The Battery Dilemma

The Obama administration has set a lofty goal of having one million electric vehicles on the road by 2015. As electric vehicles become more popular I wonder if we might just be trading one problem for another. We all know from our past experience that you certainly don’t want to get battery acid on your skin, let alone have it affect the ground water supply; this could be devastating.  Are we destined to have landfills filled with toxic batteries? What I found as I scoured the internet looking for information was surprising to me; it appears that modern lithium batteries pose less of a threat of pollution than the old lead batteries, last long enough to minimize the environmental impact, and also can and should be completely recycled at the end of their useful life.

The key to all battery usage is proper disposal and recycling and dumping any batteries into landfills poses a health risk. But regardless of the type of battery (lead, nickel, or lithium), if recycled properly they pose little environmental risk. In addition, according to the Battery University if more batteries were recycled it would be profitable to do so.  Lithium batteries in general present less environmental threat than do their predecessors and also have a substantially longer life cycle. Chevrolet expects the lithium Ion battery in their Volt plug in vehicle to last the life of the car and warranties their batteries for eight years.

Overall I was pleasantly surprised to find that should an electric transportation infrastructure play a major role in our future, battery disposal should not be a major threat to our environment. The most important feature is to make sure there are programs in place to properly dispose and recycle used batteries. If people act responsibly and recycle their batteries at the end of their useful life the threat will be minimal.

Post Fukushima Nuclear

Nuclear Power seemed to be back in mix in recent years; Chernobyl and Three Mile Island were distant memories.  The nuclear industry had learned from these tragedies and modern plants were built with safe guards to prevent this type of disaster from happening again. In addition, nuclear waste recycling was making the source of energy seem less threatening and if radioactive waste could be reduced or eliminated nuclear could be seen as safe. Many countries were banking on this safe and clean source of energy to fuel their economies and move into a new generation free from fossil fuels.  But then Fukushima happened and once again nuclear power is suspect and the populous of the world is skeptical.

In a recent assessment of the future of the nuclear industry by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) it was found that while nuclear power facility forecasts have been downgraded, there is still global demand for nuclear and plans throughout the world to build additional plants. The IAEA also reported that work is still underway to bring the Fukushima plant to a “cold shutdown condition” and found that food contamination in the surrounding areas was above regulation values. According to a November 12th article in the Huffington Post “tens of thousands of the plants former neighbors may never be able to go home” and reported that “a preliminary government report released this month predicted it will take 30 years or more to safely decommission Fukushima Dai-ichi. Like Chernobyl, it will probably be encased in a concrete and steel “sarcophagus.”

Fukushima has clearly had a negative impact on the future of nuclear energy throughout the world. Though the next generation of nuclear plants is predicted to be much safer and less susceptible to disasters like Fukushima, nuclear energy is once again viewed as an unsafe and unreliable source of energy. Just as it took decades to for the memories of the disasters at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island to fade, the disaster at Fukushima will darken the forecast for nuclear energy for decades to come.

Don’t let Winter Spoil your Bicycle Commute

Daylight gets pretty limited during the winter months and inclement weather also becomes a threat, these conditions add some challenges for bicycle commuters, but this doesn’t mean that you can’t continue to use your bicycle to commute. These types of conditions just mean that we need to take some extra precaution and be more prepared. We need to be conscious about the challenges that these conditions create and make changes in our routine and gear in order to accommodate these challenges and ride safely.

Part of the challenge of continuing to commute through the winter months comes from having to commute in the darkness. To adjust to these conditions we need to make sure that we have proper lighting for our bicycles and also that we take care to plan alternate routes. My normal commute takes me along the river path, but once it is dark out I am reluctant to ride along this path as it is too remote to be safe, in this situation I change my route to remain on the road. But with proper planning I am able to minimize the amount of time I spend in traffic. Take the time to google your route and look for alternatives that will take you through more lightly traveled residential routes. Also be extra cautious when riding in the dark, even if your bike is well lit, take extra time to stop for stop signs and yield to any vehicles on the road.

