Stuff We Need: Affordable and Convenient Electric Vehicles

With Electric Vehicles (EVs) so obviously something we desperately need it’s painful to see how slowly they are coming along. Given the urgency of global climate change, given the current regrettable opportunity to leverage the plummeting public approval of oil as a result of the BP spill, from a purely layman’s perspective it seems like there’s a simple two-part strategy screaming out to be implemented: make EVs 1) affordable and 2) convenient and they will sell like crazy…and the companies that produce the cars, batteries, and charging technologies will make billions! It’s an all-around win…

….but $100,000 Tesla Roadsters won’t get us anywhere.

Today I’ve come across some good news and some not so good news on the EV front.

First up, concerning affordability, for purposes of full disclosure, I’ve never purchased a car for more than $10K. That the average cost of a new car in 2010 is $28,400, and millions of people dish out that kind of money thinking it’s just what cars cost, doesn’t make me think for a minute that I’m just ultracheap or out of touch or both. It’s a matter of what will actually get people driving EVs as quickly as possible, and that’s why this caught my attention:

From Inhabitat:

Ultra energy-efficient cars don’t always have to come with a high price tag. One upcoming vehicle from Renault-Nissan and India’s Bajaj Auto will, in fact, cost just $3,000 and reach an impressive 70 mpg.

The mini-car, nicknamed ULC (Ultra Low Cost, perhaps?), is expected to go on sale on India in 2011. Approximately 200,000 cars are expected to be sold each year.

Of course, the Bajaj/Renault-Nissan car won’t be the only efficient, low-cost vehicle on India’s roads. The Tata Nano, which costs just $2,160, gets 51.7 mpg on city road conditions and 61.1 mpg on highways.

“Wait a minute,” you say. “These aren’t even EVs!”

Well…

…So while the Nano is a bit cheaper, the Bajaj car will win out on efficiency — at least until Tata releases an electric model.

And, while the electric Nano will most certainly be more expensive than the gas model, even if it cost $7K more it would still be in my unusually low price range. Let’s face it, the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt, at three times the price, much less the Tesla at many, many more times the price, won’t get people out of their gas guzzlers and into EVs nearly as quickly as something priced radically low. As for business concerns, this should all be about high-volume sales.

Next, concerning convenience, also from Inhabitat:

If you read Inhabitat on the regular, you know that two topics we’re gaga about are electric vehicles and industrial design mastermind Yves Béhar. That’s why we’re thrilled to announce that Béhar and his studio fuseproject teamed up with GE to create a brand new electric vehicle (EV) charger called the WattStation™ — and word on the street is it can power up cars in just 4 to 8 hours (as compared to the standard 12 to 18 hours of other stations)…

GE is planning to release the first WattStations in 2011 for city streets, but fuseproject and GE are working on models for personal use in homes and garages too.

Now THAT’S the idea! These things need to be even more omnipresent than gas stations and they have to work fast. That they look cool anticipates possible opposition on eye-sore grounds. Smart.

In the meantime, MUCH more needs to be done, but a recent Wall Street Journal article isn’t exactly optimisitc, and includes a quote that makes the same case I’m making here:

“The only way to get off oil is with a system that’s cheaper than gasoline, and more convenient than gasoline,” [Shai Agassi, founder of Better Place, an EV battery swapping and charging technology company] says. “I can’t raise the investment in the U.S. to put this (Better Place) on the ground.”

Put.The.Test.Tube.Down…and step away slowly

Those mad genetic scientists continue to scare me.

A little over a month ago, I wrote about a transgenic spider goat, something out of a bad sci-fi movie, but all the more horrifying because it’s real.

And now there’s news that the FDA is considering approving the sale of a genetically modified salmon, and this one really hits home.

AquaBounty, which calls its super salmon an “advanced hybrid” rather than a transgenic fish, said they’re safe to eat and would be raised in contained farming operations that could be based inland rather than along coastal waters. And the modified fish, all females, would be sterile so they couldn’t breed with wild fish if any escaped, the company said.

AquaBounty’s fish grow faster but not bigger that normal Atlantic salmon. The company says that genetically modified salmon are identical to regular salmon in every way except for the genes that have been added.

Company researchers have added a growth hormone gene from the Chinook salmon as well as an on-switch gene from the ocean pout, a distant relative of the salmon, to a normal Atlantic salmon’s roughly 40,000 genes. Salmon normally feed only during the spring and summer, but when the on-switch from the pout’s gene is triggered, they eat year round.

The result is a transgenic salmon that grows to market size in about half the time as a normal salmon – 16 to 18 months, rather than three years.

Salmon isn’t just a fish or a food, here in the Pacific Northwest. It’s a way of life. Everyone knows someone, or knows someone who knows someone, who is a fisherman, or used to be a fisherman, or who worked in a cannery, or sells salmon, fresh, frozen, or smoked, or who claims to have the greatest salmon recipe, or who’s a fish biologist working on salmon recovery, or who’s a Lummi or Nooksack, to whom the salmon is deeply rooted in their spirituality.

Because of the salmon culture here, we’re far ahead of most of the rest of the country in the effort to promote the purchase of wild rather than farmed fish, to the point where restaurateurs consider it a point of pride to specify that they serve wild-caught fish of all species.

I’d like to think that it’s the very success of the wild fish movement that is prompting this crazy genetic scheme on the part of insatiably greedy big business, but that’s little solace if this freak of a creature actually goes to market. The resulting flood of super cheap salmon available at every local grocery store will attract many well-meaning people to buy it, impact-be-damned, especially given the current economic climate.

