Category Archives: electric vehicles
The Future Of Energy In 2030: California State Bar Conference On April 12th

How we generate, distribute and use electricity is key to meeting California’s environmental and greenhouse gas reduction goals.  We need to be much more efficient with the electricity we use, while ensuring that it comes from greenhouse gas-free sources, like solar, wind, and geothermal, coupled with energy storage technologies. We also need to electrify almost everything, from transportation to home heating.
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The state has ambitious goals in all these areas for 2030, including a 50% renewable energy mandate, a requirement that we double energy efficiency in existing buildings, a related energy storage target, and electric vehicle deployment goal, among others.

But with so many technology changes, uncertainty over federal energy policies, and challenges related to financing and cost, what will the grid of 2030 look like?

The State Bar’s environmental law section is hosting a conference to explore this question, on Wednesday, April 12th in downtown Los Angeles.  Co-sponsored by Berkeley Law’s Center for Law, Energy and the Environment and the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at UCLA School of Law, the conference will feature:

  • Keynote by new California Public Utilities Commissioner Cliff Rechtschaffen;
  • Panel on the impact of the Trump Administration on California’s energy policies;
  • Discussion of the rise of community choice aggregation as an alternative to the traditional utility model; and
  • Speakers from leading utilities, renewable energy companies, public agencies and nonprofit groups.

You can see the full agenda and register at the State Bar’s conference website.  Reduced rates are available for students and government/nonprofit employees.  Register now to secure your spot!

Are Oil Companies Afraid Of Electric Vehicles?
The gas killer?

The gas killer?

They should be.  If some of the projections about declining battery costs are accurate, battery-powered cars will be much cheaper (and better) than gas-powered cars within possibly the next decade.

Electric vehicles like the Tesla Model S are already outselling similar gas-powered cars in their class, and a new generation of mass-market, long-range EVs have arrived with the Chevy Bolt, soon to be followed by the Tesla Model 3 and the new Nissan LEAF.

As E&E News (paywall) reported, one bullish study from the Grantham Institute for Imperial College London and the Carbon Tracker Initiative suggested that electric vehicles could make up around 35 percent of the market by 2035 and two-thirds by 2050:

“The oil and gas industry feels that EVs aren’t anywhere past being niche products,” said Luke Sussams, a senior researcher at Carbon Tracker and one of the authors of the report. “The model shows what might happen if EVs are further along that S curve [of consumer acceptance], just before that inflection point of mass uptick.”

The scenario outlined in the report, which also includes an aggressive projection for solar energy, would see oil and coal demand peak in 2020 and fall through 2050. The amount of oil displaced by EVs could reach around 2 million barrels per day by 2025 — the same volume that caused the 2014-15 oil price collapse.

I’m bullish on electric vehicles overtaking gas-powered ones for two reasons: first, electric vehicles are superior to gas-powered ones in terms of performance and convenience (less maintenance and easy home fueling if you have a garage); and second, battery prices have declined remarkably just since 2010. I remember the days of $1000 per kilowatt hour in battery prices that year; now Chevy reportedly bought batteries for the Bolt at $165 per kilowatt hour.

But the oil industry may not be taking this challenge that seriously. I know someone who works at Chevron, and he told me had presented some of his superiors with an analysis on the “threat of EVs.” But the company, in his words, is run by old-style Texas oil guys.  Oil is all they know, and they’re not in a position to transition the company dramatically to a completely different product.

My guess is the oil industry will have another decade or so of a good ride, but they’re facing diminishing market share. Policies like California’s low carbon fuel standard and zero-emission vehicle mandate won’t help them either.

If I worked for an oil company, I’d be advising them to figure out how to make money off this new paradigm.  It’s coming more quickly than they may realize.

Could The Feds Go Nuclear On California’s Car Emissions Standards?

chargingCould California’s entire set of vehicle emission standards, including its zero-emission vehicle program that has helped launch the global electric vehicle market, come under federal assault?  It’s a worst-case scenario that would require congressional action, but it’s amazingly within the realm of possibility.

