June 22, 2007

GM's "green image" challenge in L.A.

Los Angeles has become a tough car market for General Motors. Toyota sold 50% more Priuses in L.A. last year than all the cars GM sold here combined!
That frank admission was part of the message presented by "good cop" GM North America President Troy Clarke to a small, rapt audience of bloggers at the historic and very scenic HRL Laboratories in Malibu, CA.

GM's corresponding "bad cop" would be Chairman Rick Wagoner who on June 5th at the shareholders' meeting criticized the raising of CAFE standards and the U.S. government's mileage requirements - which, subsequently, were added to the Senate's version of the 2007 Energy Bill. The new legislation mandates increases to average fuel economy by 40 percent to 35 miles per gallon for cars, SUVs and pickup trucks by 2020.

Producing cars that will meet the standard aren't the big problem for GM. However, squeezing that kind of economy from SUVs and pick-up trucks will require risky and significant technological redesigns of the propulsion system (considering the weight of the vehicles and loads they are designed to handle) with no assurance that the standards set by implacable public and political expectations won't move again. Since California is GM's strongest market for trucks (with three times as many GM trucks sold in Southern California than cars), the stakes are very high.

Both Clarke and Wagoner insist that the future of the company is tied to a successful transition away from gasoline-powered technology. They contend that GM currently leads all U.S. manufacturers with over 30 vehicle models that are rated above 30mpg.

Their plans for the market is to continue to introduce a number of new hybrid and electric cars over the next decade. Some of these represent new technological approaches to the twin transportation challenges of increasing fuel efficiency while lowering emissions. Most are planned to be flex-fuel compatible, able to run on any blend of gasoline and ethanol.

Author's note - In my opinion all combustion engines produced by GM factories should be flex-fuel compatible because it doesn't cost much to do at the factory ($50-200/vehicle vs. thousands for hybrid technology) but allows the consumer the greatest number of fuel purchasing options (simultaneously depressing prices while reducing fossil fuel dependence). It will solve the chicken/egg dilemma faced by service stations of having enough compatible ethanol vehicles available to justify installing the pumps. And it starts the clock on when we cycle out all gasoline-only vehicles - which some estimate will take 15 years.

Still, L.A. is a market that relies more on image than on substance. Sometimes that image is the sleek styling and high performance characteristics of the vehicle. However, with the one-two punch of oil addiction and global warming fears, image and status now comes from driving "greener" vehicles - which is why the ho-hum Prius body shape is looking more stylish every day (while Hummer and Suburban owners are ducking accusatory glares from outraged fellow citizens).

So how can GM crack back into the global trendsetting L.A. market? Apparently Troy and GM's local public relations agency, Manning Selvage & Lee (MS&L), believes that building non-traditional relationships with bloggers and their audiences is an effective p.r. strategy - รก la The Tipping Point. Convince some passionate, funky bloggers of the company's sincerity and it just might infect their audiences - leading to a cascade of positive image-building and sales.

MS&L calls it One Across Marketing:
One Across Marketing is MS&L's signature approach that strives to build a relationship between a consumer and brand. It focuses entirely on the phenomenon of information "wildfires" or "viruses," which are transmitted by word-of-mouth, usually among individuals who "cluster" (often virtually) around issues, shared situations, lifestyle needs, entertainment pursuits, etc. Driven by one-to-one communications, One Across approaches include: epidemic campaigns, E-community mobilization, influencer seedings, vernacular PR, and grass-tops marketing.

I'm not sure what category I fell into but I'm glad it was good enough to get me invited.

During his speech Troy Clarke talked about effective marketing from his personal viewpoint:
We get the opportunity to talk publicly in the auto industry typically at Auto Shows where we have these wonderfully orchestrated backdrops of cars and models. It is a very tailored environment for us to be able to tell our story to alot of press over a short period of time.

I had the opportunity to do something a little different. In Chicago, interestingly, it was still an Auto Show venue but it was outside the Detroit area and I was asked if I would talk to four bloggers. (I did) and in ten to fifteen minutes this dialog broke out which was kind of a public relations first. I turned to my public relations people and said that this feels a lot better to me than the typical interaction. Part of the reason why is that I learned alot.

Some of this stuff was stuff I didn't want to learn. Some people were making comments to me that I hoped that they wouldn't make. But the fact that they made them accomplished more than I expected.

Well here is a piece of advice from this blogger that I would hope GM and MS&L would hear:
In October 19-20 Santa Monica will host its second Alt Car Expo. Last year's event was much more fun and informative about green transportation at a grass roots level than the glitzy L.A. Auto Show across town (see A Tale of Two Auto Shows). Toyota was a huge beneficiary because most of the alternative designs were converted Priuses. GM had a paltry presence at this event (one flex-fuel pickup and a salt-in-wound carcass EV1) and was not even listed as a sponsor. This year none of the Big Three is a listed sponsor - but Honda is. This show is a green opportunity for GM to build bridges with the Southern California market.

