The Engine on the Electric Bus Goes (silence) …

By now you’ve probably heard of electric cars, but have you heard about electric buses? They have all of the advantages of good electric cars in a larger size. For example, they’re very quiet, don’t put out any exhaust, have a low carbon footprint, and require much less maintenance than an ICE (internal combustion engine) vehicle.

Drive Electric Vermont today shared a photo of an electric bus visiting the University of Vermont. Take a look:

Proterra electric bus

While electric buses currently cost more than ICE buses, they pay for their extra costs with fuel, maintenance, and repair savings, and once they’ve done that they start saving money for taxpayers. Proterra buses are one option; another is Nova Bus. With EV technology improving practically before our eyes and an ever-wider network of charging stations, maybe it’s time to start thinking about about bringing some of these amazing vehicles into our municipal and school bus fleets.

Bill Nye’s Book on the Science of Climate Change Solutions

Science Guy Bill Nye’s new book on climate change, Unstoppable, is an outstanding and (I’m fairly certain) unique book about climate change, focusing on the science behind the many solutions available to us. With a friendly, down-to-earth, entertaining delivery, Nye provides clear and useful explanations of both current and just-over-the-horizon technologies and related scientfic phenomena. The result is a book that will appeal both to science enthusiasts and to anyone interested in a constructive, hopeful, extremely well-informed book about the science of fighting climate change.


Nye for the most part takes no sides except that of the science, so that when discussing controversial topics (like nuclear energy, for instance), he provides not a prebaked opinion, but rather a careful description of pros, cons, and unintended consequences. Because he focuses on the scientific realities and near-term possibilities, his perspective is as refreshing as it is informative.

Some of the solutions Nye describes are available right now, like home energy efficiency improvements and solar power generation. Others should emerge in the next few years, like self-driving cars and widespread use of home power battery packs, which still others are only hopes for the future, like entirely new kinds of power transmission lines made from carbon fiber and truly sustainable biofuels.

One shortcoming I see in the book is an incomplete treatment of carbon footprints–although to be fair, few sources I’ve seen take an in-depth approach in calculating carbon footprints (Mike Berners-Lee’s How Bad Are Bananas? is a stand-out exception). For example, Nye more than once refers to nuclear power as carbon-free, which may be true if all you’re looking at is direct emissions from the power plant itself, but which fails to take into account the carbon footprint from construction of these extremely resource-intensive facilities or of mining their fuel (and later handling the resulting nuclear waste). As another example, when discussing self-driving taxipods, Nye doesn’t examine the extra impact of these vehicles having to drive to where their are passengers in the first place, which is probably a negligible concern in urban areas but much more significant elsewhere.

The Nye Home in Studio City, CA

The Nye Home in Studio City, CA

Another problem with the book is Nye’s multi-chapter discussion toward the end of the book about space exploration, a section has virtually nothing to do with climate change. Nye being the C.E.O. of the Planetary Exploration Society, I can well understand his support, but rocket launches (which are required even for, to give an example, the solar-powered spacecraft he discusses) are among the very worst offenders in terms of greenhouse gas emissions of any human activity. Climate impact expert Mike Berners-Lee estimates a space shuttle launch emits at least 4,600,000 kilograms CO2 equivalent, roughly similar to 200 years of emissions for an average American, 1,500 years of emissions for an average citizen of China, or 46,000 years of emissions for the average Malawian.

Space boosterism emphatically doesn’t belong in a book on climate change, but you can safely skip chapters 31 to 33 without missing anything important climate change information, or read them if you are curious about space travel (though I’d encourage everyone to think of that as something to explore further after we’ve dealt with climate change). Either way, those chapters don’t much detract from what otherwise, on the whole, is an excellent set of insights into climate change and its solutions.

New, Engrossing Climate Visuals Site Boosts Climate Change Communication


This gallery contains 4 photos.

The new Web site ClimateVisuals.Org offers both copyrighted and free images that explain the causes, consequences, solutions, and stories behind climate change. It’s a remarkable new resource developed from thoughtful and careful research into how people respond to and understand … Continue reading

Electric Cars vs Fuel Cell Cars: One Clear Loser

It may not seem like cars are going through their most radical change since Henry Ford’s assembly line, but they are. Electric vehicles (EVs) are a small but growing fraction of vehicle sales in the U.S., and this is with limited public knowledge, short range among affordable EVs, relatively few charging stations, and high price tags.

Early electric car

You may be amazed to learn, as I was, that electric cars were widely popular from the dawn of the automobile until the electric starter replaced the hand crank and made gas-powered cars less of a pain in the neck.

