GM has tipped its hand about the type of battery materials it aims to use in the next generation of the Chevrolet Volt and other battery-powered cars. It has licensed battery-electrode materials developed at Argonne National Laboratory, a U.S. Department of Energy Lab. These materials, called mixed-metal oxides, could improve the safety and durability of car batteries and help double their energy-storage capacity, potentially leading to substantial costs savings by allowing GM to use a smaller battery pack.
Cost is the biggest problem with the wave of battery-powered vehicles that started to arrive on the market last month. GM’s Volt, an electric vehicle that goes 35 miles per charge and has a gasoline generator for longer trips, costs more than twice as much as a similar-sized conventional car, in large part because of the battery. Increasing the amount of energy that a battery stores allows an automaker to use a smaller battery pack, thereby reducing costs.
The whole concept of improving energy density is the prize when it comes to these kinds of vehicles,” says Jon Lauckner, president of GM Ventures, GM’s venture-capital arm. He says it’s not clear yet how much money the new technology will save, but “suffice it to say, it is significant; it is not a single-digit percentage.”
The current model of the Volt uses lithium-ion batteries made with lithium-manganese spinel cathodes (“spinel” refers to the three-dimensional arrangement of atoms in the material). The Argonne patents that GM has licensed cover a cathode material that consists of lithium, nickel, manganese, and cobalt. The material has both active components, through which lithium ions move when the battery is charged or discharged, and inactive ones that help stabilize the active material and extend battery life. Longevity is essential for electric-car batteries, which are designed to last for a decade and have to survive harsh conditions on the road. The new material has such high energy density because it can operate at a higher voltage than current electrode materials and also store more lithium ions.
Nearly half a century after their invention, light-emitting diodes are moving into the spotlight for businesses looking to save energy.
In October, the Chili’s restaurant chain announced plans to outfit 827 restaurants with 125,000 LED lamps””an installation that the company claims will save up to $3.7 million per year and mark the largest LED rollout in the United States to date. Best Buy, meanwhile, has pledged to install 35,000 LED lamps in place of halogen bulbs for digital-camera displays and high-end audio and video showrooms. Walmart, which devotes one-third of all energy in most of its U.S. stores to lighting, now uses LEDs to light freezer cases, jewelry displays, exterior signage, and hundreds of parking lots and recently began introducing the technology for general lighting on the sales floor in a pilot market. “Everything at some point will switch over,” Charles Zimmerman, vice president of international design and construction for Walmart, predicted in an interview.
LEDs, which last orders of magnitude longer than incandescent bulbs, typically slash the energy required for lighting by as much as 80 percent. They have been used in some display and signaling applications since the 1970s, but because they come with high pricetags, they have yet to garner a significant portion of the general illumination market. So large installations by companies like these mark important progress for LEDs.
LED light fixtures that are designed to replace screw-in incandescent bulbs still cost $40 or more for the equivalent of a 60-watt bulb and $20 for a 40-watt equivalent. LED tubes often cost as much as $50 to $100, versus as little as $2 to $10 for fluorescent counterparts. But LEDs save money over their life span because they use less electricity and last longer. A four-foot LED tube will typically require only about 15 to 25 watts of power, compared with 30 watts or more for a fluorescent tube that will last half as long.
Japanese and South Korean companies, adopting arguments that helped block carbon trading in the U.S., are opposing government plans to set up emission markets worth a potential $212 billion by 2020.
The Federation of Korean Industries said Jan. 11 that starting emissions trading in 2013 would add to the cost of doing business and put the country at a disadvantage unless Japan and China do the same. Keidanren, Japan’s largest business lobby, said 61 of 64 companies that responded to a survey in September opposed introducing carbon trading.
Japan and South Korea, Asia’s third- and-fourth-biggest polluters, would be critical to the United Nations plan to make carbon trading a “pillar” of the global effort to slow climate change. Concerns about costs and competition derailed national carbon markets in the U.S. and Australia and raised doubts about so-called cap and trade catching on outside Europe.
