Saturday, May 23, 2015

Did Tesla Just Kill Hydro Electric Power?

 Cross-posted from Energy Trends Insider

Thanks to Tesla's new battery packs, can we not only stop building more hydro electric dams, but remove the existing ones to save what remains of the last river ecosystems, restore the world's salmon runs? Unfortunately, the answer is no. My sarcastic title was inspired by an article written by Jeff McMahon for Forbes titled: Did Tesla Just Kill Nuclear Power?


The stupidity of debating the displacement of nuclear energy (which provided 63% of our low carbon electrical energy last year) instead of coal, with wind and solar ...boggles the mind.

Tesla's new packs come in three flavors ...and many attractive colors. The 7kWh pack for solar panel storage, can purportedly be charged 5000 times. The 10kWh pack, purportedly for emergency, use can be charged 1000-1500 times. These are both called PowerWalls. There is also a 100kWh, $250/kWh, industrial version called the PowerPack.

Being able to buy retail, what is essentially a giant power tool battery pack, is a first. What use they will be put to, only the market can tell. Whether or not Musk can create a market for them, only time will tell.

An acquaintance of mine asked what makes Tesla's new batteries so great and was surprised to learn that Tesla does not make batteries. They assemble Panasonic (or batteries from one of the other battery manufacturers in Japan, Korea, or China) into packs with battery management circuitry to control charging and discharging, very much like the power tool battery packs found at Home Depot ...writ large.

He then asked why they are so much cheaper than any other battery pack and was surprised to hear that they aren't. The battery pack in the Nissan Leaf sells for about 34 and 64 percent less4) per kWh than the 7 kWh and 10 kWh PowerWalls respectively.

When I told my neighbor that it would cost me well over a million dollars to use Tesla's packs to go off grid he didn't know what to believe, and I don't blame him. You'll see why later.

Below I parse transcripts of Elon Musk's PowerWall presentation. Like most things in this world, reality is a matter of degree. Rather than rate Musk's comments as true or false (a step function), I will give each one a veracity (conformity with truth or fact, accuracy) score. I'll calculate the average score at the end of the post. For example, a typical politician may average a veracity score of about 3 out of 10 any time his or her lips move, a televangelist, maybe a 2 out of 10. A score of zero indicates not a grain of truth to be had. A score of 10 would indicate a cold, hard, fact. They are of course, arbitrary, so feel free to make up your own.

"And if you look back against that wall you'll see a whole bunch of them as well in different colors so you can pick your favorite color, and it looks like a beautiful sculpture on the wall."
Veracity score = 8 out of 10.

The $71,000 Tesla Mosel S sedan is, by dint of its price, a coveted status symbol. Few, if any, of the individuals who signed up for a Tesla PowerWall to hang on their wall, have a need or use for it, other than as a status symbol by proxy. I gave this remark an eight because beauty (as well as its close cousin, status) is in the eye of the beholder. To me, the PowerWall looks like what it is; a shiny plastic cover over a pack of Panasonic batteries that are about as practical in an American home as a bowling trophy. I'll explain why, later.
"You can actually go, if you want, completely off grid. You can take your solar panels, charge the battery packs and that's all you use. So it gives you safety, security, and it gives you a complete and affordable solution. And the cost of this is $3,500 (wild applause) ... So, this is a good solution for homes and perhaps for some small commercial applications."
Veracity score = 1 out of 10.

This is where Tesla devotees will begin twisting the definition of "completely off grid" and possibly "affordable." But, assuming we mean "disconnect the two wires coming to your house" consider that it would take about twelve of these packs, worth about 12 x $3,000 = $36,000 (sans loan interest, cost of solar system, and subsidy) just to back up a solar powered average American home for three consecutive rainy days. And because all of your neighbors are also being rained on, the grid and all of its power plants have to be there ready to supply everyone if there are four consecutive rainy days.

 You can't disconnect from the grid without risking running out of power and somebody has to pay to maintain that grid. It would take well over a million dollars worth of Tesla's battery packs (in addition to tens of thousands of dollars worth of solar panels) for me to replace the power flows that I currently receive from those two wires attached to my house. That's because solar panels on my roof can't generate enough power for my house for half of the year and I would need enough batteries to store six months worth of short fall. See the spreadsheet below.


After seeing the results of my above spreadsheet, I went looking on the internet for corroboration and found it here. His calculations showed a $780,000 cost at my latitude for a roof with optimal inclination big enough to hold the necessary solar panels. See also Footnote 6.

One problem with solar is that there is no "one size fits all" solution. Location, total electricity consumption, how much is used at what times of day (home load profile), the orientation, size, and shape of roof, are different for just about every house.

I live in a modest sized home by American standards, at approximately 50 degrees latitude and consume roughly the American average amount of electricity annually. Even though I own an electric car, our electric bill is slightly lower than the American average.


There already is a system that uses the battery pack in the Leaf for the same purposes as the PowerWall. I wrote about it three years ago. Read: First Vehicle to Home Power System in North America.

The Leaf system provides a large DC to AC  inverter needed to use the batteries to power your home, as well as the ability to charge the car from either solar panels or the grid, and of course, instead of buying extra batteries, you use the ones you already have in your Leaf.
"So, with 160 million PowerPacks you can transition the United States [to use solar with Tesla battery packs for all electricity generation]."
Veracity score = 1 out of 10.

Holy cow. 160 million PowerPacks is one for every other American. At $25,000 per pack1), these batteries alone would increase the average annual residential electric bill from about $1,322 to $2,9272), and that's without taxes or installation costs. And because "...most of that area is gonna be on rooftops" I would need to add the $73,0003)/25 = $2,934 per year annual cost of having solar installed on my roof to charge those battery packs. I would be paying annually $5,861 per year, which is quadruple the average American electricity bill.

And all of those calculations are assuming that the 160 million PowerPack number has any bearing in reality, which it doesn't. As I showed earlier, it could actually cost hundreds of thousands per household (depending on latitude) to go off grid using these batteries.
"You can basically make all electricity generation in the world renewable and primarily solar ...And then, going a little further, if you wanted to transition all transport and all electricity generation and all heating to renewable you need approximately 2 billion PowerPacks."
Veracity score = 1 out of 10.

OK, that's one $25,000 PowerPack for every 3.5 people and never mind what it will cost them to purchase the solar panels, inverters and on and on as well. According to the World Bank, "Almost half the world — over three billion people — live on less than $2.50 a day." Who is going to pay for all of these batteries, assuming Tesla's estimate has any bearing in reality, which, as I said earlier, it doesn't.
"Now that may seem like an insane number"
Veracity score = 10 out of 10.

 "The number of cars and trucks that we have on the road is approximately 2 billion and every 20 years approximately that gets refreshed because of a hundred million new cars and trucks made every year.  So the point I wanna make is that this is actually within the power of humanity to do. We have done things like this before. And so, it's not impossible, it is really something that we can do."
Veracity score = 2 out of 10.

