Interview with Michael Brylawski of RMI part three - Hypercars and Vehicle To Grid theory

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This is the third part in an interview with Michael Brylawski of the Rocky Mountain Institute where he talks about the history of the Hypercar and where this exciting concept is up to today. In the second part of the interview, Michael shared his thoughts on how the Hypercar concept has changed over time and what's the best drive-train technology available today to power a Hypercar. Click here to go to part one of the interview. If you haven't already, I recommend that you read the Hypercar history article first as background to this wide-ranging and insightful interview.

ABG: You said that plug-in electric vehicles could provide ultimately a cheap electricity storage and transfer device for variable sources such as wind and solar, allowing them to become mobile energy storage devices. Could you please elaborate on this point?

MB: The concept of "vehicle to grid" (V2G) is something Amory Lovins has been talking about for over a decade. At first, even I thought it was science fiction, but of late this idea is getting a lot of traction and a ton of serious players are investigating its potential. From working with Amory now for 12 years, if anything I've learned to really listen to some of his more "outlandish" ideas. Quite often, they are right. As one person said about Amory, "he often overestimates things in the short term, but underestimates things long-run."

The idea of vehicle-to-grid is that when you have a meaningful number of plug-in hybrids or fuel-cell vehicles in the market, most of which are parked (and potentially plugged in) roughly 95 percent of the day, you suddenly have a huge electricity storage buffer plugged right into the grid. And with fuel-cells, you actually have mobile powerplants.

As a thought experiment, if all cars were efficient (with 35-50 kilowatts of fuel cell power) and propelled by fuel cells, we'd have roughly around 5 terawatts of electricity generation capacity in our cars. This is six times the electric generation capacity of all U.S. stationary powerplants - coal, oil, nuclear, hydro. Of course, we'd never use cars as our primary powerplants as hydrogen is just an energy carrier - not a source of energy - and it ultimately has to be produced by either reforming natural gas or electrolyzing water. We'd use these cars more likely for peak power, e.g., the peak of summer when our air conditioners are on full blast and when major U.S. cities have been experiencing brown outs due to an increasingly fragile grid.

(What fragile grid? Continue reading after the jump)
At these times, the cost of peak power can exceed 30-times the cost of baseload power (upwards of $600 per megawatt hour compared to a busbar (to the grid) cost of $20 per megawatt hour for baseload coal). Fuel-cell cars can act as a very inexpensive source of power during the times of most intense electricity demand. For the car owners, in fact, you are essentially transferring electricity or energy bought at low-demand times, on the cheap, and providing it at high-demand times, when it will be more valuable. Very likely, the car owner could be paid very well for providing the service, while ultimately saving the energy user or regulated utility money (avoiding the 30-fold price spike) and providing a public service (in the form of making the grid more robust) at the same time. Pardon my (bad) pun, but advanced vehicles' enabling of buy-low, sell-high electricity could offer a form of "car"batrage that can create a lot of win-wins.

Looking shorter term, with plug-in hybrids, if you look at the typical size of a battery pack in an advanced plug-in hybrid (8 kilowatt hours), it wouldn't take very many plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) to offer a serious storage buffer for the grid. The logic of providing peak power inexpensively still applies - and an even more valuable opportunity can arise when you look across boundaries to renewable power generation.

PHEVs could form a synergy of sort with "intermittent" renewables like wind and solar, whose growth is skyrocketing of late, but fundamentally limited by the fact that they produce electricity somewhat unpredictably. Solar and wind, obviously, generate electricity when the sun shines and the wind blows; but we may want our cold beers and hot showers at different times. Right now, renewable systems are often fed into the grid, which acts more or less as their buffer. But for the grid to act as a buffer, the conventional wisdom says that there has to be a baseload of "predictable" energy supplies available (i.e., more gas or coal plants) and/or the capacity of wind or solar added to get a "credit" has to be three to four times the actual electricity provided. Both of these assumptions severely limit renewables' economic attractiveness and ultimate market penetration.

PHEVs being plugged in at night, and quite possibly at the office during the day, could offer a strong alternative for buffering renewables. Again, at around 8 kilowatt hours of storage per PHEV, a small fleet of these vehicles could easily buffer, say, a photovoltaic array set up in an office park. Imagine a cold, but sunny day. Here, the PHEV may actually work in reverse: you'd plug it in at the office and, instead of supplementing the grid with onboard power, you'd actually take in surplus energy of the PHEVs to distribute later. Or in the case of wind, a concept called "windfirming" (i.e., firming up the wind supply) is emerging, where plug-in vehicles combine with windfarms to provide a "virtual" baseload powerplant with a consistent supply of electrons.

The scenarios are numerous, and in bulk the problem is complex: it requires a "smart" grid that tracks pricing (and in a sense supply and demand) real-time at plug-in points; smart vehicles that can interact with the grid and ensure the needs of the grid mesh with the needs of the cars (e.g., its state of charge, battery pack health, and the likely driving requirements of the day); and battery technology that can withstand the extra cycling that V2G will entail.

