Saturday, June 27, 2009

Can the US lower carbon emissions by 17% by 2020?

The House of Representatives narrowly passed a bill to drive the US economy toward a less carbon intensive future. President Obama is pushing the Senate to likewise pass this bill that he would like to sign into law soon. The bill intends to cut US carbon emission by 17% in 2020 compared with a base year of 2005. The part of the bill that may actually accomplish its intended target is the part that steers Americans toward smaller and lighter personal vehicles. Consumers may actually save money in buying smaller cars as their first cost and ongoing operating costs are certainly lower than larger vehicles. The part of the bill that is real tricky is in electric power generation where incentives will be given to operate geothermal, wind, PV, solar thermal, biomass, and nuclear power stations and taxes will be imposed on coal, natural gas, and hydrocarbon liquid fired stations.

The least costly methods for power generation are coal and natural gas and the most costly is PV. The office of management and budget has estimated that the average consumer will pay approximately $100 extra per year for their energy as a result of this bill. I have no real data that confirms this. PV electricity is much more expensive to generate than natural gas and it is also intermittent. The power grid will need additional transmission lines and point of use energy storage to overcome the interruptible nature of PV or even wind. Nuclear, geothermal and biomass are base-load generators that can operate 24 by 7. The wildcard in all of this is whether plug in hybrid or pure plug in vehicles will be deployed on a large scale in the next decade. This hinges on the cost of lithium batteries and a good deal of government money is being thrown at this area.

My chemical engineering experience leads me to believe that the cost improvement in lithium ion batteries a decade from now will be moderate and nowhere near the rate of cost improvement in devices such as semiconductors or LCD TVs. Unfortunately a fractional Moore’s Law will hold for lithium batteries. The underlying limitation to the learning curve is that the electrochemistry requires a certain mass of anode, cathode, and electrolyte to store a certain quantity of energy and deliver a certain instantaneous amount of power. My prognostication is that ten years from now the cost of a lithium ion battery system will drop from approximately $900 per kilowatt hour of storage to approximately $650 per kilowatt hour of storage.

The Tesla Roadster has some 55 kilowatt hours of battery storage, the Prius only has 1.5 kilowatt hours of storage as the Prius is primarily powered by its gasoline engine. The Volt plug in hybrid GM is proposing has approximately 16 kilowatt hours of battery storage. Because of the high cost of the batteries my forecast is that plug in hybrids that are capable of 40 miles of electric travel will still be too expensive in ten years from now to capture more than a very small share of the market. Traditional hybrids will capture a third of the market in a decade and small lighter cars will also capture a similar fraction. Bigger cars will still be common with a similar market share to traditional hybrids. A plug in hybrid that goes 8 to 10 miles may be more commercially successful than the targeted 40 mile range battery intensive vehicle. If we do have plug in hybrids with 3 or 4 kilowatt hours of onboard batteries then it is quite plausible that one would recharge at night at home and the operating cost for the 10 miles that one would travel on the batteries will be perhaps 25 cents. If there are five million of these vehicles perhaps some 20 million kilowatt hours of night time power can be stored. Let’s assume the nightly charging last 8 hours, this means some 2.5 million kilowatts or some 2,500 megawatts of power generation capacity will be needed. This is a miniscule fraction of the approximately 800,000 megawatts of power generation that are in place presently in the USA.

The success of the whole plug in program hinges on the lightest metal in the periodic table and this is Li, which are incidentally the first two letters in my name. I wish I could help the planet by inventing a new less expensive material called Lindsayium but alas this is not possible and my suggestion to help meet the 17% reduction goal is to walk, bike, carpool or take the bus.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Are Raser and Capstone thermodynamic busts?

I should be a financial planner. Over the past couple of weeks I blogged about Raser the Eraser and Capstone the Gallstone being thermodynamic busts. Well the folks on Wall Street must be reading the green machine. Raser traded today at a paltry $3.60 and Capstone is now trading at a measly eighty cents a share. These two companies are in a race to the bottom. Capstone has more financial resources than Raser so it will last a few quarters longer before its life is over or new equity has to be found to finance their ongoing losses. The companies will soon be ghosts.

