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GM Volt Battery Delivered

There are no official announcements of when the GM Volt will actually hit the showrooms in production quantities, but the year 2010 continues to hold up as the unofficial date. Last week in the Detroit Free Press, in a report by Katie Merx entitled “A New Era Dawns for GM,” Vice Chairman Bob Lutz stated he “wants to make up to 100,000 fuel-efficient Chevrolet Volts in the first year of production.” This got our attention.

The GM Volt – The World’s First Production Series Hybrid?
(GM Volt Image Gallery)

Yesterday I asked GM spokesman Rob Peterson about the quantity of cars planned and the launch year 2010. Peterson could not make an official comment on the year but confirmed that everything is still moving forward on schedule, and that “GM’s internal target is 2010.” That means cars in showrooms in just over two years.

In a significant step forward, last week LG Chem delivered the first lithium ion battery to GM for testing. As Peterson noted “this is being tested not at the cell level but is a full pack that meets all of our power and energy needs.” As we reported in August in our post “GM’s Volt to use A123 Battery,” GM selected two manufacturers out of 31 respondants to their RFP for an automotive lithium ion battery, A123 and LG Chem. It looks like LG Chem has won this round, but Peterson noted “A123 should have their battery here before the end of this year.”

We’re going to say it again: The GM Volt, and its European counterpart, the GM “Flextreme” which has an onboard diesel, is a series hybrid, very distinct from current hybrid designs, and it is a long overdue breakthrough. It is misleading for mainstream journalists to refer to the Volt as a “plug-in hybrid” and leave it at that – it grossly misrepresents the significance of this innovation. As the diagram below indicates, a series hybrid’s gasoline (or diesel) engine is not connected to the drivetrain, only to an onboard generator. Electricity from the generator, along with stored (and recovered) electricity from a battery pack, are what powers an all electric drivetrain.

The Series Hybrid:
Onboard ICE powers generator powers electric motor.

The series hybrid design is simpler, requires less maintenance, and delivers outstanding performance. The only thing it was waiting for was the energy density of a usable lithium ion battery. The mystery is why all major automakers haven’t announced series hybrids – for a variety of political or business reasons they still have not, and GM is going to acquire a huge lead in this technology.

Here’s the specs on the Volt: The range on battery-only (using plug-in electricity) is 40 miles – which will fulfill nearly 80% of the normal daily driving cycles in the USA. The range on gasoline-only, if the battery is completely drained, is 600 miles, at 50 miles per gallon. Because the 12 kWh (usable AC) lithium ion battery pack only weighs 400 pounds, it is not a significant drag on the vehicle. We love this car, and up to 100,000 of them are still on track to hit the road in just over two years.

Posted in Cars, Electricity, Energy, Journalists, Science, Space, & Technology, Transportation6 Comments

Democracy & Debate

Last week Bill Moyers interviewed FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps, and throughout the interview, Copps decried the consolidation that is occurring in media, and insisted that preserving debate is essential if we are to preserve democracy.

There are a lot of changes today – on the internet there are literally billions of new sources of media – not just extensions of every traditional media source already out there – print media, television and radio, but additional hundreds of millions of websites that are little more than personal diaries, additional millions of video clips on YouTube, and millions more that are venues for commercial endeavors. Where is the genuine media? How do you cut through the noise?

It’s no secret that traditional media is dying. The only place in-depth investigations and reporting ever were feasible were in newspapers. For over a century, newspapers held a special place in media – monopolies only barely encroached upon by radio and television. Supported by local merchants, classified ads, and subscription payments, local newspapers were highly profitable enterprises, and the journalists who they could afford to pay were able to spend months, even years, on investigative quests for truth. Back then, there were tens of thousands of people in the USA and elsewhere whose profession was based on in-depth investigative reporting, and nothing else. Not only was there debate, there was depth.

Those days are gone. Today only a handful of newspapers can still afford to employ such reporting staff. Consolidation of the retail advertisers, proliferation of free print material containing advertiser-sponsored content, the advent of cable TV, and now the internet, has shrunk the advertising base for newspapers at the same time as it has shrunk the audience for newspapers. And nothing has replaced them.

