2020 Blog Archive

   


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Sunday March 8, 2020 – When is the Tipping Point for EVs?

Sunday February 16, 2020 – One Trillion Trees

Sunday January 26, 2020 – Attribution Science

Sunday January 19, 2020 – Could US Go Solar?

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Sunday March 8, 2020 – When is the Tipping Point for EVs? - I just read an article published on Oilprice.com explaining why 2030 would not be the tipping point for electric vehicle sales.  I began to think about this and thought I would set down my thoughts.

The first thing that I had to do was to decide what would be regarded as the tipping point for EV sales, was it the time when Sales began to take off? Was it the time that EVs outsold gas vehicles? or was it the time when almost all vehicle sales were electric?  The truth is that there are several tipping points, one of which has passed already, the time when EVs changed from a curiosity to being regarded pretty much as a normal car.

The second tipping point is when people realize that electric cars are just plain better than gas cars so more people buy them and EVs outsell gas cars.  This is the criteria I am going to discuss today,  The final criteria, where almost all sales are EV is not really and tipping point but the stage where we have reached the goal of replacing gas by electric.

The other uncertainty is how we classify plug-in hybrids.  With limited EV range the plug-in hybrid will still do a portion of it's driving being powered by gas but as battery technology has improved I am seeing a shift from plug-in hybrids to electric.

Some European countries are mandating that all new car sales will be electric by 2030.  This is having a huge impact as the European car makers are having to switch over to electric cars if they want to remain in business.  In the end though it is having cars that people want to buy available on dealer lots that will make the difference.

 

The biggest problem right now with electric car sales is that these cars are often not available in large quantities.  In some cases cars are available in only a small number of States that follow the California ZEV mandate, or have to be special ordered if you want one of these cars and live outside these states.  Dealers are often a big roadblock to selling EVs as they require a lot less maintenance cutting into dealer profits.  This is starting to change and there are some new models in the offing that may have a huge impact on sales.

 

The big one is the imminent introduction of the Tesla Model Y.  The model Y is going to make available a midsized crossover with a range of 230 miles for the standard model and 315 miles for the long range model.  Even without incentives I expect the model Y to outsell the model 3 which already accounts for close to 50% of all plug-in vehicles sold in America.  In terms of midsized crossovers the other car to watch is the Ford Mustang Mach-e which I also expect to sell well, though not in the sort of numbers I expect to see from the Model Y. 

 

Ford may also find a growing market when it releases the electric version of its best selling vehicle, the F150 pickup truck.  Ford say that an all electric version should be available in 2022.  Ford isn't the only company planning an electric pickup.  Tesla has already announced their Cybertruck which has impressive performance and range numbers, and there are also trucks coming from GM based on the Hummer, and several startups including Rivian who has the financial backing to get their R1T pickup into volume production.

 

The other thing that will end up impacting vehicle sales will be rise of autonomous vehicles.  While learning to drive was a right of passage for my generation the younger people today tend to put off learning to drive for longer and make use of ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft.  I expect this trend to increase as these ridesharing services move to autonomous vehicles, which are mostly being built on EV platforms.

 

While I didn't read the study that the article was based on as it was behind a pay wall, I did note that one of the issues keeping the sale of gas cars going was the fact that as less gas was consumed the price would fall and keep gas cars cost competitive.  However, it should be noted that most of the cheap oil has already been extracted so the oil price is not going to fall below the cost of extraction limiting how cheap oil products can get.  Pricing carbon and removing big subsidies from oil companies will also have an impact.

 

Unless there is a major change here in the US that pushes to reduce carbon output, I too don't expect EV sales to overtake gas car sales in 2030, but I do expect them to reach this milestone before 2035, not 2040 as predicted in the Oilprice article.  If the US finally gets serious about the need to wean ourselves off oil then the 2030 date is quite doable.


Sunday February 16, 2020 – One Trillion Trees – In late January world leaders gathered in Davos, Switzerland for the World Economic Forum.  The biggest surprise of the meeting was that President Trump acknowledged that the world was warming and pledged the US will join an effort to plant one trillion trees.

 

The Good - Planting one trillion trees is a good way to help slow down global warming.

 

The Bad - Planting one trillion trees is not going to stop global warming, only put off the worst effects for a few years.

 

The Ugly - While President Trump included planting one trillion trees in his State of the Union address on February 5, he omitted any mention of this in his 2021 budget.  This doesn't necessarily mean no action is going to be taken as Congressman Bruce Westerman (R-AK) has already introduced a bill that will plant one trillion trees worldwide by 2050.

 

This looks like a good start and I hope that this will lead to a bipartisan effort to push this bill though.  However, in his statement Congressman Westerman appears to be more interested in providing more profit for the logging industry than actually address climate change.  He said  “The legislation will increase our logging output, rightfully recognize the carbon neutrality of biomass, and provide a commonsense solution to carbon in the atmosphere without needlessly driving up the cost of energy."

