To no one’s surprise, there’s been some news lately about both a (potential) BBB (Big Battery Breakthrough) as well as RCH (Really Cheap Hydrogen).
Starting with the BBB, we have Japan’s Sekisui Chemical develop Silicon based 600 km range battery:
Sekisui Chemical has developed a material that can triple the capacity of lithium ion batteries, allowing electric vehicles to travel about 600km on a single charge — roughly as far as gasoline-powered cars can go without refilling.
The new material stores electricity using silicon instead of conventional carbon-based materials. The company’s silicon alloy overcomes the durability issue that had kept silicon from being used.
Sekisui Chemical also developed a new material for the electrolyte, which conducts electricity within the batteries. This eliminates the need for equipment to inject liquid electrolyte into batteries, stepping up battery production by 10-fold.
The company believes that the new material can bring battery production costs down to just above 30,000 yen ($290) per kilowatt-hour, a decrease of more than 60 percent from around 100,000 yen ($976) today, according to a report in Nikkei.
Sekisui Chemical plans to begin sample shipments to domestic and overseas battery manufacturers as early as next summer, with mass production to kick off in 2015. It is targeting annual sales of 20 billion yen by fully entering the business of automotive battery materials.
The first rule of reading such articles is to always remember that going from “Hey! Look what I made work in the lab!” to “You can buy it in the local car showroom/web site right now, at a less-than-excruciatingly high price” is a very, very difficult path. There’s almost no end of perverse things that can happen to trip up a new technology, from expensive materials and processes (including yield and scaling issues) to no end of political hassles, as in trying to get enough of Magic Ingredient X from a source that doesn’t want to sell it. (Sometimes it’s a wonder that any product more complex than a Slinky ever gets to market in mass quantities.) How will this particular breakthrough translate from lab to market? I have no bloody idea, and neither does anyone not working on it. Hell, I’d wager that most of the people working on it don’t know the answer to that question, simply because they’re experts in chemistry or packaging or materials science or whatever, and not economics and politics.
The second rule is to be on the lookout for hints about availability and price. The article makes it sound like this is not yet another case of vaporware, as it mentions samples reaching manufacturers in just a few months and production in 2015. But the price issue isn’t so rosy. That $290/kWh of capacity is certainly not the major step-change improvement we plug-in car geeks have been pining away for since, well forever. My understanding is that battery prices in production quantities are already under $400/kWh, so a roughly 25% reduction, while welcome, isn’t going to reshape the competitive landscape. On a car with a 24kWh battery pack, that’s a cost reduction of $2,640. Again, I’d rather have that cost drop than shun it, but it’s not going to get most of my neighbors into an EV overnight.
Another factor to consider is the much smaller battery volume, which is a nice ancillary benefit as it makes it much easier for EV makers to avoid the huge humps in some models (like the Focus EV).
So, is this the BBB we’ve all fantasized about? Probably not, but it sounds like a nice step in the desired direction.
And I would add that I’m still confident that somewhere, sometime very soon, we will see the BBB, simply because the economic benefits would be almost incalculable. Between turbo charging the EV movement and turning intermittent renewable energy into dispatchable power, the market for a “killer battery” technology is virtually unlimited for the first several decades after the breakthrough.
And then, there’s hydrogen: New formula for fast, abundant hydrogen production may help power fuel cells:
Scientists in Lyon, a French city famed for its cuisine, have discovered a quick-cook recipe for copious volumes of hydrogen (H2).
The breakthrough suggests a better way of producing the hydrogen that propels rockets and energizes battery-like fuel cells. In a few decades, it could even help the world meet key energy needs—without carbon emissions contributing to the greenhouse effect and climate change.
In a microscopic high-pressure cooker called a diamond anvil cell (within a tiny space about as wide as a pencil lead), combine ingredients: aluminum oxide, water, and the mineral olivine. Set at 200 to 300 degrees Celsius and 2 kilobars pressure—comparable to conditions found at twice the depth of the deepest ocean. Cook for 24 hours. And voilà.
Where to begin? Microscopic cooker? Diamond anvil? Olivine and aluminum oxide? Heating to 200C to 300C? Does any of this sound, how shall I put this delicately, affordable or scalable? It sure doesn’t sound that way to me.
