Category Archives: energy

Reinert Interview: Which is Best to Power Cars? Batteries, Hybrid Technology, Internal Combustion Engines, or Fuel Cells?

Today is the tenth post in this Monday series of subjects covered during my summer 2014 interview of Bill Reinert, recently retired energy engineer for Toyota who played a key role in the development of the Prius and then assumed the role of future transportation planning of alternative-fueled vehicles at Toyota. See his full bio here. –Kay M.

Toyota’s 3-Wheel iRoad Car

K.M.: Today, manufacturers are going multiple directions in methods to power cars. You spent your career studying the pros and cons of the advanced technologies used in cars and in trying to foresee which ones made the most sense. Many people, including Elon Musk, expect that electric cars can solve our transportation problems. You saw through that pipe dream long ago and maintain your position that electric cars are not the best answer, and time has proven you right so far from the demand side. What are your current thoughts about electric cars?

Reinert: Essentially my position on electric cars hasn’t changed. There’s nothing promising beyond the lithium battery on the battery horizon. The lithium battery has tremendous shortcomings for cars, for example, it doesn’t maintain a full charge in hot weather which creates a battery degradation cycle. Some Leaf owners are only getting 50 miles per charge, now, following the Leaf’s battery life degradation. Even the Tesla’s Model S, with its biggest battery, when driven like a normal car can’t always deliver 200 miles of range and the superchargers are currently 200 miles away from each other. To get from one supercharger to another you have to hyper mile that car. That means you have to drive around 50 miles an hour because wind resistance increases at the cube of speed, and you have to keep your air conditioner and other accessories off.

To give a Tesla much extra driving range, the battery weight required would greatly decrease the distance it could travel per kilowatt and also greatly increase its cost. In comparison, by adding just a little weight in the way of a few extra gallons of gas to a 50 mile-per-gallon hybrid car, there can be a big extension of the hybrid’s driving range. While I don’t expect the battery car to get dramatically better, the internal combustion engine is getting phenomenally better, like the great little Ford Ecoboost three cylinder engine.

But I will say there is a worthwhile role for electrification in the car and that’s in the high performance hybrid. To illustrate this we can look at racing. Racing development was what used to help engineers develop better cars for the road. Then, it got to the point where road cars became way more sophisticated than racing cars. But now if you look at Formula One, they don’t talk about hybrids, they talk about energy harvesting, so that anytime you let up on the gas, energy gets stored. By storing massive amounts of energy into a battery or ultra capacitor, the cars are fast, and, they get great fuel economy.

Given that the bar gets raised all the time, it’s hard to see where the case for an electric car really comes in. Is it for carbon reduction? No, you’d have to decarbonize the whole grid to make that case, and that’s not likely to happen. I don’t know the case for the electric car. There’s going to continue to be a market for them but it’s going to be a very small market, not a captive market.

K.M.: Liquid natural gas and compressed natural gas are increasingly being used for trucks and trains. Do you see cars ever transitioning to compressed natural gas (CNG) in a big way?

Reinert: I get asked this question a lot about implementing natural gas for cars. There are LIquid Petroleum Gas (LPG) taxis all over Tokyo, and while that’s different from CNG, the tank and delivery system is very similar to that required by CNG, so you can make an analogy. The trunk space in those taxis becomes limited for Americans who tend to pack heavily when they travel because the LPG tank is in the taxi’s trunk.

Given that natural gas is much cheaper than diesel, at least by half or more, that makes it good for trucks which spend a lot on fuel, plus it’s cleaner, too. For automobiles, though, a lot of work has to be done. It can be done, and I think that it will be done over time. The rear suspension of the car needs to be redesigned to accept tank storage, otherwise the tanks are stored up in the trunk. What you want is for the tank to sit low between the suspension so you get a flat trunk and there are companies working on that.

So the cost to make a car that runs on CNG, is a few thousand higher, similar to the hybrid penalty, and the required fueling infrastructure isn’t there, yet. As always, the question is who pays for these things? There are also safety concerns of fires or explosions when parking in underground parking lots, which trucks don’t have to worry about.

