Going Green – The Technical Challenges

I think most of us agree that LA without smog or no pollutants into the ocean or atmosphere would be a very good thing.  This being said there are a number of challenges that need to be overcome to realize a greener future.

Rather then address all the challenges at once I would like to break the challenges down into a few articles the first one of these being technical and the related ROI problem.

The greatest challenge with any new technology is that to perfect it one has to have sufficient usage.  Now of course this gets into the problem of people or corporations not wanting to use a new technology before it has a good ROI, yet to get a good ROI requires usage – chicken and egg.

One can certainly do a ton of R&D and testing in a lab, but nothing takes the place of mass usage as with mass usage one discovers all sorts of bugs and technical problems that may not have ever been thought of by the scientists.

Outside of usage a lot of time and investment is required.  Alternatives to gas based combustion engines and things like solar or other clean electricity generation technologies are evolving slowly due to technical, time and financial issues.

It’s worth looking at the challenges faced by the combustion engine in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.


The Advent of the Petroleum Based Combustion Engine

There were many different approaches to self propelled vehicles dating back to the 18th century.  Some even credit Newton and da Vinci for being the first to come up with theoretical ideas as to realizing such.

Many credit Daimler and Maybach as the inventors that put the internal combustion engine on the map, but it was not until Henry Ford introduced the assembly line 1908-13 that mass manufacturing and mainstream adoption began to occur in conjunction with other problems having been solved. 

Rather than discuss history it’s interesting to note that it easily took 30-40 years for the combustion engine to gain real traction.

So what were the challenges – cost, reliability, roads, gas stations, refining, tires, etc.

This new technology took off due to innovation, time and money rather than by putting a high tax on horse feed or buggy manufacturers.

Alt Energy – Electric Vehicles, Solar and Other

Electric vehicles today face many of the technical/cost challenges faced by combustion engines in the past.

Heat and A/C drains the battery, the charge doesn’t last long enough, too expensive, too many bugs, batteries wear out = need to replace them, very few places to recharge, mass usage strains the grid, etc.

All of these problems and ones not yet seen will need to be remedied before electric vehicles see mass adoption.  In this time the combustion engine will become more efficient and pollute less and other alternative car tech may also appear on the market.

If one looks at utility scale solar the investment required is very large as a concentrated solar thermal plant can easily cost $1 billion.  Furthermore, like the competitive challenges faced by electric vehicles, one is competing against entrenched technologies that work very reliably even if not clean.   All sorts of issues need to be addressed as well such as smarter grid, improving yields, lessening transmission loss, etc.

The value of electricity generation infrastructure is immense and therefore will take a very long time to replace.

A lot of green technology has been developed and is in use in commercial real estate – smart lighting/HVAC, better insulation, etc.  The reason why it is in use is that the buyer can see the ROI on the purchase quickly via a lower electric bill.

If you want to go green you have to get the ROI right and when done adoption will occur very quickly.  This will successfully happen via innovation, time, investment, R&D and navigating politics/entrenched interests something I will discuss in another article.

As a side note the same thing applies to all very new technology.  The personal computer took 20-25 years to go mainstream and this was and is a much lower ticket item than a car or power plant.

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9 comments to Going Green – The Technical Challenges

  • itaest

    The article is interesting. But what is ROI? too lazy to Google…

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    • BC

      ROI = Return on Investment.  Here are some examples.
      Let's say a person needs a new car and just uses it locally meaning they can recharge it at home so lack of infrastructure (charging stations) isn't an issue.  Electric vehicle (EV) are a lot more expensive and let's say the difference in $10k after rebates = the EV costs $10k more than a comparable combustion engine vehicle.  When the analysis is done right one would have to look at higher MRO costs as well (maintenance, repairs and operation).
      So how long does it take the user to earn back the $10k because electric is cheaper than gas?  When this period is greater than the life of the capital investment or is too long the average buyer has no incentive to purchase an EV = they don't.
      Now take a concentrated solar thermal plant that say costs $1 billion.  A utility finances this through debt that they have to service (pay interest and principal down).  So how long does it take to sell enough electricity to pay for the cost of the plant?
      I can give other examples as well,  but I think you see the point and whether it's EVs now or early combustion engines both technologies were/are nascent and only well to do people could afford them.  Until the ROI and usability are better on EVs one won't see mainstream adoption.
      So the key to going green is heavily dependent on the technology being a lot better and this it what needs to be fixed to see mass adoption – sin taxes and rebates really won't get it done.
      In another article I will write about how I think the process can be sped up by govt.

