Jim McGreen wanted to make some money in a green business. A craftsman-like mechanic, he had success making and selling electric bicycle kits out of his Alameda garage. Like so many others, he thought electric vehicles (EVs) were the obvious answer to pollution and expensive fossil fuels. In 1992, McGreen founded ZAP (Zero Air Pollution) Power Systems. But he needed more capital.
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Some 80 percent of New Yorkers already travel by public transportation, but Mayor Bloomberg has promised increased subway service, faster bus routes and yes, congestion charges to push that percentage ever higher. In a dog-bites-man article, the NY Times observes that some New Yorkers remain fiercely loyal to their cars. Despite traffic jams, honking horns and urban road rage, drivers value the freedom to come and go as they choose: "It gets me closer to the job," says George Ballina, sitting in the car with his wife in Lower Manhattan. "From the train you have to walk. … it's an hour and 15 minutes with the train and about 18 minutes with the car. Big difference." Also not surprising is that drivers prefer to avoid dealing with other people — to have their own quiet space and amenities: "I really make my car comfortable," says Warren William of his touch-screen DVD with speakers lining the doors and trunk. "Every time I step in my car, I have my system, I have my music. I like it really nice and quiet. I like the peacefulness."
CNET News stipulates that plug-in hybrids get more mpg and emit fewer pollutants than standard cars or hybrids, but objects that it would take decades of driving to actually save any money by driving one. According to several months of data from RechargeIT.org, plug-in Priora only use about 88 fewer gallons a year than unplugged Priuses in urban driving, saving between $158 to $250. A $15,000 CalCars conversion would take 60 years to recoup, and a $55K AC Propulsion upgrade – well, forget saving money there. Motion granted, but CNET misses two a Priori points: First, many people didn't originally buy Priora to save cash, they bought them to save the planet – and to be seen as saving the planet. RechargeIT's engineering product manager, Alec Proudfoot, says, "the big focus … is on the CO2 savings, not the cost savings." Second, many people who remember sitting in gas lines, see plug-ins as a hedge against having to do so again. Nevertheless, unreliable batteries may dissuade even the most ardent eco-warrior from relying on a plug-in to get there and back again.
VP Dick Cheney may have been a little off on WMD, but oil is his thang. So when, as reported by The Wall Street Journal, Dick assured us that our friends the Saudis are producing oil as fast as they can, you've just gotta believe him. Or look for the loophole. Last week, Cheney said crude oil prices in excess of $100 a barrel reflect the reality in the marketplace. "There's just not a lot out there, and some of that excess capacity represents high sulfur crude for example, it's not very attractive and not easily marketed." That's correct; KSA oil minister Ali al-Naimi has been complaining about a lack of buyers for excess Saudi sour crude for several years. The most reasonable conclusion: the U.S. is finally desperate enough to take the second-class sticky stuff off our allies' hands. Now that's the sort of speculation that will affect the price of oil.
Citigroup says $3.29 a gallon for gasoline is cheap. Why? (Read: are they nuts?) As Bloomberg reports, due to complexities of current supply and demand, gasoline may actually cost less than the oil it is refined from. Last week on the New York Mercantile Exchange, wholesale gasoline cost 50.4 cents less per barrel than crude oil– for only the fifth time in 20 years. Credit speculation on the differential between crude prices, gasoline futures and heating oil futures. Traders call this differential the 3-2-1 "crack spread," in which three barrels of oil is refined into two barrels of gasoline and one of heating oil. On March 17, the 3-2-1 sank to $7.395 and the straight gasoline-to-crude spread dipped below zero. Both rebounded later in the week, but, "Everything that we knew about crack spreads has fallen apart with the gasoline supply glut and the shortage of diesel," said Francisco Blanch, London head of global commodities research for Merrill Lynch. "I have been a bit reluctant to make calls on this thing. It's so volatile." Nevertheless, gas pump prices are expected to increase with summer driving demand and limits on production by profit-hungry refiners.
