Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Memory Hole entry #1 - Ivar Giaever

"I am a skeptic. Global warming has become a new religion. I am Norwegian, should I really worry about a little bit of warming? I am unfortunately becoming an old man. We have heard many similar warnings about the acid rain 30 years ago and the ozone hole 10 years ago or deforestation but the humanity is still around. The ozone hole width has peaked in 1993." --Ivar Giaever, WSJ, 2008

Dr. Giaever is a Nobel laureate. He is a global warming "skeptic". He is also a deceiver. We did, in fact, have warnings about acid rain 30 years ago. The EPA responded by creating a cap-and-trade system for sulfur dioxide. Sulfur dioxide emissions have dropped 40% as a result of this and other actions. The ozone hole did not peak in 1993. Production of CFCs peaked in 1993, with the adoption of the Montreal Protocol. Unfortunately, CFCs persist in the atmosphere for decades. The ozone hole continued to increase in size, with the peak occurring in 2006.

I have no doubts of Dr. Giaever's qualifications in the field of superconductivity. He should leave climate science to others.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Baby, It's Cold Outside

Haven't updated on the Leaf recently. Sparkii continues to plug along, doing duty as our primary vehicle. He takes my wife to work, my son to school, all of us to the store. Power consumption is beginning to climb as the temperature begins to drop. Here's a chart showing how driving range has varied with temperature over the past 11 months:

So what's going on? Is the cold affecting the battery? Are EVs a failure in freezing temperatures? Not really. Thinking outside the box just a bit, cold storage facilities use electric forklifts. And it gets a lot colder inside a meat locker (-35C) than it does around here. So what is it? It's the heater:

Internal combustion engines are notoriously inefficient. Only 20-25% of the energy from gasoline goes into moving the car forward. The rest is turned into heat. As I'm fond of saying, "gas engines are an 80% efficient furnace that provide locomotion as a by-product".

Not so with electric motors, I'm afraid. On the plus side, a typical electric motor converts 90% of input energy into motion. On the minus side, there is almost no waste heat to keep us comfortable on frosty mornings. So we have to dip into our precious stored electrical energy to heat the car. You can see from the chart above that as the temperature has dropped, our accessory (non-motor) consumption has climbed from the low single-digits to nearly 25% of the total.

Still, I prefer having an efficient electric motor and being in control of our energy/comfort trade-off. We can always follow President Carter's advice and put on a sweater.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

August Leaf update

Odometer Miles Kwh Mi/KWh Cost Per mile MPGe Temp(F)
March 2011 2118 650 208 3.1 $24.13 $0.037 105.3 45.1
April 2011 2958 840 272 3.1 $31.55 $0.038 104.1 45.5
May 2011 3570 612 185 3.3 $21.46 $0.035 111.5 52.3
June 2011 4259 689 177 3.9 $20.53 $0.030 131.2 59.4
July 2011 4911 652 173 3.8 $20.07 $0.031 127.0 64.2
August 2011 5664 753 194 3.9 $22.50 $0.030 130.8 66.0

This will probably be the last Leaf-focused update for a while. Owning the first mass-market electric vehicle has been far less dramatic than anticipated. Another month gone by without stalling out on the highway, exploding in flames, or blacking out the neighborhood. I keep looking for an excuse to visit the dealership, just to say "Hi". But our first scheduled service isn't for another 5 months, and that's to rotate the tires and change the cabin air filter.

So, is the Leaf the perfect car? Any vehicle is a compromise. We're limited to 100 miles before a lengthy recharge, we can't tow a boat, or haul 20 bags of compost home from the nursery. But we can do pretty much all of our everyday driving without burning fossil fuels. Think about that as information about the Keystone pipeline and the Alberta tar sands begins to hit the mainstream media. Do you want to continue to be part of the problem, or do you want to be part of the solution?