He's asking everyone on the planet who can afford a car, to come up with enough money to buy the equivalent of several more cars in addition to the one they can afford, and again, this is assuming Tesla's estimate has any bearing in reality, which, it doesn't.
"The fact that it's wall mounted is vital. Because it means you don't have to have a battery room."
Veracity score = 2 out of 10.

 Being wall mounted may be vital to displaying a trophy, but certainly, it could also sit on the floor in a closet somewhere, or in the case of the Leaf home power system mentioned earlier, in your car.
" panels and batteries, it's the only path that I know that can do this and I think it is something that we must do and that we can do and will do."
Veracity score = 1 out of 10.

Considering that virtually all grid storage today comes from  pumped hydro, obviously, selling billions of his batteries isn't the only path (assuming that it even is a path). It all comes down to cost.
"Now the issue with existing batteries is that they suck. They're really horrible. They're expensive. They're unreliable. They're sort of stinky, ugly, bad in every way, very expensive."
Looking around my shop, I found ten power tool batteries (six of which power my electric bicycle) and a dozen or so batteries in the rest of my home for cell phones, cameras, laptops, etc, etc. Not a one of them fit his above description. They are mostly lithium chemistry. He is referring to lead acid batteries, which, other than for starting cars, have already been replaced for pretty much every other application. They are still used in cars because they are still the cheapest for that use (intermittent bursts of high current with no deep discharge).
"So we have to come up with a solution. That's the missing piece, that's the thing that's needed to have a proper transition to a sustainable energy world."
Veracity score = 5 out of 10.

We don't yet have an affordable non-fossil fueled power source that can fill in the gaps for wind and solar. We do have a non-fossil fueled power source that could do that if it were cheaper than using fossil fuels--nuclear with hydro storage. The whole key here is the word affordable, of which, his batteries are not.
"If you're thinking about buying a battery, what does this provide you? Well, it gives you peace of mind so if there's a cut in the utilities, you're always gonna have power. Now you don't have to worry about being out of power if there's an ice storm."
Veracity score = 5 out of 10.

One of these $3,500 battery packs (+ installation and inverter) = $6,000 can keep your lights on for part of a day in the event of a power outage. But then, there are dozens of much less expensive ways to deal with temporary occasional power outages.
"And very importantly, this is gonna be a great solution for people in remote parts of the world where there's no electricity wires. Or where the electricity is extremely intermittent, or extremely expensive. So people in a remote village or an island somewhere can take solar panels, combine it with the Tesla PowerWall and never have to worry about electricity lines."
Veracity score = 3 out of 10.

Solar with batteries is already a solution of sorts for some of those people, who live in sunny enough places. Will a modestly lower battery cost than the lead acids they now use make much difference? Those impoverished communities might be able to afford to keep the lights on later at night, or watch television longer, but because this is such an expensive means of producing energy compared to what we pay for energy today (as demonstrated earlier in my post), it can't scale to create economy-growing, industrial levels of energy.
"And in fact I think what we'll see is something similar to what happened with the cellphones verses landlines where the cellphones actually leapfrogged landlines."
Veracity score = 5 out of 10.

There is nothing new here. Solar with batteries are already being used in these places. Replacing $150 worth of lead acids in a village with say, ($428/$600) x $150 = $107 worth of lithium will not make much difference in their lives.
  Average veracity score = 3.9.
Hotel Greenwashed laundry card
Tesla is trying to create a market for its battery packs under the auspice of saving the environment. It's a tried and true technique called greenwashing.


The $100,000 Roadster and the $70,000 Model S were not conceived as a means of saving the environment. The big battery makers will sell to anyone they want, not just Tesla.


The tens of thousands of orders for these packs are actually tens of thousands of people curious about what happens when they click the "order" button on the Tesla website. You are then asked to leave your contact information (as I did) so they can get back to you in a year or so to see if you really want to buy a pack when they have one to sell (which I don't).

This "click a button to order" idea was used by Nissan for the Leaf but you had to put a $90 deposit down to show that you were serious.

Lithium batteries have already become ubiquitous. Tesla has had nothing to do with that fact. As my spreadsheets show, the PowerWalls have little practical use in a typical American home, with or without solar, but, like the Hummer, or any big, shiny, red truck that never hauls anything, this won't stop some people from buying them. Tesla's current business model can be summed up as selling expensive electric sports sedans to the wealthy. It's a niche market that no big automaker has bothered to enter. Without a competitor for market share, Tesla has been able to charge whatever it costs to produce the car. The fact that I can purchase a Nissan battery pack for a third to tw0-thirds less per unit energy than the PowerWalls suggests that if a market for large battery packs emerges, Tesla will face real competition for the first time.

Footnote 1): $250/kWh x 100 kWh = $25,000.

Footnote 2):

Interest on $25,000 loan for 14 years at 4% = $7,263
  • 5000 cycles/365 cycles/year = 14 year battery lifespan.
  • $25,000 + $7,263 = $32,263
  • $32,263/14 year lifespan = $2,305 per year paid by every other American for those 320 million Americans/2 = 160 million batteries.
 160 million PowerPacks is one for every other American. Assuming that the cost is born not by every other American, but by all Americans, that would equate to about $2,305 /2 = $1,152 per person. Using 2.54 persons per household leads to an annual bill per household of 2.54 x $1,152 = $2,927. The average residential annual electric bill today is about $1,322.

Footnote 3):


NREL solar cost estimator

Footnote 4)

Cost of a 21 kWh Nissan Leaf battery pack = $5,500.
Cost of two 10 kWh PowerWall battery packs connected in parallel for a total capacity of 20kWh~ 2 x $3,500 = $7,000.
Cost of three 7 kWh PowerWall battery packs connected in parallel for a total capacity of 21kWh ~ 3 x $3,000 = $9,000.

This isn't an exact apples to apples comparison because the PowerWall also contains a circuit board to control DC flows into and out of the pack (just like any lithium power tool battery pack does).

Footnote 5)

Average  American home uses 10,000 kWh per year.
10,000 kWh per year / 365 days per year = 27.4 kWh per day.
27.4 kWh per day / 7 kWh per battery pack = 3.9 battery packs per day
3.9 x 3 rainy days = 12 battery packs.
12 x $3,000 = $36,000

Footnote 6)

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Nissan Leaf Drive Train is 25 Times More Reliable than Conventional Cars

Cross-posted from Energy Trends Insider

My Leaf parked in front of a seventies vintage Ford Pinto (my first car was a Pinto). Car technology has come a long way.
Nissan recently released the results of a five year study that found 99.99 percent of its battery packs are still operating as warrantied (battery not having less than 80 percent capacity after five years). Using that information, a study conducted by Warranty Direct (an independent British insurance specialist) found that the Leaf drive train is 0.255/0.01 =25 times more reliable than internal combustion engines. This is, however, somewhat misleading because today’s conventional cars are amazingly reliable, especially compared to a 1973 Pinto. They found that out of 50,000 conventional cars aged 3-6 years old, only a quarter of one percent “had an issue that led to an immobilization of the internal combustion engine.” This finding appears to have led Glass’s (Britain’s used car guide) to conclude:
    “They [Leafs] are good enough that, as an expert in this field, we will be looking again at our residual value forecasts for LEAF and probably revising them upwards. Long-term battery life has been a definite concern for used EV buyers but the new figures from Nissan effectively remove this worry.

