Dec 06

Stealing Power

We made a big deal of it several years ago with “vampire” or leaching electronics that continued to pull power out of the wall when turned off. Now there is a story about a guy plugging his Nissan Leaf into the outlet of a middle school for half an hour, stealing about 0.5KW of electricity. At the rate the school pays, that’s probably even less than the $0.05 that is being reported. Now it is probably more than what the average guy with a laptop or cell phone charger would consume in months of similar usage, but hey, we’re assuming he didn’t do this every day, right?

The problems:
The vehicle is a Nissan Leaf: It has no backup method of propulsion. There is no gasoline engine. It is possible that he was going to be stranded at the school, possibly even with his kid, if he didn’t charge up his vehicle.

The guy forgot or was not able to charge it at home or work. His fault.

Charging a vehicle requires significantly more power than a laptop or cell phone. If there are a dozen outlets around the school/building on the same circuit and more people get this idea, then there is the possibility of blowing a breaker, perhaps disrupting something on the inside of the school/building that is also on the same circuit. There could be other consequences to just siphoning some power. There is not a limitless supply of it at every outlet since most were wired with the thinking that not every outlet would be required to provide a full 15 or 20 amps or whatever the car required for charging.

The solution:
Longer range vehicles. The Leaf starts at ~100 miles/charge depending on how you drive it. It declines from there. If your daily commute is 90 miles, it would be a poor choice of vehicle. In fact, if your daily round-trip commute was 45 miles it may still be a poor vehicle. What happens three years from now when you get stuck in a traffic jam in the middle of summer with the air conditioning on?

Charging stations. Parking lots should come with these by default. It isn’t as if there is some magical specialized electrician that needs to install these things. The outlet he used was a standard 110 volt. Put a meter on it and charge a dollar per hour no matter how much you use. Sounds like a great way to make the money back on the wiring, power, and then some.

Turn off outside outlets when not in use by use of an inside switch. Who thought having an unsecured electrified outlet on the outside of a middle school was a good idea in the first place?

Be human. Come on, really? Tell the guy to stop doing that and leave it alone. What this guy did wasn’t endangering anyone’s life. That same police officer ignored probably a dozen people texting while driving as he was on his way to the school to arrest this guy. Why not enforce actual laws that are there to protect life. Tell the guy to do some community service, or to donate to the school at the very most. Imagine you are stuck somewhere and you have a choice of calling a tow truck or plugging into an available outlet for 30 minutes. I’m sure the guy would have been willing to pay something less than the tow truck expense for the use of that power.

Acknowledge the greater problem:
There are penny pinchers everywhere. This type of scenario is going to happen more and more any time someone thinks they can get a free ride. People congregate around unsecured outlets in malls, airports, and many places where the outlets were initially put in for the convenience of maintenance people and other reasons – not for charging cell phones. This is just an evolution of the same idea. Some people will choose to not charge their phone at home and will instead charge it at work. They may save next to nothing by doing this, but in their mind they are getting something for nothing, and that’s always better than paying for something themselves, right?

The greater problem is people’s willingness and in fact anxiousness to get something for nothing.

Conclusion:
I would say that the best solution for this is to install metered charging stations with a fixed cost. People are used to paying $2 for drinks that cost $0.02 to produce. People would pay a dollar for an hour of charging. In the mean time, if you don’t take basic steps to secure or deactivate external outlets in public places, then be prepared to pay as people charge up. I also think we need to get some of our humanity back. Now the guy may or may not have needed the charge to get home, but assuming he did, why not give him a break?

May 23

BP and the Gulf Oil Spill

I try to refrain from getting too political here, but there is enough technology in this disaster and I feel strongly enough about it that I need to say something.

