Sep 20, 2015: Driving Sustainability

Last Sunday was Sustainable House Day 2015. I haven’t seen the national numbers for how many homes were open and how many visitors came but we had a very enjoyable and successful day at the Greeny Flat. Just over 50 people stopped by for everything from a 10 second peek to a two hour, in-depth conversation. Everyone was very interested and interesting, we had a lot of great conversations and received a lot of very encouraging feedback. Thanks very much to everyone who came to say hello.

One of our future goals for the Greeny Flat is to get an electric car and see if we can be energy positive for both our home and transportation. At the moment there are very few choices for electric cars in Australia and they are quite (or in the case of the Tesla cars VERY) expensive. So we’re not quite ready to bite that bullet yet. The first step will probably be to get an electric assisted bicycle. In the meantime I have been accumulating interesting information about sustainable vehicles. For this weeks Newsletter I thought I would provide links to some of the things I have come across.

First Solar Car Was Built 60 Years Ago


The 1955 Sunmobile

What I would really like to have is an electric car that we could charge from our solar panels when it is parked in the garage AND that was covered with solar panels so that it could charge itself when it was on the road or parked elsewhere. It turns out that the first such car was built 60 years ago by an engineer from General Motors. Admittedly it was only 15 inches long but, according to this article from the Energy Matters blog, the first driveable solar car was built in 1962. It’s a shame that, 53 years later, we still can’t go out and buy one but some of the first road-legal solar cars might be coming from Australia in the form of the University of NSW’s ‘Sunswift‘ project and the ‘Immortus‘ solar sports car (both of which we have covered in previous Newsletters).

The Immortus solar sports car

The Immortus solar sports car

Perovskite Solar Cells Better for Charging Vehicles on the Road

According to this Gizmag article, researchers from the Case Western Reserve University have achieved the highest solar charging efficiency rates for Lithium Ion batteries using Perovskite solar cells. The record they achieved was a not-very-impressive-sounding 7.8% which makes you think that, if they can figure out how to reach 20 or 25% (similar to the best solar cell efficiencies), then the prospects for cars that can charge themselves on the road will look very much sunnier.

Record Solar-to-Hydrogen Conversion Efficiency

On the subject of record efficiencies, researchers from Australia’s own Monash University, have achieved the highest ever rate for converting sunlight into hydrogen. According to this Gizmag article, they managed a conversion rate of 22% which is a significant step towards making hydrogen a cost-effective, alternative, renewable fuel for both car and home uses.

There was a recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald which described the new hydrogen powered car from Honda as ’emission free’. I am sick to death of reading about electric and hydrogen cars as being ‘zero emission’. Sure, an electric car doesn’t have an exhaust pipe and, as Tesla are careful to state, it has ‘zero tailpipe emissions’. But the fact is that currently, most electric cars are charged from the mains electricity grid which is primarily powered by coal-fired power plants. An electric car so charged is not ‘zero emissions’, it just moves the emissions from the exhaust pipe to the Hunter Valley (or wherever your nearest power plant is located).

nissan leaf zero emission

Rubbish… the claim not the car

Similarly, when you burn hydrogen to fuel your car, the resulting by-product is water. So a hydrogen powered car also has no tailpipe emissions. But stop for a moment to consider where the hydrogen comes from… as this Wikipedia page makes clear, Currently, the majority of hydrogen (∼95%) is produced from fossil fuels by steam reforming or partial oxidation of methane and coal gasification with only a small quantity by other routes such as biomass gasification or electrolysis of water. Read further into the article and you find that the by-products of the steam reforming process are carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide, so the production of hydrogen generates a lot of greenhouse gas emissions.

In the best case scenario, you can generate hydrogen by using electricity from renewable sources like hydro, solar or wind farms, to split water atoms in a process called ‘electrolysis’. In this case the actual making of the hydrogen and the eventual burning of it in your car do not directly generate polluting emissions. But you still can’t call the process ’emission free’. For starters, think about all of the emissions that were generated by the production of the car itself, the steel, the glass, the rubber, etc. And think about all the emission from the building of the power plant whether it was a massive concrete dam and a hydro power plant, a huge array of solar panels, or a row of big wind turbines… they all took a lot of energy and material to produce which generated a lot of emissions in the process. So next time you see something described as ‘zero emissions’ or ’emission free’ PLEASE stop for a moment to think about what this really means and, if you have the opportunity, point out to the person making the claim that it is, in fact, rubbish.

Hankook Claims Airless Tyres Can Be More Sustainable

For many years I lived on a ranch in Montana (see photos from my last trip in this recent Newsletter) which is located 100km from the nearest town. Half that distance was on a shale road that was hell on wheels (actually it was hell on tyres but hell on wheels sounds so much better). We spent a lot of time on the ranch fixing flat tyres which is not a fun job and I used to lie awake at night dreaming of a tyre that was made with a flexible matrix between the hub and the tread and was, therefore, puncture proof.

I should have patented the idea because, lo and behold, here it is in the form on the Hankook ‘iFlex’.

Hankook 'iFlex' airless tyres

Hankook ‘iFlex’ airless tyres

They’re not in production yet but, according to this Gizmag article, not only are they puncture proof but ‘Hankook’s iFlex eschews conventional construction for a material that the company says is energy-efficient to manufacture and easy to recycle. The material also has allowed Hankook to halve the number of steps involved in manufacturing’. Given the significant environmental problems posed by the mountains of used tyres currently piling up around the world, this looks like one way that driving could become much more sustainable.


2 comments to Sep 20, 2015: Driving Sustainability

  • Hi, as an EV owner (Nissan Leaf) and EV advocate, I was interested in reading your latest newsletter. Although I agree with you that no car is zero emissions, any EV driver in Australia can choose to use certified GreenPower to provide electricity to the grid equivalent to that used by their car. In practice, many EV owners I’ve met have solar panels.

    I buy my GreenPower from C3, and they source all their GreenPower from wind farms, which seem to me to be amongst the lowest carbon and most environmentally source of renewable energy.

    I took part in a Sustainable House display of EVs at Noosaville, run by Joe, who opened his house, but also owns a Tesla Model S.

    Electric cars are lovely to drive, but I hear that the resale is a bit woeful, so perhaps a second-hand EV will be the answer for you over the next few years – you might find a bargain.

    Regards, Liz

    • admin

      Thanks Liz, sorry for the slow response. I see you have also commented on my later post where I outline the purchase of our Outlander PHEV. So far I’m very happy with its all-round capabilities. It is suiting us very nicely. Cheers, Andy

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