Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

What holds energy tech back? The infernal battery

with 9 comments

Thanks to Sightline again for the link to an AP article in the Seattle Times. It is a very useful, non-technical review of the lack of progress in battery technology. “It’s why electric cars aren’t clogging the roads” which is a useful bit of reality check against the optimism expressed by the report I looked at yesterday.

As for the electric car industry, lithium ion batteries have proved to have two major drawbacks: They are costly, and they do not allow automobiles to go far enough between rechargings. A123, a maker of lithium ion batteries for electric cars, went bankrupt last year because of poor demand and high costs after receiving a $249 million federal grant.

I know I have covered this ground before, but it is worth re-stating. What we want is the comfort and convenience of the car without its environmental impact. It is based on the mistaken idea that if we could get rid of the internal combustion engine – or the fossil fuel it now runs on – all would be well. And that is not true. The problems we have due to cars include urban sprawl, health impacts from that as well as the direct impacts of vehicle collisions (even if we can bring ourselves to trust computers to drive the cars for us), huge economic dependency of both societies and individuals from over-investment in a movement device that spends nearly all of its time stationary,  congestion and delay. If every car was suddenly to become zero emission tomorrow, nearly all of the problems of motordom would remain to be solved.

 it has conflicting functions. Its primary job is to store energy. But it’s also supposed to discharge power, lots of it, quickly. Those two jobs are at odds with each other.

“If you want high storage, you can’t get high power,” said M. Stanley Whittingham, director of the Northeast Center for Chemical Energy Storage. “People are expecting more than what’s possible.”

At this point I expected a diversion to fuel cells: mercifully that isn’t there – but again yesterday’s report was full of optimism about hydrogen. Which is not a fuel at all but simply a way of storing and transmitting electricity – and not a very good one at that. It is horrendously expensive and very inefficient – simply because hydrogen is the smallest molecule and thus extraordinarily hard to store.

#5 layover

That does not mean we cannot expand the use of electricity in transport – just that we will have to concentrate on technologies that we know work, even if they are not quite a perfect replacement for the convenience and mobility of the private car. What we need to convince ourselves about is that neither of those things is a project killer. We don’t actually need so much mobility if we only could redesign and retrofit our cities to be more accessible. If what we want was in easy reach by walking – or cycling – and both modes were safe and attractive – we will do a lot more of both, reducing both our carbon impacts and  the size of our waistlines. For longer journeys, fixed route public transportation that is unhampered by single occupant vehicles can be readily powered by very long extension cords – trolleybuses, streetcars and trains. As long as these have adequate priority the expense of grade separation can be avoided. Yes, private cars will be delayed. Good. That improves the case for modal shift and saves lives.

V9486 Hybrid

I also think that by now somebody ought to have taken the step of putting a set of lightweight trolleypoles on the roof of a hybrid bus – or shoving a hybrid power plant into a trolleybus. Then we in Vancouver could see extensions of trolleybus routes to useful destinations – and redeployment of diesel buses to the suburbs. So the #41 to UBC gets converted, the #9 extended to Brentwood – and the inner set of “express bus” wires along Hastings get used for SFU services instead of being an historical anomaly of earlier faster trolley bus service to the PNE.

For one group, the use of lightweight cheaper batteries is already paying off handsomely. In general I do not think that electric bikes are such a great idea. For better health outcomes alone, I favour human power as much as possible. But we have an aging population. When you are young, you have time but no money. In middle age you have money but no time. Then, just when you have money and time, your knees give out. That is when a power assisted pushbike makes all kinds of sense.

So we can indeed reduce the use of oil (and other fossil fuels) in transportation – and it doesn’t require any kind of technological advances. We already have “good enough” technologies which are getting better. Information technology has done a great deal to reduce much of the frustrations inherent in using transit, and for facilitating things like bike shares and car shares which could be so effective in increasing its range and effectiveness if only they were integrated properly.

