Sunday, July 27, 2008

Electric Car Infrastructure


The day is fast approaching when electric cars will be tooling around our city streets and neighborhoods, driven by people other than well-heeled celebrities or devoted hobbyists. As GM and a slate of other automobile manufacturers ready their first serious electric cars for the market, thoughts naturally turn toward the state of the infrastructure for dealing with these electricity sipping vehicles.

Joel Makower in Electric Cars: Where Will the Infrastructure Come From? grapples with some of the issues that are quickly moving from the theoretical realm to the practical.

In reality, the GM-utility conversation isn't entirely new. It began in January, at a Vehicle Electrification Workshop held at GM's research center in Warren, Michigan. I had the privilege of attending the meeting, which was facilitated by my colleagues at the sustainability strategy firm GreenOrder. The meeting included more than two dozen utility executives, including a team from the Electric Power Research Institute, the industry-funded consortium that served as the co-convener of the meeting.

It was an eye-opener, to say the least. It turns out that building the infrastructure for the plug-in electric vehicle isn't simply a matter of, "Here's a plug, here's a socket. End of story."

First of all, not everyone has a socket — a secure place to park their car and recharge it. Those living in apartment buildings, for example, lack this ability. Even where a plug exists, it may not have sufficient amperage to handle the load. (I'm a good example: I have a socket in my garage, but it's on the same circuit as my bedroom. If you plug in a power-hungry appliance in the garage, TiVo gets grumpy.)

But that's the least of it. Building the plug-in infrastructure involves a mind-numbing array of technical challenges.

Makover goes on to talk about connector compatibility, outlet access, vehicle-to-grid considerations, and other topics that make it clear that there is more to this transition away from the petrol pump than just hopping in an electric vehicle and driving away. Now is the time to start setting the standards and creating the infrastructure.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Fighting Goliath: A Documentary About Coal Plant Battles in Texas

Conventional coal-fired power plants represent one of the most serious threats to human health and a major cause of global warming. This documentary, posted on SnagFilms, provides a revealing look at how a group of mayors, farmers, and ranchers fought a company planning to construct 18 of these power plants in Texas.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Karoshi and Other Prius Stories


"Karoshi", a term used by Japanese workers that translates to "overworked to death" was the fate of 30-year old Kenichi Uchino, who collapsed and died at the Prius plant in "Toyota City", Japan. The court in Nagoya ruled the cause of death as exhaustion and noted that in the month leading to his death, Uchino had worked as much as 155 hours overtime, much of it unpaid.

This story and other unsettling details included in a report by the National Labor Committee in New York (NLC) casts a shadow on the labor practices of Toyota, the world's largest automobile manufacturer.

Paul Abowd, who picked up the story for In These Times, noted:

In its 65-page report released in June, NLC includes first-hand testimony of factory conditions in “Toyota City,” outside of Nagoya, Japan — less than 200 miles southwest of Tokyo — where the largest auto company in the world employs some 70,000 people.

The report alleges that Toyota exploits guest workers, mostly shipped in from China and Vietnam. According to the NLC, these workers are “stripped of their passports and often forced to work — including at subcontract plants supplying Toyota — 16 hours a day, seven days a week, while being paid less than half the legal minimum wage.” Workers are forced to live in company dormitories and deported for complaining about poor treatment, the report finds.

Both Abowd and the NLC recognized that Toyota's position in the auto industry hasn't been gained by a multitude of bad practices, but a growing trend toward undercutting the rights of the workforce by systematically lowering wages and introducing harsh work situations for temporary workers is steadily degrading the labor situation worldwide. Even in the U.S., where a middle class was born from comfortable automobile manufacturing jobs, Toyota's temporary worker practices are raising eyebrows.

In a rebuttal to the NLC report, Toyota responded:

Toyota is committed to being a good corporate citizen to all of our stakeholders, including our employees, partners, suppliers and customers. The NLC report contains numerous inaccuracies that present a false and misleading picture of our company. Contrary to the report’s allegations, Toyota respects its employees and honors the basic human rights of the people involved in our business. We comply with all applicable local laws and regulations wherever we operate while providing fair compensation and benefits.

