Running the numbers on electric car fuel savings

A neighbor recently asked me for my opinion on the potential cost savings of a fully electric car. I looked around on the Internet but wasn’t totally satisfied with what I found.

What I found was missing from popular media articles is the effective cost of electricity. In California we have tiered pricing, and so once you go over a certain level of electricity use (130% of a defined baseline that is currently 335 kWh) then you end up paying much more: 30 cents per kWh as opposed to 15 cents per kWh. Charging a car uses a lot of electricity, and so I wondered “what happens to your energy savings if you get pushed into the next pricing tier?”

Also I have a natural disdain for breathless hype, and lazy reports, especially when the math needed to put together real numbers is something that enthusiastic elementary school kids can readily do. So I busted out my grade school arithmetic and put together  this nifty spreadsheet:

XLS: Costs to run a gasoline vs. electric car in San Mateo

I decided to only compare fuel costs, and disregard differences in upfront purchase cost, maintenance costs, battery replacement costs and so on and just looked at what it costs to make the thing move. I *did* put in real numbers based on a variety of user reports, energy costs, and so on.

Here’s a summary of what I found:

If you commute 29 miles each way, 5 days a week, in a 2012 Chevy Volt, then your costs per mile come out as follows:

  • Chevy Volt on gasoline (at $4 a gallon): 10.8 cents per mile
  • Chevy Volt on battery, Heavy electrical use household: 6.8 cents per mile
  • Chevy Volt on battery, Efficient electrical use household: 3.6 cents per mile

So at least on the basis of fuel costs, it looks like there are decent savings to be had. Furthermore if you think that gasoline prices will continue marching upwards, faster than electricity costs, then those savings will grow over time.

Of course if you really want to “change the game” then move to a bike-able,  transit friendly community and drive much, much less. I’m not there yet, but I’m working on it.

Beware the coal powered electric car–or worse

electric_power_industry_net_generation_fuel-largeWas taking in an article titled Electric Cars are NOT Coal Powered Cars which features a huge pie chart showing that in 2009, 45% of US electricity was generated from coal. Not an auspicious start to an argument!

But it gets way better. He then goes on to “make a case” for why natural gas and nuclear are such “clean” forms of energy.

I had a chance to watch a documentary called Gasland which shows how people who live in communities being fracked are getting very sick, and the water is being poisoned.

Nuclear is even scarier. When I was in Japan I discovered that agriculture for *all of Northern Honshu* has been trashed, not just the areas that show elevated levels of radiation. Basically the buying public won’t trust the government that it’s safe (wonder why) and so they just won’t buy from that region. The farmers are devastated, leading to farmer suicides. Suddenly coal isn’t sounding so bad, is it?

Reality is that as a country, we’ve backed ourselves into a corner. Can’t imagine living without a car? The car and oil companies are at “mission accomplished” having killed commuter rail lines in the 1940’s (yes they were convicted, no nothing happened as a result) and given rise to suburbs and the need to have a car.

The only way around driving a “dirty fuel” car might be if you live somewhere very sunny, and have a lot of solar panels, then you might be able to come out net even with the grid, so you can feed the grid during the day, and then charge your car during the night. Of course then you have to factor in the power that went into making the solar panels (which is significant) but it’s probably the best thing around, besides not needing to drive.

More and more, I think the smart move is to “live local” where you can do your essential shopping by bike, your friends and entertainment are likewise nearby, and you can use public transit to get to work. Sure the public transit ends up using dirty fuel somewhere down the line, but it’s got to be much less per person than an individual car, be it electric or otherwise.

I’m looking hard at “going local.”

How would a Fukushima-type nuclear accident in San Luis Obispo impact the California produce industry?

Fukushima Reactors BurningI was recently in Japan, and in the course of going about my usual visits with friends, I realized how broadly the nuclear accident has impacted Japan domestically, even outside of the accident area.

First of all, when it comes to farming, much of Northern Honshu is now on an unofficial “blacklist” among the typical Japanese consumer. Even though radiation measurements, official and unofficial, are only showing elevated radiation levels in very specific areas near the accident, the reputational impact has hit a much, much broader area.

