Tag Archives: Kyoto protocol

From Kyoto to Copenhagen: Will it Make a Difference?

In 1998 when I was researching fuel-efficient cars for Technocopia.com I came across the Kyoto Protocol. Already in place it was an agreement between developed countries to try and lower emissions to 20% less of 1990 standards by 2005. This amount varied depending on the country.

Each industrialized country that was initially included in the discussions was to ratify the agreement. Ratification means that they confirm their committment to or give official sanction to something. In 1997  it was adopted, and ratified in various countries over the next eight years. During that time Bush came into power and based on the advice of his Exxon comrades (that the US State Department thanked for their input into  climate change policy) did not ratify the Protocol. Uh, right. Neither did the previous Clinton government, nor Obama to date.

Once ratified the member countries would be responsible to uphold their commitment for lowering emissions and I suppose, be fined if they didn’t meet them; but by which regulating body, I’m not sure. After all, the US has gone many years without paying its United Nations dues so if there are no teeth, how do countries live up to the Protocol’s agreement? You would think because it is the right thing to do, that it could save the planet and the future health of millions.

Canada took a long time to ratify the Protocol and it took effect in February 2005. Most countries have agreed to lower their emissions by a certain percentage to below what they were in 1990. For Canada, that would be 6%. However, in the US and Canada, emissions have risen between 21-28% in recent years. That’s a whole lot more of a concern on the health of people and the continuation of many species that we depend on for nutrition and are becoming toxic to us and themselves. And that means decreasing emissions by some 30-odd percent to pre-1990 standards.

If all these countries were already aware of emission issues, then how could they let emissions rise? Because there is money in it. It is shown today that most emissions are coming from factories and agriculture. Cars actually trail behind that but they are a huge contributing factor to the overall air quality. In the past ten years we saw the advent of bigger SUVs, Hummers and trucks, which were exempt from the same emission standards as cars, because those big vehicles are farm vehicles? Right, all these people in the cities probably haven’t even seen a farm but this was a loophole for vehicle manufactures and if you buy that monster, macho status symbol, you’ll get a break in climate taxes and the manufacturers make more money. Europe’s has had tiny cars (like the Smart Car) for a very long time but the big car and oil companies were happy to have us squander money and resources.

The US being one of the most significant countries to not sign and ratify the Kyoto Protocol said it was because developing countries were not being held to the same standards as the industrialized countries. So instead of making some in-roads and setting a good impression by example, they decided to play the “it’s not fair” game. They whined that China did not even have to control their emissions although China has now become the biggest greenhouse gas emitter. However, it’s not that simple. Per capita, the US still emits more per person than China. Yet China and India, which between them hold a third of the world’s population must also take some responsibility.

It’s not a matter of you go first in this though. If every country doesn’t pitch in, the world is going to go down hard and we’ll all be eating soy to the end of our days, if we’re lucky. The highest emission continent is that of North America, with Canada also showing shameful controls on emissions. The Harper government started out with a plan, when they needed the votes. That’s when they admitted the environment was in trouble. But since then a minister of the environment announced that Canada had no hope of meeting its Kyoto Protocol committment and Harper has cut the funding towards such work.

In the meantime, other governments within Canada continue to look at ways to tax the individuals when it’s the corporations (including vehicle manufacturers) who are most responsible. Individuals may need to pay a bit of tax but not the continual onslaught. The government needs to bring out other ways of helping and healing the environment and that’s lacking a great deal. Raising the climate taxes on gas guzzling vehicles more would help. Yes tax money could go towards programs but I’d like to hear more about the programs and innovations such as hybrid buses and Smart cars for government employees who use a car on the job.

And Copenhagen? Well I predict that Harper will stall and refuse to change; that the US, despite Obama’s promise of change, will continue to stall on getting involved, just as they did in WWII. But they’ll still want everyone to play by their game. Will it help? Only if the countries truly commit. This should have been started fifty years ago, let alone twenty. And here we are taking ten years to ratify an agreement and maybe get around to it in another fifteen years.