Bike rack at Langara 49th

What is missing is not some whizzo battery – or personal rapid transit or a cheap fuel cell. It is political will and resources. And that has been the case for nearly all of the time I have been conscious of the issues – over fifty years! Conservatism – the power of the special interest group we refer to as “the elite” – the 1%. That is the root cause of the problem – however you decide to define the problem. Unaffordability of housing, traffic congestion, bad air quality, environmental impact, global warming. All of these issues are based on the incredible selfishness of a very small group of people. Many of who spend a great deal of time and money telling us how much they care about these issues but none of which ever seem to get solved. Even though the solutions have been staring us in the face all that time.

9 Responses

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  1. I think you are wrong with regards to electric bikes… They aren’t simply the domain of old folks who can’t ride anymore. They are a fantastic enabler that allows the bicycle to be used for trips that otherwise wouldn’t have been possible. Case and point: I have a friend who lives by Lynn Valley, and owns a shop on Commercial. Now that he has an electric bike, he rides to and from work nearly every day. Before the electric bike he would ride once in a while, and use his van the rest of the time.

    Another friend I have has 2 kids and owns an electric bike. He can put his daughter on her trail-a-bike and have his son in the bike seat up front, so the kids start experiencing bicycle transport right from a very early age. With the electric assist he is able to take them on long rides all over the place in Vancouver, showing them places they couldn’t go otherwise.

    The key phrase is “electric assist”. It is much different from those stupid plastic-shrouded “electric bikes” that aren’t actually rideable without power – those are more like a vespa, not a bicycle. A true electric bicycle (not a scooter) is a bicycle that has some extra kick when you need it. You can ride it just like a bicycle without ever engaging the motor.

    When you give someone the ability to ride 20km and get there nearly as fast as they would in a car, you are creating a huge advantage for the bicycle. Because you have a motor, suddenly picking up 15lbs worth of groceries on the way home isn’t so bad. Now you don’t get in the car because there’s a hill on your route – you can glide up it.

    It’s a total game-changer. The cost and performance of these systems has just reached the point where the conversion kits are affordable, the battery lasts long enough to do what you need it to and the weight is low enough to actually enjoy riding the bike sans-electricity. There’s no downside!!

    Bryn Hughes

    January 23, 2013 at 2:10 pm

  2. I am not wrong – I am simply expressing a somewhat restricted view. I want to see a lot more people using their own muscle power to get around since the health benefits are huge. I am well aware of the difference between an electric scooter and a power assisted cycle. And the cases you mention are admirable. I am also aware of people who damage their own health simply because they are so reluctant to increase the amount of exercise they do – and that would have to include me.

    Stephen Rees

    January 23, 2013 at 2:40 pm

  3. The problem is our current transportation system and our cities are desighed around oil based transportation. To cost effectively make the switch to electricity and human power, the transportation system and communities have to be designed around electric powered transportation. That means light weight electric and human powered vehicles for short trips, electric rail and buses for regional trips and high speed electric rail for long trips. Batteries are just too heavy and expensive to power the heavy cars needed to give occupants a chance of serviving high speed impacts. For long trips, cars need to carry more people, luggage and travel at high speeds all of which drains battery life. Climbing the mountains and the hot and cold temperate extremes in BC also limit the range of batteries. Really, our only option is electric trains.

    At the high frequencies needed to provide the service required for high levels of transit use, often transit priority measures really aren’t that effective. Priority can negatively affect transit on crossstreets as well as negatively affect walking and bicycle travel times. At the levels of transit we really need, there is a strong business case for grade separated transit.


    January 24, 2013 at 12:57 pm

  4. Ah, but an electric bike is most definitely human powered! They aren’t really meant to be used solely under electric power, and you won’t get up hills nor get much range if you try and run them purely on the battery. They multiply what you put in to them.

    And really, people who don’t get enough exercise are perfect candidates. You get lured in by the idea of an assisted ride and end up discovering just how much fun it is to ride absolutely everywhere. Next thing you know, you’re getting far more exercise than you ever were before plus you’ve gone a long way towards freeing yourself from car dependence, or really even transit dependence if your circumstances allow it.

