Friday, May 08, 2009

A Better Place's Possible Pitfalls: Open or Closed Grid? For profit or environmental benefit?

Lots of EV enthusiasts, including David Pogue, have provisionally chosen to give up just a bit of their liberty and endorse Shai Agassi's "A Better Place (ABP)". In Mr. Agassi's world, you'll be billed based on the miles you drive similar to by-the-minute mobile fees.

Great! or not so great? Pitfalls may lurk in the shadows stemming from A Better Place's organization as a for profit company. Like all for-profit enterprises, they're in it for the money and environmental benefits, while great for marketing, take second place to profits.

Each large scale grid infrastructure represents a natural monopoly and governments must step in to regulate these monopolies. Open access to the electrical grid and the telephony network (including the Internet) have provided great benefits to consumers. Closed networks like those run by the cell phone companies and cable companies have provided fewer benefits and greater pain. Which way will ABP steer their Electric Recharge Grid? Will they operate it as an open, competitive arena or as a closed, profit-maximization tool? Only time will tell, but if history is precedent, the ABP electric recharge grid will be, unfortunately, closed.

First, their promise to only purchase and sell clean electricity will disappear either if they max out clean energy supplies (that would be great, by the way) or if a competitor, say Wal*Mart for argument's sake, offers a cheaper mileage plan using dirty electricity. Sadly, economics trump moral positions for a majority of consumers and the low cost leader will prevail.

ABP may then attempt to lock-in their customers either via proprietary chargers/battery packs or via contractual limits that prevent you from using another "network". The proprietary route seems less likely because open standards have already been promised; they're not yet published nor released, but let's give them them benefit of the doubt. That leaves the contractual route. Subsidy locked phones only work on one network. Remember when cell service providers held your phone number hostage within their network? Only government intervention allowed number portability. ABP, as a for profit enterprise, will be drawn to do the same things with battery packs. They might say "feel free to use your car on another network, but you can't take an ABP battery with you" and could effectively lock you into the ABP network.

The devil is in the details. Will ABP allow power from another vendor to flow through their charging stations? How about through your home charging unit? If not, do you have to buy and wire in yet another home charger to switch vendors? Will towns have to have multiple smart charger networks? Will you be charged a "battery handling fee" to swap to another vendor? How about early termination fees? The same problems that folks complain about in their mobile plan, magnified by greater costs, will now apply to their car plan. They are surmountable, but will ABP remove those problems or use them to improve profits?

Finally, a for profit company wants to maximize monetary gain, but in ABP's case, monetary gain and environmental benefits conflict in the end-game. Initially, moving the world's car fleet from oil to electricity will benefit the environment; however, ABP profits even more as those cars drive more. The environment, conversely, benefits less as the cars drive more. An environmentally sensitive pricing plan would make each additional driving increment cost more to encourage energy conservation. Will ABP do that? Unlikely. They already tout an "Unlimited Mileage" plan that is precisely what the environment does not need. Hopefully it's only an environmental loss leader to attract customers and will be withdrawn once enough electric cars hit the road.

As a for profit enterprise, A Better Place will eventually be driven away from its goal of environmental stewardship and toward maximizing profit. To limit the pitfalls and maximize the benefit, the Electric Recharge Grid Operator portion of ABPs business must be a non-profit, open access provider allowing anyone to deliver and receive electricity over their network. Plenty of profits lie in the periphery, but the core grid operator must be non-profit, open to all competitors, and working toward the ultimate benefit of environmental protection. Rushing toward environmentally responsible technology benefits us all, however, let's not lock ourselves into a single vendor's cage along the way.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

How Did California Determine CRT TV Energy Use ?

The California Energy Commission's TV energy use FAQ on their proposed regulations says:
How much wattage do different types (CRT - cathode ray tube, liquid crystal display - LCD, plasma) of televisions use?
It's hard to compare CRTs to LCDs and plasmas. On average, CRTs use 0.23-watts per square inch of the screen, LCDs use 0.27-watts per square inch, and plasmas use 0.36-watts per square inch. Below are comparisons of the "average size" of each type of television and the wattage they use, and a comparison of wattage used by a 42-inch LCD versus a 42-inch plasma.
There are few direct-view CRTs that are as large as the big LCDs and plasma TVs. A 40-inch (diagonal), direct-view HDTV is the industry's largest direct-view cathode ray tube. It uses 280 watts while in operation and only one watt in stand-by mode.

