The Most Important Article of the Year

Posted on March 18th, 2008 in Driving Emotion,Economy,electric,Hybrid Power,Opinion,Technologies by Julian Edgar

Unusually, in this blog I want to refer you all to the AutoSpeed article that was published today. As I have written above, I think it’s probably the most important article that we’ll publish this year.

So what’s it about?

In short, the article is based on a paper written by Dr Andrew Simpson when he was working for the Sustainable Energy Group at the University of Queensland. His paper looks at a huge number of alternative fuels and drivelines, concluding which are the best from both energy efficiency and greenhouse gas emissions perspectives.

Andrew has given us permission to use major excerpts of the paper, and in fact went through it again to ensure that his conclusions are current. The full paper can be downloaded from the link at the end of the article.

His is a detailed ‘well-to-wheel’ study, where the environmental costs of producing the fuel and the efficiency of the cars using them are evaluated. Even better, they’re all benchmarked against a real car, the Holden Commodore. Even better again, the alternative fuelled cars are modelled to have the same range and performance as the Commodore.

So what we have is a paper that in one fell swoop shows many alternative car concepts – even quite high profile ones – to be pointless.

bmw-hydrogen.jpgYou may have seen that recently BMW had their hydrogen-fuelled 7 series in Australia. OK, now read the article on the well-to-wheel energy efficiency (and greenhouse gas emissions) of using hydrogen-fuelled internal combustion engines…

You may think that hybrids are the answer. Read the article on their real performance when compared on a level playing field.

You may believe that biodiesel is a far greener fuel than petroleum diesel. Read the article.

An LPG enthusiast? Read the article…

Some of the results may be arguable (especially when the embodied energy and life of battery-electric cars are examined) but this paper is by far the best I have ever seen at establishing what the current ground rules are.

In short, it’s a blueprint for where automotive technology should be heading in in the next 5 and 10 years.

And Dr Andrew Simpson? It won’t be giving away too much of the paper’s conclusions to tell you he now works for Tesla Motors in the US – that’s the company building one of the most interesting electric cars ever produced…

15 Responses to 'The Most Important Article of the Year'

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  1. Grant McAuliffe said,

    on March 18th, 2008 at 1:43 pm

    G’day Julian,

    Yep the best article of the year no doubt.

    Did Andrew include the CO2 consumed by growing the crops to make Biofuels. If not, it would be interesting to note the impact of this.

    Then again, as he points out, you need to set a boundary. Because to plant the crop you need to cut down trees, which would have consumed CO2 at a different rate depending on species etc etc.

    Excellent article.

  2. Stephen McLardie said,

    on March 18th, 2008 at 5:58 pm

    Excellent article.
    But it does strike me as having a flaw in its conclusions. And that is that it appears to assume that the methodology to produce these various fuels WILL NOT CHANGE into the future.
    But surely where many advances may come from is in the area of the energy to produce these fuels.

    I understand his point on hydrogen for example. But already companies such as Honda are creating technology using solar cells to produce hydrogen in a home fuelling station (reducing green house energy needs for both production and transportation). And whilst that technology currently would require a football field of solar cells to be functional, surely this type of work starts somewhere. Who would not believe that solar cell technology will continue to improve to smaller and smaller cells.

    A great analysis, but too early to pick winners I would think if the analysis is only based on current fuel creation methods

  3. Elliott said,

    on March 18th, 2008 at 6:31 pm

    An interesting read.

    I agree with Stephen on his point about technological advances, although if you are doing a study on this issue, you need to look at the “here and now” as the main focus.

    I think it may even be a case of “one step backwards and two steps forward” with alternate fuels. We have had many decades worth of development, innovation, and technological advances with the internal combusion engine, and so I think that in order for the alternatives to “catch up” we either need more time (which may or may not be in short supply), or be willing to stop a re-evaluate our ideas on what a car should be.

    Why do we need 5-7 seats, a 3-5 litre engine, 200+kW of power, and 1800kg of steel to ferry us 10, 20, or 30 kms back and forwards from work? Why do we need cars that get us from 0 – 100 in 6 seconds when most people in cities can’t even go a city block in 6 minutes?

    I’m a very big supporter of small, super fuel efficient commuter vehicles for everyday use, and save the big, thirsty, powerful, or fast cars for your weekend, where you can enjoy them.

  4. Andrew Simpson said,

    on March 19th, 2008 at 7:49 am

    Thanks to the readers for their comments so far.

    To Stephen McLardie – actually, I did include a number of “future” methods for production of different fuels. The majority of the pathways I considered are only in the R&D stage, rather than commercial status-quo. For example, your suggestion – hydrogen from renewable electricity (solar or otherwise) – was included. In all cases I assumed state of the art.

