Thursday, April 26, 2012

Keep Up-to-Date With New West City!

As you may know, the City of New West has a dedicated "City Pages" in the local papers, where important dates and meetings are published.

Now you can get email reminders of these events!

Go to the City's website and on the lower right hand side of the page you'll see a "CityPage ONLINE" green button:

Click on this and you'll be able to subscribe to emails with the City Page information.

[NW city webpage. click to biggify.]

Never miss another SUPER-important open house again!

Monday, April 23, 2012

My Transportation Bill

It's pretty expensive to own a car.

Most people don't think twice about it; it's so "normal" to have one, and so engrained in our society, that many folks cannot imagine making the choice to simply do without. Of course, going carless is only possible if you have transportation options around you; typically only possible if you live in a city.

Anyways, here is a transportation cost comparison, based on my family's scenario.

We start with the cost to own an average car. It's $8k per year (from this CAA brochure), for a modest car (not a minivan, which costs about $10k per year). Most of the families on my street own 2 cars, if not 3. (Interesting factoid: all my fellow cheapo-scientist colleagues own only one. Maybe it's something about getting a science degree??)

Anyways, in my family, Mummy and Daddy bike and/or take transit to work, and our two teenaged sons bike, skateboard, or walk to school. We don't need a car on a daily basis.

Our monthly transportation expenses:
Modo payment: $200/mo for weekly use doing errands and grocery shopping (includes gas, maintenance, cleaning, insurance).
2 1-zone his-'n'-hers Employer Pass transit passes through Modo: $150/mo

For in-province longer trips we rent, or "Modo", usually once per year:
$300 /yr
(note: we don't tend to drive out-of-province for vacations...we'll fly in and then rent locally, if required. I'm not adding these costs.)

So this adds up to about $4500 per year. Now I need to add the costs of owning and operating our bikes, which we use heavily:

Costs of owning 4 bikes (which are replaced every 5 years) per year:
$800/year ownership costs + $300/year maintenance = $1100/year

I suppose a fairer comparison might be to remove the bike ownership costs from the equation, because many households have bikes (whether they use them or not). The maintenance I should definitely leave in, because we actually use our bikes a lot and bring them in for quarterly tuneups at Cap's (where, I might add, we are treated like royalty!).

But let's leave all those costs in for now. Added together, this brings our family's yearly transportation budget to something like $5600/year. Hard to beat, especially as the cars I get to drive are clean, well-maintained, less than 4 years old, and plus I have a stable of minivans, hatchbacks, sedans, and trucks to choose from! What's not to love???

Why doesn't everyone on my street do this?

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

More Cars to Share in New West

**Breaking News**

Modo has teamed up with River Market and is placing a car at the Market. It'll be a minivan!

This brings the number of shared cars in New Westminster to 5:

22nd Street Skytrain - Matrix (hatchback)
Quantum (Columbia Skytrain) - Verso (hatchback)
Sapperton Skytrain - Mazda sedan
Ash and 4th (Uptown, near Library) - minivan
**new** River Market (New Westminster Skytrain) - minivan

There are other cars within easy reach of New Westies:

Lougheed Skytrain - Nissan cube (hatchback)
Edmonds Skytrain - truck (with jump seats to seat 4) and a Corolla sedan
Burnaby Green (5 min walk to Edmonds Skytrain) - 5 cars including a Cinquacento (fiat 500), Prius, minivan, Nissan Cube, and a Nissan Juke (one of those cars that reminds me of a running shoe, for some reason...)

So get sharing, y'all!

I'm really hoping that we can get more cars placed in the myriad of new towers sprouting along Columbia and Uptown. Build it and they will come, as they say...

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Unattainable Hydrogen Dream

I gave a talk at a local Resident's Association the other day, about the Pattullo replacement. Anyways, at one point, I stated my own personal belief that 40 years from now, there would not be as many automobiles anymore because of the rising price of oil, and that we needed to start building for that future.