This impact became clear when I suggested to friends that we go to a certain tofu restaurant. They politely demurred because they have a young daughter, and the soy beans for tofu that that restaurant uses are grown in Northern Honshu. It is notable that they were readily aware of where that restaurant sources it’s soy. So I went online and checked that area of Japan, but didn’t see any elevated readings anywhere nearby. Nonetheless the reputational damage has been done, for that farmland and that restaurant. We went elsewhere.

The impact became even more clear when my wife and I were visiting the resort (and farming!) town of Inawashiro. Although it’s in Fukushima province, Inawashiro is well away from the nuclear impact area, and shows no evidence of heightened radiation levels. My wife loves soba, so we went to a well-established local soba restaurant in town, where they make everything by hand. I like to eat local foods, and so I enthusiastically asked where the soba was from. The lady smiled and said that they found the best soba these days is from Hokkaido, and so that’s what they use. I pressed her a bit, and she said even that yes, the local soba was actually fine.

I’m guessing that they used to use soba grown closer to home, but had to stop doing that after the nuclear accident, in order to retain tourist business. Consider how painful that reality must be for them. But also consider that even though this area doesn’t show any signs of heightened radiation, it is gravely impacted through “guilt by association,” basically killing the domestic market for their produce. And in a way, it makes sense.

I bet that many Japanese consumers are thinking “Why take a chance?” along with “Can we really trust the government to tell us what is and isn’t safe, when they’ve lied to us so many times about what was really going on?” Thus when the accident is scary enough, and enough people are in active avoidance of all food products grown in a very broad area, then a cycle is in place where the retailers and restaurants avoid it as well, because develop a reputation of selling food that is potentially unsafe.

The end result is that for these farmers, their domestic markets are gone. They can try to sell at much lower prices on the international market, but given the costs of doing business in Japan, this might not be feasible. Understand that the produce they are selling is measured for radiation and is safe in that respect—we’re not talking about dumping radioactive food on other countries. But in Japan a premium is paid for high quality, domestic produce, and that market is wiped out for the conceivable future for a large swath of Honshu.

So that brings me back to California which, like Japan, is earthquake country, and which has two nuclear power plants on the coast, one near San Luis Obispo and another near San Diego. Both of these plants, being near the cost–like Fukushima is–are also very close to major earthquake faults.

In the case of a major earthquake that caused a Fukushima-type nuclear accident, one would think that the damage would be limited to the  farmland directly impacted by such an accident, based on radiation readings. That’d make logical sense, right?

But if we take the example of Japan, the emotional backlash against California product would be severe, regardless of what the experts with their Geiger counters say. People would get scared, and stay scared, for a long time about eating California produce.

Here’s the greatest  irony of it all: there is a safe, straightforward, cost-effective way for California to get rid of the need for nuclear energy. No I’m not talking about solar energy, although that has a lot going for it. I simply mean good old energy conservation. 

If more households took on home energy retrofits, especially for heating and cooling, and generally got smartly about how they heated and cooled, then the energy savings could be used to close down those nuclear plants.

Consider this: if you think the impact of coal fired plants is grave and long lasting, the impact of a nuclear accident is on another timescale altogether. To me it’s just not worth the risks, which based on Fukushima, we know are very real.

The United States can learn from Japanese energy habits

by Dick Johnson

I’m currently visiting Japan, which I get a chance to do roughly every year, and I’ve got sustainability on my mind. One of the things I love about travel is the opportunity to go far way, somewhere very different, and be able to compare habits and common practices that I otherwise wouldn’t think about. Since we are still in an age where traveling long distances is very convenient, and frankly costs relatively little money, I’m grateful for the opportunity.

Since the Japanese earthquake, tsunami, and related nuclear problems, energy policy has been a major discussion in Japan. Even before the earthquake, Japan did a number of things relatively well, at least compared to many other rich countries, in terms of energy. Here’s some of what I’ve noticed:

  • Energy is expensive here, so individuals are relatively careful it. Electricity, gasoline cost a lot.
  • In much of the country, driving is a relative luxury. Buses and trains are convenient, plentiful, affordable, and used widely.
  • Many people ride bikes, for instance to and frame the train station, or just around their neighborhood. It’s a normal thing to do, as opposed to just something that young people or poor people do.
  • Rooms are selectively heated.
  • It’s normal practice for plumbing intrusions in kitchens and bathrooms to be properly gasketed, to prevent heated air from escaping.

