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Sustainability and A Planet Out of Whack

We are talking more and more about sustainability, as an end to our oil resources is something almost calculable by now. As our living space will decrease with population growth and demands on usable water will increase. As our landfills overflow and seep toxic gunk into the groundwater.  As our land turns to dustbowls or swamps and arable land becomes scarce, as millions of cars belch fumes into the sky.

Right now fires are sweeping across BC, again, threatening people living in cities. In Westbank/Kelowna 11,000 people have been evacuated with another 6,000 on alert. This echoes the terrible, devastatingly traumatic fires that swept through parts of Australia earlier this year. Fires so intense and vicious that they caught people as they tried to get into their cars, that burned land to a cinder killing all living things, whether plant or animal, that stood upon the land. Australia faces the collapse of its wine industry, vines grown for years either burned to a crisp or without water to keep the crops going. Their cattle industry is also in danger. A whole country and continent without enough water.

This is not a new thing. Disasters and climatic devastation have happened throughout history but the ferocity and frequency are increasing as the planet warms and suffers under the onslaught of chemicals and fumes not meant to play with nature. The change in the planet probably began with the industrial revolution, once machines were chugging blue smoke into the sky and sluicing runoff into the streams. It began with the first car. And if we think about it, that was only about a hundred years ago. A tenth of a millennium and civilization has existed for at least twenty thousand years.

Think about it. We are exponentially increasing the danger to the planet and to ourselves, and sticking our heads in the sand won’t make it go away. So just what is sustainability? Let’s look at defining it first, from Merriam Webster: 1: capable of being sustained 2 a: of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged <sustainable techniques> <sustainable agriculture> b: of or relating to a lifestyle involving the use of sustainable methods <sustainable society> 

So that a resource is not depleted or permanently damaged. Wow. Perhaps it’s easier to look at what is not sustainable than what is. What’s left over is what we have to work with. Let’s start with the biggest resource. Our planet. It is of a finite circumference with finite water and land. The world population is at 6.7 billion. It is expected to increase to 9 billion in 2040. That’s within a lot of our lifetimes. There will be less land to live on and the more building that happens takes away from land to grow upon. Water is already an issue in many places. What will it be like in thirty years?

This means no matter how much you love children, think they’re cute, want to be surrounded by bundles of joy or your religion has said, go forth and multiply, it is just not sustainable. Everyone can take personal responsibility and for every couple have one child. That will bring our population down. It will make the planet breathe a sigh of relief and continue a bit longer. Plagues, diseases and flus won’t spread like wildfire. And yes, businesses will have to restructure from the grow grow grow buy more mentality. But we’ll survive.

What is not sustainable is manufacturing more and cheaper cars, SUVs, Hummers and every gas guzzling monster. For sustainability they should be outlawed. And we see right now the glacial progress of moving to electric cars. Governments need to move faster on this and provide incentives to get people to change. More cars plug city thoroughfares and raise costs in maintenance, accident prevention and care. Fewer cars and bigger carpool systems will lessen the strain and road rage. Electric cars, bicycles, viable and cheap public transit will help alleviate both pollution and the sucking of the world’s limited oil and metal resources. Another unsustainable depleting resource.

Manufacturing that uses water needs to be looked at, if our water is becoming limited. Healthy, interactive systems of filtration need to be used to keep our water pure and reusable. We could end up like the people in the novel Dune, having to wear suits that recycle and sweat and urine into drinkable fluids over and over because the planet is desert. Water saving devices for taps, toilets and showers must be used. Education will help stem the tide there.

Building homes and offices, making paper all work on depleting trees. The forestry industry has been made responsible for replanting for quite a few years. But you can chop down more trees in a day than will grow in  a year. it takes years to get a big tree, centuries. Ripping out too many tress not only affects flora and fauna of an ecosystem but also affects the topsoil, the nutrients and the infrastructure of the land for both stability and water.

I could go on but every person as well as every company and government must take responsibility and look at what they use and how it’s reused or discarded. Everything from food to clothing. If we don’t start now, we should have started fifty years ago. And if you truly love children, start now and look at what you can do for sustainability because there could be no tomorrow.

