Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Making California a National Model For Energy Independence

After memorably accusing us of being a nation addicted to oil in his State of the Union, President Bush is now out on the stump putting his money where his mouth is, as it were, promoting alternative energy initiatives and sounding downright progressive. His proposals include expanding research into smaller, longer-lasting batteries for electric-gas hybrid cars, development of clean electric power sources, and proposals to speed the development of biofuels.

"Our nation is on the threshold of new energy technology that I think will startle the American people," Bush said. "We're on the edge of some amazing breakthroughs — breakthroughs all aimed at enhancing our national security and our economic security and the quality of life of the folks who live here in the United States."
He's right and it should come as no surprise that California is leading the way.

As covered by NY Times's Nicholas Kristoff, a nonprofit based in Palo Alto, CA called CalCars has converted a regular Toyota Prius hybrid into a plug-in hybrid (PHEV) that can get more than 100 miles to the gallon. And that's using technology that exists right now.

Felix Kramer, founder of CalCars, outlines its benefits:
It's like having a second small fuel tank that you always use first -- only you fill this tank at home with electricity at an equivalent cost of under $1/gallon. Another way of thinking about this: at $3 for a gallon of gas, driving a non-hybrid car costs 8-20 cents/mile (depending on MPG). With a PHEV, all-electric local travel and communting can drop to 2-4 cents/mile.

  • Recharging is not required, but if you do so often, chances are you'll need to go to a gas station less than once a month.
  • Electric energy is cheaper than gas, cleaner than gas, and domestic.
  • Lifetime service costs will be lower for a vehicle that is mainly electric.
  • Fleets are interested in a vehicle with stored energy that saves them thousands of dollars for towed generators to use where grid power is unavailable.
  • Blackout-wary Californians welcome ready access to a car that could be hooked up via an extension cord to provide emergency backup power for a few home appliances.

CalCars is also working with local governments, businesses, cities, organizations, and community groups around the country to inform, inspire and incentivize the automobile industry to invest in this technology, and to ensure that there will be a market for these cars once they do so.

30 miles north, San Francisco has led the nation in recycling, currently diverting two thirds of its waste away from landfills (with the goal of no new landfill waste by 2020.) A recent study showed that 4% of all garbage from SF residences is animal waste. This waste not only adds unneccessarily to landfills but also contributes to the contamination of groundwater. So the city has asked Norcal, its garbage company, to start a pilot program to recycle this waste. Not only will the program reduce the amount of garbage in landfills, but it will turn the waste into a source of energy as well. Over the next few months, starting out just in one popular dog park...

The droppings will be tossed into a contraption called a methane digester, which is basically a tank in which bacteria feed on feces for weeks to create methane gas.

The methane could then be piped directly to a gas stove, heater, turbine or anything else powered by natural gas. It can also be used to generate electricity.

While hundreds of these $1 million devices are used on farms throughout Europe (and even 9 at California dairy farms), this is the first attempt at an urban application of the digesters to turn pet waste into energy.

Just a couple examples of Californian entrepreneurs and agencies working toward fulfilling the dream of making California a national model for energy independence.