 

We all know that planting trees is good for the environment but how much of an impact does it really make.  The amount of carbon dioxide a tree sequesters is dependent on many variables but a average of about 50lbs per year is what we expect.  The tree will continue to absorb at this rate until it reaches maturity, which usually takes about 10 years, after which the amount of absorption greatly diminishes.

 

Let's put a little bit of context.  Burning a gallon of gas produces about 19.6lbs of CO2 so if you plant a tree in your garden then the 50lbs of CO2 it absorbs each year will cover the CO2 produced by burning about two and a half gallons of gas.  If you have a small sized SUV like a Ford Escape and fill up each week with about 10 gallons of gas, you are going to have to plant 4 trees per week just to keep up with the CO2 you are producing  The good news is that these Trees will offset that week's gas consumption for the next 10 years after which carbon sequestration will begin to diminish.  Hopefully fuel economy will have improved to the point where the trees will still absorb enough CO2 to cover the fuel burned after the initial 10 year period, but we are still talking about planting 208 trees to offset the CO2 produced by a single car. 

 

There are 253 million cars and trucks on US roads and they have an average fuel economy of 25.9 mpg.  If they average 15,000 miles per year the number of trees needed to offset the annual CO2 production would be about 2 trillion so clearly planting a trillion trees is not going to cut it.

 

There are other issues too.  Forest fires can release large volumes of CO2 as we saw in the California and Australia last year. While trees are long lived they eventually die and decompose which also releases CO2 and Methane.  This decomposition can take years so the amount of CO2 released is much less than in a fire but eventually most of the CO2 is being put back into the atmosphere.  This can also be reduced by cutting down mature trees and turning the wood into lumber that can be used in construction etc.  The cut area can then be replanted and get the benefit of greater CO2 absorption from immature trees.

 

The other problem is where to we put the trees.  Much of the space needed has already been cleared and turned in arable land and with a rapidly growing world population we are not going to be able to revert it back to forest without risking extensive food shortages.  We also need to keep in mind that most trees are dark in color, meaning they are going to absorb heat coming in from the sun.  If we plant green trees on what is currently a light background, we may actually cause more problems than we solve because heat is being absorbed instead of being reflected back into space.

 

I'm not against planting trees, it is something we need to do right now, I am just concerned that the planting of a trillion trees will be considered enough to stop global warming.  I also worry that the Trump administration will not follow through on their pledge, or will plant some trees but not enough.  While planting trees is a good idea we need to stop using fossil fuels if we are to avert the worst impacts of climate change.


Sunday January 26, 2020 – Attribution Science - With the wildfires in Australia still burning deniers are already starting to scoff at the idea that some how these wildfires were the result of global warming.  In a way they are correct, the wildfires were not started by global warming.

There are multiple causes for the start of the wildfires.  Some were started by lightning strikes while others were possibly started by arsonists, and still others were no doubt started by accident.  The cause of the fires are not the only thing we need to consider though.  We also have to consider the severity of the fires and how that severity was impacted by a warming planet.

The science behind this is called attribution and what it does is to apportion the blame for the severity of the event.  Australia has bush fires every year but his year was extraordinary burning an area greater than the state of West Virginia.  The question to ask is not what started the fires but how much worse were they than if global warming had not happened.  It all boils down to a matter of percentages.

Scientists are busy working on how much worse the Australian wildfires were because of climate change but there have been plenty of other catastrophic events in recent years where attribution science has been applied to determine how much worse the even was made due to the effects of CO2 being pumped into the atmosphere.

Attribution studies look at the past occurrence of similar events and comes up with a probability that the event will occur.  For example if a category 5 hurricane hits an area on average once every 100 years the probability that it will hit in any given year is 1%.  Now, if the history is split into two periods, one before global warming became significant and one after and the frequency of a given event is larger or smaller there is a good chance that the difference was attributable to human caused warming.

Once the frequency of an event is shown to have increased or decreased the scientists can then use a computer model to see what the difference would have been if the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere has stayed constant or increased to current levels.  The difference can then be expressed as a percentage which would say that the probability is that the event was more or less severe is a given percent.

Many people are looking for a solid Yes or No to the question "was this event caused by global warming" but there is no true yes or no answer.  What attribution science tells us is that the probability that the event was made worse is X%.

 

For example, hurricane Harvey hit Texas in 2017 dropping an unprecedented amount of rain along the gulf coast.  This event was subject to attribution studies that showed the severity of the rain increased by at least 19% over what it would have been had greenhouse gas levels stayed as they were in the 1950s. 

 

Climate scientists have been telling us that the increased temperature caused by the emissions of greenhouse gases will likely make events like hurricanes, wildfires, and droughts more severe.  Attribution science when applied to such events is proving this to be true.  We need to take broad action to reduce fossil fuel usage or the world that our great grandchildren grow up in is going to be distinctly less pleasant than the world of today.