    My point, echoed by Julian, was that many of the “future” options currently being advocated do not offer a tangible benefit – in fact several are much worse than status quo.

    This is an important realization that should steer R&D investment at the government and corporate level. Otherwise, it’s all too easy for big business to stage misinformation campaigns about their efforts to address economic and environmental challenges associated with petroleum-fueled cars.

    To Elliott – I couldn’t agree more. Alternative technologies are important, but a much easier way for many of us to reduce oil consumption and pollution is to drive small and drive less wherever possible.

  5. Richard said,

    on March 19th, 2008 at 8:34 am

    “Alternative technologies are important, but a much easier way for many of us to reduce oil consumption and pollution is to drive small and drive less wherever possible”

    That’s exactly what I do. I bought an apartment near public transport and close to work. Walk when possible and reduced car usage. It’s to the stage where I fill the car (small & turbo-charged) up once a month. So don’t really care what it petrol costs per litre 🙂 The fuel saved I can put into my sportsbike for weekend fun.

  6. doctorpat said,

    on March 19th, 2008 at 12:25 pm

    It seems to me that this is missing one major factor. Wallet to wheel. How much does each approach COST.

    It’s all very well to say that coal-hydrogen-fuelcell cars use more energy overall than oil-fuelcell cars. But who cares if coal costs $60/tonne and oil costs $100/barrel which is about $600/tonne? (Not counting the extra costs required to militarily secure access to the middle east, which is somewhat more troublesome than the central queensland coal fields.)

    You can then point to the greenhouse gas output, which is a valid point, but you have calculated that separately anyway. So the question is why does energy efficiency matter, when different sources of energy are completely different prices? (Price being a rough gauge of how much resources are needed to get that energy in the first place.)

    This Wallet to Wheel measure is why LPG and CNG are so popular.

    To sum up, my preference would be for a graph showing wallet to wheel cost, and CO2 released, with the energy efficiency rejected as a red herring.

  7. Blair said,

    on March 19th, 2008 at 12:34 pm

    Very good, I am a little concerned that the Cradle to Grave figures were dismissed so readily, especially when you consider (most probably exaggerated) battery half life of ten years or so and the disproportionate number of heavy metals involved in their production. I feel this could swing a result.
    Conventional IC vehicles, however, have a well known and demonstrated end to end production cost. So the 10% cost may be relevant to them, but it should be higher for others, not just as a percentage of the total but also the ultimate impact. As an extreme example in an industry I am familiar with and have done some of this type of modelling, Nuclear Power is a great and inexpensive way of producing greenhouse friendly energy at around $30/MWh, but when you look at full life cycle including decommissioning and waste treatment it soars to $65/MWh, where a conventional Gas Fire plant is about $45/MWh, end to end.

  8. Stephen McLardie said,

    on March 19th, 2008 at 2:11 pm

    Good discussion.

    To clarify, I think that cradle to grave is exactly the way the analysis needs to be conducted, and so didn’t mean to dismiss it. It is just a concern to me to dismiss technologies now because the current knowledge base suggests they are not as efficient. Such thinking may lead to rejecting paths forward too readily

  9. Russ said,

    on March 19th, 2008 at 3:06 pm

    $/tonne, $/barrel, wallet to wheel, $/MWh…??????.
    Money has nothing to do with this article. Its all about keeping our planet viable for its survival. As Julian outlined at the beginning of his blog, Dr Simpson’s study refers to the environmental cost of various energy sources, NOT the dollar cost. Yeah, sure, money will be spent to ensure human survival on this planet, but the issue here is harm caused to the environment through various forms of propulsion. I don’t even have a green thumb, but I can see purpose in “greener” energy.

  10. Andrew Simpson said,

    on March 20th, 2008 at 2:49 am

    More good comments on cost and gradle-to-grave. I should point out to readers that the scope of this study was limited by resources, rather than by anybody dismissing these other factors.

    I agree with doctorpat that wallet-to-wheel (cost) is an important piece of the puzzle. However, it’s important to realize that a fair cost comparison is very challenging given that so many of the pathways are still in the R&D phase. Costs can vary by several orders of magnitude depending on economies of scale, and projections in the literature vary wildly. In contrast, energy and greenhouse metrics are driven by the laws of physics and chemistry, which are not that sensitive to production volumes.

    Given more time, a good extension of the study would be to analyse costs for pathways with reliable cost estimates. This might narrow the field significantly, but would certainly provide guidance for near-term options such as hybrids, CNG, LPG or biofuels.

    I must disagree about energy efficiency being a red herring. Energy efficiency is paramount and does not correlate well with cost in a carbon-constrained economy. For example, compare the use of renewable electricity to recharge an electric vehicle vs. electrolysis of water to produce hydrogen for a fuel cell vehicle. There is a >2X difference in well-to-wheel use of renewable electricity. Furthermore, use of coal to produce hydrogen results in an additional 2X increase in energy use, but coal as an energy source is much cheaper than solar or wind, and would possibly win the cost comparison. These are pertinent examples of the need to retain energy efficiency as an independent metric.

