Monday, July 27, 2015

The Time Is Right For a Carbon Tax

The time is right for the United States to initiate a carbon tax.  Indeed, given the rate of global warming the time is well past due, but given the significant decline in the price of fossil fuel a carbon tax would not be much noticed and so the central economic argument against it can not stand.  Moreover, the tax would succeed in inhibiting the use of fossil fuels, at this time of dire need for global warming reduction.
A carbon tax is a dollar sum placed on carbon dioxide emissions at the producer level.  The producer decides whether to pass along the tax cost to the consumer (or absorb a reduction in profits).  The express purpose is to make carbon more expensive.  
However, the carbon tax is a bit of misnomer: it is NOT an actual tax, because it is intended to reduce other collected taxes, such as income taxes, on a dollar-for-dollar basis.  It is not regressive (i.e., it does not effect the poor and rich evenly) because the wealthy use more carbon and the rate of income tax adjustment enables fair offsets in income tax for each income tax bracket.  Really, a carbon tax is just a re-allocation of taxes, working simply to make pollution more expensive.
The United States would not be going it alone with a carbon tax.  Indeed, these have been in place in progressive countries for years.  For example, many European nations have implemented a carbon tax: Sweden has had one since 1991, it has moved progressively higher, and yet while it has significantly reduced emissions it has not had an adverse impact on its economic growth.

A carbon tax figure often mentioned is $25 per ton of carbon dioxide.  That would add about $.25 to a gallon of gasoline, about $.005 to a kilowatthour of electricity.  But again, this money is intended to be redistributed to produce a net-zero increase in federal taxes, and so it merely induces greater use of alternative energy and more efficient devices.  In that way, it is credited with domestic and international success in driving the economy forward toward ever-improving technology.

The primary argument against a carbon tax is that it would detrimentally effect the fossil-fuel economy.  However, the average cost of a barrel of oil has declined by half and with Iran returning to the market the glut of its oil will likely keep prices low for years to come.  Similarly, the price of natural gas is at historic lows with more reservoirs being regularly discovered.  With the reductions in the cost of this fossil fuel energy, the carbon tax will not be significantly noticed by the consumer.

Oil and natural gas account for the majority of all carbon dioxide emissions.  Because of the low price of these commodities, their use may expand, to the detriment of renewable energy production, to the detriment of our health (the cost of adverse health effects due carbon fuel pollution is estimated at $120 billion annually), and to the detriment of increased global warming (the cost of harm caused by global warming is estimated at $2 trillion annually).  And the estimates of the damage caused by fossil fuel pollution is only increasing as the estimates become more accurate  --  and, the cost of species extinction is incalculable.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Reclaiming Drinking Water Saves Energy And The Environment

There is a critical nexus of interests to be connected between drinking water, energy use, and the environment.  This article explores a solution that dramatically conserves each.  Moreover, it is readily technologically feasible and easily introduced into all major population centers.

There are several observations to be made regarding water, electricity, and the environment.  First, virtually every agricultural and population center on the planet uses more fresh water than is naturally replenished, and indeed some are running through reserves at such a rate that they are already running out of fresh water.  Second, the amount of energy required to extract, distribute, treat, and dispose of water    or to create fresh water from salt water    is one of the single largest sources of energy consumption.  Third, man’s abuse of natural water cycles is wreaking havoc with a tremendous number of environmental systems around the world, leading to catastrophic and likely permanent damage to these ecosystems and their flora and fauna.

I propose that in all towns, cities, and metropolitan centers, the water distribution, sewer, and water treatment systems be tied together.  The purpose would be to create and maintain a permanent closed-cycle loop system to distribute, collect, treat, and re-distribute water.  Doing so will provide ideal water quality, greatly reduce the energy required to make water available, and dramatically reduce the amount of water taken from the ecosystems that depend upon it.

Let’s be clear on three things: first, it is certain that sewage water can readily be cleaned to standards beyond those required of existing water standards    this is well-demonstrated and beyond challenge.  Second, such closed-loop systems result in stunningly large savings in electricity, which has equally stunning implications for reducing global pollution (and can thereby also reduce energy-related geopolitical friction).  Third, this is an inevitable end-game given that natural aquifers are not replenishing at the rate humans draw them down, yet given our consistent pattern of thinking only of our species over the existence of every other species we may not come to this obvious conclusion until after we have caused the extinction of incalculable other species. 

Reclaimed Potable Water Is Pure

Cleaning sewage water to drinking water standards may accomplished through fairly new but very well-tested technologies.  Potable (i.e., drinking) water in the U.S. must meet many standards (  Among the monitored pathogens and chemicals and element contaminants are these categories: 

  • Micro-organisms (ex: giardia    zero acceptable tolerance) 
  • Cleaning agents (ex: chlorine    monitored to low levels) 
  • Inorganic chemicals (ex: the heavy metal barium    may have no more than 2 MCL (Micrograms per Liter, also known as Parts Per Million (PPM)))
  • Organic chemicals (ex: the petrochemical Toluene    1 MCL)
  • Radioactive materials (ex: uranium). 
There are nearly one hundred monitored contaminants.  If all are properly monitored and treated, the resulting water will be pure.

Importantly, all testing has revealed that reclaimed drinking water is remarkably pure.  In fact, having all water flow through a single treatment facility better enables complete and consistent testing to ensure the purity of the water.  The water coming out of such treatment facilities is cleaner than the water typically pulled from our waterways and aquifers: a recent National Research Council study concluded that reclaimed potable water had contaminant risk many times lower than that found in conventional water supplies (

It is against the law to discharge untreated sewage directly into the public waterways, which is the inevitable end-point for treated sewage water.  Therefore, in all developed nations, the infrastructure to collect, treat, and discharge the sewage water already exists.   Consequently, the basic transportation infrastructure for enabling sewage water to be fully treated already exists.

The Key Issue Is Energy 

In order to treat the sewage, there are three basic steps.  First is primary treatment, which is the separation of heavy solids, oils and light solids, and the remaining liquids.  Next comes secondary treatment, which is the use of beneficial micro-organisms to remove biological elements.  The final stage, tertiary treatment, is typically chemical treatment and/or physical filtering. 

The energy required to perform these basic sewage treatment steps is significant.  For instance, the Silicon Valley Advanced Water Purification Center uses 770KWH/AF (KWH = kilowatt hour, and AF = acre-foot of water, which is 325,853 gallons).  This is the amount of energy input into the treatment system.  Interestingly, there are developing technologies that actually extract some energy from some forms of treatment, and such energy harvesting systems would fit best with full water treatment systems built for reclaiming drinking water (;

In order to treat sewage water so as to make it potable turns out to require only a few additional steps and only a bit more energy.  The Silicon Valley Advanced Water Purification Center system begins with the described sewage treatment steps, and then adds the following additional processes: microfiltration (forcing the water through very fine hollow fibers);  reverse osmosis (forcing the water through membrane sheets with holes so small that a water molecule is almost the only substance that can pass through); and ultraviolet light (exposing the water to strong ultraviolet light to act as a powerful last stage disinfectant) (  The energy requirement for this system is 1600KWH/AF. 