The only way to produce hydrogen at industrial scale now is by reforming natural gas or electrolyzing water. The first produces about 5.5 kg of CO2 for every kg of H2, and the second takes hideous amounts of electricity. And in either case, you then have to burn a lot of energy to compress the hydrogen to cram it into a 5,000 psi tank inside your vehicle. And even that’s assuming that you’re doing the hydrogen production in the gas station and not at some remote site and piping(!) or trucking(!!!) it to the filling station.
The longer this little drama between batteries and hydrogen goes on, the less likely it is that hydrogen will be a major player in the long run. For one thing, batteries are getting significantly cheaper, with one estimate being that they dropped 40% in cost from 2010 to 2012. So hydrogen is aiming for a quickly moving target. But even if you assume someone makes a wicked good hydrogen breakthrough today, and they find a way to generate it at absurdly low cost and without any additional environmental issues, like the CO2 emissions from natural gas reforming, then we’re still on the short end of the stick regarding infrastructure. Building out a hydrogen transport and refueling infrastructure would be hideously expensive. By comparison, EV recharging stations are dirt cheap. For example, Rochester, NY just started installing the first of 24 EV chargers at a total cost of $285,000 — call it $12,000 each. Hydrogen stations are currently about 4 million dollars each, with hopes to get the price down to 2 million. And that’s not taking into account all the EV drivers, like me, who have never used a cheap, public charging port and simply recharge from a home outlet.
Please don’t mistake my comments here as a sign that I hope hydrogen fails. I would dearly love to see both EVs and HFCVs (hydrogen fuel cell vehicles) enjoy wild success and battle it out in the marketplace for years as drivers are happily reducing their marginal carbon emissions to practically zero. But the cost/infrastructure deck is so heavily stacked against hydrogen that it’s ever harder to justify spending more money on it as a motor vehicle fuel instead of using those funds to subsidize EVs or build additional publicly available EV chargers.
Finally, at long last, there’s word that Nissan might give Leaf buyers an option about battery size.
Long-time readers of this site know that I’ve been pushing for this for quite some time. Instead of trying to guess which one battery size will make your EV product offering the most profitable, why not give the customer at least two options, as Tesla does? I would go even further, and present Leaf shoppers with a deal like this:
- Buy/lease the car with the standard 24 kWh battery, the size currently found in all Leafs.
- Or you can buy/lease a Leaf with a Bigger Optional Battery (BOB), say 48 kWh, for twice the driving distance per charge, at an additional cost of $X.
- If you choose the standard battery, you can upgrade to the BOB within the first 3 months for $Y, which will be something like 1.1 times $X. If you want to upgrade after the first three months, it will cost you more, perhaps 1.25 times $X.
(Obviously there are several knobs one can twist in this offer. Maybe you make the trial period only one or two months, and you can tweak the upgrade pricing, but you get the idea.)
I am convinced that unless Nissan and other EV makers do something like this they’re stubbornly giving away sales to gasoline vehicles. “Range anxiety” is a very real thing, and the surest way to wring it out of the customer base is by giving them first-hand experience with EV ownership. I know from experience that once you adjust to the EV lifestyle, meaning you exchange occasional trips to a gas station (plus the delightful gasoline smell, and the higher cost), for plugging in your car in your garage every night, you never want to go back. I sure don’t.
As for the cost of car batteries, it’s been well documented that they’re getting much less expensive, as in a 40% Drop In EV Battery Prices From 2010 To 2012. With continued gains from minor technological improvements plus economies of scale as the EV industry continues to ramp up, I wouldn’t be surprised to see battery prices drop another 30 to 50% in three years. That will bring us much closer to the tipping point for EV adoption in the US.
Speaking of which, let me propose a metric for that. Say you drive your car only 10,000 miles per year, and that your fuel cost for electricity vs. gasoline yields a net savings of 10 cents per mile, and further that you’ll keep your car for five years. That’s a fuel cost savings of $5,000 over the five-year ownership period. There will certainly be other savings — an EV needs much less maintenance and repair than a comparable gasoline vehicle — but I’ll ignore those for the moment.
So, if you start with a $28,000 Leaf S and knock off the $5,000 fuel savings, you’re down to an effective price of $23,000. Which leads me to my metric: How close is this to the price of an entry-level Honda Civic? About $5,000 short, to be exact. As that price gap narrows, EVs will become ever more attractive to US drivers.
