Panels

El �ºltimo de los mohicanos
Money ('El Altimo de los Mohicanos' - photo by wakalani, CC 2.0 licensed)

One of the biggest problems for residential solar electricity generation is that it just costs too darn much to install those panels on your roof. Over the next five and ten years this will change significantly as new developments from the labs make it into large-scale production. Eventually houses will be generating all their own electricity using photovoltaics as a matter of course.

But is there a way to think about the cost today that makes the cost even seem reasonable?

Well, if you’re thinking about buying a new car, you should read on. Each year you don’t buy a new car and continue to drive the one that you’ve already paid for, you pays for another year of your solar panels. At the end of the loan period (seven years in my example below), you’re getting free electricity from a system that increases the value of your home and has another 20 years of life at the minimum. If you’d bought a car, in seven years you’d be driving a rapidly depreciating vehicle that you’d probably have to replace soon.

For my house, after rebates, putting up solar panels today would cost about $22,000. This would be a 4kw system, offsetting about 92% of my electric bill, according to the solar power calculator at Clean Power Estimator. With a $3,000 down payment, and using SunPower’s “Smart Financing” with a seven year term, my monthly net cost would be about $250, after subtracting out my electric bill.

So, $22,000 total cost, $3,000 down payment, $250 monthly – that sounds just about exactly like buying a new car, doesn’t it? In fact, if I go to and price out a new Honda Accord EX, that comes out to $22,372. My current car, a 2000 Honda Accord, is worth $4,000. So I need to finance $18,000. With a four year loan, I’ll be paying about $420 per month.

Netting it out, for each year that I make the decision to buy solar panels versus a new car, I actually save about $170 per month. At the same time, according to the solar power calculator, I eliminate almost four tons of CO2 (worth an additional $320 at the currently accepted value of $80/ton). After seven years, all that electricity will be free to me, for at least the rated life of the panels. And I’ll get most or all of the cost of the panels back when I sell my house. When I sell the new Honda, I’ll get a lot less than I paid for it.

As an additional note, if you’re thinking about buying a new BMW, such as an M3. If you chose a BMW 335i with Sport Package instead, you could put up the solar panels with the difference in cost: 1 BMW M3 = 1 BMW 330i + Sport Package + solar panels. You’d get nearly the same performance – much more than you can effectively use anywhere in the U.S. except on a race track – and you’d offset all the CO2 you’d be generating with your new car.

Definitely let me know if I’ve convinced you to put up solar panels instead of buying a car this year! Or if you have any other comments on this topic – I’d love to hear from you.

Ten Energy Predictions For The Next Decade

Snow on the San Gabriel Mountains (photo by Jerry Thompson1)
Snow on the San Gabriel Mountains (photo by Jerry Thompson1, CC 2.0 license)

On December 30 of last year (six days ago), my wife and I were in Pasadena, CA visiting the Greene and Greene exhibit at the Huntington Library. It was one of those glorious and rare smog-free days in the LA basin. The air sparkled, you could see for miles in every direction, and mountain range after mountain range was visible – all the way out to the snow-covered San Gabriels. Nowadays, the air is only ever this clear around the Christmas holiday, when the freeway traffic is substantially reduced and a lot of factories shut down for the week. It got me thinking about how the future – say ten to twenty years hence – may be unrecognizable in both dramatic and mundane ways. For example, smog-free days may no longer be rare in LA, once the economy has shifted off fossil fuels. (I suspect the traffic will remain, unfortunately!)

Like LA’s typical skies, the energy future is murky in the short term – this year and 2010 – and I’ll leave those predictions to others. But the big trends – sustainability, carbon fighting, and technological breakthroughs – enable us to make better sense of the mid- and long-term. Therefore, In the spirit of the New Year, the incoming administration, and the tipping point that the world has come to about climate change and sustainability, here are ten things I believe are very likely to happen in the next ten years.

