Tesla's Powerwall - Not Economical

Tesla Powerwall

I'm gonna open by saying that I really like Tesla's powerpack. Technology isn't pushed past the bleeding edge without loss-leaders pioneering. That being said, the numbers, as usual, don't lie. On a per-unit-energy cost basis, these things aren't economic in most of the US. Once you consider the externalities, however, the overall benefit does make them "profitable." Likely you will see subsidies to internalize these externalities, thus making the powerpack work.

Unless the inverter costs too much. More on that later.

One major implication I haven't seen anyone talk about? Utility companies currently have to pay people with solar panels who produce excess electricity at market rates. They've been trying to get rid of this for years. This technology gives utilities every reason to demand they no longer pay people for their excess produced solar power. This has enormous implications. It's now indefensible to force utilities to buy at market rates the extra power produced by homes with solar. Read more near the bottom.

It's in my weight class!

Tesla's Powerwall next to a car. Small-ish and sleek. 7 inches deep, weighing 220 lbs

What is this Powerwall?

Powerwall is a power pack that you hang on your wall. It costs $3,000 for a 7kwh pack designed for a daily cycle, meaning it's charged and used once per day. This is the cost without installation. Also, this is the cost if you already have solar cells and an inverter. If you want to work with the grid alone, you have to buy an inverter*. Even if you already have solar cells and don't need an inverter, this seems like it's a product designed for the wealthy. Let's look at the math (my favorite part!)

*Inverters. Batteries and solar panels produce DC current, or Direct Current. This means it doesn't change phase. What we use in our homes is Alternating Current or AC. The alternating current means that the positive and negative terminals switch sides of the power plug. In the US, they switch sides 60 times per second. DC means that the terminals do not switch sides. Hence batteries having a + and - terminal, and all your non-battery electronics not having these.

The Maths!

We are going to make some of the rosiest assumptions in the world. First, though, let's get some solid data lines up. Take a peak at NPR's cost of electricity infos.

1. On average, people pay 12 cents per kwh of electricity

2. In Hawaii, they pay 33 cents. We'll use this as a case study.

3. The Northeast and California, two other case studies, pay about 16 cents.

4. The average American uses 900kwh of electricity per month in their home (from eia.gov).

Really rosy assumptions

1. The sun shines for 300 days a year and provides enough electricity to power your house during shining and to fully charge the battery

2. The electricity grid doesn't buy back your excess solar*. If they do have to buy it back, then the economics discussed here don't play out

3. You've already paid for all of your solar installation and you aren't concerned about those costs of that electricity going into this powerpack

4. These things don't degrade over time (extremely rosy assumption)

Hokay!

300 days per year of 7kwh of electricity provided by this beast is:

 300\frac{days}{yr} \cdot 7\frac{kwh}{day} \cdot = 2100 \frac{kwh}{yr}

So 2100 kwh/year. What's that get you in most of the US?

 \$ 0.12 \cdot 2100 = \$ 252

So $252 per year. For a $3000 battery pack. In most of the US, if your solar panels worked perfectly for 300 days a year, it'd take you 12 years to pay back your investment. This is a 6% annualized ROI (Return On Investment). In other words, you'd make more money in the stock market, so it's a bad investment, not even accounting for installation costs and with impractically rosy assumptions, in most of the US.

What about in the Northeast and California, where electricity is $0.16?

 \$ 0.16 \cdot 2100 =\$ 336

Or payback in 9 years. This is an 8% ROI, making it a decent investment.

Let's be realistic, though. In the Northeast, we have storms and winter. Solar panels don't work so great here. We aren't getting 300 cycles per year out of this. We'd be lucky to get 150, making it an 18 year payback, or about a 3% ROI. What about California? They actually might get 300 days of viable sun a year. So in California, you could be break-even.

Now what's the problem here? Normal people don't look for 8% ROI on their home upgrades. They look for 15%. Pretty much they want 3-5 year payback periods. So pretty much, someone has to have a very green outlook on life to buy one of these. Or there have to be subsidies (more later)

Hawaii

Hawaii has sunshine and electricity costs 33 cents. Let's say you've paid off your solar panels in Hawaii.

 \$ 0.33.2 \cdot 2100 =\$ 700

In Hawaii, with our rosy assumptions and no installation cost, the powerpack will pay for itself in 4.25 years, for a whopping 18% return on investment, without any subsidies. There is a viable business model here.

Seriously, someone go start a powerpack/solar panel installation company in Hawaii.

Anywhere else, and these things will need hefty subsidies.

