Sunday, March 14, 2010

Electric Bikes May Ease China's Urban Air Pollution - For Now

The BBC reports a dramatic rise of Beijing residents who commute around the city by electric bike. China was, until the mid-1990s, an almost monolithically bicycle-driven society. Along with a decade of spectacular economic growth, however, Chinese cities like Beijing and Shanghai have vastly shifted from bicycles to private cars. The result, not surprisingly, has been unprecedented problems with urban air pollution that threaten both the environment and public health.

With car traffic congestion at all-time highs in many Chinese cities, many residents have chosen electric bikes as a commuting option offering both speed and the opportunity to escape the traffic quagmire.

Legally, "electric bikes" are bikes that are smaller and lighter than motorcycles, traveling at speeds under approximately 15 miles per hour. Electric bikes have been so popular that their popularity in the past year has grown even faster than the leading Chinese car companies.

How long this boom in electric bikes will last depends on long-term Chinese cultural trends. If the Chinese continue to invest in a growing consumer car culture through highway spending and tax incentives, then these bikes may lose cachet with the status-conscious Chinese middle class. However, cities in China and other countries -even those in the developed world - can make use of these electric bikes by integrating them into established bike-sharing programs and improved bicycle infrastructure. If bike infrastructure becomes as lasting and integral a part of the built environment as highways and arterials, then we will be able to forge a path to long-term solutions for greenhouse gas emissions and global warming.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Fighting Global Warming through Improved Urban Design

Here's an interesting analysis of carbon neutrality and some of the choices we need to make to achieve it from the Sightline Institute.

Focusing on fleets and personal transportation is very important because these sectors comprise 27% of the US total emissions. However, in order to truly reduce fuel emissions from the transportation sector, we need to create green, alternative ways of getting around to truly give people the sustainable choice to reduce their emissions. Doing so requires a holistic approach to emissions reduction.

A substantial part of reducing the emissions generated by transportation lies in creating dense, walkable communities linked by public transit. 

Higher fuel efficiencies for our vehicles, while a great start, are not enough. According to a recent report from UC Berkeley, even a vehicle that gets 55 miles per gallon (like the Toyota Prius and many hybrid-electric models currently on the market) still consumes 30% of our available annual energy budget. Consuming 100% of this budget, as driving an average of 6,000 miles annually with a vehicle earning 12 m.p.g., would mean that we have already taken up the level of carbon emissions considered "sustainable". Any emissions beyond this point, such as those involved in any other process of everyday life, would directly contribute to global warming.

Studies have indicated that denser, walkable communities are as effective at reducing greenhouse gas emissions as raising the fuel efficiency of our cars. Indeed, some development experts already believe that a majority of Americans would choose such communities if they were available.

For a detailed list of systemic changes to urban design and planning to reduce our emissions, please check out the analysis from WorldChaging here and here.

City of Seattle Announces Plans to Become America's First "Carbon-Neutral" City

The Seattle City Council has released a proposal to make the City of Seattle "carbon neutral" by 2030, according to a recent story in The Stranger. This proposal, first suggested by Alex Steffen (the president of the local think tank WorldChanging) has generated a great deal of controversy over whether this significant of a carbon reduction scheme is even feasible, how carbon neutrality will be defined, and how the carbon neutrality scheme would be administered.

Council members Richard Conlin and Mike O'Brien were the main sponsors of this proposal, announced as one of the City's top legislative priorities of 2010. The proposal materialized in print form on a public forum called Ideas for Seattle, a blog started by the mayoral campaign of Mike McGinn.

Despite the McGinn campaign's initial receptivity to the idea (the forum's 4th most popular), now that Mayor McGinn has been sworn into office his response to carbon neutrality has been more lukewarm.

“Let’s be very clear,” he said in The Stranger. “I support carbon neutrality as a goal. But we’ve been down this path of politicians setting ambitious goals and not following through before”—a reference to his predecessor Greg Nickels’ vow to reduce emissions below 1990 levels, in line with the Kyoto Protocols, by 2012.