Notice that I’m not taking into account the current $7,500 US tax kickback, or the (sometimes generous) state-level tax breaks, nor am I accounting for the low resale value on EVs, which is largely influenced by those same tax breaks.
I fully expect/hope the next Leaf iteration, due in 2015, will offer:
- Somewhat revised styling, but maintaining the five-door format and the bug-eye headlights (which I really like, just for the record).
- A lower price, with the S model coming in around $24,000.
- Improved battery range, say 100 miles instead of the current 75. (And to be clear, on a 100% charge and without running the heater or AC, I can get 110 miles in my Leaf. And I certainly don’t drive like a little old lady.)
- At least one optional battery upgrade.
Oh, and can we stop the idiocy of public chargers anywhere except places where people will be parked long enough to actually, you know, get a decent amount of battery capacity restored? Putting in chargers at office buildings, airports, and hotels, for example, makes sense. Stay at the Marriott and get a free EV charge, work here and you get free charging, etc. But the push for public chargers in places where people won’t be leaving their car for at least two or three hours, at a bare minimum, is nothing more than a useless effort to assuage peoples’ range anxiety.
Just to put some numbers on this, charging my Leaf via a 120 volt (Level 1) charger means I can get about 5.5 miles of driving per hour that the car is plugged in. So at Level 2, which is what most public chargers use, gets you 11 miles/plug-in hour. If my local grocery store has free Level 2 charging, it won’t help me much. Even a long trip for my wife and me to the grocery store is under an hour, which means we’d get about 11 miles of free electrons after driving 5.2 miles (in our case) to buy food.
And as EV batteries get larger, charging rate will become an even bigger issue. What we need is either the BBB (big battery breakthrough) that decimates battery costs or a technological advance that allows for repeated really fast charging without damaging the battery. Even with the uber fast Tesla chargers we’re still not there on the second point. But on the first point, we’re getting closer.
Yet another article is making the rounds, raising eyebrows, and otherwise causing people to exhaust their cliche reserves. This one is about the discovery that pine beetles are now invading parts of New Jersey, and have already “killed tens of thousands of acres of pines, and [they are] marching northward”.
This should not be a surprise to anyone even remotely familiar with the pine bark beetle’s devastating impact on the Canadian and US West. In that region, the impact is already measured in millions of acres of lost trees.
Why should this not be a surprise? Because natural processes, whether they’re ice coverage at the poles and in continental glaciers and in places like the Great Lakes, or the timing of plant and animal cycles, all tend to lock in to the maximum/most beneficial extent possible in a stable environment. Beetles move as far north as they can before they get killed off by cold winters, permafrost exists as far south as it can before it melts, and so on. When we emit many billions of tons of CO2 over a couple of centuries and warm the biosphere, the normally invisible boundaries between hospitable and inhospitable regions for ice, water, plants, and animals, all shift. Suddenly, pine trees in the Rockies and New Jersey are facing a new-to-them infestation; climate change has rewritten the rules in mid-game, with the result being massive “natural” changes. The same holds for Arctic ice, continental glaciers, all aspects of the hydrological cycle, and the migration patterns of animals.
I’ve often (read: endlessly) talked about how climate change undermines the fundamental assumptions of our infrastructure. “Of course it makes sense to put this coal/natural gas/nuclear-fired power plant here — we will always have enough river water to cool it!” And we will, right up to the day when there’s not enough water in the river, or it’s too hot for our purposes, and then we’re suddenly throttling back or shutting down power plants just when we need them most, during heat waves. This has happened numerous times in the EU and the US in the last decade, and as long as we’re tied to our old infrastructure and its increasingly invalid assumptions, it will only happen more. We built a massive portion of our civilization based on one version of reality, and our profligate use of the atmosphere like an open sewer has lead to a wide and deep change in that reality. We have left Earth and are progressing through a series of Eaarths, to borrow the title of Bill McKibben’s book. We’re currently on a path to blow right by 2C of warming over pre-industrial times, with 4C or more by 2100 a real possibility, and even that assumes we can build up that much additional heat in the atmosphere without triggering permafrost and methane feedbacks that will zoom us to even higher levels of warming.