Subsidies

Why would you subsidize these things? Easy. There are only two reliable power sources that can compensate for variability in solar power: hydro and natural gas. Every other power plant takes far too long to spin up to be useful. In other words, nuclear power doesn't stop producing pretty much ever. Coal power takes about a day to get to capacity, so it can't cycle well.
Hydro power is a limited resource. We are pretty much tapped out in the US, and what we have is already being used, so it can't ramp. We'd have to replace what's currently being used with coal, natural gas, or nuclear to use hydro for solar-grid reliability, so that entirely defeats the point.
Natural gas ramps quickly, and we have excess capacity in the US. Natural gas still produces CO2 that spreads globally, and NO2 that spreads locally. NO2 becomes a strong acid when you breath it in, so we have healthcare reasons to reduce it. Thus it might make sense to subsidize these powerpacks to make people more likely to buy them.
Second, this is good tech. It's pretty much where it needs to be in order to make sense to buy in many parts of the country, if you already have solar. Subsidizing it will cause further advancement in battery tech, making it that much more viable in a wider array of applications. Battery tech is one of the things holding us back from so many viable technology applications, so if there is something to subsidize that will more than pay for itself, it is battery tech that is nearly cost-even now.
Some Extra Thoughts on my Rosy Assumptions
*If Solar Companies don't need to buy back Electricity
In most places, if you produce excess electricity that you don't use, the solar company has to buy it back at market rates. So buying this powerpack and storing energy for commercial purposes is useless. All of the economic discussion above is bunk if the grid needs to buy your excess power. In other words, only greenies would buy it.
One important thing to consider. This product makes storing electricity from solar into a break-even cost in any sunny part of the country. Utilities have always hated paying for this. They lose money on it. They've fought legal battles to get it repealed. And now they have the ammunition they need to repeal it, because it's now no longer a burden to consumers to store their excess electricity for later use themselves.
Maybe consider buying utility stocks if you find a company that is over-exposed to paying for home-solar-produced power? I'd tell you to look towards California here.
Inverter Costs
If you don't have solar already, you have to pay for the inverter to make this thing convert DC back to AC for your home. I can't see any reason to do this. The cost differential between peak power and non-peak is about 4-6 cents in most places. Far too little to justify the expense of both an inverter and a powerpack. A gas generator is a better bet if you need reliable power.
Large Scale Efficacy
I'm betting the large-scale systems are more cost-effective. They don't need to be as small and as sleek. And you can have one large inverter for all of the daisy-chained power packs. Who would buy these? Commercial electricity buyers, like stores.
Who wouldn't buy these? Industrial complexes. They make deals directly with electricity companies and pay $0.07 to $0.10 per kwh.
Thanks for reading!
 - Jason Munster

China's Water Shortage and Power Plants (their power plants definitely have a drinking problem)

In the previous post, I described how thermal power plants use a massive amount of water. This time we are going to explore a specific case. As usual, it's China.

Power plant water use can be a problem in a water-stricken area. Let's look at a case-study. China is a water-stricken area, and has a lot of thermal power plants. In fact, China uses more primary energy than any other country in the world. Unfortunately, their power plants are far less efficient than they should be. So they are wasting water, and this is unsustainable. Moreover, China has 1,350 million people. The US has 314 million.

First, let's look at the rainfall of China, compared to the US:

Rainfall in China, in inches

Rainfall in China, in inches

Rainfall in the US, in Inches

Rainfall in the US, in Inches

Looks pretty similar, right? Now recall that the US has 1/4 the population of China. And pretty much the exact same amount of area. Keep that in mind while we look at China's powerplant locations:

 

China's water stressed areas, compared to where power plants are planned. Source,

China's water stressed areas, compared to where power plants are planned. Source,

So. The places that have the most people and need the most power are the same as the dry places. In other words, China is building the bulk of its thermal power plants in the area that can't provide sufficient water to cool the power plants.

Before coming to the complete picture, let's check out the water use:

Fresh Water Use in the US. source

Fresh Water Use in the US.
source

In the US, 80% of water use is to grow food and to make electricity.

Finally, where is all this water coming from? Rain alone isn't enough, it comes from the ground. Fresh water from the ground is not unlimited, and we are running out of it. It's called Fossil Water, and here is what the situation looks like in the US:

Water withdrawals in the US

In other words, a huge chunk of our country is relying on water that will not exist in a few decades.

And looking at China:

China's groundwater depletion rate

In the US, the scale of groundwater depletion tops out around 400 cubic kilometers. In china, it tops out at 3,000 in regions. That's not to say that the US won't run out. It just says that China is in serious trouble.

Again, 80% of water use is for electricity and agriculture. And China has 4x the people of the US. There is not sufficient water. Would you rather run out of electricity, or run out of food? It's not an easy choice, but food can be imported. That being said, someone has to grow the food, and that country better have a robust water supply. Moreover, food growth is a low income industry. A country that marries itself to being a food supplier, unless it charges gouging levels of prices, is marrying itself to never being a high-income country. But charging price-gouging levels is a bad idea.

While this mental exercise was fun, let's look at some examples.

First, while Californians probably shouldn't have been growing water-intensive almonds in a dessert in the first place, running out of water has imperilled the world supply of all sorts of nuts and things. They are tearing up their farms because of lack of water.

That's only the start. Drought in Syria helped bring about war there. Syria is a tiny country that doesn't matter on the world scheme. India, China, and Pakistan face water shortages. Combined, they have 1/3 the world population. They also happen to hate each other. As climate change progresses, and some countries face droughts, people may not want to choose between food and electricity. They may try to divert water supplies, sparking tensions and even war.

So. Does your power plant have a drinking problem? If you live in China, it definitely does, and it's causing all sorts of strife.

