Category Archives: Energy

Electric Cars

I watched the documentary “Who killed the electric car?” a couple of days ago. If you are interested in electric cars, alternative fuels or alternative power generation I highly recommend this film.

Who killed the electric car?<soapbox> I fully admit I have no love for the Big Three US auto manufacturers, for a variety of reasons. Aside from their being among the largest conglomerates in the country, aside from the perverted, incestuous, and deep multi-layered collection of sub companies, aside from their talent for destroying small businesses, aside from their historical penchant for buying new technologies that could revolutionize transportation from small businesses and developers and hiding it from the rest of the world for decades or just destroying it outright, aside from all of that… I just don’t like what passes for ethics in there world. </soapbox>

Any project that can lead to the development of personal or public transportation vehicles or systems is worthwhile in my book, whether for personal or public development. Anything we can do that will be good for the environment, reduce costs for users, and take a chunk of change out of the pockets of the Big Three at the same time, thats just awesome.

There are small businesses in nearly every large metro area that can convert ANY car into an all electric car. It’s a three-fer; supporting small business, recycling a car, and removing a gas burner replacing it with an electric! The down side here is the cost, a complete change over to a plug-in electric is about $15,000. There are DIY option for this though. Batteries and the right electric motor are still expensive but the prices are coming down. A gear head with five or six grand could effectively do a home conversion.

Since I am low in the cash department, I was looking at the TruckBike as a starting point. Human powered, converting to human-electric, then on to electric. After some deeper thought on the subject I am starting to think skipping the human-electric phase. Building a plug in just might be easier than trying to work out the bugs in the human interface portion; just a thought.

Not everyone is up for a build project, and not everyone is able to cover the up front costs of a conversion. There is a burgeoning movement however of people finding creative ways to finance a conversion project when they need a new car. Think about it, if you have the credit to go out and buy a new car, you should be able to get a loan to finance the conversion, it’s cheaper that buying a car, so the payments are lower. There are some grants and other incentives from the fed, state and some local municipalities that may lower the initial investment. After that, monthly operating costs are going to be lower and regular maintenance costs are going to be substantially lower. It just might be worth the research if owning an electric car is something you are interested in.

Most estimates put the break-even on a electric conversion at around three years. With fuel costs what they are and maintenance on an aging car, it’s not that hard to see the payoff, and that is strictly looking at the money side. From an ecological perspective it makes a big difference.

Anecdotally, I heard a story about a person who got an all-electric conversion on there BMW. To go one step further, they installed a high quality solar array on their garage roof, including an energy storage system. The whole thing cost a little over $50K. For that they got a completely refurbished BMW and… the solar provides all of the energy for the car, as well as a significant portion of their home electric needs. No more gas stations and you energy bill cut in half. Now thats a payoff!

Until net time,


One of my goals for 2011 is to decrease my fossil fuel use from driving by 50%. Since a portion of electric power generation on the grid is from fossil fuels, the only way I can really track my usage is by switching to some kind of Peddle Power for short trips and errands around town.

My criteria for practical Peddle Power is a vehicle that is fast enough to ride/drive in town, easy to use, easy to maintain and repair, can carry a rider/driver and at least one passenger along with a dozen bags of groceries or similar load, a vehicle that can be ridden/driven day or night, and safely in mildly inclement weather. What I want to build is a test-bed platform that is usable and easily modifiable, something I can tweak and tune into a functional long-term alternate transportation solution for my family. Enter The BikeTruck!

The biketruck is nothing new by any means. On this page about Chinese Three Wheelers, you can see several examples of motorized and non-motorized versions of the biketruck.

What I am planing to do is start with a base platform like the biketruck in the picture over on the right, and expand from there. A significant part of the project is to change the direct chain drive into a Peddle Powered alternator that charges a battery which in turn powers a high torque electric motor; essentially proving a consistent level of resistance for the peddler while making variable power available for the vehicles speed control and assisted breaking, including a reserve for up hill or rugged terrain that would require more power than the alternator may be able to put out. This could also include a power return to leach some power back into the system when going down hill. Ideally the system will be a simple one, using off the shelf parts or re-purposed parts whenever possible. It needs to be user-serviceable by the average person with minimal hand tools and skills.