    “Really, Nissan has gone through a process with the LEAF similar to Toyota with the first generation Prius several years ago, where the cars had to be proven in real life conditions before used buyers could feel confident. Now, the Prius enjoys excellent residuals and the LEAF should start to find a similar level of market acceptance.”
Coincidentally, my neighbor pulled up in front of my house the other day in a 2012 Leaf with 11,000 miles on it that she had just purchased at a Honda dealer for $13,000. As an early adopter, I  paid $35,000-$7,500 tax credit = $27.500 for my 2011, which recently crossed 30,000 miles and has performed flawlessly with the exception of a flat tire, two new sets of wiper blades, and a failed key fob.

Leaf with trailer in Home Depot parking lot
Also, just this week the battery condition indicator dropped one bar out of the 12 bars that indicate a new battery condition. My battery isn’t like new anymore but still provides more than enough range for 99 percent or so of my driving needs. I sometimes pull a four foot by eight foot trailer with it and recently took it on a long journey to do maintenance on my remote forest property, which required two hour-long ferry rides and stopping at a charge station for 1.5 hours to complete the trip. The day some entrepreneur finds a way to put a fast charger at every 7-11 is the day electric car sales will really take off.

New Leafs have a 6.6kW on board charger compared to my 3.3 kW one. They also have a heat pump instead of resistance heating elements and a more heat resistant, higher capacity battery. Four or five years from now I will have to decide to spend roughly $6,000 to replace the battery or get another car.  On the plus side,  a Leaf with a new battery would perform like a new car. I’m guessing that a Leaf with a worn out battery will have very low resale value because the new owner will have to put a new pack in it. The electric motor is likely to outlive the rest of the car. Time will tell.

Photo taken last year.

I’ve read a few times that low gas prices have been hurting EV sales while improving SUV sales, and if true, I would not be surprised. If the day ever comes that there are enough electric cars to measurably impact oil demand, there will be a tendency for lower demand to reduce oil prices, eventually stimulating more oil consumption (SUV sales), and up and down it will go. Displacing oil isn’t going to be as easy as displacing coal, which has three strong competitors in natural gas, hydro, and nuclear.

Turkey Point Power Station and its Ecosystem

Photo Credit Nina Finley

Cross-posted from Energy Trends Insider

I recently took a trip to Florida, which is home to both the American alligator and the American crocodile.  Thanks to effective laws and effective enforcement of those laws, the alligator population has rebounded into the millions. They’re all over the place. In comparison, the crocodile population has rebounded from an estimated low of about two or three hundred to about 1,500. Crocodiles were never as common in North America as the cold-adapted alligator. The opposite is true in South America where there are no alligators. Click here to see a video I took several years ago of crocodiles in Costa Rica.

Part of the credit for the crocodile comeback can be given to the unique system for cooling at the Turkey Point power station (located in southern Florida) which uses well over 150 miles of winding cooling canals that look from a Google Earth perspective  like a giant green radiator.

Turkey Point Cooling Canals
 For reasons not entirely understood (and wholly unanticipated) crocodiles began seeking these canals to lay their eggs. Certainly, by laying their eggs inside the security perimeter of a power station the crocodiles don’t have to worry about poachers, or worse yet, real estate developers.
According to Florida Power and Light (FPL) roughly 90 percent of  their Turkey Point property is managed as habitat for endangered and threatened species (12 endangered and nine threatened). They have an on-staff crocodilian expert who monitors nesting sites and tags hatchlings before moving them to more suitable habitat.

Provision of inadvertent benefit to wildlife by thermal power plants is not unique to Turkey Point. The Big Bend power station in Apollo Beach has a manatee viewing center where visitors can see hundreds of manatees basking in the warm water discharge area during cold weather. According to the Defenders of Wildlife Blog, “Loss of warm-water habitat is a serious long-term threat to manatees.” These artificial warm springs that up to 60% of manatees now rely on for survival during cold spells are being used in place of the natural ones that have been lost to development.

Manatees Photo credit FWC via Flickr Creative Commons

Click here to see a very short video I took of a manatee surfacing for air.

The Turkey Point  power station was created at the beginning of the environmental movement, long before climate change was widely recognized as an issue. Protests prevented FPL from using Biscayne Bay as a source of cooling water. The cooling canals were built thanks to environmentalists wanting to protect the bay. However, the canals destroyed a lot of natural habitat and because their salt content has been climbing, they may be contributing to an underground  salt water plume threatening drinking water supplies.

The cheapest way to fix the salinity problem (as opposed to simply lining the canals)  is to freshen the canals up with some stored storm water drainage, but water managers are hoping to use that water to increase flow in the everglades and on and on. Had FPL been allowed to use the bay for cooling, would the result have simply been another artificial hot spring for manatees? You can’t rewind the experiment to find out.

Florida is a hot humid place. Cooling a thermal power plant can be challenging. Few people would choose to live in Florida without air conditioning and air conditioning uses a lot of electricity. In cooler parts of the world a thermal power station can use a modest sized pond for its cooling purposes.
I could see part of  the Turkey Point power station from across the bay. Click here to see a short video of what I saw. While researching this article I was surprised to find that it is ubiquitously referred to as the Turkey Point “Nuclear” power station, when in reality, most of its electricity is generated by fossil fuels.
A brief history of the Turkey Point power station:

  • 1968: Construction completed on two steam turbines fueled with oil/natural gas (Units 1 and 2) and their associated black start diesel generators.
  • 1973:  Two nuclear reactors were added, Units 3 and 4, along with 150 miles of cooling canals.
  • 2002: Operating licenses were extended from forty to sixty years for Units 3 and 4.
  • 2007:  Four combined cycle gas turbines were added along with a 24 cell cooling tower, Unit 5.
  • 2013: Units 3 and 4 were uprated to provide an additional 250 MWs.
  • 2014: Florida legislature approves construction of two more nuclear reactors and associated power equipment, Units 6 and 7.
  • 2014: NRC grants request to increase cooling canal maximum operating temperatures from 100 to 104 degrees.

Turkey Point Power Station

In the Google Earth screenshot above of the power station you can see that cooling for the four new gas turbines was accomplished by 24 giant fans in cooling towers which reduce the need for cooling in the canal.