A gentleman in the audience responded that according to him, the solution was electric cars. But not battery-electric cars, no; fuel cell electric cars. I didn't answer...I must admit that the fact that there are people out there who still believe that "business-as-usual" is possible with fuel cell vehicles simply left me speechless...

So let's talk a bit about fuel cells. A fuel cell is very similar to the more familiar battery, in which chemistry is used to generate electricty. A battery is a closed system and you don't put more fuel into it. It gets exhausted once the chemical reaction has gone all the way, and the battery is then dead. With a rechargeable battery (lead-acid in your car, NiMH or NiCad in your camera, and Li-ion in your laptop) you can apply a voltage and run the chemical reaction in reverse, regenerating the "fuel" so you can use the battery as a power source again.

A fuel cell is basically the same idea, except that you add a constant stream of chemical fuel to it instead of trying to regenerate it.

The most popular fuel cells run on hydrogen. That is, they use hydrogen as a fuel, and require constant top-ups to keep generating electricity. Obviously, the hydrogen highway that the gentleman in my audience envisioned requires a massive rebuild of our gas-station infrastructure, together with a steady supply of hydrogen as fuel.

So, where do you get hydrogen? More to the point, how do you make it? One way is by electricity - run a current through water and split it into H2 and O2. Mostly, though, it's made from natural gas plus a bunch of chemical-engineering magic (known as "steam reforming"). The magic involves the production of copious amounts of CO2, by the way, so this is hardly an "emissons-free" form of transportation. Once you've got the hydrogen, you'll need to compress it to ship it anywhere. This requires more ... electricity.

In any case, the idea of a fuel cell seems completely pointless to me. After all, both electricity and natural gas can be used directly to drive your car. These are available and (relatively) affordable today. Where's the advantage to moving to fuel cells? It's not going to be any cheaper (car-sized fuel cells are very, very, very expensive and are not currently in production), and is certainly going to be less efficient (ie. reqiure more energy in the end) than just using the primary power source directly!

There are still car companies working on fuel-cell vehicles. But a lot of these companies are refocussing on the battery-electric and hybrid gas/electric vehicles. Ballard, for instance, has gotten out of the automotive fuel cell industry entirely and is now making small, hand-held fuel cells for laptops and cell phones. And still not market-ready, after a good decade of R&D. Honestly, I don't think there will be a huge push for fuel-cell cars.

To really move to fuel-cell cars on a large scale requires the same infrastructure rebuild as rechargeable electric cars: a new set of fuelling stations. This is a huge project, which I don't see governments taking on, and which I don't think any car company is going to do by itself, either. I mean, rechargeable electric cars are going to be hard enough to get going on a large scale!

I'd really rather concentrate our remaining resources on (electric) mass transit and goods movement, not on continuing our love affair with the private automobile.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Compulsory Voting

Urk. Another brilliant suggestion by an old NDP hack. Not.

What was really going on with the robocall scandal is that people were being actively discouraged to vote. This is in the interests of the current government, because the fewer people vote (most of whom oppose the current government, after all), the more weight the Conservative party base have and the easier it is to hang on to power.

So yeah, maybe forcing people to vote would eliminate this problem. Maybe. I rather suspect, though, that we'd just get more spoilt ballots and not better, more representative, government. The real reason people don't vote is because their votes don't count for s**t.

The majority of voters are disenfranchised in this country - meaning that they do not have representation. If you don't have an MP or MLA from a party you voted for, you don't have a legitimate representative. If you are a left-wing-hippie-pinko out there in BC's hinterland, or a fiscally-prudent-socially-conservative-business-type living in an urban area, you know of what I speak.

How does this come about? Because the winner-takes-all system that is "first-past-the-post" means that anyone who doesn't vote for the "winner" is automatically a "loser". This is an antiquated and stupid system that practically nobody else uses anymore, but somehow we can't get past it.

