Saturday, 15 May 2010

Huhne, Energy and daft electric vehicles

I read (also via Tim Worstall) that Chris Huhne, Secretary of State for Energy and "Climate Change"* wants to ensure there are no subsidies for Nuclear Power.

One could say this was noble, but considering we have not heard anything on ending the subsidies for wind, solar and water, that is worrying. Subsidy for one can mean a disincentive for another. For Huhne to say this is "not ideological" is being, I believe, a little disingenuous, as subsidies for other forms ARE.

Unless you end subsidies for all, you distort the decision-making process. What will a power generator build? Nuclear Power with no subsidies or wind with a subsidy? Of course, it depends on the levels of such subsidies. However, to have wind one needs a baseline capacity to support it when it does not produce enough power, which, even supporters now admit, is most of the time.

So if you to all intents and purposes demand wind and then subsidise it, it could be said you are indirectly subsidising the baseline capacity that is needed to make that wind viable.

Further, to expect Government subsidies to enable the most efficient and responsive allocation of resources is to be naive in the extreme. Subsidising wind has the capacity to divert research and resources away from other forms of generation that might be better or even away from focusing the minds of wind technologists from improving efficiency or embedding incumbents who make technology that is currently "good enough", so making it harder for new entrants to establish. All classic stuff.

So if Huhne is to be honest, he has to say his stance IS ideological and he aims to remove any subsidies for nuclear whist keeping subsidies for wind.

To me wind does have a use - synthesizing hydrocarbons. One can do this by drawing in CO2 from the air, adding water and energy and producing hydrocarbons and oxygen. This is an energy store, not an energy source, as all you are doing is pushing energy into a system (CO2+H2O) and then releasing it later when it reverts back to those constituents. Synthesizing hydrocarbons has advantages. The product is familiar, with a distribution network in place and can be burned in traditional engines with minor adjustments. It has most of the advantages of hydrogen, without the handling and storage downsides. If created using wind power it could be almost carbon neutral, as burning it will absorb the oxygen produced and expel the CO2 consumed in manufacture.

Why is this important? Well, there is still a frustrating need for car makers to either produce parallel hybrids such as the Toyota Prius, or all electric vehicles like the Honda Leaf (seen in various absurd videos that never just let you just hear the vehicle).

The Prius is inefficient. It cannot regenerate all the brake energy, has a complex drivetrain and mediocre performance and fuel efficiency. The Leaf is all electric and has an unusable range of 100 miles and a frustratingly long recharge cycle of 8 hours. Little better than a horse!

Neither of these two producers seem willing to come up with a series hybrid vehicle, which is basically an electric vehicle with a small on-board generator that can produce energy when the batteries are run down. These combine the range and flexibility of traditional vehicles, exceeding their fuel efficiency yet can provide electric only operation for most uses if desired. People generally only drive under 100 miles a day but they want their vehicle on hand in an emergency and capable of long journeys.

A well engineered series hybrid can get 100mpg+, so range is never an issue. Even if you just run it on fuel and cannot charge it on the mains - many live without off-street parking forcing them to park some distance from their home - it will be far more efficient and quiet.

* Is he a god?