Archive by Author - Chris Morrison

For governments, no easy energy choices ahead

by on December 6, 2008 at 1:51 pm

A developing situation in South Africa may hint at what lies ahead for the world’s nations, a future holding no easy choices when it comes to making and using electricity.

State-owned utility Eskom has abandoned a plan for an $11.5 billion nuclear generator that would have boosted the country’s electrical capacity by about 10 percent. Eskom says the price was too high, in part because the global recession has made financing more difficult.

Unfortunately, the cancellation leaves a hole that must be filled. In general, the country is open to building new coal plants, and several are already slated, but the local energy mix is already heavily dependent on fossil fuels.

South Africa is also strained to the max when it comes to its energy supply, with several shortfalls already projected for the coming year. That makes building more cheap and easy coal or gas plants a tempting fix, especially with prices temporarily low.

But the choice to stick with fossil fuels could be deadly for the ruling parties in the future, in part because global warming’s effects on Africa are becoming more apparent. While economic and social issues remain the top worries for now, an arid desert climate is advancing eastward across the country, meaning the water supply for the country’s most populous region could soon be overwhelmed by demand.

Building more fossil fuel plants will only make the government — which in fact just fired a top scientist who warned of water shortfalls — look complicit in the problems, which could easily result in social unrest.

The best solution appears to lie both in nuclear power -– smaller, cheaper plants have already been suggested –- and sources like wind, solar and wave power. There’s a project taking place on the southeastern coast, in fact, that could be world-changing if it goes through, providing about 770 megawatts of wave power -– alongside smaller amounts of wind and solar energy.

But the total output for the project, being headed by a company called the Darling Wind Farm (pictured above), will total less than a third of the 3,300 megawatts the canceled nuclear project would have provided.

The wind farm’s CEO, Herman Oelsner, said he’s confident the ruling government will pass a feed-in tariff in March that will offer a high enough price for him to develop his projects. Yet with Eskom in control of the country’s energy supply, even Oelsner is forced to operate in partnership with a local province, rather than working independently.

And like many state-owned utilities, it’s unlikely that Eskom will take it upon itself to develop renewables, because that cuts into the company’s bottom line. For now, the state appears unwilling to grapple with the cost of alternatives.

That will work for the moment, because there may be no immediate danger: South Africa’s government says that the decision to cut out the nukes was reasonable, as it believes the recession will limit demand.

But with supplies already limited, and a growing economy and population, that excuse won’t stand for long. The status of energy, as a social and economic issue, is rapidly changing, perhaps too quickly for the government to react. And South Africa is far from the only country in this position.

Africa joining the electric car craze, with Optimal Energy’s Joule

by on December 1, 2008 at 8:48 am

The entire world hopes to start driving electric cars soon, and Africa, despite its reputation for poor economies, is no exception. Luckily, a South African company called Optimal Energy is working to release a vehicle in 2010.

And unlike the many attempts to make electric cars as small and cheap as possible, the vehicle, called the Joule, will be a highway-speed, multi-passenger model aimed at the same people that buy full-priced four door vehicles, making it a good fit for Europe and the United States.

Optimal has the benefit of strong support from its government, which has put money into the company through a research investment fund. Having such backing gives Optimal the time to pay close attention to its engineering and design choices.

That has resulted in some some uncommon bonuses for buyers, like an optional solar panel integrated with the roof that will help charge the car, and varying seat designs — the standard model will have six seats, three front and three back, but North Americans would likely be more comfortable with four.

One interesting design choice affects both the physical car and its business model. The Joule will have an adjustable chassis that can fit a variety of battery types and sizes, so the company won’t be tied to using a particular technology. The battery will also be offered on a separate lease, to help ease the pain of simultaneously paying for the vehicle and, effectively, several years worth of fuel. Customers will also have the choice of paying for a smaller or cheaper battery to save money.

But even without the battery included in the price, the car won’t be cheap by local standards. While Optimal’s CEO, Kobus Meiring, isn’t ready to set a firm price yet, he says vehicles in the same class go for about 220,000 South African Rand, about $22,000 dollars. Compare that to the Tata Nano, sold in the same market. The Nano’s lowest price is around $2,200 – and it is still far out of reach for the poorest South African families.

That leaves plenty of potential buyers, but focusing only on the local market would be a mistake, says Meiring. “You really have to be a global player,” he says. “There isn’t a manufacturer in the world that remains successful by staying only in its own country.”

So far, the company has completed much of the design, and recently showed off the vehicle at a popular Paris auto show. It was well received, according to Meiring. That’s not a hard claim to believe; up close, the prototype model comes across as sleek and modern, and the car is supposed to have a robust range of almost 250 miles, and top speed of about 80 miles per hour.

While Optimal is also working on a three seat design and a truck, the Joule is furthest along, and the company is bulking up rapidly to reach production. It currently has 79 employees, primarily engineers, and is planning to open a manufacturing facility near its headquarters in Cape Town, or in another South African city.

What the company still needs is money, although perhaps less than companies based in countries with more expensive labor. It also needs international partners to begin selling the car, once it’s in production. Meiring says he’d be interested in forming partnerships similar to the one Think, a Norwegian electric car maker, set up with two American venture capital firms.

With any luck, the pieces will all fall into place — it’s not hard to imagine a Joule parked in an American driveway.

Data shows US mobile data usage ready to pass the UK

by on August 26, 2008 at 6:43 am

Before long, the United States may become the world’s top user of the web on mobile devices, according to analytics and billing firm Bango. The company is releasing figures this morning showing the US at almost 19 percent of the world total, just short of the top country, the United Kingdom, which has about 19.4 percent.

In terms of absolute growth in each country, the US is growing much more quickly than the UK, so it should be surpassing its old colonial master in yet one more area soon. Bango estimates that might happen within several weeks, as the trend picks up pace in the States.

Mobile data is difficult to gather, and the numbers often aren’t dead-on. The indicators seem clear, though: Customers in the US are finally getting good options for using the web, from handsets like the iPhone, to better unlimited data plans, to the roll-out of better third generation networks.

Bango’s numbers also corroborate data released earlier this year, including Google’s report that mobile web usage of its sites is increasing.

The question left unanswered is where the usage ceiling lies for the US. While the UK has long been considered a fairly mature market, having had options for browsing available for years, the US has been behind in the race. Now that the technology is catching up, its larger population should make it easy for it to draw ahead, but it’s difficult to tell from this point how far mobile usage will penetrate into non-premium markets.

It seems reasonable to assume, however, that devices will continue to innovate (or copycat, as with the Instinct, Samsung’s version of the iPhone), and prices for both devices and data will edge down as carriers compete. Applications and services also tie in; for more on how they’re helping expand mobile web usage, check out our article on five trends driving the mobile web.

In case it’s of interest, here are the runners-up that Bango listed: India had almost 11 percent of total usage, South Africa was approaching 9 percent, and Indonesia had 4 percent.

Cobalt Biofuels gets $25M for biobutanol

by on December 20, 2007 at 11:54 pm

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