McGinn continues,
“We have a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but we’re building a bigger 520, we’re building an auto-only facility on our waterfront, we’re not funding the bike master plan. The question isn’t what the goals should be. The question should be, how do you get there? … If we want to spend a year or two setting up a new goal and creating a work plan to do it while we’re taking actions that accomplish the opposite, that’s not what I think we should be doing.”
Part of the problem in implementing any carbon neutrality scheme stems from criticism that the City will not be able to meet its goal of adhering to its Kyoto Protocol targets by 2012. The City, and former Mayor Greg Nickels in particular, has been the environmental vanguard of American cities in encouraging other municipalities to reduce their emissions through informal, voluntary agreements set through the US Mayors Conference on Climate Change. In this conference, over 1,000 US cities have agreed to cut their emissions to 7% below 1990 levels by 2012. Seattle successfully achieved this milestone in October 2007, although whether this emissions reduction can be maintained is being called into question.

According to a recent article in The Seattle Times, most gains from 1990 to 2005 came from cutting pollution associated with residential, commercial and industrial energy use, the study found. Seattle City Light is responsible for most of these emissions reductions (about 60%), through investments it made in carbon offsets for alternative energy projects and selling its stake in ownership of a coal-fired power plant in Centralia.

However, emission from the transportation sector increased 3% during this period, even as total vehicle miles traveled (VMT) per capita decline 2%. Emissions from the transportation sector are expected to spike between 2007 and 2012, and this increase will put Seattle behind its (currently already achieved) Kyoto goal 700,000 tons of carbon annually, according to a City report. Clearly, achieving the City's Kyoto targets as well as carbon neutrality will take a large investment in alternative fuel vehicles, reduced VMTs by city drivers, and an expanded infrastructure car-pooling, car-sharing, walking, bicycling and public transit to make the latter a reality. Evergreen Fleets, whose certifications criteria Seattle could easily supersede within the next several years, was designed partly with carbon neutrality in mind through achieving the former.

There is also significant debate as to what a working definition of carbon neutrality would look like. Scientists have already established that in order to prevent the most catastrophic effects of global warming, we must avoid reaching an atmospheric concentration of CO2 of 350ppm. Some estimates show that we have already passed this threshold and are approaching 380ppm globally. This threshold is the scientific basis of the Kyoto Protocol's goal of reducing emissions 80% by 2050, informally called the "80 by 50 rule".

The Kyoto Protocol currently has been signed by mostly the world's most developed countries, of course with the notable exception of the United States. The dilemma is that even if the world's developed countries and the US meet the 80 by 50 goal, developing countries could still increase their emissions to levels more commensurate with their population sizes and put the world well over the important 350ppm threshold. If richer nations do not help rapidly growing poor nations reduce their emissions - and this is by no means a given - then the 80 by 50 goal will lose its effectiveness and make the entire Kyoto regime an international joke.

What this means is that we may have to define carbon neutrality in a way that squares the 350ppm threshold with our own disproportionate responsibility for global greenhouse gas emissions, as the United States produces the largest share of emissions of any country on earth. Taking this element of social equity into account would mean that we would need to take responsibility for emissions reductions that amount to greater than our total emissions. We would, in this sense, become carbon negative and not just carbon neutral. One Swedish study suggests that we would need to become substantially carbon negative through a combination of two processes: reducing our own emissions to nearly zero, already an extremely expensive proposition; and funding green infrastructure in developing countries to simultaneously reduce their emissions even as their populations grow tremendously. This could be put into practice through a global cap-and-trade system, although it would have to have much stronger enforcement mechanisms than Kyoto, which currently has no means of getting any of its members near the 80 by 50 goal.

In addition, there is an emerging debate about how to calculate the City's total carbon emissions under such a policy. Would all emissions created by City residents be the measure, even if the emissions take place outside of the City, such as through travel? Would the measure be limited to just activities within the City limits? How would the life cycle costs of production and consumption of commercial products be calculated for the City's progress? What about the emissions of a port that ships goods all over the world? There are no easy answers to these questions because no other city has been forced to make these decisions.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Massively Popular Bike Sharing Programs Spreading to Cities Around the World

While the vast majority of public and private agencies' attention goes to directly reducing number of vehicles purchased, vehicle miles traveled (VMT), gallons consumed, or greenhouse gas emissions, an equally valid (an quite inexpensive) option for larger and denser cities is bike-sharing to reduce emissions. 