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Zenn Car or Tesla Roadster

I’m sure there are more electric cars out there but I recently mentioned the Zenn Car and Tesla Motors Roadster. Because I’ve wanted to downsize since last year, and should have done it then, I’ve been looking at cars. My Saturn Ion 3 does get pretty good mileage: 600 km to a 50 litre tank, or about 30 mi/gallon. That’s highway driving. But I don’t need the space and therefore could improve on the mileage with a smaller vehicle.

Well, an electric car would be ideal, right? When I looked at the Tesla Roadster http://www.teslamotors.com/, with its 220 miles to a charge, its ability to accelerate, its green aspects, I thought yes! The catch: you have to place an order and it could take a year to get your car. The cost is $109,000, which makes it a toy for the environmentally conscious elite only. It’s only available in the US. Still, if some of the jetsetting rich folk  think beyond what they can spend on frivolities, then that’s a start. And as we know, many rock and movie stars can be role models (just look at Paris!), so let’s hope they lead by green examples.

On the other end is the Zenn car http://www.zenncars.com/ made in Canada. It’s classified as a NEV (neighbourhood electric vehicle). That’s part of the catch; it only goes up to about 25 miles an hour/40 km. Even in Vancouver, should I be puttering about at 40 km, I’m going to make a lot of irate drives in the 50 km zones where everyone goes 60 km. But it’s cheap at $15, 995 USD. Available in many states, Zenn is looking at starting in Montreal for Canada. It’s taken awhile to get through the Canadian red tape even if it is a Canadian made car. But for delivery vehicles and people who just move about the city from work to the store to home, it’s a cheaper alternative.

I can’t buy the Roadster because it’s expensive and only avaialable in the US. I can’t buy the Zenn because its goes too slow (and I drive on the highway to get to work) and it’s only available in the US. I can’t buy a Prius or any other electric hybrid car because they’re too expensive.

Now, I had even more incentive to get a smaller car because of the BC government’s impending carbon tax, to make people choose greener alternatives. I’ve already grumbled about how this would work better if we actually had real alternatives. I should have sold my car six months ago when I first decided to downgrade. I’ve looked at the Honda Fit, the Toyota Yaris and the Nissan Versa. All are viable as smaller cars, all are similar though one is better at pick-up, one at trunk space, one at turning radius.

My catch? I still owe payments on my Saturn Ion 3. Although it’s been reliable and good on gas mileage, everyone is scared to buy cars (let alone trucks) right now. I can’t sell it for what it’s worth, which means I can’t buy a smaller, more energy efficient car. So the government has me where it hurts with their extra tax on the already taxed gas. And soon, it will be cheaper to take the bus, but it’s still cheaper for me to drive.

Anyone want to buy a good car?

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Driving Clean: Hybrid Cars Move Up Front

This is the last of the car-related articles that I wrote for Technocopia in 2000. Some things have changed since then and Canada has an electric car, the Zenn car. http://www.zenncars.com/ You can also check out Tesla Motors. http://www.teslamotors.com/

CAR MANUFACTURERS RACE TO BUILD AN ENVIRONMENTALLY FRIENDLY CAR, BUT WHO’S THE REAL WINNER?

With greenhouse gases and tailpipe emissions harming the environment, atmosphere and human health, countries as well as car manufacturers and industry are looking at ways to clean up their act.

Alternate fuels and car prototypes are being tested. Although there are several electric cars available for lease in selected cities, they have not yet caught on. Manufacturers are reluctant to mass produce the expensive electrics which have limited driving range (between fifty and one hundred miles), need at least a three-hour battery recharge, and don’t have the support infrastructure of recharging stations. California has installed many recharging stations but then it is the test bed for electric cars.

In 1997 the Kyoto Protocol was signed stating that by 2008 all signing countries would lower their emissions. As pollution becomes a problem some countries aren’t waiting. However, a loophole allows countries with lower than standard emissions to sell off their extra emissions to countries that produce more than the allowable amount.

Fuel Economy and Low Emissions
Drivers don’t want to worry about running out of a charge before arriving home. An alternative was needed that increased range but lowered tailpipe emissions. There are government restrictions that already regulate emissions per vehicle. In the search for efficiency and economy, the hybrid gas/electric car was born.