Another challenge we deal with is inclement weather and once again with a little planning this is a challenge that can be dealt with. Always wear your helmet regardless of the weather, but here it provides some extra warmth. Get yourself a thin fleece ski hat to wear under your helmet and a neck gator to be able to pull up should the weather demand extra warmth. Also invest in a nice pair of gloves to insure that your hands remain warm. If you are comfortable while riding you are much less prone to be impatient and make a critical safety error. Another item I recommend is safety glasses, I wear them at all times when riding just to prevent any potential debris from coming up from the road and striking my eyes, but especially in the winter when cars may spray up water, snow, and even sand or salt. Also think about investing in a decent set of fenders for your bike, though they look a little geeky, you will be a lot more comfortable should you get caught in a storm.

Winter time presents some additional challenges but doesn’t mean that we have to stop commuting by bicycle. Be prepared to commute in the dark during the winter, be prepared for inclement weather, and make sure you take extra time to yield to traffic. By taking precautions we can stay fit, save money, and reduce traffic congestion all year.

Everyone Should Have a Plan

I recently wrote a blog post on how society should be encouraging people powered transportation as a way of decreasing our dependency on fossil fuels, improving air quality, and improving the fitness of our citizens. This made me curious to see if communities were embracing the concept and improving their infrastructure to make this a reality. What I found was that having a Bicycle Master Plan is not uncommon for cities. I found a variety of plans, some appear to be lip service, no real meat to the plans, but others are quite elaborate and outline very specific goals with well thought out plans.

As I started looking through plans and saw how many were out there I decided to look for my cities plan, and lo and behold, there it was, Reno has a bicycle master plan. As an avid cyclist who lives in Reno I was pretty surprised by this. While there are some nice bike paths and lanes built into the city, they lack continuity and are sometimes left in disrepair. When I looked through the plan, it wasn’t too bad but it lacked any real specifics for goals and objectives.

One of the best plans I came across was by the city of Richmond California. It was quite elaborate and specific. It listed specific goals with objectives to achieve them:

Goal : Expand the city’s bicycle routes and parking facilities into an extensive, well‐connected and well‐designed network, and improve and maintain these facilities over time.

Objective:  Increase the number of bikeway miles by 75 percent, complete all gaps in the Bay Trail and double the number of bicycle parking spaces.

Goal : Increase the number of people of all ages and backgrounds who bicycle for transportation, recreation and health.

Objective:  Double the number of trips made by bicycle.

Goal : Make the streets safer for bicyclists, not only during the day but also at night.

Objective:  Reduce the number of reported bicycle fatalities and injuries by 25 percent (even as the number of bicyclists increases).

Goal : Incorporate the needs and concerns of cyclists in all transportation and development projects.

Objective:  Adopt and implement a “Complete Streets” and “Routine Accommodation” policies, and bicycle‐friendly design standards and guidelines for streets and developments.

The City of Richmond also had an elaborate map showing existing routes and planned expansion to meet their goals.

I encourage you to go out and take a look at your cities Bicycle Master Plan and see what your city is doing to improve their infrastructure to accommodate and encourage bicycle and pedestrian transportation. Let your Council Person know that a healthy vibrant community is one where bicycle and pedestrian commuting is safely and thoughtfully integrated into the cities infrastructure.

It’s Time to Give a Crap

One of the things that I find interesting is how there can be almost 7 billion people on this planet, each one dropping a duke every day, and yet the planet is not completely overrun with feces causing disease and deadly bacteria to overrun the planet. It’s pretty amazing that our local water treatment plants can handle this amount of volume, and send clean water back out into the ecosystem. But the thing I find even more fascinating is that we could be using this waste as a source of energy to generate electricity to power local buildings and even feed the leftovers back into the grid to provide electricity for our communities.

