For two decades arguments in Vancouver about sustainable urbanism have centered on “curbing car use in order to reduce green house gases.” Our civic leaders have sold us towers-and-skytrain as eco-density when in reality something like a money laundering scheme for off-shore wealth has been driving large projects since the late 1970s. The ecology of towers is an urban myth. Yet, the ‘voices of doom’ have never referenced the alternative: switching fuels from fossil to electric. In a land where power has been green since the 1950s, where 93% of electricity is hydro-electric, switching fuels and adopting electric vehicles (EVs) should be a natural common place.
Of course, the proponents of abandoning cars also avoid speaking about long overdue improvements to the lamentable condition of the social space in our neighborhoods. They do not bring up the 2,245% price inflation in the cost of housing taking place over that past 30 years while skytrain-and-towers were building. Finally, the alternative strategy—switching energy sources rather than abandoning cars—has never received a full public vetting.
On the one hand switching fuels has a shadowy political future, since on the other hand, the dominance of our economy and politics by the petroleum and gas super-majors, along with the chemical industry and other derivatives will be over. Exploration, drilling, refining, gas stations, motor oil and replacement parts, repairs and manufacturing, all will suffer devastating falls in revenues. In addition, the end of demand for gasoline will remove competitive advantages for industries relying on petroleum by-products such as plastics and the petrochemicals. Money flows from the oil lobby to re-elect sympathetic politicians will dry up. Thus, the real approaching cataclysm—denied by anyone too close to the oil economy—is the sunset of the fossil fuels and the waning influence of the petroleum conglomerates.
The dawn of clean energy is also the advent of free energy—and that will prove to be the game changer. The change will be driven by the wide adoption of electric cars taking place as soon as production ramps up and EVs prove their mettle as an inexpensive consumer product. Then, the real proportion of the problem facing our cities will come into focus. Blight will descend like Mana once everyone owns one, two or three EVs. When people realize just how economic electric cars can be, they will buy one for every occasion—winter, summer and long-distance vacations.
A Look into the Clean Engine Compartment
Electric vehicles cost 50% less to maintain and last twice as long as gasoline engine cars, making them four times more economical than the gas guzzlers. For example, EVs run on electric motors that assist in braking, saving ware and tear on breaking systems and pads. Moreover, these electric motors can be manufactured as interchangeable plug-in components making rebuilding and replacement more practical than repairing. Another critical component in the EV equation are the roof-top mounted solar panels. Once these reach consumer levels in pricing and the installation is paid for… EVs will run on free fuel.
The headwinds are here. But they are battering the entire industry sector that dominated the 20th century, controlling the world economy and triggering countless social, political and military conflicts. The rest of us should be bracing instead for an economic restructuring not seen since stables turned into motor pools in the 1920s.
Electric Charging in Progress
THE ROAD TEST
How close is the EV future from becoming a reality? In order to test that question a colleague and I set off on a 1,000 mile round-trip in the Pacific North West. In 30 hours we drove from Vancouver to Portland and back without using a drop of gasoline. Here are the key facts we encountered along the way driving a 2016 Chevrolet Spark.
- The trip from Vancouver BC to Portland OR in a 2016 Chevy Spark took the same amount of time as driving a 1993 Mazda Miata from Vancouver to San Francisco, a distance of 950 miles or three times further.
- We drove the Spark at 45 mph to optimize battery performance. The 1993 Miata travels at twice that speed for most of the way. The remainder of the time spent in the Spark was used sitting around waiting for the battery to recharge.
- There is a dearth of places to charge EVs and not all chargers are the same. The Spark’s 100-mile battery will charge in 30-minutes in a Level 3 charger. Level 2 takes 3 hours.
- L3 chargers were available in: Cloverdale BC; Seattle Premium Outlets WA; Tacoma Mall; and Walmart Supercenter in Woodland WA. Altogether we spent 5 hours waiting for the battery to charge at L2 hoses (collecting in aggregate 15 KWh) and 2 hours at L3 hoses (getting 75 KWh in total).
- We travelled in late fall and donned wool blankets around our legs for nostalgia’s sake, and to keep the heating unit turned off. Heating the small car interior would have used up to 20% of the battery charge. Keeping the unit off caused windshield fog problems.
- The 100-mile battery is really a fair weather friend. The best way to use it is to charge at home overnight, then drive it exclusively on 90-mile round trips.
- The good news is that the EV can charge for free using roof-top mounted solar panels. The bad news is that solar panels are not mass produced and therefore not cost efficient. The costs of a solar panel installation is still not recoverable over the service life of the array (20 years). When they are, watch out!
- Coda: we paid twice as much for electrical charging as we would have paid for gas at the pump.
Chevy Spark Charging at Home
THE TAKE AWAY
The Ugly American
The 2016 Chevy Spark has to be the ugliest automobile on the market. Yet, it’s ugly cars like these that are ushering the new revolution.
The Future is Green
EVs put us on a 5-point strategy for eliminating fossil fuels and the green house gases emitted during combustion.
- EVs will soon challenge gasoline cars and gasoline sales where it counts—on price point alone.
- Globally, northern cities will produce hydro-electric power (British Columbia is 92% hydro; Quebec 96%); while southern cities will use photo-voltaic generation.
- The solar day is the measure of one roof-top solar panel installation providing all the power demand for that building for 24 hours. We calculate that solar days are achievable today in the Pacific north west with panels installed from Salem OR to San Diego CA (at latitudes 45° N and below).
- The combination of eliminating gasoline from the fleet, and coal from electric power generation will reduce man-made GHGs to about 50% of present levels. In other words, by switching domestic fuels we will arrive at the tipping point for eliminating dependence on fossil fuels.
- Once the tipping point is reached, eliminating the remaining fossil fuels can take place with relatively simple and tested ‘cap and trade’ mechanisms.
It’s really not all about cars. The discussion comes full circle when we stop to consider the places we call home: our cities and sprawling suburbs. Here, eliminating the reliance on fossil fuels entails re-shaping the urban footprint to support much higher levels of social functioning.
- Convert the automotive fleet to EVs—including cars, buses, trucks and trains.
- Retrofit buildings to become ‘energy neutral’. In other words, combine passive solar strategies with increased insulation of the building envelope to keep interior temperatures constant year-round. In the winter cooking a stew and taking a hot shower should compliment the domestic heating system. In summer, opening windows on opposite sides of units for cross ventilation will generate cooling breezes from naturally occurring conditions.
- Net solar days. Especially in areas below 45° N of latitude in the pacific north west—expect photo-voltaic production to vary according to region—private buildings can generate their entire energy requirements from roof-mounted solar panels. Surplus electricity should be pumped back into the smart grid to off-set demand elsewhere, generating GDP.
- Convert suburban sprawl into human-scale urbanism. Retrofit feral transportation corridors from a century ago with electric modern TRAM. Create new neighborhood centers at tram stops achieving walkable districts, livable streets and affordable housing.
- Reap the global peace dividend. Construct energy self-sufficient cities, neighbourhoods and districts designed to support higher levels of social functioning.