To cool the steam produced by two more reactors FPL has an agreement with the Miami-Dade Water and Sewer Department to use treated municipal waste water. The treatment plant is located about 9 miles north of the power station. Normally, this waste water is simply dumped into the same bay that environmentalists were trying to protect from warm water from the power station in the early seventies. This source of cooling water will be backed up with a system of radial collector wells under the bay in case the municipal water should become temporarily unavailable. You can get more details here.

Most thermal power stations in Florida are located near bodies of water that are large enough to absorb their waste heat without problems. That was the original plan at Turkey Point as well.

When you consider the complexity and inefficiency of boiling water to make electricity, one can see the appeal of adding more solar panels to the grid to help reduce the number of thermal power stations in Florida. Not that they would be problem free. A stand-alone solar power station would usurp a huge amount of land per unit energy produced compared to a thermal plant. Rooftop solar would eliminate that problem but is still much more expensive than thermal power plants, as inefficient and complex as they are. I used the latest solar cost estimator released by the National Renewable Energy Lab to calculate the cost of rooftop solar for an average Florida home (sans subsidies) and found that at this point in time it would cost around $30 thousand more over the life of the panels than simply buying electricity off the grid.

In addition, large amounts of solar would require large amounts of investment in the grid to maximize the use of solar when the sun shines and take its place when the sun doesn’t. Solar can’t replace the thermal power plants, but it has the potential to help reduce overall fossil fuel consumption and its attendant environmental problems. Below is a shot I took of the solar hot water panels in the Everglades National park.

Below are a few pictures of some of the wildlife encountered on my trip.

Photo Credit Nina Finley


Google Engineers Conclude that Renewable Energy Will Not Result in Significant Emissions Reductions

Cross-posted from Energy Trends Insider

Back in 2007, Google assembled a team of engineers to investigate the feasibility of replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy. The effort ended in 2011 with the conclusion that it can’t be done with existing technology. Two of the engineers on that team wrote about their efforts in Spectrum Some excerpts from that article:

 Google’s boldest energy move was an effort known as RE<C [Renewables less than Coal], which aimed to develop renewable energy sources that would generate electricity more cheaply than coal-fired power plants do. The company announced that Google would help promising technologies mature by investing in start-ups and conducting its own internal R&D.

    At the start of  RE<C, we had shared the attitude of many stalwart environmentalists: We felt that with steady improvements to today’s renewable energy technologies, our society could stave off catastrophic climate change. We now know that to be a false hope—but that doesn’t mean the planet is doomed.

    As we reflected on the project, we came to the conclusion that even if Google and others had led the way toward a wholesale adoption of renewable energy, that switch would not have resulted in significant reductions of carbon dioxide emissions. Trying to combat climate change exclusively with today’s renewable energy technologies simply won’t work; we need a fundamentally different approach.

    So our best-case scenario, which was based on our most optimistic forecasts for renewable energy, would still result in severe climate change, with all its dire consequences: shifting climatic zones, freshwater shortages, eroding coasts, and ocean acidification, among others. Our reckoning showed that reversing the trend would require both radical technological advances in cheap zero-carbon energy, as well as a method of extracting CO2 from the atmosphere and sequestering the carbon.

    We’re glad that Google tried something ambitious with the RE<C initiative, and we’re proud to have been part of the project. But with 20/20 hindsight, we see that it didn’t go far enough, and that truly disruptive technologies are what our planet needs. To reverse climate change, our society requires something beyond today’s renewable energy technologies. Fortunately, new discoveries are changing the way we think about physics, nanotechnology, and biology all the time. While humanity is currently on a trajectory to severe climate change, this disaster can be averted if researchers aim for goals that seem nearly impossible.
The key is that as yet invented sources have to be cheaper than fossil fuels. The problem is that existing scalable low carbon energy sources (nuclear and renewables) are all more expensive than fossil fuels, which I’ve been pointing out for years. They make a stab at explaining why wind and solar are more expensive but trust me, their explanation will largely fall on deaf ears when presented to renewable energy enthusiasts who either don’t want to hear it or are incapable of comprehending it. They argue that subsidies for renewables and nuclear to compete with fossil fuels are essentially a financial penalty to fossil fuels which simply shift their use to another part of the planet (export of oil, gas, and coal, along with manufacturing jobs).

So …what does humanity do in the decades that it may take to find these new sources, assuming they exist? Certainly, we shouldn’t sit on our thumbs and wait to see what happens. The graphic shown below (which I borrowed from the article) is what they suggest.

There are two things that make the Google study stand out from all of the others:
  1. The frank admission that renewables won’t get us there.
  2. People listen to what Google has to say.
Others came to the conclusion that we don’t have the technology needed to pull this off long ago but the politicos and ideologues have a big advantage in that their message, although wrong, is simple enough for a journalist to understand and write a short article about. It’s a time honored formula. Read this 2012 blog post by NNadir as he mulls over a not-so-simple potential disruptive technology. I’ve always enjoyed his brilliant but acerbic style and tend to agree with almost everything he has to say but what he says isn’t what the public wants to hear.

The graphic at the top of this article (altered by me to add the WWF study pie chart) came from a revised version of a 2009 study done by the Stockholm Resilience Centre and has just been published in Science. I wrote about the 2009 study here. From the Stockholm Resilience Centre:
 Four of nine planetary boundaries have now been crossed as a result of human activity, says an international team of 18 researchers in the journal Science (16 January 2015). The four are: climate change, loss of biosphere integrity, land-system change, altered biogeochemical cycles (phosphorus and nitrogen).

Two of these, climate change and biosphere integrity, are what the scientists call “core boundaries”. Significantly altering either of these “core boundaries” would “drive the Earth System into a new state”.

Note in the graphic at the top of this article that climate change is just one of the nine boundaries and it has not quite entered the high risk red zone although it inevitably will do so. Andrew Revkin wrote about this study a few days ago and invited some critics of the original 2009 study to weigh in. Shortly after they weighed in, Andy updated his post with counter-responses from the authors of the study. You can read Revkin’s article here.
In my last article I tried to make a few key points:
  1. Two writers (myself and one at Grist) often draw polar opposite conclusions from the same study.
  2. Pundits tend to focus almost exclusively on wind and solar power (as witnessed by the comments below my article).
  3. Wind and solar (as well as nuclear) are small pieces in a large climate change puzzle and if you look at the graphic at the top of this article you will note that climate change is just one piece of yet another puzzle.
  4. No entity can accurately predict energy trends three decades out.
And last but not least, it is time that real environmentalists started to question the wisdom of replacing fossil fuels solely with dams, biomass, biofuels, wind, and solar. It’s time to accept nuclear as part of the interim solution set.