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      • itaest

        I know what return on investment is. I did not figure out at first what ROI stands for.

        So that first line is what I needed. Usually in your article the first time you use an abbreviation you also write it out. Like this:

        …  and the related return on investment (ROI) problem.

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  • itaest

    That is not how groundbreaking technologies were born – through mass use.

    Technologies were born in the lab through scientific research and discovery. In science, the scientist has to prove through thorough statistical analysis that his technique is sound and more efficient than others (be it drugs, solar panels, etc). It is through this exercise that it gets adopted by the masses and the masses are not duped into buying something that does not work.

    BC, you are always looking for a way to leave the government out of it and have "the masses", that is the citizen fix everything by paying for products themselves and testing them themselves. That is an extremist Libertarian ideology and it does not work. I know it does not work because I have seen it not work in Latin American countries where that happens all the time. I know I lived there 18 years of my life.

    Your fear of the government debt increase is too deep. But there are other things that are much worse that should be feared. For example, the government of China investing billions in renewable energies. China investing in education. And the US staying behind and being blocked by irresponsible and partisan politicians from investing in the future of this country.


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    • BC

      Where did I say anywhere in this thread that I was against Govt. R&D or any kind R&D?  I didn't.  A lot of very cool and valuable tech has originated via govt funding of R&D and private R&D – no argument.
      What I did say was that for any new tech to be adopted en masse requires usage as via usage bugs get worked out.  I made no comment at all as to how new tech was discovered.  There is a very big difference between getting something working in a lab and successfully shipping it at high yields.
      If you look at EVs they will be greatly improved via usage as with usage you find out what breaks or what can be improved.  I'm not against EVs at all rather my observation is they are a very new technology with a lot of problems something that usage and time will correct.
      As for leaving out the govt. always – don't recollect making any comments here either – please cite.
      As for my fear of govt debt – not unfounded at all rather spot on and as discussed in other articles left unchecked we will default or no one will wish to buy our bonds because the extremely low yields are misrepresentative of the risk, which means you have to print more =  more oil based inflation.  The math here is pretty simple.
      As for what I think the govt. should do – I will explain in another article, but I must make the point that the govt. funds a tremendous amount of R&D.  NIH alone funds something in the order of $30 billion per year.
      Rather than invest in a given company the govt. should create RFPs where they buy the tech with the aim of perfecting it via usage – again will discuss in the next article.
      Inventing something is very different than commercializing it and commercializing it is skill found at start-ups, entrepreneurs and some companies – not at the govt.

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      • itaest

        Agree that inventing and commericialzing are two different things. But you did suggest that the masses, the people, should test new technology to remove bugs.

        That works with computers: If they fail, there is no risk to people's health or life, just to their wallet. That is the way it works with Microsoft, but Microsoft is not an example in how to develop bug-free technology… do you remember the blue screen of death?

        We don’t need a blue screen of death when driving our electirc vehicles (EV) at 50MPH and then having it suddenly stall and then have the car or truck behind us crashing into our car.

        The government should create Request for Proposals (RFP), is that what you meant? I would like to hear about that idea. When you write about it remember: you need to discuss how it is determined that a new techonology is safe or unsafe? Do you ask the people it killed? Hm.