Wrapping it all together: Yes, a country can import food. But you know how much of the world relies on the middle east for oil, and we talk about energy security? That's just stuff that makes your cars move. Remember how Russia threatens to shut off natural gas to Europe if they don't get in line with Russia's plans, and so much of Europe is cowed? That stuff keeps homes warm, but it isn't as important as food. Imagine a powerful country that is mostly reliant on other countries for food to stay alive. That's a really bad situation. The country in this situation has to either take dictations from whoever feeds them (not really a problem if you are getting your food from non-powerful nations, but still irksome), or has to take over a food-producing country.

One potential solution: Chinese power plants are notoriously inefficient. If you have a 25% thermodynamically efficient powerplant, it uses 30% more water than a 37.5% efficient power plant. China should either shut down inefficient plants and require new construction that is efficient, or require retrofits of old plants. It would be very expensive, but less expensive than the social and political cost of running out of water too soon. What about the US? Most of our plants are pretty efficient already. Especially our Natural Gas plants that much of the country runs on. We probably spend too much water on watering desserts to make food, but that's another story.

An almost-final note. While solar power and wind power use water in construction, their water use is minimal compared to that of thermal power plants. Barring solar-thermal (it's thermal, it uses water), these renewable resources are the only answer to the reducing the choice between electricity and food. In other words, expansion of wind power and solar PV is the only cheat code we have to deal with this impending water shortage.

One last thing. Why did I single out China? Only because I know a lot about China. Pakistan will have water shortage issues, but they already don't have electricity. In the summer, they have blackouts for up to 20 hours a day cause they can't produce enough electricity. This is a country of 180 million people, bordering India, and sharing a strong mutual resentment with India. More on this later, though.

Thanks for reading,

- Jason Munster

Apartment Rentals and Energy Waste

Landlords usually suck. And they probably cause some notable percent of emissions by being lazy (I would guess like 1+%) and not modernizing their apartments (modernizing by 1980s standards).

Drafty rental unit?

Background

A few months ago, I wrote my most-trafficked article about why living in the suburbs is bad for your wallet, and bad for the environment.

A lot of people had some ridiculous responses.

The ultimate point of the article was that living in a city is better for the environment than living in the suburb. Many responses mostly ignored the environmentally friendliness part. These butthurt folk only cared about the size of their house (which, as we showed in the previous article, means they probably suck in terms of energy efficiency). If they did, they would have pointed out the giant gaping hole in my argument: most landlords don't give a care about energy efficiency of your apartment. They aren't paying for utilities, they only care about your rent.

Some Sources of Energy Waste in Houses

In my last article, I pointed out that all houses need some amount of venting. So bigger houses will likely need a lot more energy to heat and cool than smaller houses. The driver of this was how many times per day the house cycled all of its air. It will surprise most people to find that the amount of ventilation that is still considered safe will dump all of your heated / cooled air 15 times per day.

Drafty windows, much? (same disclaimer as below, burrowed image from a commercial website)

In most cases, your landlord doesn't care about how drafty your place is. On other words, the old place I lived in in Somerville probably exchanged all of its heat to the atmosphere about 100 times per day (we could perceptively feel drafts through every window and door). So the place took about 4-8x as much energy to heat as a well-sealed house of the same size.

What incentive does the landlord have to fix this? Absolutely none. He doesn't pay any utilities. He gets rent no matter what. Given that a majority of people won't ask what the air-exchange rate of an apartment is, he won't have to fix it.

What about appliances? Stoves are pretty easy. Electric stoves produce heat by using electricity to heat an element. They are pretty efficient at converting electricity to heat, but newer ones can definitely be more efficient and save you money. Gas stoves, as long as they don't leak, do pretty well despite age.

Remember these fridges? (note: I just burrowed this from a random site since I couldn't find a .gov site with an old fridge)

Fridges, dish washers, clothing washers, and dryers, or really any other appliance (including hot water heaters, etc.) are a very different story.

Just go here and play around with how much you'd save in electricity annually to figure out how much you'd save by buying a new fridge.

And then remember that 1 kwh of electricity requires 1 lbs. of coal. And then let's consider that replacing an early 1990s era fridge with a new energy efficient one in MA will not only save about $200 per year, but will save nearly 1300 kwh. Or 1,300 pounds of coal, if you get all your power from coal (or about 700 lbs. of methane (recall that methane produces a lot less CO2 for the same energy production)). I am going to repeat that again. Replacing a 20 year old fridge will prevent the equivalent of burning 1300 lbs. of coal in environmental change per year.

That's right. Your landlord being lazy and cheap is making us burn 1,300 lbs. of coal per year. And the energy savings from replacing other old appliances is similar.

What about replacing windows, doors, etc., for ones that don't leak? For ones that have a lower amount of heat transfer directly through the window (double paned, triple glazed, etc.)? It's huge. You can even get tax credits to replace old windows, making the payback time less than 5 years. But many landlords don't care about this, because they don't face the costs of heating a home. They would just be paying money for replacement appliances and windows, and they would never see a return on this investment.

I don't think I need to belabor this point. Old appliances and leaky housing are things your landlord doesn't care about, but they are things that matter in terms of energy use.

So how to fix it? That's for policy people to figure out. I'm not one of them. But I would suggest a few things:

1. Require that landlords report yearly costs of heating to 65F in winter, and cooling to 75F in summer, as well as electricity bills, every time they show an apartment to a potential tenant. This way tenants can add this price in to their monthly rent, and it will force landlords to make a correction for the market.