Note that the three red zones in the graphic at the top of this post represent things like biodiversity loss, dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico, and expansion of agriculture that can be exacerbated by dams, biomass, biofuels, wind, and solar. More from the Google engineers:

To bring levels down below the safety threshold, Hansen’s models show that we must not only cease emitting CO2 as soon as possible but also actively remove the gas from the air and store the carbon in a stable form. Hansen suggests reforestation as a carbon sink.
Note that because biomass and biofuels require land, they tend to negate efforts to use reforestation to store carbon, not to mention compete with biodiversity for ecosystems and humanity for cropland.

Luckily, the future can’t be predicted, in large part because predictions alter the future. There is always hope. More real environmentalists need to make an effort to think more critically and join in the effort to counter those who are convinced that renewables are a silver bullet. They’re not, and neither is existing nuclear technology.

New IEA Study: Least Cost Scenario has Nuclear as the World’s Largest Source of Electricity by 2050

 Cross-posted from Energy Trends Insider

An article in Grist about the same study had a different headline: “How solar can become the world’s largest source of electricity.” From the study:

The hi-Ren requires cumulative investments for power generation of USD 4.5 trillion more than in the 2DS, including notably PV but also wind power and STE (Solar Thermal Energy).

The study also notes that, in theory and given enough time, power systems that don’t burn fossil fuels should eventually pay for themselves with fuel cost savings (which is also a trait of nuclear). See Figure 5 below.

Figure 5 from IEA Study

Wind and Solar are just two pieces of a big puzzle

When talking climate change solutions, many pundits focus on wind and solar even though they are just two pieces of a very complicated climate change puzzle. What should be in their thought bubble is a pie chart of similar complexity to the one shown below from a study commissioned by the WWF (World Wildlife Fund)  five years ago:

WWF Vision to Mitigate Climate Change

From the press release about the IEA (International Energy Agency) study:

The sun could be the world’s largest source of electricity by 2050, ahead of fossil fuels, wind, hydro and nuclear, according to a pair of reports issued today by the International Energy Agency (IEA). The two IEA technology roadmaps show how solar photovoltaic (PV) systems could generate up to 16% of the world’s electricity by 2050 while solar thermal electricity (STE) from concentrating solar power (CSP) plants could provide an additional 11%.

To put that into perspective, if 16% + 11% = 27% of global electricity generation came from solar today it would reduce global greenhouse gases maybe 7% or so. The other 93% would still be there. See the pie chart below:

Impact on Emissions if Solar = 27% of Electricity Generation Today

The study, like all studies of its kind, is a giant hypothesis made out of a collection of hypotheses. For example, although liquifying  the CO2 from combusted natural gas and coal and then pumping it under extreme pressure into nearby underground caverns (CCS — Carbon Capture and Sequestration)  has been done,  it is only a hypothesis that it can scale to any meaningful level. How far wind and solar can scale is also largely unknown. We all know that very few hypotheses come to fruition.

The IEA is trying to emulate on a global scale the recent NREL study that tried to show how the United States might achieve 80% renewables for electricity generation by 2050. Read The Exaggerated Promise of Renewable Energy. Similar studies have been done by the WWF (World Wildlife Fund), the EIA (Energy Information Association), NREL (National Renewable Energy Lab), Greenpeace, and on and on. If these organizations really could predict the future (which is an absurd thought if you think about it), they wouldn’t all come up with such divergent scenarios. Because the WWF isn’t a big fan of hydro power and the destruction of forests for biofuels and biomass, their 2050 scenario bears little resemblance to that of the new IEA study.

Disparate Study Results

Their analysis uses “cost optimisation to identify least-cost mixes of energy technologies and fuels.” But here’s the thing, because their answers are the result of educated guesses about cost, those answers are, by definition, also little more than educated guesses. If their cost predictions three and a half decades into the future are wrong (and they will be), the resulting energy road maps are also going to be wrong. Again, from the Breakthrough Institute:

Nuclear/Solar Cost Comparison

All energy production schemes have their upsides and their downsides. However, that does not in any way suggest that all energy schemes are equally environmentally destructive (per unit power provided).

The Real Cost of Solar and Wind: Storage, Dams, Biomass

One of the major costs of scaling solar and wind is what it will take to back them up. The study acknowledges that wind and solar will need large amounts of backup power, which today is supplied mostly by natural gas that can be turned on and off as the wind and sun fluctuate. Just as the NREL study did, the IEA study assumes that most of this gas will be replaced with a massive build up of hydroelectric dams and pumped hydro storage, along with a roughly ten-fold expansion of the burning of biomass.

Read Pumped hydro storage will eliminate wind and solar intermittency …really? From a link in that article:

Pumped storage plants, however, consumed 29 billion kilowatthours (kWh) of electricity in 2011 to refill their storage reservoirs, resulting in a net generation loss of 6 billion kWh.

Never mind the cost, here is an interesting paper titled The Catch-22 of Energy Storage arguing that because pumped hydro storage is so energy intensive, the more of it you have, the less total energy humanity has at its disposal, which is why it can’t be an answer to the intermittency of wind and solar.


We will have to roughly double the amount of hydro electric power that exists today (and I don’t know if they accounted for all of the dams of today that will be silted in by 2050, evidence that hydro isn’t really renewable).

Brace yourself for the damming of pretty much every major tributary in the Amazon and Africa and the attendant loss of their river ecosystems. You may have heard about the drought in Brazil (although I’m not claiming  that it is a direct result of global warming). The media loves to focus on slowly rising water levels but the real hammer of climate change will be shifting rainfall patterns. How will that affect the IEA road map? From Power Magazine:

    …lack of rainfall is hitting the power industry especially hard in parts of Brazil. But with reservoir levels at historic lows in some places, more electricity has been required from fossil-fueled power plants …the lack of water has contributed to electricity blackouts in many parts of the country.
The lack of rainfall has limited hydroelectric output but offers a big opportunity for other power generators. The EIA says generation from natural gas and other fossil fuels was at record high levels  …Petrobras, Brazil’s state-controlled oil and gas firm and the sole importer of LNG to the country, imported a record 2.833 million tons of LNG over the first eight months of 2014.

Brazil’s electric power mix:

    1.1% Wind
    2.4% Nuclear
    2.6% Coal and Coal Products
    4.4% Oil Products
    7.6% Biomass
    11.3% Natural Gas
    70.6% Hydroelectric


Although I take anything said by the FOE or Greenpeace with a large grain of salt, consider reading this summary called Dirtier than coal? by Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, which actually used information from a study published in the journal Science. From that summary:

Impact of Using Biomass for Energy

The droughts plaguing the Amazon are likely exacerbated by deforestation, which has increased by roughly 28% in the past few years.