Lastly, potable water can be created through desalination.  This process forces sea water under very high pressure through reverse osmosis filters similar to those identified above.  However, because there are far more salts and solids in sea water (that cannot be removed through any other form of treatment or filtration), the pressure required is much greater and the efforts required are much more energy intensive (and, some other steps as identified are also often still required).  Lastly, the system requires the construction of a wholly new plant, it requires long piping systems into the sea, and it results in the discharge of brine that is dangerous to local marine life.  But moreover, in addition to huge capital cost and direct environmental damage, the typical energy requirements for desalination systems is 6000-12,000 KWH/AF    many times more than the energy required for reclaimed drinking water.  (

The critical energy comparisons are clear in comparing the energy requirement for treatment of sewage (required) versus treatment for reclaimed drinking water versus desalination treatment.  The energy requirement comparison    770 v. 1600 v. 6000-12,000KWH/AF    speaks for itself.  But simply leaving the analysis there is far from complete.  The full comparison must also include analysis of all water energy use and full environmental impact. 

It is difficult to perfectly quantify the energy required to obtain new water for each region, but reasonable estimates can be made based upon overall numbers.  In California, fully 20% of total electricity use is for transporting water (   California’s annual electrical energy use is about 230,000,000,000 KWH (, and therefore water-transport-related electrical use was 46,000,000,000 KWH.  Even given California’s relatively low carbon footprint of 0.5LB of carbon dioxide (among other pollutants) per KWH of electricity (, this still amounts to 23,000,000,000 pounds of carbon dioxide annually related to water transportation.  This is equivalent to the tailpipe pollution of about 2,300,000 vehicles (about one fifth of all the vehicles in California) (  Simply stated, there is tremendous energy savings in NOT having to transport new drinking water. 

A Win For The Environment

As for the environmental savings, this is even more difficult to quantify, but the savings are even greater.  As a further example of environmental impact, California is struggling to avoid draining its rivers, streams, lakes, and wetlands to meet the demand for water.  A large percentage of the planet’s biological diversity is found in such waterways.  Once dried, the species that were native to those waterways are forever extincted, never to return.  (Humankind is already responsible for the planet’s sixth great mass extinction, leading to the disappearance of a potential 50% of all species.)  Also, underground water supplies have been drawn down so far that lands are subsiding; salt water is infiltrating into fresh water; and, pollution in the remaining water is rising.  The opportunity to avoid these losses should be a paramount concern.

… And A Win For The Economy

Lastly, there is a tremendous economic savings in avoiding water transportation.   In addition to the savings in electrical energy, multi-billion dollar projects are required to bring water to population centers.  The future costs of such projects continue to rise.  The alternative is restricting water use by individuals and businesses, including agriculture (the most water-intensive business).  Between the energy savings, the capital project costs, and the impact on business, the cost of transporting water is in the hundreds of billions of dollars.  By comparison, more robust water treatment plants take advantage of existing water infrastructure, and their costs are comparatively much lower.

The benefits of employing available technology to endlessly reclaim drinking water are obvious.  It will doubtless happen.  The only question is when.  Hopefully it will happen sooner rather than later, because the planet’s most pressing issues    energy and the environment    lie in the balance. 

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Hydrogen Vehicles Fail; Electric Vehicles Win

This article is inspired by a recent proposal by the California Air Resources Board to change its Zero Emissions Vehicle credit system to greatly benefit potential hydrogen vehicles at the expense of existing battery electric vehicles
(   Analyzing both present technologies, I believe it is clearly true that hydrogen is a terrible way to go and battery electric vehicles are the only way to go.  The reasons can be stated in top-ten lists. 

(If you agree with this article, please make a public comment to discourage this possible change by cutting and pasting what I’ve written or presenting your own comment at this address:



The reasons why hydrogen is a fail can be broken down into 3 general buckets:  cost, safety, and environmental damage.

1.  Hydrogen Requires A Completely New Infrastructure At Tremendous Cost.
            There is nothing that exists that is adaptable for conversion to hydrogen use.  Therefore, an entirely new infrastructure of large reservoirs, transport vehicles, fueling stations, and pipelines would have to be built.  For some elements, the technology for doing so does not even exist.  The cost for all of this  --  at a scale necessary to replace gasoline vehicles  --  is astronomical.  Each hydrogen station costs about $2,000,000: there are about 120,000 gas stations in the United States, so the cost of merely creating a hydrogen fueling station infrastructure will cost about $240 billion dollars (  In a world that measures everything by cost first, this is in itself a complete deal-breaker.

2.  Hydrogen Requires Very Expensive Fuel Cells.
            While hydrogen can be burned in an internal combustion engine, this is not commercially proposed because it would be a poor and expensive use of the fuel.  Instead, proponents propose using hydrogen in fuel cells.  However, the cost of fuel cells is startling.  There are several fuel cells on the market, and each is very expensive: the cost of a fuel cell that can make a sufficient amount of electricity to operate a vehicle is about $50,000 to $100,000 (  Moreover, fuel cells require the use of a fair amount of platinum as a catalyst material, and so mass production of fuel cells would not reduce the cost, but instead would actually drive up the cost due to the scarcity of platinum.

3.  Hydrogen Is Inherently Very Dangerous. 
            We’ve all heard of or seen footage of the Hindenburg zeppelin exploding (   We know that this can and has happened at hydrogen vehicle filling stations ( 
           Fundamentally, hydrogen is one of the most dangerous materials to handle as it is extremely combustible, and without scent or color and so its escape into the atmosphere is impossible to detect.  Therefore, an ignition source may be unknowingly introduced to it.  Because of its amazing combustibility, it will burn extremely quickly, with extreme heat, and therefore is extremely dangerous.  While this danger can be mitigated, it is inherent, and should rule out the use of hydrogen on the broad consumer market.

4.  Hydrogen Is Difficult To Capture.
            Hydrogen is always maintained under great pressure.  Because hydrogen atoms are the smallest element, it can escape through any small gap  Therefore, any possible source of escape will be found.  As life too often proves, where there is a risk, that risk will eventually manifest itself. Escaping hydrogen may result in an explosion, and at a minimum it will result in a serious threat to the environment.  The reality is that building an entire new infrastructure for hydrogen will be both extremely difficult and very costly due to these safety and environmental issues.

5.  Hydrogen Is Extremely Dangerous To The Crucial Ozone Layer.
            We depend upon the natural ozone layer in the upper atmosphere to act as a filter against ultraviolet radiation that would cause skin cancer, crop damage, and potentially increased mutation.  We have banned substances like chlorofluorocarbons that damage the ozone layer.  Yet, it has been calculated that the widespread use of hydrogen will produce dramatic damage to the ozone layer, because hydrogen acts just as chlorofluorocarbons in destroying the ozone layer (,d.cGU).  Obviously, it would be tremendously foolhardy to risk inducing such environmental damage.

6.  Fuel Cells Produce Water Vapor Which Is A Green House Gas.
            In addition to producing electricity from hydrogen gas, fuel cells produce a considerable amount of water vapor.  If many cars used fuel cells, then there would be a great deal of water vapor released into the atmosphere.  While benign from an immediate health perspective, this water vapor traps the sun’s energy, meaning that it is a green house gas, and it would act to further warm the planet(   So if part of the thinking for hydrogen is to reduce global warming, this is one more reason it is a bad plan.

