Finding a solution to clean energy is one man's quest

Andrew West has nothing against clean energy.

"But they don't have the capacity to make a measurable difference in the near term," he says.

West says he has spent the past decade and about $7 million searching for solutions to big problems. One of those is clean energy. He and I began an email conversation after West commented on a colleague's blog post about the study "Beyond Boom & Bust," which said clean energy has reached a crossroad because federal support is expected to plunge. The study was put together by the Breakthrough and World Resources institutes and Brookings Institution.

West's focus is on concepts that can make an immediate difference. "We have been held hostage by oil imports, and the availability of energy is necessary for our continued growth," he says.

More than clean energy

West didn't limit his quest to energy. On his site, solutioneur.com, he also outlines concepts to tackle and develop sustainable agriculture, assist education, create affordable urban living and enable more effective and job creating charitable giving.

The quest is a big one and potentially all consuming, especially for one guy. But the Earth has big problems, and we all need to do our part. Rebecca Solnit writes of "chipping away" at the problems facing the current economic quagmire and besieged climate on TomDispatch.com. "We now live in a world that is wilder than a lot of science fiction from my youth," she says before extolling her readers to "find your way into solidarity and people power, and dream big about other futures."

And West dreams big. His solutions are listed as intellectual property and owned by his AWEquities LLC. His Solutioneur Foundation is a nonprofit "that seeks to provide assistance in the research, development and demonstration of ideas, concepts and projects that can have an important social impact and can be shared with the world more rapidly."

Oxy-fuel combustion

As for clean energy, he suggests replacing coal and traditional natural gas-fired power plants with oxy-fuel combustion technology, which he says can produce twice the kilowatts and slash emissions compared to traditional natural gas plants. Oxy-fuel technology also has been tested using coal to reduce pollution by the National Energy Technology Laboratory.

Oxy-fuel combustion has been extensively studied but a google search shows much of it geared to coal and CO2 sequestration. The process involves burning fuel in a nitrogen-lean and carbon dioxide-rich environment, accomplished by supercharging the combustion process with exhaust gas and oxygen, according to a Massachusetts Institute of Technology study.

This results in emissions "of predominantly carbon dioxide and condensable water" rather than traditional nitrogen-rich stack exhaust. Applications also include manufacturing, studies show.

West says he'll release information on a project to demonstrate oxy-fuel combustion on a natural gas power plant in the near future. "Oxy-fuel natural gas can reduce CO2 by 80 percent, eliminate NOx and SOx, without any increase in the price of electricity," he says.

Plug-in hybrids

West says with cleaner energy, the best option for transportation is hybrids that have a range of about 50 miles on batteries (basically a little better than a Chevy Volt). "This would reduce CO2 emissions from automobiles by 50 percent or more," he says.

An analysis by Adam Aston at GreenBiz.com of conclusions by the EVProject, which has compiled data from 24 million miles of electric vehicle drivers, shows that most EV drivers don't exceed 27.7 miles a day, that Volt owners like to use electric mode rather than gas, that average recharge times are 1.5 hours and that it's too early to judge demand.

West says, "I know there is a lot of anger towards any fossil fuel, including natural gas, but it can be burned cleaner and the results make a significant difference now."

He's one of a growing army of people looking to promote change an idea at a time.

Building a sustainable-car market with 8 horses

Jim Kor could design great heavy machinery and standard automobiles.

But he wanted something more, something sustainable.

What he came up with is an 8 horsepower car he calls the Urbee. His crew designed it by taking what he calls the "long view," looking for ways to reduce impact while providing people a way to continue their car-centric pursuits. He said that now there are about 1 billion vehicles on the road.

"By mid-century, there could be almost 2 billion," Kor said in a presentation at the State of Green Business Forum in Chicago early in 2011. "This could lead to global ecological catastrophe."

Reducing smog

Perhaps. Two times the number of internal-combustion engines burning fossil fuels could smoke the skies, adding dangerously to the already high carbon content of the atmosphere. But many besides Kor are engineering concerted efforts to subvert that scenario. A number of those projects found their way to the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, the Sturgis (for you biker fans) of U.S. car shows.

As never before, designers and innovators are looking to engineer the automobile to run on something more than a gallon of fuel every 10 to 12 miles. Not that there's anything wrong with awful mileage, within reason. There are quite a few cars far beyond my reach that I'd love to have in my stable.

Mercedes joins the game

Mercedes-Benz, which is hardly known for its fuel-sipping ways, came out with several models of interest. The most obvious and different looking is the Smart pickup, which runs on a 55 kilowatt magneto-electric motor, powered by a 17.6 kWh-capacity lithium-ion battery pack, according to Ben Coxworth, a reporter for gizmag.com.