  1. Residential solar PV will be cost effective in most U.S. locations (via a combination of price reduction, new design thinking, much more efficient homes, and a carbon tax on fossil fuels).
  2. Home energy storage – via batteries, hydrogen reforming, fuel cells, or other technology – will be available and installed in 10% of new homes in California, for when the sun don’t shine.
  3. More than 10% of new homes in California will be zero-net energy.
  4. 50% of new residential construction in California will be zero-net energy “ready.”
  5. The current LEED standards will be considered obsolete.
  6. More than 20% of peak grid electricity will come from excess capacity from residential solar PV.
  7. There will be general consensus that efficiency and frugality alone will not provide enough CO2 mitigation to prevent major climate change – we will need a technological solution to actually reducing atmospheric CO2 or artificially cooling the earth.
  8. There will be a mid-priced carbon fiber, plugin hybrid passenger car in production that gets more than 75 miles per gallon. The company making it will be the “next GM.”
  9. 10% of the cars on the road will be powered by 100% renewable energy and will be essentially non-polluting.
  10. New technologies for capturing carbon from the atmosphere will be available, powered by excess solar capacity.

What do you think? Am I off base here? Too optimistic? Too pessimistic? Let me know in the comments. I’d love to hear your thoughts, challenges, and predictions for 2018.

Zero-net Energy Series Coming Up

Over the next few weeks, I will be publishing a series on “zero-net energy” residences (related to predictions 1-6 above). This area is about to explode. We already have all the technology, and some people have the experience, to build “zero-net energy ready” houses cost effectively. And although there’s currently a premium to get to zero-net energy, over the next ten years this premium will go to zero, and probably it will be cost-effective to get to positive-net energy – where the house is generating more energy than it needs! Talk about a world-changing situation – it really is possible to have energy too cheap to meter, but it’s going to come off our roofs, not from a nuclear plant or one of those imaginary fusion reactors.

The Answer Is Blowing In The Wind

Windmill and old houses in Schipluiden
Old Windmill (image by waterwin, CC 2.0 license)

The results of this study on solutions to global warming, air pollution, and energy security, by Stanford professor Mark Z. Jacobson, are somewhat surprising, given the drumbeat from many areas on both nuclear and biofuels as necessary for the salvation of the world.

Jacobson analyzes 12 energy sources for their beneficial impact on global warming, air pollution, and energy security – the ten electricity sources are solar-photovoltaics (PV), concentrated solar power (CSP), wind, geothermal, hydroelectric, wave, tidal, nuclear, and coal with carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology; the two liquid fuel options are corn-ethanol (E85) and cellulosic-E85.

An article in Science Daily summarizes one of Jacobson’s conclusions:

Jacobson said that while some people are under the impression that wind and wave power are too variable to provide steady amounts of electricity, his research group has already shown in previous research that by properly coordinating the energy output from wind farms in different locations, the potential problem with variability can be overcome and a steady supply of baseline power delivered to users.

As the bottom line in the study, Jacobson writes:

In summary, the use of wind, CSP, geothermal, tidal, solar, wave, and hydroelectric to provide electricity for BEVs [battery electric vehicles] and HFCVs [hydrogen fuel cell vehicles] result in the most benefit and least impact among the options considered. Coal-CCS and nuclear provide less benefit with greater negative impacts. The biofuel options provide no certain benefit and result in significant negative impacts. Because sufficient clean natural resources (e.g., wind, sunlight, hot water, ocean energy, gravitational energy) exists to power all energy for the world, the results here suggest that the diversion of attention to the less efficient or non-efficient options represents an opportunity cost that delays solutions to climate and air pollution health problems.

Note that the study ranks the various energy alternatives without regard to cost. That’s going to be controversial. Jacobson says:

Costs are not examined since policy decisions should be based on the ability of a technology to address a problem rather than costs (e.g., the U.S. Clean Air Act Amendments of 1970 prohibit the use of cost as a basis for determining regulations required to meet air pollution standards) and because costs of new technologies will change over time, particularly as they are used on a large scale.

In the real world, costs do have a major impact, especially given that we do not have a Clean Air Act regarding carbon today. This is why it’s so important that the price/kW of solar panels, for example, is dropping and will continue to drop.

In fact, when you leave cost out of the equation, is it surprising which energy sources came out on top? Let me know your thoughts.

Why Not Just Sell Them Here?

Some classic old GM cars - 1957 Cadillac tailfins
Some classic old GM cars (Image by thebi429, CC 2.0 license)

An article in today’s Seattle Times says that GM does know how to make good small cars, just not in the States:

Nearly three-fifths of General Motors’ employees make cars that are admired, popular and profitable. They just don’t work in the United States.

GM has a bigger presence and employs more people outside the United States than in it, and actually makes money selling cars around the globe. Its U.S. revenue has sunk 24 percent in the past three years, but in the rest of the world, GM can boast a 28 percent increase.