Bicycles are one of our oldest and most enduring forms of carbon-neutral transportation. But why are they not more widely used as a way of getting around urban areas? 

First, there is the expense factor. Many people would rather not pay for the expense of owning a bike, particularly a bike that will last. Owning a bike incurs maintenance costs that some would rather not take responsibility for. Also, city-dwellers often live in cramped apartments with no room for a bike. Others are worried for their safety when they are cycling in the streets, as often there are no shoulders or bike lanes to accommodate them. Finally, many people simply do not find it convenient to ride bikes to their destination.

Public agency fleets can lead by example by first starting their own bicycle fleets available to employees (for light-duty tasks) free of charge. Public employees are often highly visible in the city center, and an agency bike-sharing program can help promote safe bicycling practices as well as build a rapport with the community.  As soon as the city develops a good relationship with a bicycle manufacturer, it can develop a bike-sharing program for the general public for a small fee. Bicycles would be a fixed public amenity available for temporary use by residents or tourists throughout the city, like library books.

After resounding success in Paris, London, and Barcelona, bike-sharing has finally caught on in the US. Washington DC and Boston now both boast highly-regarded bike-sharing programs. 

Obama Administration Announces Improved Federal CAFE Standards

Although Evergreen Fleets may be the nation's first Green Fleets certification program, it soon may have a large number of competitors, thanks to a groundbreaking new policy of the Obama Administration. 

The CAFE - Corporate Average Fuel Economy - standards that govern the fuel economy of the American auto industry have been significantly strengthened in a new federal policy. In a surprisingly progressive move given America's history of resistance to environmental regulation, the new CAFE standards explicitly link a reduction in total greenhouse gas emissions to improved fuel efficiency in our national fleet, the first time the CAFE standards have made such a connection in their history.

According to WorldChanging, a Seattle media non-profit, "covering vehicle model years 2012 to 2016, the legislation will require car makers to achieve an average fuel economy for their fleets of 35.5mpg in 2016 (with 39mpg specified for cars and 30mpg for light trucks). It will replace the current CAFE standard of 27.5mpg for cars and 24mpg for light trucks." 

The standards are very similar to a California proposal that, until a May 19, 2009 EPA waiver granted by Obama, had been declared unconstitutional by the Bush Administration. Before Obama's decision, seventeen other states had agreed to follow California's CAFE standards as soon as the EPA waiver was granted. Mr. Obama's new CAFE standards now supersede any state's CAFE standards and aim to bring the nation's cars and trucks to a fuel efficiency more on par with European standards.

Naturally, both California's efforts to unilaterally set its own CAFE standards and the new standards recently set by Obama generated enormous resistance from the auto industry. However, the new CAFE standards, assuming they are followed, are estimated to have the equivalent impact of saving 900 million tons of carbon or removing 3.7 million cars from the roads.

Solar-Powered Electric Vehicle Charging Stations Taking Off

Electric vehicles have long been an environmentalist's holy grail - they are clean, produce no emissions, futuristic, and are generally silent. Numerous environmental activists, from Elizabeth Kolbert to Al Gore to Jeremy Rifkin, have advocated a total manufacturing shift to producing electric and fuel-cell vehicles as a means of cutting our total emissions and protecting against global warming.

However, the source of these vehicle's electricity is rarely considered, despite its enormous weight on the overall carbon footprint of implementing any viable electric vehicles charging grid. Conventional fossil fuel sources, logically, have a much greater carboon footprint than renewable sources of energy such as wind, solar, or geothermal. Unfortunately, more than 70% of the electricity generated in the United States comes from fossil fuel sources, including coal (48%), natural gas (21%), and petroleum (1%). Nuclear energy (19%) and hydropower (6%) are less harmful to the environment but still carry significant local impacts. Truly "renewable" sources of energy account for just 3% of our generated electricity, according to the US Department of Energy. 