At the forefront of hybrid cars are the Toyota Prius and the Honda Insight. Toyota’s five-passenger sedan has already sold 28,000 in Japan and will be released in the U.S. this year. The Insight was available as of December 1999. The Chrysler Intrepid ESX2 is a hybrid using electric and diesel. The driving range of these vehicles is farther, the gas tank and engine are smaller, and the emissions, therefore air pollution, are reduced.

The hybrid uses an electric and a gas motor. The electric battery cuts down on fuel consumption and the gas engine keeps the battery recharged, eliminating the need to set up separate recharging stations.

In the Prius “an electric motor and a generator are attached to the transmission. The generator, driven by the car’s 58-horsepower gasoline motor, recharges the 135-pound battery pack, and can provide power for the 40-horsepower electric motor as well.” The Boston Globe(10/07/99) An all-electric vehicle’s battery weighs 1200 pounds so the hybrid’s weight is greatly reduced. Accelerating from a stationary position needs a lot of engine turning power. More efficient for providing torque, the Prius’s electric engine kicks in to supply power to the transaxle and turns the wheels. Once the car is cruising along, the electric engine turns off and the gas engine, more efficient for providing the ongoing energy, turns on. If the electric engine needs to be recharged the generator is used. An onboard computer system constantly monitors and regulates which engine will be most efficient in any circumstance. The transition is smooth and unnoticed by the driver.
The Honda Insight’s system is slightly different. A sophisticated computer also regulates which engine is best for each task. However, the Insight has a gas engine and an electric motor powered by a battery, but no generator. When the Insight hits cruising mode the electric battery is recharged.

Prius and Insight both use regenerative braking. This technique captures energy that is lost in traditional braking systems. When the brake is tapped the electric motor runs in reverse. Not only does this slow the forward momentum of the car, it generates the energy needed to recharge the battery.

The Honda Insight is comparable in size to the Honda Civic but gets eighty-five percent better mileage due to a lighter, aerodynamic body design including a plastic bottom, and a smaller, refined engine no larger than a large motorcycle’s. The dashboard display indicates which system is running and not to shift down—to save on fuel—if the electric is engaged. The two-seater should get about 60-70 mpg and will cost under $20,000 USD.

The Prius will get around 55-60mpg and sell in the low $20,000 USD range. Toyota is reported to be losing money on the Prius because it costs more to produce. However, once it goes into larger mass production the reproduction costs will most likely lower. By the time the Prius goes on sale this year, it is expected to meet California’s super-ultra-low emission standards set to go into effect in 2004.

GM, Ford and DaimlerChrysler have joined in research with the US government to develop other hybrid technologies. DaimlerChrysler’s Citdael is still in the test stages and is a cross between a sedan and a SUV. Tom Kizer for DaimlerChrysler said, “If you’re going to improve fuel economy, do it on the vehicles that burn the most fuel. A 20% improvement from hybridization on an SUV saves a lot more fuel than a 20% improvement on a Neon.” Fortune Magazine, Time(10/25/99) SUVs are one of the most popular vehicles in North America today and put out higher emissions than cars. IAnd as I mentioned before some government regulations let them emit more because they were classified as “farm vehicles.”

Government incentives are in place to offset the higher cost for hybrid vehicles. Until the hybrids are mass produced on a much larger scale they will continue to be pricier. What price is greater to pay, a car that continues to destroy the environment and our health or one that costs a little more out of pocket yet gives cleaner air and more miles to the gallon? Gas prices will climb as we run out of fossil fuel and it is fuel economy that will save us more in the long run.

For more information:

Honda Insight www.honda2000.com/insight/homepage.html
Toyota Prius www.toyota.com
Chevrotlet Volt http://www.chevrolet.com/electriccar/
Zipcars (Vancouver) http://www.zipcar.com/ 

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Saving Energy and Environment with the Power of Fuel Cells

From 1999-2000 I wrote for Technocopia.com run by Hillary Rettig, which unfortunately fell victim to the dotcom drop. With her permission I’m listing some articles here. It’s interesting to note that most countries had already signed on to the the Kyoto Protocol, including Canada & the US who used various strategies to start backing out later.