I’d like to believe we’ll see change and that we can all pull together but I have seen too much obfuscation and political maneuvering of the things that matter by various governments to believe that anyone will take it to where it needs to go. And as our children’s lifespans shorten and more people get allergies, asthma and other conditions, and as many species die or contain toxins so virulent they’ll kill us, we’ll start to live in the cautionary tale of our science fiction writers. I really hope it won’t be a reality but I’m still waiting to see real change.

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Scrapping Environmentalism

Whenever something has “ism” attached to it, it becomes a movement, a belief, a group: environmentalism, communism, Catholicism, chauvinism, a schism. Sometimes it has negative connotations and sometimes positive, but almost every ism groups something so that people will be for it or against.

So what’s the problem with environmentalism? That like many movements or beliefs the fad can wax and wane, be popular for a while and then fade away. Environmentalism shouldn’t be a fad but a way of life, if we want a sustainable and renewable world. Unfortunately, it has taken an environmental movement to get most governments to move on the abuses happening to the environment. It may already be too late in some ways for the world and people. But Ma Nature has a way of reasserting herself, even if it takes the dying off of a millions of people.

A month or so ago the federal government decided to scrap environmental reviews for any project under $10 million to bring about economic stimulus. So go ahead, you logging companies, wipe out a forested mountain. Who cares if the topsoils disappears and there are mudslides as long as it comes in at $9,999,999.00? Go ahead, you chemical and pharmaceutical companies. Toss your sewage and unrefined wastes into the river systems. Who cares if it raises the temperature and kills the fish? Who cares if our kids are getting breasts at the age of six from all the drugs?

No problem for Harper’s government. We don’t need reviews because the environment was only in the public’s mind until it was supplanted by the newest crisis–the economy. And as we’ve often seen, governments and politicians don’t always do what’s right but what will garner them the vote. Although the Conservatives still live in the shadow of a minority government, they know that most people are sick of all the elections and feel a little more secure in these proclamations though the opposition parties could still pull them down.

In fact, our government has taken these new environmental assessment regulations a step further by foregoing the constitution which requires consultation with Aboriginal groups if it could impact the various treaties. As well, they’re required to post the changes to give the public and affected groups time to comment but as has been a hallmark of Harper’s tightfisted, overcontrolling ways, none of these required steps happened. The government changed the Environmental Assessment Act without any consultation.

I’ve been critical of Harper’s late jumping onto the environmental bandwagon and only doing it to bring in votes. Unfortunately, even the previous federal governments did little as everyone ignored the impact on our environment and the Kyoto Protocol, first signed by many nations around 1998. My criticism still holds true that Harper’s minions seem to be playing the most popular game and in the smokescreen of economic concerns our natural resources could suffer.

Sad times when money and making money yet again mean letting slip the controls and level of doing things right. And worrying times when our government feels it doesn’t need to follow the rules that governments themselves have put into affect.

An assessment by U of Calgary’s Faculty of Law: http://ablawg.ca/2009/03/31/the-eviscerating-of-federal-environmental-assessment-in-canada/

http://cambridgevoice.ca/archives/prentice-confirms-cuts-planned-to-environment-reviews/

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Environmentalism & Politics

I actually wrote this last year on my other blog but I think it’s still pertinent. What often happens with government is that they focus on whatever the media starts paying attention to. And the moment the public looks away, they go off in another direction. Although the economy is of great concern, so is the environment still and always important. Moreso now when recycling companies are not making as much a profit and therefore it isn’t “economical” for them to recycle or for other places to buy the products.
There has been quite the hullabaloo in the media lately as politicians have woken up from a twenty-plus year hibernation to look around in sudden alarm and go “Oh my, we have an environmental problem.” Hello?

When I was a teenager I wouldn’t litter and a friend asked, oh why bother? I said, well it may only be me today but then tomorrow it might be me and someone else, because they saw me not littering. And the next day there could be three or four, etc. I feel vindicated that at least recycling has become more of a norm (at least in some provinces) than it was in my teens.

And at least by the time I was in my twenties I was reading about the Gaia Hypothesis (how the world is one symbiotic living organism and what you do to it in one place affects the whole) and how our pollutants were wreaking havoc with the world and if we stopped all smog causing agents, then it would take at least fifty years to see any positive results.