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Range Anxiety

On a long and lonesome highway.....(well not east of omaha!)
Photo by: Chandra Ramkumar
Another uneventful month of EV driving. Total mileage was down slightly to 650. Electric consumption was also down, to 173 Kwh, for an average of 3.8 miles per Kwh. I think we crossed the line from heating to cooling, and running the A/C a few times has increased our e- consumption slightly.

Did have one episode of range anxiety this month. No, not in the Leaf. It was in my daughter's Toyota, driving back from Arizona. Getting on towards nightfall, running low on fuel. That's when I realized we were on a stretch of freeway without any services. How many miles of range did I have left? How far to the nearest gas station? Oh, if only I had a telematics system that could tell me these things. Then maybe I wouldn't feel so anxious.

The story has a happy ending, but just barely. We found the only gas station in a 110-mile stretch. It was still open. We filled the tank, and they promptly shut down for the night.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

June recap

Odometer Miles Kwh Mi/KWh Cost Per mile MPGe Temp(F)
March 2011 2118 650 208 3.1 $24.13 $0.037 105.3 45.1
April 2011 2958 840 272 3.1 $31.55 $0.038 104.1 45.5
May 2011 3570 612 185 3.3 $21.46 $0.035 111.5 52.3
June 2011 4259 689 177 3.9 $20.53 $0.030 131.2 59.4

Well, it's definitely heating up around here. Average temperatures have nearly broken the 60-degree barrier. Time to break out the cargo shorts. Just over 4000 miles on the Leaf and no issues to report. Deliveries of the Leaf are starting to heat up as well.

So why have I made three references to temperature? Look at the right-hand column in the table. I started tracking mean monthly temperature. With only four data points, it's not statistically rigorous, but there appears to be an linear relationship between MPGe and temperature, with a coefficient of 2.25 (ie Multiply temperature by 2.25 to get MPGe). Check back here in July and August to see if it holds.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

May Leaf Update

Nearly another month of driving with electrons. May's not quite over yet, but I have time to post this morning so here goes. In the first 27 days of May, we've put 568 miles on the odometer and 172 KWh on the emeter, for an average of 3.3 miles/KWh. Up slightly from March and April, when we averaged 3.1 miles/KWh. It's getting a bit warmer, so we're using the heater less.

I also started tracking MPGe, the EPA's fuel efficiency metric for EVs. According to the EPA, a gallon of gasoline contains the equivalent of 33.7 KWh of energy. If you disregard how each is produced (more on that later), it gives a like-for-like comparison between gas-powered vehicles and EVs. For March and April, we averaged right around 105 MPGe. With the arrival of (slightly) warmer weather, we're now up to 111 MPGe. Using that same 33.7 ratio, our fuel cost us the equivalent of $3.90 per gallon, or about 3.5 cents/mile.

Something I've blogged about before, but bears repeating: lack of volatility in fuel prices for EVs. Electric rates are typically controlled by a public utility commission. They go up (and down), but on a timescale of months or years, not days. Since we got the Leaf, our fuel price has not changed. In that same time, gasoline has gone from $3.20 to $4.10, and is now back down to $4.00

What good is an electric vehicle if all it does is move CO2 emissions upstream to a coal-fired power plant?
Answer: It doesn't. Let's start with "base load". Coal, nuclear, and hydroelectric are all base load sources of electricity. Utilities use base load power to service the typical needs of their customers. Utilities keep base load plants running 24x7 whether they need the electricity or not, because they can't be started or stopped quickly.

So what type of power is used to recharge EVs? Most EV owners plug their cars in at night, when overall demand for electricity is low. They make use of capacity that would otherwise go to waste. Remember, base load plants run 24x7, producing CO2 whether or not they're generating electricity. EVs are an option for turning the waste CO2 into something useful.