So how did the CA Energy Commission arrive at 0.23 watts per square inch for CRT televisions? I'm still looking. According to the staff report, that power usage information came from the Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) study "Analysis of Standards Options for Televisions: Revised Proposal" which was put together to help the California Energy Commission. Reading the PG&E report, however, shows ... zilch on CRT TV energy use! Separately, I did find one private "Pro Bono Statistics" blog, based tests they describe as less than rigorous, of two Sony WEGA CRT TVs that shows 0.23 W/in² and 0.29 W/in²; and notes that CRT televisions are far more efficient that CRT monitors! NRDC's presentation has some data too, but again uses less than rigorous methods.

CNET has tested more than 100 television models, using their own lab method, but they have no CRT data because they have only tested non-CRT televisions televisions :( In their chart, rear-projection was the energy efficiency winner at around 0.13 W/in² (sort by "Per sq in.") and rear-projection is not even listed in the CA FAQ.

In Nov 2008, Energy Star v3.0 added TV ratings in a technology agnostic fashion:

CRT TVs have such a small market share now that the California Energy Commission probably feels it's not worth digging into, however, if CRTs really are so energy efficient, perhaps we should look at them again!

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

General Motors Trying Hard...

Normally, General Motors gets pilloried for their environmental record. Apparently the public notices them primarily as owners of the environmentally anathema Hummer, Escalade and Yukon monikers. GM's marketing department also used to lead with these brands, so why should we give them kudos for trying hard environmentally?

Well, all companies have to be profitable to stay in business. The existing US regulatory scheme, customer demand, and artificially low gasoline prices all force auto manufacturers toward bigger and bigger vehicles. All companies try to sell more of their most profitable products; GM does that too and the big SUVs bring in the highest profits.

Wait?! I hear a heckler shouting that "Toyota and Honda don't sell large trucks; that means they're green!". Not quite; Toyota and Honda would love to sell more into the highly profitable large vehicle segment and Toyota has consistently increased the size of it's trucks over the years to move into that market. Honda introduced the Ridgeline "truck-like" vehicle to compete here as well. They're not succeeding, however, because Ford, GM and Chrysler out compete them. No marketer would say "Our big trucks are losers. Come check out our tiny cars." - instead they simply say "Come check out our environmentally friendly cars!" (and secretly hope you'll buy their "big" trucks).

If folks really want an environmentally friendly auto fleet they can easily make that happen: a) vote with your pocketbook and buy high mileage vehicles to replace SUVs (we're starting to do just that) and b) work to elect politicians that will fix today's broken regulatory system so that the most environmentally friendly cars become the most profitable cars.

Among all of the car makers, GM has the best track record at introducing economically sensible environmental solutions; unfortunately, customers didn't notice those offerings in their stampede to the SUV aisle. For example, in 1989 GM started marketing the GEO Metro (45/50 mpg!) with room for four and fuel economy on par with the Prius without the high tech, high cost hybrid system. GM's EV1 then became the undisputed environmental champion until lobbyists (including GM's) killed the CARB ZEV mandate. Even then, GM kept introducing environmentally sensible vehicles. The 2005 GMC Sierra/Chevy Silverado Hybrid included idle engine shutoff and regenerative braking. They went on to pursue this very economically astute "mild hybrid" (or perhaps "smart hybrid") approach in the 2006 Saturn VUE Green Line and then added it to the Saturn Aura Green Line and Chevy Malibu. Fickle customers, however, choose less viable, higher cost hybrids and so GM added a "full hybrid" option to the 2008 Chevy Tahoe/GMC Yukon and changed the VUE to a 2-mode "full hybrid" for 2008. Big trucks have a lot to gain from a hybrid drive-train, arguably much more than small cars do, and so once again GM technology is moving ahead of the competition.

On the other end of the market where small, unprofitable cars live, the big three have far less incentive (aka profit) to compete. When profit margins get squeezed, smaller costs become magnified and the increased benefits that GM, Ford and Chrysler provide their union workers mean more in low-end cars than they do in the high profit, large vehicles. Interestingly, if the government provides universal healthcare, it will help level the playing field between union and non-union shops.

GM has been trying to get customers to look their way by offering excellent technical choices, but the customers are more interested in buying giant CO2 generating SUVs instead.