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Zap to Show Off Three-Wheeler, Electric Van Later This Month

Michael Kanellos: January 21, 2009, 2:25 PM
It's three-wheel electric car day. First, Aptera announces that the first pre-production versions of its 2e have rolled off the line. Now Zap says it will show off its Alias, its own three-wheeled car, at the National Automobile Dealer's Association staring January 24 in New Orleans. Zap will try to come out with a limited number of the cars later this year and try to price them at below $35,000. Zap, one must note, has been enmeshed in a number of controversies in the past two years. The company will also show off low-speed vans and delivery trucks. These vehicles -- which cost around $14,500 -- are designed to be used on college campuses, military bases and retirement communities. They don't have the range and speed of freeway cars, but if you're only commuting between the Zeller Memorial Cafeteria and the Nemet Hall of Language Science, you don't need to go fast.

The New Metric In Smart Grid: Ten Seconds

Michael Kanellos: January 21, 2009, 2:00 PM
Apartment dwellers are the bane of utilities. When someone moves out, the account has to be closed and the meter turned off. When a new tenant moves in, someone has to drive out with a truck and flip it on again. "You have to physically turn it on," said Brian Alford, director of public affairs at OG&E, a utility in Oklahoma. In a recent trial with 6,600 apartments in Oklahoma City with Silver Spring Networks, OG&E was able to cut down the on/off cycling to ten seconds. Basically, someone flips a switch in the central office. That sort of metric is the sort of thing that could drive smart grid technologies. Although utilities will have to buy new meters to enable remote meter management, it's a lot cheaper in the long run than sending out people with trucks. Particularly in high turnover areas. The region where OG&E conducted its trial gets 10,000 services calls a year, an unusually high number. OG&E is applying with the local regulatory board to conduct a wider trial. Pacific Gas & Electric, the large California utility, is installing "hundreds of thousands" of Silver Spring meters a month, said Eric Dresselhuys, vice president and co-founder of Silver Spring. The utility also found that consumers managed to cut down their power consumption with smart meters. A screen in their home informed them about the rates and amount of power they were consuming during various times during the day. "There is price elasticity for electricity. If you send people information, they will act on it," said Dresselhuys. Retirees and the elderly are somewhat avid meter readers, he noted.

First Aptera Three Wheeler Rolls Out the Door, Production Begins in October

Michael Kanellos: January 21, 2009, 1:26 PM
The first pre-production version of the 2e -- the three wheeled car designed by Aptera -- emerged from the factory today. Aptera also reiterated that it will try to start selling the car in October. Earlier, it had hoped to release the vehicle in 2008, but had to delay. The electric car will go 100 miles on a charge and get up to 90 miles an hour. It will also go from zero to 60 in 10 seconds. That's not going to beat a Tesla Roadster, or even my 2004 Nissan Sentra that I bought from the used car division from Hertz. But for an electric car, the 2e might be somewhat cheap: The lithium-ion battery car will cost between $25,000 and $45,000. If the company can keep it toward the $25,000 range, we're talking reasonably priced electric cars. Aptera buyers, of course, will also get to enjoy the thrill of owning something that wouldn't look too far out of place being driven by Pan-Am stewardesses to the International Wing of JFK Airport. The car has three wheels and a swoopy, curvaceous design, sort of the way people in the '60s imagined the future. Shiny gold jumpsuit not included. The car will first be delivered to customers in California with broader distribution in the U.S. in 2010. Three-wheeled vehicles don't have a great history in the U.S. The Dymaxion, coined by wacky futurist Buckminster Fuller, was involved in some high-profile wrecks in the prototype stage. Zap has had very limited success with the Xebra. Perhaps the most successful three-wheeler has been the Big Wheel. Still, they're fun to drive. I haven't been in the Aptera, but I took a spin in the VentureOne from Venture Vehicles in 2007. That three wheeler tilts when you drive. It was a blast and I was only afraid of being mowed down by an SUV once.