Raser is now positioning itself as a big geothermal power plant developer. They have put the “100 mpg” Hummer on the back burner so to speak. Well Raser brings a contract with United Technologies as their entre into geothermal energy. UT may have some good technology but Raser will have to pay full price to buy this technology so unless Raser can raise cheap capital to finance their build own operate geothermal power plants they have no cost advantage over other more well funded project developers. Of course Raser has their hand out for Uncle Sam’s stimulus money and stranger thing have happened so they may pull this off but maybe the Feds can read a balance sheet and even the US might understand that Raser has negative net worth as well as negative working capital.

As for Gallstone they have yet to claim their microturbine can run on geothermal steam but they are asking investors to pony up more cash to keep going. They announced their quarterly results a few days ago. They lost over eleven million dollars this quarter. This means they spent two dollars for each dollar of sales revenue. Kind of like the State of California.

Enough about losers and losses, I have great news regarding the state of carbon emissions in the USA. We are emitting only 94% of the emissions we had in 2008 and about 92% of the emissions we had in 2007. All fossil fuel based electric generation has declined since last year. Oil usage has declined to 18.6 million barrels a day (this is more than 1.2 million barrels a day less than last year). I doubt that when the economy recovers we will ever go back to the absolute level of energy wastage we had in 2007. The US is no longer the largest polluter on the planet. China will hold this position now and well into the future. GM had good news to report today. Their Chinese joint venture has just sold their 2 millionth Buick. Maybe Raser should move to China now that a Chinese company will own Hummer. I wonder what the Mandarin word for an Eraser is? Perhaps the word is also a Chinese synonym for Ghost.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Can a turbine replace an internal combustion engine?

Today the blog is about Gallstones and Capstones. I know keystones are critical to the support of an arch but what is a capstone. Well in the world of thermodynamics, Capstone is the manufacturer of a microturbine that can produce 30 kilowatts or about 40 horsepower of power. A turbine is a jet engine rather than a piston engine and Capstone has miniaturized the jet engine to be small enough to fit in the hood of a car. They have been at this for about twelve years and blown through almost a billion dollars of investors’ money. The inventor is the brother of the founder of Compaq computers and Paul Allen of Microsoft fame has been a backer.

While the technology is elegant and sweet, the cost of fabricating a microturbine is very high. The 40 horsepower engine from Capstone that has one third the power of a Toyota Corolla, costs them more than $20,000 to manufacture. By comparison the 60 horsepower engine in a Smart Car costs Mercedes less than $2,500 to manufacture. Is the microturbine much more efficient than a piston engine? Over the full driving range that a motorist typically runs their vehicle the, microturbine will approach 30% efficiency while the piston engine will be about 15% efficient. However, when one employs a diesel engine to do the same driving, the diesel engine yields approximately the same efficiency as the Capstone turbine. The diesel engine would only cost about $3,000 to manufacture.

For the past couple of weeks I have been blogging about Raser the Eraser and today it is about Capstone the Gallstone. Capstone also wanted to lift their stock price by getting in on the plug in hybrid bandwagon. CPST is Capstone’s stock symbol and it is a small cap stock on the NASDAQ. It was once a large cap stock during the dot com boom years but it saw a low of 39 cents a share a few months back. Last week some thermodynamic wankers in the UK, fitted a plug in van with a Capstone turbine and are claiming 80 mpg for the van. . On this news the CPST stock rose to close at one dollar sixteen cents yesterday.

Again the claim of the first forty miles being energy free due to the plug in lithium ion batteries propelling the vehicle without the need for engaging the engine is being made. If Raser is an Eraser then the Capstone plug in is a Gallstone. In Capstone’s case one has to add the extra cost of the turbine versus the standard piston engine and this is amounts to another $20,000 on top of the lithium ion batteries that already added more than $30,000 to the base cost of the vehicle. Therefore the Capstone Gallstone will cost you $50,000 more than the base diesel van and get no better fuel economy. I hear gallstones are very painful, the extra fifty thousand dollars per vehicle is also painful to your wallet.

