August 25, 2016: Electric Vehicle Update

Five minutes ago I was driving past the University of Montana (UM) and I saw this!

The University of Montana's new Electric Bus

This is the University of Montana’s new Electric Bus!

They were in the process of training a new driver so I was able to briefly chat with the trainer. Apparently UM now has two of these electric buses and they are ‘working out great’! She invited me to come to her office at the University to hear more about it which I will do in due course. I’m particularly interested to find out where they are getting the power from to charge this self-proclaimed ‘Zero-Emissions Battery Electric Bus’.

According to the sign on the back of the bus, this is a Zero Emissions vehicle.

According to the sign on the back of the bus, this is a Zero-Emissions vehicle.

If they are using grid power to charge it then it is anything but a zero emissions vehicle. Montana’s power comes mostly from coal-fired power stations out in Eastern Montana. So unless they are using renewable energy for charging they are simply moving the emissions from Missoula (in Western Montana) out to Eastern Montana.

Or as a friend of mine said years ago to a guy who had just spent a couple of hundred grand on a Tesla Roadster when they first came out in the US… ‘I see you’ve swapped your petrol-powered car for a coal-powered one.’ The guy was not impressed, but he pretty quickly put a big solar array on his house roof.

I’ll let you know what I learn from the University on this. For now I’m just pleasantly surprised (once again) at how progressive this little town in Montana really is and how much we, in Australia, might learn from its example.

Electric Vehicles Are Quiet!

Perhaps the coolest thing about seeing this bus was hearing it. One of the most underappreciated advantages of electric vehicles is that they are extremely quiet. My lovely wife Cintia often comments on the fact that she never hears me arriving home when I’m driving our PHEV. I read recently that the Chicago Police Force has started driving Plug-in Hybrids too because they can quietly sneak up on the bad guys.

Imagine how much quieter our town and cities will be when all the cars, trucks and buses are electric. I made the following quick video as the UM bus drove away just to give you an idea of what they sound like. I apologize for it coming out sideways and I don’t have time to figure out how to fix that at the moment but the sound is the same.

Hydrogen Hype?

New Hydrogen Hyundai models undergoing testing in the Australian alps. (source Drive)

New Hydrogen Hyundai models undergoing testing in the Australian alps. (source Drive)

Meanwhile, back in Australia, there seems to be a lot of hype about the new Hyundai hydrogen fuel-cell, semi-autonomous SUV which, according to this Drive article theoretically makes the environment cleaner as your drive.

‘The machine’s fuel cell powertrain requires extremely thorough air filtration that includes a charcoal trap and humidifier. The result is that it scrubs the atmosphere of harmful particulates as you drive, improving ambient air quality.

While some cars are less harmful to the environment than others, few can claim to have a positive effect on their surroundings.

A dedicated ed display in the car’s digital dash tells you how much air the car has cleaned on every drive, using graphics to show you how many people will breathe better air as a result of the car’s operation.’

That all sounds absolutely wonderful except for two things… 1) where are you going to refuel this thing, and 2) how is the hydrogen generated.

As far as I am aware there are NO commercial hydrogen fueling stations in Australia. So you could spend a LOT of money buying one of these cars and not be able to put fuel in it. If car makers and governments are serious about promoting hydrogen vehicles as a replacement for petrol ones this could be solved by converting existing petrol stations to hydrogen stations but that’s not about to happen any time soon.

For me the bigger question is, ‘where does the hydrogen come from?’ Hydrogen can be made by splitting water molecules into oxygen and hydrogen. This can be done via electrolysis using solar or wind-generated electricity as the energy source. However it can also be done by using coal-fired electricity as the energy source or Hydrogen can also be made by splitting methane (CH4 or natural gas) molecules.

According to this article from Planete Energies ‘Today, 95% of hydrogen is produced either from wood or from fossil fuels, such as natural gas and oil.’ So, as with the ‘Zero-Emissions’ electric bus mentioned above, we have to be very careful not to get caught up in the hype about hydrogen and repeatedly ask the question, ‘where does the energy come from?’