Finally, sources of electricity will get cleaner over time. Wind, solar, geothermal, tidal are all means of generating electricity without producing CO2. Gasoline will just get dirtier. Deep-water wells, tar sands, oil shale, and coal oil are all methods for squeezing out the last drops of fossil fuel, but at an ever-increasing cost to the wallet and the environment.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

String Theory

Photo by: Mike Bonnell
As often happens on the ride into work, my mind began to wander. On this particular morning, I started thinking about string theory and manifolds. Specifically, I started counting dimensions. There were the basic three. Plus, I was moving at the time, so that makes four. But then I noticed the changes in temperature as I moved into and out of shaded areas. Five? Birds singing ahead on the right and behind on the left. Six. Heavy scent of cherry blossoms. Cinnamon rolls. Seven. Descending, then climbing. Gravity. Eight.

How many dimensions in your universe?

Saturday, May 07, 2011

April Leaf Update

Well, for starters, leaves are finally beginning to appear. And the cherry tree is in full bloom. We're currently struggling through the coldest Spring on record. As a result, the April numbers for the Leaf aren't much better than March: 840 miles and 272 KWh, for an average of 3.1 miles/KWh. At $0.12 per KHw, it's costing us about $0.038/mile to fuel up. At the current price of $4.10 per gallon (yikes!), we're getting the equivalent of 105 MPG.

Otherwise, no issues to report. We did get the service bulletin from Nissan about an issue with the fault detection system. Even though our car isn't affected, Nissan still wants us to have Sparkii reprogrammed just to be on the safe side.

Finally, starting this week, I'm going to answer some commonly-asked questions about EV ownership. This week's question:

How long does it take to recharge the Nissan Leaf?
Answer: 10 seconds. We typically charge the car at night. After parking Sparkii in the garage, I open the hatch cover and plug in. Then I proceed into the house. At 11 PM, the timer goes off and the charger starts up. How long does the charger run? Don't know, don't care. What I do know is I start the next day with a full "tank" of fuel. By way of contrast, how long does it take to put gasoline in your car? If you add up driving to a filling station, waiting in line, pumping the gas, and paying, is it 10 minutes? 15 minutes? With an EV, your "filling station" is at home, and the car refills itself.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Early Days

These are definitely early days with respect to electric vehicles. Level 2 (240v) and Level 3 (480v) public chargers are few and far between. For the most part, EV owners are charging at home and limiting their trips in order to make it back home before running out of stored energy.

Within a few years, the situation will be quite different. Two federally-funded programs (The EV Project and ChargePoint America) are busy installing public charging stations in major metropolitan areas. Electron stations will soon be nearly as ubiquitous as gas stations.

Remember, the automobile existed before gas stations. Back then, you bought your fuel from a druggist or grocer. If you didn't plan your trips carefully, you hired a horse to tow you to the next town, accompanied by the usual comments of "Only a fool would buy an automobile." "A horse never runs out of fuel, there's grass everywhere."

The difference this time is there already exists a nationwide distribution network for EV fuel. It's called the grid. Electricity is everywhere. So although filling up at a high power charging station is more convenient, it's not required. Simply pull out your 110v trickle charger and ask the nearest homeowner if you can borrow a cup of electrons.

Monday, April 04, 2011

LEAF update

Another uneventful month of driving with electrons. Our EV Project-supplied Blink EVSE arrived this month, so now we get all kinds of statistics (see above). The Blink was installed on the 7th, so this is roughly 75% of the monthly total. Mileage isn't shown, but was 650.5 for the same period. Extrapolating for the entire month would put us at 870 miles and 280 KWh, for an average of 3.1 miles/KWh or $0.038/mile. If we were buying gasoline instead (at the current local price of $3.90/gallon for regular), it would be the equivalent of 100 MPG.

But I didn't want to talk about cost. As I said before, if you were buying a car on purely economic grounds, you wouldn't -- you'd get a bicycle or a bus pass. We bought the LEAF because the idea of an electric car was just so cool. We missed out on EVs the first time around, so I wanted to make sure we were part of the renaissance.

Completely unexpected was how much fun this car would be to drive. Nissan really did their homework. Gen 1 electric cars (and golf cars, and forklifts, and drag racers) gave you 100% torque instantly. Kind of a hard shove in the small of the back. But once you've got your torque, that's it. You don't get any more. So you have this sensation of the car running out of steam as the speed increases.