7.   Hydrogen From Fossil Fuel Is Inefficient And Produces Green House Gas.
            Hydrogen gas does not exist by itself in nature.  Instead, due to its ionically charged nature, it is virtually always bound to or within other materials.  Therefore, it takes energy to strip the hydrogen away from other materials.  Commercially, hydrogen is typically produced by stripping hydrogen from methane gas, where it is bound with carbon.  Stripping it is a process requiring in part a great deal of steam  --  which, of course, requires a great deal of energy to produce.  This reformation process is about 80% efficient.  Moreover, the process results in the release of carbon dioxide, which is the primary culprit in global warming (
            Finally, consider that methane is extracted through the process of fracking (hydraulic fracturing of rock), which sadly results in the tremendous uncontained release of methane (a greenhouse gas over 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide) and the deadly polluting of water tables  --  and, it is now recognized to be the cause of many earthquakes (;; 

8.  Hydrogen From Water Is Very Inefficient.
            The other significant way to produce hydrogen is by splitting water into oxygen and hydrogen (electrolysis).  However, this electrolysis process is about 70% efficient (  Because this process is so inefficient, it is rarely used.

9.  Fuel Cells Are Only 50% Efficient (Resulting In Approximately 33% Total Efficiency).
            Fuel cell efficiency is only about 50% efficient (  By comparison, most gasoline engines are about 30% efficient.  Clearly, while a bit better, fuel cells are not remarkable.  Moreover, because the creation of the hydrogen gas was through a process that was between about 70% to 80% efficient, and then used in a fuel cell that is about 50% efficient, the actual efficiency for the whole system is only about 33%.  Then, the electricity produced by the cell must be stored in a battery and then used in an electrical motor, and while these components are very efficient (total efficiency of nearly 90%), the total system efficiency is still reduced to about 30%.  This overall efficiency for hydrogen is clearly no better than that of a car burning gasoline.

10.  Hydrogen Will Require Extreme Taxpayer Outlays To Support It.
            Given the extreme cost for the vehicles due to fuel cell expense and the extreme cost for the infrastructure due to the need to create something technically very difficult and entirely new and difficult to properly determine, it will require a huge bet on hydrogen to get a broad consumer system up and running.  This means a government policy to require taxpayer money to be spent on hydrogen, in the hundreds of billions of dollars.  While fossil fuels have received hundreds of billions in subsidies, this should not mean that we have to repeat the same costly mistake.  The best policy is to remove all economic policies that require spending substantial money  --  that way, the money does not need to come out of the taxpayer’s pocket and government can reduce its own requirements.


The reasons why electric vehicles are a win can be broken down into 3 general buckets:  low cost, environmental protection, and safety.

1.  Electric Vehicle Total Cost Of Ownership Is Lower Than Other Vehicles.
            It has been well-studied that the total cost of ownership of electric vehicles is already better than those of conventional cars (  I will note that these analyses do not even include the use of home solar, which brings the cost of fuel down to pennies per mile  --  or, effectively, free, given the savings and reinvestment of those savings (  Obviously, this makes electric vehicles vastly less expensive than hydrogen  --  or, gasoline, which has a host of subsidies that support it (

2.  Electric Vehicles Approach 90% Efficiency In The Use Of Electricity.
            Electric vehicles use electricity without doing anything more than storing it and using it to run a motor that turns the wheels.  There is no conversion loss, transmission loss, and little heat loss, and the result is nearly 90% efficiency in the use of electrical energy (about three times better than conventional or hydrogen vehicles) (  It is without argument that electricity is vastly more efficient than hydrogen: note that all the work in the use of hydrogen is really work toward the use of electricity, as all the hydrogen vehicle does is take (inefficiently) created hydrogen to (inefficiently) convert into electricity  --  the whole point of a hydrogen car is to get it to run on electricity!  Understood this way, it is clear that hydrogen is a foolish choice.

3.  Electric Vehicle Infrastructure For Widespread Adoption Already Exists.
            Electric cars recharge using the electrical grid, which obviously already exists.  While there is some cost in creating public charging stations, about 90% of all charging is done at home or at a place of employment (  In these locations the electricity is already present  and usually no work or only a small amount of work  is required to install a charging station (which only cost a few hundred dollars) (and in many situations, charging stations aren’t even needed as regular electrical outlets can charge the cars).  Further, most of the cost of creating public charging is absorbed by the businesses that install the charging stations, and so little public money is needed.  Lastly, even if over 70% of cars and trucks were electric, the existing grid would be sufficient to handle the charging without need for any major cost outlays (

4.  Electric Vehicles Are The Cleanest Form Of Transportation.
            Electric vehicles do not produce emissions.  Of course, the electricity must come from somewhere.  If the electricity comes from the grid, then the amount of pollution depends upon the cleanliness of the grid.  But, regardless of the fuel used for grid power stations (typically natural gas or coal), electric vehicles are still cleaner (even if the electricity were from 100% coal, electric vehicles are still cleaner than gas cars (  Further, each year there is less and less coal powering the national electrical grid (this year it’s down below 40% (  Finally, here is an amazing fact: more electricity is needed to make the gas for a gas car to drive 100 miles than the amount of electricity an electric car needs to drive 100 miles, because there is so much electricity used in the pumping, transportation, and refining of petroleum (not to mention unbelievable amounts of fresh water) ( 

5.  Electric Vehicles Can Directly Utilize Renewable Energy And Improve The Grid.
            If the electricity comes from renewable energy such as solar, wind, or geothermal, then electric vehicles are essentially 100% pollution-free.   And, many homeowners can effectively do this on their own by putting solar on their roof (indeed, a survey found that about 40% of electric vehicles owners do just that) (  It is also true that more and more renewable energy is being used on the grid, and so in effect electric vehicles will pollute less and less over time.
            Electric vehicles benefit the grid by charging at night, often when power plants are in effect simply idling and creating electricity that would otherwise go to waste.  Further, the fact that electric vehicles charge at night enables the use of more wind power, which is often generated at night and therefore these turbines would be less likely to be built without nighttime electric vehicle charging demand.  Lastly, in the near future it is expected that electric vehicles will bring greater efficiency to the grid and encourage more renewable energy by being able to store renewable energy, acting as electrical load levelers to smooth grid operations and helping grid managers balance electrical loads.  All of these things will enable a cleaner environment.

6.  Electric Vehicles Are The Safest Form Of Personal Transportation.
            Electric vehicles can not explode.  The battery on an electric vehicle might possibly burn if badly physically damaged, but the nature of the location of batteries underneath the car and their protective shielding makes this possibility extremely unlikely.  If a battery pack were to burn, it would necessarily take several minutes to get going.  Despite hundreds of thousands of electric vehicles on the road and hundreds of millions of miles driven, there have only been literally a handful of incidents of a battery burning, and there have never been any injuries caused by a battery burning.  Also, there have been no incidents of anyone having been injured in charging an electric vehicle.  To put all this into perspective, consider that in the United States 10% of all fires are vehicle fires (over 150,000 a year) and annually these vehicle fires result in hundreds of people being burnt to death (

7.  Electric Vehicle Development Is Improving At A Terrific Rate.
            Electric vehicles require only 4 major components: a motor, a motor controller, a battery, and a charger.  These components have dramatically improved in the past decade (for example, you can now buy an electric vehicle that will travel about 300 miles and recharge in less than an hour).  Further, there is reason to believe they will continue to dramatically improve.  Consider the battery: battery energy storage has improved incredibly in the past decade, going from lead batteries (one of the heaviest metals) to lithium (the lightest metal), improving in energy storage about 1000% in that time.  There are tremendous discoveries being made almost daily in research facilities, and the expectation is that batteries will continue to dramatically improve in energy density, life span, charge and discharge quickness, and cost (  Similarly, there are regular improvements in the other components, despite that their use of electricity is already about 90% efficient.  Therefore, it can be expected that electric vehicles that can drive all day and charge with tremendous speed and cost even less and last the life of the vehicle will likely be available in just a few years.  Finally, electric vehicles are also improving in other ways, such as offering wireless charging (not only will the owner never have to go to a filling station again, they won’t even have to plug the car in).  It is also worth noting that electric vehicles have a better inherent ability to readily be autonomously operated, which is anticipated to be the future of all vehicles.