It’s Official: Toyota the World’s Biggest Car Maker

Michael Kanellos: January 21, 2009, 10:00 AM
Toyota surpassed General Motors as the world's largest car maker in 2008, the same year that GM celebrated its 100th anniversary. GM announced that it sold 8.35 million vehicles in 2008 today. Toyota sold 8.97 million, according to this here article in the New York Times. Although both saw a decline in sales, Toyota's decline was less. Toyota had overtaken G.M. on a quarterly basis, but this is the first time that GM had been knocked out of the top spot in yearly totals since 1931. Toyota's surge in recent years has been tied to energy efficient cars like the Prius. GM still outsells Toyota in the U.S. but Toyota gained worldwide, according to the article. Meanwhile, Fiat is angling to cement an alliance with Chrysler. If you want to know where your federal bailout money is going, the answer is Rome.

PG&E to Invest in Big Solar Rooftop Project This Year?

Jeff St. John: January 21, 2009, 9:57 AM
Pacific Gas & Electric Co. plans for the first time to make an equity investment in a large-scale solar rooftop project similar to that being done by neighboring utility Southern California Edison. PG&E plans to start making equity investments in the next two quarters in renewable energy, primarily solar power, Peter Darbee, CEO and chairman of PG&E, said Wednesday at the Clean Tech Investor Summit in Palm Springs. That will include a large-scale solar rooftop project "in the neighborhood" of SCE's $875 million, 250-megawatt solar rooftop project now underway, Darbee said. He wouldn't provide additional details about it, or about how much money PG&E planned to aim at the entirety of new renewable equity investments, which could include wind. But he did say PG&E also would be "looking at different applications, where we partner with people in communities" and municipal governments — Marin, Calif. was one he specifically mentioned — that "really want to show their commitment??? to renewable energy. Southern California Edison is seeking state regulatory approval for its $875 million plan to put 250 megawatts of solar panels on two square miles of rooftops (see California Solar Rooftop Project Hits Milestone). Instead, most utilities, including PG&E, sign long-term contracts with independent renewable energy developers to buy electricity to meet renewable portfolio standards in California and about half the states today. In fact, SCE's plan to invest directly has some developers upset with the utility. Whether PG&E gets similar flack for its proposal will depend a lot on its details. A similar utility solar investment proposal by Duke Energy got scaled back by North Carolina regulators in October, who said it would be too expensive (see Duke Chops $100M Distributed Solar Project in Half). But Darbee said that utility equity investments in renewables are now justified because, simply put, utilities are among the few potential investors that are still making money.  The fact that PG&E is generating "more than a billion dollars of taxable revenue," means it has the tax credit appetite that Wall Street banks and other big renewable energy investors have lost amidst the economic downturn, Darbee noted. Solar and wind power project financing in the United States is driven by federal tax credits, and would-be investors who posted losses last year don't need tax credits (see Energy Financing Gone With the WindIndustry Groups Call for Changes to Federal Incentives). Uilities, on the other hand, got access to those tax credits for the first time in the energy package passed by Congress in October.  

Photosynthesis Drives Solar Fuel Cell

Matthew Weinberg: January 21, 2009, 8:45 AM
Combine carbon, marine sediment, seawater and light and you've got a simple way to generate electricity from sunlight. The proof-of-concept solar fuel cell is powered by graphite electrodes that are covered by microbe films and embedded in marine sediment. One type of microbe uses sunlight to turn carbon dioxide and water into glucose and oxygen. Another type of microbe converts the glucose and oxygen back into carbon dioxide and water, producing electricity in the process. The fuel-cell waste -- carbon dioxide and water -- is recycled as input for the photosynthesis step. Artificial photosynthesic devices produce small amounts of energy but are inexpensive. Microbial photosynthesic devices promise be long-lasting and durable because the biofilms can assemble and repair themselves. Research paper: A Self-Assembling Self-Repairing Microbial Photoelectrochemical Solar Cell Energy & Environmental Science, published online January 6, 2009 Researchers' homepage: Energy Harvesting Program, Center for Bio/Molecular Science and Engineering, Naval Research Laboratory Eric Smalley is editor of Energy Research News. He has written about technology since 1987 and has freelanced for many publications including Discover, Scientific American, Wired News and The Boston Globe on topics ranging from quantum cryptography to global warming.