"The Subaru Brat-like mini rear cargo bed definitely gave it a unique car-truck-combo appeal ... or repulsion, depending on the observer," Coxworth writes.

Mercedes also debuted its E300 diesel hybrid, which writes Sebastian Blanco of autoblog.com, is expected to get 45 miles per gallon, while the gas-electric E400 Hybrid is expected to get 27 mpg.

Sailing the autobahn

Blanco says the E-Class hybrids use a combination of lithium-ion batteries, regenerative brakes and the ability to "sail" to save fuel. "Sailing here means that, at speeds of up to 100 mph, the combustion engine can switch off while the electric motor keeps the car moving," he says.

Mercedes maintains its traditional horsepower with 231 for the E300 and 333 for the E400.

That's not super green but far better than most luxury performance sedans I occasionally dream of owning. Here's a post I wrote while still business editor of the Fresno Bee about perhaps my ultimate ride, the Audi A8, driven by Jason Statham in "Transporter 3." Fuel economy: 16 mpg, according to the U.S. Department of Energy's fueleconomy.gov. The car is amazing, and I can just imagine shortening the ride from my sister's house in Hermosa Beach from four hours to two plus, screaming down 99 in the pitch black sharing the road with nobody but truckers.

Building a better Urbee

Kor's venture is not yet ready for prime time. His base is in a Winnipeg, Manitoba shop, and he could use some investors. The Urbee is a hybrid that's engineered to slip through the wind with the least amount of resistance and expended power. He says he wants to make it simple and patterned it after the easy-to-build-and-repair Ford Model T and Volkswagen Beetle.

Kor says the majority of what's produced today is unsustainable, and he'd like to help change that. "The solution resides within all of us," he says.

Cars are an obvious entry point to sustainability. They're full of fantasy and style, as Kor says. Make the next Aston Martin DB5 ("Goldfinger" version) in green and watch the industry evolve overnight, or something like that.

Ford electrifies Fusion

Even Ford is getting into the alternative transportation game. Globalenergywatch.com reports that the automaker's Fusion is the first sedan to offer gasoline, hybrid and plug-in hybrid versions this year.

"Derrick Kuzak, Ford's group vice president of global product development tells the site: "We brought our global teams together around a blank slate with the charge to develop a mid-size car with ground-breaking design and jaw-dropping fuel economy."

Ford's entry continues to crowd the field, adding to Chevy's Volt, Nissan's Leaf, Tesla's Roadster and upcoming Model S and various other makes.

EVs stalk commercial market

It's hard to say how the segment will fare with consumers, who fret about range and recharge speeds. But energy costs, especially with continued uncertainty of supply from the Middle East, drive development of electric and hybrid vehicles. And don't expect any sustained declines in fuel prices.

Ulicia Wang of earth2tech.com reports another trend that could sneak up and grab a bunch of market share: commercial trucks. VIA Motors, headed by former General Motors Chairman Bob Lutz, retrofits new trucks with electric/gas drive-train capable of 402 horsepower. The first 40 miles is electric with a range of 400 miles using the gas engine.

Wang says the company plans target corporate clients and later consumers.

Green car rental

And there's the Venice Beach, Calif.-based outfit MPG Car Rental, which rents a fleet of high-mpg vehicles like the Honda Insight and Chevy Volt to people in Los Angeles. "MPG is helping reduce our carbon footprint and bring an affordable green alternative to car rental," the company says.

More like-minded companies will spring up. Their success or failure will help chart the course of the electric-vehicle segment. I'm betting such entrepreneurship, high gas prices and an expanded EV and hybrid lineup will pull in significantly more believers.

And that's not even counting the electric motorcycle market.

Photo: gizmowatch.com

EV, hybrid sales mediocre but sector expected to grow

Electric cars are coming to a lane near you, but nobody seems to know how quickly or what to what extent the U.S. consumer will switch from filling up to powering up.

While the latter term definitely sounds cool, few have adopted the concept. Edmunds Auto Observer reports that the two battery-powered vehicles and 29 hybrid models now on the market remain below 2 percent of U.S. auto sales.

"Were it not for Toyota, there'd barely have been a July hybrid market to track," writes John O'Dell for Edmonds.

Sales up in mid-summer

Sales crept up in July over the previous month but still remained below the same period a year earlier at about 18,000 hybrids and EVs. O'Dell says the high price for premium technology doesn't sell well in a soft economy, especially when small cars with conventional engines are getting such good mileage. Much of this may be due to availability of electrics, of course.

Sales forecasts show different scenarios. Two provided by going-electric.org indicate slow but steady growth over the next decade.