California has unique authority under the federal Clean Air Act to regulate vehicle emissions.  That authority requires the state to first seek a “waiver” from less-stringent federal standards from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.  The EPA always granted those waiver requests until the George W. Bush administration came along.  His administration refused to grant a waiver for the state to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from tailpipes.

California sued, but the Obama Administration took office before the case was resolved and then granted the waiver.  But now new EPA administrator Scott Pruitt is looking not only to refuse to grant future waivers but possibly roll back previously granted ones (Buzzfeed covered the issue on Tuesday with some quotes from yours truly).  It would be an unprecedented step that would be sure to be challenged in court.

But the even deeper concern is that the litigation might prompt Congress to revoke California’s waiver authority altogether.  The Atlantic has a great piece on the situation, including this passage quoting Debbie Sivas at Stanford:

She feared that this fight in the courts would accompany a political fight in Congress, as the administration would seek to amend the Clean Air Act to remove California’s waiver power before they lost the lawsuit.

And—almost in preparation for that battle—she asked Americans to take a step back and examine why regulating greenhouse gases from cars is important.

“It feels like this very technical thing about, ‘blah blah, waivers, blah blah blah,’ but it’s a very important part of the climate policy,” Sivas told me. “People aren’t going to stop driving, really. And transportation’s 40 percent of carbon emissions. The only way to get [those emissions] down is to get [fuel] mileage up. If the feds are going to take their foot off the gas—and to fight the states who are doing it—it could be a huge setback,” said Sivas.

There’s a lot at stake in this fight. Federal fuel economy standards are prompted by California’s authority on the issue, and future standards could definitely be at risk. I have a lot of confidence in California’s legal team to fight this assault, but it would be a major setback for the time being.

But if Congress were to revoke the waiver status, and even retroactively apply it, the future of both cleaner gas-powered cars and the nascent electric vehicle market would be at tremendous risk.

Another Chevy Bolt EV Review, While Initial Sales Figures Looking Good


Tesla driver Alex Venz got a 24-hour test drive of the new Chevy Bolt EV, as I did, and put together an extended video review.  You could read an article write-up or see the video above.  He gets into much more detail on all the various features and offers some helpful comparisons to the Tesla Model S (including his own 0-60 mph acceleration tests).

Meanwhile, initial sales figures for the Bolt are looking good, in just its first full month on sale in January.  Green Car Reports describes the numbers:

When GM released its sales results this morning, the number turned out to be 1,162 deliveries. That brings total Bolt EV sales in roughly six weeks to 1,741—far ahead of both the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf after their first two months exactly six years ago.

The Volt plug-in hybrid, meanwhile, logged its own January sales of 1,611, against 996 in January 2016.

Including a few remaining Spark EVs, that means GM sold about 2,800 cars with plugs last month.

This is definitely a car to watch going forward.

Repurposing Used EV Batteries: My Visit To Freewire Technologies

Repurposing used EV batteries offers the promise of cheap energy storage, which brings significant environmental and economic benefits for customers, ratepayers and utilities.  Repurposed EV batteries also have the additional benefit of providing a revenue stream for EV owners and manufacturers, as well as a chance to avoid the environmental impacts from recycling the batteries prematurely.

Arcady Sosinov, CEO & Founder of FreeWire, poses with the Mobi unit in San Leandro

Arcady Sosinov, CEO & Founder of FreeWire, poses with the Mobi unit in San Leandro

Freewire Technologies represents one of the leaders in this field, and I had an opportunity this week to visit their office in San Leandro and discuss the future of the business with CEO Arcady Sosinov.

Freewire takes used Nissan LEAF batteries (and other batteries), tests them for quality, and then repackages the battery modules to fit on a mobile unit called the “Mobi” (see photo to the left).  The Mobi batteries are wired together and then packaged for delivery.