The LEAF builds up torque quickly, but continues to add more even as the speed increases. If you step hard on the accelerator, you think "V6 sport coupe", not "overpriced golf cart". All good things must come to an end, and the torque eventually levels off, but from 0 to 40, it's the quickest car in the morning grand prix.

Friday, March 18, 2011


Payback time. No, not gas prices. The weather. Back in January, I posted about the "normal" winter we'd been having instead of the anticipated "Snowpocalypse 2011". That changed about a month later. If you look at the temperature plot above, you'll see a dip, leading up to March 1st. Unseasonably cold temperatures and convergence zones blessed us with 8" of snow that stuck around for about a week. From now on, I keep my mouth shut.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

I haven't updated you on our Nissan LEAF for a while. There's a simple reason for that: nothing really interesting has happened. Which may be interesting in its own right. The LEAF has turned out to be an ordinary car with one exception -- it runs on electricity. We drive it during the day, we plug it in at night, and we don't stop at gas stations anymore. Karma's painful, so I'm not going to say, "I told you so!". But I started needling my wife a few years ago about her solo-driver commute. I asked her, "What are you going to do when gasoline hit $10 a gallon? You need to figure out some way to get to work that doesn't involve burning oil." Well, we did. Of course, I would rather she rode a bicycle, but this is probably more practical for most people.

The one change that has occurred in the past month is the installation of our Blink charging station. The Blink has a touch-screen menu system, wireless connectivity, and web access. It also tracks our actual electricity consumption. Since we don't have a separate meter for the car, I've been trying to estimate based on data coming from the car's telematics system. Turns out my estimate was a bit off. We're actually averaging a bit over 3 miles per KWh, when you measure it straight from the wall.

Based on a rate of $0.116 per KWh, our fuel costs are just under $0.04 per mile. That compares with just over $0.10 per mile for the car my wife was using (Toyota Echo), and $0.19 per mile for the minivan we traded in (Toyota Sienna). As a family, we're still buying gasoline. But the oil burners have been shuffled so that the highest-mileage child drives the car with the highest MPG. My son, when he starts driving in a couple of years, will be getting one of these.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

One Month Off the Pump

We've had our Nissan LEAF for one month now. In that time, we've traveled 945 miles, consumed 225 KWh of electricity, and grown 83 virtual "trees". No issues with the car so far (knock on wood). We have learned to ignore the range estimator, putting our faith in the battery gauge. I also bought a ChargePoint prepaid card to take advantage of public charging stations, although we haven't used it yet.

We emitted 350 fewer lbs of carbon dioxide versus the previous vehicle. That's based on PSE's current load mix (32% coal, 36% hydro, 30% natural gas). Given current prices, it's likely that PSE will be using more natural gas and renewables, and less coal in the future, so things should only get better.

We don't get a separate electric bill for the LEAF, so it's a little hard to determine precisely what the actual costs have been. Using the 225 KWh reported by Carwings and a rate of $0.11 per KWh, figure around $25 for the month. By way of comparison, if we had been driving our Toyota Echo instead, we would have used 30 gallons of gasoline, at $3.30 per gallon, for a total of $100.

Which brings me to my final point. During the month we've had the LEAF, electric rates have gone from $0.11 per KWh to $0.11 per KWh. Electric rates are controlled by the utility commission. Local gasoline prices have gone from $3.20 per gallon to $3.45 per gallon. Gasoline prices fluctuate based on supply and demand, market speculation, unrest in the Middle East, and hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico. I don't know about you, but I like knowing what my transportation costs are going to be more than a few days in advance.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Horizontal Fracking Isn't the Answer

"New drilling method opens vast oilfields in US"
Bully for Exxon. Hurrah for Chevron. Three cheers for BP. Renewed cries of "Drill baby, drill!" Horizontal fracking certainly has tangible benefits for large, multinational corporations. What's in it for me?