  • Just about every plan that BP has thought up involves recovering the oil. Are they more concerned about tapping the black gold or fixing the environmental disaster?
  • The expert’s long term solution requires a relief well to be drilled. Can we let another company start drilling this NOW? Why do we have to wait months and months for this to begin?
  • The US Government’s failure was due to them not enforcing or properly inspecting using current laws and standards. Why create new legislation or standards if we are not willing to enforce the ones we already have?
  • BP’s executives promised to pay for all the disaster recovery costs yet their liability is legally only $75 million. They have not addressed this obvious question. Do they have insurance? Are they prepared to pay above the $75 million cap, because it’s likely to cost more than 100 times that, and some things will be just impossible to fund enough to clean up.
  • What about economic losses years into the future as this mess spreads around Florida hurting their tourism industry and up the east cost disrupting fishing and tourism potentially for years?
  • What about economic losses for other countries such as Mexico whose government may not be as tolerant as the US government is by capping their liability?
  • What is the long-term danger of these chemicals that they are pumping into the ocean to break up the oil? Where is the openness and who is the oversight on this technology? If the oil is still in the water but we can’t see it, how does that help?
  • I work with computer servers and technology all the time for a large business. We have a contingency plan for just about every scenario including failures during a recovery operation. We won’t be causing ecological damage while we recover, but we will be losing money. BP is doing both right now yet no one thought about this possibility and developed a disaster recovery plan for the initial blowout or a contingency plan in case that failed? There are plenty of ways an oil rig like that could have been destroyed, many of which do not involve negligence of any time by the oil company or the government. Where’s the plan for this?
  • Why is BP concealing the extent of the spill?
  • Why are people still buying BP gasoline in the US today?!?!?

I believe BP is operating this cleanup effort with an eye on profits from the oil rather than the cost of the environmental disaster. This would lead me to believe that BP has no intention of paying the full costs of the cleanup and economic losses as a result because the cleanup will cost more than the value of the oil that has already spilled into the ocean. It would also then follow that if people would vote at the pump by picking other gas stations over BP until they fixed the problem that would speed up the time it would take them to fix the problem. I drove by a local BP station twice today and both times there were cars lined up buying gas even though there are stations nearby who are selling gas at the same, lower, or slightly higher prices. What sane American would purchase gasoline from BP right now? Why would you support a company who views profits above responsibility? I would understand if BP had lower prices and people needed to save a buck, but why do people get off the highway, drive past a cheaper Mobil station, and purchase more expensive BP gasoline? It makes absolutely no sense.

I know my audience is extremely limited, but please if you read this, don’t by gas at BP until they fix this problem. Please spread this message. I heard someone at church today who sounded like they were hearing about this problem for the first time. We need to get this message out or our complacency will allow BP to act in their own interests without consequences. Our votes as their revenue stream at the gas pump will matter more to BP than anything our government is likely to do to them.

Dec 17

GM Needs to go Bankrupt

GM has halted work on the factory that is to produce the engine for the Volt. This is absolutely the last thing they should be doing right now. They need to commit 100% to the Volt at the expense of all else. I don’t care if they halt every other production line and sell every car on a lot for half price, they need to downsize and fully invest in the Volt. Their survival depends on it. This to me is just evidence that either GM has no idea what they are doing, or they are trying to manipulate the public into giving them cash so that they can continue working on the Volt. It’s time to take them over and hand off Volt technology to a company who will know how to build it properly and market it effectively.

Oct 31

Electric Mini Cooper

Every time a new electric vehicle is announced or I see more information I get excited. The Mini Cooper is a letdown, however. There will only be 500 of them, their US market will be limited, and the cost is beyond reasonable. The Electric Car Blog has more details including cost on it along with some pictures. Wired also has some information. It looks nice, but looks do not justify that cost. It just sounds a lot like the EV1. Will it actually ever become a consumer car?

I am still waiting for an affordable car that can reach 50 MPH, take me at least 30 miles on a charge, and be affordable. I don’t think car manufacturers understand that the market really does exist. With gas prices going back down they seem to believe that consumer demand will also decline. There are still environmentally conscious people who would like to drive a car that does not burn fossil fuels in an inefficient manner.

