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Shell Charging Forward … E-Motorcycles … Ad-Supported Charging … Benefits Of Low-Energy-Density Renewables (Cleantech Talk #37)

We started this episode talking about the LMX-161 e-motorcycle, then got into Shell EV charging stations, Big Oil, natural gas, ad-supported EV charging stations, and the benefits of low-energy-density renewables.

Hello all, and a big thank you for suffering through Episode 37’s “laryngitis edition” of Cleantech Talk!

You can listen to this episode and subscribe to Cleantech Talk on iTunes or Soundcloud. You can also listen via the embedded player above or download this episode. Jump into the show notes below for more goodies.

We started this episode talking about the LMX-161 e-motorcycle (Indiegogo campaign here). Mopeds / scooters / motorbikes are a huge deal in developing countries, cars being out of reach of most folks, but they’re a decidedly smaller market in developed countries. It appears that sales in the US are on the order of 500,000 per year.

Being the pragmatic sort, as happy as I am for enthusiasts that they may soon have a wonderful $6000 to $7000 option for their third or fourth motorbike, it’s tough to foresee the LMX-161 broadening the market much. That’s roughly CAD $9000, and the five-(admittedly small)-seat Nissan Micra hatchback starts in Canada at $9988. Wait until the end of a quarter or year and you can probably lop some dollars off that. I can’t see many new customers opting for an electric motorcycle — no matter how good — if they can afford a gasoline car, no matter how small.

As for CleanTechnica’s recent Zero Motorcycles article, that’s over here.

Some Oil Majors Will Be Around For A Long Time  🙁

CleanTechnica reported on Shell’s announcement that it would eventually including chargers at all its gasoline stations. It had previously announced plans to install chargers at stations in select countries (e.g., Norway and the UK). It’s a smart move, and one that will go a long way to ensuring Shell’s survival for decades to come. In addition to soon offering services for electric vehicle drivers, Shell is roughly tied for first place as the world’s biggest private-sector natural gas producer, is a player in the petrochemicals (plastics) industry, is the world’s biggest provider of bitumen for road asphalt, and is ready to embrace hydrogen whenever that sector takes off. (Here is its corporate webpage for “future transport”.)

All of this means Shell isn’t going under anytime soon. Neither is Statoil (making big plays for offshore wind), Total (which owns most of SunPower and battery-maker Saft), or BP (getting back into renewables after getting in way too early, and doing chargers too). And as much as a lot of us would want to see ExxonMobil expire before we do … I no longer think that will happen.

Years ago, I hoped that cleantech would reset the world, clearing the fossil fuel giants off the face of the earth. No doubt, some of my long-ago (and maybe not-so-long-ago) ancestors hoped that Jesus’ return would clear the world of sin. The common yearning for deep change stems from a despair that the injustices of the world won’t ever be addressed if the current state of affairs continues; hence the hope that a dramatic reversal humbles the mighty.

In ExxonMobil’s case — as much as I’d love for their leaders to suffer consequences — the company is tied with Shell as the world’s biggest private-sector natural gas producer, so it’s going to be around for a long time, even if it shrinks somewhat. (Think of how the Byzantine Empire was never as big as the Roman Empire, but lasted another millenium.) More significantly, they’re working with Fuel Cell Energy to explore using the latter’s molten carbonate fuel cells to cut coal power plant CO2 emissions by 90% for $0.02/kWh, which is equivalent to a carbon price of $40/ton. Cutting natural gas power plant emissions by 90% would cost even less. (I have an analysis queued up in Greentech Media which should come out any day. I’d hoped it’d’ve been up by the time I started this write-up.)

As loathe as I am to admit it, there’ll probably be enough worldwide expansion of natural gas-based electricity to ensure ExxonMobil’s survival even as gasoline demand declines, and plenty of thermal power plants close enough to old oil fields for ExxonMobil to support the deployment of the fuel cell technology to actually do something positive for a change. 

Ads Won’t Pay For DC Fast Chargers

While Shell will probably charge gasoline-like prices for a fast charge ($0.50 per kWh?), Nicolas wondered whether they could offer the electricity for free, as Volta does. Looking into things further, Volta might have a business case because it offers Level 2 charging, and not DC fast charging. Volta pays for the electricity and maintenance, but it doesn’t cover the installation costs. Malls might even be willing to pay for installations, given rebates in some regions, and the fact that these qualify them for LEED points.