Freedom from despotic regimes? Don't think so. Last time I looked, I don't buy crude oil -- I buy gasoline (at least, I used to). The gasoline I buy is produced by an independent refiner (Tesoro, in my case). Tesoro buys crude oil from the lowest-cost source at the time they need the next tankerful. Louisiana? North Dakota? Venezuela? Oil is a global commodity. The gasoline in my car may have been refined from foreign oil or domestic. In fact, unless you live in a country where the mineral resources are owned by the state, there is no such thing as domestic oil.

Energy independence? Nope. In the United States, mineral resources are not owned by the government, they are owned by the corporations that extract them. After buying a lease and paying royalties, the multinational owns the oil free and clear. They can sell it here, or they can ship it overseas. Or did you miss the fact that the Macondo well was operated by British Petroleum?

Lower gasoline prices? Sorry, bub. Repeat after me: oil is a global commodity. If we aren't willing to pay top dollar for it, there's someone else who is. To quote from the article referenced above:

US shale oil, on the other hand, will only supply one to two percent of world consumption by 2015, not nearly enough to affect prices.

What are we to do? Are we doomed forever to be at the mercy of tyrannical dictators in foreign lands or corporate boardrooms? I want to say one word to you. Just one word. Conservation.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

What I Like About Electrons

In my last post, I wrote about how the Nissan LEAF was beginning to seem like a normal car. For the most part, it is. But if that's the case, what's the big deal? In a word, torque:

torque (tôrk)
The tendency of a force applied to an object to make it rotate about an axis.
(reference: dictionary.com)

When you step on the accelerator after the light turns green, torque is what gets the car moving. Torque gives a car its get-up-and-go. A gasoline engine typically needs to spin up to 2000-3000 RPM before it hits maximum torque. You push on the pedal and the RPMs start to wind up. The engine roars and the car begins to vibrate. Even with a big V8, you get the sense that the engine is working hard to overcome inertia.

On the other hand, an electric motor achieves maximum torque instantly. If you want to ease away gently, step lightly on the accelerator. If you want to embarrass the BMW driver in the next lane, floor it and hang onto your coffee. In either case, it seems effortless, like the car isn't really working at all. Effortless, silent, immediate forward motion.

One step closer to that anti-gravity drive I've been waiting on.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

A Return to Normalcy

It's been two weeks since we took delivery of our Nissan LEAF, and it's starting to feel like a regular car. We've logged 400 miles and used 96 kilowatt-hours of electricity, for an average of 4.1 miles/kWh. Haven't received our electric bill yet, but assuming PSE's higher-use rate and 10% overhead for the charging station, expecting costs to be around $10.50 to $11.00 for the 400 miles. If we were buying gasoline (at the local price of $3.30/gallon), it would be the equivalent of getting 120 MPG.

My wife drives the car to work every day. We do our usual running around after work and on the weekends. We plug it in every night. And aside from last week's near misadventure, driving with electrons is becoming pretty normal.

I'm also getting over my fear of hills. It takes energy to go uphill. A lot of energy. We use 1/12th of the battery's capacity climbing from sea level up to our house. Which was scary at first. But as long as we have at least two blue bars showing on the battery gauge when we start the climb, I know we'll make it home just fine. And the payoff comes when we go down the hill. I'll have more to say about regenerative braking in a future post. But it's pretty cool to put energy back into the battery, instead of throwing it away as heat and brake dust.

As time goes by, I'm finding fewer excuses to drive the car. The novelty is beginning to fade. I still think the LEAF is the coolest car on the road. But in the end, it's just a car. And even the coolest car is no match for a bicycle.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Running on Empty

I am now officially an electric vehicle owner: came close to running out of charge last night. I won't go into the specifics, but I spent the last 30 minutes of the drive hypermiling for all I was worth (using the tricks I learned riding my bike).

When we bought the LEAF, I really didn't think we'd use public charging stations. Fill up the battery at home, drive to/from work, plug it in at night. Why would I want to spend 2-3 hours at the mall, trying to get enough electrons to make it home? After yesterday's adventure, my perspective is changing.

