Peak oil , Nissan’s LEAF and why Ontario is doing the right thing

The chief economist at the International Energy Agency says peak oil is nigh and that we, as a society, need to start seriously planning for a world without it. Dr. Fatih Birol, in an interview with the U.K. Independent, said total production of oil is likely to peak within 10 years and that most of the biggest oil fields in the world have already hit peak and are declining rapidly. His comment that the peak will come in 10 years is far earlier than most governments are planning on, if they’re planning at all. Some believe we’ve already hit peak, at least when we talk of “conventional oil” production.

“One day we will run out of oil and we have to leave oil before oil leaves us, and we have to prepare ourselves for that day,” Dr. Birol said. “The earlier we start, the better, because all of our economic and social systems are based on oil, so to change from that will take a lot of time and a lot of money and we should take this issue very seriously.”

 He went on to say that with peak comes higher and higher prices and increased concentration of power in the handful of countries in the Middle East that have a 40-per-cent share of the market and likely more in years to come. The timing of that interview couldn’t have been better for Nissan, which unveiled its new LEAF electric car over the weekend.

Nissan plans to start selling the LEAF in late 2010 and hopes to go into mass production in 2012. This is a slick-looking car, one that promises to be affordably priced. And unlike other offerings, the battery will be leased, putting all the risk in the hands of Nissan. As I said before, there’s been too much focus on GM’s Chevy Volt, as if it’s the only electric game in town. Fact is, there are many plug-in vehicles — hybrids and all-electrics — being launched between 2010 and 2012. It’s a good sign, because these are the kinds of products we need to transition away from oil, as Dr. Birol so widely advises. We also need several models to enter the market to encourage more investment in the infrastructure needed to support these cars.

Dr. Birol’s  warning and Nissan’s unveiling of the LEAF (among other EV announcements of late) add even more weight to Ontario’s proposed subsidy for purchasers of plug-in hybrid and all-electric vehicles. Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty has taken a lot of heat after announcing this subsidy –valued at between $4,000 and $10,000, depending on the vehicle — but we really have no choice. The Americans and British each have their own competitive subsidy, for one. And the fact is, we need to accelerate the move toward an electric-car infrastructure if we are to be prepared for the effects of peak oil. This requires getting more people on the roads driving these cars.

Rewarding energy-efficiency ICE cars with the same kinds of subsidies doesn’t accomplish this, nor does more R&D money thrown at universities and automakers. It merely extends how long we rely on petroleum. This transition to electrification, like it or not, needs to be planned. The market cannot get us there on its own. McGuinty deserves credit for having vision that will benefit us far beyond his time in office, complain as we might today. Assuming, of course, he follows through.

8 thoughts on “Peak oil , Nissan’s LEAF and why Ontario is doing the right thing”

  1. I may be wrong, but it appears this car is designed to fit into The Better Place’s model of battery recharging/replacing stations. The Wired article on The Better Place mention the company’s founder had been in talks with Nissan/Renault and this car has both the navigation capabilities and battery location (at least based on the meager information that’s out there) that would seem to support getting to TBP charging stations and having batteries quickly swapped out.

    If so, the 100 mile range could end up being academic. Assuming that The Better Place can build changing/swapping stations in Ontario quickly enough to make longer travel viable.

  2. Any news on Canadian availability? Sounds like the first vehicle that will work in Better Place’s model, so we can anticipate news from them soon too.

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  4. I’m a bit confused as to why battery life is so limited. For years, we’ve been able to charge car batteries on the go. It’s called an alternator. All you need to power an alternator is something that spins, and that doesn’t necessarily mean a gas engine. Wheels spin. Why couldn’t the wheels power alternators to help keep charge in the battery and increase the distance? I wouldn’t expect to completely charge the battery this way, but I would think that at least a partial recovery of spent energy is possible. Am I completely out in left field on this one?

  5. The wheels spinning to recharge the batteries is called ‘regenerative braking.’ To use the wheels to recharge the batteries when not braking is to lose energy- you will never reclaim all the energy it took to get the wheels to a certain speed when you take energy from them, causing them to slow down.