What is scariest, however, is something not mentioned in the article, even by the Friends of the Earth guy. While there’s mention that these genetically altered salmon will supposedly be infertile, and therefore no risk of degrading wild species through crossbreeding if they escape the farms, they don’t mention the obvious fact that these fish are eating machines with no off-switch, that their primary threat wouldn’t be via crossbreeding, but, rather, from their ravaging the food stores that wild salmon depend on, food stores that, as the article does mention, wild salmon only eat from during the spring and summer.

How many BP oil spills will it take before we clampdown on business practices that endanger both our environment and the people who depend on that environment for their health and livelihoods?

Finding my lost musical decade

One of the great things about writing a blog is that, over time, if you do it long enough, the creative flow can take you to unexpected places.

As you strive to post something on a regular basis, to maintain momentum, patterns or repeating themes occasionally develop. Sometimes these patterns evolve into novelties, like the Stuff We Need and Stuff We Don’t Need series I’ve developed here. Other times, the recurring themes simply build into an awareness of a broader personal phenomenon.

In the latter category, one of my earliest posts here at Fish & Bicycles mentioned how I was 10 years late in discovering the alternative rock band Death Cab For Cutie. Well, I never intended to make a habit of it, but over the months that followed I made similar declarations about being late to the party, getting interested in bands that had been around and critically acclaimed for years, with posts referencing my late discovery of Radiohead, Portishead, and The Flaming Lips.

Now, recently I watched a 10-year old movie that I love a lot, Stephen Frears’ 2000 film High Fidelity, based on a novel by Nick Hornby that I also love a lot. In one of the best scenes, one of many set in the record store owned by John Cusack’s character, Rob Gordon, Rob turns off the music that had been playing in the store, prepares to put something else on, and right before he presses Play proclaims quietly to his employee, “I will now sell five copies of The Three E.P.s by The Beta Band.” The music fills the room, and all the customers start swaying and nodding their heads to the beat.

Good music has that power to stand out and grab you, and I’ve had numerous experiences like that, where I heard something playing in a record store and ended up buying it on the spot. And while I didn’t have the same reaction to The Beta Band that the customers in the movie had when I first saw the film ten years ago, this time their music DID jump out at me and caught my attention.

Why the difference?

One thing that all the bands mentioned thus far in this post have in common is that they came to prominence in the 1990s. Well, during the 1990s I was not the most adventurous music listener. Except for a handful of fairly tame, mainstream newer artists, and a significant jazz phase, I was mostly entrenched in Rock & Roll music from the late 60s through the mid 70s. No, I was not your typical Classic Rock fan. In fact, I couldn’t tolerate Classic Rock radio stations because they played the same, tired old “hits” over and over again. (To this day Steppenwolf’s Born to be Wild makes me cringe.) Rather, I was all about the so-called “deep cuts,” those great, great songs that never or hardly ever got air time on the radio.

Within this entrenchment, I would occasionally go through extended periods of obsession with one group in particular, The Grateful Dead, and my immersion in the Dead lead to a discovery of that deep well of American roots music that influenced them, mainly blues, old-time country and bluegrass music.

As I look back, it’s painfully obvious that this period was a direct reaction to the post-punk, so-called New Wave music of the 80s that I disliked so much: the weird haircuts, the heavy use of synthesizers, the glossy, over-produced sound. I was learning the guitar at the time, all I owned was an acoustic, and so of course I preferred someone like Jorma Kaukonen rather than someone like Thomas Dolby.

All throughout the 90s I only ever skimmed the surface of the new music that was coming out, because only a few weeks would go by before I would put on a record by the Grateful Dead or Bob Dylan or The Band and I’d slip back into my comfort zone. I even moved to Bellingham, just 90 miles north of Seattle, during the peak of the Seattle grunge scene, bought a couple of Nirvana and Pearl Jam albums, but never stayed interested long enough to dig down to the deeper cuts in alternative music.

There was one album from the 90s, however, that made a huge impact on me, even though it would take me over 10 years to figure out exactly why. All I knew at the time was that it sounded absolutely nothing like anything else I’d ever heard.

The story behind U2’s 1991 album Achtung Baby is legendary and just happens to bear an incredible resemblance to what I’m writing about here.

In the 1980s, U2 became the biggest rock band in the world, primarily behind the massive success of their 1987 release, The Joshua Tree. The Joshua Tree was the product of U2’s self-inflicted immersion in…wait for it…American roots music. Their follow-up, Rattle and Hum, delved in even deeper, including a song about Billie Holliday and a track recorded with B.B. King.

In contrast, Bono has described Achtung Baby as, “the sound of four men chopping down The Joshua Tree,” four men breaking out of their American sojourn, ready to hear and create new music. And marvelous, fresh, striking, and decidedly modern music it was. So enamored was I of the record, I was prone to making the grandiose statement that this album was as significant as The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

And yet, I didn’t delve deeper. I didn’t go off exploring the industrial and electronic dance music that influenced U2 during the making of Achtung Baby, and I didn’t go in search of other alternative bands in general. Mainly it was because I was still quite absorbed in comfy rootsy Rock & Roll, and though a doorway on a whole new musical world had been opened, I wasn’t ready to step through. As it turned out, I wouldn’t reach this new musical world with one step through a door, but, rather, it was as if I was on the other side of the house and it took a million baby steps over 10+ years to make it to the door, by which time I didn’t even stop to consider whether or not I wanted to pass through.

So, here I am typing this, listening to The Beta Band, certain that I will eventually discover more music from my lost decade. What remains to be seen is whether or not I’ll now become so immersed in music from the 90s that 10 years from now I’ll finally discover music from the first decade of the 21st century.