Mobi rack before the batteries are added

Mobi rack before the batteries are added

The initial market for the Mobi was for mobile EV charging, either Level 2 or fast charging (see photo below).  Companies with a Mobi give their employees and visitors the option to charge their vehicles without having to move to a fixed charging spot.  The company also doesn’t have to trench wiring to install such a charger.

Meanwhile, when the Mobi is re-charging, it can serve as stationary storage to either charge more cheaply at night for daytime dispatch or potentially offset demand charges.  At peak times, property owners can dispatch stored electricity in the Mobi instead of pulling more expensive electricity from the grid.

Recently, other companies have purchased Mobis to replace diesel generators, particularly film and television studios that are shooting off-site.  The Mobis are cleaner and quieter and have more reliable power.  Utilities have also been buying Mobis as distributed storage to ease usage on congested substations.  In addition, some cities have purchased them as backup power units in case of power outages that can also provide grid services when plugged in.  Even airports have been buying Mobis to charge the onboard electronics on airplanes without polluting generators on the tarmac.

Mobi used to charge an EV

Mobi used to charge an EV

Ultimately, the sky is the limit for the use of these inexpensive, mobile energy storage units.  And as thousands of used EV batteries come out of cars in the coming years, the supply increase will bring down costs and lead to even more innovation.

Arcady is currently expanding his business to meet the growing demand and supply, with plans to fill out a much larger space in his building.  He’s bullish about the opportunities, particularly with increasing battery supply and growing recognition of the need for cleaner energy sources, particularly in polluted air districts.

Policy barriers definitely remain, as well as questions about how well the batteries will perform in operation over the long term.  We detail some of the policy needs in the UC Berkeley/UCLA Law report Reuse and Repower. But as more companies invest in the opportunities, and innovation continues with companies like Freewire, the constituencies and pressure to change outdated laws and regulations that stymie repurposed battery deployment will only grow.

And that’s good news for Freewire and the industry in general, which is poised to be an important part of our energy storage future.

My 24 Hour Test Drive With The Brand New Chevy Bolt EV: Tesla Range At Half The Price

Orinda parking lotSunday through Monday, I had the opportunity to do an extended test drive with Chevy’s new long-range Bolt EV.  I received no money or other compensation from GM to do so, but I simply asked someone I knew at GM if I could take a spin.  And I figured it was worth blogging about for those interested in getting a Bolt or an EV in general.

In short, this is an excellent vehicle that will greatly expand the market for EVs.  It’s got the range of a Tesla (238 rated miles per charge) at half the price (about $30,000 or less after federal and state incentives) and enough cool features to make the car feel like a technological innovator and not just an EV “check box” from a disinterested automaker.

I’ve driven a Tesla Model S and Roadster, Chevy Volt, BMW i3, Fiat EV, and Mercedes B Class, and my regular vehicle (when I’m not taking transit) is a Nissan LEAF.  So I know EVs fairly well.  The Bolt stacks up solidly or better against all of them, with all the benefits of a smooth, quiet and fast electric drive.

The highlights:

  • chargingRange: it’s a joy having 238 miles in a 60 kwh battery.  The psychological relief is palpable.  I didn’t feel I even needed to check the available miles most of the time, and it was amazing to think I could relatively easily drive to the mountains or even Southern California from the Bay Area in the vehicle with just a charge or two along the way.  It’s by far the biggest selling point and will make the car a viable everyday option for most drivers.
  • The “L” mode regenerative braking: most EVs have regenerative braking, which repowers the battery a bit from the energy taken from slowing down the car.  The Bolt takes that to another level, as taking your foot off the accelerator can quickly bring the car to a dead stop without needing to brake.  Not only does that save battery energy, it actually makes driving easier as you don’t need to switch your foot pedals very often.
  • On board display2On-board electronics: the car seems pretty high-tech, from my limited perspective.  It features a pretty big touch screen, wi-fi in the vehicle, and plenty of info about energy usage, plus smart phone enabled communications and mapping that can be voice-activated through Siri.  It basically functions as an extension of your phone.
  • Roomy interior: even though the car is relatively short in length, the interior feels roomy and spacious.  I like the thin seats they chose, which are comfortable but leave room in the back.
  • InteriorSafety features and sensors: the side-view cameras light up when cars are in your blind spots, and the rear video display sends a warning when you’re backing up and a car is passing by.  Those features can save you some major hassles from avoided collisions.