The Kyoto Protocol, signed in 1997 stated that by 2008 all signing countries agree to lower their emissions of airborne pollutants from cars and industry.  Development and deployment of new technologies must begin years in advance of that deadline for countries to comply.

One approach that some regions are taking is mandating that a certain proportion of new cars sold produce zero emissions.  In the U.S., California, Massachusetts and New York are all calling for zero emission regulations. California will require that 10% of all cars sold by 2004 have zero tailpipe emissions.

Electric cars are one possibility.  Long recharge times on batteries, limited driving range (50-100 miles), and few recharge stations have left the public and car manufacturers less than enthusiastic about electrics as viable clean energy transportation.  

Another alternative is the new hybrid gas/electric cars that use an electric battery and a small gasoline tank. Although these cars have a driving range comparable to gas-powered cars and are self-charging they still use nonrenewable fossil fuels though emissions are lower.

Enter the Fuel Cell

A new contender in the zero-emission-vehicle race is the fuel cell.   DaimlerChrysler and Ford hope to have fuel cell-powered cars on the road within the next few years.  Both are partial owners of Ballard Power Systems Inc. in Burnaby, BC, which is the leading researcher and developer of fuel cell technology.  GM, Volkswagen, Honda, Nissan, and Mazda are also experimenting with fuel-cell-powered vehicles.  Chicago Transit Authority and Vancouver’s Metro Transit authority (Translink) are deploying fuel cell-powered buses on a test basis. The fuel cell uses hydrogen and air, which produces clean water (in some cases, water vapor). It can also be topped up quickly with fuel instead of having to be charged slowly like an electric battery.

A fuel cell is a chemically coated membrane sandwiched between two walls. On one side hydrogen is fed in and from the other side, oxygen. The hydrogen, upon reaching the membrane, splits into protons and electrons. The hydrogen protons move through the membrane to join with the oxygen on the other side. At the same time the hydrogen electrons, which cannot pass through the membrane, move out of the cell and are harnessed as electricity. The hydrogen protons meet with the electrons and the oxygen to form hot water.

Fuel cells sound like the “perfect” technology, but there are some problems that still must be resolved if it is ever to be commonly used in transportation.  These include the weight and size of the fuel cell stack, the fact that hydrogen is a highly volatile substance, and the lack of fueling stations.

Hydrogen can be extracted from other fuels but some emissions are produced. Methanol (known as wood alcohol), is a safer fuel source than pure hydrogen and will probably power DaimlerChrysler’s future mass-produced Necar, as well as other fuel cell cars.

Personal Fuel Cell Uses

Fuel cells are also being investigated for use as a power source for homes and appliances. Ballard’s Mark 900 fuel cell will be the basis of a one-kilowatt generator to power Japanese homes. The generator will extract hydrogen from natural gas.  It would be used during off-peak hours as the energy source and then supplemented by the city’s power grid during peak hours when many lights and appliances are turned on. Japan is eager to switch to fuel cell generators since several nuclear reactor accidents “have sapped the country’s already brittle confidence in nuclear power.” The Vancouver Sun (01/14/2000)  Ballard believes that Japan’s fuel-cell generator will be ready in two years.  They are also looking at marketing the generators for Europe and North America.

In the U.S., fuel cell generators are also being looked at as a supplement to city electrical grids. Many of these power grids obtain their energy from nonrenewable resources. Plug Power in Albany, NY received over twenty million dollars in research grants to develop a fuel cell that could be used in residential homes instead of using the traditional electric company grid. The fuel cell generators might be used to supplement photovoltaic panels, which collect solar energy.  Some houses already running on solar energy only draw on the grid during peak hours, cutting down the costs for household power and electricity.

The subkilowatt world of portable devices, such as laptop computers and cell phones may also soon use tiny fuel cells instead of traditional batteries. Motorola Inc.’s new “air breathing” fuel cell, developed at the Los Alamos National Laboratory “eliminates the need for air pumps, heat exchangers and other complex devices that previous fuel cells required and therefore disqualified them from successful use in small portable electronic products” according to Reuters, (01/19/2000).