Since the earthquake, there’s been a big public company about 節電 or saving energy. I’ve noticed very politely worded signs in retail spaces explaining that even during business hours, all of the lights aren’t necessarily going to be turned on, because of the need to save energy. Apparently people are fine to go along with this, so it makes me wonder if it’ll become a permanent way of doing retail lighting.

A raging debate in Japan since the earthquakes has been about whether to restart the nuclear plants or not. The dilemma as I understand it is that in spite of the ways that Japan saves energy, it is a rich country that nonetheless is used to consuming a lot of energy, and so without nuclear, the difference needs to be made up in other ways.

I’ve heard people talk endlessly about the wonders of renewable energy, but I have to question just how sustainable most “renewable energy” is. A positive side of renewable energy, to me, is that it pushes people to be more away of where their energy is coming from. Frankly the bonanza that the fossil fuel age has become so normalized that pretty much everyone has forgotten the huge impact it’s had on the comfort of our lives.

A negative side of renewable energy is that it’s generally a misnomer. For instance it takes serious amounts of energy, particularly high temperatures, to make a solar PV panel. I’ve heard in fact that the energy you put into making solar panel is roughly equal to what you eventually get out of it. So a solar PV panel is like a battery–put in fossil fuels, get out electricity via solar power. Not a bad idea, but not exactly renewable, either.

So what am I saying? An extreme form of conservation, to the point of re-engineering how pretty much everything is done, to the point where non-renewables are (practically?) never used is getting to be the only workable basis for a renewable society. I see a particular potential in Japan to be a leader in pioneering, or perhaps rediscovering, what this would look like.

For now, I see a handful of critical policies that Japan is following, that are on the right track:

  • Everything to do with individual driving is expensive. Gasoline, licensing, parking, toll roads, and on and on. $7/gallon gas anyone?
  • Massive investment in public transportation. If you want a mind blowing experience, go to Shinjuku station during the morning rush hour and watch train after train after train packed full of people go by. Wow there are so many people. Now imagine all of those people driving to work instead! All of that metal, that gasoline, the asphalt for the roads which would wear down, the increased air pollution.
  • Although the population of Japan is declining, I have yet to hear of a panicked government plan to somehow increase the population. It’s been pointed out that the Japanese society of the Edo period sustainably supported 30M people, without fossil fuels of course.
  • There are real actions being taken, real discussions happening, about saving energy. It’s not just a “nice to have” but people are really looking hard at it.
  • Japan has for many years looked at alternatives, including nuclear. Granted, it’s become apparent that nuclear is much more dangerous than previously thought, but in any case Japan appears less delusional about energy than the United States. Let’s just hope nobody finds shale oil under Japan’s agricultural land.

At the same time, Japan is no utopia of energy usage! Many visitors here notice:

  • Retail packaging is overdone. Yes the slice of cake you just bought is   wrapped, and then wrapped again, and then put in a box, and then wrapped, and then put in a bag, and looks amazing. But what for, and at what cost?
  • Gadget overload–there really is a gadget for everything here. Yes the US has been a big market for a lot of these gadgets. And Japan has more of them, and they are niftier. It is alluring.
  • Consumerism to the hilt. The advertising here is very, very well done, in your face, and relentless. It’s even easier here to buy things you don’t really need. I wonder how private debt is here? I do note lots of ads on the train for pay-day loan type products, at very high interest rates.
  • A throw-away culture. I don’t know if it still happens, but I know it used to be common for people to put their perfectly functional, relatively new, electronics out on the curb, to give away so they could make room for the newest and greatest.

Now having said all of this, my gut tells me that the “island nation” mentality of Japan is going to be an important asset as times change in the coming decades. The ability to pull together, to change direction as a nation relatively quickly, along with the current trend of declining population, could really make a difference for Japan getting to a sustainable state, much more quickly than other countries.

Living like it’s 1899, in Greenwich England

The other day I was sitting down for coffee with a very knowledgeable person whom I met at a Transition Palo Alto book group meeting. We got to talking about how much we rely on technology, to the point that it’s become invisible to us. He recommended that I watch a couple of videos about TV shows where families are put in a setting of “yesteryear” and then we all get to experience what it was like.

One of the series he recommended was done by the BBC and is called The 1900 House. The producers found an old house near London built around 1900, and they found an adventurous family with four kids willing to live according to the time period, and off they went. It’s really well done.