    No, I don’t currently own one, I don’t sell them, but I sure do want one!!

    Bryn Hughes

    January 24, 2013 at 1:36 pm

  5. “I also think that by now somebody ought to have taken the step of putting a set of lightweight trolleypoles on the roof of a hybrid bus – or shoving a hybrid power plant into a trolleybus”

    There is basically two types of hybrid bus technologies,
    the parallel one, as seen in Vancouver (basically a diesel engine helped by a electric one), and a serial one
    (that is a trolley, with an onboard diesel engine to generate electricy):

    If you have doubt on which technology a bus uses: that is how sound a serial hybrid bus
    (serial hybrid are basically the defacto standard in Europe)

    The later technology is much more prone to receive trolley pole that the sooner. More, because it is not using the combustion engine for traction, you don’t need gear box, transmission axle,…taking lot of room (and maintenance),…and instead you can locate the electric motor into the wheel itself (it is what Irisbus is doing) freeing lot of room in the bus,
    (see why it is important here: ).

    But, I also think important to mention the ultra capacitor: that is fast charge, low life capacity (it is not a battery per sei) – well adapted to bus service (autonomy is usually not the problem, but charging time is one) – China and Europe work quite alot on it – in Europe because it allows tram to run without catenary into urban sensible area (or even to increase tram acceleration without changing substation requirement)- and in both area because you don’t need to run trolley wire on the whole length of the line, but only at regular interval, to allow bus recharging (Beside Shanghai, I think Hong Kong is testing it too)
    On route 41st, it could means, the bus could be able to left the wire after Dunbar, get recharged at the UBC loop during the lay over, before doing its next run. That is a technology apriori pretty much in reach…


    January 24, 2013 at 11:03 pm

  6. In Transport Revolutions (Richard Gilbert and Anthony Perl, 2010: the advent of hugely expanded electrical grids powered from low-emission sources was expounded upon.

    Though in BC we are blessed with great hydro electric assets, there is an increasing awareness of the destruction building dams imposes namely on our scarce agricultural soil resource. In discussing alternate energy one must distinguish between base load (centralized) and intermittent (decentralized) power. There is sufficient evidence (and many critiques) on renewable energy that justify emphasizing the development of new clean base load energy sources that are available anytime on short notice as either primary power or backup to intermittents like wind and tidal, and one promising source is closed-system geothermal near BC’s many volcanic sites, like Meager Mountain. This will require lots of R&D, but it looks like places like Iceland are advancing this energy source with experimental seismic mapping and drilling close to magma domes and supercritical reservoirs of water located 3000-4000 metres below the surface.

    If tiny Iceland can scare up a few million to conduct this significant research, why can’t Canada? After all, the Geological Survey of Canada estimated in a recent report that the geothermal potential of the nation could exceed the current level of energy consumed nationwide by a million times. This remains to be proven, but nonetheless …

    Thomas Homer Dixon discusses, in part, the potential for deep geothermal power where drilling exceeds 10 km in this interview on the social impact of energy issues:

    Expanded electrical grids make a lot of sense when considering the efficiency of Vancouver’s electric trolleys that often outlast their diesel counterparts because of the simplicity and higher efficiency of electric motors. Higher liquid fuel costs hit already financially-constrained organizations like TransLink quite hard and force management to make poor decisions, like purchasing cheaper bulk orders of lower grade, higher particulate, high-sulfur diesel that has a direct effect on asthma and local emissions.

    Gilbert and Perl advocate establishing regional and eventually national electrical grids to service the transport sector, including electrifying the rail transport of heavy freight and building a continental high-speed passenger and light freight network. This, of course, will require new sources of renewable, low or zero emission energy, and could stimulate a revolution in local low emission industry (e.g. steel and Portland cement making) electric induction kilns) powered by a couple or three large geothermal power plants within a reasonable transmission line range of the coast.