Volta L2 charger, underwritten by ads. Source: Volta 

Volta’s hardware costs are probably on the order of $1000 ($500 for a 30-amp charger, maybe $500 for the TV, stand, and other hardware) and its annual electricity costs would probably be under $1000 per year. Most PHEVs still only plug in at 3 kW, so the calculation is along the lines of: ($0.10 / kWh x 3 kW x 10 hours/day x 365 days/year = $1100 or so). Staff would add more costs, so Volta probably needs to be able to sell $2000 worth of ads on the video billboard each year to be sustainable. If the EV parking spots are right near the entrance of a busy mall, maybe that’s possible.

The problem for DC fast charging is that the setup can be really expensive. Hardware is probably in the $10,000 ballpark and a 2015 report said installation costs averaged $20,000. Demand charges from utilities (thanks to periodic 50+ kWh spikes on a circuit) mean the electricity will be more expensive too. Just to make back the installation cost, you might need to sell $15,000 or more of per year. That’s a much, much tougher proposition.

Renewable Energy’s Low Energy Density Is A Feature, Not A Bug

As another one two coal plants bite the dust in Texas, we have the prospect that wind might out-generate coal in the Lone Star State in 2018. The University of Texas at Austin’s Energy Institute projected there would be up to 24.4 GW of wind capacity there by the end of next year, as compared to 14.7 GW of coal capacity. Even after adjusting for capacity factors (call it 40% for wind, 60% for coal), wind could wind up on top. It’s a treat to be able to watch these progressions in real time!

I noted that some critics (fans of nuclear especially) complain that renewables have low energy density. This is true, but it’s a feature, not a bug. Check out this map from AWEA, the American Wind Energy Association, showing how geographically distributed wind farms (blue dots) in Texas are.

Texas’ wind farms (blue dots) span much of the state. Source: AWEA

Each of those wind farms means local jobs, and probably royalties for the landowners. That’s a recipe for broadly based economic prosperity, and that’s only possible with low-energy-density energy sources!  

We Should Also Acknowledge Nuclear Has Been Safe Thus Far

You know how some people are afraid of flying — despite it being statistically safer than even driving — because the rare accidents are spectacular and kill lots of people at once? Nuclear power suffers the same sort of thing — it’s probably been safer any other source of electricity, but the failures have been spectacular. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that the first person who dies falling off a rooftop installing solar panels will make rooftop solar more dangerous than nuclear power on a deaths-per-GWh basis. (Rooftop solar doesn’t generate nearly as much energy as ground-mounted utility-scale solar panels do.)

As astonishing as it may seem, no one has died from acute radiation exposure at Fukushima; 29 acute deaths occurred at Chernobyl, and an estimated few thousand premature deaths are expected to have occurred around the entire world. This doesn’t diminish the enormous suffering of the people working and living nearby — they have indeed suffered immensely. Rather, other energy sources have killed far more people per unit of energy produced, just in less attention-grabbing fashion.

Maybe the best datapoint on nuclear energy’s safety is the fact that there have been about 2000 nuclear explosions around the world in the past 75 years (eerie video representation below here) and, well, human lifespans have kept rising. That doesn’t mean we should get too casual about nuclear energy generally or nuclear weapons specifically (please don’t give the NRA any ideas) — but if faraway nuclear explosions were super deadly, our lifespans should have been going down by now. (Any flora or fauna living near nuclear test sites have probably had a terrible half-century.)

I’m no fan of nuclear — the old technology is far too expensive, and the emerging technologies seem even more of a long shot than even fuel cells at making a big difference! (And I say that as a fuel cell supporter!) The main thing to keep in mind is that we need to have justified reasons for going against the grain of collected data. I take minority positions on many topics (like, say, fuel cells!) but take care to explain that I realize I’m in the minority, and when there’s lots of contrary evidence, I fully acknowledge it. If I didn’t, I’d be o better than the climate-change deniers who argue for their preferences on the basis of truthiness, as opposed to verified / verifiable truth!

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Matthew Klippenstein is a renewable energy consultant in Vancouver, Canada. He has chronicled the Canadian electric car market for since 2013, and has provided commentary (in English and French) for print, television, radio, web and podcast media. An early guest on "The Energy Transition Show", his work has also been discussed on "The Energy Gang". An occasional contributor to CleanTechnica, he co-hosts our own CleanTech Talk with Nicolas Zart.


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