What I remember most from the series is the challenges that the family had with hot water. At first the vintage wood burning stove wasn’t working well enough to heat water for baths. So not wanting to wash in agua ambiente Anglaise, they just didn’t take baths for a while. And then when the hot water did finally function, they were extremely excited. It made me realize how easy it is to take readily available hot water for granted. And of course for many people in the world, it’s not something they can count on at all.

Another place where hot water came into play was in washing clothes. The mother of the family (since dad was at work, remember this is 1900) talked a lot about how much hard work, and how much time, it took to do the laundry by hand. They had to heat large buckets of water with wood fires, and then do a lot of scrubbing and pressing. Plus the soaps that were available in that era were terrible. By the way, do you know how to make good laundry soap? Neither do I. So next time you see your washing machine, say a quiet thank you.

The water theme continues in the one thing that the family did that was against the rules of the experiment. Imagine after all of the commitment to the show, the knowledge that the cameras are running, what could possible lead mom and daughter to finally break down and go around the rules? Shampoo. Basically there weren’t any good shampoo solutions in 1900, and so after trying numerous home remedies to have more comfortable hair, they finally snapped and went to a local drugstore.

It brings to mind that if you grew up without a luxury like shampoo, you don’t know what you’re missing, but once you’ve had it and gotten used to it, it’s hard to go without. The ladder of convenience and comfort is much easier to climb up than it is to climb down.


The truck of the future is…the train

Jim Hansen of the Master Resource Report this week included a story about a cement factory in West Virginia that bought 1.25 mile extension–and a 205 foot bridge over a highway–to link the factory with two major train lines.

Now get this–it’ll remove 24,000 trucks from the road. And apparently rail can move 1 ton of freight 469 miles on a gallon of fuel. Granted, that number comes from the Association of American Railroads. But even if they are off 10x, I bet they are still ahead of trucking. Yikes.

I haven’t looked around on the ground, but I’m guessing that if I go to where the freight rail depots are in the San Francisco Bay Area (are there any?) I’ll see lots of weeds and decay. Seems to me that this train-centric spots will go back to being  relevant–and lively–in the forseeable future.

I’ll add as well that if you’re in a business that involves shipping your product long distances, get ahead of the game and consider what changes you’d need to make to do a lot of that shipping by rail. Or even better, start doing some of your shipping now via rail, so that you have the time to ramp-up at your own pace. I believe the ability to leverage rail will be a big competitive price advantage.

The magic of an all-metal non-electronic sewing machine

As I’ve gotten more into the swing of repairing things, I’ve realized how useful it would be to have a sewing machine around, and know how to use it and maintain it. My initial investigations online showed me that “they don’t make ’em like they used to” and turned up lots of complaints of plastic in the entry level sewing machines that only lasts a few years, if that.

But use-em and throw-em away didn’t used to be the norm. Remember mom’s sewing machine, the one that weighed A LOT and always seemed to be ready for duty, tucked away in the corner? Well guess what? They’re still for sale, but not at Sears, rather on Craig’s List or at Goodwill. I picked up a Sears Kenmore 153.14000, vintage early ’70s (like me!) made in Japan, all metal, no electronics. It’s very cool.

I am particularly enjoying learning how the machine works. Thanks to the splendor of Youtube, there are great videos explaining exactly how a sewing machine makes a stitch that are really useful for learning how to troubleshoot. And with nothing more than a flashlight I can run the machine with my hand and watch the many metal parts in action. I find this lack of mystery to be magical in and of itself.

I have a degree in Computer Engineering, I’ve studied electronics, and quite frankly it’s a lot of black boxes. On paper it makes a certain logical sense, but when you look at it? A mysterious black box.  And if it doesn’t work? Well I guess you pull out the multimeter and try to troubleshoot, but good luck.

On the other hand, a non-electronic, all-metal sewing machine has the potential to be repaired for a very long time. As long as I keep it well oiled, which isn’t that difficult, the metal parts should work for a while. And should one wear out, I could in theory have a new machined. I’m thinking the most likely part of the machine to fail is the motor, and even that may be repairable. Or in the worst case, I could even convert the machine to be manually powered!

The key point is that with this wonderful piece of 1970’s technology I can really come to understand how the machine works, and I can keep it running for a long, long time.

Oh and if you’re wondering what project #1 is? Thermal curtains.