There are many alternatives to our current electoral system, none of which would require any changes at all to the way our government works. They would just change the way the voting works. All are in widespread use and have been "tested" for years. But thanks to vested interests (ie. politicians) we can't get any change. So we persist in ripping voters off and continue to put the interests of politicians over those of the voters.

I note that Mr. Tielemann campaigned against electoral reform. He's not really interested in getting better government. He just wants his time at the trough.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Frequent Transit

Absolutely genius, this: Translink's Frequent Transit map.

As Mr. Price says, every realtor, every City Planner, should have this map blown up and hanging above their desk. Everyone looking for a condo should have this in hand while apartment-shopping.

This map defines how to get around without a car.

Here's a close-up of the New West part of the map:

[map care of Translink, my cropping job. Click to enbiggen.]

We can learn some interesting things, which may or may not come as a surprise:

1. New Westminster has excellent links between downtown  and uptown already - 15 minute service along both 6th and 8th! Do we really need a tourist trolley to do the same route?

2. New Westminster has crap service east-to-west, through uptown. There's nothing across town. I respectfully submit that this is where we need to get some action.

3. Links from uptown to Queensborough suck. I point out that this is the route for Queensborough students to get to New West's only high school!
Something for the Master Transportation Plan!!

Monday, April 2, 2012

Renewables and the Grid

Here in BC, we are blessed with a steady supply of hydro-electricity. Water is a renewable resource, and so this electricity is almost endless in its supply and generates very few greenhouse gases. There are not many places on the planet as lucky as us. Most places in the world have to use non-renewable resources to generate their electricity.

In addition, dams are very useful as energy storage. They are by far the cheapest type of "batteries" there are, waaay cheaper than electrochemical batteries! It may surprise you to learn that BCHydro is already in effect selling storage to other jurisdictions. BC takes electricity in from Alberta's windfarms when they are generating too much. Because you can't "turn off" a coal-fired electricity plant, Alberta  has no choice but to "dump" wind-generated electricity at times of high wind. It is forced to sell it cheap to BC; we run our dams a little less to compensate. The net effect is then that wind power is displacing hydro power, and not dirty coal...and that BC makes money at the expense of AB. It means that BCHydro is not actually importing "dirty" power from AB, but preferentially clean power from wind...

The same type of thing happens between Norway and Denmark. Denmark has a lot of wind power, but also a vast network of coal-fired heat/electricity co-generation plants. These are distributed and locally-based. They are quite efficient, and the waste heat they generate is used to heat to local homes. This is great, but the downside is that they can't be turned off without people getting cold! So when the wind blows hard in Denmark, they actually give away electricity to Norway. Norway "stores" it in their dams. The result for Denmark is that they pay quite high prices for their electricity, and they haven't shut a single coal plant down. Meanwhile, Norway is getting economic benefit.

The Bonneville Power Authority south of us in WA and OR has similar problems. They have a really mixed setup with one nuclear power station, a coal-plant, a big hydro system, and lots of wind farms. But when a spring melt coincides with spring winds, they have to shut their windfarms down (resulting in financial losses to the windfarm operators)! This is because you can't turn off a coal- or nuclear-based plant - they are designed to run at a constant "baseload" level - and you can't totally block a hydro dam either. It dries the river and kills the fish. Nor can you just open the dam totally, because the high level of turbulence which then results will also kill the fish. So the choice becomes "kill the fish" or "turn off the windfarm". Rather unexpected, eh?

This is not a problem that a "smart grid" or "distributed power sources" is going to solve. Denmark already has distributed power. The reason that Alberta doesn't have to actually turn off its windfarms is because there is a "smart grid" in place and BC can take their excess power.

For most countries, designing an electrical grid that provides:
1. renewable power
2. cheap power
3. constant power
simultaneously, is not possible. You can pick any 2 of these, but not all three at once.

For a while, BC was in happyland, where we did have all three requirements being fulfilled. But those days are coming to an end.