8.  Electric Vehicles Are Patriotic.
            First, the three best-selling plug-in vehicles are each made in the United States (Tesla; Nissan Leaf; Chevy Volt).  Second, it is necessarily the case that electric vehicle energy is created here in the United States.  Third, electric vehicles readily use renewable energy, which is also necessarily created here in the United States.  It is heartening that mainstream voices (despite that others, including those in the national security field, have been saying this for decades) are finally recognizing the virtues of electric vehicles for these reasons (

9.  Electric Vehicle Public Acceptance Is Already Being Achieved At Great Speed.
            There are approximately 200,000 electric vehicles in the United States (about half of all the world’s electric vehicles): about 90% of these have been sold in just the past three years (  This remarkable increase in electric vehicle sales is obvious demonstration of the increasing acceptance of electric vehicles.  The prediction is that electric vehicles will sell in the millions in the coming years (  Electric vehicles are clearly the replacement for gasoline vehicles, and consumers are proving these predictions to be true.

10. Electric Vehicle Sales Competition Reduces The Need To Use Taxpayer Money.
            Presently, electric vehicles receive federal tax credits and sometimes state rebates.  However, the cost of these incentives is dwarfed by the cost of subsidies and other government policies that enable gasoline and are poised to support hydrogen.  Given the better economics of electric vehicles, and given their natural compatibility with the commonplace electric grid (as well as compatibility with home renewable energy), there is no need for additional incentives.  To the contrary, given the many tens of billions of dollars that have propped up gasoline sales (, and that have now been proposed to support hydrogen, the following proposal seems to make the most sense. 
            Stop all policies, incentives, credits, rebates, supports, absorbed costs, etc: make everything cost what it really costs.  If this were to take place, three things would happen: first, some things would cost the consumer a bit more (ex: electricity), and some things would cost the consumer a lot more (ex: gasoline).  Second, the amount of money that consumers pay in taxes to the federal government (money that is then disbursed in subsidies, etc.) would dramatically decline.  Third, we would find that the environmentally smart things to do  --  conserve energy, use renewable energy, reduce the consumption of fossil fuels  --  would all suddenly be the single most cost-effective thing to do and this will result in a cleaner environment which will consequently save money down the road that would otherwise have to be spent dealing with global warming.  In short, the smartest thing to do is also the cheapest, safest, and most environmentally-protective thing to do as well.  However, here is the likely fly in the ointment: the smart thing to do will require less politics, and therefore it may be difficult for politicians themselves to accomplish as they will have less power and less opportunity to help their friends who paid to get them elected.  Therefore, the most helpful thing you can do is pay attention to the politicians who seek your vote, and elect only those who understand and will implement this solution, and not simply perpetuate the existing system.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Future Of Electric Vehicles

This is an article speculating upon advanced cars of the future, looking at the near-future (5 years), mid-future (10 years), and longer-future (15-20 years) future. I say “advanced” cars because of course not all features appear everywhere instantly: typically, there are some vehicles that are early adopters of new technology, and conventional vehicles may continue to be made well after the advent of new technology (consider a comparison of the technologies in my four-wheel vehicles: a Nissan Leaf and a Dodge Caravan). The speculation is my own, and while I try to stay abreast of interesting technology, I may mistake optimism for probability.

I believe the main drivers in vehicle development are consumer market pressure, competitive pressure, and technological advances, in that order. But, even if pure technological improvement is not the main driver, I think we are moving toward a period where consumer expectation, competitive manufacturers, and greater opportunity for funded research is moving the automotive industry toward faster implementation of new technologies.

Generally speaking, there are 5 leading factors in vehicle purchases: 1. Purchase-price bang for the buck in that price bracket; 2. Style / status / brand perception; 3. Efficiency; 4. Performance; 5. Safety (and of course, the order varies with the purchaser). However, as car prices continue to increase, as the length of car ownership continues to increase, and the influence of informational sources like Consumer Reports and internet reviews continue to increase, I believe that as we go forward it is likely that consumers will become more concerned with long-term bang for the buck, often referred to as “total cost of ownership.” I trust that this shift will be good for technological improvement, which provides greater efficiency, safety, and lower long-term costs.

Here is a critical truth: the average car sold today costs about $30,000, will burn about 500 gallons of gas a year, and will be on the road for at least 10 years, and so in its lifetime it will burn at least 5000 gallons of gas. Historically, over the past couple of decades gas has gone up about 12% a year. Therefore, using a rough conservative average value of $7.00/gallon over its lifetime, fueling the average car will cost about $35,000 – more than the car’s purchase price. Clearly, buyers should understand the significance of efficiency and total cost of ownership.

An electric vehicle (“EV”) can be either a pure battery–powered electric vehicle like the Nissan Leaf, or one that carries an engine as a generator to make it an Electric Vehicle with Extended Range (“EV-ER”) like the Chevy Volt. EVs are far more efficient than any gas or hybrid vehicle measured by any metric, including miles per gallon (or “miles per gallon equivalent” (“MPGe”) for EVs), carbon dioxide pollution per mile, or total cost of ownership. While there are interesting potential developments regarding engines, there are far more potential developments regarding EVs, and therefore I will be focusing my technology speculation primarily on EVs. (If you would like to review an earlier article I’ve written speculating on EV-ER engines / generators, please read the following:

EVs will benefit from advancements primarily in the following areas: batteries; motors; construction; electronic management; and charging (particularly involving public charging stations, the equivalent of public gas stations). I have no doubt that as these areas improve – especially battery technology – EVs will become more and more common, and will eventually become the most common vehicles on the road. This also dovetails nicely with the advent of more renewable electricity generation, so that these EVs will be able to drive without producing any pollution (on a limited basis, the future is already here: I have solar modules on my home, and so my EV drives pollution-free – and, as the solar system will soon be paid off in savings, cost free!).

In the near future (in approximately 5 years), we may see the following advancements:

1. Batteries: Lithium batteries with silicon-based cathodes, which can absorb many lithium ions and therefore would provide the battery with dramatically more energy storage. There are many “flavors” of lithium battery chemistry: today, relatively common lithium chemistry can contain around 133 watt hours/kilogram (wh/kg). This is about enough energy to drive an EV half a mile. With silicon cathodes, the energy density would likely be around 400 wh/kg – three times better than today’s common batteries. With a 400wh/kg battery, a 150 mile range battery pack will only weigh about 220 pounds. (It would actually weigh more due to necessary battery reserve, pack containment, thermal management, etc., but I want to try to keep this simple.)