In Ford’s recent 2008 retrospective, they mention similar results – growth in Europe and Asia, production of lots of high mileage models outside the States, new fuel technologies, and so on:

  • “Ford of Europe is offering its customers ultra-low CO2 alternatives for selected car lines with the launch of a new range of Ford ECOnetic models at the 2007 Frankfurt Motor Show”
  • “Volume production of the new Ford Fiesta, the first of a generation of new global small Ford cars, started at the company’s Cologne plant in Germany”
  • “Ford ranks highest in overall new-vehicle sales satisfaction in Indonesia, according to the J.D. Power Asia Pacific 2008 Indonesia Sales Satisfaction Index (SSI) Study”

So, my simple question is – why don’t they just make those cars here? Or at least ship some of them here and sell them?

Old Failures And New Rules For The Auto Industry

The best pieces I’ve read on the auto industry bailout/failure/bankruptcy are Bob Sutton’s giant flame, “Thoughts About Why GM Executives Are Clueless And Their Destructive ‘No We Can’t’ Mindset” and Umair Haque’s “Detroit’s 6 Mistakes and How Not to Make Them.”

While neither of these articles are about green energy or hybrid cars or sustainability per se, they both get at some of the big issues that industry and finance worldwide have to overcome for the the world to change as it must.

Sutton is a measured and careful writer, whose primary beat as a teacher (at Stanford School of Engineering, B School, and D School), business consultant, and writer, is using effective techniques for creating innovation, and using evidence to understand whether the decisions you make are taking you in the right direction. His post, in a measured and careful way, excoriates GM for decades of practices that go against those precepts:

I could list hundreds of management, cultural, and operational reasons why I believe that GM is such a flawed organization, but to me, a pair of root causes standout: Most of the senior executives — and many of the managers — are (1) clueless about what matters most and (2) suffer from a “no we can’t” mindset.

Haque, on the other hand, looks to the good future of what he calls “the new rules of 21st century business,” using Detroit as the example of the old rules.

Old rule: Choose evil. Industrial era business is unrepentantly and almost sociopathically evil: shifting costs onto others, while striving to internalize benefits. Detroit chose lobbying, marketing wars, and low-cost hardball – to always and everywhere try to socialize costs and privatize benefits. Never was this truer than Detroit’s lobbying against public transport throughout the 20th century. Why does public transport in the States suck? Because Detroit’s lobbying machine doesn’t.

New rule? Choose good. In the 21st century, every moral imperative is also a strategic imperative: doing good – for customers, employees, suppliers, or society – is a radical strategic choice that unlocks new pathways to innovation and growth. The opportunity cost of defending evil for Detroit was never learning how to choose good – and that’s a crucial mistake other auto players didn’t make. Tata chose to make a car that was accessible to the world’s poor. Porsche and BMW chose to invest in talent, people, and imagination. Honda and Toyota chose to invest in renewables and partnerships with the public sector. All opened new avenues to growth for an industry at the brink of extinction.

Tomorrow I’ll be posting again about the auto industry, focusing on Obama’s pledge on Saturday for “public works on a massive scale” and Tom Friedman’s Sunday op-ed, in which he suggests we tie any bailout to a commitment by the car makers to having their entire fleets running on hybrid power plants in 36 months.

Integrated Design Makes “Smart Garage” Part of Utility’s Infrastructure

Garage of the Future
Garage of the Future (photo by Elsie esq., CC 2.0 Attribution License)

The Rocky Mountain Institute’s Andrew Demaria blogged a few weeks ago about “smart garages” that combine smart cars, a smart home network, and much smarter utilities into a synergistic system that optimizes power usage. After describing a “day in the life” of a smart garage:

Given the utility is experiencing a peak load period, it asks my house if it can use the spare power in the car’s battery and send that electricity elsewhere in the grid. What’s more, it will pay me for that power. Since I like being paid, I have already programmed the system to accept such requests.

The article then goes on to list the highlights of a recent Smart Garages conference organized by RMI. Attendees included representatives from auto manufacturers GM, Ford, and Nissan, utilities PG&E and Duke Energy, and consumer-focused companies Walmart and P&G.

Integrative design like smart garages requires all these organizations to work effectively together, based on official or de-facto standards. Although the cost of making such a transition will be hundreds of billions of dollars, the associated business opportunities, especially for those companies who can help tie all these disparate parts together, are commensurately huge.