-or-

2. Require landlords to not have appliances that are more than 15 years old, and windows and doors that are not more than 25 years old

Obviously #1 is much better with market mechanisms, paperwork, etc. I would go with that, since there is pretty much no overhead involved.

Anyone else have any ideas to address this? Leave it in the comments!

Also, if you liked this, please subscribe & share. Thanks for reading!

- Jason Munster

*Recall from an earlier article that the energy use of heat from electricity depends entirely on the "energy mix" of the grid. If enough of that electricity comes from renewables (let's conservatively say 3/4), then the amount of CO2 produced from using electric heat will be better than gas heat (even if the last 1/4 is dirty coal, hence using the 3/4 conservative #).

Why Giant Houses Always Use More Energy

Big houses use more energy to heat and cool, for reasons you might not suspect. Houses lose heat to the outside. Nearly all houses are drafty in some form or another, and they need to be somewhat drafty, as we will soon find out.

When energy prices skyrocketed in the 70s due to price gouging and market manipulation of oil (thanks, OPEC), there was a big movement to make it so houses didn't leak air (and leak their heat energy in the process). The idea is that for every bit of air you heat and then let out into the environment, you have just wasted energy. So the process of sealing houses began.

OPEC oil embargoes of '73 and '79. The prices of energy spiked worldwide.

Some groups bragged that they could build houses that only exchanged 1% of their air per hour with the outside. In other words, it would take 4 full days to lose all the heat or AC energy of a house to the outdoors. Excellent, right?

It was excellent in terms of energy savings. But anyone with a flatulent spouse/significant other can tell you that being stuck in a place that is producing unhealthy fumes is dangerous if you don't vent it. It turns out that a lot of basic human activity, like cooking and heating, produce things that are bad for humans and need to be vented.

Much more importantly for advanced cultures*, cooking (it boils water, yo) and breathing and sweating make the air inside a house humid. Humidity in a house causes mold that can make you ill or, in extreme cases, kill you. One of the most effective ways to remove all this humidity is to let the air exchange with the outside.

So here we have a problem. We need to seal our houses well in order to save energy on heating and cooling, yet we also need to allow loss of all this heated and cooled air so we don't sweat ourselves out and cause bad mold to grow.

And we arrive to the crux of the matter. A good exchange rate is .6, or that 60% of a houses air is exchanges per hour. Sounds like a lot? It kind of is. But it's what is healthy for normal technology (we aren't all going to install CO and CO2 scrubbers and dehumidifiers in our houses). So in 24 hours, we have

 24 hours  \cdot .6 \frac{exchanges}{hour} = 14.4 exchanges per day. Of your entire house volume.

So. You have to exchange air in your house. About 15 times per day. Otherwise you might start falling ill. If you have a gigantic house that is 2x larger than you need, then you will use 2x as much energy to keep the place heated and cooled as you need to. So, in short, living in a giant house is a bad thing for energy conservation (take notice, Al Gore**)

Next week we will suspend our assumption that all houses have decent exchange rates, and discuss why this is a huuuuge policy gap.

You don't really need to live in a place like this, do you?

Thanks for reading!

- Jason Munster

*Developing countries still use coal. By 2020 there will be up to an estimated 400,000 deaths per year in China from indoor air pollution associated with burning coal for heat and cooking in poor rural homes (160,000 median estimate). Obviously this is more pressing than mold.

**I was going to rip Al Gore a new one for having had a huge electricity bill just after making An Inconvenient Truth, but it turns out that in 2007, before it was cheaper or easier, he elected to power his home, in TN, with solar and wind power almost exclusively, jacking up the price to a level higher than most Americans pay. So yeah, he did have a much higher electricity bill than the average American, but he only used about 4x the electricity, apparently. Which is still a lot. Except that he and Tipper both also work out of their houses. And now they have solar panels all over it. So it's not that bad. Though it is still huge.

 

Nuclear Power: Savings lives

Nuclear power has saved over 1.8 million lives by replacing fossil fuel power sources.

A nuclear power plant!

I've mentioned that fossil fuel power plants kill people and shorten lives by emitting not only particulate matter and smog normally associated with pollution, but also NOx (natural gas power plants produce almost no particulate matter, but any time anything is combusted, the combustion process in a nitrogen rich atmosphere (78% on Earth) produces NOx, so natural gas power plants do produce NOx).

Coal fired power plants, even clean ones, belch yuckies into the air.

Shortly after harping on exactly this for several posts, a journal article came out that exonerated my aggressive stance on how nuclear power saves lives rather than ending them through nuclear disasters. Nuclear power has saved over 1.8 million lives, according to this peer-reviewed research. The authors didn't include long-term health ailments and non-death causing heart attacks related to climate change. Only death: full stop. They go on to say that replacing nuclear power with natural gas would cause 400,000 deaths by 2050. Replacing them with coal would cause 7 million. Meanwhile, the best estimates of long-term deaths caused by radiation exposure from the Chernobyl meltdown, mining uranium, and building nuclear power plants stands at about 5,000 No deaths arose from Three Mile Island or Fukushima. What about the radiation that Fukushima is spilling out into the ocean? It's less than 1/20th the radiation levels found in a banana.