Scientist/environmentalist Amory Lovins believes that America can solve oil dependency with efficiency. In the early '90s, Lovins conceptualized the Hypercar: an ultra-light, aerodynamic hybrid vehicle with three-to-five-times better mpg than your average bear, with comparable performance, safety, usefulness and affordability. According to US News and World Report, Lovins recently told a National Academy of Sciences energy summit that building cars with advanced lightweight materials like carbon fiber (instead of steel) would boost automotive efficiency to 85 mpg for midsize cars, 66 mpg for midsize SUVs. Lovins claims that "lightweighting" would also improve vehicle safety since the advanced materials can absorb "up to 12 times as much crash energy per pound as steel." Automakers aren't buying it. Literally. "Lightweight materials are horrendously expensive," GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz told Automotive News [sub]. "People keep forgetting the cost equation." D'oh! Anyway, Lovins and Lutz must live in parallel worlds. "I'd say lightweighting is the hottest strategic trend in the industry right now," Lovins counters. Ah, "strategic." Meanwhile, Lovins' FiberForge seeks to capitalize on his faith in adding lightness.
Yesterday, Mexico celebrated the 70th anniversary of the nationalization of the their oil industry, but the 80th year event may be grim. Although Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex) produced an average of 3.1 million barrels a day of crude oil last year, the Houston Chronicle reports their proven reserves are now only 9.2 years of crude production. At a ceremony in oil-rich Tabasco, President Felipe Calderon called for more private investment, proclaiming the fate of Pemex the defining issue of his generation: "To transform Pemex is to strengthen Mexico." Pemex doesn't have the technological resources to drill into promising, but ultradeep, fields in the northern Gulf of Mexico, close to U.S. and Cuban waters. Mexico needs these fields to replace declines at Cantarell. Jesus Reyes Heroles, CEO of Pemex also spoke, admitting that Mexico's proven hydrocarbon reserves fell 5.1 percent last year. Reyes Heroles said Pemex replaced 50 percent of proven reserves last year, compared with 41 percent in 2006, but was still short of reaching 100 percent replacement. As is everyone.
Green Car Congress reports that Subaru will announce testing of its R1e electric vehicle (EV) tomorrow, 20 March 2008, and will subsequently display a prototype at the New York International Auto Show. They will also provide two R1es to the New York Power Authority for evaluation. Subaru claims that the 40kW drive motor will give the two-seater R1e a top speed of 65 mph and range up to 50 miles. NEC, NEC TOKIN and Nissan have formed a joint-ventur, Automotive Energy Supply Corporation (AESC), to provide automotive lithium-ion batteries. AESC's 346V battery pack uses lithium manganese oxide spinel (LiMn2O4) as the cathode's active material. Besides recharging to 80 percent capacity in 15 minutes, the battery should be resistant to overcharging and thermal instability. At least that’s what they say.
Holy midnight, Batman! Porsche has 777 sinister Caymans heading out of the Batcave, but only 250 will make it here to Gotham cities. Bloomberg describes the new black-on-black, limited edition from Porsche Design Studio as having Batmobile looks – but claims the design inspiration was the Chronograph 1 wristwatch, the Studio's first design. Starting at $69,900, the body, door handles, air intakes, striping and Design Studio logo are a variety of matte and shiny blacks. Nineteen-inch Turbo wheels are silver and active suspension is standard. Interior is – you guessed it – black leather, soft-touch black-painted metal, and black Alcantara (faux suede) steering wheel, gear shift and handbrake. For chasing bad guys, the 3.4 L, 295 hp six goes 0 to 60 in 5.1 seconds reaching 171 mph. And 18 mpg in traffic and 26 mpg on those long pursuits means you won't need Bruce Wayne's credit card to pursue justice.
Anybody remember California's ambitious Zero Emissions Vehicle (ZEV) program? State regs mandated that ZEVs had to account for five percent of all new vehicles sold in California by 2001, rising to 10 percent by 2003. The ZEV program was eviscerated in 2003; automakers were required to sell just 250 ZEVS per year AND they could receive credits for Neighborhood Electric Vehicles (NEVs) and hybrids. Despite record gas and oil prices and CA's ongoing battle with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over tailpipe emissions, the California Air Resources Board is about to reduce the ZEV requirement to 150 ZEVs per year until 2015. Citing Gov. Schwarzenegger's signing of the nation's first global warming law and the Million Solar Roofs Plan, nonprofit PlugIn America is urging the Governator to strengthen the ZEV program and save the electric car. Celebrities and environmentalists– including the oddly but appropriately named Ze'ev Drori, CEO of Tesla Motors– either cosigned, emailed or faxed letters of support. Even though Arnie's got a Roadster on order, the chances of him intervening are only slightly better that he'll get his EV next week (year?).