21st Century Pit Mining – Olive Stones As Biofuel Source

Drink Up
Olives are great in martinis; their pits will go well in your car (photo by Swanksalot, CC2.0 Sharealike license)

According to this article a few weeks ago in Science Daily, researchers in Italy have figured out how to turn olive pits into fuel:

Olive stones can be turned into bioethanol, a renewable fuel that can be produced from plant matter and used as an alternative to petrol or diesel. This gives the olive processing industry an opportunity to make valuable use of 4 million tonnes of waste in olive stones it generates every year and sets a precedent for the recycling of waste products as fuels.

The difference between fuel from corn and fuel from olive pits? The pits otherwise are waste, while corn grown for fuel displaces crops grown for food.

I think Michael Pollan would approve. What do you think?

Deutsche Bank Confirms Green Energy Creates Jobs and Economic Growth

home with free electricity
Available: Home with free electric (photo by Kainet, CC 2.0 Sharealike license)

From MIT’s Technology Review comes this column from Kevin Bullis, about a recent report from Deutsche Bank on the economic benefits of investing in new energy projects:

It argues that it’s possible to address challenges related to climate change, energy security, and the financial crisis at the same time by investing in four specific areas: energy-efficient buildings, electric power grids, renewable power, and public transportation. The report cites figures that suggest investing in these areas creates more jobs than investing in conventional energy sources because much of the old energy infrastructure is already in place. It says that “a $100 billion investment in energy and efficiency would result in 2 million new jobs, whereas a similar investment in old energy [such as coal or natural gas] would only create around 540,000 jobs.”

Of course, Obama has already pledged to do something along these lines, and the blogosphere (including me, here) has chimed in as well. But the imprimatur of Deutsche Bank adds some gravitas to the proposal.

If you want to read the report yourself, it’s here.

Trains? No, Planes and Automobiles (At Least In The U.S.)

Trains are not a solution to reducing the amount of driving Americans do. Saying “Europe has good trains, so we should too” is just a bad analogy. And we’re not even talking all the cultural, geographic, and infrastructural differences.

A Pretty Dutch Train
A pretty antique Dutch train (Photo by Gen Gibson)

Over on Will Blog for Food, John agitates for a much extended use of trains in the U.S. to partially address our current dependence on cars.

As an example, I spent three weeks in Holland a few years ago. I could get anywhere in the country by rail and back to Amsterdam the same day. But here’s the kicker: I never had to wait more than 5 minutes for a train to Amsterdam from any where in the country. Even in former communist countries like the Czech Republic you can get anywhere by rail and/or bus.

In the comments I took some issue with this idea, and thought I’d expand on those comments in a post.

Interestingly, Holland is about four times the size of… LOS ANGELES! It’s also one of the most densely populated countries in the world (LA is dense also).

So I’ll accept that you could build a kickass train system in the greater LA area, and it would be more or less the equivalent to the entire national train system in Holland. BTW, if you include Orange, San Bernadino, and Ventura Counties in with LA, you get a region larger than the entire Netherlands. And that doesn’t include five of the largest cities in California (San Francisco, San Diego, Sacramento, and San Jose), much less even the largest cities in the neighboring states.

My point is that saying “Europe has good trains, so we should too” is just a bad analogy. And we’re not even talking all the cultural, geographic, and infrastructural differences. For example, the fact that a huge proportion of the population lives in sprawling suburbs mitigates strongly against effective public transit. In places where the density is sufficient, public transit has worked in the U.S. – New York, Boston, San Francisco. It’s arguable that LA is sufficiently dense – but it might not be, with the sprawl down to Long Beach, Orange County, and San Bernadino County.

My feeling is that cars are here to stay in the U.S. (and obtw, in China and India too, at a very rapid growth rate). Instead of fantasizing about trains in the U.S., we need to figure out how to build cars that don’t pollute, use sustainable energy sources, and are recyclable. Interestingly, one reason our cars aren’t built from carbon fiber today? Not recyclable (yet). On the other hand, 90% of the materials in a regular Detroit car are recyclable and recycled today. In fact, I just read today that Subaru’s plant in Indiana is “zero landfill” – they actually don’t throw anything away!

What do you think about trains in the U.S.? Do you think they’d be a good replacement for cars? On what terms – how would you go about it? Let me know in the comments – I’d love to hear your thoughts.