    I am not a bit fan of leasing batteries, nor of the Better Place battery-swapping idea- which amounts to the same thing- in the long run it will prove more expensive for the consumer- and be a hard sell to boot. And with battery tech evolving so quickly, and prices of batteries coming down, slowly but surely anyway, any who adopt this approach will soon find themselves painted in a corner I think. But that said, I really like the look of the Nissan Leaf- and the more manufacturers, the more quickly the aforementioned battery tech and decreasing costs- and infrastructure- will come about. I would not mind owning a Leaf at all;-)

  6. Paul C says: “I am not a bit fan of leasing batteries, nor of the Better Place battery-swapping idea- which amounts to the same thing- in the long run it will prove more expensive for the consumer- and be a hard sell to boot. And with battery tech evolving so quickly, and prices of batteries coming down, slowly but surely anyway, any who adopt this approach will soon find themselves painted in a corner I think.”

    That’s true if your whole business model is just leasing batteries. But, IIRC, the Better Place also hopes to use large banks of charging batteries as “resevoirs” for the electrical grid. That means that, say, OPG would be able to tap into TBP’s charging batteries for peak power in the middle of a hot day, paying TBP a premium price for the electricity.

    This still makes sense for OPG as it would have access to peak power without having to build a lot of new and expensive generation. And, having this resevoir on the grid could also make renewables like solar and wind more viable.

    This might allow TBP to continue to offer fully-charged batteries at a better price even as battery technology improves as they will be able to buy power low and sell high on a large scale.

  7. Thanks Paul. I thought a belt system attached to the wheels, like an engine’s drive belt, could power an alternator, but I guess that system would be not unlike those generators used on bikes to power the light at night – you use twice the energy just trying to turn the damn generator. Perpetually uphill against the wind….

  8. Steve, the bottom line with energy…….always… that you can not get something for nothing. Yes the wheels could drive an alternator, but what is driving the wheels. The alternator takes power to drive it, the more electrical load it has put on it………eg, the more power it has to produce……..the more resistance it has, and the more power it takes to drive it……….so if X number of watts is coming out of your batteries to drive the wheels…….and the wheels have to turn an alternator to generate enough watts to replace what is lost out of the batteries………then even if you had a 100% conversion efficiency…… would take all the power used to drive the wheels to generate the power to recharge the battery…….leaving no power to move the car. But in reality……power is lost taking it out of the batteries…….and power is lost recharging the batteries……power is lost as heat int he lines……..power is lost as friction in every moving part…….and power is lost in the chemical reaction in the batteries that produce the electrical current……and power is lost converting electrical current back into chemical changes in the battery to store power. This is why there is not…and never will be…..and perpetual motion generator………X amount of energy into a system……..can never produce more then X amount of energy coming out…….and in fact power decreases at every conversion stage. The law of thermodynamics can not be by passed by any technology…….and states energy can not be created and can only change forms……..and energy is used in the changing of forms…… loses always occur.

    You might not notice it…..but when you turn your headlights on in your car…… appears that you are generating power for your lights by driving your car and thus getting power for your lights for free…….but it is not the case…….the load places on your alternator by powering the lights………uses some of the power of the motor to turn it…….the more things you turn on……the higher the drag on your alternator…….it still spins at the same speed………but it gets harder to turn it…….your motor must do this work…….and thus uses more petrol to maintain the speed. If you were to drive 1000 klms with your lights off……..then 1000klms with your lights on…….you might use 1 liter more with your lights on…….and say 10 hours for the trip……..that extra liter of petrol powered your lights… wasn’t free…..and think about this……1 liter of petrol doesn’t sound like much…….if your car gets 12 klms a liter…………push your car 12klms……..that is how much energy was used to power your lights………doesn’t sound like much when you say a liter of petrol………but when your muscles have to do the work of that liter of petrol pushing your car…….you suddenly realize just how much energy is contained in a liter of petrol………about 20 hours of hard human labor for a young fit and strong human being……….thats how much…….so we really can’t complain if we pay $5 per liter can we?

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