Analysis & Synthesis

Think back to the last time you saw a movie or TV show address issues such as oil-dependence, renewable energy, or global warming. Chances are these issues weren’t broached by any of the story’s main characters, instead, these topics are far more likely to be raised by fringe characters notable for their lack of connection to the ‘real world’. Mainstream movies and television have long tended to portray environmental concerns and those advocating their significance as either overly-idealistic hippies or militant, radical extremists.

However, as such issues as climate change, greenhouse gas pollution and renewable energy become increasingly more imperative to our collective society the mainstream media is gradually beginning to take heed. A subtle shift in the portrayal of such issues is evident in a series of new television shows and major upcoming movies, such as a new television show from one of the creators of hit TV show Lost J.J. Abrams: Revolution, a new entry in the ever popular reality programming genre: Turbine Cowboys, or the sci-fi action film: Snow Piercer. These projects all feature stories which deal with issues relating to climate change and energy supply as a central element of their plots or themes.

However, rather than merely dealing with themes related to pressing environmental concerns, these new cultural products are evidence of a more significant shift in attitudes regarding environmentalism. Whereas popular culture has traditionally tended to depict environmental issues as being limited to naïve or militant mindsets, this recent crop of cultural products has begun to make these issues both mainstream and admirable. Shows such as the upcoming Revolution or Snow Piercer which depict the aftermaths of, respectively, a global energy crisis and a new ice-age brought on by global-warming, which affect varied groups of characters and their struggles to survive suggest a universality to these concerns, one which has only recently been accepted in mainstream culture. Such broad universality gives light to the shift in popular attitudes towards climate change which have seen these threats grow ever more realistic with popular culture now seeming to catch on to this evolution and begin responding in kind by acknowledging the primacy of such fears in the public consciousness.

While the increased relevance of climate change issues in our society at large could serve to explain their increased prominence in popular fiction, the depiction of the hard bitten, blue-collar workers of the renewable energy industry is less easily defined and, possibly, more meaningful. The heroes of the new reality TV series Turbine Cowboys are the maintenance workers servicing wind turbines in extreme conditions. The show’s valorization of the workers’ heroism and bravery, in drawing the explicit connection to the toughest of American archetypes: the cowboy, hints at a new cultural reality. One in which renewable energy is no longer merely the province of white lab-coated scientists and wealthy environmental enthusiasts but a necessary element of our future energy policy, one which is worthy of the efforts of the bravest members of the society.

The increasingly prominent role which climate change and energy-crisis related issues seem to occupy in contemporary popular culture is a crucial signpost on the road to achieving a low-carbon future. Signifying the moment when environmental concerns and causes ceased to be marginalized and became the province of society as whole.

Read more: Clean Technica article on Turbine Cowboys

 

A proposal, published in the journal of Science, makes the case for exploring means of countering climate change other than simple carbon reduction. In the proposal, an international team of researchers argue the value of directing some of the attention currently focused on achieving strict CO2 reduction targets towards the reduction of other greenhouse gases. The researchers, representing a variety of global warming related fields including: climate modeling, atmospheric chemistry, economics, agriculture and public health, posit that providing people with an easier and less costly alternative to forgoing the use of traditional fuel-powered vehicles could lead to far stronger commitment.

The proposal sets out to address the inherent dilemma in combating climate change, namely the difficulty of actually ensuring widespread public adherence to new restriction policies. Policies which, while widely supported in theory, are too often deemed draconian by citizens reluctant to abandon present practices. The researchers argue that this reluctance can be sufficiently countered by addressing two key concerns: cost and rewards. The researchers argue that not only do economic concerns outweigh ethical or environmental concerns on the level of individuals but they also ultimately trump such less crucial concerns at the highest levels of government as well. Secondly, the researchers argue that unless citizens are provided with clear, immediate benefits or improvements to their quality of life, the vague promises of a more sustainable and ecologically sound planet in the far-off future will not be sufficient to convince a majority of the public.

With these two concerns first and foremost in their minds, the researchers propose a reappraisal of the targets of our combined reduction efforts. They suggest that instead of focusing solely on reducing CO2 emissions our efforts would prove far more efficient if we were to widen the scope of these efforts. The proposal offers a list of 14 measures for more efficiently reducing climate change arguing that implementation of these measures would be far less resource heavy and produce much quicker results.  The specific measures proposed by the researchers include: switching to cleaner diesel engines and cook-stoves; replacing traditional kilns and coke ovens, use of which continues to be wide-spread across Africa and the Middle East; and capturing methane gases released by decomposing waste and oil wells. Through rapid and wide-spread implementation of these strategies, the researchers estimate that global warming would be reduced by 1 degree Fahrenheit; roughly a third of the warming projected in no action is taken and significantly more significant than the projected impact of current CO2 reduction measures.

Furthermore, the researchers claim that the effects of their approach would yield far more immediate results due to the drastic improvement in air quality, a fact which they predict would lead to anywhere between 700,000 and 4.7 million fewer premature deaths a year. These measures are also claimed to be far more economically feasible for the developing world, providing a full return on investment over the course of five to ten years.

