Friday, December 12, 2008

Why We Should Let the Big Three Fail

[This blog originally appeared in New Scientist. See the original here.]

The second attempt at a federal bailout for the Big 3 US automakers fell apart early this morning when their union refused to trim their workers' rather cushy benefits packages.

I say good riddance. Let the dinosaurs die. It's time for auto industry version 2.0.

One alternative getting a lot of attention recently is Better Place, a Silicon Valley start-up with a business model that could quickly turn the automotive industry on its head.

Basically, it's a refueling system for all-electric vehicles that, if successful, would lead to a complete gutting of the internal combustion engine.

Better Place doesn't sell cars; rather, it sets up a national grid of refueling stations, ideally powered by renewable energy. Drivers swap out their drained batteries for fresh ones at their stations in a matter of minutes and pay Better Place by the mile, like buying minutes for a cell phone.

Israel, Denmark, Australia, and, as of last week, Hawaii are all on board. Renault-Nissan will provide the cars with the easy-to-swap batteries, and Japan is testing the company's stations for a remake of their transport system.

Tom Friedman plugged this new model earlier this week - and dissed what was then a likely bailout for the Big 3 - in an editorial for the New York Times saying:

"Our bailout of Detroit will be remembered as the equivalent of pouring billions of dollars of taxpayer money into the mail-order-catalogue business on the eve of the birth of eBay... into the CD music business on the eve of the birth of the iPod and iTunes... into a book-store chain on the eve of the birth of and the Kindle... into improving typewriters on the eve of the birth of the PC and the Internet."
The Better Place model may be a part of the solution, but until heavy, steel-body autos go on a serious diet, battery-driven cars are going to be prohibitively expensive.

Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute gave a great talk at Harvard last week on Hypercars or ultralight vehicles made of advanced composites (that is, carbon fibre instead of steel) that, by virtue of their light weight, are 3-5 times more fuel-efficient.

Advanced composite car ideas have been batted around for years: GM did a one-off concept car back in 1992, but it seems no one has been able to get the economics right for mass production. Until, perhaps, now.

This summer, a Japanese paper reported that Nissan, Honda, and Toray - the largest carbon fibre manufacturer in the world - are coming together with the goal of making vehicles 40% lighter than today's models.

Last week I proposed giving the Big 3 whatever they asked for so long as the money was tied to significant CAFE standard increases. Now, I'm taking it back. The automotive industry is changing too quickly and GM, Ford, and Chrysler are too far behind.

I say if the US is going to compete in a new, fuel-efficient world, it will be with scrappy start-ups that aren't tied to 20th-century pensions. What do you think?
(image: Wikimedia Commons)

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Chu On This!

[This story originally appeared in New Scientist. See the 0riginal Here.]

"Chu is the man!" "Chu gets it!" "Chu is hardcore!"

The eco-blogosphere is caught in an orgiastic frenzy over the pending announcement of Nobel laureate and Lawrence Berkeley National Lab director Steven Chu as US energy secretary.

So what's all the excitement about?

First, Chu would be the first person with a Nobel Prize in science to ever serve in the cabinet of a US president. The only other Nobel laureate in such a position was US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973.

But what makes Chu "hardcore" is the full-on assault he's launched against climate change since taking the helm of Lawrence Berkeley in 2004.

His homepage says he is on a "mission" to make the national lab "the world leader in alternative and renewable energy research, particularly the development of carbon-neutral sources of energy".

In the past four years, he's formed some cutting-edge energy science centres, including the Joint BioEnergy Institute and the Energy Biosciences Institute. One of them, Helios, will draw on synthetic biology, a discipline that aims to rewrite the basic operating instructions of living cells, to produce new sources of clean energy.

In 2007, Chu co-authored "Rising Above the Gathering Storm", a report put out by the National Academy of Sciences that called for an energy agency similar to the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) as a way to fund developments in renewable energy.

The same year, he co-chaired a report commissioned by the governments of China and Brazil outlining steps they could take toward a sustainable energy future. With Chu, who is a Chinese-American researcher and a foreign member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, heading the DOE, I wouldn't be surprised to see further collaborations on this front in the coming years.

The only possible blemish in Chu's eco-career was sealing the deal on a $500 million biofuel development handout from oil giant BP for the national lab, UC Berkeley and the University of Illinois that some felt would compromise the institutions' academic integrity.

Check out a video of Chu speaking at the National Clean Energy Summit in August. He seems like a bit of a numbers wonk, but is adamant about energy efficiency and clean energy research and development. Who better to lead the world's biggest assemblage of scientists developing renewable power?

Phil McKenna, correspondent (Image: Lawrence Berkeley National Lab/Roy Kaltschmidt)