The Motorola fuel cell measures one inch by less than one-tenth of an inch, and would last ten times longer than the standard lithium batteries now used, stated Christopher Dyer in The Chicago Tribune (10/25/99). Another two to five years of research and development are needed before the air breathing fuel cell is ready for the consumer. 

Fuel cells may still be the energy source of tomorrow, but that tomorrow is so close that the bus you ride today and the laptop you buy tomorrow may be powered by this clean energy. Fuel cells are one way that will let us all breathe easier.

Some Useful Sites
Natural Gas Vehicle Coalition, www.ngvc.org
Methanex (This site provides a good explanation of methanol.) www.methanex.com
U.S. Department of Energy, http://www.eere.energy.gov/
American Hydrogen Association, www.clean-air.org
Ballard Power Systems (A good description & graphics of the fuel cell.) www.ballard.com
Fuel Cells 2000 www.fuelcells.org

 

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Carbon Tax: Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

The latest craze that even the government on all levels has realized brings popularity and kudos, is to go green. From civic to federal governments, this last year we’ve seen such buzz words as “eco, green, carbon tax and environment.”

Vancouver mayor Sam Sullivan has been championing his “eco-density” movement as we move closer to an election campaign. For the busy, unthinking or easily duped they hear the word “eco” and will go, Oh it must be good for us and the environment, so I’ll vote Sam. What does it really mean? It’s another word for condo, high-rise and sardine city. Eco-density, like the use of collateral damage to mean dead people, is just disguising the continual downgrading of our living spaces to smaller and smaller areas for higher prices. Oh, but they’ll put a little greenspace outside so that when you’re pressed up against the glass and staring down five stories, you can dream of a previous era where people gamboled in the grass.

The BC government, so good at tearing up contracts and firing hospital workers to the tune of saving money, cleanliness issues and losing lives, who started singing the song of saving our environment has just instituted the carbon tax, to take place July 1. Because, they parrot, it will make people use gas less and think of greener alternatives. Supposedly it will affect every use of fuel, including those who have to heat their homes this way. It will include gas, diesel and natural gas. Much better to let those little old people with their thinly insulated skin shudder away and wrap up in old blankets. Then the government can say, well look at them; aren’t they doing a great job.

The carbon tax makes no sense. It’s like saying, oh people are buying too much food, so we’ll raise the price of food. The rich will just pay more and the poor people will eat less and starve. It wouldn’t be so bad if there were cheap, viable and environmental alternatives. But there aren’t. A hybrid car is already more expensive than a gas-powered car. But the federal government was giving a $1000 rebate should you buy one. The price was still more than a cheaper gas car and the government decided it sends a better message to get rid of this rebate.

Bus/SkyTrain transportation is so expensive that it was still cheaper for me to take my car to New Westminster from Vancouver than to take the bus and its requisite hassles (not reliable, not always on time, strange, sometimes dangerous street people). I’ll have to check again but the green alternatives aren’t there. Those buses still spew gas. Electric or hydrogen buses would be better. Vancouver has been testing one fuel cell bus that I know of.

Alternative fuels or making the gas and oil companies change the composition in the fuels could help. There is ethanol for one, though it has its own issues. Putting better systems into new cars for fuel and emissions also could help but I don’t know how much can be done there or how much research has been done. I’d like to hear about it though and the government isn’t chatting about all the green alternatives they’re offering or looking into.

Perhaps the government thinks it’s a frivolous option for people to go to work. There are many smaller areas and farm communities where people must drive to go anywhere. It really doesn’t help them and punishes them. Not to mention, the truck drivers that haul goods and food across the country are doing us a service. Perhaps they should stop driving too. Oh no, of course not; the price of everything will just go up. And try to sell a car right now so that you can go green: you can’t.

Should I even mention that this does nothing for the existent problem of pollution and greenhouse gases and it’s the least effective (energetic) way of implementing change. I’d like to know what the tax money will go to except lining government coffers. Bringing in better mass transportation and alternatives would make the carbon tax more feasible if it was actually applied to the big users. If even the little people, the poor people and those who have no choice are punished, it just means that in the end as always, the poor will get poorer and the rich will just continue to pay more to consume the same amount. And the government will sit back like a fat cat and lick its chops.

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