The engineering problems can be done but I think natural gas cars will be a very small market for a long time, maybe at most 3 or 4 percent. The Honda Civic CNG car is a nice enough car, but it only has a 200 mile range and a very tiny trunk due to the fact that the rear axle goes diagonally from one side to the other, like a big X across the car so the tanks can sit about it.

K.M.: What about fuel cell cars? Can they replace liquid fuels?

Reinert: Let me offer an illustration to answer this question.

A photographer friend of mine made a photo-shopped piece of art for my garage titled “Two Dead End Roads”. In the middle is an abandoned filling station and at one of the dead ends is the electric car and at the other dead end is the fuel cell car. Laying along the sides of the two roads are dead batteries on the one side, and dead fuel cells on the other. Every day it reminds me of the futility of all of this.

Battery cars are the result of a global regulatory push, not a consumer pull. If we’d throw away all of the incentives you’d probably still sell the Tesla, but I’m not so sure that the Leaf would survive.

And fuel cell cars are more of the same. From a scientific side I see a better engineering maturity for them than I do for batteries. Fuel cell cars and their necessary infrastructure are very expensive, although we can get those costs down. But the real problem with both of these technologies is that they can’t compete with the technology advances we’ve seen in the gasoline cars.

I drove fuel cell cars for a long time, for about 30,000 miles, and I liked them but there was nothing in them that is so compelling that would make me want to spend the extra money. What’s the advantage of restraining your mobility at a higher cost? The auto companies need to make zero-emission vehicles for Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) and other regulations, such as the California Air Resources Board’s Zero Emissions Mandate, so they need to decide which pathway, EVs or FCVs, will lose the least amount of money. When most OEMs investigate the two technologies, they see that FCs offer more room for performance improvement and cost reduction potential, and that is why you will be seeing more fuel cells in the future.

Of course, sometime we may have a liquid fuel supply problem, but not for many decades.

K.M.: You were involved in designing Toyota’s hugely successful Prius. How does “ignoring the good while reaching for the perfect” apply to car technology?

Reinert: A top level California politician stated about three years ago that the Prius was “yestertech”. He said that it’s not the future, but that electric cars are the future.

But the reality is that nearly every manufacturer that makes a car now makes hybrids. (And I’m kind of proud of this.) If you look at Le Mans race cars, they’re all 230 mile per hour hybrids that have both phenomenal power and phenomenal fuel economy. And we continue to improve them.

On the other hand, electric cars are basically an archaic vision that can be handled pretty easily by almost any home garage guy. Every year hundreds of electric cars get made by garage mechanics across the globe. There’s really nothing you need other than a motor, some power electronics, a body to put the stuff in, and a battery.

In comparison, hybrids have required a lot of innovation and are becoming great. So, to ignore a car that gets 60 miles to the gallon (and the new hybrids will) to say “this electric car is better because it doesn’t use any gasoline” is ridiculous. It doesn’t use any gasoline but it uses carbon somewhere.

To see last week’s interview subject on the future of the electrical grid, click here.

Coming next week will be Reinert’s comments on the drawbacks of using ethanol in cars and he names options that are better choices than ethanol as fuel octane boosters.

Reinert Interview: The Future of the Electrical Grid

Today is the ninth post in this Monday series of subjects covered during my summer 2014 interview of Bill Reinert, recently retired energy engineer for Toyota who played a key role in the development of the Prius and then assumed the role of future transportation planning of alternative-fueled vehicles at Toyota. See his full bio here. –Kay M.

Electric transformer near Dundurn, Saskatchewan. By Trekphiler. Wikipedia.

K.M.: What is the future of the electrical grid? How can we integrate renewables into it in a way that makes the most sense? Please comment on Germany’s renewable-grid situation, and, also, my town of Boulder, Colorado, which is planning an electrical municipal system with the goal of helping reduce greenhouse emissions.

