Sunday, September 13, 2009

Limited Alternatives

Greetings good citizen,

Friday and Saturday’s posts have dealt with the topic of the economic recovery that isn’t and there’s no better way to illustrate the truth behind that argument than to let some of the air out of the ‘myths’ the so-called recovery is pinned on.

Front and center is the issue of ‘alternative energy’ and the urgent need to convert from using fossil fuels to a clean, renewable energy source. Key to cracking this complex problem is the issue of getting things where they need to be, when they need to be there.

Let us proceed to tonight’s offering for a good look at the progress being made in the future of ‘alternative transportation’.

To Hopeful Makers, the Electric Car’s Time Is Here
Published: September 13, 2009

FRANKFURT — The electric car is at the starting line, and the gun is about to sound. Now automakers must prove that the technology — and the markets are ready.
After years of talk and prototypes, some automobile makers believe the electric vehicle is about to become more than just a science experiment.

The French company Renault will unveil a lineup at the Frankfurt motor show this week that includes a purely electric sedan, without a backup internal combustion engine. Renault says the vehicle will be in showrooms by 2011.

General Motors, which recently emerged from bankruptcy protection, is offering the Chevrolet Volt as one of its comeback cars. The Volt is an electric vehicle with a backup gasoline-run generator for longer trips.

BMW will be unveiling the Vision Efficient Dynamics, a plug-in diesel-electric concept car. And Volkswagen is adding an electric version to its Up! concept car.

“This is not a false dawn,” said Paul Scott, vice president and a founder of Plug In America, a group that has long accused automakers of moving too slowly on electric cars. “This is the real thing.” [But is it ‘the real answer’?]

Still, questions about relatively limited range and high costs vex electric vehicles. Two prominent skeptics are Audi, the German luxury carmaker, and Toyota, maker of the Prius Hybrid. These firms are developing fully electric vehicles of their own, but for the moment, are emphasizing other technologies. Audi is pushing “clean diesel” engines, and Toyota is working on a hydrogen-based fuel cell technology that would obviate the need for heavy batteries.

Other companies argue that public fascination with electric cars can be made profitable — soon. [They’re plenty profitable right now…affordability is another issue entirely.]

“Once we put the cars on the road and can have customers test-drive the cars, we are quite convinced that we will transform this interest into a clear market,” said Thierry Koskas, the director of Renault’s electric vehicle program.

Renault’s French rival, PSA Peugeot Citroën, sold 10,000 electric cars from 1995 to 2005, mainly in the form of the Peugeot 106, a compact car. Waning consumer interest and a European phase-out of cadmium, a crucial ingredient in the car’s batteries, ended that venture. But Peugeot is back, having signed a deal with Mitsubishi last week to sell electric cars in Europe by the end of 2010. [Er, but how long will it be before some other rare element is either exhausted or outlawed?]

Electric vehicles might capture the public imagination in much the way that hybrids — the Toyota Prius being the most important —have done in the last few years. But if ambitious rollout schedules give way to delays, automakers could end up feeding consumer cynicism.

“It could be that some manufacturers are awakening expectations that they cannot fulfill in a reasonable time frame,” said Willi Diez, director of the Institute for Automotive Research in Nürtingen-Geislingen, near Stuttgart.

Advocates of traditional engines have by no means ceded the field.

In an interview with Lawrence Ulrich, an auto blogger for the Web portal MSN, Johan de Nysschen, president of Audi of America , called the Chevrolet Volt “a car for idiots.” He argued that the $40,000 base price at which G.M. had hinted smacked of fantasy or, at the least, a narrow appeal to the most environmentally committed.

“No one is going to pay a $15,000 premium for a car that competes with” conventional sedans that cost around $25,000, he said. “So there are not enough idiots who will buy it.” [Add in the cost of replacing the batteries every couple of years and you’re talking some real money…]

Renault, however, says its cars are a “rational choice” for getting around town. “We don’t just want people to buy an electric vehicle because it’s fashionable,” Mr. Koskas said. [Sadly, many who can’t afford it will do just that.]

In Frankfurt, Renault is introducing a lineup of all-electric cars that do without a “range extender,” which is a combustion engine that turns an electricity generator when the battery’s charge is depleted.

(The Volt will have a gasoline engine to charge the batteries on long trips. In the Prius, the range extender is an entire gasoline powertrain alongside the electrics.)

Since most Europeans drive less than 100 kilometers, or 62 miles, a day, or less than the range of a single battery charge, Renault says it can start selling cars before an elaborate infrastructure for charging them is in place. Its electric cars are scheduled to go on sale by 2011 in some countries in Europe and possibly Asia, but not in the United States, Mr. Koskas said. [A more interesting question is what the vehicle will cost in dollars?]

But Nissan, the Japanese automaker that Renault controls, is planning to introduce the Leaf, an electric sedan, in late 2010 in Japan, the United States and Europe. (It will share many components with Renault vehicles.) Renault is not disclosing the cost of its vehicles.

For skeptics like Mr. Nysschen, though, government support for electric vehicles tilts the playing field. The Volt and others, he said in a follow-up statement, exist by the grace of “taxpayer-funded subsidies.”

The Volt’s attractiveness will rest in part on a $7,500 United States government tax credit for purchasers of electric vehicles. And France is offering almost the same amount. [Geez, didn’t know they tucked THAT into the stimulus bill!]

Mr. Koskas counters that the subsidies should be considered part of the start-up phase and should fade away as scale is achieved.

“We will not need this to last forever,” he said. “We are in an industry that depends very much on volumes.”

Indeed, some critics are hedging their bets.

Mr. Nysschen’s company, Audi, created a Web site,, which is counting down to the opening of the Frankfurt auto show Tuesday, where it will unveil a prototype electric car. And Toyota is showing its own Prius Plug-In, scheduled for full release in 2012.

Somehow I didn’t think this article would ask the $64,000 question…but most ‘pump pieces don’t.

Consider if you will, good citizen, where the electricity for these ‘plug ins’ comes from?

Wouldn’t that be either an oil fired or coal fired generating plant? Okay, some of them are fired by natural gas and some of them are hydro…but those are pretty rare, just like the nuke near me.

Honestly good citizen, how many people willing to shell out for an electric car will even consider where the electricity is coming from? All they’re doing is swapping one polluter for another, your net gain is zero.

I don’t know about you good citizen but I think we need to do better than that.

We face the same ‘affordability issues’ with electric vehicles that we do with wind turbines and solar panel set ups.

Perhaps more importantly, it’s no longer a matter of ‘desirability’, we must change or we risk ruining the environment in way we may not be able to recover from.

So what’s more important here, profits or survival?

This is not a rhetorical question and there’s only one acceptable answer…but the capitalists will never go along with it.

We have finally bumped head on into a situation where we must decide what is more important, ownership or survival…and we don’t have a few decades to hash things out.

We have to get off the dime and we have to do it quick, preferably before it is too late.

Understand good citizen that the capitalist model is broken and there’s no way to fix it, but die hard capitalists refuse to accept this outcome, their right to exploit others for personal gain stands in the way of the survival of our species.

The central reason this problem has gone unaddressed for so long is that the solution is ‘distasteful’ to them.

Well, it’s time push came to shove.

Thanks for letting me inside your head,


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