In order to build silicon-based cathodes, it is likely that nano-sized silicon will be contained in porous ceramics or other materials that allow for sufficient surface area and yet keep the silicon from physically crushing itself as it expands when absorbing the lithium ions. Also interesting is that such a cathode, with a lot of usable surface area, will enable greater power-release and power-acceptance. This means that even a small battery pack, such as that found in EV-ERs, could provide adequate power to accelerate quickly, and allow a maximum amount of regenerated (braking) electricity to be put back into the battery.

Lastly, it is likely that a non-flammable version of lithium electrolyte will become common, and thereby enable greater efficiency at the temperature extremes of vehicle operations, as well as potentially lighten and simplify battery pack cooling systems.

2. Motors: Non-precious-metal motors are smaller and cheaper. While some EV motors in production are already using non-precious-metals, such as Tesla’s AC Induction motor, many still use precious metals. It is likely that the industry will move entirely away from precious metal designs. While this may entail some small tradeoffs in size, weight, and efficiency, it has the advantage of broader powerbands, ensuring that no transmissions will be needed.

3. Construction: More of the vehicle’s components will be made from aluminum and high-strength steel construction. This will serve to lighten the vehicle, and low weight is the key to efficiency and performance. Vehicles basically use energy to accelerate, to push through the air, and to overcome friction. Friction is the least concern, and in any event friction technologies are already good and will continue to make some headway (ex: lower friction tires). As for pushing through the air, this is a concern when driving at highway speeds.

But the lower the weight, the less energy it takes to accelerate, and acceleration is when a vehicle uses the highest amount of power. Obviously, though, you don’t want to make a car out of balsa wood, as it would not protect its passengers (and flexing would make it handle badly). Therefore, building a vehicle from strong but light components is critical. Here, there are numerous interesting developments in improved metal alloys, such as better aluminum and better steel, and improved construction techniques such as welding steel and aluminum together and employing powerful bonding agents, that will allow lighter and more rigid chassis, suspension elements, and body parts.

4. Electronic Management: There are numerous developing advances in plotting directions, maximizing safety through electronic controls of vehicle dynamics, and driver and user interfaces that will make driving easier, safer, and more convenient. Many of these advances are probably going to be common to both EVs and conventional cars, but as EVs are necessarily computers on wheels, the advances will integrate more fully and seamlessly in EVs.

5. Charging: There will be development of real-time information for plotting, locating, and reserving charging station used to recharge EVs. We will see continued charging station expansion, hopefully accompanied by cross-platform user-interface standardization. These advances, in additional to standardization of charging system protocols and vehicle-to-internet networking, will encourage EV owner confidence that their EVs will be able to successfully charge in more and more places across the country.

Looking ahead to the mid-future (in approximately 10 years), we may see the following advancements:

1. Batteries: Lithium sulfur, lithium salt-water, or possibly lithium air batteries. It is as yet unclear which of these batteries will develop into the most accepted technology, but it is hoped that one of these chemistries, or perhaps another form of lithium-based battery chemistry, will leave the laboratories and become a commercial product. These batteries promise over 1000 wh/kg, which would enable 600 mile trips with a battery weighing around 350 pounds. (Lithium, the lightest of metals, has a theoretical capacity of about 10,000 wh/kg, and while that theoretical limit cannot be approached these appear to be the best of several avenues for taking maximum practical advantage of that capacity).

2. Motors: It is possible that switched reluctance motors, which may even be built with iron-embedded plastic manufacturing, will enable very inexpensive, light, powerful motors from common materials. The key to the development of such motors will be tremendously accurate and powerful controllers that can transition electrical energy through the motor with precise timing and amounts. An additional advantage is that these motors should be able to operate at lower temperatures, potentially simplifying the cooling system.

3. Construction: The use of carbon fiber, slowly moving into high-end vehicles right now, should be widespread for many vehicle parts (possibly including even engine parts). Because the material is much lighter than equivalent metal parts, it will be a great advantage for all vehicles, enabling the drivetrain to be smaller and/or to accelerate the vehicle faster. Also, carbon fiber works fantastically for passenger protection (modern race cars are made of carbon fiber and provide excellent driver protection).

4. Electronic Management: There will be, for both EVs and conventional cars, increased ability to engage semi-autonomous driving – that is, the car can drive itself to some degree. There are already cars that park themselves, and that warn the driver of blind-spot traffic and when slipping out of a lane on the highway. However, EVs are more readily capable to more deeply use autonomous driving, as they all have telemetrics that enable the vehicles to communicate in real time with the internet. Therefore, EVs are candidates to be able to connect with one another and move in concert. This would be quite valuable on highways: it is well known that 25% or more of the energy of highway travel can be saved by driving vehicles closely nose-to-tail. Of course, for humans to drive just a few feet from the vehicle in front of it at highway speeds would be unacceptably dangerous. However, when all the vehicles are in constant communication, they can run in very close formation and act as a single unit for purposes of braking and accelerating, and allow individual vehicles to enter into and drop out of the “train.”

5. Charging: With improved batteries that accept electricity quickly, charging will take less time – if the charging station is up to the task of pumping all that electricity in quickly. It may be hoped that there will be a fast-charging standard of at least 100KW. Using such a charging station, for every minute that the EV is plugged in it can drive about 6 miles – this means that in an hour, the car would receive enough electricity to drive 360 miles.

Also, induction mats, already starting to come on the market now, will be designed into garages and parking structures in the future, so that EVs will be able to charge without the driver ever having to touch anything. The induction mats allow the vehicle to wirelessly receive power when parking over them, freeing the driver from ever having to even have to think about charging unless they are taking long trips or park on the street.

Lastly, it will likely be the case that EVs will share their battery’s storage of electricity with utilities (known as “vehicle to grid” integration). In this way, homes can be powered by the EV during the hours of the day when electricity it most expensive and hardest for the utilities to produce, and EV batteries will store electricity at night when it is plentiful and inexpensive. Utilities will also be able to buy back electricity stored in the EVs, and in that way the EV may partially pay for itself (as well as enable the cleanest possible electrical grid).

Looking ahead to the longer-future (in approximately 15-20 years), we may see the following advancements:

1. Batteries: While it is still quite early to know what will be its ultimate uses, the wonder material of the 21st century appears to be graphene. It is a single sheet of carbon atoms, and it is being investigated for several electricity-based applications, as the basis for ultra-strong materials construction, even as a scaffold for growing organ tissue, and more. For purposes of storing electricity, graphene seems to be able to quickly absorb tremendous amounts of electrons, hold them without significant loss, and then release them just as quickly. In this way, graphene seems most like a superdupercapacitor. Capacitors generally differ from batteries in their ability to efficiently hold an electrical charge and then quickly release it: they have high power density, however they generally cannot hold as much energy as a battery and thus have lower energy density. But, at some point, the line between energy density and power density blurs, and so whether graphene might ultimately be seen as a battery or as a capacitor is irrelevant.

There are a number of government, government-funded, and private laboratories that have only recently begun serious investigation of graphene, and so we are still far from seeing the final form that it might take, let alone a commercial production mechanism. Still, graphene looks to be the most interesting possibility for truly dense electricity storage. One calculation holds that graphene batteries could have an energy density of over 7000 wh/kg. If this were proved true, then a mere 110 pound battery would enable a car to travel over 1300 miles.