Reinert: The problems with Germany’s power system and the transition to renewables are mostly political and in many ways likely point to Boulder’s future. 

For decades the Greens have had a disproportionate role in Germany’s energy future.  After Fukushima there was quite a bit of hysteria about nuclear energy. Merkel was in political trouble, made a deal with the Greens, and energiewende was born. The targets are lofty, 100% renewables and elimination of all nuclear plants. The trouble is energiewende targets were set by politicians, NGOs, and Academics with little or no industry experience and when expert opinion was offered it was largely ignored.

The problem is and remains the intermittency of renewables. Given current technology about 30% renewables is about the maximum any portfolio can adequately handle. Much beyond that and you need to match renewables watt for watt with spinning reserves. And this is best case. In harsh climates the maximum renewable penetration is much smaller. It’s not how many windmills you build, or how many solar plants come on line, what matters is how many usable watts are produced over the year. Through that lens the price of renewables is quite high. The figures we see quoted about the installed costs coming down are misleading. These costs generally do not include intermittency nor do they include the costs of spinning reserves to span the intermittency. And they don’t include the costs of non-dispatchable power.  

To get around the intermittency issue without resorting to additional fossil plants all manor of energy storage or power matching schemes are being tried. Most don’t work and all result in a near doubling of costs for each project, costs that are eventually passed on to the rate payer. You already see the results writ large in California and German electricity prices. In both cases the idea that regulation would spur technology has resulted in skyrocketing utility rates. For instance our electric rates while in Southern California were seven times what our rates in Colorado are. Still the mandates remain.

Grid energy storage is traditionally pumped hydro or compressed air, both geographically and geologically limited. So now the regulators have moved on to schemes that are both far more expensive and technically challenged. Converting non-dispatchable power to hydrogen in a electrolyzers and then back again to power in a fuel cell ignores the cost and market readiness of both technologies. Grid energy storage in batteries may work with lead acid batteries in small scale in remote areas with no alternatives (think Galápagos Islands), but are cost prohibitive in larger scale applications. Notice I wrote lead acid, not Li Ion batteries and not from the “Giga Hype” factory. Li cannot match lead acid in costs nor in cycle life. The fact that Solar City uses Tesla batteries is due to marketing, not sound technical decisions. 

So now on to the more ethereal approaches:

Reusing batteries from EVs once they’re no longer useful for propulsion remains quite a popular notion. While it sounds good, the devil is in the details. Battery pack failure results when one or more individual cells degrade to a greater extent than the remaining cells. So one must recover the packs, measure all the cells and build new packs with matched cells. The costs are nearly the same as building a new pack only this one has a much shorter cycle life. And this assumes adequate resources of used cells in similar configuration. Neither of these requirements are likely to be met any time soon. 

There’s all manner of Vehicle to Grid (V2G) ideas being hatched. The University of Delaware is perhaps the world’s leader in these applications. Unfortunately there are challenges both technical and consumer driven. From a technical point of view, V2G assumes a EV penetration that may never exist. And vehicles, unlike power plants, are widely distributed. For this approach to even have a chance of working all of the EVs in a particular region would need to be aggregated and controlled as a single unit. And even if you get through the dispatch issues, you’re still left with the cycle life issues. Individual revenue from these schemes amounts to a few hundred dollars a year, hardly a financial incentive to structure one’s mobility around grid concerns. Even off peak charging isn’t wildly successful. Financial incentives thus far are not a very successful trade off for individual mobility. 

Eventually we come to the “Smart Grid”, which I place in quotes as no one can tell you what it really is and why you’d want it. There are some apparent advantages such as elimination of meter readers -and- some day in the future self healing grids. But I suspect the real benefit of the smart grid is using real time pricing to manage consumer behavior to match power availability as opposed to the current mode of matching power production to consumer needs. And where the smart grid has been used for real time pricing it’s been wildly unpopular as electric bills double or more.

So now, today,  you can easily see that if you ignore natural gas peaking plants and if you don’t have sufficient nuclear in the grid mix additional renewables mean increased emissions from fossil plants left in spinning reserve. 

