Friday, May 21, 2010

The Electric Car Resurrection III: Are NEV's the Answer?

"NEV" stands for "Neighborhood Electric Vehicle". NEV's are a relatively new class of electric vehicle that evolved out of golf carts. They are street legal but are restricted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to run under 25 mph, though many states allow them to drive up to 35 mph. Below is a picture of an example NEV, the Zap  Xebra:
The specs on this car are:
  • Speed: up to 40 mph
  • Range: Up to 25 miles per charge
  • Cost: around $12,000 before taxes
  • Battery: Lead Acid
The idea behind NEVs is that many people do most of  their driving around town for which they don't need a full sized ICE vehicle or even a hybrid/plug-in hybrid. In that kind of situation, the range and speed limitations don't mean as much.

Bruce England, a colleague who I met through some work we both did for the local city-sponsored sustainability effort, bought one in 2008 (he reports about it here). He uses his Xebra about 99% of the time and really loves the car. But there are many drawbacks. The only safety feature of the car is a seatbelt (and see here for what may happen in a crash, even at low speed). Bruce doesn't seem to find the range restriction such a problem, though, for me, it would be just on the border of what I could use for a daily commute if I were not going anywhere else during the day. Battery maintainability is an issue even with lead acid batteries, and Bruce recommends a couple of after market battery maintenance devices, since the Xebra does not come with one. Lithium batteries absolutely require a sophisticated battery maintenance system or else they can be easily ruined by overcharging, which of course makes them even more expensive but more robust. Lead acid batteries can last up to 10 years depending on how they are used, but they can also quickly expire after 3. Replacing batteries can be expensive and easily negate the cost advantages of electric over ICE. Bruce also has a list of creature comforts and fit-and-finish features that are taken for granted in cars from larger manufactures, but are missing in the Xebra.

The main issue with NEVs is that they are a low volume product so they are much more expensive than a mass market car, independent of their electric drive. Zap has a little more than 700 vehicles on the road compared to the hundreds of thousands of Priuses. The cost per mile of range for the Xebra is about 8x that of the Prius, and is even about 1.5X  more expensive than a list priced Nissan Leaf (if you include the CA state and federal subsidy, it is around 2.4x). If they were to feature the same price/performance ratio as the Prius, the Xebra would cost around $1400, which is much cheaper than a Tata Nano. A Leaf may be a better comparison, that would be around $8000 based on the list price. If you are satisfied with 25 mile range, lead acid batteries, only 40 mph top speed, so-so creature comforts and downscale fit-and-finish, you are probably better off buying a used Geo Metro for a couple of grand, and converting it  to electric yourself, or finding someone handy with tools like my friend Steve to convert it for you.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Some Whining + System Remodel Gas Pipes and Insulation

I haven't posted for a while. Basically, I'm starting to lose motivation in this blog, plus I am working on another writing project which is really engaging but is taking up all my computer time. It seems people really don't care much about green technology judging by the number of comments I'm getting. Michael Kanellos over at GreenTech Media has an excellent article about why there will not be a Google of green tech. On the other hand, today, I went shopping at an Apple store today to buy a Mac for my nephew, who is graduating from high school. It was packed. Families with kids, people poking around at the gadgets, all in response to the unceasing hype around the iPad. Maybe I ought to start a blog shamelessly promoting Apple products.

It kind of reminded me of how people used to flock to car dealerships when the new cars came out in September during the 1960's. When it comes to stuff that doesn't matter, people seem willing to pay lots of money and spend a lot of time with it. I can't imagine that anybody would bring their kids to a store to check out geothermal heat pumps or solar panels. Meantime the defunct oil platform formerly known as Deepwater Horizon is spewing pollution into the Gulf of Mexico at a disputed number of gallons per day, threatening their next shrimp cocktail. It baffles me why people can't make the connection between their lifestyles and the massive environmental degradation that is taking place before their eyes.

Anyway, I'll try to get back to my series on electric cars with a post next week. I just reserved a Nissan Leaf. While I have some reservations about electric cars (which I hope to blog about if I can dredge up the energy), the prospect of fulfilling 95% of our family's daily transportation needs from solar electricity off our roof, plus the fact that California grants free carpool lane access to electric cars was too tempting to pass up. On top of that, after federal and state tax rebate, the Leaf should cost less than $20,000, cheaper than a Prius.

I also expect to be posting more frequently when our system remodel starts. Right now, the geothermal HVAC design is underway. Forrest, our architect, came by today and did some measurements of the gas pipes, and recorded what insulation we have in the walls currently, for Title 24. I couldn't understand why he wanted the gas pipe lengths, since we will be taking out the gas hydronic boiler and hot water heater. He mumbled something about the city needing the number of BTUs going into the house now in order to grant the permit. Perhaps they are starting to get serious about actually measuring carbon emissions, and want to know how much our system remodel will be eliminating. Though that may be too much to hope for. Forrest said that they have been requiring this number for commercial remodels for a number of years.

He also measured the distance for the new gas pipe that will go in for the gas fireplace. The gas fireplace will be replacing an old pellet stove that doesn't have a thermostat, needs to be hand started, and which we haven't used since we moved into the house  because it is too fussy. I am not thrilled about putting in a gas fireplace, since it is not consistent with our goals of making the house carbon neutral. I wanted to put in a newer pellet stove which has automatic ignition, a thermostat, closed combustion firebox, and low particulate pollution. But there is a moratorium on wood burning appliances for the entire Bay Area, regardless of the efficiency of the appliance, due to the severe particulate pollution that develops during winter inversions. We could get an alcohol burning fireplace, but it seems even more fussy than the pellet stove. You have to fill it with alcohol (which will naturally spill) and light it, and of course it also has no thermostat. Though it would work during a power outage from an earthquake, which is not the case for a gas fireplace. The gas fireplace we are thinking of installing is around 90% AFUE, closed combustion, with thermostat, and generally the most efficient on the market. We're already signed up for carbon credits with PG&E, and, besides, we  were not planning on replacing the gas kitchen stove, so we do need to continue to have gas service.

Why are we not replacing the stove? Well, gas is actually somehow easier to cook with than electricity in my experience. I've used an electric stove before and I don't like it as much. I've found it is easier to burn stuff. Electricity is certainly better for ovens, and we do have an electric oven (and of course a microwave) because it gives more even heat. I think we may ultimately replace the gas stove with an induction stove, where the stove top doesn't get hot, when we get old enough that burns become an issue. Burns from stoves are a leading cause of injury in elderly people. Besides, the stove doesn't use much gas, just one therm a month, based on our gas bill from last summer when we had everything else turned off. That should easily be offsetable with carbon credits.

On the insulation, Forrest said that we may be eligible for a tax credit if the insulation reduces energy use by 20%. Perhaps this is a state credit, because, to my knowledge, the feds are still only giving out $1500 per year for insulation. From what I have heard, the "Cash for Caukers" bill passed the House, but, as usual, is stuck in the Senate. The Senate doesn't seem to hold energy at a high priority, so I kind of doubt it will be approved before we start the remodel. I think we will probably achieve at least a 20% reduction. Some years ago, I did a detailed spreadsheet on the heating energy usage of the house, based on the existing insulation and geometry, and how it might improve under various new insulation treatments. For the kind of treatment we are planning (basically R-6 per inch closed cell foam on the ceiling and all outer walls with exception of the master suite and one kitchen wall) the improvement was something like 30%. In addition, we are also planning on replacing the fiberglass batting under the floor with closed cell foam. I didn't include the floor in my spreadsheet, so we may get a somewhat higher reduction.