2. Motors: For many years we’ve heard promise of possible superconducting materials, which would have nearly no resistance and consequently would allow for very small, very light, and very powerful motors. Unfortunately, the superconductors that exist require significant efforts to keep them at very cold temperatures. However, as technology marches along, we may be starting to approach the era when high temperature superconductors could become real, as research is now focusing on non-metal high temperature superconductors. And, it is also possible that wires and motor parts may be made from our new hero, graphene, which has been demonstrated to have very low resistance to electrical transmission. And, with superconductors we’d see small, light motors that could be mounted in the wheels, thereby allowing for much more flexible vehicle chassis design without compromising ride dynamics.

3. Construction: Given the progress that has been made into commercialization of carbon fiber materials, it is possible that the logical extension of this development will result in (you guessed it) graphene-based construction materials. Such materials would be remarkably light and strong. And, as pure carbon atoms, they would also be perfectly recyclable.

And while we’re still talking about graphene, let’s look at some other properties it has that might help tomorrow’s cars. It has no band gap, and so it might make an ideal thin photovoltaic cell to absorb solar energy. These solar cells could power the vehicle by covering all surfaces, including the windows. Why would you be able to put it on the windows? Because as a single sheet, it is functional, flexible, and also nearly transparent. Remarkable.

4. Electronic Management: It is likely that, in a couple of decades, the concept of networked equipment will be so ubiquitous that you can assume that all vehicles will be fully autonomous. Tell it where to go, and it will take you there, all the while talking to other vehicles on the road to drive with the greatest efficiency and assure your safe arrival. It will park itself, interact with the grid in whatever way the grid computer thinks is best, and come get you wherever you wander. This will be very convenient. And so ridiculously complex that only the controlling computers will understand how it is all being managed.

5. Charging: With batteries capable of holding large charges, charging will become much easier, as there will be less of a need to charge at any specific place or time. Therefore, when the vehicle thinks it should charge, perhaps with its autonomous control if it is not parked where it can charge it will know to drive itself over to the charge station and be back before you could miss it. In other words, the need to charge will no longer be your concern.

It is a bright and efficient future. I look forward to its arrival, so that we can put all this carbon-based energy behind us in favor of clean renewable energy. Then, we will be putting this endlessly cycle-able carbon where it belongs: not in the air, but into the vehicle itself.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

ELECTRIC CAR and HOME SOLAR: Drive Free, Drive Clean, Be A Patriot -- My Own Story

Electric Car Facts:
• The average gasoline car costs about $2800/year in fuel and maintenance costs.
• Electric cars cost $250-$1200/year for “fuel” and need virtually no maintenance.
• Electric cars are smoother, quieter, perform better, don’t leak or smell, and no more gas stations.
• Electric cars travel 75-300 miles: you charge in your garage at home and at work by plugging it in.
• The cost of gasoline has gone up about 300% in the last decade, and it will eventually run out.

Home Solar Facts:
• You can buy a home solar system; or have it financed so that you just buy electricity for less.
• A home solar system cost for your home and electric car requirements might be $10,000-$20,000.
• Home solar systems are guaranteed for 25 years, and are expected to work for 40 years.
• In last decade electricity has increased about 100% in cost, while home solar has decreased 50%.
• Solar owners “sell” valuable electricity to the utility in the day; “buy” cheap electricity at night.

Drive Clean:
• Since the industrial revolution approximately 150 years ago, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased nearly 50%.
• For most, cars are their biggest source of carbon dioxide, producing about 10,000 pounds a year.
• An electric car powered by solar energy (or other renewable energy) produces no carbon dioxide.
• In California, even without having a home solar system, the utility pollution from generating the electricity for an electric car is only about 10% of that produced by burning gasoline in your car.
• U.S. health costs related to fossil fuel pollution is $120 billion/year; the costs associated with global warming are $2 trillion/year.
• It takes electricity to make gasoline: amazingly, an electric car can travel further on the electricity used to make a gallon of gasoline than that gallon of gasoline will take an average car.
• Because of the efficiency of electric cars (they are about 85-90% efficient, compared to gasoline cars that are about 20-30% efficient), even if the electricity used by it was produced by burning coal, an electric car will still be cleaner than a gasoline car.

Be A Patriot!
• All renewable energy is domestic, and it is the fastest-growing source of domestic employment.
• OPEC makes over $1 trillion/year -- 1/3 of that goes to Saudi Arabia. Saudis committed 9/11.
• The single largest import in the United States is oil; we spend hundreds of billions of dollars each year buying it from foreign nations, weakening the value of the dollar.
• U.S. defense expenditures total over $1 trillion/year -- more than all discretionary spending.
• Since the oil embargos of the 1970s, we have fought three wars: Persian Gulf (Kuwait), Afghanistan, and Iraq. We have sacrificed thousands of American lives and our soldiers have sustained tens of thousands of permanent crippling injuries. We have spent trillions of dollars fighting these wars. It is absolutely no coincidence that these wars have all been fought in the Middle East, helping secure the oil spigots that the U.S. is dependent upon.
• The staggering cost of keeping an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf the last 30 years: $7.3 trillion (about half of our current national debt!).
• CIA Director James Woolsey said it most simply: AWe are paying for the terrorists with our SUVs.”

Our Home Solar and Electric Car Economics:
*Our home solar system cost $12,500, and it makes about 5000KWH of electricity a year (in the fog!). Our home uses about 4500KWH a year. Our electric Nissan Leaf uses about 3000KWH a year to drive about 10,000 miles. Yet, even though we are only making 5000KWH but using 7500KWH, our net cost is $0: this is because with “Time Of Use” metering the value of the electricity we generate is on average about 50% more than the value of the electricity we use. Our car is our single biggest electricity user, and it is set on a timer to charge only after midnight when the electricity rate is cheapest. Interestingly, for those with efficient homes, electric cars make it economically practical to install home solar.
*Because the Nissan Leaf replaced an average gasoline car that cost us about $2500/year in fuel and maintenance, and because we previously spent about $1000/year for our home electricity, we are saving about $3500/year. This means that our home solar system will be entirely paid for in savings in about 4 years. Thereafter, we will be using our home electricity and driving for free.
*While these are projections, given that the cost of gasoline has gone up on average about 12% a year and the cost of electricity has gone up about 7% a year (and these savings can be invested), over the life of the home solar system and electric car we might save over $400,000 -- far better than just driving for free.
*Electric cars save a lot of money: home solar saves a lot of money: together, they save a ton of money.
*The best part of the whole thing: electric cars are nicer to drive, with great guilt-free performance!

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Business Case For Level 3 Charging Over Level 2 Charging

Today, Blink suddenly announces that it will immediately require $2.00 payment for every hour to use their Level 2 charging stations ($1.00 for members for the next year -- but certainly no longer free). I recognize that Level 2 charging station operators must try to create an economically viable model. But consider the reality: a Leaf driver can travel about 35 miles with a three-hour charge that costs $6.00 (at $2.00/hour charging), and is therefore now paying the equivalent of $6.00/gallon for gas.

I contend that this demonstrates that there is no functional business model for public Level 2 charging. EV drivers will avoid charging outside the home unless absolutely necessary. Worse, perhaps, is that the public may come to embrace mediocre PHEV's with limited all-electric range in order to ensure that they have less-expensive gas back-up. This is a failing proposition for everybody.