For all the reasons above it’s hard to see a transition to a renewable grid and still keep a hub and spoke generation and distribution model. With our current model solar means vast plants in our fragile desert ecosystems, areas where water for cooling towers is nearly nonexistent.  Wind means giant plants, generally in migratory flyways. Both require significant maintenance and suffer large efficiency losses when the power is distributed over large distances. 

So perhaps a new model, a distributed system, with many smaller interconnected plants is the answer. In the beginning these small plants could be combined cycle natural gas. Two-way distribution in urban areas would allow roof top solar to become effective as a true grid participant as opposed to the relative nuisance it is for today’s utilities and grids. Eventually high temperature fuel cells running on waste methane from landfills and waste water treatment plants could factor into the grid. Renewables could then penetrate not from a mandated percentage but rather a cost effective basis.

Once the scale is reduced, hopefully more storage options will emerge. I think phase change materials, taking advantage of latent heat, may come into play. They’re already doing that with solar thermal plants, storing excess energy in molten salts until it’s needed. 

This won’t come easy nor will it happen over night. Utilities will fight tooth and nail to maintain status quo, thus you can see Xcel contracting with large solar plants in southern Colorado, and vast wind farms in Wyoming, while at the same time reducing their rooftop solar program. NIMBY will take on a whole new meaning as community scale power plants are proposed. And distributed resources aren’t appropriate everywhere. For instance it would be nearly impossible to build small scale power plants in New York City. 

What likely will happen first is history will repeat itself. Like today, the rush to renewables under President Carter was driven by mandates and supported by subsidies. It was a house of cards that couldn’t stand in economic winds. And when the politics changed and the subsidies evaporated, the house collapsed. Only a handful of strong companies, those with a exit strategy survived. Both in the U.S. and in the E.U. we are seeing a growing populist conservative movement emerge. Even with liberal leaders, conservative legislatures can eventually put paid to subsidies for non competitive approaches. Of course the renewables industry will once again shrink, but not to the same level as post-Carter. This time we have more players with realistic business plans. So the remainder will be stronger and growth will begin again. 

It’s a stair step process and no matter how badly the regulators and NGOs want at least straight line growth or even exponential growth, under the current approaches they’re unlikely to achieve their goals. 

To see last week’s interview subject on the future of renewables, click here.

Coming next week will be Reinert’s comments on the methods used to power cars: electric, CNG, fuel cell, and hybrid.

Reinert Interview: The Future of Renewables

Today is the eighth post in this Monday series of subjects covered during my summer 2014 interview of Bill Reinert, recently retired energy engineer for Toyota who played a key role in the development of the Prius and then assumed the role of future transportation planning of alternative-fueled vehicles at Toyota. See his full bio here. –Kay M.

Photo by John Womack, Wikipedia

K.M.: For the past 15 years, the global ratio of fossil fuel use to renewables hasn’t changed at all and remains at 87 percent, even as global energy consumption rises. What’s the future for renewables?

Reinert: I’ve been working on various renewables in the industry since 1981. What I’ve seen is how policy makes them come and go, depending upon administrations, and depending upon fiscal conditions. When the money gets thrown, you get both good and bad projects. And there’s never an exit plan, and the industry never learns. Like in Spain where they initiated all this concentrated solar thermal power, along with the promise of jobs. But the minute the Spanish government got into trouble and couldn’t afford the incentives, the industries started imploding on each other, and the incentives ended.

We’re becoming a more energy dense world. The use of energy is increasing and renewables really are not going to keep up from an energy density point of view. Take for example, cities such as Boulder, Colorado, whose dream it is to become 100 percent renewable in the next 10 years. It can’t be done because there’s nothing on the market that takes care of the intermittency of solar or wind. And they’ll find out that the kilowatt of spinning reserves for every kilowatt of renewables costs a lot.

To see last week’s interview subject on Climate Change, click here.

Coming next week will be Reinert’s comments on the electrical grid.