Solar Thermal Power Plants

A very big part of the plan is for massive solar power stations that concentrate solar energy with mirrors to make steam to power turbines. The only advantage this type of solar power has over rooftop solar is that it can also be used to melt salt to be stored to provide heat to run those turbines when the sun isn’t shining. How’s that working out? This article titled Mainstream Media Slams Ivanpah, California’s Latest Solar Project does a nice summary.

From the New York Times on the Ivanpah solar thermal power plant:

The plant, which took almost four years and thousands of workers assembling millions of parts to complete, officially opened on Thursday, the first electric generator of its kind.

It could also be the last.

The above Times article was all about financial problems. It made no mention of wildlife issues. Also note that this project does not store any energy (too costly). It is instead, backed up with natural gas. This project also not only usurped prime threatened desert tortoise habitat, it’s doing a number on anything that flies. Birds ignite into flames and fall to earth in front of a smoking contrail. Employees at Ivanpah call them “streamers.” According to  the Atlantic, while visiting Ivanpah, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Office of Law Enforcement witnessed birds entering the flux to become streamers and saw streamers every few minutes during the visit.

If  images of oil covered birds from the occasional oil spill can be used to rally public support for regulations to minimize those spills, then it’s fair game to use images of incinerated and decapitated birds to do the same for solar and wind.

 This IEA study only covers electricity generation, which is responsible for less than half of the energy we consume and about  a quarter of global GHG emissions. My main point in this article isn’t so much that these scenarios are unlikely to come to fruition, my main point is that they probably should not be allowed to come to fruition. Real environmentalists should be appalled. We have to find more elegant solutions or our grandchildren will never know the natural world.

 The Breakthrough Institute graphics used above came from a recent article called Renewables and Nuclear at a Glance.  It’s a series of easy to understand graphics that takes only a minute or so to scroll through. Consider also reading this short piece: When Renewables Destroy Nature.

Luckily, the future isn’t predictable. The meme that spread around the world that maybe it’s a good idea to have fewer children halted the increasing population growth rate in its tracks. World population continues to increase but its rate of increase has been dropping toward zero for many decades now.
Today a meme is spreading that maybe it’s time to replace combustion as a source of energy. However, grossly exaggerating the theoretical potential of renewables while underrating the proven capacity of nuclear is not likely to lead to a solution.

Credit puzzle graphic: David Goehring via Flickr Creative Commons.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Renewable Energy Versus Wildlife Conservation

Migrating waterfowl at feeding grounds via Pembina Institute

Cross-posted from Energy Trends Insider

The argument goes something like this:

Real environmentalist: “We should not allow the destruction of orangutan habitat for palm oil biodiesel!”

Apologist: “In fact by displacing fossil fuels, palm oil biodiesel is helping orangutans, as well as everything else that is alive on the planet! Orangutans are at serious risk due to climate change. Some primate species are forecast to to lose more than 95% of their current ranges!”

(1) From an article in Treehugger about wind farm impact on birds:
…. in fact by displacing fossil fuels they are helping birds, as well as everything else that is alive on the planet. … the bald eagle and eight state birds …are at serious risk due to climate change. …some species are forecast to lose more than 95% of their current ranges.
Another real world analogy to wind farms, the Elwa river dam, was recently removed in an attempt to restore an extinct salmon migration.  Using the reasoning presented in the Treehugger article about wind farms, what’s the point in restoring a salmon run if climate change will eventually destroy it? Right? The dam should be rebuilt so it can once again produce renewable energy.

There are a few missing links in this argument’s logic chain. Scientists recognized the sixth extinction event long before they did climate change.  Producing low carbon energy with that rebuilt dam would immediately and directly cause the extinction of that salmon run. Whereas, removing the dam (not producing low carbon energy at that location) will help assure there will be salmon left to save from the ravages of climate change, assuming humanity can avert climate change. In other words, find another place to generate low carbon energy.

Analogously, usurping raptor hunting grounds(2) and intersecting major migration routs with giant blenders to produce low carbon energy is not going to help eagles, hawks, owls, condors, vultures, herons, waterfowl, whooping cranes or bats survive climate change. They are going to need all the help we can give them (with or without climate change) in addition to attempting to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Conservation and development of renewable energy have to be done in parallel with priority given to conservation. The extinction event has been accelerating even in the absence of climate change, which of course will make it even worse.

One could argue that humanity should not be building new dams at all in places like the Amazon basin, and that wind farms should be relegated to offshore locations far from raptor and bat hunting grounds and major migration routes. And why are we destroying intact dessert tortoise habitat for solar thermal installations? We can’t find a place without threatened tortoise habitat?

The author’s strategy is to use close-up photos of naughty kitties to convince “bird lovers” to stop hassling utilities that own wind farms and to instead focus their ire on …cats:
“But bird lovers need to go against the real enemies rather than spending precious energy fighting one of the main tools that we have to clean up our power grid and have a greener world.”
The label “bird lover” makes an easy target because it conjures up images of retirees in their birding gear gathering into flocks of their own to count and categorize the birds they see (Greater Peewee, Spectacled Tyrant, Handsome Fruiteater …to name a few). In reality, state and federal governments, environmental groups, and their attendant armies of concerned scientists, naturalists, and conservationists around the world are working to minimize the impacts of wind farms.

Interestingly enough, the author’s attempt to deflect attention away from wind farms to cats appears to have worked, at least on his Treehugger readership. Drop into the comment field below his article to participate in the hate festival. Several comments had to be deleted. I did find one salient comment:
Wind turbines are creating mortality on birds that aren’t at risk by cats or large buildings. The bigger birds (raptors, owls, etc.) are long-lived and have low reproductive rates. They’re like the grizzly bears of the bird world. They have no way to compensate for excessive mortality.
If cats are the real problem maybe Treehugger should spend a little more time writing about cats, a little less time trying to trivialize the  damage done by wind farms.
More from the article:
Many people have this obsession with wind turbines killing birds, probably because it’s a really great story.
Riiight. I seriously doubt that state and federal governments, environmental groups and the attendant armies of concerned scientists, naturalists, and conservationists around the world are working to minimize the impacts of wind farms ” ….because it’s a really great story.”

Male Swainson's hawk
Photo of Male Swainson’s hawk in front of the turbine that eventually killed it

The photo above and the following excerpts are from an article by concerned scientists, naturalists, and conservationists from my local zoo:
With such keen eyesight, why do hawks not see these giant fans in their workaday flight paths?  Gretchen explains that “hawks are predators. After a long migration, their job here is straightforward, driven by instinct: build nests, find food and defend territory in the home range.” Making sense of strange, new human-built hazards is a secondary priority. “As Jim sees it, imagine waking up every day with hungry kids to feed. A huge, dangerous blender is lodged between your bedroom and your kitchen. Your eyes scan the ground, locking in on food, so even with all your flying skills, eventually you’re going to bump into it.”