The Planete article goes on to explain that… ‘Three types of production process are currently in use:

  • The most common hydrogen production process is natural gas reforming — sometimes called steam methane reforming because it uses high-temperature steam. When exposed to steam and heat, the carbon (C) atoms of methane (CH4) separate. After two successive reactions, they reform separately to produce hydrogen (H2) and carbon dioxide (carbon dioxide (co₂)). This operation therefore requires natural gas.
  • Another process is charcoal gasification1. Charcoal consists mainly of carbon and water. Burned in a reactor at a very high temperature of between 1,200 and 1,500 °C, the charcoal releases gas that separates and reforms to produce hydrogen (H2) and carbon monoxide (CO).
  • Hydrogen can also be produced using electricity, through electrolysis of water. An electric current is used to split water (H2O) into oxygen (O2) and hydrogen (H2). This method is not as cost-effective as using fossil fuels. Hydrogen produced by steam methane reforming costs around €1.5 per kilogram at the plant gate (excluding distribution costs), triple the cost of natural gas. Hydrogen produced using electrolysis is currently around four times more expensive, even before the cost of the electricity required is factored in.’

Given the above information we need to be very skeptical about any suggestions, particularly by our government or the fossil-fuel lobby, that we invest huge amounts of public money into hydrogen infrastructure. It would, most-likely, be a hidden way of promoting more natural gas development since reforming methane is the simplest and cheapest way of producing hydrogen. Or it might be a hidden way of propping up the coal industry if the plan were to use coal-fired electricity to produce hydrogen via electrolysis.

A hydrogen vehicle is an electric vehicle.

Don’t forget that a hydrogen vehicle is just an electric vehicle that happens to use hydrogen as its way of storing energy rather than using a battery. According to this article from Business Insider, Elon Musk hates hydrogen.

If you’re going to pick an energy storage mechanism, hydrogen is an incredibly dumb one to pick — you should just pick methane, that’s much much easier, or propane,” Musk said.

Musk made those remarks during the Automotive World News Congress in Detroit in early 2015. He said the issue with hydrogen is how difficult it is to produce.

“I just think that they’re extremely silly… it’s just very difficult to make hydrogen and store it and use it in a car,” Musk said at the time. “If you, say, took a solar panel and use that… to just charge a battery pack directly, compared to split water, take hydrogen, dump oxygen, compress hydrogen… it is about half the efficiency.”

CSIRO Backs Ammonia

One of the big difficulties with hydrogen is that it is difficult, expensive and dangerous to compress, store and transport. It is a highly flammable gas and has to be stored at high pressure in very secure containers. One way around this problem is store hydrogen in the form of liquid ammonia (NH3).

I won’t go into all the details here but the CSIRO is promoting the idea of using ammonia as an energy storage medium that is plentiful, inexpensive and can be stored and transported using the exact same infrastructure that we currently use to store and transport Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG). This article from the ABC describes how new technology developed by the CSIRO could open the door to a world hydrogen market for Australian renewable energy.

Australia’s next big export industry could be its sunlight and wind, as game-changing technology makes it easier to transport and deliver their energy as hydrogen.

Industry players are even talking up renewable hydrogen as the next liquefied natural gas (LNG) industry, which could supply hydrogen to power cars, buses, trucks and trains in Japan, South Korea and even Europe.

Their plans have been given a boost by a CSIRO-developed metal membrane, which allows the high-purity hydrogen, needed for hydrogen-powered cars, to be separated from ammonia.’

Once again, I reckon that all sounds good depending on where the hydrogen comes from. If it is produced from water using renewable energy then this might be a good thing. But I’d like to know what the overall efficiency is of turning sunlight into electricity, then into hydrogen, then into ammonia, then back to hydrogen, then back to electricity to use as an energy source. I don’t image it is very good.

So this could all be greenwashing on an enormous scale. But the prize for shameless greenwashing on a small scale this week goes to Subaru.

Shameless Greenwashing by Subaru

I haven’t seen this on cars in Australia but here in the US, new Subaru cars have this emblem on the back.

PZEV with a little green leaf... doesn't that sound nice! Must be some sort of Electric Vehicle right?... Wrong!

PZEV with a little green leaf… doesn’t that sound nice! Must be some sort of Electric Vehicle right?… Wrong!

Even Cintia (who is very familiar with Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles PHEVs), when she saw this said, ‘Wow, I didn’t know Subaru made an electric vehicle.’ But when I went in for a closer look I discovered that, written in tiny letters underneath PZEV it says ‘Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle’.

What on earth is a ‘Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle’ you might ask? How can something be partially zero? If you divide zero by anything don’t you get infinity? Is this in fact an ‘Infinite Emissions Vehicle’.

My son’s answer to those questions was… ‘It’s half a hybrid… just the petrol half.’

Well done Subaru.

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