Going-electric says the most pessimistic forecasts predict that sales of electric cars, including plug-in hybrids and fuel cell vehicles, reach 3 percent of all new cars while the most optimistic show the market segment growing to about 15 percent.

While the site said sales through 2020 largely depend on government incentives for consumers and car makers, it did predict that sometime during the new decade EV and hybrid sales "will rapidly rise to a near 100 percent."

Some goals fall short

A new report by Boulder, Colo.-based Pike Research says that sales expectations by President Obama of 1 million plug-in electric vehicles on the streets by 2015 "appears to be well beyond what the actual vehicle market is likely to be."

Pike Research does say the annual market for plug-ins should grow to about 1.3 million vehicles by 2017, and that the overall market, with hybrids, should grow to 2.9 million. Not bad.

The U.S. Department of Energy hopes to make sure local governments are ready. DOE unveiled a couple of programs designed to help cities, counties and states design permits, provide inspectors with training and speed inspections

Standardize charging station regs

The idea is to create a standardized process and "create more favorable conditions for EV businesses, including infrastructure providers and installers, to thrive as more plug-in electric vehicles come to the market," officials said in a press release.

One of the serious downers for electric car drivers is range anxiety. Most of the cars get less than 100 miles. While no big deal for a set commute, throw in an extra trip, a wait in traffic and the driver starts worrying if he'll have to do the Fred Flintstone and push with his feet. No Yabba Dabba Do there.

However, there is some help in that department. Ariel Schwartz of fastcompany.com put together a piece on phone apps that highlight nearby charging stations. Of course those are few and far between, but more are promised.

Expect more EV sightings. I've seen Nissan Leafs when I'm least expecting it and passed a Chevy Volt down by Pixley on Highway 99.
Photo: Porsche 914 EV conversion on sale for $9,000.

US consumers still skeptical of green cars

Consumers in the United Kingdom like cars that get great mileage.

In fact, according to a recent study by Motoring.co.uk, Toyota Prius sales in Great Britain are up 51.5 percent in the first quarter of 2011 and Nissan's Leaf looks like another big hit.

Meanwhile, across the pond, U.S. consumers are less excited by green automobiles, a category that includes hybrids and electric. Sure, small car sales are up and Chevy's done great business with its revamped automotive lineup that includes the electric/gas Volt.

But automotive consultant JD Power and Associates in its inaugural 2011 U.S. Green Automotive Study says, "Automakers will be fighting over the relatively few consumers who are willing to drive green."

It could be the price of fuel. Petroprices.com reported an average UK cost to the equivalent of about $8.33 per gallon. That compares with a California average of about $4.12 as of May 23, according to AAA.

Big motivator. Americans are used to towing, hauling and packing in the number of passengers we want. Need help with that horse trailer? How about grabbing a tow bar and dragging that piece of junk Oldsmobile to the nonprofit junk car fundraiser?

Sure, we say. No problem. That's what that 460-cubic-inch monster in the pickup out back is for. Step on the gas pedal and watch the little red needle on the fuel gauge drop. It's a matter of pride with a lot of us.

Westlake Village, Calif.-based JD Power says that cultural phenomenon may stick with us awhile. I certainly haven't seen a decrease in the number of massive SUVs on the road. I find it reassuring to be sandwiched between a couple of them in a parking lot. Backing-out roulette is always an invigorating experience.

The study says consumers cite purchase price as a stumbling block to get into the new line of green cars. Remember, this is for electric and hybrid automobiles.

Other problems mentioned by consumers were driving range, or lack of it (a Leaf, according to a source, gets about 84 miles to a charge), increased maintenance costs and performance. The study says consumers are more likely to "switch into a more fuel-efficient vehicle powered by a traditional internal combustion engine than an alternative powertrain vehicle."

Yet, I've written about how Honda has positioned its hybrid Insight base price very close to that of the Civic. The statistics for performance aren't much different, although, and I've mentioned this before, my wife said there was no way anybody would catch her behind the wheel of "that thing," as she referred to the Insight. She purchased a Civic.

Peggy's issue was more cosmetic. She didn't care for the design, but like other consumers in the JD Power study she also worried about battery replacement costs.

My family tends to keep our cars and drive them a lot. Our daughter sold the 1986 Accord LX at 360,000 miles and it was still going somewhat strong. My 1981 Toyota pickup was cut up for scrap at about 260,000 miles but by that time was so tired and rotted out rust-wise that it had few usable parts.

And I'm still bound and determined to keep my 1974 Super Beetle functioning.

Drivers in the UK are a bit more adventurous, and perhaps a bit more insightful. Chris Green, co-founder and sales director of Motoring.co.uk, said increased demand can be traced to increased reliability and performance.