However, many of the specific allegations in the NLC report went unanswered. We hope that Toyota takes its corporate responsibility seriously and addresses these labor issues in a transparent manner. Anyone driving around in a "green" Prius manufactured under questionable conditions should take Toyota to task and demand accountability and fairness for the way workers are treated.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Europe Shows How to Save Energy

vélo sans mains
Originally uploaded by yeuxrouge

With a surfeit of natural resources and an attitude that often views prodigious consumption as a virtue, the United States has lagged behind Europe for many years in terms of energy efficiency. As oil supplies dwindle and SUVs grow rust in the back corners of car lots, the message is finally getting through that our habits need changing and the kinds of changes needed can be seen in examples from Europe, where transportation, heating, cooling, and people-powered vehicles are dramatically different than stateside.

Writing for the Christian Science Monitor, Jerry Lanson explains the ways in which Energy-addicted U.S. can learn a lot from Europe. Among those ways, easy access to bicycles in the cities makes a sizable difference in traffic:

Throughout the city, residents and guests can grab a bike at one location, compliments of what seems a simple credit-card prompted trigger, and return it to any of dozens of other locations. The first half-hour, the instructions noted, is free. Each evening we watched as the streets filled with young and often fashionable bike riders, as likely pedaling in high heels and dress slacks as in jeans and sandals.

None of these measures, of course, have taken the sting out of gas prices twice as high in much of Europe as what Americans are paying for at the pump today. But perhaps if Americans, who still use more energy per person than any country in the world, took note and took action to follow suit, prices here and there might at least stabilize.

Lanson sums up the issue neatly at the end of this article:

So as we grouse at the president, Congress, the oil companies and just about anyone else paying too little heed to our growing pain, perhaps Americans should remember that conservation can – and should – begin both in our homes and in our towns.

Let's think globally, then act locally. Our European friends have been doing that for a long time.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Beyond the Hype, Solar Power Advances

small solar collectors in a line
Originally uploaded by Kel Patolog

The convergence of technology advances and rising fossil fuel prices is bringing the potential of solar power into sharp focus, both literally and figuratively. Discoveries from researchers at MIT promise to boost the efficiency of solar panels by concentrating the sun's rays, a measure that will help bring down the cost of panels considerably.

In a Boston Globe article, Innovation fuels solar power drive, journalist Carolyn Y. Johnson writes of the MIT study:

The work by Mapel and others could potentially do both, by using a simple trick that makes more efficient use of sunlight and uses fewer costly solar cells.

Solar cells are made from different materials that each operate most efficiently when using light from a narrow band of wavelengths. By filtering the light through a pane of glass coated with dye, Mapel and his colleagues have been able to direct some light to solar cells that can use it most efficiently. Those cells are placed on the edge of the pane, requiring far fewer solar cells than if they were placed along the surface as on conventional panels.

The remaining light passes through the pane and, if placed on a conventional solar panel, can be converted to electricity.

The researchers found that their setup increased the efficiency of traditional panels by about 20 percent, but they believe that with a little more tweaking, they can boost that to 50 percent.

Solar power, by its nature, presents a different perspective on solving our individual and community power needs. Microgeneration technologies are gaining favor worldwide and given the slow response by many governments to dealing with CO2 reduction, many businesses, individuals, and communities are taking the initiative to deploy their own power generation systems.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Japan's Many Examples of Energy Efficiency


One smart solution to our energy problems is to make due with less. Since the early 1970's, Japan, the world's second largest economy, has become skilled at that practice, adapting to the fact the country has a small land area and few natural resources. This hasn't stopped them from applying innovative energy saving techniques, particularly in the manufacturing sector, as discussed in a New York Times article, Japan Sees a Chance to Promote Its Energy-Frugal Ways. Journalist Martin Fackler noted:

According to the International Energy Agency, based in Paris, Japan consumed half as much energy per dollar worth of economic activity as the European Union or the United States, and one-eighth as much as China and India in 2005. While the country is known for green products like hybrid cars, most of its efficiency gains have been in less eye-catching areas, for example, in manufacturing.

Corporate Japan has managed to keep its overall annual energy consumption unchanged at the equivalent of a little more than a billion barrels of oil since the early 1970s, according to Economy Ministry data. It was able to maintain that level even as the economy doubled in size during the country’s boom years of the 1970s and ’80s.

The photo at the top of this post, by Ko Sasaki for The New York Times, shows a view through a window looking onto a commercial complex in Chiba, Japan, that uses transparent solar panels on window glass to generate power.