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  • BC

    Once again you are indicating I have said things that I have not.  Furthermore, I am not some kind of extreme Tea Party member that wants no govt. spending at all.  My comment on govt. is that it keeps growing and is doing so in an unsustainable fashion so the waste, which is everywhere the govt. spends, needs to be identified and cut.
    I do remember the blue screen of death and that's not what I was talking about.  As for auto safety the govt has done a lot of good work like tempered glass, child seats, safebelt laws, etc.  And again I did not say this work shouldn't be done, but a lot of these regulations came into effect due to accidents and not before.
    The reality of any new tech is that it has bugs or problems.  The combustion engine had many problems early on and as they saw these problems they fixed them and improved other processes.  This continues to today.
    Electric cars have many technical, infrastructure and ROI problems and as a result adoption will be slow and is slow.  From an engineering point of view the more usage there is then the better they can analyze why things break, what doesn't work so well and what needs to be improved.  This is true of most if not all technology.
    Take the battery problem – charge doesn't last very long and batteries degrade over time.  With more usage and better science they will find a way to increase battery life and amount of charge = a better product.  Now imagine usage in all 50 states – the climate is very different and when you have enough usage you will figure out climatic issues.
    Arizona – hot/dry, Florida – hot/humid, Maine – cold/humid/dry, etc.  Battery life  varies based on the environment.  Cold for example drains batteries.  Salt air near the ocean shortens electronic and battery life.  If you live in a hot climate this may also decrease battery life or may lead to fire.
    Nissan estimates the Leaf's battery life is over 10 years, but that the battery pack may lose 30% or more of capacity during this time.  Guess what the battery pack costs $9k.  Telsa has one battery pack for $12k.   The point of all of this is with usage, R&D and time a lot of these problems will be lessened or solved.
    Personally, I am not sold on the idea that EVs will be the future, but we will see.
    RFP – request for proposals – yes.
    As for safety and how we learn via usage on any new tech;  this article on the Chevy Volt fires that occurred during test crashes discusses how we are learning as we go.  Note GM had to recall 8k volts to remedy the issue.  With more usage other problems will be discovered and fixed.

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    • itaest

      I bought Tesla stock, since I can't buy the car. Love their Model S, but would need a house to charge the car and I live in a condo. And would need the money to buy both house and car…lol.

      I think Chevy should have tested their Volt before shipping them out. It is bad for the EV industry that they ship cars that fail, it is bad for the company, it is bad for the consumers. I want a government who has strict regulations for testing all new technologies before they are released to the public.

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  • BC

    I think both Tesla and Fisker are going to fail and have their IP bought for pennies on the dollar.  The simple reason is that the automotive business is very capital intensive and the big car makers have a lot of cash, existing manufacturing lines, dealership networks and a lot more experience.  What will happen is they will burn through all their cash given that they will be losing money for the foreseeable future.  They will get more financing, but at a certain point no one will be willing to put good money after bad.  The big auto companies on the other hand can subsidize EVs or other alt energy via their existing combustion engine sales.
    As for EVs in general time will tell.  The infrastructure changes needed are massive and while the grid needs to be fixed anyway problems like the additional stress on the grid are not trivial nor will they be fixed overnight.
    As per safety testing – the govt is pretty thorough on this and I don't think the Volt fires were a govt. oversight rather indicative of the challenges and unknown issues related to very new technology and as I said before it is via usage that problems are discovered and fixed.  So many of the tests that will exist in a few years for EVs don't exist now because of the newness of the tech.  As you learn more one can devise better tests.  Take wind shear for example crashing that AA jet out of Dallas years ago.  NTSB discovered wind shear was the cause so with better radar and stopping takeoff/landing during bad downward wind shear was the fix.
    I think you're being a bit harsh on the govt and EVs in this regard.  I'm sure when the first combustion engines came out they broke a lot and people with the horse and buggy set-up were snickering.  Also think that politics may have forced launch of the Volt before it was ready, which is the inherent problem of mixing politics with business.
    What you are seeing now is growing pains of a very nascent tech – no way around this.  The problems will be fixed and over time the tech will get better – it just takes time, usage and money.  The US is not going to go massively green in 5 years – more like 20-30 on automotive and 30-50 on electricity.

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