Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Alternative Gas Stations

Heard this this morning on my clock radio: new gas stations in Surrey must now include infrastrucutre for supplying at least 1 alternative fuel source. According to the story, this would be hydrogen, electrical charging outlets, and compressed natural gas.

While I don't think hydrogen vehicles are anywhere near road-worthy and likely never will be (a few buses may be kicking around, but there are very few serious efforts anymore to get this technology commercialized for SOVs - it is simply too difficult and too expensive), I think electrical outlets and CNG will probably start seeing some use in the next decades. Although I'm not convinced that conventional gas stations are the best place for these things, because I think the way we use cars is going to be changing rather drastically.

Anyways, a fast-DC charging station costs around $30,000. The US is already starting to roll them out nationally at BP and ARCO stations, but charging typically takes about 30 minutes (enough charge to go 100km) so it's a bit of a different scenario than pulling up and getting a fill up while your windshield is being washed. There are some technical challenges with the charging stations - you can't charge more than one car at a time, and the large power spikes induced by the fast charging pose problems for the grid if there are many charging stations in a region. Some batteries don't handle fast charging well either. Seems to me these types of stations are best suited for fleets, or shared vehicles that have a "home" somewhere, rather than at a gas station. Unless gas stations start offering coffee shops with WiFi so you can hang there for 30 minutes...

I wonder if they're also considering the "battery swap" business model that's being pioneered by businesses like Better Place? These stations are a lot more money (factor of 10!), but you get a full charge (a new battery, in fact) in about a minute. This gets around the grid issues, because the stations slow-charge banks of batteries. This model may have a better future, although getting traction beyond a few demonstration projects is going to be tough.

Other alternative fuels: there are already CNG fueling stations around. CNG is basically methane, which burns cleaner (ie. far, far fewer haze-producing particulates, nitrous oxide and sulphur compounds) but will of course release CO2. That said, you can clean up and sell biogasfrom landfills and cow poo (like Fortis is doing now) - it's basically interchangeable with CNG then - thereby reducing the CO2 footprint (by burning biogas, you're recycling current carbon, not re-releasing ancient sequestered carbon). Apparently it's not a big deal to convert a regular car to CNG, although you do lose your trunk space. There are plenty of CNG buses around already; the tanks are on the roof.

If we are serious about reducing oil use, this type of infrastructure rebuild will need to happen on a very large scale, and it won't come cheap. Like almost all of the currently feasible "green energy" options out there, the problem isn't technical - it's economics. The real problem is that we've built our economy on a very, very cheap energy source - oil - and changing that will have some major economic ramifications. Especially in the transportation sector. I seriously doubt that our love affair with the private automobile has much of a future.

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