Gall is a synonym for nerve or chutzpah. I really get my hairs up on my back when these gangrene gallists who have jumped on the band wagon to save the world by lowering energy consumption make ridiculous claims about their technologies that are Betamaxs and some fool then buys the stock on the hope this is the next Apple Computer. I suggest that folks rather buy shares in my new engine company Gallstone Turbine Corporation that uses rubber bands to propel a lead acid plug in. I will list Gallstone Turbine Corporation on the NYSE with the symbol GTC which also stands for Get Their Cash.

On Wednesday June 17, Lindsay Leveen will be on blog talk radio at noon California time to discuss Eraser and Gallstone. 12pm PT (3pm ET) at The call in number for the radio show is (347) 838-8999.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Why do we not sell electricity by the TV Hour?

What to do with a watt?

Everyday day in the news there is an article claiming some breakthrough in energy efficiency. I have blogged about Raser the Eraser and how they claim greater than 100 mpg for their plug in hybrid Hummer. They have even taken the claim a step further on their web site by now stating that if the driver of this supercharged Hummer drives less than 40 miles before a recharge the “fuel economy is unlimited”. Raser also claims that 75% of drivers could enjoy this “unlimited fuel economy, as 75% of drivers have trips that are less than 40 miles and can therefore recharge the vehicle from the infinitely efficient electric grid.

This got me rethinking something that I had written about back in 2003. The average person has no clue of the meaning of the units of energy that we use to describe the quantity of energy generated or consumed. Many of the units of energy or power are named after a long dead scientist such as Watt or Joule. Many of the units of energy are even more strangely named. We have calories, kilocalories, BTUS, horsepower-hours, ergs, Hartree, Rydberg, reciprocal centimeters, therms, quads, gigawatt-hours, foot-poundal and even electron volts. So back in 2003 I invented the universal unit of energy that every Joe or Jane could relate to. This ubiquitous unit is the TV-Hour™ or TVH™ that equals the energy needed to power a 24 inch tube TV for an hour. Back in 2003 the most common TV was a 24 inch tube TV and it consumed 100 watt-hours of energy in an hour. Now LCD TVs are becoming the viewing standard and given the larger size of their screen I will revise the TV-Hour™ TVH™ to be the power needed to enjoy one hour of TV viewing of a 42 inch LCD TV. A state of the art LED driven 42 inch LCD TV requires 150 watt hours of energy to operate. Of course some energy is needed to power the cable box and just about every TV in the US is connected to cable or dish but for the sake of this article I will assume we will use the 150 watt hour equivalent for our standard measure TV-Hour ™TVH™.

Getting back to Raser and their claim of “unlimited fuel economy” for the 75% of us who drive less than 40 miles per trip, let me relate the operation of the wondrous Hummer to how many TV-Hours of electricity were used to propel the vehicle on the 40 mile journey to nowhere. The Tesla plug in roadster that is half as heavy and certainly twice as aerodynamic than the brick styled Hummer, needs 300 watt-hours or 2 TV-Hours™ of energy to travel a mile. Therefore the Raser Hummer will need at least 600 watt-hours or 4 TV-Hours™ of energy to travel a mile. To travel 40 miles the Raser Hummer will require 160 TV-Hours™ of energy. The average person in the USA watches approximately 25 hours of TV a week, so the “unlimited fuel economy” monstrosity driven for the single 40 mile trip uses the equivalent of six and a half weeks of TV watching energy. I don’t know which is more worthless the 40 mile trip in the Earser or watching TV for 160 hours, my readers can be the judge of that. Arne the Governator wants to buy the Eraser perhaps he would be better served if he powered eighty 42 inch TVs simultaneously all showing his 2 hour long Kindergarten Cop movie rather than a 40 mile trip in the Eraser on the now defunct Hydrogen Highway he proposed.

For more on my original 2003 work on the TV-Hour™ please go to
TV-Hour™ TVH™ are pending registered marks of Lindsay Leveen