Laws to prevent consolidation of media ownership exist for good reason, but they are in conflict with an even greater imperative – without consolidation, media properties can’t survive financially. So what great debates are not being met? What information is not getting out?

For starters, the conventional wisdom of mainstream environmentalists. Here are three examples:

We should continue the debate as to whether or not anthropogenic CO2 emissions is actually the primary cause of runaway global warming. But if you scan today’s mainstream media, we must reduce CO2 emissions at any cost.

We should debate as to whether or not our energy and water supplies should be deliberately constricted and rationed, in order to reduce our “carbon footprint,” even though energy remains abundant in the world, and the cure may be worse than the disease.

We should debate as to whether or not we need to restrict nearly all development into the “footprint” of existing cities, which causes congestion, nurtures crime, and drives housing prices into the stratosphere. If you scan today’s mainstream media – open space at any cost is an article of faith. So we blithely destroy every suburb in America with ultra high-density “infill.” This “smart growth” is more than simply ridiculous, it is a hideous crime that is destroying our American way of life.

How debate on this unassailed conventional wisdom will ever be joined is the distressing question. Only here? On one, small website, indistinguishable in the noise from just another MySpace page? It is hard to imagine how that might matter or make a difference, but it is equally difficult to suggest the alternative. How will credibility and influence be acquired by new media, and will it be enough to restore debate – which in-turn is necessary to preserve a functioning, healthy democracy?

Posted in Causes, Energy, Journalists, Policy, Law, & Government, Retail, Television1 Comment

Free Market Environmentalism

Green Hills of Montana
The green hills of Montana.

Editor’s Note: The idea to harness the forces of the free market to pursue environmentalist objectives is initially counterintuitive – after all, isn’t the free market to blame for all environmental misery? Isn’t government intervention necessary to keep rapacious profiteers in check?

The first step to recognizing the need to embrace market principles in order to further environmental objectives is to examine the opposite extreme. Communist societies, where all property belongs to the government, are demonstrably the worst stewards of the environment. In the Soviet Bloc, during the years between World War II and the liberation of 1989, environmental destruction was far worse than in the capitalist western nations. The air pollution was so thick it dimmed the sunlight reaching earth. The Aral Sea was drained dry, destroying the livelyhood and the climate through half of Central Asia. It will take decades, and the wealth of capitalist nations, to clean up this mess.

Vaclav Klaus, President of the Czech Republic, and someone who suffered under communist tyranny, has put it thus: “When I study and analyse environmental indicators concerning my own country and when I compare them with the situation in the communist era, there is an incredible improvement. The improvement is not because of ‘collective action’ you advocate (it existed in the communist era), but because of freedom and of free markets.”

It’s not easy to articulate the principles of free market environmentalism. When the air and water is fouled by pollution, the natural emotional reaction is to blame the polluters and demand regulations. By extension, the polluters are assumed to be motivated by profit, which in-turn is demonized. But it’s not so simple. Profit creates wealth, and wealth funds environmental restoration. Central planning – communism – destroys wealth, destroys incentives, and the practical result is abominable pollution, worse than anything we’ve ever seen in the capitalist west, and harder to correct.

Free market environmentalism is what the economists at the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC) have been studying and promoting for over 15 years. When we began publishing EcoWorld in 1993, we quickly came across the work PERC was doing and we’ve been following them and learning from them ever since. Their message is more important now than ever, as the emotional juggernaut called global warming threatens to drown out reason and demands immediate and extraordinary measures.

Incentives are not easy to formulate, and require governments to referee. But regulations and takings are even more problematic – in the extreme they lead to environmental devastation exemplified by the failed communist economies of Eastern Europe. The question is one of emphasis, and free market environmentalism recognizes that private property, ownership, stewardship, incentives, and the profit motive properly channelled is superior to central planning. This recent report by noted author Matt Ridley attests to his conversion to free market environmentalism, something that even – indeed especially – today’s global warming alarmism should not consign to the list of endangered ideologies.

- Ed “Redwood” Ring

Free Market Environmentalism, The Road to an Epiphany
by Dr. Matt Ridley, June 28, 2007
Elk Herd Grazing
Elk grazing beneath the big sky – PERC country.