Through focal observations, the keepers collect data on specific birds’ range behaviors, recording flight type, duration of interaction with or near turbines, and wind and turbine speed. They seek to discern patterns and trends holistically on two levels. The landscape level looks at whether populations are displaced by the turbines, abandoning their breeding grounds for safer but often less suitable habitats. The interaction level looks at whether the hawks become habituated to the turbines, flying near or through them.  In nesting territories, the mean rate at which hawks encounter turbine collision zones, a 400-foot radius around the blades, is once every 76 minutes.
From the Treehugger article:
As a meme, it really strikes the imagination because wind turbines are this green thing, right, so killing birds is antithetical to what they’re supposed to be doing.
Really? Killing hawks, owls, bats etc isn’t antithetical to what wind farms are supposed to be doing?
But if the goal is to save birds, we have to look at the actual facts on the ground and not just at whatever story makes for the catchiest headline.
Following is the headline to the Treehugger article: Wind turbines kill around 300,000 birds annually, house cats around 3,000,000,000

And if you just blew coffee (or whatever you were drinking) out your nose, I don’t blame you. Several commenters mentioned that based on the headline they also thought the article was about wind turbines killing 3 billion cats annually.

After having said all the above, the author concludes with a throw-away comment as a hedge against the unlikely event that somebody would call him out: “This doesn’t mean that wind power operators should stop doing what they can to protect birds. Wind farms should be properly sited and everything should be done to mitigate any risks.”

The Treehugger article was based on one found in the respected peer reviewed science journal …USA Today.  I had to dig around on the internet to find the actual link to the peer reviewed study that the USA Today and subsequent Treehugger articles were based on. The photo below was found on the website that linked back to the study.

Halved Golden Eagle via

The study is about the impact on small songbirds. It isn’t about eagles, hawks, owls, condors, vultures, herons, waterfowl, whooping cranes or bats, which cats don’t eat, although some eagles, hawks, and owls do eat cats. See the photo below of a great horned owl that landed on a power line with the cat it had caught. Both were subsequently electrocuted. The irony. Could only have been worse had they been struck by a wind turbine.

Electrocuted Great Horned Owl with Cat Prey via Imgur

I read the study, which was very obviously biased but I suspect that its conclusion is largely correct: wind farms kill a relatively small percentage of the total song bird population. The authors showed their bias by repeatedly comparing the numbers of small birds killed by turbines to the numbers killed by other things, like cats, which were not part of the study. There was no need to repeatedly do that comparison other than  to bias the article intent–to trivialize song bird deaths. It’s a moot argument. Song birds are not the big problem.

To convince myself that the study conclusion was reasonable I made a simple spreadsheet that calculated the number of song bird deaths as a percentage of the power supplied to the grid by wind. The total percentage of song birds killed struck me as relatively small no matter what percentage I chose for wind energy all the way to 100 percent (a study by the National Renewable Energy Lab suggests that a maximum of about 12 percent of total energy supply can be from wind by 2050).

An extreme example just to make a point about renewable energy would be the conversion of the entire Amazon rain forest into corn, soy, and sugarcane fields to make biofuel and tree farms to fuel power plants in place of coal. That act would be one step forward (displacement of fossil fuels) and a thousand steps backward (utter destruction of the very biodiversity we are trying to protect from climate change).

Climate change is expected to wreak havoc on the planet’s already rapidly disappearing biodiversity (wildlife) because it will further shrink/degrade what remains of the ecosystems wildlife needs to avoid extinction. Ergo, an energy scheme that reduces carbon emissions but also kills wildlife and degrades wildlife habitat is going to worsen the impact of climate change on the natural world (one step forward, some number of steps backward).

(1) If you want to read a more useful article about efforts to reduce the damage done by some wind farms I would suggest this one: For the Birds and the Bats: Eight Ways Wind Power Companies are Trying to Prevent Deadly Collisions  by Roger Drouin writing for Grist.

(2) If you look at the background of the wind turbine photo  chosen for the Treehugger article you will see degraded habitat; roads leading to wind turbines bulldozed through a hunting ground for raptors which soar/soared on wind currents while hunting rodents and ground nesting birds in the rocks below.

Why Ethanol Free Gas is More Popular than E85

Sign at a gas station that sells only ethanol free gasoline

Cross-posted from Energy Trends Insider

Sam Avro, Energy Trends Insider editor, recently received an inquiry from a reader about the popularity of ethanol free gasoline in the Midwest. Coincidentally, I recently visited Indianapolis and had noticed a large billboard advertising ethanol free gasoline.

I thought I’d share what I found. Much to my surprise, there are about 8,000 gas stations offering ethanol free gasoline and only about 1,200 offering  E85 (85 percent ethanol). There are about ten million flex fuel cars on the road designed to burn E85. Assuming a cost of about $100 per car to make it flex fuel, and assuming that about 10% of flex fuel cars actually use E85, this would mean that consumers have paid about nine billion dollars for nothing.

Why is ethanol-free gasoline so much more popular than E85? I poked around in comment fields to come up with a short list of reasons, some rational, some not so much.
  1. Many consumers realize that E85 reduces gas mileage, but this is largely irrelevant when E85 is cheap enough to make up the difference. Maybe people don’t want to bother running the numbers every time they use E85 to figure out if  it’s cheaper or maybe they don’t want to visit gas stations thirty percent more often.
  2. Others fear that gasoline with ten percent ethanol might harm their car. This is a rational concern only for owners of older cars.
  3. Some consumers don’t want to use gasoline with corn ethanol for ethical reasons. Using food stock to produce car fuel increases the cost of basic food staples like corn meal and eggs, which impacts the poorest of the world far more than it does the richest.
  4.  Still others don’t want corn ethanol in their fuel because of its negative environmental impact. When farmers plant corn instead of some other crop it causes a dominoe effect where farmers in other parts of the world create farmland to plant the crops replaced by corn. Many thousands of acres of wildlife habitat (conservation reserve land) has been converted back into corn  fields as farmers understandably use unproductive land to capitalize on the record breaking high price of corn thanks to government mandated consumption of corn ethanol creating a demand that continues to exceed supply (thus the tripling in the price of corn).
  5.  Yet others buy ethanol free gasoline as a way to protest government mandated consumption of what they believe is an inferior product.
Although I am unaware of any environmental organization that supports corn ethanol, some states have made it illegal to sell ethanol free gasoline. Go figure.

As part of writing this article, I discovered that there are two gas stations serving ethanol free gasoline within a few miles of where I live. If I didn’t drive an electric car, I might be buying ethanol free gasoline, for some rational reasons and maybe a few not so rational ones.

Update on the Tesla Model S

 Cross-posted from Energy Trends Insider

Has anyone else noticed how much a Tesla Model S looks like a Jaguar XF (pictured below)? One of my neighbors drives a Tesla Model S. I was following him down the street a few weeks ago and heard his tires squeak three times in two blocks. Adequate acceleration to maneuver in traffic can enhance overall safety but too much acceleration potential can be dangerous, especially in the wrong hands. Not sure I’d want that temptation.