In 1998 I wrote for a now defunct e-magazine (victim of the dot com downfall) called technocopia.com. It looked at how new technology was changing one’s life and lifestyle, from cell phones in third world countries to robotic heart surgery. I was researching fuel cells and hybrid cars and came across the Kyoto Protocol. Governments had already signed up for it. So how is it in 2007 various governments have dropped out of fulfilling the requirements and now cry it will break the bank because there’s not enough time? That was ten years of time.

I hear Stephan Dion say on CBC that pollution has just become a problem? What!! Just? Puhleese. I’m not sure what the benefit was to Tony Blair to stand up and start waving the big green flag but it suddenly looked like the cool thing to do and Canada jumped up beside him. George Bush of course is still in right wing crusader war mode. Environmentalism might mean putting collars on his pals, the oil and car companies.

But I’m cynical enough and eyes open enough to wonder why politicians would suddenly go on about this when a lot of us have known there’s been a problem for over twenty years. Well, hmm, minority government. Who wouldn’t want to keep our country green and with air we can breathe? For Harper it’s a surefire way to garner a shiny star on his report card. But it would be much more believable if saving our resources wasn’t done because of political maneuvering and was just done because it’s the right thing to do.

And yet, the Conservatives whine and shuffle their feet and say oh we can’t meet the Kyoto Protocol. Or, maybe we could but it would cost gadzillions and all you poor Canadians that we normally only care about when you’re voting will pay the price. A few weeks ago on CBC, The Current had business leaders from various sectors and they were saying that they were on board with changing and implementing environmentally safe processes and procedures. The interesting thing here was that all of them said that it would be more cost effective and they would probably actually make more profit by switching over. So how is it that the Baird Report says we’re going to have to pay with our first born?

Perhaps I’d almost believe that maybe, just maybe, our lovely government was actually concerned with the environment and not with losing power if it wasn’t that I see this as a big smokescreen. What have polls of recent years shown is the number one priority for Canadians: universal medicare. So why aren’t we hearing more about this? Because it needs a massive overhaul. And we’ve all turned to look at the shiny new green flag being waved so that we won’t notice the huge cutbacks, the ever longer waiting lists, the rampant deadly infections running amok in hospitals and killing people. Because the government can win votes easier with this lovely green beast than with the monster of medical coverage.

I was willing to let go some of my frustration, anger and disgust with the head-in-the-sand attitude various Canadian governments have had if it meant at least something was being done. But then we get the Baird Report; more stalling about actually really doing something.

I’m trying to do my part and have for years. I could do more. We all could. I’d get a hybrid car if I could afford one. What part is the government really doing? Will they put teeth into their policies or leave them to gum the ankles of corporations and groups that continue to pollute? I’ll wait and see.

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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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Fuel Efficient Cars

This was scheduled for Technocopia, but I believe wasn’t published. It was written in 2000. It’s interesting to note that when SUVs hit the market in Canada they were allowed to have higher emissions, fitting into a little caveat that had all trucks under farm vehicles. The result was that emissions, which were on their way down, shot up again as more people bought SUVs. I was driving behind a Hummer the other day, the ultimate in conspicuous consumption. The guys in it had the nerve to open their door and drop a can to the ground. A true picture of the mindset of a Hummer driver in the city.

With the onset of the Industrial Revolution, and the invention of the car a little over a century ago the world’s pollution has increased to unbearable levels in many cities. Places like California (which has a serious air pollution problem) have “Super-Ultra-Low-Emission-Vehicle” (SULEV) pollution standards that will require 10% of all cars sold in California to have zero tailpipe emissions by 2004. That’s no pollution whatsoever.

That may not seem like a large percentage of greener cars, but it means a lot of research, testing and cost to car manufacturers. Alternate fuels like natural gas, propane, methanol, ethanol and diesel, as well as alternative energy forms like electric batteries or fuel cells are being tested. In the forefront of alternate energy vehicles that we’ll see next are electric, hybrid gas/electric and fuel cells. California, Colorado, Arizona, Chicago and Vancouver, British Columbia are test beds for the new cars and energy as the world works toward a cleaner future.