Make an unexpected trip during the day? Forget to plug in the night before? Worried you don't have quite enough charge to make it home? A public charging infrastructure addresses these situations, and provides a more important benefit: peace of mind. If I miscalculate, I face the minor inconvenience of stopping for 30 minutes or an hour or two, versus having to arrange towing.

In the US, The EV Project and ChargePoint America are rolling out public charging stations (240VAC and 480VDC) in selected communities. The stations will initially provide free charging, but switch to a subscription model sometime in the future.

Incidentally, Nissan really doesn't want you to completely drain the battery. We hit just the first of three warnings designed to get you to a charging station:
  • Level 1 - Gas pump/plug icon starts blinking (~10% charge remaining)
  • Level 2 - Visual/audio alert and console displays map to nearest charging station (~5% charge remaining)
  • Level 3 - Reduced performance ("Turtle") mode, limits acceleration and top speed (~2% charge remaining)
Update: According to CARWINGS, panic-induced hypermiling reduced my energy consumption by 30%. Life on the edge has its benefits!

Monday, January 24, 2011

I May Regret This

For the second year in a row, the mid-Atlantic and Northeastern states are getting pummeled by "the worst winter in history". And, for the second year in a row, the Canadian Arctic is having the mildest winter in history. In both cases, the reason is a negative North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO). This despite the fact that 2009-2010 was an El Nino winter, and 2010-2011 is a La Nina winter. The NAO is overpowering the effects of ENSO, at least in the North Atlantic.

And maybe beyond. Here in the Northwest, in 2010, we experienced the warmest January on record. But it was an El Nino winter, after all. More surprising is our relatively normal winter this year, during the strongest La Nina event in more than 50 years. Before I go too hyperbolic, we've had a wetter-than-average winter, with snow in the mountains and flooding in the lowlands. But only a few stretches of below-freezing weather, and very little overnight frost.

Of course, now that I've said this out loud, we'll probably get pummeled ourselves next month since Winter doesn't officially end until February 21st.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Embracing My Inner Geek

One of the velvet handcuffs that comes with the Nissan LEAF is the CARWINGS telematics system. On the minus side, it collects data on your driving and charging habits and sends it to Nissan Corporate. On the plus side, it lets you look at your data and download it to a spreadsheet.

The data collected include electricity used by the motor, electricity regenerated while braking, and distance travelled. I added in temperature, elevation gain/loss, and whether or not the climate control was on. Now I can track how each of these factors affect the car's efficiency.

And yes, I was captain of the math team in middle school.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

First Impressions

We took delivery of our Nissan LEAF yesterday. It's the end of one journey (going all the way back to this post), and the beginning of another. I'll have more to talk about in the weeks and months ahead, and experience shades perception. So here are some first impressions, from an unjaundiced eye:
  • This is a complicated vehicle But not for the reasons you might expect. The electric part is amazingly simple. Drive the car. Park it in the garage at night. Plug in the cord. In the morning, unplug the cord and drive the car. The complicated part is that this is a new car, circa-2011, with a navigation system, Bluetooth, climate control, satellite radio. Our two other cars are 10 and 12 years old, so all of the electronic gadgetry is going to take some time to figure out.
  • Living on a hill has plusses and minuses It takes energy to go uphill. I know this from my daily bicycle commute, but driving an electric car really drives the point home. On the minus side, the motor uses extra energy when going up hill. On the plus side, it recovers some of it on the way back down through regenerative braking. I need to do some more experiments to determine how much of the energy we're able to recover.
  • I have "range anxiety" Heading home, we watched the estimated range remaining drop from 41 miles to 24 during the climb up the hill. What if we ran out of power? It's not like I can walk to the nearest electric station and pick up a bucket of electrons. Maybe that's why Nissan gave us a roadside assistance program. All part of being a pioneer, I guess. And not unlike the situation at the beginning of the 20th century with respect to gasoline-powered vehicles. If you ran out of fuel somewhere along the way, you enlisted the services of the nearest horse to tow you to a town where, hopefully, the druggist dispensed "benzene".