Downsides:

  • Aesthetics: for those looking for a sporty exterior, this ain’t your car.  It’s definitely a Chevy in the non-corvette mode.  It’s not an ugly car, but it’s not going to turn heads like a Tesla might.
  • Self-driving features lacking: I liked the sensors and safety aspects, but this car won’t park itself or do other snazzy things that you might get from higher-end models.
  • Orinda rear parkNot a huge trunk: you probably can’t drive around much more than a few suitcases in the trunk.  It’s not a tiny space, just not a large one either.
  • Lack of display on battery percentage remaining: in my Nissan LEAF, I judge my range by the percentage of battery remaining, rather than the car’s estimated miles that I could still drive.  That estimate can be wildly imprecise, depending on my speed and elevation gain, among other factors.  I searched but couldn’t find a comparable percentage graphic on the Bolt display, just a visual representation of how much charge remained, which was less helpful.

Overall, given the price and all the benefits you get, this car is a great deal.  I think most consumers will see it that way.  It firmly leaves cars like the Nissan LEAF and BMW i3 in the dust.

Sure, you can spend an additional $10,000 or so and get a sporty Tesla Model 3 later this year or early next year.  But in the meantime, for the budget and the quality, the Chevy Bolt is a true game-changing next generation electric vehicle.

Used EV Batteries — Better To Recycle Than Reuse?

modulesUsed EV batteries — when they’re no longer able to store enough energy for driving but still have a lot of capacity left — seem like a great energy storage solution.  After all, it’s cheap storage that could be used for all sorts of purposes, from backup power to bulk grid storage when multiple batteries are stacked.

Reuse and Repower CoverI’m personally bullish on the opportunities and have blogged about all the investments going on in demonstration projects.  I also authored a report for UC Berkeley and UCLA Law schools on the potential: Reuse and Repower: How to Save Money and Clean the Grid with Second-Life Electric Vehicle Batteries.

But Charged EVs now reports on a new Lux Research study that thinks recycling will make more sense than repurposing:

In “Reuse or Recycle: The Billion-Dollar Battery Question,” Lux says that reusing batteries from EVs “will deliver questionable returns due to reduced performance, limiting them to applications with less frequent and shallower depth of discharge cycles.”

Lux forecasts that, in 2035, 65 GWh worth of used EV batteries will come on the market each year. An oversized 11.2 kWh residential storage system made from second-life batteries will cost about $4,600, compared with $6,000 for a new 7 kWh system. However, reduced round-trip efficiency and cycle life make a second-life system a poor fit for residential units and other daily cycling applications.

It’s an open question to some extent.  But the bottom line is we really don’t know how the batteries will perform.  They may maintain their diminished second-life capacity for a long time.  Or they might be easily repaired to boost cycle life and durability.

Furthermore, we don’t know all the different uses for these batteries.  Even if the batteries aren’t great for deep discharge and regular use, there could be many applications involving less usage, from backup power to bulk aggregations that put less strain on any one battery in the chain.  Ultimately we’ll need to see how the market responds and innovates.

Studies like these will therefore be more meaningful once we get data on some of these ongoing demonstration projects.  Otherwise, it’s premature to make an assessment either way.