Gasoline

Cars powered by gasoline use internal combustion engines (ICE). They average anywhere between 20-40 miles per gallon. Tailpipe emissions are high with carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, methane, lead, oxides of nitrogen and sulfur dioxide causing human health problems, smog, global warming, acid rain and greenhouse gases. There is often government regulation on the type and quantity of emissions and new cars are being developed with lower emission standards. Gasoline, though fairly cheap in comparison to other energy sources, is a non-renewable resource and as Newsday (04/25/99) reports: “Within 50 years, or perhaps sooner, experts say, the world’s supply of fossil fuels will begin an inexorable decline.” And when those fuels decline we’ll be using lower grade, “dirtier” fuels that will be more expensive.

Gasoline-powered vehicles are the most common, therefore mass-produced and of reasonable price. There is a well-developed infrastructure of car repair centers and fuel stations across the country and throughout most developed nations.

Although not known for fuel efficiency, car manufacturers are working on lowering the emissions in their gas-powered vehicles. All of Ford’s 2000 model pickups and SUV’s will have lower emissions. The “’99 LEV Ford Explorer, for instance, is 42% cleaner in terms of carbon dioxide, hydrocarbon, and nitrous oxide production than the non-LEV ’98 version. Honda produces ULEV Accords and Civics (ultra-low-emission vehicles are 50% cleaner than LEVs), Toyota has a ULEV Camry, and DaimlerChrysler a ULEV Neon. And Nissan, Honda and Toyota all have gas engines that meet SULEV (super-ultra-low-emission vehicle) standards–one-tenth the emissions of a LEV. SULEV Sentras and Accords are expected to hit the market early next year.” Fortune Magazine, Time (10/25/99)

Combustion Process: air (oxygen), fuel and an ignition source are required for combustion. Lighting a fire or starting a car involves combustion. The spark from a spark plug ignites the gasoline and oxygen to create the energy to power cars.

Compressed Natural Gas

Cars built for gasoline can also use natural gas with some modifications to the fuel system. Government incentives help lower the cost of changing over. Refueling is relatively cheap and tailpipe emissions are reduced but not eliminated. The Arizona Republic (01/03/99) showed a comparison between a 1998 Ford Crown Victoria using compressed natural gas that “produced 66 percent fewer hydrocarbons than a comparable gas-fueled Crown Victoria,” and 40 percent less carbon monoxide with zero emissions of oxides of nitrogen. Natural gas vehicles are often used for transit or fleet vehicles.

There are many refueling stations but not as many as gas, so a cross-country trip needs planning. As well, a natural gas tank that has to be installed will take up room in the trunk. Natural gas is still a fossil fuel and a limited resource. Some natural gas cars by manufacturers are: Honda natural gas-powered Civic GX, Ford Crown Victoria and Dodge’s natural gas-powered Charger R/T.

Diesel

Diesel engines use oil, where the air is compressed and heated and oil sprayed into the chamber and ignited. Although the engine is more expensive the fuel is cheaper and used more economically. However, diesel is notorious for its black, smelly emissions. Car manufacturers believe they can make a cleaner diesel but it is still in development. (Having been in Delhi, India, where diesel was predominant, we were black with diesel and it had saturated clothing within a matter of hours.)

Electric (Battery Powered)

Electric cars have been around as long as gas-powered cars and were considered more reliable in the early days of the car industry. They cost more than a gas-powered vehicle and are not as easy to find. At present they can only be leased. However, they cost less to run and charging stations are free for the time being. At home the cord can be plugged into a regular 110 V outlet. Battery-powered cars emit no pollutants and are completely quiet while being driven. Government incentives exist and everything from a golf cartlike vehicle to a full-sized car is allowed on the road. New developments make the electric car faster than its predecessors.

Electric cars can take up to three hours to charge and in California there are over three hundred charging stations (where the cars are being tested) but still drivers are concerned with the limited range (about one hundred miles depending on vehicle type). The batteries are lead acid and disposal is still an environmental problem. New nickel metal-hydride batteries are being used which double the driving range. Though decreasing in size, batteries increase the car’s weight and can still take up a large amount of space.