But back to beetles. When I read an article like the one above, I can’t help but wonder why climate communicators don’t make more use of phenology. We have a wealth of information about when lakes freeze and thaw, when cherry blossoms bloom, and countless other natural phenomena. I’ve found that this information is extremely convincing when talking to newcomers who might be under the spell of climate change deniers’ first line of attack, i.e. that It’s Not Really Happening.
But in the vast climate change challenge, that doesn’t mean much, given how far we are from taking anywhere near the kind of action we desperately need to avoid almost unthinkable human impacts and costs.
 See also: Forest Health: Mountain Pine Beetle – Rocky Mountain National Park (U.S. National Park Service), plus Discovery of pine beetles breeding twice in a year helps explain increasing damage, CU researchers say for more evidence of just how perversely inconvenient nature can be.
 See Shrinking ice worries Great Lakes scientists for information about how much ice cover has declined on the Lakes in recent decades. I live near the southern shore of Lake Ontario, and I can attest to the dramatic loss of ice locally just since 2004.
Naomi Klein, a writer whose works I’m sure most readers of this site know anywhere from passably to quite well, recently authored the article in NewStatesman, How science is telling us all to revolt. It’s a perfect example of the kind of unsettling, yet incredibly hard to refute, piece that’s appearing more often from climate communicators; I fully expect to see many more such contributions to the public dialog from Klein and other writers in the coming years.
To boil Klein’s article down further than is likely justified, it says: Climate change is even worse than most people who are engaged with the topic realize, and even the experts are feeling the greatly increased urgency of the mess we’ve created.
I urge you to read it in its entirety.
But for now, I want to comment on a few facets of Klein’s work and the topic at large:
Based on my interaction with a handful of climate scientists, I think it’s fair to say that they do indeed know that our situation is very serious. I would say that they think it’s vastly worse than the average lay person thinks the scientists think it is. This is a minor variation on the knowledge gap that many people have been talking about for years, the one between what scientists and the general public know about climate change. One could write an entire thesis on how this gap came to exist and why it persists in such a critical area, but the tent pole issues: Denier propaganda convincing people that there’s some civil war-like debate among experts over the cause and severity of climate change, and the natural reticence of many (most? nearly all?) scientists to speak out publicly on this topic, are pretty obvious.
On the issue of cautious scientists, I think not enough people appreciate the position climate scientists are in. They are highly trained, typically in some narrow and very deep field, but they are all, at their core, scientists. That means they have had it pounded into them that they should go where the evidence leads them and nowhere else. Their “intuition” and “common sense” can be howling at them to leap to a conclusion that seems painfully obvious to a lay person, but their training tells them not to do it, simply because intuition and common sense are so often wrong. The phrase “above all else, do no harm” doesn’t apply to just medical doctors.
Even in the face of this knowledge gap between scientists and lay people, we need this scientific reticence. We don’t want scientists leaping to conclusions or talking far outside their field of expertise (except as just another engaged citizen). Whenever I see someone online wailing about climate scientists not being involved enough in policy discussions while also complaining that economists meddle in science, I wonder if people have the ability to read and comprehend their own words.
Klein quotes experts talking about the need to manage growth, possibly de-growth, along with almost every other aspect of our economic lives. Sadly, this is exactly where our situation and current behavior is leading us. I’ve been talking for years about why the whole notion of the Anthropocene, “an informal geologic chronological term that serves to mark the evidence and extent of human activities that have had a significant global impact on the Earth’s ecosystems”, is already outdated, and we should be talking about entering what I call the Metricene, a time when we have no choice but to “live measured lives on a managed planet”. I realize what a discomforting notion this is for people; all of our evolutionary background and for most of us nearly our entire existence has revolved around a world view that says our first priority is temporally and spatially immediate. Our default behavior is still dominated by the basic programming oriented toward getting us through the night without freezing or being eaten by a predator, finding enough to eat, reproducing and then protecting our offspring day by day, and basically not thinking about our surrounding environment except as it intersects with those immediate goals. The notion of “away”, as in “throwing something away”, “going away”, etc., is deeply coded into us; we only learn that “away” has become meaningless through education that counteracts our evolutionary baggage.