But again, while the problem is complex, it is not intractable, and there are real market incentives to solve this problem in the form of 1) making renewables more economically attractive, 2) reducing the need for extra baseload powerplants, and 3) making PHEVs themselves more lucrative to own. With over $60 billion invested in renewables worldwide last year (including high profile investing from venture capitalists and banking groups), increasing carbon legislation making conventional powerplants more expensive for utilities, and carmakers such as GM desiring to make a PHEV but wanting to make the business case more attractive, some powerful players--banks, utilities, carmakers--are incentivized to solve this problem. I'd watch this space.

ABG: Does the increasing availability of biofuels (ethanol and biodiesel) have any impact on your answer?

MB: Again it's the "Hypercars make them work better," argument. Reduced tractive loads mean you need less fuel to move your car. Efficiency works hand-in-hand with biofuels, and it's important for the biofuels industry to push efficiency as the means to accelerate their adoption. With a doubled efficiency fleet, for instance, we may have the capacity (at least in automotive) to grow most of our fuel. The midwest could be our Saudi Arabia. Part of our "Winning the Oil Endgame" solution involves making the vehicle fleet more efficient, and then substituting some of the more limited fuels we would need with biofuels. But without efficiency, the economics and capacity of biofuels aren't strong enough to get us off of imported oil.

As for specifics, we particularly like cellulosic ethanol and biodiesel and see a lot of progress made in these types of fuel. We're not fans of corn-sourced ethanol.

ABG: Has the cost to mass produce lightweight carbon fibre composite parts reduced significantly over the last 15 years?

MB: Yes, but not as fast as we'd like.

At its simplest, the cost of composites is a function of materials, labor, and capital. Traditionally, composites compared with steel have been much more expensive in the first two areas, and cheaper in the latter. A focus has been made to reduced the materials cost, primarily carbon-fibers, and labor, through more advanced, faster, automated manufacturing technologies.

Carbon-fiber cost at the low-end has hovered above the mythical "$5 per pound" area for years, and efforts led by companies such as Zoltek have not pushed meaningfully through this cost barrier. Theoretically, there is no technical show-stopper preventing lower-cost fibers, but organizational issues, process immaturity, and inconsistent demand have held up the availability of high-quality, low-cost fibers, and to an extent "prepreg" tape (fiber tape impregnated with resin). As demand overall rises (e.g., Boeing's mostly composite next generation 787 dreamliner has gobbled up a significant share of aerospace grade carbon fiber manufacturing capacity over the next few years) and more investment is put into this market, we see low-cost fiber as an inevitability.

As for labor, new processes such as Hypercar's spinoff Fiberforge are offering much higher performance parts at significantly lower labor costs. Historically there has been a tradeoff between cost and performance; lower cost, low-labor manufacturing methods such as random-mat preforms and sheet moulding compound offered higher volumes and lower costs, but only semi-structural applications; higher cost, labor-intensive processes like hand-lay up offered superior performance but prohibitive cost in volume. Fiberforge's process, for one, enables hand lay-up type performance and minimized scrap by employing a novel fiber lay-down approach.

The combination of lower-cost fiber and novel manufacturing methods, combined with the already superior capital and tooling economics of composites and their potential for radical parts consolidation, is making these materials much more attractive in the automotive space. RMI analysis in the early 1990s hinted at this, and more recent analysis at Fiberforge, using validated, real-world production data, confirms it. But more work remains, and we need to get a car built and in the market to really accelerate things.

ABG: Do you feel that either 9/11 or the dot com bust pushed back the introduction of Hypercars?

MB: As for our specific effort at Hypercar, definitely the dot com bust-we were seeking our second round of funding to take us through prototype development and building out test mules when the tech bubble collapsed in 2000-2001. Even before this, investments in manufacturing and hardware were seen as "unsexy," as software and internet (1.0 at the time) were the hot sectors. "Cleantech" as a hot investment sector was five years away.

The extremely low price of gasoline ($1.15 a gallon) didn't help either! At the time, gasoline was much cheaper than bottled water. It was difficult in the U.S. to get the investor base excited about a fuel efficient car when SUVs were flying off the lots, a barrel of oil was south of $30, and consumers were telling marketing experts that cupholders were a more important purchasing consideration than fuel efficiency.

Times have changed. Cleantech is getting tens of billions of investment; gasoline is now in the $2-3 range; the Prius is on track for 175k US sales in 2007 (which would put it in the top ten overall); and there are several startups wanting to produce a breakthrough vehicle (e.g., Tesla). Seriously, on the latter point, investors would always ask for "comparables" to Hypercar in order to evaluate its business model and proposed operations, but there were none. Often, it's easier to get startup funding when you are second or third to the idea, not first.

As for the industry at large, the barriers to getting Hypercar-like vehicles are much larger and more complex. The barriers to a large extent are more cultural than technical or economic.

Stay tuned tomorrow for the final installment where I ask Michael about conspiracy theories, who's using carbon fibre composites, which country is likely to get the first Hypercar out the door and where the Hypercar is today.

UPDATE: Part four is available here.

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