However, if a Leaf were to use a level 3 fast-charger, with a 30 minute charge it can travel about 50 miles. If that charge were to cost, say, $5.00, it would be the equivalent of about $3.50/gallon for gas, and it would likely be quite acceptable to the public. Moreover, the charging station operator, more in the manner of a gas station, could make $10 an hour (instead of $2 an hour), and would doubtless be far busier (while the cost of electricity would of course be greater, it is the regular use of the device that generates profit). Moreover, with commonly-available fast chargers, there would be the opportunity for apartment dwellers and street-parkers to use EVs.

Plug standardization issues will hopefully soon be fully resolved, and the price of fast chargers are rocketing down. It seems likely that Level 3 is poised to become the reality. As it should be. Level 2 was always a readily-available but mediocre technical feasibility in search of a business model.  

Of course, I also believe that Level 1 charging using a plain household outlet should be ubiquitous.  It costs next to nothing to put plain outlets in parking garages, at employer lots, in apartment buildings, and even on the street, because the only cost is simple conduit and the small hourly amount of electricity.  This kind of charging will satisfy most people who are parked for hours.  And with such small costs, it doesn't require a business case.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Electric Vehicle Charging In Homeowner Associations

Electric vehicles (EVs) have numerous advantages, but of course they must be charged. How do you charge your EV if you live in a common interest development such as a condominium, community apartment project, or planned development, operated by a homeowners association (HOA)? California now has a law that requires HOAs to allow EVs to charge, and helps establish standards for this arrangement. This article will generally explore EV advantages and EV charging, and then focus on HOA EV charging requirements: installing a charging device requires certain steps, but they are common-sense and to the mutual benefit of all parties.

EVs are the future, and the future is here now. They offer much more efficient transportation, and provide economic, environmental, and national security benefits for not just the owner, but for everyone. EVs benefits include:
1. lower fuel and maintenance costs;
2. no dependence on foreign oil (be a patriot!);
3. reduced pollution and reduced global warming;
4. silent, smooth, fast response and great handling;
5. safety (no risk of exploding gasoline tanks);
6. direct use of clean renewable energy such as solar and wind power;
7. quieter, cleaner streets;
8. no dirty gasoline pumping or garage fluid leaks;
9. employment of Americans while reducing trade deficits;
10. (soon) provide emergency power to your house with your EV.

Like many governments, it is U.S. policy to encourage adoption of EVs (we are aiming to put one million on the road by 2015). EVs are now available at a net cost of $20,000 to $100,000, with more EV models becoming available each year, and manufacturers agree EVs will eventually become a substantial portion of the vehicle market. EVs generally charge at night when electrical demand is low, and therefore there is enough electrical generation capacity to charge about 75% of all U.S. cars without needing a single new power plant.

For the owner, the cost of EV electricity is one half to one sixth the cost of gas, saving hundreds to thousands of dollars annually. For those installing residential solar, the solar will pay for itself and the owner can drive for free with a potential lifetime savings of over a hundred thousand dollars. EVs save at least 10,000 pounds of carbon dioxide annually, making it the single largest possible reduction in one’s carbon footprint.

The key issue is charging EVs. Most EVs can charge with common 110-volt household outlets, 240-volt “charging stations,” or 480-volt “fast chargers” (sometimes respectively referred to as Level 1, Level 2, and Level 3). EVs are usually charged as home, typically with charging stations, but often using household outlets. Those considering EVs are sometimes concerned with the issue of charging, but those who have EVs quickly find that virtually all charging is easily accomplished at home, taking only a few seconds to plug the car in when arriving home and only a few seconds to unplug the car when leaving home.

Household outlets are everywhere, and an EV charging on a household outlet uses about as much electricity as a toaster. Charging this way provides enough electricity in an hour for an EV to travel about 4 miles. If an EV were to be plugged in when arriving home at 8pm, and was unplugged in the morning at 8am, it would receive enough electricity to travel around 50 miles. The average American car travels fewer than 30 miles a day, and 80% travel fewer than 50 miles a day. In most cases, household outlet charging would be sufficient. (Unlike gas cars which do not get filled every day, EVs are typically charged completely every day and are very rarely completely discharged.)

However, many people want the flexibility to charge more quickly. Charging stations, installed at home and in public places (often at places of employment), use the 240-volt electricity that comes from the utility and goes into the electrical panel of every home and building. Depending upon the EV and the charging station, plugging in for an hour provides enough electricity for an EV to travel between 12 and 62 miles. With a charging station, in only a few hours even an empty EV will be completely charged.

For those who own their own home with a parking space, in virtually all cases a charging station can be readily installed without any problems (sometimes this can be done by the owner, more often it is a quick and easy installation for an electrician). In addition to employers, there are also thousands of charging stations being publically installed across the country, on streets, in parking lots, and in parking garages. These public charging stations are either operated by “pay as you go” service providers (usually costing a dollar or two per hour) or are sometimes provided without cost to attract customers.

Lastly, many EVs can plug into fast chargers that are now starting to be installed: these devices are expected to be used by those who are traveling significant distances away from home and by those who have no regular place to park and plug in (they are installed at places like freeway rest stops and shopping centers, and are not for home use). Fast chargers can provide a charge in only about half an hour. However, to the chagrin of EV manufacturers, while the plug used for household outlets and charging stations has been standardized, there is as yet no universally agreed-upon standard for a fast charging plug design, and this has impeded the broad introduction of fast charging. A standard will very soon be established (and in any event, an owner can put on a plug adapter to use different fast charger designs), but the reality at present is that while fast chargers are starting to be broadly installed they remain less common.

All vehicle owners fall into one of five categories: government, fleet, homeowner, apartment dweller, and HOA owner. Government, fleet, and homeowners control their properties, and consequently they should not have any issues regarding installing charging stations. For those who rent an apartment, there is presently no legal right to install a charging station: the best solution would be to work with the building owner to see if installing a charging station might be possible, or simply plug into a household outlet with the permission of the building owner. Charging this way should pose no risk to the building (unless there are multiple EVs plugged into the same circuit at the same time, which may trip a circuit breaker). However, charging like this often uses a building’s common electricity, and there may be an obligation to reimburse the building owner (more on this issue later).

This brings us to the category of HOA owners, and the recent legislation that entitles them to charge their EVs. The California Legislature has enacted Civil Code Section 1353.9, which makes clear that it is “the policy of the state to promote, encourage, and remove obstacles to the use of electric vehicle charging stations,” and it makes certain that HOAs may not “effectively prohibit or restrict” such installations. If the statute is violated, the HOA will have to pay a $1000 civil penalty and reimburse the other side’s attorney’s fees. HOA Boards have a responsibility to be aware of this law, but more positively it is expected that HOAs will recognize that enabling EVs adds both value and a proactive image.

The statute identifies several EV owner compliance steps to assure that the HOA is protected from potential harm. Some of these steps are obvious: for instance, the proposed charging station must meet applicable health and safety standards and state and local codes (of course, all commercially available charging stations meet these standards). The law is also forward-thinking in approving charging stations of a type that include several charging points so that several EVs can be plugged in simultaneously: this may be beneficial for the efficient use of HOA parking space.

For practical purposes, EV owners and HOAs need to know the requirements and steps for charging station installation. First, there must be a written application to the HOA (there are no special application forms or requirements), and it must be processed by the HOA in the same manner as any building modification. If the application is not denied within 60 days, it is deemed approved, unless there was a reasonable request for additional information. As an example, if the EV owner is in an HOA development, and the charging station is to be placed on the owner’s property within the development, then the process is fairly simple and straightforward, and it seems highly unlikely that the HOA could legally deny the application: the EV owner may proceed with little interference.