    My aim was to keep this study thorough and objective, within the scope constraints I had to work with. But I have always hoped that others with additional resources might choose to build upon this study and consider cost or cradle-to-grave, and if they invited me to participate I’d leap at the chance.

  11. doctorpat said,

    on March 20th, 2008 at 1:27 pm

    Good point about the variability and time dependence of the wallet-to-wheel issue. However I’m still unsure of the usefullness of measuring well-to-wheel energy efficiency when the “well” is a different energy source, with different costs and different carbon output.

    The usefullness of such analysis for the SAME original source is clear.

    Note that my comment was about the article, which is merely a summary of the full paper. The full paper refers to oil dependency as a factor, in which case coal-h2-FC has a real advantage over oil, even if it is worse from an overall efficiency or CO2 goal. However I appreciate that Autospeed is concentrating on the CO2 aspect.

  12. Craig Dunn said,

    on March 22nd, 2008 at 11:25 am

    This is an interesting debate about the sustainability and the future of personal mobility. I have been rationalising in my head for some time the possible benifits of the new and emerging technologies.

    It is good to see that we are moving closer to quantifying the relative merits of them accross a level playing field. However i too beleive that those ‘goal posts’ limiting the analysis to ‘well to wheel’ that were set should be revisited in the future to include the cradle to grave costs.

    I have two examples. I read a basic non technical article from a headline US news agency some years ago (and it was that article sparked my interest in assessing the overall benifit to the “world” that existing mobility and specifically the hybrid car could bring) that eluded to the fact that using the embodied energy, as well as the feul , running costs and recyclablity and associated costs, over the reasonable life time of each type vehicle technology – that a HUMMER is more environmentally impressive than a PRUIS. This i found astounding and is due in large part to the exotic materials used, and the limited avalibility of them. For example – putting aside the env degrading process to produce it, it has been touted that l-ion batteries are a great technology at phone and PC level, but scaled up to power cars – there quite simply isnt enough of the material present on the planet to make it viable.

    My second point goes to the ‘zero’ cost to generate wind energy. 20 years ago PC’s in the workplace were thought to be the efficiency panacea with upside everywhere, less paper, more efficient workers. low/no cost to run after the initial purchase. Look at it now, still as many staff, a plethora of other related machines in the workspace, and which medium to large organisation doesnt have at least 1 person to a whole ‘team’ to keep all this ticking over. The overall cost both in dollars and planet resource use of IT is now one of the largest in business.

    I am a proponant of the new technologies, especially wind, but we need to be realistic and considerate in the benifits VS on costs of all the technology. After installation, a wind tower for example will require a maintinace technician, spare parts, servicing, using exotic and scarce materials (?) and ultimately replacement – dont be fooled, these things will support on a whole new industry, and associated environmental detriment that should otheriwse be included in a cradle to grave analysis.

  13. Nilezy said,

    on April 1st, 2008 at 9:38 am

    I disagree on Craig Dunn approach to PC’s in the workplace and in industry. Computers have made a large impact in way that has been forseen as early as the 1960’s. The telecommunications industry for example used to have the operator, technicians to maintain the equipment, which has all dissapeared. Calls are handled by computers, equipment is maintainance free, in the next 5 years, running copper wires on the main frame will dissappear with a computer connecting any land based number to the exchange! Billing is handled by a computer, a person doesn’t need to look at a meter board to generate the bill. The computer has replaced people in all areas of the world, from Industry to the stock market. Look at the accounting industry. Imagine if they didn’t use computers today, the mountains of paper and people required to service that industry, the computer automation in industry increasing output and accuracy, and reducing the risk to people in hazardous situations.

    Again, you mentioned that a wind turbine requires a technician, spare parts, servicing. That is not the case. Serveral wind turbine parks across Australia, such as Ravenshoe in North QLD, and Albany in South WA are rarely maintained or serviced. They are computer controlled, direct drive (No gearbox, so no maintainance). I used to work for the company who installed them, and they rarely need to visit the sites for any maintainance.

  14. on April 2nd, 2008 at 10:38 am

    Excellent article, and backs up what I have been saying to a number of customers as we chew the fat on this issue.

    Keep up the great work Julian.

  15. D.James said,

    on July 11th, 2008 at 8:44 pm

    It’s a good article but it’s a pity that there is no mention made of FES (Flywheel energy storage). If a true mechanical rotary engine is found, such as the Rotary Pulse Jet Engine, FES will outdo anything else, including batteries, on the block by a huge margin.