EVs Get Big Holiday Boost From Utility & Volkwagen Investments

2014-Chevrolet-Volt-006-mediumThough the future of electric vehicles remains murky at the federal level, due to Donald Trump’s hostility to climate science and love of oil and gas, the industry will receive a big boost from two companies this holiday season: California electric utilities and Volkswagen.

Volkswagen has agreed to a partial settlement from its emissions-cheating scandal, which could bring huge dividends to California if it’s enforced properly:

To mitigate environmental harm from their actions, the companies must pay $225 million into a national mitigation fund. California will receive about $41 million of that money for mitigation programs in the state designed to address the additional NOx emissions released by the vehicles in question. This is in addition to $1.2 billion VW is already paying California for mitigation and zero-emission vehicle (ZEV) infrastructure as part of the 2-liter partial consent decree.

The settlement, together with a previous consent decree, also requires the company to fund two “Green Cities” in California, which must have populations of at least 500,000 with many living primarily in disadvantaged communities.  These cities will receive “concentrated investment in ZEV programs like car sharing, ZEV transit or freight services and infrastructure and public awareness efforts to support those programs.”

An additional $25 million dollars will support programs such as “replace-and-upgrade programs for high-emitting cars in disadvantaged communities (EFMP Plus-up) and the Clean Vehicle Rebate Project (CVRP), which provide rebates and financial assistance for purchase of ZEVs.”

But perhaps most significantly, California consumers can expect new models of EVs to be fast-tracked:

[T]he manufacturers will provide at least three new models of electric vehicles for sale in California — including at least one SUV model — before 2019. The companies must add a second electric SUV model by 2020 and keep these electric models on the market through at least 2025. ZEV credits generated by placement of these vehicles in California cannot be sold on the ZEV credit market.

All in all, these provisions will definitely provide a major shot in the arm for the industry. As E&E news reports [paywall]:

Analysts say that in the early years of the investment, Volkswagen could nearly double the money spent on construction of EV charging infrastructure, seen as a way to spark more sales. States, cities and private companies are scrambling to get a piece of the Volkswagen pie.

“It’s just so much money,” said Ashley Horvat, vice president of strategic initiatives at PlugShare, an EV charging firm. “It will lay the groundwork for the future, and everybody is waiting to see how they fit into that future.”

Of course, some of the existing charging industry companies are afraid this investment will crowd out competition, while others worry it will allow Volkswagen to gain a monopoly advantage in a new industry — hardly a punitive outcome given the company’s malfeasance.

They also worry it may overshadow recently approved electric utility investment in charging infrastructure.  California regulators are finally letting these utilities get into the charging game, as E&E reports:

Last Friday, the California Public Utilities Commission approved a plan by the Pacific Gas and Electric Co. to build 7,500 EV charging stations in its Northern California territory. Ratepayers will shoulder the $130 million cost. It is the third major Californian utility to have an EV charging plan approved, after Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric.

All in all, states and private companies are (no pun intended) charging ahead with electric vehicles. This momentum may be necessary come January, when the new administration and its oil-and-gas allies in Congress could create some major headwinds for this vital industry.

Anti-Clean Tech Forces Launch Smear Campaign To Kill Federal Support, But Are They Too Late?
Begun, the smear wars have

Begun, the smear wars have

Anti-clean technology forces, emboldened by Trump’s electoral college win, are eager to kill federal support for electric vehicles and solar power. Critical to the effort is a smear campaign directed at Tesla CEO Elon Musk, especially now that the company has merged with SolarCity.  As EcoWatch uncovered:

Elon Musk is being targeted by the conservative political action committee, Citizens for the Republic. The group’s so-called Sunlight Project is behind an incendiary lobbying campaign and website called, “Stop Elon Musk from Failing Again,” with a mission of divesting the Tesla/SpaceX/SolarCity boss from federal clean energy subsidies.

The group cites a misleading Los Angeles Times article stating that Tesla is set to receive $4.9 billion in government subsidies.  As Musk described, the figure is derived from “adding up everything that’s ever happened and including things that will take the next 20 years” and doesn’t compare with subsidies for fossil fuels.