It had hardly occurred to me that conservation could be done by anybody other than governments…

In 1987 I became chief correspondent for the Economist in Washington. My predecessor gave me a few tips as he moved to London. One of them was: “If you get an invitation to a PERC meeting in Montana, grab it! You’ll have a great time in the Rockies watching elk and, although they’ve got some crazy ideas, they are worth listening to.’

He was right. I went to a PERC journalists’ conference, right in the middle of the infamous Yellowstone fire, which proved to be a big distraction. Still, I recall Terry Anderson bugling to elk, Aaron Wildavsky making no sartorial concessions to the West, and some great late-night arguments about the role of the state.

It came at a time when my eyes were opening. Aged 30, I was a keen conservationist and enthusiastic naturalist. I had briefly been a field research biologist before I became a journalist and I was born on a farm in northern England. But it hardly occurred to me until then that conservation could be done by anybody other than governments. And like most Europeans, I knew all about “market failures” and not nearly enough about the perverse incentives and bureaucratic momentum of government failures.

Meeting PERC and reading Terry and Don’s book set me thinking. The following year I found myself covering the Clean Air Act revisions as they passed through Congress, and I was very struck by how most of the environmental organizations dismissed emissions trading in sulfur and nitrogen dioxide. It sounded to me (and later proved) to be a very good idea.

But it was November 1989 when the penny finally dropped. Not only were communism’s appalling human crimes bared for the entire world to see, but its environmental ones were as well. The day the Berlin Wall came down, I recalled a conversation I had a few years earlier on an airplane with a prominent British pop star (now a respected leftist politician) about how happy East Germans really were under communism and how much freer and more sustainable their lives were than those of Americans. He’d been there. He knew. I resolved the day the Wall came down to stop tolerating such excuses for all forms of state domination.

The legacy of utopian central planning – hideous
air pollution in the Soviet Union.

Ten years later I was plowing a lonely furrow as a pro-environment, but pro-market, newspaper columnist in Britain. My stance baffled people. I met (and still meet) absolute incredulity rather than opposition from state-employed conservationists. It is not that they think command-and-control is the only way to conserve; it’s that they have never even considered an alternative – never imagined markets generating incentives. Grimly they repeat the mistakes of Gosplan (the committee for economic planning in the Soviet Union), wondering why their central planning, nationalization, and confiscation of people’s interest in wildlife and amenity doesn’t seem to generate enthusiasm.

Here is an example. To convert a barn into a house in Britain today you must survey it for bats before you apply for permission to convert. The bat survey must be done by an “accredited” bat group and only in the summer months. Guess what? Bat groups are very busy in the summer and charge very high fees. If the survey says there are rare bats in the building you may be refused permission to convert; as it turns out, the bats, not you, own the building. So what happens? People respond to incentives. Most barn owners resent and detest bats. I’m told playing Wagner at full volume clears a building of bats in short order. A simple scheme of small tax rebates for owners of barns who add bat-roosting boxes to their houses would achieve good will as well as bat babies. But it would not make paid work for bat groups.

PERC inspired me to see the world differently. The vision of free market environmentalism is inspiring because it is optimistic, and the solutions it suggests are voluntary, diverse and (for the taxpayer) cheap. The only things standing in its way are vested interests of politicians, bureaucrats, and pressure groups.

Matt Ridley Portrait

About the Author: Matt Ridley received a doctorate in zoology from the University of Oxford before commencing a career in science journalism. Ridley worked as a science correspondent for the Economist and the Daily Telegraph and is the author of several acclaimed works including The Origins Of Virtue (1997), Genome (1999), and Nature Via Nurture: Genes, Experience, and What Makes us Human (2003), also later released under the title The Agile Gene: How Nature Turns on Nurture (2004). This article originally appeared in the March 2007 issue of “PERC Reports.” The Property & Environment Research Center, PERC, is a nonprofit institute dedicated to improving environmental quality through markets. Republished with permission.

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Posted in Air Pollution, Business & Economics, Conservation, Ideas, Humanities, & Education, Journalists, Organizations, Other, People0 Comments

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