I am a banana. Eating one of me makes you ingest more radiation than Fukushima ever will.

I am a banana. Eating one of me makes you ingest more radiation than Fukushima ever will.

Critics are quick to point out that renewables like wind are cheaper and more effective at reducing CO2 emissions than nuclear. Great. Let's build more wind power. Except that there are not sufficiently good places to make wind effectively and cheaply. In an exhaustive (and depressing) article on the state of nuclear energy construction, it is pointed out that Germany has an installed capacity (recall, installed capacity is simply the name-plate power generation of a plant/turbine at best-case scenario) of 76GW of renewable energy. They then compared this to all of France's installed capacity of Nuclear at 63.1 GW. But, as we have talked about, renewables don't always work. While France's nuclear generators put out 407 TWh in 2012, Germany's renewables generated 136 TWh despite their larger capacity.

"Except like Jason's former manager at JPMorgan, I only work under ideal conditions!"

"Except like Jason's former manager at JPMorgan, I only work under ideal conditions!"

Moreover, Germany pledged to phase out nuclear power after Fukushima. What did they replace it with? Not renewables. Coal fired power plants. Meanwhile, as the US expands power generation from natural gas and ceased buying coal from the US, US coal producers are finding a new market for coal in Germany.

So let's look at Fukushima a bit more. Several things are bad about fukushima. First, it melted down when a tsunami overtopped its protective walls. The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) had told Japan 20 years ago that their Fukushima walls were too low and they could be overtopped by a very realistic earthquake scenario. And now after the disaster, groundwater contamination with (less than 1/20th of a banana's levels) radiation is all a concern. Guess what? The NRC warned Fukushima to get their groundwater issue under control three years before the Fukushima meltdown.

That's right. The US NRC predicted that Fukushima was going to happen, and told Japan to get their house in order.

NRC: Telling Japan what to do since 1980. "We don't have much of a job to do in the US anymore since we haven't built a power plant in decades"

The US has a nuclear meltdown, too. You know what the consequences were? Pretty much nothing. It cost a billion dollar to clean up. That is a huge sum. But the meltdown was well-handled. And a lot was learned from the meltdown.

My point is, the US has it's matters sorted out when it comes to nuclear safety. And we are good at identifying risks in other parts of the world.

Finally, here's the big one, new reactor designs wouldn't allow for either three mile island or Fukushima to happen. With these new reactors, in the event of mechanical failure of the passive systems, the worst case scenario of the new designs is that it would take 3 full days before even needing to worry about meltdown beginning, leaving plenty of time to deal with the situation.

So yes. There are risks with nuclear. But there are guaranteed deaths with coal and natural gas.

The best solution by far is avoiding building new power plants and to massively increase efficiency and conservation. But people are slow at changing, and we aren't gonna change our lifestyles fast enough in the western world to avoid expansion of power use, and the developing world needs to build a ton of power capacity.

So let's stop being scared of nuclear power, cause it's saving lives rather than costing them.

Thanks for reading,

- Jason Munster

Appendix

Oh, but what is this section? Just a bunch of extra information. Check out how long it takes for various countries to build nuclear reactors:

What are Pakistan and India doing that they can build nukes in 5 years?!?

Average, min, and max times of nuclear plant construction for countries that have built them. Source

Hokay, so. I need to acknowledge the bad parts of nuclear power. The real ones, not the fear-mongering that happens.

First, nuclear power is more expensive than on-shore wind (which is a limited resource, there are not infinite good places to put wind farms), coal, and natural gas. There is no doubt about that. If we switched everything to nuclear, many parts of the US that don't have high electricity prices will experience a rate shock. That is, their electricity bills will rise. But hey, remember what we said earlier about efficiency and conservation being the best way to save lives and to arrest climate change? Slightly higher electricity prices would promote this conservation. The initial rate shock would be a bit of an issue, but I am betting that nuclear power's opponents overstate it.

Second, there is an alternative to nuclear that I want to acknowledge, with a caveat. Renewables can't provide baseload power. But renewables paired with load-following natural-gas fired plants can (recall from a prior article that gas turbine based power plants can spin up very fast, and no other major power plant type can) (we don't count hydro as a major power type because we can't build more hydro in the US, we are tapped [punny]). This is by far better than coal, and better than gas alone. But it still burns gas, which produces CO2 and kills people and causes asthma.

Electric Cars

Electric Cars

Electric Cars. Are they really all they are hyped up to be? The short answer: hell yeah. These things are sweet. I want to get my hands on one right now.

Energy flows in the US.

Energy flows in the US. Transportation accounts for 28% of all energy use, primarily from burning petroleum. 

35% of US energy consumption is in transportation. Transportation requires that the energy source be within the vehicle (unless you are in South Korea, where the energy source is induction and is beneath the road. Pretty badass, if you ask me). Batteries currently weigh a lot, don't have nearly as much energy per pound as gasoline, and require a long time to charge. But if we could replace a huge percent of this with more efficient electric cars, it would go a long ways towards arresting GHG emissions.  

