Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Static Cling

I used to think electric cars were a joke.  They may still be, but I know the ones I heard about when I was a kid were basically gigantic lead acid "vans" promising very little that the American driver was interested in.  So, when I was working on the farm one day, listening to Talk of the Nation with the wonderful Ray Suarez hosting the show, I was delighted to be introduced to the amazing Amory Lovins, who runs the Rocky Mountain Institute, and is probably the most famous designer of "green" architecture, especially commercial architecture, in the world.  Fourteen years later, he is a rock star.  But back then I had never heard of him.  

Mr. Lovins started telling Ray Suarez about fuel cells.  I pretty much thought I'd died and gone to heaven listening to this guy.  His point of view about fuel cells was distinctly utopian.  There's this fuel cell in your car, and it's so efficient that it produces electricity even when you are parked, and support the grid in the process, which you are paid for by swiping your credit card when you plug it into a public space.  Most of that seems crazy to me now, but at the time a old school lilting music seemed to be playing in my veins, and I had to find out more about fuel cells.  Immediately.

Sure enough, about a half hour later I pulled into the downtown library in Indianapolis to attempt a thorough search on the subject.  Man, looking back on that few hours really throws into serious relief how much the world has changed.  Today, I just would have walked into Chalmer's barn, gotten online, and ten minutes later had everything I needed, including the answer to most of my questions on the subject.  I might even glance at a few weeks worth of discussions by a mixture of experts and normal folks like myself.  

But back then, I had to look up magazine articles on the library's computer system.  And look up any hardcover books on either Mr. Lovins or fuel cells.  And check the encyclopedias.  At some point I might quit climbing and descending the stairs and pushing the elevator buttons to sit down and digest.  In fact I remember doing exactly that.  At the time I was filled with excitement.  It didn't seem ridiculous to have to do all that work for some crappy old articles.  It was the state of the art.

So ever since then, until about a year ago, I was an Amory Lovins convert.  True believer in fuel cells.   I still think they will one day have a role to play, but progress has been slow for individual vehicles, and most fuel cells power buildings, and back up electricity.  Sometimes municipal bus systems use them, but just glancing at the finances of such a use is pure whimsy.  Mass transit is a big hole in the budget of any city lucky enough to have it.  State of the Art buses might be possible for institutions like Universities, but I've never heard of someone dying and giving their life savings to the Greyhound system, or Amtrak.  You get what I mean?

So for years I thought fuel cells were "it", but my mind was changed by my egotism and desire to be excited about things that happen while I'm alive.  Bye bye fuel cells.  Have fun on the Space Shuttle (which will no longer be flying next year, in case you haven't heard.  Maybe Hugo Chavez will offer to finance our space program.  Wouldn't surprise me.)  

My despair at leaving my comrade, the fuel cell, behind, has been fairly short lived however.  It would seem we are living in a time of intense creativity industrially.  For the first time since the early Twentieth century, small companies in the United States (and other places in the world) are entering the auto industry with unique ideas, and venture capital.  It has happened so fast it would be easy to think things were always this way.  That is not the case. 

It was, for a few years, my feeling that the Japanese would simply Hybridize the American car industry into The Consolidated Frisbee Corporation or what have you.  There has to be something that everybody wants that the car companies can do.  Now that together they are worth less than Dollar General, perhaps Dollar General should buy all of them and pump out even more dollarish junk?  No, probably wouldn't work.  Besides, most of those dollar stores are headquartered in West Virginia and are probably second to coal in their states economy.  Look on the back of their products.  In black and white "Greenbriar, West Virginia."  Mountain mamma.  Take me home.

So, recently I began to wonder if perhaps joking about Wrigley Gum taking over G.M. wasn't perhaps a bit callous, especially since I have family members wedded at least a bit emotionally to the glory days of Detroit, and a Grandfather who pretty much devoted his life to G.M.  Also, I have a close friend who grew up in Detroit and has pictures of Marx and Lennon on his shelf, and feelings that probably are not much helped by my comparing Juicy Fruit to GMAC.  I have to think about the feelings of others when, after all, it basically serves no one to mock the auto industry.  At least I have convinced myself that I should do that.

So with great earnestness, and vim and vigor in my newfound delight at these red, white and blue institutions, I began to look around on the internet and see if I could actually learn something about the Chevy Volt, that didn't add fuel to my fallen nature.  Turns out, there is some pretty interesting data.

First thing to mention would be the range of the Volt on electricity.  This seemed kinda irrelevant to me, originally, since I thought the entire trick with the Volt was to simply get off gas.  So I bowed to the Volts non gassy status, and figured the forty mile per charge figure to be an artifact of cost benefit considerations in mass marketing the car.  

The really interesting question became for me: how much does it cost to drive a range of vehicles.  How much money could you save, or divert from spending on gas, with a car like a Chevy Volt.  Kinda surprising actually.