Building the biketruck’s frame should be fairly straight forward, though I would expect it to be a bit more than the average person will want to do themselves. I think the most difficult part will be tuning the electronics and increasing efficiency. In truth I am not so concerned with making this a hyper efficient vehicle as I am with making it a functional and versatile one. That is the root of it all, functional and versatile, simple and user maintainable, in short sustainable and self sufficient.

I am in the early phase of another project right now, a big project at that, but I think I can slide some time in on this project here and there. First thing is to find parts, bicycle parts, tube steel, sheet metal, what ever. That means as far as this project is concerned, it’s time to scrounge. I am going to try and do the entire project with donated and re-purposed materials. That means this is a $0 project, there will be some money spent in consumables during the build, but that’s it. One of my tasks for getting parts is to start a wishlist page here on the site and a project page. Both will be up before next weeks post. I am also going to start posting in the wanted section of Craig’s List for parts donations once the aforementioned pages are up.

Until next time,

12 Lane Highway of Choices

Deciding to head down the road of sustainability and self-sufficiency is very empowering, but it can get a little muddy. At some point you start looking at all of the areas you want to impact, or decrease your impact in, and realize that what you thought was a bike path is really a 12 lane highway of choices heading off in all directions. It’s a daunting prospect and can scare you back into your old habits. But have faith, it gets better.

It usually starts with a specific area; let’s say, independence from fossil fuels. This is an outstanding place to start, but what can we do to get started? The high gas prices of the late 2000s illustrates one way. When refined gas prices went through the roof, consumers fought back. We, as a consumer base, reduced total fuel consumption by few percentage points for 2008. It doesn’t sound like much, but that is millions of barrels of oil, and it was enough to make the oil companies to pause and decide to take a loss in their profit margin to get people back on the road by reducing prices. Getting a dime out of an oil company is an achievement. A few million dollars? Well, that is downright amazing.

Making changes doesn’t have to be a major impact on your lifestyle. If every American makes one change to reduce their carbon footprint or reduce consumption of natural resources or go a little out of their way to support their local economy, it all adds up into a better environment and economy. It may seem like that step is small, but with enough of us taking those small steps it will have a huge effect overall. Some of the small things that have a big impact are things like choosing reusable bags for shopping, taking a walk or bike ride to run short errands instead of hopping in the car, or shop at the local farmers market. These are small changes in lifestyle that can make a big impact on sustainability.

My wife and I have been using reusable shopping bags for a couple of years now. It was a very small change in our lifestyle but makes a difference and it makes us feel good too. We also started walking more, for health and to run small errands like going to the bank, small trips to the grocery store or out to lunch, getting a hair cut, and any errands to stores that are close by. For us, a round-trip walk to the bank takes about 20 minutes, which is isn’t much longer than taking the car.

Once you start making these little changes you tend to start thinking about other small changes you can make that will further your sustainable and self-sufficiency goals. If you take them one at a time and get used to it, incorporating other small changes is easy. By the time you know it, you are making a big difference. Some hard-core activists take on the “total life makeover;” stop bathing and move into a tree hammock. That’s great for making an impact statement, but it doesn’t work for most of us. Take the time to think about what changes you can make that will have a positive impact but won’t be so difficult to follow through with you’ll just give up.

For my family we started by paying a lot more attention to recycling and reduced our “garbage” volume to about a third. Next we moved on to reusable bags, then walking whenever it was practical. Our latest change is in green waste disposal. Food waste that used to go into the garbage can with a plastic liner we now save in a covered bucket. For the time being, we are still sending it to the dump (although not in a plastic bag so it can’t decompose), but that is just until I figure out how much green waste we generate and how much of our recyclables are compostable.

Yup, compost. Living in an apartment complex in big urban area presents a number of challenges that can limit getting involved in activities like composting. There are considerations like space allotments, local laws, and neighbor and building owner complaints. I have been looking at vermiculture and vermicomposting (raising worms and composting with there help) as a good way to convert our green waste and keep it out of a landfill. Because there are some technical aspects of this, it is a project that requires a little forethought and preparation. I am taking my time and working out the bugs (no pun intended), before I make the commitment to my family, the environment and our potential new partners, the worms.

Some of the things to think about if you are considering urban composting are: how much compostable waste does my family produce? How long will it take to process that volume of compostable waste? What is the best system to use? The first one requires taking the time to figure out realistically how much waste you generate and how much of it is compostable. Compostable waste includes most “green” kitchen waste, pretty much all organic matter fall into this category with a couple of exceptions: fatty and greasy waste and bone. These are not good to add to the mix because they take longer to process and generate unpleasant odors and attract bugs. Most other organic matter can breakdown with little to no offensive smells, especially with the help of our worm friends. We ca also include a lot of our paper and cardboard waste in there too, further reducing the volume of material that needs to be transported away.