One interesting new propulsion approach that Troy focused attention on is being demonstrated by the new Chevy Volt, a 5-seater concept car. Its "E-Flex Drive" always delivers power to the wheels through its battery charged electric engine. However, after the initial plug-in charge is depleted (at about 40 miles) an onboard flex-fuel combustion motor can generate a surplus charge giving the vehicle a potential range of 650 miles between charge and refill. GM is logging votes from consumers who would like to see the vehicle produced and on the showroom floor. The current tally of nearly half a million votes is about 99.5% in favor. I would gladly sign up to be a test driver.

I came away very impressed by the sincerity of the presentation and the approachability of its speaker. Just walking around on a tour, I was able to steal 5 minutes of uninterrupted time with Troy to talk about my pet projects - promoting the 25x'25 Alliance (I gave him a lapel pin), expanded recycling of waste-to-energy, the energy renaissance potential of a depressed paper and pulp industry, and the need to support local regulatory reform efforts in California.

No, we didn't talk about cars, but the kicker is that he echoed my sentiment that all of these facets are necessary parts of the new continuum that will affect the sale of cars in the coming decades. To make green profits on its green product offerings, GM will not only have to develop and deploy new technologies, but will also have to weather the challenges of fickle public opinion, shortages in raw materials and energy supply, strained labor relations, unpredictable world events, and environmentally sensitive regulatory reform.

It's a daunting task for any multi-national corporation. Of the Big Three in America, I'd put my money on GM.

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June 12, 2007

Ethanol Boosting Systems for Automobiles

Biofuel naysayers have a wealth of criticisms to use if they really want to derail the renewable energy juggernaut. "The EROIE is not as good as petroleum" "The feedstock is better used as food" "The emissions from ethanol is more toxic than gasoline" "Subsidies are the only reason that ethanol producers make any profits", etc.

Well the oil industry "wasn't built in a day" either (and the resemblance to Rome is pretty apt). The reality is that if Henry Ford had succeeded in encouraging the use of ethanol when he produced the first Model T, engines would have developed much differently than they did and the EROIE, toxicity, feedstock diversity, and subsidy issues would have been solved a long time ago. Give ethanol a hundred years and lets see how efficient and clean it and other biofuels can be.

Here are excerpts from an October 2006 article in Green Car Congress that demonstrates the potential for redesigned combustion engines that exploit the high octane of ethanol.

Startup Working to Commercialize Direct Injection Ethanol Boosting + Turbocharging
Ethanol boost with turbocharging promises a cost-effective means to obtain high fuel efficiency in gasoline and flex ethanol/gasoline powered engines.

MIT scientists and engineers earlier this year founded a company—Ethanol Boosting Systems, LLC (EBS)—to commercialize their work on direct-injection ethanol boosting combined with aggressive turbocharging in a gasoline engine. (Earlier post.) The result is a gasoline engine with the fuel efficiency of current hybrids or turbodiesels—up to 30% better than a conventional gasoline engine—but at lower cost.

EBS has a collaborative R&D agreement with Ford, and anticipates engine tests in 2007 with subsequent licensing to Ford and other automakers. If all goes as expected, vehicles with the new engine could be on the road by 2011.

The foundation of the approach is the enhanced knock suppression resulting from the separate, direct injection of small amounts of ethanol into the cylinder in addition to the main gasoline fuel charge.

The injection of a small amount of ethanol into the hot combustion chamber cools the fuel charge and makes spontaneous combustion much less likely. According to a simulation developed by the MIT group, with ethanol injection the engine won’t knock even when the pressure inside the cylinder is three times higher than that in a conventional SI engine. Engine tests by collaborators at Ford Motor Company produced results consistent with the model’s predictions.

With knock essentially eliminated, the researchers could incorporate into their engine two operating techniques that help make today’s diesel engines so efficient: a high degree of turbocharging and the use of a higher compression ratio.

The combined changes could increase the power of a given-sized engine by more than a factor of two. But rather than seeking higher vehicle performance, the MIT researchers cut their engine size in half. Using well-established computer models, they determined that their small, turbocharged, high-compression-ratio engine will provide the same peak power as the full-scale SI version but will be 20 to 30% more fuel efficient.

The ethanol-boosted engine could provide efficiency gains comparable to those of today’s hybrid engine systems for less extra investment: about $1,000 as opposed to $3,000 to $5,000. The engine should use less than five gallons of ethanol for every 100 gallons of gasoline, so drivers would need to fill their ethanol tank only every one to three months. The ethanol used could be E85.

Given the short fuel-savings payback time—three to four years at present US gasoline prices—the MIT researchers believe that their ethanol-boosted turbo engine has real potential for widespread adoption.

To actually affect oil consumption, we need to have people want to buy our engine, so our work also emphasizes keeping down the added cost and minimizing any inconvenience to the driver.
—Daniel Cohn, MIT senior research scientist and CEO of EBS

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June 7, 2007

Pipeline research for ethanol transport

New bipartisan legislation is being introduced to the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate that propose funding research to investigate transport of ethanol by pipeline.