Several startup firms have taken that message seriously and have made major steps to create networks of electric vehicle charging stations that are truly carbon-neutral.

The E-Move Charging Station prototype, designed in Bozen, Denmark, by Valentin Runggaldier, charges vehicles through solar energy absorbed by eight solar panels on its roof. According to Inhabitat
"no word on how long the filling stations require to charge different devices, but unless people have the capacity to wait all day while a plug-in car is charged, the stations might be best suited for smaller devices."
The City of Chicago's Fleet Department used the ChargePoint technology created by Coulomb Technologies and adapted it to use solar power. By independently creating its own power source, the solar powered charging station does not draw upon the rest of the city's electric grid and does not cost the Fleet Department's electric bill. The only obstacle for wider adaptation of this type of solar-power charging station is the cost, which must be below what it would cost to use conventional electric sources to be practical. 

New York City just opened its first ever solar-power charging station within the last six months, through a partnership with the sustainable energy company Beautiful Earth Group.

In order to promote more of this type of synergy between the solar energy and electric vehicle sectors, certification regimes like Evergreen Fleets play a crucial role in promoting renewable-based electric grids over conventional ones.

Proliferation of Private Electric Vehicle Initiatives Shows Need for More Government Leadership

Amidst the current proliferation of electric vehicle initiatives, funded privately through venture capital, is an astonishing lack of government leadership of green fleets policy nationwide.

The State of California already has Better Place, Solar City, and Coulomb Technologies competing to provide residents with an electric vehicle charging station network. So far, however, Coulomb Technologies is the only firm of the three to explicitly provide resources to form partnerships with local governments, for both city planners and fleet managers. Coulomb has provided distinct resources for each set of stakeholders in the process, a key concern that has not received enough attention in earlier enterprises. Coulomb has begun to operate electric vehicle charging stations in San Jose, CA, out of streetlamps. With fierce competition coming from Better Place and Solar City, it should be interesting to see which of these firms has the most successful implementation of electric charging grids. As California is the nation's largest commercial market, success here means a great deal of transferrability to other regions and will attract significant international attention as well.

Currently (as of March 2010) Evergreen Fleets remains the only regional Green Fleets certification regime in the United States to follow the conceptual model of LEED, with set benchmarks for emissions reduction and alternative fuel investment. Evergreen Fleets is a pilot project of the Puget Sound Clean Cities Coalition, one of over 70 similar programs in metro areas throughout the US that are administered by the US Department of Energy's Clean Cities Program. However, due to limited national and state funding, similar programs are difficult to coordinate and maintain in many areas. Evergreen Fleets, for instance, has no full-time staff or even a dedicated office, like the LEED program. Important national initiatives like Obama's stimulus package are an important first step in spurring innovation, as their $200 million grant to Better Place has shown. Without adequate regulatory enforcement at the state and local, however, there is no guarantee that this investment is publicly accountable or even financially sound.

Further, while it is true that the venture capital and startup sectors have far more innovative capacity to offer in terms of green fleet solutions than any public agency initiative, public agencies play an important role in shaping the commercial markets by their sheer size and visibility alone. By creating economies of scale, public agencies can make certain vehicle technologies more affordable (and therefore more successful) simply by increasing the demand for them. 

Instead of blindly "recommending" that candidate agencies invest in electric vehicles and awarding points for those that do, Evergreen Fleets (and any certification regimes that emerge elsewhere) should specify in greater detail which applications of this technology are most appropriate and for whom.

America's First "Electric Highway" Takes Shape Along Highway 101 in California

Commuters between San Francisco and Los Angeles, along Highway 101, will no longer have to worry about the lack of electric vehicle charging infrastructure along this key California artery. 

While innovators like Shai Agassi of Better Place are still testing large-scale electric charging networks in a few prototype locations, Solar City, a Foster City, CA startup, has already created approximately 2,500 charging stations across the US, five of which are arrayed along the famously picturesque Highway 101, in what is now being dubbed "the Electric Highway." 