But the 2016 model year brings at least two strides forward: the Chevy Volt has improved gas mileage, lowered price, and increased electric range from 38 to 53 miles, while the 2016 Leaf’s range expands from 84 to 107 miles. With used EVs becoming available plus the likelihood of more battery innovations and dropping battery costs, EV’s are crossing the line to becoming a cheaper than gas cars, on top of their many other advantages, like powerful acceleration, quietness, and greatly reduced maintenance costs.

By the way, if you’re concerned that EVs might not be a good choice for the climate in some parts of the country, you’ve probably heard the comparison of oil to coal-generated electricity. There’s a fundamental error in this, because it’s comparing “tailpipe” emissions for the gas car to “lifecycle” emissions for the EV. Lifecycle emissions are the total climate impact of obtaining, processing, and using something. When we calculate lifecycle emissions for gas cars and compare apples to apples, gas cars are a clear and universal loser: see “Wait, Gas-Powered Cars Do WHAT?!?“.

But EVs aren’t the only climate-friendly car revolution in progress: fuel cell cars (FCVs), which run electric motors by producing electricity from combining hydrogen from the fuel tank with oxygen in the air to produce water, are also becoming progressively more efficient and less expensive. Having electric engines, they have most of the advantages of EVs, too, and while in recent years they’ve been widely written off as being impractical, their technology has advanced to the point where they’re now a reality, including Toyota’s Mirai, currently being sold in Japan, as well as a number of other models, some of which are affordable and being sold in the U.S..

Toyota Mirai

Toyota Mirai – photo by Turbo-myu-z

“Affordable” is a relative term, of course. EVs and FCVs are mainly available new, and the only way they currently compete with ICE (internal combustion engine) cars in the U.S. is because of government subsidies.

However, unlike ICE cars, EVs and FCVs are experiencing an ongoing burst of innovation in batteries, fuel cells, and electric engines that shows no sign of slowing. With every improvement, these cars become a better value proposition compared to ICE cars, and when we calculate in the cost to the climate, they are arguably a much better value already.

All of this is without any increase of gas prices–and if there is one thing we know about gas prices, it’s that they never stay steady for long–and without a carbon tax. If carbon taxes become widespread, as for all our sakes I hope they will in the near future, suddenly EVs and FCVs will become much more economically attractive, which will fuel larger-scale manufacture and more innovation, which will make them cheaper in a virtuous cycle that could continue for many years.

So which will win, the EV or the FCV? To answer that question, we should start by realizing that these are just two varieties of the same thing: a car with an electric engine and a way to store electrical energy. EVs store that energy in batteries; fuel cells require electricity to generate hydrogen from water, and the hydrogen is then pumped into the car to return most of that electricity when it’s converted back.

Hydrogen filling station

Hydrogen filling station in Iceland – photo by Jóhann Heiðar Árnason

In the near term, it seems unlikely either will gain a decisive upper hand unless it experiences a sudden and outsize technological leap. Some car companies are putting their weight and huge amounts of funding behind EVs, while others are doing the same thing with fuel cells. Both technologies have widespread uses apart from automobiles, including local grid electricity storage, mass transit, and industry, and both are likely to benefit from outside advances.

In the long term, if one technology pulls well ahead of the other in terms of how well it stores energy compared to size, weight, and cost, that technology may eventually take over. If I had to bet on one, I’d bet on EVs, which have wider early adoption, are easier to understand, and can easily be charged at home. One of the great advantages of owning an EV is that you never have to go to a gas station, and even when you do fuel up away from home, the energy is often free, at least these days. That said, fuel cells take only minutes to refuel, compared to much longer battery charging times, and a big enough breakthrough in fuel cell efficiency could wipe EVs off the map.

Still, there is one clear loser in this game: ICE cars, our familiar gas guzzlers. The only real advantage of ICE cars is that they’re established. We’re familiar with them, there’s a huge supply and a wide variety of ICE cars, and gas stations are everywhere. True, they also fuel up faster than EVs, but they don’t have that advantage over FCVs, and EVs can be charged at home, overnight or during the work day. As electric ranges increase, the need to fuel up away from home will only apply for long trips, and when fast charging stations are more widely available, it won’t be difficult to charge your car while you stop for a break or meal every few hours.

So ICE cars are louder, perform less well, smell worse, are terrible for the environment, will become less convenient, and soon will be more expensive than both EVs and FCVs. Will the force of habit be enough to make us stick with them as this equation becomes more and more unbalanced? History suggests that it won’t: no matter how used to the horse and buggy we were, no matter how unusual microwaves seemed at first, or how much of a change it was to start streaming video rather than simply watching TV, we Americans–and most other people in the world–have proved we are always ready to change our habits if something strikingly better comes along. Now not one, but two things have.