I think the proposal is an excellent idea and a quite relevant area of research for site developers with whom I work.

I would like to know the results of the kind of pipe research that is being proposed. Not being able to pipe ethanol is a drawback in comparison to fossil fuels because of the relative trouble and expense (not to mention emissions) of hauling it any other way.

Conventional understanding of the problem of piping ethanol is that 1) it is susceptible to water contamination from pipe leaks and 2) it is best not to alternate between other fuels and ethanol using the same pipes.

Once an industrial site is built, it frequently converts to similar industrial usage because of the raw material, zoning, and transportation corridor development that went into it. There are existing pipes that connect prospective biorefinery sites with existing transportation hubs that could be upgraded at relatively low expense compared to these hauling costs - saving time and money.

Could pipes that carted chemicals and fuels yesterday be upgraded to service ethanol today and maybe other fuels like biobutanol tomorrow? Maybe the research could give us the answers.

Here are excerpts from a recent article on the announcement...

Study sought on ethanol pipelines
Supplement to rail transport appears vital as industry expands, Boswell says
By William Ryberg
DesMoines Register Business Writer
May 30, 2007

Two members of Iowa's congressional delegation want to know whether pipelines would be a good way to get ethanol transported across the country in the future.

Rep. Leonard Boswell, D-Ia., held a news conference Tuesday to announce that he'd introduced a bill in the U.S. House asking for a $2 million study of the feasibility of transporting ethanol by new or existing pipeline. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Ia., introduced a similar bill in the Senate.

Boswell, in a statement, said practical and economical ways to transport ethanol across the country need to be found because the industry continues to expand.

Pipelines are a major mover of gasoline, diesel fuel and jet fuel in the United States, but ethanol is moved primarily by rail car.

The bill would direct the U.S. secretary of energy to award money for a study of the feasibility and value of using pipelines to transport ethanol from the Midwest, where it's generally produced, to the eastern and western United States.

Currently, movement of ethanol through pipelines leads to "stress corrosion cracking" in the pipe and welds, Bruce Heine, director of government and media affairs for Magellan Midstream Partners of Tulsa, Okla., said after the news conference. Magellan is a pipeline company with a major terminal near Des Moines.

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June 3, 2007

Bioethanol or Biodiesel - Which is better?

As a recent article on The Motley Fool (Fueling the Debate: Ethanol vs. Biodiesel) points out, comparing bioethanol and biodiesel is like comparing running or swimming - both are healthy exercises. But it is a good idea to know what the comparable benefits are because there are new technologies being developed all the time and the impact on biofuel infrastructure development is the key to implementation.

For example, as reported by Green Options recent algae farming research at Utah State University predicts that "oil yields of 10,000 gallons per acre could become an economically feasible biodiesel feedstock by the end or the decade. Our most productive feedstock today, the oil palm, doesn't even come close with yields of 635 gallons/acre, and is followed distantly by the U.S. standard, soy, at 48 gallons of oil/acre."

Given the other benefits of biodiesel, such an innovation could mean that more infrastructure and vehicle development should be directed toward exploiting the use biodiesel. Then again, research into cellulosic feedstock bioconversion tends to support the notion that bioethanol and biobutanol will be the superior solution.

Since the infrastructure and market for biodiesel are much better in Europe, it is likely that implementation for biodiesel would take place there. Conversely, ethanol would make more sense in North America.

Regardless, we should be putting renewable energy "trains" on a wheelhouse full of tracks because the ultimate solution will be to develop many sources of feedstock and renewable energy solutions destined for implementation throughout the world.

Fueling the Debate: Ethanol vs. Biodiesel
Which alternative fuel should investors tie their horses to?
By Jack Uldrich

According to a study published last summer in the peer-reviewed Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the environmental benefits of biodiesel are substantially greater than those of ethanol. According to the report, biodiesel provides 93% more net energy per gallon than is required for its production, while ethanol generates only 25% more net energy. The study further suggested that biodiesel, when compared with gasoline, reduced greenhouse emissions by 41%, while ethanol yielded only a 12% reduction. From these viewpoints, it would appear that biodiesel is the clear winner.

If only it were that easy. From a land-use and agricultural-efficiency perspective, ethanol appears to be the better choice. That's because an estimated 420 gallons of ethanol can be produced per acre of corn versus only 60 gallons of biodiesel per acre of soybeans. In more practical terms, this means that if the production of biodiesel were ever to increase greatly, the cost of soybean oil would rise significantly.

What's so exciting about cellulosic ethanol is that it has the potential to offer a very high net-energy impact. It can also be produced from feedstocks that use little to no fertilizer. These sources are abundant and aren't major sources of food -- and thus won't drive up food prices as we've seen as of late with corn prices. As an added benefit, it's believed that as the technology improves, the amount of ethanol produced per acre can increase significantly. Some experts have estimated that the figure could reach as high as 2,700 gallons per acre by 2030.

In short, cellulosic ethanol may very well have the environmental benefits of biodiesel and the agricultural efficiency of corn ethanol, but it can also potentially bring additional benefits to the table.

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