Recordnet.com reports on a new trend: "green" auto shop. To wit: Mark Armstrong's students at Santa Rosa Junior College have upgraded dozens of cars to run on biodiesel. They've converted five cars to run on vegetable oil, modified one to use ethanol and transformed three into electric vehicles. Mike Yonan and his automotive seniors at the Weber Institute of Applied Sciences and Technology modded a fire-engine red 2002 Neon to run on eight lead-acid batteries. Armstrong, who owns a heavy equipment repair business, believes the work teaches his charges self-reliance, resourcefulness and [left coast] Yankee ingenuity. "If we really want alternative fuel vehicles, let's get off the couch and start making them." Yonan says amen to that, and counsels his fellow students to learn the value of simple persistence. "Thinking hurts. Sometimes it gets so frustrating you don't really want to do it. But you think about what it's going to be like and keep going."
Who profits most when you pay $3.28 for a gallon of gasoline? Taking their cues from the mainstream media, many people blame oil speculators for driving-up the prices. According to CNNMoney, they don't actually get a cut of the price. Some traders profit by correctly predicting the change in prices, but others balance that by losing money. Meanwhile, only about seven to 10 cents of the retail price goes to gas stations; which make more money selling legal drugs (caffeinated beverages, artery-clogging, obesity-reinforcing snack foods; cigarettes, lottery tickets, etc.). Federal taxes account for 18 cents; state taxes average 22 cents/gallon. Shipping and storing fuel costs between 23 and 26 cents/gallon. Refiners like Valero, Sunoco or Frontier charge about 24 cents/gallon, but get squeezed when oil prices rise quickly. That leaves crude oil suppliers like BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, Petroleos Mexicanos, Petróleos de Venezuela and Saudi Aramco. They take the lion's share: roughly $2.04 per gallon. And now that gas is averaging $3.285 a gallon, they make even more. But then, it's one of those risk reward deals. And these calculations don't include the cost of U.S. military efforts in oil-producing regions. Or an eventual federal bailout when one of the D3 goes belly-up. Or a lot of other things, really.
Flexcar started as a Seattle-based alternative to traditional rent-a-car agencies. Members could rent cars by the half-hour and feel like part of a forward-thinking community that took care of the cars and generally looked out for each other. Flexcar never turned a profit though. Last year, Flexcar merged with their main competitor Zipcar, also in the red. Meanwhile, Hertz and Enterprise decided to start renting cars by the hour, threatening Flex/Zip's customer base. As reported in The Stranger, after a spotty transition, the merged Zipcar seems far less "Flex-ible" towards its members. Both annual fees and hourly rates are higher and rentals are hourly– rounded up, of course. Zipcar also levees more fines and offers no grace periods. Zipcar spokeswoman Kristina Kennedy insists that fines will force members to "take responsibility for the cars while they are using them." Or really piss them off.
Automotive News [sub] reports that the Pininfarina family is scaling back its 55 percent majority stake to raise cash for the famed but financially-troubled automotive designer and coach manufacturer. Last year, with revenues of €670.4 million ($1 billion) Pininfarina SpA reported a consolidated net loss of €114.9 million ($174.9 million). One investor, French battery maker Groupe Bolloré, will also partner with the Italian firm to build 15k electric vehicles (EVs) a year under the Pinifarina brand. Using Bolloré's lithium-metal-polymer (LMP) batteries, the four-seat Pininfarina EV promises a top speed of 81 mph, a range of up to 150 miles per charge and production in 2010. Betting the firm on a full-size EV with reliable batteries and a generous range is no sure thing. EV ventures are cropping up exponentially in response to legislation curbing CO2 emissions. So far only small, three-wheeled or low-speed vehicles have actually been offered for sale.
Last January, Transport Minister Lawrence Cannon said that Canada will match California's fuel-consumption benchmarks for new cars and light trucks. (Quebec and Manitoba have pledged to adopt them while Ontario warns that its automakers can't possibly meet them.) The Canadian Press reports that Transport Canada is studying the trade-off between fuel-economy and safety. Even before the results are know, Canada's greens are up in arms. Clare Demerse, senior policy analyst at the Pembina Institute: "I would hope that the government would not, in any way, use this kind of research… as an excuse not to go the more aggressive vehicle efficiency standards." George Iny, president of the Automobile Protection Agency: "If you could reduce some of the presence of those large-type vehicles, unyielding full frames, you would be improving vehicle safety most likely." Why let the facts get in the way of PC public policy?