According to a story on the green technology blog Inhabitat, SolarCity's charging stations along Highway 101 are each located at Rabobank locations, one of their key patrons. Part of the reason Solar City's efforts have not garnered more public attention is because their stations, for the moment, are only compatible with the Tesla Roadster. The Roadster is a gorgeous driving machine whose starting price tops $100,000, making it in many ways a status symbol of the environmentally-conscious elite. The charging stations also have limited practicality, taking up to 3 hours to fully charge up a Roadster, though thankfully for Roadster owners, the vehicle's battery has a 300-mile range, meaning that intermittent stops along the Electric Highway need not be anywhere near three hours long. 

Three of the five charging stations - the Salinas, Atascadero, and San Luis Obispo locations - along the Electric Highway are solar-powered, offering a challenge to up-and-coming charging station providers to ensure, for publicity's sake, that their stations draw their electric energy from renewable sources. Currently Solar City has been offering its charging station services for free, although that may change as soon as it adopts a universal electric plug that any electric vehicle can use. As soon as that becomes a reality, the idea of "electric highways" and "green commuting corridors" may become the new status quo of transportation planning.

New Commitments to Electric Vehicle Charging Networks

Municipal and private fleets may have more reason to investigate electric vehicles soon to arrive on commercial markets, thanks in large part to new agreements in several key regions to build vast networks of charging stations for electric vehicles.

Israel, home to the electric charging station empresario Shai Agassi, has already built several hundred charging stations capable of swapping the lithium-ion batteries from electric vehicles in as little as 45 seconds. The batteries are expected to have a life of 7,000 charges, far more than the 150,000 miles of an average car's lifespan.

The State of Hawaii has also committed to officially endorsing Mr. Agassi's first round of electric charging stations.

Both Israel and Hawaii, as well as other demonstrations in Denmark, demonstrate how the network of charging stations could be ideal for communities with shorter vehicle trips and high gas prices. On Hawaii, for instance, drivers rarely make trips than 100 miles, due to the islands' confining geography. The one characteristic these areas share in common is that they are each considered "island economies" with above average energy prices, making them ideal testing grounds for electric vehicles. Once these charging station networks become established locally and increase their market share, the supply of charging stations will have increased sufficiently to become more affordable for larger regions with lower energy prices.

For fleets looking to reduce the environmental impacts, regardless of where they are located, the "island economy" narrative is a fitting metaphor. Fleets are, due to their size (for larger cities, many thousands of vehicles) have a disproportionate influence on local commercial vehicle markets. If large fleets were able to commit to significant number of these electric fueling stations, they could easily create an economy of scale, reducing the overall price and making the purchase of these stations more affordable for private consumers.

This "island economy" approach is a contrast to Evergreen Fleets' Best Practices, which tend to focus on purchasing and retrofitting existing vehicles. Often this approach leads to the manufacture of new vehicles or equipment, which adds to the fleet's overall carbon footprint yet is not calculated against the fleets as an environmental externality in Evergreen Fleets certification. A new focus on green vehicle infrastructure over vehicle purchasing, as Agassi's partnerships demonstrate, may be a more effective method for making electric vehicles widely practical and available, thereby reducing fleet emissions.

SF Bay's Electric Vehicle Charging Network Receives a Huge Dose of Funding

According to a recent New York Times article, the San Francisco-based venture capital firm Better Place has committed an additional $350 million to research and development for its network of charging stations for electric vehicles, such as the network under development for the Bay Area. This new investment brings Better Place's total investment in the charging station networks to nearly $1.4 billion, in addition to $200 million in federal stimulus funding earmarked specifically for California. Of this amount, $700 million has already been allocated. This funding will complete research and development on project sites in Israel and Denmark, where the Better Place charging stations are scheduled to become publicly available in early 2011. 