This suggested new approach has already garnered significant praise from such world-leading experts and Ted Nordhaus, of the Breakthrough Institute, and reaffirms the need for continuing research into climate change mitigation. However, there is an element of risk attached to such arguments as those made by this team of researchers. In offering his praise of the researchers’ proposals Chris Field, Stanford University climate scientist and leader of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, did, however, voice his concern regarding the possible effects of these results on the attitudes of policy makers. These risks lie in the potentially counterproductive confusion which such news may engender in the public as well as among policy makers, confusion which could easily lead to a growing sense of apathy and defeatism as well as a weakening of current CO2 reduction measures. Thus, while it is imperative that we remain vigilant in pursuing the most efficient solutions to our grand societal challenges, we must also be wary of research which encourages the wholesale rejection of prevailing methods and models so as to not sow the seeds of hopelessness among the public.

Source: More details regarding the proposal an enviroevaluation.org

Read more:
NY Times article on the historical context 
The study in full

 

A new study of driving behavior in the United States in relation to electric vehicle adoption attempts to address widespread concerns regarding range anxiety. Two doctoral students at the School of Engineering and Applied Science at Columbia University conducted an in depth study of household travel data, collected in 2009, to identify patterns and factors which influence the distances of average household vehicle trips. Through this research the students aimed to determine whether or not the average range of current electric vehicle models would prove sufficient for most vehicle travel.

The study employed a two-fold method to address concerns of range anxiety, upon completing a statistical analysis of the distances driven, the researchers, firstly, compared these distances with the stated range of current, 2011, electric vehicle models and, secondly, assessed data concerning usage patterns to determine how frequently vehicles could be charged. This combination of pure range with realistic expectations for charging frequency enables the study to draw certain conclusions regarding the likelihood of drivers falling victim to an empty battery mid-trip.

On the basis of their statistical analysis of driving data, the researchers were able to determine that the average distance driven in a day, by a single car, was below 60km in urban areas and below 80km in rural areas. Furthermore, average commuting distances were found to average a mere 20km. This data was then assessed alongside data concerning usage pattern, which determined that a minimum of 92% of all cars were not in use between the hours of 17:00 and 7:00, seemingly confirming existing theories regarding daily usage patterns. Taken together, this data suggests that even those vehicles with shorter estimated ranges, such as the Chevy Volt’s 64km, would be sufficient for residents of urban areas. However, the study does point out that an electric vehicle’s true range is dependent on such a vast variety of factors, such as climate conditions, driving speed and style and the use of onboard equipment, such as air-conditioning or the stereo.

In addition to serving as an informative assessment of travel patterns in relation to electric vehicle adoption, the study also provides some insights regarding efficient urban planning. By dividing its analysis of driving patterns into urban and rural environments as well as the reasons trips are undertaken, the study serves to identify the most common reasons for trips as well as their average lengths, thereby enabling an assessment of which services should be located nearest to residents. The study’s analysis of trip purpose data, as presented in the table below, shows that the longest distances traveled are those to work and social or recreational events and the most frequent trips are those between work and home and to run errands. The significantly long distances traveled to medical centers, when compared to other essential services such as errands and meals, suggests that these services should be more localized and situated closer to residential areas where possible.


Trip Purpose

All trips

Unweighted count (%)

Mean (km)

Percentile 95 (km)

Home

34%

14.96

48.28

Work

13%

19.47

57.94

School

4%

11.26

38.6

Medical

2%

17.22

54.72

Errands

22%

9.8

32.19

Social/Recreational

9%

24.78

80.47

Family/Obligations

3%

17.7

56.32

Transport someone

5%

12.55

41.84

Meals

7%

11.26

35.4

Other

0%

24.62

75.64

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thus, while the study does not come down firmly on whether or not the range of current electric vehicle models is sufficient to quell consumers’ range anxiety, it does make a strong case for the attractiveness of range extended and hybrid vehicles.

Source: "EV range requirements and Driving Statistics"

Read more: Article on EV range anxiety in National Geographic Magazine

*Updated January 9th, 2012*

On Thursday, December 29th, 2011, China’s economic planning agency, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), published its latest foreign investment catalog. The catalog, updated every four years, serves as a reference guide for China’s other state agencies in shaping future legislation, providing broad guidelines which can then be implemented in new legislative policies on the state or local levels. The catalog classifies industries into three broad categories, those industries in which foreign investment is: “encouraged”; “restricted”; or “prohibited”.

This latest revision of the foreign investment guidelines sees an overall increase in the number of industries in which the Chinese government supports direct foreign investment, while certain industries which . Among the more significant changes in the 2011 catalog were the NRDC’s decisions to: remove the auto manufacturing industry from its “encouraged” category; and the addition of several new-energy related fields to those “encouraged” by the government. International reaction to these amendments was colored by a great deal of speculation regarding the future of the Chinese auto industry and the role which foreign companies will take in coming years as well as exploration of the potential new avenues for foreign investment in the burgeoning new-energy field.