It’s not clear who’s funding the effort, but right-wing ideologues are definitely spearheading it:

The Drive‘s Liane Yvkoff also reported that Citizens for the Republic’s board members Craig Shirley and Diane Banister are partners of the right-wing public relations firm Shirley and Banister Public Affairs, that has represented the National Rifle Association, commentator Ann Coulter and the Tea Party Patriots. Posts on “Stop Elon Musk From Failing” are authored by someone called “stopelon,” the same user name on Alt Left Watch, which also happens to be managed by the PR company.

But is it too late to stop the momentum for clean technologies like EVs? As the Detroit Free Press reports, EV sales in places like California have been accelerating due to state policies, while global investment in EVs continues:

These are global companies, and China and Europe are moving forward with their incentives for non-gas-burning vehicles. Whatever the Trump administration does, the rest of the world won’t abandon the Paris Agreement to reduce the global growth of carbon emissions.

“The industry has made a massive investment in electric vehicles,” [Dan Sperling, founding director of the University of California Davis Institute for Transportation Studies] said. “While some would prefer to slow it down, most companies are going to continue along that path.”

And Bloomberg as well notes the global investment in alternatives to gas-powered vehicles:

Gasoline has been the world’s choice to power automobiles. From the 1950s onward, when Henry Ford’s dream that every middle-class American could own a car became reality, gas stations sprung up next to drive-through restaurants and strip malls and transformed the landscape of America and economies across the globe.

Now, however, car companies — most obviously Tesla, but also incumbents such as General Motors Co., BMW AG and Nissan Motor Co. — are putting their money, and reputations, behind electric vehicles. With technology improving — especially for batteries — prices are falling. Tax breaks, particularly in China, are helping sales.

Meanwhile, as Salon writes, other automakers are following Tesla’s playbook of investing in batteries as building energy storage and not just vehicle transport.

So it may be too late to stop the momentum behind battery price declines and improved options for EVs.  But this smear campaign is an attempt to turn Musk into the bogeyman of clean tech and rally the right to ditch the federal tax credits.  Advocates should counter by debunking the claims and trumpeting the domestic economic and job benefits of these technologies.

A 100% Renewable Island In American Samoa
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Si’u Point Trail, Ta’u Island, National Park of American Samoa

I’m a big believer that islands will lead the way in decarbonizing the economy.  Many of them have ample renewables resources, such as geothermal on Hawaii’s Big Island and Iceland, wind and hydro on Kodiak Island, and solar energy on other Hawaiian islands.

Now, on the heels of the big Tesla-SolarCity merger, the American Samoa island of Ta’u used the companies’ products to go 100% renewable.  As the Washington Post reported, the island’s leaders wanted to stop depending on expensive, imported diesel fuel to generate electricity:

“[They] basically just put out a solicitation to see if anybody could provide an alternative to diesel, and that’s something that we responded to,” said Peter Rive, co-founder and chief technology officer of solar provider SolarCity, which was recently acquired by Tesla.

The result is a system composed of more than 5,000 SolarCity solar panels and 60 Tesla Powerpack battery storage systems. The new microgrid could save the island nearly 110,000 gallons of diesel fuel each year, which amounts to about 2.5 million pounds of carbon dioxide emissions, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.  

The microgrid is already up and operating, according to Rive, and covering about 99 percent of the island’s power needs. The battery system can provide three full days of power to the island without sun, he added. And it can fully recharge in seven hours of sunlight.

It may have been easier for this island to go 100% renewable compared to other places, given its ample sunshine and small population. I’m assuming the island lacks energy-intensive industries as well. But the lessons can be applicable to other islands and economies, particularly when you factor in other generation technologies, like wind and hydropower.

Now if Ta’u just switches to all battery-electric vehicles, they’ll pull off the full eco-paradise.

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