120 million Americans commute to work by car. The average person lives fewer than 20 miles from work. Substantially all of them commute alone. The Nissan Leaf gets 75 miles before it needs to be recharged. The Tesla model S goes about 275 miles. No matter what the source of energy for an electric car, it produces less CO2 than a normal car.

How does an electric car produce less CO2 than a gas one? No matter the source of the electricity, even if it is an old inefficient coal plant, the conversion efficiency of an electric car will result in lower CO2 emissions per mile than a gas powered car. The EPA estimates that the Nissan Leaf gets an estimated 125mpg using CO2 equivalent of gasoline. The recent fleet average for the US is about 30mpg for passenger cars. So electric cars emit only 25% the CO2 of your average normal car. Lets be generous and say they emit 40% the CO2 of your best gasoline powered cars.

Commuters would make a very significant difference in emissions if they changed over to electric cars.

Power

Most Americans base the acceleration needs of their car on the idea that they someday need to accelerate down on onramp to get to 65mph on the highway. The amount of power a car has is typically listed as horsepower (hp). This is a terrible measure. The real measure of power of a vehicle is Peak Torque.

Allow me to explain this concept. Roughly speaking, torque is the force going into a rotation of an object. It makes sense to use torque to describe cars, cause they have rotation parts. Think of it as the amount of energy going into the car from the tires rotating on the road.

 \tau = r x F (yes, that is a cross product) where r is the radius, or distance from the center of rotation, and F is the force. For the most part, the torque of a vehicle is entirely determined by its engine. It directly translates to how fast you can accelerate. More torque yields less time from zero to 60.

My motorcycle. Pretty, eh?

Let's compare some examples. First,  my favorite. My bike, a Kawasaki VN750, vs. a Hayabusa (fastest production bike in the world) and an electric bike from Zero Motorcycles, the Zero DS. The electric motorcycle gets up to the equivalent of 400mpg. Compare to a normal bike of around 40-50mpg.

VN750 Hayabusa DS-electric
Style Cruiser Sport Sort of cruiser
Weight 500 lbs 563 lbs 400 lbs
Torque (ft-lbs) 47 99.6
69

Before comparing, let's talk about peak torque. Peak torque is the maximum torque an engine can put out. For a gasoline engine, it is pretty much right before it redlines. So the numbers of 47 and 99.6 you see for the first two bikes means that it is the best they can do. You can think of an electric motor as pretty much always putting out peak torque. In other words, the hayabusa has to jump up to 6500rpm before it can be at full power, then it shifts up a gear, and drops back down out of its full power range. The electric bike doesn't shift gears, either.

Let's look at the Hayabusa power band to illustrate this difference.

Hayabusa power band in yellow. It is not a flat line.

As you can see, the torque output of a gas engine changes with RPM. You will notice the Kawasaki ZX-14 has more max torque, but less torque at the lower end. This is one of the main reasons the 'Busa is considered faster. It comes off the line far faster than other bikes, cause it has higher starting torque. Compare this to an electric engine, which has max torque from 0 RPMs up. You probably see my point about how sweet electric engines are.

So now we can compare electric vs gas based on torque. The electric motorcycle trounces my motorcycle all the time. In the first few moments, it will likely nearly match the Hayabusa. In fact, until the 'Busa hits 3000 RPM, the electric bike won't look too shabby. Why? First, cause it has the same torque as the 'Busa up til the Busa hits 3000rpm. Second, cause it weighs 150 lbs. less. In short, a smaller electric bike kicks butt. (note that the electric bike doesn't have super wide tires to accommodate all its power, so it might slide around a bit when you hammer down).

Where does the electric bike fall short? Range. This bad boy will only go 75 miles on the highway between charges. Funny enough, it'll go 125 in the city. This is all owed to wind resistance.  Back to the point, you can't refill this guy as easily. You need to plug it in. It takes a while to recharge. You can just fill up a motorcycle and go on your way. This bike is pretty much for commuting or visiting friends in nearby cities.

(*2017 update! New electric motorcycles are capable of going 200 miles. Then they have to recharge for a long time. But 200 miles is a long trip).

Also, let's admit it, both my bike and the 'Busa are sexier.

The cars.

Audi A5 Nissan Leaf Tesla S
Cost $38k $21.3k 62,000
MPG 22 102 90
Peak Torque 258 210 443
Weight (lbs) 3549 3354 4650
Range (miles) unlimited 75 275

As you can see, if you are commuting the Nissan leaf makes a lot more sense in every possible way. It costs less to buy than most cars, it has the acceleration potential of a high-end Audi A-5, and the range you need to get to work and back. This beast will accelerate onto the highway just fine. Also, there is the whole power band thing. These electric cars have peak torque all the time.

Overview

Electric vehicles. These puppies accelerate as fast or faster than most vehicles in their class. The shorter range ones are less expensive to buy than most cars, and the cost of making them move is lower. Oh, and they save the environment relative to normal cars.

Whats the drawback? Range anxiety: the other event people think of when they don't want an electric car. Visiting Grandma. People want to buy one vehicle that can do everything they want. There is also the concern of "what if I am in an emergency and really need a car that can drive far right away?!?" How many times has that happened to you in your life? For me, the answer is 0. Any family emergency I had, I took a plane or a bus to.