"In the future, we will see more and more people opting for cars that are cheap to maintain rather than splashing out on models to impress the neighbours," Green said in a statement. He estimated demand will increase in the island nation dramatically over the next 18 months.

And in this country, expectations are that consumers will buy into the alternative concept. Nissan has said it will install 30 solar-assisted charging stations at its Smyrna Vehicle Assembly Plant in Franklin, Tenn.

And they will have a lot to choose from. JD Power says that by the end of 2016, it expects manufacturers to offer 159 hybrid and electric vehicle models in the U.S. market. In 2009, there were 31.

Photo: Along the Oodnadatta Track, Australia, by mancity.

Honda tempts new market with cheap Insight

Honda recently released a new value model of its hybrid Insight.

The manufacturer's suggested retail price is $18,200 plus a delivery fee of about $750. It's a base model designed to appeal to buyers possibly on the fence about purchasing a hybrid. That's a significant difference from Toyota's Prius, priced at $22,800, and Ford's Fusion hybrid, priced at $28,990.

Hybrid sales are expected to decline for the third year in a row, according to Bloomberg Businessweek, and this may be an effort by Honda America to inject some energy and a new demographic into the gas/electric sector.

That theory got me thinking about my own brush with a hybrid purchase. At the Central California Auto Show in Fresno in 2008, my wife and I spent a little time sitting in a nice dark blue Civic hybrid debating its merits: fuel economy versus a higher price tag.

We were still thinking about it last year when she and I walked into the Clawson Honda showroom in Fresno intent on leaving with a vehicle.

We'd done quite a bit of research and wanted a fuel-saving, bullet-proof commuter that could put up with Peggy's daily commute to Riverdale, a quiet hamlet surrounded by dairies about 30 minutes south of our house in Clovis. The hybrid wasn't off the menu, but we had settled on the price not exceeding $21,000.

She just wanted a Honda.

I didn't argue. She was driving a 1986 Accord LX fastback when we met. My impression was typical: nice car, gorgeous girl.

We had the transmission rebuilt and gave it to our daughter at 186,000 miles. It lived through Anchorage, Alaska salt-infused winters, blown over Douglas fir trees on Camano Island's Sunset Beach in Washington and the desert winter wind in Kennewick, Wash. with nary a scratch and an almost immaculate interior. It's still alive in Bellingham, Wash. My daughter sold it to a college student. It has almost 400,000 miles on the odometer.

That Accord was a billboard for the Honda nameplate. However, I talked my wife into replacing it with a Volkswagen Passat station wagon. My reasoning was simple. Honda didn't have a station wagon, and we needed something more economical for trips than the Jeep Grand Wagoneer and its 10 mpg.

That day in the Clawson Honda showroom went pretty much as expected. We told the salesman our terms, saw what they had in stock and wound up settling on a gray Civic very similar to hundreds of thousands of others on U.S. streets.

While my wife negotiated details, which were pretty straightforward since we paid cash, I went and sat in the Honda Insight. "You could be driving this for a few thousand more," I told her.

She made a face, saying there was no way under any circumstances she would be seen in "that car." She considers it and the Prius some of the ugliest hunks of metal on the road.

Clawson didn't have a Civic hybrid or if the dealer did, it was white and too boring to consider. This, I should mention, was my wife's decision, but I think white is boring too. Maybe not with six coats of pearl.

If the dealer had an Insight with $18,200 on the window sticker, it may have made a little difference. At least to me. If the hybrid Civic was cheaper, we'd be driving one.

Last year's cost differential between gas and hybrid just didn't make financial sense. The gas version gets superior mileage without a battery pack that could cost big bucks in the later years of ownership. Both Honda hybrids are rated at 40 city and 43 highway and No. 3 on EPA's fuel sipper list. The gas Civic is something like 28/33.

Maybe others think like we did. And maybe they'll change their minds as prices for hybrids decline as I believe they will with Honda's move.

Maybe automakers will push for the second-car market. Katie Fehrenbacher of earth2tech.com reported that some of electric car builders appear to be pushing in that direction.

After we bought the Civic, I got the Passat. I love that car. Turbo, black, German engineering thing. Two weeks after parking the 1974 Bug, which I had driven exclusively for about seven years after selling the Jeep, the 2000 Passat died. I had failed to replace the timing belt at 90,000 miles.

The mechanic at Clovis Garage said, "Mike, sorry to tell you this, but it needs a new engine." I pushed the Passat into the back yard where it sat gathering a nice layer of dirt for about eight months and drove the Bug.

That new engine cost $6,600.