Recent years have seen the meteoric rise of the Chinese auto industry, buoyed by China’s overtaking the United States to become the world’s largest car market in 2009. However, despite this marked increase in local demand, the Chinese car market continues to be dominated by foreign auto makers, with seven of the country’s top ten auto manufacturers being either fully foreign owned or foreign-led joint-ventures in 2010. Furthermore, the phasing out of a series of incentive programs has resulted in a reduction of the growth rate of the Chinese auto market from a record breaking 32% in 2010 to a mere 3% in 2011.

As a result, the NRDC’s decision to cease encouragement of foreign investment in traditional auto manufacturing has been widely interpreted as a sign of the Chinese government’s growing concern over the fate of domestic auto makers. Though China has over 70 established domestic automakers, the bottom 55 account for a mere 11% of total vehicle sales in China signaling a significant imbalance in the production capacity of the domestic industry, one which is largely restricted to a handful of major companies.

While these new restrictions represent a clear effort on the state’s behalf to promote the growth of domestic companies, they are not expected to notably alter the composition of the market as established foreign automakers seem unlikely to leave the booming Chinese market. Furthermore, many industry analysts doubt whether the domestic Chinese auto manufacturing industry could make up for the loss of the economic boost provided by the export of foreign owned brands. The most notable impact of the restrictions will most likely be that of hindering new entrants to the Chinese market.

Although these new guidelines place added restrictions on investment in the manufacturing of whole vehicles, the manufacturing of engines and other key components as well as R&D on key technologies continue to be encouraged by the government. Furthermore, the addition of batteries for electric vehicles and electric motors to the “encouraged” category have served to boost the fully-electric and hybrid vehicle plans of several foreign manufacturers, including: Ford, General Motors and Volkswagen.

The Chinese government’s support of green-economy related industries was also apparent in the NRDC’s move to promote foreign investment in the broader new-energy field. The NRDC will now promote direct foreign investment in a variety of fields which advance various elements of low-carbon development. These include new-energy related service industries such as those concerned with EV charging and battery swapping operations.

The NRDC’s support of foreign investment in the burgeoning field of new-energy came as little surprise to analysts as it confirmed the government’s commitment to the development of a green economy, a goal which was strongly emphasized in the country’s 12th Five Year Plan. These new-energy related goals include establishing a fleet of one million electric vehicles in China by 2015 and, as such, will provide significant investment support for companies seeking to develop related technology such as electric vehicle batteries and charging services. While the full impact of these new guidelines will remain uncertain for some time, the ultimate bearing which they have on the course of low-carbon development in the country will certainly prove positive.

Read more: Analysis of the updated catalog by the WSJ

BBC News article

Analysis on recent trends in the Chinese auto market at Ad Age

Analysis of the impact on foreign automakers at China Car Times

Business Week report on the restrictions

Bloomberg article on foreign auto makers’ reactions to the restrictions

China Daily article on the state of foreign-led joint-ventures

Article on the developments in the India Times

Top 10 car makers in China

China Daily article detailing recent developments

Those advocating for electric vehicles (EVs) as the road to realizing a low-carbon future have faced a great deal of criticism, as of late. The concerns of these EV critics are not entirely unfounded. Lacking the necessary Vehicle-to-grid (V2G) technology, the energy used to power EVs continues to be sourced from fossil fuels; carbon neutrality will continue to prove elusive. Vehicle-to-grid (V2G) describes a system in which plug-in electric vehicles, such as battery electric vehicles (BEVs) and plug-in hybrids (PHEVs), communicate with the power grid to sell demand response services by either delivering electricity into the grid or by throttling their charging rate.

With the help of V2G, EVs are able to form a mini-loop with the electricity grid, in which V2G vehicles provide power to help balance loads by "valley filling" and "peak shaving". The development of this technology will contribute considerably to balancing power supply with grid capacity. V2G vehicles have unique advantages in China as the traditional pumped-storage hydroelectricity for load balancing is not feasible in China, due to the geography and energy map mismatch. Therefore V2G is rather a practical option for load balancing in China.

State Grid Corp, the largest power company in China, demonstrated the V2G technology at the Expo 2010 Shanghai China. “By using the rechargeable batteries of electric vehicles, it becomes possible to stably operate the electricity grid,” said Li Shu, Preparatory Department for Enterprise Pavilion at the Shanghai Expo, Publicity and Promotion, Shanghai Municipal Electric Power Co, which is affiliated with State Grid. For example, when the output from renewable energy sources, such as solar power, drops drastically, electricity can be supplied from several tens or hundreds of EVs to the grid to reduce the number of electric outages. Shu said that the full-fledged introduction of the V2G technology depends on the dissemination of EVs.  State Grid developed an EV rapid charger that supports the V2G technology. When an EV is connected to this charger, it automatically switches between charging and discharging in accordance with the grid’s supply and demand situation.

Source: Telematicnews article on demonstration

Read more:

Wikipedia article on Vehicle-2-Grid technology
Policy briefing, the Climate Group, pp. 15-16 (pdf)  (only in Chinese)

All Analysis & Synthesis Posts