Would you rent your car to a stranger?

Seriously, would you? Because some people might, or at least that’s the thinking of at least two U.S. startups that are driving a new twist on carsharing. Back in February I mentioned a Baltimore company called RelayRides in a larger feature about carsharing, and just today I read at Earth2Tech about another company, this one out of California, called Spride Share. Both companies are pursuing the concept of distributed carsharing, which is when you, me or anyone with a car can make your vehicle available to neighbourhood strangers (or friends, I guess) who need a ride for an hour or few. The idea is to eliminate the need for a middleman — that is, a central fleet owner and maintainer like a Zipcar. RelayRides and Spride Share will instead focus on designing easy-to-use Web sites that allow individuals to sign up their cars or sign out other cars.

A good comparison is the early days of music-sharing, when Napster was big. It had a central depository that people uploaded to and downloaded from. That created some overhead for the company, complexity and ultimately it’s what allowed the law to crack down on what Napster was doing. But then Morpheus and Kazaa came along, allowing for music sharing between individual computers connected by the same software. It was much more efficient and inexpensive to run. This is what RelayRides and Spride Share are doing. It’s all about handling logistics and enabling individuals to connect through the Web, and of course coming up with a way to facilitate payment to the car owner and take a cut for yourself.

There are other potential roadblocks as well. Insurance, for one — I mean, your car insurance company likely won’t like the idea of you letting dozens of people you don’t know drive your car. This means a Spride Share or RelayRides will have to swing some sort of deal with an insurance company that covers the vehicles when they’re rented out. Another potential problem is safety — how do you know the car is safe and well maintained? Who’s responsible in the event of an accident? The quality of the vehicles being rented out — i.e. are they clean, fuel-efficient, etc… — could also complicate things, though it appears that this will be accomplished by a social policing model that lets users of the system rate cars and clients as time goes on.

If these can be overcome, I think it’s a potentially great model. Let’s face it, some of us own cars that sit in the driveway all day, or on weekends. Might as well make a few bucks from that investment and offset — or more than offset — your own fuel, insurance and maintenance costs for the year.

But to come back to my original question: Would you rent your car out to a stranger? Curious to get your thoughts.

Fiddling while Rome burns…

As anti-wind folks in rural North America continue their campaign of misinformation — pointing out to anyone who will listen that wind power makes people sick, that wind power doesn’t reduce CO2 emissions, that wind turbine blades can break and kill cows in the pasture, that wind power eats baby seals — the true harm to humanity and the environment continues to unfold before us.

We’ve got the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that’s threatening wildlife, tourism and just about anything else in the region, just weeks after a Chinese tanker spilled oil in the waters surrounding Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Expect more of this as the oil companies drill deeper and deeper at sea looking for harder to get and ultimately more expensive oil, as economist and author Jeff Rubin points out here. It’s not like the oceans aren’t under enough stress, as a recent study from Nature Geoscience points out: “Increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide in sea water are driving a progressive acidification of the ocean.” The worst, apparently, in 55 million years. This, as we know, is a marine life killer.

We’ve got the coal mine disaster in Virginia this month that killed 29 people. And as far as forests go, Canada and the U.S. are giving Brazil a run for the money when it comes to deforestation, according to a new study that concluded between 2000 and 2005 “Brazil experienced the largest gross forest cover losses over the study period, 165,000 square km, followed by Canada at 160,000 square km.”

Of course, such large-scale deforestation isn’t good when you’re trying to keep carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at manageable levels. As much as global warming skeptics wish they were right, the evidence — sadly — continues to prove them wrong. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency just yesterday released a comprehensive “Climate Change Indicators” report for the United States, and the findings are depressing. Continue reading Fiddling while Rome burns…

Has Ottawa put moratorium on conventional coal power?

Saw a few stories today, based on an article that appeared in the Globe and Mail, suggesting the federal government has drawn the line when it comes to coal-fired power plants, or at least the kind of plants that don’t capture and permanently store their CO2. Canada’s federal Environment Minister Jim Prentice apparently met last week with the nation’s top power company executives and made the government’s intentions clear. According to the Globe, “Under Ottawa’s proposal, power companies would have to close their coal-fired facilities as they reach the end of their commercial life, largely over the next 10 to 15 years. The companies would not be allowed to refurbish the plants to extend their usefulness or replace them with new coal units, unless they include technology to capture the carbon dioxide and sequester it underground.”

Does this amount to a moratorium on dirty coal? It seems like it does, but the targets are pretty soft and you can bet this government will be so flexible with industry — particularly in Alberta and Saskatchewan — that the effect of this moratorium won’t be felt for a least two decades. And that, unfortunately, is too late to matter. Just how the feds will define “end of useful life” or “refurbishment” can have a dramatic effect on the outcome. Coal plants don’t need major refurbishments. Like refineries, they are in constant repair and maintenance mode. Like an old car, as long as you keep repairing stuff when it breaks it can run forever, really. So you can expect existing coal plant owners, such as TransAlta, to drag this out for a long time. Even worse, TransAlta — the country’s worst polluter — is still building new coal plants, hoping to slide them in under the bell. This includes two projects totalling 500 megawatts that will be in service next year. Those plants could run for 40 or 50 years!

What we need is a meaningful price on carbon, and a hard moratorium that requires carbon capture retrofits by a certain date or a conversion of paid-for coal plants so that they can burn natural gas or biomass. Ontario has committed to phasing out coal power or converting to biomass/natural gas by 2014, but Alberta and Saskatchewan are heading in the opposite direction. Continue reading Has Ottawa put moratorium on conventional coal power?

Toronto has a case of good gas

My Clean Break column this morning takes a look at a few ambitious initiatives in Toronto that will take biogas from the city’s main landfill and two anaerobic digesters, clean it up, and use it as transportation fuel, to heat city buildings, or to generate electricity. Actually, there’s a fourth major initiative — take biogas from the city’s largest wastewater treatment plant and use it for a combined heat and power plant. Together, these four projects have the potential to generate more than 40 megawatts of electricity, not to mention waste heat that can be redeployed to offset natural gas use. But all the gas won’t necessarily be used to generate power. Biogas from the two anaerobic digesters could end up being used to fuel the city’s entire fleet of 285 waste trucks, which would be converted from diesel to natural gas.

It’s good to see these initiatives finally taking shape… This is methane that would otherwise be flared, so it makes enormous sense to capture it and use it to offset our dependence on coal and conventional natural gas, or in the context of transportation, diesel fuel. Read the column for more specifics about the projects.