Tesla Model S Photo courtesy of Gareth James via Flickr

Jaguar XF Photo courtesy of Jimmy Smith via Flickr

Fast Chargers

Tesla is dead on with their promotion of fast charging stations. The ubiquitous 240 volt chargers are next to worthless simply because they take too long. A high voltage fast charger can provide a significant charge in a matter of minutes. I recently deliberately drove my Leaf beyond its range because we needed two cars to get supplies to a wedding. My plan was to stop at a charge station on the way home for a few hours to get enough charge to finish the trip. The rest of the family came home in our Prius.

I had obtained my code to use a given company’s charge station but it turned out that the station I chose was owned by a different company so I had to move to the next closest charge station, which was occupied by a Chevy Volt. So, I moved to the next closest station, also occupied by a Chevy Volt! There was a Volt at the fourth station as well but luckily, there were two chargers. However, they were owned by yet a third company. Luckily they were in a municipal parking lot so their use was free. By calling the number on the charger I was able to get the operator to unlock it for me. Don’t invest in any company providing 240 volt public charging stations.

Crash Safety

From the Tesla website: NHTSA Reaffirms Model S 5-Star Safety Rating In All Categories For Model Year 2014

That’s all well and good but a 2003 car safety study titled “An Analysis of Traffic Deaths by Vehicle Type and Model” concluded what insurance companies have known for a long time: “…sports cars, as driven, are extremely risky to their drivers…”

Personally, I never consider crash safety ratings when purchasing a car. Why? Even with new, more stringent standards in 2012, roughly 95 percent of all cars tested by the NHTSA received a four star rating or better (out of five). About 25 percent received a five star rating.  Although there are other organizations that do safety ratings, the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) ratings are much less likely to contain bias. Five star ratings are inevitably used for marketing, but if you were to buy a new car that has a four star rating, the odds of being injured purely as a result of not having that fifth star are very low. All new cars today have safety features not dreamed of decades ago (three way restraints, airbags, anti-lock brakes, crush zones, safety glass and on and on).
In reality, when it comes to crashing into other cars, the overarching difference is mass; heavy cars crush lighter ones. If a three star truck hits a five star economy car, the occupants of the higher rated car are at greater risk of injury.  But that does not necessarily mean that heavier cars are safer. The vertical axis on the above chart ranks risk to the driver of the other car. The horizontal axis  debunks the myth that trucks and SUVs are necessarily safer than smaller cars. In a nutshell, driving a truck or SUV may not only put you at greater risk but the greater mass also puts other drivers at greater risk.

The Tesla is a  heavy car for its size, thanks to its batteries (roughly half-a-ton heavier than the Jaguar XF). On July 6th a Tesla (4,600 lbs) rear-ended a 2004 Corolla (2,500 lbs) at high speed, killing one adult and two children. However, largely thanks to the five star crash rating, the Tesla driver had minor injuries.

Obviously, a five star crash safety rating can only do so much. On July 5th a stolen Tesla crashed into a pole during a high-speed chase and broke in half. The batteries in the front part of the car caught on fire and the back half of the car ended up jammed in the doorway of a synagogue, I’m guessing, about 100 feet away from the front end of the car. The driver was thrown clear but is in critical condition. You can see video of the carnage here.

In response to the car fires earlier in the year, Tesla has reinforced the car’s underbelly. Although Elon Musk said that additional “…underbody shields are not needed for a high level of safety” (i.e., to reduce the risk of a Tesla being engulfed in a fiery inferno after hitting road debris) …he did it anyway. The NTSB investigation did not mandate a fix.

However, from the AP:
The U.S. government’s auto safety watchdog has closed an investigation into Tesla electric car battery fires after the company said it would install more shields beneath the cars.
To avoid the stigma associated with the word “recall” Tesla does not call this retrofit a recall (although, for the record, it is by definition a recall). This is reminiscent of when extra “non-mandatory” reinforcement was voluntarily added to the Chevy Volt after some caught fire as a result of side impact. GM called it a “customer satisfaction improvement.”

The Tesla engineers looked under their car to see where they could bolt more hardware on under the already existing quarter inch thick “ballistic grade” aluminum plate. They cobbled together a titanium plate along with a couple of  aluminum extrusions. The Tesla website has three short videos of the car running over junk (which you can bet represent the best examples out of the 152 tests they ran).
They also did a software tweak that limits how much the suspension will lower the car at highway speeds. Lowering the car at high speeds does two things: it drops the CG for better handling and less ground clearance can also improve range by reducing drag. Tesla was quick to point out that the extra weight of the fix did not meaningfully affect range but made no mention of the aerodynamic impact of higher ground clearance.

Electric cars (including Tesla) have so far proven to be far less susceptible to catching on fire than conventional cars. On the other hand, not all electric cars will necessarily be equally less susceptible. Although there are far more Leafs on the road than Teslas (due to the lower price tag) I am unaware of any of them catching on fire. The simple fact that Tesla uses quarter inch thick “ballistic grade” aluminum plate to protect its battery pack is all the evidence you need to know that Tesla was concerned about what could happen when a car hit the wrong piece of road debris.

 Drive Train Issues
 From Green Car Reports:
On Tesla’s own website forum, dozens of owners weighed in with their tales of drive unit woes. “Every car in my area has had at least one DU replaced,” noted one. “I’m on my fifth drive train at 12,000 miles,” reported another. One poor fellow was on his sixth–as far as we know, the record for drive-unit futility.
 The Gigafactory
 Tesla will eventually run out of customers who can buy $80K cars. To keep selling them, they have to get the price down. The only way for Tesla to do that is to get the battery costs down. Because their car is designed around their choice of battery cell, they are stuck with the battery they have so the only way to get prices down is with greatly expanded mass production of the battery. Aside from other concerns, the problem as I see it, is that they are going to commit themselves to mass production of a soon-to-be obsolete battery.
Unlike the Nissan Leaf, Chevy Volt, and Ford Focus Electric, which all use a larger, flat, prismatic shaped battery, the Panasonic batteries used by Tesla have been around for a long time (I wrote an article about them long before there was a Tesla). Their cylindrical shape wastes a great deal of space and their small size necessitates the use of thousands of them in a car which can lead to thousands of potential problems. Buying off-the-shelf Panasonic batteries was the best Tesla could do at the time of its development.

In Conclusion

All companies eventually fail, or get bought up. That does not mean a company was not successful. Tesla is a success. However, it is also a monopoly of sorts. It is the only electric car in its price and performance range. They can and do charge whatever it takes to cover costs. How long will Tesla survive when a car with the same performance arrives with a much lower price tag, as would be the case with a car that has cheaper, more modern batteries?