Related to this is the insanity of relying on “free markets” to deliver the kind of far-seeing, enlightened change we need and want. I would dearly love for this to be a reasonable approach, for us to be able to push government out of the way and let the econo-unicorn, the Free Market, do its magic and deliver us a safe, clean, and prosperous future. That’s such a delusional view that I find it amazing anyone believes in it. Reliance on a greed-driven, fanatical (which is to say, value-free), myopic system for such purposes has the same likelihood of success as would hiring Raymond Babbitt, the autistic savant from Rain Man to design a mile-long suspension bridge and expecting it to be safe, durable, on time, on budget, and aesthetically pleasing.
So, what to make of our current situation? To some extent I think we’re once again in the situation of waiting for things to “sort themselves out” as economists like to say. I’m not referring to just the economy, but also the flow of information. We’re already seeing positive signs. As Klein points out, there are indeed some high profile climate experts who are speaking out quite forcefully on the topic, no doubt catapulted by the unrelenting, emerging science outside the comfort zone created by their training and personal natures. In those individuals we are seeing the best that science has to offer: People who are combining a strict adherence to going exactly where the evidence leads them and their compassion and humanity, and reaching the only reasonable conclusion and course of action, even if it’s one they never would have chosen.
The difficulty, as always, is timing. Climate change is the perfect example of a “super wicked problem”, and it presents us with staggering challenges because of atmospheric and infrastructure lock-in, plus all the delays inherent in a worldwide human system of systems. And those delays mean that whenever we do take action, it will necessarily required swifter emissions cuts, more onerous government intervention, more human suffering from floods, droughts, sea level rise, and more tense heat waves and storms, and more expense. If we wait too long, the question that Klein and others are increasingly bringing up — can we make the needed changes within the framework of our current economic and political systems? — looms large.
 Imagine that tomorrow morning, humanity has a worldwide epiphany about climate change and decides we simply must take swift and certain action on it as soon as possible. How long would it take before we saw a response in the natural world to our deviation from our business as usual path? We would first have to decide what actions to take and who should take them and how to translate them into public policies in different countries. (Anyone who thinks that such a step would be simple or quick hasn’t been paying attention to international and national debates over climate and energy policy.) Once we took action we would still have to live with the legacy of our emissive transgressions — mostly in the form of all that atmospheric CO2 — which would continue to cause both ocean acidification and more warming for decades.
Pete Sinclair has a good roundup of some articles about the general topic of a “carbon bubble”, which I highly recommend: Carbon Bubble anyone? “The Scientific Trajectory is Clearly in Conflict”
Just to make sure we’re all on the same virtual page, I asked Google to define bubble:
1. a thin sphere of liquid enclosing air or another gas.
2. used to refer to a good or fortunate situation that is isolated from reality or unlikely to last.
When talking about a carbon bubble in the context of definition 2, that second “or” should definitely be inclusive: Our situation is both isolated from reality and unlikely (to put it mildly) to last. The question is: How long will it last and how quickly will modern civilization divest from carbon. In more basic terms, will the bubble deflate or pop?
Before the climate change activists start forming an angry/celebratory mob, complete with pitchforks, torches, and posters featuring the Koch brothers Photoshopped to look like demons, I want to point out that we’re in a very precarious position regarding divestment. While climate activists might want to fantasize about a neck-snappingly swift divestment that leaves the Kochs and their fellow fossil fuelers bankrupt, that would be a very bad thing for the economy and therefore the welfare of many millions, perhaps billions, of people. The problem, of course, is that the big coal, oil, and natural gas companies are so big, and their stock is so pervasive in investment portfolios, from individuals to pension funds and various other institutional holdings, that a swift divestment would trigger chaos in the economy. A deep recession, by which I mean one much worse than the one caused by the housing bubble bursting, or even a depression, doesn’t help anyone.
Yet, I have to ask: If we de-carbonize at anywhere near the rate that science says we must to avoid Climate Armageddon, then doesn’t that amount to exactly the same kind of too-swift-for-our-own-good economic transition? I can’t see how it could be avoided. Once investors saw that we were (finally!) serious about kicking our carbon habit, we’d be in the mother of all economic tipping points, the modern day equivalent of a bank run. Except the impacts of this one would not be confined to those with deposits in a particular bank; it would cut across the entire economy in the form of lost investments by individuals (including a lot of 401K money), university endowments, pension funds, etc.