The Israeli-born entrepreneur and chief executive of Better Place, Shai Agassi, has framed his massive investment in the Bay Area charging network in terms of innovation and economic competitiveness:
“We’ve demonstrated that our network is deployable,” Mr. Agassi said. “We’re ready for a big breakthrough, and there is not one country that doesn’t need to get off oil.”
Often compared to early efforts by Google and Microsoft to change the world of personal computing, Better Place faces major operational hurdles to enacting its electric charging networks, most especially in the heavily auto-oriented United States. If Agassi's investments in California and other innovative regions are successful, 

"consumers would buy electric vehicles made by the big automakers but get the batteries from Better Place and pay a fee according to the distance they drive. The blueprint calls for thousands of conventional charge points, as well as switching stations where a robotic device could replace a battery in less time than it takes to fill a tank of gas. These stations are needed because batteries have a range of only about 100 miles...and recharging takes up to five hours. Changing batteries en route would make long journeys more convenient."
Major questions still remain about the source of the vehicle charging networks' electricity. If the source is a renewable fuel, such as solar, hydropower, or wind energy, the charging network has great potential for reducing the carbon emissions from personal vehicle use. However, if the source is a conventional fossil fuel, as is more likely in most countries, the net carbon savings of these electric vehicles - regardless of how commercially popular they may become - could be negligible. Furthermore, the lithium ion batteries powering new models like the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt themselves have large carbon footprints involved in the mining and manufacture of their components. The impacts of these supply chain processes is still in need of intensive investigation.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

SF Bay Area to Build the Nation's First Electric Vehicle Charging Network

Electric vehicles have been identified as a crucial technology for reducing the carbon footprint of our nation's fleets, above all because they produce no greenhouse gas emissions.

Evergreen Fleets has defined electric vehicles as the preferred option for "neighborhood vehicles" (NEVs) designed for short trips in their Best Practices section, due to the current market shortage of vehicles capable of traveling on freeways. This market shortage is poised to dramatically change in the coming months, as the Nissan Leaf (fully electric) and the Chevy Volt (plug-in hybrid-electric) are introduced as affordable, freeway-capable models.

However, even when new plug-in hybrid and fully electric models are introduced to the market, the question of the availability of an adequate charging infrastructure remains.

According to a recent EPA study, the Chevy Volt would only achieve a fuel efficiency of 48 miles per gallon, assuming its electric battery has been fully charged. The fully-electric battery has a range of 40 miles, after which a gas-electric generator kicks in for the remaining 300 miles until the vehicle needs to be refueled. While the vehicle is in its fully electric mode, its fuel efficiency approaches 100 miles per gallon.  After the initial 40 mile range of fully electric power, the vehicle's efficiency drops dramatically, bringing its aggregate fuel efficiency to the figure of 48 m.p.g. cited above. While the 40-mile range of fully-electric power covers the average commuting distance for over 75% of Americans, to be truly practical, an inter-metropolitan network of electric charging stations outside of the home must be created to facilitate this vehicle's optimal fuel efficiency range.

This is even more  true of the Nissan Leaf, whose fully electric range is only 100 miles and lacks a gas-electric powertrain - when the Leaf runs out of electric charge, the driver has no choice but to pull over and search for the nearest charging station. An 8 hour charge is needed for the Leaf, suggesting that to be truly effective and convenient for drivers it must be charged periodically throughout the day.

A Bay Area venture capital firm, Better Place, in November 2008 committed to a $1 billion investment for the first electric vehicle charging network in the United States. The Mayors of San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose each threw their support behind the network partnership. The network is anticipated to become operational in 2012.

In response to the regional plans for this electric vehicle charging network, the City of San Francisco recently announced a change to its building code that would require new buildings to have an outlet for charging electric vehicles. As a New York Times article pointed out, there is serious concern among public utilities that the rapidly expanding demand for electricity due to the charging of electric vehicles could overwhelm local electric grids if vehicles like the Nissan Leaf become widely popular. City officials anticipate having 60 charging stations operational within San Francisco by the end of 2010 and more than 1,000 throughout the Bay Area by 2011. In addition to venture capital funding, large portions of this network will be funded by a $200 million subsidy from Obama's stimulus package.

Two key concerns over the introduction of this electric vehicle charging grid are 1) the true reductions of greenhouse gas emissions, which depend on the electricity's source and 2) the popularity of electric vehicles in regions outside of the relatively wealthy Bay Area (a 240watt home charging kit for an electric vehicle can run up to $1,500).