Oct 07

Battery Technology

Battery technology is possibly one of the hottest areas of research today, at least in terms of practical application. The three most influencial sources for demand are electric cars, laptops, and cellphone/media player/gadgets. I group the last together because there is little significant difference between them as far as battery technology goes. The cellphone, media player, and gadget niche is pretty stable and its needs fulfilled. Most devices have plenty of power for normal uses and recharging them is not an inconvenience. Laptop batteries are not to that point yet. Dell and HP are working diligently to combine low drain components with extra batteries to increase the endurance of their laptops, yet extra batteries still add extra weight and charge time. Electric vehicle batteries are even further away from meeting what is required of them.

Continue reading

Oct 02

The Volt and NASCAR

Chevrolet Volt photographed at the Washington ...

Image via Wikipedia

I saw an article on CNN today called NASCAR, meet the electric Chevy Volt. I have been watching the Volt story unfold and am very excited about it. I couldn’t wait, however, so I just swapped my 24MPG car for something that gets 36MPG. Some highlights from the article include, as I had hoped, an “electric” performance. If Chevy can blend fun with economical, and I mean economical in both the initial cost and ongoing cost, then they will surely have a winner. Hint: $40k is not economical, and Toyota may get the upper hand.

I still see the occasional ignorance about the Volt as I read other blogs about it. The most common misconception is that it will only run 40 miles on a battery and then have to be recharged for many hours. This is why the Volt is different from many other electric car concepts. The Volt has a generator inside that can charge the battery as the car runs to extend its endurance indefinitely. In other words, this car can get you to and from work (if you are like 75% of all drivers) without spending a penny for fuel, but can also get you to your summer vacation destination. An example complaint is here where Autoblog complains that a range of 360 miles is a terrible thing. I guess they forgot that we have these things called gas stations and they are everywhere. In fact, they even like to build stations right next to eachother, and filling up a guestimated 8 gallon tank to go 360 miles still gives 45MPG and takes all of 5 minutes to do. It would take even a fast driver over 4 hours to drive 360 miles, and my argument is that 4 hours is plenty of time to drive inbetween stretching your legs and using the restroom.

The second poor understanding I see out there has to do with conservation. This includes arguments such as, well it still has a gasoline engine, and well coal fired power plants are just as bad as gasoline engines. I addressed this in an earlier post. The only issue I have here is that if every home did suddenly get one of these overnight, our electric generation and distribution would be unable to handle it. We do need to improve our infrastructure and our capacity, but it will take many years for everyone to get one of these in their garage, and electricity usage will ramp slowly.

The final misconception I want to talk about is the fun factor, and that’s what CNN addressed with NASCAR. What is it really about NASCAR that we like so much? We like the noise, sure, but watching it on television does not provide the same noisy experience as sitting at the track, but we still like that. I think that NASCAR will be able to convert us to quieter cars. The cars will not be completely silent because there will be tire noise, a whine of an electric engine, and even some wind noise to deal with. There is something fascinating about speed and technology. Personally I think that they blend well together, but then I’m a geek and what do I know about NASCAR.

Sep 09

Plug-In Hybrid

I’ve talk to a few so-called environmentalists who are against the plug-in hybrid. “Where do you think the electricity comes from?” is their rhetorical question. The problem with them is that they don’t realize about things like efficiency. Even in gasoline engines there is an efficiency factor that can’t be denied. A typical lawn mower may use less gasoline per hour than a typical car, but in that single hour it produces the equivalent emissions of a 350 mile drive in a typical new car. [Reference: EPA] In the same way, even a coal-fired electric plant could power more cars with less polution than gasoline engines. A fuel cell is more appealing, but the technology is too far off. We need to start getting into electric vehicles now and move to the fuel cell when that technology is ready. In the mean time, mass production and competition will introduce better batteries and more efficient electric engines.

It looks like the Volt will be the first one to make it into production, but I could be wrong about that. I’m ready to buy one right now, and I would if it were available. My daily commute is around 8 miles with an additional 16 for nights I go out shopping, to church, to eat, etc. With the Volt I would rarely have to use the internal gasoline generator. I would absolutely never buy a GM vehicle unless it was something this progressive. I just wish they’d step up the timeline some. Every time there is some new press (this time photos leaked) on this I’m more anxious than before.