As you have probably guessed, this is my current long term project. I will be posting more as things progress, for now I will leave you with this…

Think about what small things you can do to make a difference and give them a try.


Sometimes diversity can be a huge pain in the tuches. My interests, though interrelated in strange and convoluted ways some times, are so diverse that I haven’t been able to keep things in an orderly fashion in the blogosphere, so I’m not gonna try all that hard anymore. What that means for you is that I will be posting stuff that may seem widely divergent from post to post. Sorry, but thats just the way it’s gonna have to be.

In my desire to get back to flying and building an airplane, I have had my builder juices flowing at mach-speeds. One of my many areas of interest is alternative energy. Not in the sense of replacement technologies but rather in the application of existing low-tech tools and processes using scavengeable parts and equipment and combining them in interesting ways. An example would be the use of a Fresnel lens and/or a parabolic mirror to direct light energy at a boiler to generate steam and power a steam engine, which in turn powers a generator that provides for electrical needs when the sun is up and recharges batteries for use when the sun is not available. This stuff is all available, except for the Fresnel and parabolic, at the local hardware store for not much money or can be found in any number or other places.

I spent several hours yesterday, and a little time today, looking up what other people have been doing online, watching poorly made videos and badly designed websites with broken links and missing content. it is amazing how many people are doing experiments in there back yards and workshops. Even more amazing is how few seem to be getting injured with the lack of safety and flat out stupidity in some cases. Don’t get me wrong, I give many of these people a lot of credit for going out and doing it, and documenting it. I appreciate there efforts. It just seems like there is a lack of credible data being made widely available out there.

As an example; I have been looking online for credible information on steam engine theory, design notes, build notes, practical application, anything, all I have found so far are short clips of models running, restoration projects running, and CAD/CGI models and animations. There are lots of people interested in selling Sterling engines and model steam engines, but not much else, at least not that I have come across.

One of the things I am interested in finding out is which engine is more efficient in powering a generator, a piston drive or turbine? Obviously in large installations the turbine is used, but why? In a smaller application which is more practical on a cost/maintenance vs. efficiency basis? Which requires the greatest heat energy and volume, and which has the best resource recovery system? All are important questions.

Eventually I want to be living in a less urban environment, at some point I want to be off-grid for power and reduce my carbon footprint, but there are a lot of things that can be done even in a semi-urban or urban environment. A lot of things sound like fringe or nut-case projects but when implemented with some common sense and pragmatism, they can work in many environments, pyrolysis is one of them. There are some great possibilities for pyrolysis in rural and urban environments for bio-matter disposal, including sewage disposal.

Another area of interest is multi-gas combustion systems. We have all heard about hydrogen fuel cells. While there is some hope there, it requires a lot of processing and energy in one form or another with the current technologies. A much simpler prospect for power generation is methane. You wouldn’t want to run your car on methane, at least I don’t want to drive a fart-mobile, but for generators, it makes a lot more sense. What about an engine that can run on natural gas, propane, methane, hydrogen, or any other combustible gases and vapors, or a mixture of them, one engine to burn any or all of them? It would be usable in a wider variety of applications and environments.

What about the many uses of solar energy? Solar power has gotten a bad-rap because it has been held back for so long. There are so many ways in which we can use solar energy, and only a few of them involve direct conversion to electrical current. Even the newest generation of solar cells, much more efficient than photovoltaics, are decades behind where there development should be.

Energy independence is an important issue at all levels. At the national level we depend far to much on fossil fuels. We have diverse resources, but there is a lot of room for improvement, it’s the same at the regional level. At the local level there is much less diversity, local municipalities are at the whim of power disruptions and this just doesn’t have to be the case. Where the difference is made is at the smallest level, the end user. Whether the end user is a government, business, or individual, a change in the way we consume and generate energy will have a major effect at the national level.

Redundant back-yard experiments may not be the solution by themselves, but it does point to the notion that it’s more than just a few people thinking outside the current energy box, and that is good. For me, I’m still putting more thought behind my projects before I start scavenging parts, but I do plan on getting something up and running soon. In the mean time I am thinking about putting up a wish list page for projects…

See you next time,