So perhaps we should just sit back, stop all this divestment chatter, and let the “free market” do its thing, right? Well, no. People who worship the “free market” (for which, read: econo-unicorn) don’t realize that in the case of climate change and its long time lags, waiting to do something until the market forces our (visible) hand is the absolute worst possible approach. It results in higher costs and more human pain simply because so much of the impact of climate change will happen even after the long-sought-after and fantasized-about day when we finally get serious about reducing our global carbon emissions. Far better would be to look at the situation intelligently and respond (dare I say it) proactively and prevent the worst of those impacts and their human suffering and monetary expense from ever happening.
So where does that leave us? Am I saying that we have no choice but to intentionally pop the carbon bubble, even at the price of causing economic chaos, simply because that would still be a significantly lesser risk to humanity than waiting for the climate impacts to become so painful that we finally start to decarbonize with appropriate zeal? Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying. And it’s such a serious situation that I support the rapid decarbonization of both our energy supply (mitigation) and our investments (divestment).
I’m convinced that the people at the highest levels of various governments and institutions are looking at exactly this tradeoff, and it scares them more than they’ll ever admit. None of them want to be known in the history books for triggering a worldwide depression, even though they know it’s the best alternative.
It really is this simple: The mess we’ve created is deeply and truly awful. The sooner we act like responsible adults and address reality and ignore the comfortable fantasies we prefer to tell ourselves, the better it will be for us and our kids and everyone to follow.
Related recent articles:
 Once more, a medical analogy, this time from personal experience: Some years back I developed a bad infection in one of my fingers. It was spreading and traveling up the afflicted digit and was about to venture forth into my hand. Since over-the-counter medications weren’t doing the trick, I went to a doctor who told me that this was a serious situation and that he had to “squeeze out” the infection and then put me on antibiotics. He said the squeezing part would hurt quite a bit, and while I believed him, I was sure he was overplaying it a bit just so I couldn’t accuse him afterward of not giving me a fair warning. I said do it. He turned his back to me, held my arm tightly under his, and squeezed the infection. I saw stars, had conversations with dead relatives, and generally swore to never, ever doubt a doctor when he or she told me in such serious tones that “something would hurt.” Of course, squeezing out the infection was the right thing to do, and in a week or so it plus the meds had fixed my problem. But during the squeezing process, which I estimate took 7 or 8 months, based on the unpleasantness of the experience, the good doctor was not exactly my favorite human being on the planet. In the case of climate change and decarbonization, no politician wants to be the doctor who causes necessary pain, only to have the benefits accrue to someone else years down the road. So they let the infection continue to spread and make token efforts to slow it with topical ointments that do nothing except give us false hope and waste our ever-so-precious time.
The Carbon Brief has a must-read article up, Carbon briefing: Making sense of the IPCC’s new carbon budget, that points out the precarious nature of our emissions situation:
So how big is the budget? For it to remain likely that we stay below two degrees, the total amount of carbon released through carbon dioxide emissions must be . . . → Read More: Carbon budgets and US emissions
We hear the analogy endlessly: To fix the already unfolding climate change disaster, we need an “Apollo-like effort”, a “man-on-the-moon commitment”. This is a terrible analogy, and we should stop using it because it’s not just inaccurate, it’s devastatingly inaccurate, to the point of being counterproductive.
I was born just in time to be a starry-eyed . . . → Read More: We need to have an adult conversation about climate change
World won’t cool without geoengineering, warns report:
According to one of its lead authors, and the latest draft [of the forthcoming IPCC AR5 report] seen by New Scientist, the report will say: “CO2-induced warming is projected to remain approximately constant for many centuries following a complete cessation of emission. A large fraction of climate change is thus . . . → Read More: It’s still the lock-in
Dr. Donald A. Brown, Scholar In Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law at Widener University School of Law, has posted a piece on this blog ethicsandclimate.org, US Media Fails to Educate The Public About Links Between Greater Natural Gas Use and Climate Change, that is a must read. With his permission, I am reposting it in . . . → Read More: Natural gas, the media’s failures, and you
As Lily Tomlin once said, “I grow more cynical every day, but it’s still hard to keep up.” That quote leapt to mind just a few minutes ago when I read that four Colorado Republicans who unanimously opposed Sandy relief funding are all now asking for (you guessed it) relief funding to help people caught . . . → Read More: This is how ugly denialism gets