    Lowering our per-capita energy consumption is probably the first step, as Stephen suggests by in part switching to more public transit from individual private transport. Capacitors, solar panels, wind farms, and even tidal all have their limitations, and one of the least examined and most misunderstood by advocates is the cost of networking them and subsidizing intermittent energy prices over the long term, and the emissions required to build them in the first place. Wind and localized solar will play a role in lowering demand on the grid, but the grid is where our alternate energy developments should start.


    January 30, 2013 at 1:20 pm

  7. If tiny Iceland can scare up a few million to conduct this significant research, why can’t Canada?

    Because of the influence of petroleum lobby on provincial and federal governments. There’s no money for this kind of effort as taxes have been reduced and subsidies to fossil fuels run in the billions.

    Higher liquid fuel costs hit already financially-constrained organizations like TransLink quite hard and force management to make poor decisions, like purchasing cheaper bulk orders of lower grade, higher particulate, high-sulfur diesel that has a direct effect on asthma and local emissions.

    But that is not to suggest that Coast Mountain Bus Company has actually done so. In fact the sheer volume of diesel purchased and longer term supply contracts have tended to secure cheaper diesel for Translink. BC has its own very stringent fuel quality standards based on CARB – or perhaps I should say we did have at one time. I not sure this has survived the present administration’s search for rule cutting.

    What is ridiculous is that the agency has to pay tax on its fuel purchases – which simply recycles tax dollars

    Stephen Rees

    January 30, 2013 at 1:40 pm

  8. Good observations, Stephen. If only 10% of the money that currently subsidizes the tar sands, let alone fracked gas and oil, could be redirected to geothermal at the hot rock sites in BC and Yukon, there would be great progress potentially to help wean us off of fossil fuels in Western Canada.

    The Pembina Institute estimated that the subsidies on the astromical volumes of natural gas burned in tar sands operations equate to about half of the entire volume.

    I do remember a cerfuffle a few years back on the purchase of higher-sulfur diesel by CMBC.


    January 30, 2013 at 2:32 pm

  9. A few notes on the high cost of intermittent renewable energy sources.

    Nicole Foss posted a rather long piece on The Automatic Earth on this topic that, in my interpretation, takes a rather pessimistic view. However, she correctly iterates that advocates must address several relevant issues like connecting, for example, offshore wind farms together with expensive transmission cables to balance intermittency and to supply back up power when the wind doesn’t blow.

    She cites a case in point for a wind farm proposal in one of the best offshore sites in Scotland that will require a single $1.6 billion undersea cable (to be eventually paid for by UK ratepayers) to Norway to export wind energy, while Norway will export back up hydro energy via the cable when the wind doesn’t blow in Scotland, often at high-rate peak times. She calls it a great deal for Norway because their hydro energy takes advantage of its already significant energy storage capacity and would refuse to import Scottish electricity at higher prices. Norway will essentially receive a subsidy on behalf of ratepayers in the UK on the equivalent energy that would otherwise be deducted from the reservoirs for the same if not a lower price.

    Moreover, several more billion dollar cables will be required to eventually even out the uneven nature of the wind by connecting together widely-spaced wind farms planned for the offshore UK. The primary way to pay for new transmission networks is through apportioning feed-in tariffs as such, essentially a subsidy on the higher cost of these new energy sources that proponents, like Germany, are now leaning away from.

    Perhaps the mistake here again is forcing intermittent power to act as base load power (i.e. to be available on demand at affordable prices). As a supplemental to domestic hot water or electrical use in energy efficient buildings, rooftop panels make a difference. But as massive energy farms where even minor power intermittency plays havoc on sensitive industrial processes, solar and wind require a lot of taxpayer subsidy in order to bring in backup power and to even out the peaks and valleys of wind speed and sunshine even when the cost of manufacturing the units has decreased significantly.

    Here’s the link:

    I’m a bit critical of her reliance on one source (Vaclav Smil) for the majority of her analysis, and for passing over geothermal power without really understanding it (it doesn’t rely only on limited reservoirs of superheated underground water; it comes in several forms), but her comments are a welcome blast of cold air to clear the stuffed up techno-vision and lack of economic acumen of some alternate energy aficionados.


    January 30, 2013 at 2:42 pm

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