Dick Thompson, director of communications for GM’s advanced-technology vehicles says that the electric car is “transitional, leading to who knows what’s next?” The Arizona Republic (01/03/99). Some electric cars include GM’s Saturn EV1 (leased since 1997), the Honda EV Plus, Toyota RAV4 EV and Ford’s TH!NK (available in Norway). (Last week–June 2008–CBC radio interviewed Alexandra Paul in California. An actress and environmental advocate, Paul said that GM had crushed all their EV cars years ago. She has done a movie called Who Killed the Electric Car? http://www.pbs.org/now/shows/223/paul-interview.html)

Hybrid Electric

Hybrid cars will be the next mass produced vehicle using a combination of gas (also diesel or natural gas) and an electric motor. Driving range is farther, the gas tank and engine are smaller and the emissions are reduced. The cars get around 55-70 mpg. Government incentives are in place for these cars, like all low emission vehicles.

The battery self-charges through a unique system that equalizes between the gas engine and the battery, using the most efficient energy for the situation, such as acceleration (electric) or driving (gas). The regenerative braking system not only slows the car down but also captures that energy to charge the battery. The battery only weighs about one hundred pounds compared with twelve hundred pounds for an all-electric vehicle. Cost for a hybrid vehicle is still higher than gas-powered cars.

Hybrid cars include the Chrysler Intrepid ESX2 (hybrid electric-diesel), Honda Insight, Toyata Prius. Ford and Nissan also hope to have hybrid electric cars in production in the next three years.

Fuel Cell

Fuel cell technology is the most revolutionary. Ballard Power Systems, Inc. in Burnaby, BC, with Ford and DaimlerChrysler are working on fuel cells for cars.

A fuel cell causes a chemical reaction between hydrogen and air, which is converted into electricity. It is similar to a battery but needs no recharging and the only emission is drinkable water or vapor. Though used in some test vehicles like DaimlerChrysler’s Necar 4 and buses in several areas, the fuel cell is still in development and researchers say we will not see fuel cell cars until 2004.

Hydrogen is highly combustible and fuel tank storage on a car, as well as refueling poses some high risks. If used with the next most likely fuel, methanol, it produces some emissions. Hydrogen can be extracted from gasoline but it is a costly process. A variety of fuels can power a fuel cell. As soon as fossil fuels are used manufacturers run into the problem of pollutants once again, although emissions would be greatly reduced compared to gas-powered vehicles. Other deterrents include the lack of infrastructure such as fueling stations. Mercedes-Benz, Mazda, Toyota, Hyundai, Ford and Daimler-Chrysler are working on fuel cell cars.

Fuel cells and electric cars will lead to a cleaner, quieter run on the roads. Several problems stated by manufacturers and media holds back this future:

  • People are reluctant to change to alternate energy vehicles
  • These vehicles are too expensive to buy or lease
  • Manufacturers are losing money with each car built
  • The support infrastructure is not present for refueling
  • The cars are heavier and too slow (some top at 85-100 mph)
  • Refueling, in the case of electrics can take too long (three hours or more)
  • Some cars (GM, Nissan) use inductive charging systems while others (Honda, Ford, Toyota) use conductive—leading to a need for different charging stations

Although no one states these reasons it seems that lack of media attention, car manufacturer’s reluctance to advertise alternate energy vehichles, and the oil industry’s stranglehold on fuel may be what’s really holding back the advent of a cleaner car.

Ways to bring about the cleaner car:

  • Inform people of government incentives and make information readily accessible
  • Advertise energetically
  • Vehicles may cost more initially but they save in fuel consumption
  • Every mass-produced car started out as an expensive prototype
  • Interested people can write or call dealerships & manufacturers
  • Governments, manufacturers, communities and energy companies can make a concerted effort to build fueling stations
  • All new vehicles should have compatible fueling ports/tanks
  • Promote limited range electric cars as a good alternative for commuting and city driving

Imagine the old Pony Express—mail delivered by someone going from town to town, getting a fresh horse to move as fast as possible. Fueling stations for electric cars could supply fresh batteries, taking the used ones and recharging them for the next customer.

The future looks brighter with new energy efficient vehicles on the way. The big question is whether this race was started soon enough or will it be a case of too little too late?

 

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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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