“The U.S. reluctance to embrace emissions trading might easily spread to Asia,” said Georgina Edwards, an analyst at Bloomberg New Energy Finance in London. “They’re almost like dominos at this stage.”
The U.S. and China, the world’s largest emitters, balked at legally binding emission targets at last month’s climate summit in Cancun, Mexico. The U.S. won’t commit unless China, India and Brazil are willing to do the same, U.S. negotiator Todd Stern said last month.
Hoping to spur development of wind energy projects off Maryland’s coast, Gov. Martin O’Malley is planning to introduce legislation that would require power companies in the state to buy electricity from turbines placed in the Atlantic Ocean, a spokesman said Wednesday.
Details of the governor’s bill are being worked out, spokesman Shaun Adamec said, but the O’Malley administration expects to propose legislation that would require utilities to sign contracts to buy significant amounts of power from offshore wind projects. The aim, he said, is “to essentially make the projects more attractive to investors and to give the industry the shot in the arm it needs.”
Word of the governor’s support heartened environmental activists, for whom boosting offshore wind is one of the top legislative priorities this year.
“I think the political, economic and environmental stars are aligning in 2011 to pass a bill,” said Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. At least two other states “” Delaware and New Jersey “” have provided similar incentives for offshore wind development, Tidwell said.
The legislation also is drawing support from labor leaders, who estimate that a large-scale wind project could support up to 4,000 temporary jobs and 800 permanent jobs.
Oil and gasoline prices, low since 2008, are projected to rise again, rapidly returning our oil addiction to the national spotlight. Analysts say that oil prices are heading toward $100 a barrel, and former Shell Oil chief Carl Larry warns that we could see $5 a gallon gas by 2012. Inevitably, the price increases will inspire calls to reduce our dependence on oil, and Congress will consider some legislation to do just that. But as we try to make progress on oil alternatives, we need to bear in mind the lessons of low gas prices. Otherwise, we are doomed to repeat the same debilitating cycle of energy politics we’ve been trapped in for years.
Here’s how that cycle goes: High oil prices make energy alternatives a top political priority, as they did before the 2008 price drop, but the urgency is suddenly forgotten when these prices collapse. That’s not just short-sighted — it’s bad policy. Unless we can finally extend our national attention span beyond the latest price rise, the inevitable 2011 push for alternative energy isn’t going to be any more fruitful than the last few times we tried.
Anyone who was buying gas in the early 1980s will recall when surging oil prices (reaching, in April 1980, a high of $103/barrel in today’s dollars) prompted a variety of reforms, including President Carter’s establishment of the Synthetic Fuels Corporation. But oil prices tumbled in the mid-1980s, national attention on energy issues dissipated, and President Reagan canceled the synthetic fuels program. In the early and mid 2000s, sustained price increases, hitting $145 a barrel in 2008, revitalized interest in how to promote alternatives to oil. But when the U.S. financial crisis pushed down oil prices in 2008, alleviating our oil dependence once again became a lower priority.
“Energy policy traditionally tends to be, particularly when it comes to liquid fuels, something we do when prices are high,” Roger Ballentine, the president of the consulting firm Green Strategies, Inc., told me. “When prices are high, that provides an immediate political feedback that provides political cover for taking steps to address the issue.”
Climate change may be partly responsible for the intensity of the floods inundating the eastern Australian city of Brisbane, scientists say. [Reuters]
Some recommendations from the presidential oil spill commission, like raising the cost of regulating risky oil leases, could take effect though an executive order, an option that President Obama has shown interest in, a panel member says. [Politico]
The United Nations calls on Nigeria to clean up villages polluted by illegal gold mining operations, which have contaminated water supplies and caused the deaths of hundreds of children from mass acute lead poisoning last year. [United Nations]
Six rare frogs not seen for nearly 15 years are spotted in the dwindling cloud forests of Haiti. The frogs were found in the Massif de la Hotte, one of the country’s last intact stands of tropical forest. [CBC]