Most families still own two cars. At least one should be electric. Here's an idea: get one gasoline car to visit grandma when you need, and then get an electric for your commute. Here's another idea: get an electric car or two, and rent a car when you need to go visit Grandma. You will save money either way.

The ridiculousness that is trucks and SUVs? Get a subaru with a roof rack, and rent the trucks and SUVs otherwise. Why the heck are you in a vehicle getting 12 miles to the gallon when gas is expensive, and when burning that gas helps wreck the environment? You, person who commutes to work in a pickup, are a selfish person.

Grid Stabilization

In the Solar and Wind articles, we read that these technologies produce intermittent power. In other words, they can't provide power on demand or at night. Imagine, if you will, that those 120,000,000 commuters all had electric cars. And that they all had excess batter capacity. They could charge up while the wind was blowing and the sun was shining, and discharge while the sun was sleeping and while the wind was lazy. Suddenly part of the problem with wind and solar has some help. This is a huge topic, though, and I won't go farther into it.

Shortest version:

Get an electric car for your commute.

Hokay, that is all for now. I will edit this as I get comments. Thanks for reading!

Jason Munster

Energy Requirements of Disposable Cups vs. Reusable, and Required # of Reuses to Break-even

Most people assume that using disposable cups is universally bad for the environment. In truth, it depends on how they are disposed of and what else would be used in the place of disposable cups. In this post, I focus solely on the energy necessary to create each type of cup, to clean them, and how many re-uses are needed for a reusable cup to have a per-use energy cost lower than a disposable cup. The lifecycle energy use for disposable cups vs. ceramic and plastic cups have a surprising result: a restaurant will need to use a cup nearly 300 times to have break-even energy use*. Home use can be much better**, thanks to our much more lax health standards at home.

The scope of this post is limited to energy, which fails to provide a whole picture view. The next post will discuss other aspects, including pollution and greenhouse gases made during production, disposal, the intrinsic value of having a recycling mindset, and details about how the differing sources of energy used for production make a huge impact on these other factors.

The first part of this post will be pretty boring for most of you, containing basic explanation of units and dimensions that you will already know. If this is old hat to you, skip past the “basic background” section. It is meant for people who are unfamiliar with the basic physics behind energy who might be rusty calculating energy requirements for heating something.

If you know basic physics, skip down to the part beginning with "lifecycle energy assessment"

Basic Background – Energy, Joules, Heat, and Power

The really basic stuff: heat (most people should skip to next section, unless you know zero physics)

This section briefly goes over the basic units of energy. The unit of energy is a joule. It takes 4.2 joules per gram of water to raise it one degree Celcius (or about 2 degrees Fahrenheit). This number, 4.2 is called the specific heat of water.

This brings up another important concept: heat vs temperature. Everyone knows what temperature is. Not everyone knows what heat is. Heat is a measure of how much energy you have to dump into one gram of a substance to raise it one degree. Water, as we said, takes 4.2 joules. Iron take about one tenth of that, or .45 joules. Think about it this way: if you have a quarter of cup of nearly boiling 90°C water, and it falls on you, you are going to the hospital for some burn treatment. If you have a similar mass of 90°C iron fall on you, the heat of it won’t do much damage (although if it falls from high enough, it might hurt). So, roughly, for a given temperature, something with a higher specific heat has a lot more energy.

How much heat energy does it take to heat a large amount of water? To do this, we take the mass, multiply by the specific heat (represented by c), and then multiply by temperature change: m*c* ΔT, where the Δ means change, and Δt means change in temperature.

Less basic stuff

A cup of water is about 250 milliliters, or 250 grams. Raising a cup of coffee to 40° Celsius (about 100° F) from 10° Celsius would take:

m c \Delta T

4.2 \frac{J}{g ^\circ C} \cdot 250 \cdot (40-10 ^\circ C) = 31,500 J =31.5 kJ

Notice that the units of degrees Celsius and grams cancel out, with 1/(gC) from specific heat being multiplied by g and C from the weight and temperature parts of the equation, leaving only Joules. Sweet.

Anyways, 31,500 J is also written as 31.5 kJ (31.5x103 J). Let’s take a moment to convert this to kwh, or kilowatt hour, the standard unit of energy you pay for in your house. A watt is using one joule per second. If we took the coffee cup above, and wanted to heat it in 30 seconds, we would expend 1050 watts for 30 seconds (31.5kJ/30s). How many kwh is this? 31,500J/3600s = 8.75 watt-hours, or .00875 kwh.

Another point of reference for energy is the amount contained in one gallon of typical gasoline in your car. This is 120MJ (120x106 J). 120x106 J/3600s is 33.4x103 watts, or 33.4kwh. You could heat nearly 3800 cups of water to this tepid temperature with only one gallon of gasoline! Or you could drive 20 miles in a car. Or you could heat 3 baths with it (70 gallons of water per bath, water at 40°C, 16 cups in a gallon).

Alright, we are done discussing background energy for now. Onto the real stuff!

Lifecycle energy assessment of disposable extruded polystyrene (Styrofoam) cups vs. plastic and ceramic cups

In 1994, a professor named Hockins analyzed the energy use of disposable vs. ceramic cups. It includes the energy required to extract the components used to create the cups, the process used to form the compounds into cups, and for ceramic cups, the energy required to wash them.