Most cars, for gas alone cost between $0.07  and $0.13 per mile.  Say $0.11.  For Gas.  The cost for the whole banana:  insurance, purchase price, maintenance, ect. is between $0.43 and $0.57.  The first place I looked after Googling this, was a "calculator" from some Non Profit in California.  It's unbiased treatment of the subject (in two words: don't drive) had the price of driving at $1.50 a mile.  I wonder if they even realize the damage they are doing to their reputation with such rhetoric.  Every time you go to the grocery it costs you $10.00.  And here you were spending it without even noticing.  Amazing!?!

Bottom line is that conservatively, to operate even a hybrid is probably around five to seven cents a mile.  Period.  A new, modern, diesel truck, I figure is 8 cents per mile unloaded.  So the numbers are different depending on what you drive.  I drive an old truck, not diesel, but my truck is old, and I figure it will die soon.  So I may very well have a diesel before I know it!

But Bloomington is not like many places where people have a commute, so let's do a little thought experiment about one intrepid commuter in, ahem, Metropolis, the name I am giving the secret place I got my numbers from.  Call him Mr. Vader.

Mr. Vader commutes daily (sometimes more than daily, but..) 25 miles on his thirty minute trip to work every day.  Needless to say, at the end of a long day he frequently returns home.  He doesn't have to.  But for whatever reason he almost always does. Its a mystery.

So Mr. Vader in the course of 365 days drives his car, give or take, 17,520 miles.  If Mr. Vader's truck (my future) gets 22.5 miles per gallon, as the internet suggests, then simple division will show that Mr. Vader is standing each year next to his truck while a gas pump rings up 779 Gallons of gas.  

At $2.75 per gallon (my total back of a napkin guess on how the price of gas would average for the last twelve months, probably should he a bit higher, but then, the price presently is much lower, so... should I distance myself from the present reality even more, just for the sake of accuracy.  No way.) that comes out to a cost of $2142.25 in gas in 365 days.  Divide that by the mileage and you get $0.12, which is certainly kind of fun, given that this is an experiment, and such things are best when they reflect some known quantities in the real world.  

So, we are playing with the hypothetical Mr. Vader's life here, and we know he commutes every day, to the tune of 17,520 miles, more or less each year.  We know that the gas costs him $2142.25.  And we know that Mr. Vader is averaging right in the upper registers of "average cost" of operating (fueling) a car.  Using grade school math.  And some Google Maps data.  Easy, but unlike the breakfast dish, it ain't over.

At the current price of gas, Mr. Vader probably is getting somewhere between nine and eleven cents per mile.  My $2.75 per gallon figure was inflated, obviously.

So, now that we know what all those people in the traffic jams are facing, we have some info to make comparisons.  And we should remember that all of the above is a pretty applicable scenario for Buicks and Suburbans (kinda) and Camry's and a lot of other stuff.  Most cars get around seven to thirteen cents a mile.  So we don't have to worry, or be simplistic about those "gas guzzlers" 'cus we're thinking rationally with numbers, not vague impressions, that can be way off the mark (and make a subcompact car owner think driving a small car is equivalent to planting a tree or something.)

So now... the article's I read on the Chevy volt, had some different metrics in terms of fuel cost, namely the assumption that gas is $3.60 per gallon.  It doesn't really matter though, as you are about to see.

Here is the amazing thing:  while it is powered by electricity alone, the Chevy Volt costs between one and three cents per mile to operate.  

Let's make a comparison of activities I do driving.  For example:

If the Volt costs three cents a mile to operate: then it would cost $1.80 to get to Indy from my houses door.  With a $0.12 per mile vehicle, that would be $7.20.  Still pretty cheap compared to Greyhound, but wow.  $1.80, at the high end.  At the low it is sixty cents.

What I am not certain of, is how much the gasoline generator mode, running the wheels would cost.  I'm guessing that a Volt would cost closer to seven cents a mile to operate, past it's forty miles of battery power.  I do not know this for certain.   There is an outside chance that the one to three cent per mile metric given for the Volt includes it's gasoline and electrical range.  But I doubt it.

So the bottom line is that there is nothing on the mass market that will take you forty miles for a buck twenty.  City bus costs more than that.  If a vehicle were operable at three cents per mile I could go to my Mom and Dad's for sixty bucks.  Crazy.  

If you were to commute with an electrical vehicle like the Volt, twenty miles back and forth to work each day, given it's battery range, that would be a lucky figure.  Say you only drove twenty miles a day, 365 days a year (to account for errands.) That would be 7300 miles a year, but for a Volt your fuel expenditure would be $219.00.  Then again that might be way too optimistic:  say it was five cents per mile:  $365.00.  A dollar a day.  For a twenty mile commute.  

Obviously, many more people will be driving longer distances.  That was the trend last century (to say the least) and if this technology matures, I should invest in Caterpillar.  

What will the impacts on suburbs be?  How will China, India and other quickly developing countries view such "cost consequences."  

I do not believe that our national conversation reflects this (consumer benefiting) disruptive technological phenomena.

Will I drive such a vehicle.  Powered by sulphur rich Indiana coal.  

Yep.  If Chevy can get it made, and delivered.

Otherwise we might be seeing a future where people drive the Wrigley Volt.

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