Sunday January 19, 2020 – Could US Go Solar? – A few weeks ago I read somewhere that an area of the southwestern desert in the US only 60 miles by 60 miles could host enough solar panels to replace all the energy generation needed for the USA.  I was skeptical so I did some calculations.

 

On average daily electrical generation in the US is 11.6 billion KWh.  I dug around on Google and came up with a figure which said that a 400 square foot solar array could generate 5KW.  If I made the assumption that we had 8 hours of power generation per day that works out at 40 KWh per day.  Nationwide the power mix includes about 15% renewables (Hydro, Wind, Solar, and Geothermal).  There is also 1.51% from biomass and 19.32% from Nuclear but I did the calculation based on replacing those too but assuming other renewables would remain constant.


My calculation actually came out at 3,581 square miles which does actually fit almost exactly into an area of 60 miles by 60 miles which is 3,600 square miles. 

 

While we could quite easily find an unoccupied stretch of the Mohave desert that is 60 miles by 60 miles we probably would not want to do that for both security reasons and supply reasons.  What this does demonstrate is that we could quite easily replace all existing fossil fuel and nuclear generation with solar if we have the will. 

 

In reality we would want to diversify our generation capacity as much as possible.  We have large amounts of wind resources available and we should continue to built out both onshore and offshore options.  We have barely scratched the surface on Geothermal resources and there is tidal and wave generation that has also been largely ignored.  In my calculations I chose to ignore biomass generation but this would no doubt be kept in service and expanded. 

 

One of the big benefits of solar is the ability to use micro-grids that allow resources to be generated close to the source where it is consumed.  We would still need a larger grid to deliver wind energy across the country and also to balance load across the micro-grids but the ability to isolate micro-grids would leave locations less vulnerable to interruptions in the main grid.


The biggest issue with having all the solar in one large array is that the whole US grid would be impacted by a single weather event.  It doesn't rain much in the Mohave desert but it does get overcast at times which would cause a huge dip in electricity generation if we were dependent on a single large array.  In reality we would want to add lots of smaller arrays around the country to balance energy generation for both inclement weather and to account for time differences across the nation.

 

The biggest requirement for going full blown renewable is the ability to store surplus energy and distribute it when renewable energy is not being generated, or when we hit peak demand and the energy being generated is not sufficient to meet that demand.  In the current grid we have generation facilities that run all the time, known as baseline generation.  This role is often filled by Nuclear and Coal generation as these sources cannot be brought online quickly.  Electric Utilities also maintain "peaker" plants that can be brought online quickly to meet demand when it climbs above what is supplied by baseline generation.

 

About twelve years ago I was sitting at my desk in Newport Beach looking out at the Fashion Island parking lot.  It was a hot day and there were hundreds of cars sitting broiling in the sun.  The temperature in these cars could reach as high as 160 F and that meant the driver would need to really crank up the air conditioning on these cars when they set off to go to their next destination.  I thought to myself that if the parking lot was covered in solar panels then these cars would be sitting in the shade, they would not need to crank up their A/C so high and in the end that would save fuel.  The Mall would also be getting a good supply of electricity that would probably pay off the cost of the solar way before the end of their projected life.

 

Fashion Island has about 12 acres of parking lot and two multi-story parking structures with the top deck being exposed to the sun.  In all they could put about 0.02 square miles of solar panels over their parking lot.  It has been done before although not on that scale.  Both Beverly Hills public library and Santa Monica's Parking lot 2 have solar arrays.  The one in Beverly Hills also covers the roof of the Library, Town Hall and Police station that are all in the same complex.  This array produces 450 KW of power.  The array in Santa Monica is much smaller but still provides both electricity to feed the EV charging stations, and shade for those parking on the roof of the structure.

 

Another location for solar cells is the Tesla Gigafactory in Sparks, NV.  Tesla's plan it to eventually have this factory running totally on renewable energy.  They installed the first solar cells there in 2018 and have been slowly adding to this array as cash flow allows.  Eventually they plan on having the entire roof covered which will eventually generate 70 MW.

 

So if we set a course to install solar panels in places across the country providing shade in parking lots and covering the roofs of large buildings, we can easily hit the goal of 3,600 square miles of solar panels.  We could also cover roads and railway lines although roads will be a challenge.  Panels installed over a typical 4 lane highway could generate 5KW every 10 feet.  The challenge is to allow enough height to allow all traffic to be able to use the highway.

 

It is quite clear that we have plenty of space in the US to install enough solar power to completely replace fossil fuel for power generation.  With costs falling quickly adding solar to factory and retail space should be pretty much a no brainer.  This move could cause disruption as the power companies may no longer be in charge of power generation and laws may need to be crafted to take into account small scale power generation rather than just excess energy generation being fed to the grid.