Styrofoam cups (my word processor automatically capitalizes “Styrofoam” and I am too lazy to correct it) are a petroleum product called polystyrene. Styrofoam is the exact same material used in the disposable plastic silverware you use at picnics and other events, and also the cases that CDs come in. How does it get light and fluffy, then? In the manufacture of Styrofoam, gases are dissolved in the molten polystyrene under very high pressure. The Styrofoam is shaped into whatever shape they choose, then brought rapidly to low pressure (extruded, hence the name extruded polystyrene). The bubbles of gas dissolved in the polystyrene expand under low pressure, making Styrofoam mostly air (technically mostly a gas) with polystyrene holding it in place. They are typically disposed after one use. If disposed of properly, the polystyrene can end up at an incinerator where it produces mostly CO2 and H2O upon burning. In this way, part of the energy to make the cup can be reclaimed. If the Styrofoam is disposed of normally, it may be burnt to release black carbon and particulate matter, or end up in a landfill.

Ceramic cups are largely heated clay. The material needs to be mixed in the right proportions, shaped, and heated several times to dry and hold its form. The heating process requires a lot of energy. Moreover, washing the cups requires quite a bit of energy to heat the water for washing the cups.

Let’s get into the numbers.

Our reusable cups: A ceramic cup takes 14.1 MJ per cup to manufacture. A pyrex cup takes 5.5 MJ to manufacture, a reusable plastic cup takes 6.3 MJ. Our disposable cups: an uncoated paper cup is .5 MJ (500 kJ), and a Styrofoam cup is .2 MJ (200 kJ). The first thing we see is that manufacturing disposable cups requires between 4% (Styrofoam) and 10% (paper) of what it takes to make the most energy efficient reusable cups (glass and plastic). In other words, at very best, a plastic cup needs to be used 25 times to be as energy efficient as a Styrofoam cup, or 10 times to be as efficient as a paper cup. A ceramic coffee mug would require 75 uses before it would hit break-even energy as a Styrofoam cup, or 30 uses compared to a paper cup.

Now let’s account for the cost of washing. The same source indicates that a commercial washer requires between 80 and 120 kJ of energy to wash a single cup amongst an entire normal wash load. Compare this to the 31.5 kJ we calculated to heat coffee to a warm temperature. The differences arise in the amount of water necessary to wash and then rinse a cup in a commercial washer, and the higher temperature used in commercial washers compared to the temperature at which we drink in coffee or tea. A commercial washer has a wash cycle, a rinse cycle, and heats the water to a scalding 80 degrees C. Another important factor considered in this, which we will discuss in a later blog post, is the difference between energy used, and energy expended at a power plant to produce the energy used by the commercial washer. Power plants are not very efficient. The average power plant in the US will deliver only 35% of the energy from the fuel it burns. So we have to divide the wash energy by .35, getting a higher number of energy burnt to wash our cups.

Dividing the 80 kJ of energy of a dishwasher by a .35 efficiency results in nearly 230 kJ to wash a cup. This is more than it takes to produce a basic Styrofoam cup. In other words, in the US, no matter how many times you use a mug in a commercial setting, the total energy required will always exceed the energy used in a Styrofoam cup. Note that this is not the same as CO2 emissions (next post covers this!)

But hold on! Who uses a commercial dishwasher in their home? More importantly, who washes their cup every time they use it, besides my sister? Taking the former case and assuming we very efficiently wash the cups by hand, assuming it takes ½ a cup of warm water (heated up by 30°C) to wash a cup (both the temp and amount** of water use are highly optimistic!), and using ½ of what we calculated in the example section, it takes about 16kJ to wash a cup, or close to 45kJ accounting for the efficiency of electricity production. Now we are back to a break-even point closer to 100 uses for a ceramic mug, or around 35 for a glass! Not bad! And if you are like me, and you usually just rinse a mug with cold water and let it dry, or don’t wash it at all because you will be putting the same tea/water in next time, energy use is negligible, bringing us much closer to those 75 and 25 uses!

That’s enough for now. But there is so much left to discuss here! We need to consider many other factors. Pollution from production and disposal of disposable cups, energy sources used for electricity and how clean each is, recycling habits, landfill volume requirements etc.

What can we take away from this before we discuss all the other stuff? Be careful when you say that glasses and mugs are more energy efficient than Styrofoam or paper mugs. This takes many reuses. Another important implication: if you are throwing a party, you are better off buying paper cups (which can be recycled) and recycling them afterwards than you are buying glasses that will only be used during that party (or maybe one or two future parties).

This post is getting long, so I am going to sign off for now, and perhaps revisit this again later. Thanks for checking it out!

-Jason Munster

Edits (11-29):

* Lucas asked about a home dishwasher. A very efficient home dishwasher uses 3.6MJ of energy per wash (from EnergyStar). Assume you can cram 40 cups in there, you have 90kJ per cup, which would bring ceramic break-even re-uses to about 125, and glass to about 45.

** A lot of people are very wasteful when they wash dishes by hand, using a ton of hot water (as in running the water the entire time, probably using 8 cups of water to wash a cup). This is very inefficient and will never allow for break-even energy use.