Fluffy William and the Threat of Global Climate Change

Once there was an adorable little chipmunk named Fluffy William, who for whatever reason could understand English. It was just one of those things.


Fluffy William was so wee and cute that he charmed everyone he met, except for gardeners, from whose strawberry patches he had a habit of selecting a strawberry, eating just one bite, and then moving on–though in Fluffy William’s defense, his wee stomach was so small that one bite of strawberry filled him right up.

Fluffy William lived an unusually happy chimpmunk life, with cool leaves to rustle under in hot weather and a warm nest to bed down in when it turned cold, until he chanced to be sitting by an open window during a ninety-minute documentary on climate change. Climate change, it turned out, was weather and temperatures and reliable natural cycles all going haywire. Climate change was floods in the Spring and droughts in the Summer and hurricanes in the Fall and God only knows what kind of trouble in the winter. Climate change would make it harder for people to grow food, which would make for more desperate people, which would make for more disasters and refugees and wars. It rapidly became clear to Fluffy William, understanding English as he did, that somebody needed to do something about this climate change problem, and quick.

So Fluffy William ventured deep into the woods until he came to the burrow of Elder Stern Wanda, the wisest and most respected chipmunk anywhere thereabouts. There, breathlessly, he explained about climate change.

“We have to do something about this terrible problem, Elder Stern Wanda!” cried Fluffy William. “But what can I do? I’m just one little chipmunk.”

“You can’t do anything,” said Elder Stern Wanda. “Anything you might try to do would be totally useless. It’s the humans who have to do something about it, and everybody knows you can’t make a human do something they haven’t chosen to do on their own without a gun or a fistful of money.” Elder Stern Wanda picked up an old, chewed-up acorn and gnawed at it gingerly with her one remaining front tooth. The effort seemed to exhaust her after a few gnaws, and she put it back down. Age has its compensations, but it’s still a pain in the neck.

“So humans have to each decide to change their habits on their own?” said Fluffy William.

“Don’t hold your breath for it,” said Elder Stern Wanda. “Now scamper along home.”

So Fluffy William scampered along home and did nothing. That next spring there was a terrible flood, and in the summer there was a terrible drought. Regrettably, Fluffy William could not compete with the other chipmunks for the scarce food available, as he was so wee and cute, so he died of starvation.

He never did find out whether the humans did anything about climate change.

Photo by Gilles Gonthier

How Much Do You Know About Wind Power?

The U.S. Department of Energy has a new quiz out that will challenge your knowledge of wind power and bring you up to date on some new and unexpected information, like how next-generation wind turbines will make a lot more wind power available, even in places that currently wouldn’t be considered good possibilities for wind.

electricity-generating "wind engine" from 1887

electricity-generating “wind engine” from 1887

My favorite factoid, and a surprising one to me:

Wind energy is now the cheapest form of power, with new power purchase agreements in 2014 averaging a record-low 2.35 cents per kilowatt-hour.

I got a 7 out of 13, and I felt like I was doing pretty well, considering! Hopefully you can beat that score. Check out the quiz at

Wait, Gas-Powered Cars Do WHAT?!?

Gas-powered cars, it turns out, actually use more electricity than electric vehicles (EVs).

I’m not talking about the “equivalent” of electricity or the amount of energy, I’m talking about somebody-has-to-generate-it-and-send-it-through-the-power-lines electricity. Gas-powered cars. Use more than. Electric cars.

oil refinery

If that sounds ridiculous, well, it is–but it’s also true. Forget about the energy that comes from burning the gas: refining gasoline takes a huge amount of electricity. Ironic, isn’t it, that producing a fuel to supply energy to vehicles itself consumes so much energy?

But let’s get to the numbers. Let’s say you have an absolutely average gas-powered car that gets about 23 miles per gallon. To refine that gallon of gas, it takes the refinery about 6 kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity to move around water, power equipment, etc.*

Let’s say, on the other hand, that you have an average electric car. How far would you be able to go on that 6 kWh of electricity if it didn’t go into making you a gallon of gas? About 23 miles.

Now consider that on top of refining the gasoline, you also have drilling, transportation, storage, pumping, etc., all of which takes even more electricity.

And none of this takes into account the much greater effects of all the fossil fuel energy in that gallon of gas, which includes not only the gallon of gas itself but all the pumping, transportation, and other effort required to get it from a pool deep under the ground or a field of tar sands into your gas tank.

You can still beat the electricity figures above by driving an extremely efficient vehicle, especially a good hybrid, but this would appear to hugely tilt the scales in the favor of EVs when we talk about greenhouse gas emissions from even those hybrids.

This was just one of those things that blew my mind a little, so I thought I’d share it with you. Now back to your regularly-scheduled day.

*That figure is from the US Dept. of Energy: see correspondence about it here.