But a trickier issue arises in the following typical circumstance: the EV owner needs to install the charging station in a “common area” (as previously designated by the HOA). For most condominiums and cooperative apartments, this is likely to be the case, and the classic example of such a common area is a parking garage, even if individual parking spaces are deeded to specific owners. In this situation, there are a couple of additional hurdles that may need to be cleared (the HOA does not have to require these steps; rather, these are the most that can be required).

First, there are some obvious measures: listing the HOA as an “additional insured” on the owner’s home insurance (which is generally an HOA requirement for all members anyway); having a licensed contractor install the charging station; and agreeing to pay for the electricity used. Then, there are a couple of logical requirements, such as disclosing the charging station to prospective buyers, and agreeing to pay for damage to the common area caused by the charging station (not that a charging station could conceivably cause damage). Finally, the owner must obtain a $1,000,000 umbrella liability coverage policy naming the HOA as an additional insured (with a right to be provided notice if the policy is ever cancelled). Again, some HOAs already require all owners to carry an umbrella policy, and in any event such a policy generally costs only a couple of hundred dollars (thought of another way, this is typically the cost of about a month’s worth of gas).

As a practical matter, determining how to pay for electricity may be the most difficult aspect of this process. The reason for this is that charging stations are typically plugged into a special large 240 volt electrical outlet that is directly wired to the nearest electrical panel, and there is no specific meter in place that would measure how much electricity is being used. With household outlet charging, there are simple and inexpensive usage-reporting devices that plug into the outlet and allow a device to be plugged into it. However, at present the only such devices for 240V have to be wired in by an electrician -- indeed, installing such a device at the time that the charging station is installed would be a practical approach to the issue of metering electrical usage. Finally, many EVs and some charging stations can use the internet to report how much electricity is used.

Yet, even knowing how much electricity was used will not necessarily determine the cost of that electricity. Depending upon the building’s electrical rate plan, the cost of electricity late at night could be quite cheap, and conversely the peak cost of electricity could be quite expensive: electricity is measured in kilowatt-hours (KWH), and the range could be from $.05/KWH to $.50/KWH. While “your mileage may vary,” an EV travelling the statistically-average distance of 12,000 miles annually will use around 4,000 KWH.

To determine the cost of EV electricity, it is very important to understand that most all EVs will charge late at night when rates are cheapest. All EVs have built-in timers, computer-based programs, and smart-phone applications that easily let the owner set the charging time: the owner parks and plugs the EV in, but it only begins charging when it is programmed to do so. Because of the difference in rates based on the different times of usage, the cost issue requires knowing when the EV charged as well as how much electricity it used. The owner can work with the building manager to determine this question of rate timing.

Finally, there is a potential issue regarding the total capacity of the electrical panel that provides the charging station its power. It is extremely unlikely that a single charging station will trip a circuit breaker. But, if there are multiple charging stations on the same electrical panel, and if they are all programmed to begin charging their respective EVs at the same time, then there is now a greater likelihood that a circuit breaker might trip. Therefore, it might be beneficial for EV owners to confer with each other to determine whether they can use different electrical panels or program their EVs to charge at different times.

There is a developing solution for all of the various issues identified: businesses that handle correctly complying with statutory requirements regarding the HOA; properly selecting and installing the charging station; determining the amount of electricity used and determining the price rate for that electricity; and working to ensure that multiple EVs can coordinate their activities so that all are charged without pulling too much electricity at any one time. These businesses also assist the HOA by simplifying everything, acting as a liaison between the owner as the HOA, assuring payment for electricity, and even providing the necessary umbrella policy protection. It may be expected that HOAs will encourage the growth of this EV support service, particularly given the importance of this new statutory requirement for HOAs to enable EV charging.

California Civil Code Section 1353.9
(last modified February 2012)

(a) Any covenant, restriction, or condition contained in any deed, contract, security instrument, or other instrument affecting the transfer or sale of any interest in a common interest development, and any provision of a governing document, as defined in subdivision (j) of Section 1351, that effectively prohibits or restricts the installation or use of an electric vehicle charging station is void and unenforceable.

(b)(1) This section does not apply to provisions that impose reasonable restrictions on electric vehicle charging stations. However, it is the policy of the state to promote, encourage, and remove obstacles to the use of electric vehicle charging stations.
(b)(2) For purposes of this section, "reasonable restrictions" are restrictions that do not significantly increase the cost of the station or significantly decrease its efficiency or specified performance.

(c) An electric vehicle charging station shall meet applicable health and safety standards and requirements imposed by state and local permitting authorities.

(d) For purposes of this section, "electric vehicle charging station" means a station that is designed in compliance with the California Building Standards Code and delivers electricity from a source outside an electric vehicle into one or more electric vehicles. An electric vehicle charging station may include several charge points simultaneously connecting several electric vehicles to the station and any related equipment needed to facilitate charging plug-in electric vehicles.

(e) If approval is required for the installation or use of an electric vehicle charging station, the application for approval shall be processed and approved by the association in the same manner as an application for approval of an architectural modification to the property, and shall not be willfully avoided or delayed. The approval or denial of an application shall be in writing. If an application is not denied in writing within 60 days from the date of receipt of the application, the application shall be deemed approved, unless that delay is the result of a reasonable request for additional information.

(f) If the electric vehicle charging station is to be placed in a common area or an exclusive use common area, as designated in the common interest development's declaration, the following provisions apply:
(f)(1) The homeowner first shall obtain approval from the common interest development to install the electric vehicle charging station and the common interest development shall approve the installation if the homeowner agrees in writing to do all of the following:
(f)(1)(A) Comply with the common interest development's architectural standards for the installation of the station.
(f)(1)(B) Engage a licensed contractor to install the station.
(f)(1)(C) Within 14 days of approval, provide a certificate of insurance that names the common interest development as an additional insured under the homeowner's insurance policy.
(f)(1)(D) Pay for the electricity usage associated with the station.
(f)(2) The homeowner and each successive homeowner of the parking stall on which or near where the electric vehicle charging station is placed shall be responsible for all of the following:
(f)(2)(A) Costs for damage to the station, common areas, exclusive common areas, or adjacent units resulting from the installation, maintenance, repair, removal, or replacement of the station.
(f)(2)(B) Costs for the maintenance, removal, repair, and replacement of the electric vehicle charging station until it has been removed from the common area or exclusive use common area.
(f)(2)(C) The cost of electricity associated with the station.
(f)(2)(D) Disclosing to prospective buyers the existence of any electric vehicle charging station and the related responsibilities of the homeowner.
(f)(3) The homeowner and each successive homeowner, at all times, shall maintain an umbrella liability coverage policy in the amount of one million dollars ($1,000,000) covering the bligations of the owner under paragraph (2), and shall name the common interest development as an additional insured under the policy with a right to notice of cancellation.

(g) An association that willfully violates this section shall be liable to the applicant or other party for actual damages, and shall pay a civil penalty to the applicant or other party in an amount not to exceed one thousand dollars ($1,000).

(h) In any action to enforce compliance with this section, the prevailing plaintiff shall be awarded reasonable attorney's fees.