The process used at water treatment plants is to assist nature in doing what she does naturally, and that is attacking the feces with bacteria, these bacteria digest the solid waste and the resulting by product is methane gas. A study published by the Federal Energy Management Program estimates that there are more than 16,000 waste water treatment plants in the United States and that only 2 percent of these plants are using the digester gas to produce electricity. A typical wastewater treatment plant processes about 1 million gallons of wastewater per every 10,000 of population and this can generate up to 35KW of energy.

This seems like a renewable energy source that should not be taken lightly, to me it is surprising that only 2% of the treatment plants in the U.S. take advantage of this technology. Many people find it difficult to expend the effort to recycle, walk, bicycle, or use public transportation, but here is a program that even the most apathetic people can take pride in, finally we can all say we give a crap!

Assistance or Annoyance

As I was sitting and watching a football game one afternoon I was hit with an extremely annoying commercial. The actors in the commercial were involved in activities where they should have been standing still, but instead they were jogging in place, and the commercial said “you don’t keep running when you’re stopped, why should your cars engine?” Just as the wheels on a car stop rolling when it comes to a stop, my legs stop turning when I do, but my heart never stops beating or my lungs never stop breathing, this was a very annoying comparison to me. But if advertising is meant to get your interest, this was effective advertising because I had to go out to the internet and see just what the Buick LaCrosse was up to and what the heck eAssist was.

What I found was that the Buick Lacrosse is kind of a weak hybrid. It uses hybrid style technology to run the vehicle, but the electric motor is just too weak to provide a lot of assistance to the vehicle in the driving mode. The electric starter/generator is primarily used to start the vehicle once it has turned off at a stop, eliminating the need to idle. The main reason it is not called an electric hybrid vehicle is that the small electric motor doesn’t offer enough assistance while driving to warrant it. According to a review from Hybridcars.com, the LaCrosse does offer an increased miles per gallon, 25 city and 37 hwy, but falls short of the vehicles that label themselves as hybrids. On the plus side, this vehicle can be purchased with a couple of options, a 6 cylinder engine without eAssist or a 4 cylinder engine with eAssist at the same starting price of about $30,000, less than other hybrids. I still find the commercials annoying, but the technology might have some merit, though I think my preference would lean towards a technology that provided more electric assistance.

Dodge PHEV

I recently had the opportunity to take one of the new Dodge Plug in Hybrid Electric Vehicle (PHEV) 1500 4×4 pickup truck for a test drive. The PHEV is a trial unit that Dodge testing in different markets around the country. It is a bit different because it runs on the electric motor more frequently than a regular hybrid vehicle and also has the capability to generate electricity and back feed the grid.

The first thing I noticed about the Dodge PHEV was how quite it ran. When moving at a low rpm range the vehicle ran completely on the electric engine; I could hear the gas engine idling in the background, but it was disengage from vehicle operations. As the need for acceleration increased, the gas motor kicked on nicely and provided the extra horsepower that I needed, but as soon as I backed off of the accelerator and dropped the rpm’s, the gas motor reduced its efforts and allowed the electric motor to take over again. This same standard held true while driving at highway speed. I was cruising comfortably and quietly at 70 mph, but when I needed to pass, the gas motor kicked in and gave me plenty of horsepower to do the job, but as soon as I returned to highway speed, a nice quiet ride resumed. I truly enjoyed driving this truck.

Another really nice feature with this unit is its 6.6kW generator which is capable of back feeding to the grid; but for a more practical application this can be used to run power tools right off of the back of the truck.

The specifications below are from a USA Today article ran back on May 28th 2011.

Ram 1500 PHEV specs according to Chrysler:

A 12.9kWhr lithium ion battery pack under the second-row seat. It’s liquid- cooled for consistent temperature.’

Full regenerative braking.

A 5.7-liter HEMI V-8 engine and a two-mode hybrid transmission. The Hemi shuts off half the cylinders at highway speeds. For better mileage, the front axle also can be disconnected when not needed.

A 6.6 kilowatt (kW) on-board charger for AC power generation for electric tools and for the “reverse power flow.” A 240 volt/30 amp four-prong outlet and 120 volt/20 amp duplex outlet power strip in the bed can power on-the-job tools.