Friday, June 12, 2009

Frozen into inaction on green technology by a demand for complete solutions

There are lots of known solutions to the negative effects of the technologies currently being used. Unfortunately there are several kinds of resistance to deploying the known better technologies. For instance the purveyors of existing technologies would feel threatened by new green technologies, and try to fight against adoption. One of the patterns I see are comments about a technology saying approximately "that's not really green because of <fill in the blank>". It doesn't matter how clean the new technology is, the complaint is it's not good enough unless it solves the entire problem.

By way of example I want to look at discussions regarding the just completed TTXGP race. The TTXGP is a Grand Prix race featuring zero emission motorcycles. It's first run was today, June 12, 2009, as part of the overall TT races on the Isle of Man. The TT races have existed for over 100 years and is a 37 mile course spread out over the island. It's a very demanding race that has long been a proving ground for advancing motorcycle technology. For the first time electric motorcycles are competing on the race course with an eye to using this venue to advance the state of the art of zero emission vehicles.

As an electric vehicle advocate I am thrilled that this race occurred. I am in awe of how well the bikes did on the course. The winner performed at 87 miles/hr average speed over the 37 mile length of the course, mountains and all. It's a great huge step forward for electric vehicles to make such a showing.

The official TT Race forum has a thread on the TTXGP and there are a mix of comments. Many are complaining about the slow speed (gas bikes are doing 120 miles/hr or more over the same course), and many are recognizing the accomplishment of electric motorcyclists showing up and doing as well as they did. e.g. "Sounds like a cross between a jet engine and food mixer from what i can hear " and "all joking aside i am very impressed these things are very special indeed i am pleased to say i have seen them" and "That would have been a competitive senior lap speed in the 1930s - when they ran 6 more laps than the TTXGP bikes will, and on much worse roads. Nevertheless it's a great start, I say well done to them."

To look at some of the negative comments:-

All the organisers can claim is it is the first electric race but not the first green race, far from it

Depends on how you define 'green' but is this comment meant to say it's not worth holding such a race unless you can be pure green?

Its not very green as all you're doing is storing the energy spent elsewhere and releasing it later. And its efficiency is very poor indeed, I would say unless you used solar charges (Which would take weeks) or wind turbines to charge the fuel cells, then a normal engined bike is probably greener.

But it was originally billed as carbon neutral. So why all electric? Surely other technologies, such as compressed air, alcohol fueled, hydrogen, methane etc. ?

The green lobby can't claim any points with these electric bikes, but with say alcohol fueled bikes, they could claim the fuel is, say, fermented green waste and not fossile fuel based for instance. Of course that wouldnt qualify for this race as it would still have emissions, but it would be greener than these electric bikes powered from coal/oil fired power stations at poor efficiency.

There are several misconceptions here and again the intent may be to say let's not do this until it can be perfect.

First, the TTXGP organizers defined it as "zero emission" not "electric". Apparently several teams considered using other technologies such as the ones that commenter mentioned but it was only electric bikes which made it to the starting line.

It's been shown in studies that electric vehicles have a smaller carbon footprint than equivalent gas powered vehicle, even when the electricity comes from a coal plant. This is because electric vehicles are so much more efficient than gas vehicles, and transporting electrons is more efficient than transporting gasoline. And by using electrons the electricity can come from a wide range renewable resources.

The other named technologies also store energy spent elsewhere into some medium. It takes energy to compress air, brew alcohol, extract hydrogen, extract methane, etc. The real question is which of the energy systems offer better efficiency and better flexibility. In my mind electricity scores very highly on all counts.

All this makes electric vehicles a big improvement over existing vehicles. But ignoring them due to perceived imperfection leaves us without deploying or using existing technologies that can make a big improvement to our collective lives.