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Meet the Kiwi helping Barack Obama with his alternative fuels plans—and take a peek at hydrogen heaven

… but tech is only part of the problem. As hybrids, electric vehicles and hydrogen-powered cars arrive in showrooms, the biggest barriers to adoption are infrastructure and politics—and both can be solved with some judicious marketing. Idealog meets a New Zealander who is helping US President Barack Obama with his alternative fuels plans, and another laying the groundwork for our fossil-friendly future. The catch: one is pushing plug-in electric, the other hydrogen. Is there room for both?

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It’s all in the plug

Kiwi expat Edward T Kjaer is a natural-born car salesman who peppers his speech with marketing slang and Americanisms. He has motored from Massey University drop-out to director of electric transportation for the Southern California Edison power company.

I meet him in Auckland, his old hometown, between flights to the international headquarters of Ford, Mitsubishi, Daimler and Hyundai. He’s still buzzing from personally preaching his electric vehicle gospel to US President Barack Obama. The bottom line, he says: transforming the world’s gas-guzzling transportation fleets will be “no slam dunk”.

“I spent the first half of my career selling people trucks and SUVs,” he says. “I’m now spending the second half saying ‘Just kidding’.”

Educated at Auckland’s Kings College, Kjaer says he got bored of everything at Massey but marketing, so went to work. After a stint with Ogilvy & Mather, he moved to D’Arcy McManus & Masius and worked on Datsun’s name change to Nissan.

He headed Stateside in 1985 and got a job with Honda, then became Mazda America’s corporate marketing manager, which included the launch of the MX-5. The move to Edison might seem odd. But the company has been doing research and development into the next generation of vehicles for Big Auto since 1993, while also trying to carve out its own niche in supplying the go-go juice.

“Energy storage technology is bringing together auto and utilities into a fundamental convergence,” says Kjaer. “They’re both heavily-regulated, major emitters of carbon, and they need energy-efficient technology and storage.”

So why have 200-kilometre-per-hour electro-dream machines suddenly appeared from behind the curtain, when usable electric cars were kept ‘just round the next bend’ for decades?

“I don’t think the politicians were willing,” Kjaer says. “It is different now because it’s about energy conservation, climate change and emissions. Those are the big three drivers.” He cites 9/11 and terrorism for creating a tectonic shift in transport thinking in the US, and says nobody was talking about climate change back in the early 90s. “Most people realise that the days of cheap oil are gone.”

Unsurprisingly for an electric company man, despite being a member of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Hydrogen Highway Advisory Panel, he’s sceptical about the hydrogen alternative.

“They make building a plug-in car look pretty simple,” he says. “There are only two ways of getting hydrogen and they both take four times as much electricity as simply plugging the electricity into the wheels.”

His time guiding Obama round Edison’s purpose-built technical centre convinced him the new president is focused on getting the US off oil, and he also believes the electric vehicle spark can take hold here.

But will what Kiwis drive really make a difference to the world?

“From a perspective of market and price, probably not. You are a very small market, but from a global leadership perspective—sending a signal to the market—absolutely. The thing that is great about New Zealand is that you have a really clean grid. We are envious of that.

“You have two or three big city centres. This is ideal territory for electric vehicles. And not just that—think of things like service vehicles at airports, or trams.”

His prediction? Ten to 15 percent of our fleet could be electric by 2020, provided the government makes a consistent push. And that’s where the political will comes in. Kjaer is marketing at the highest level in the US; the question for New Zealand, again, is whether we lead or let others show the way.

The hydrogen number

Dr Jonathan Leaver is a measured man. His name has enough letters after it to fill a small rural post van: BE (Hons), DipEnTech, MS (Stanford), PhD, CPEng (NZ), IntPE. In an academic career that has covered many different branches of engineering, what he knows most about is energy—how we get it, store it and use it. Before joining Unitec’s Department of Engineering in 1998, he spent seven years as the chief petroleum and geothermal inspector for the New Zealand Ministry of Commerce. Now he’s applying his knowledge to working out how much alternative energy might cost on our roads—and how much it might save.

The government has set a goal that by 2050 up to a quarter of the light vehicle fleet will be powered by hydrogen as part of a drive to halve domestic transport emissions per capita from 2007 to 2040. Leaver estimates $7–8 million of taxpayers’ money has been spent over the last eight years towards making that happen.

Some of that cash has been channelled through a consortium of CRL Energy, Industrial Research Limited and Unitec, where Leaver picks up his pay cheque. His contribution, unsurprisingly, has been to provide the ability to measure things—the economic, environmental and energy-efficiency effects of the nation’s choice of vehicle.

Hydrogen CarFuel tankTank coverTank couplingSafety line to blow valveAuxilary units capsule containing heat exchanger for H2 and control unit of the tankBivalent internal combustion engine (H2/Gasoline)Intake manifold with with H2-RailBoil-Off-Management-System (BMS)Gasoline tankPressure control valve

BMW’s Hydrogen 7 puts a 12-cylinder hydrogen combustion engine inside a luxury sedan. Despite producing “virtually no” harmful emissions, BMW claims the vehicle will reach 230 kilometres per hour—at which point the control system kicks in. Sorry, hydrogenheads

He does this using a computer model of his own devising, incorporating 1,050 variables controlled by 7,000 lines of computer code. It uses real data sourced from places like New Zealand government departments, the UK Ministry of Transport and universities like MIT and Stanford.

“We’ve put in every variable that we can, including things like how these vehicles will be perceived by people walking onto the car lot,” he says. “There is actually a fairly established algorithm for that—it takes in price, whether they believe they can get the machine serviced, and more.”

The latest ticker tape to whirr out of his machines suggests switching to hydrogen internal combustion engine and fuel cell vehicles may make more economic sense than plugging in a fleet of battery powered electrics. The main reason is the cost of wiring up the nation to cope with the extra electricity demands. “You can’t have everybody in the street recharging their cars because the existing power lines simply can’t take it.”

Leaven gets the impression that nobody making national policy in New Zealand expects new technologies to radically change what we drive before about 2030. Up until then, he believes hybrids will continue their slow penetration of the market, alongside improvements in fuel efficiency in fossil fuel motors.

“There is a certain amount of euphoria around electric vehicles that’s unhealthy at the moment,” he says. “People are excited about the fact that we can drive 450 kilometres, if you believe the latest Tesla ads, between charges. But the reality is that they are two-and-a-half times as expensive as ordinary vehicles. Meanwhile, Tata in India is producing a 630cc four-seater for around $4,000.”

It’s a reminder that the factor most likely to convince people, companies and governments to make the leap to new technology is a familiar one: cost. And Leaver’s numbers are a big step towards making that decision.

Fuel deal

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Measured man: Dr Jonathan Leaver

What’s your alternative poison: ethanol, hydrogen, electricity, biodiesel? The battle to replace oil and its benzene spawn is hotting up with no clear winner in sight. The main contenders:

Hydrogen has excellent combustion (think the Hindenburg), H2 releases water and oxygen and is cheap to make. On the downside, it’s notoriously hard to store safely (think, er, the Hindenburg).

Ethanol is harder to make but can be sourced from pretty much anything organic, which is often food (corn, wheat) but latterly is grass, wood and whey. Ethanol is less clean-burning and its chief problem is the cost of production which is heavy on heat and raw materials.

Biodiesel has been powering engines since Rudolph Diesel tipped sunflower oil into his tank. It can be derived from algae, soya beans, used fish n’chip oil—anything with long-chain alkylesters. This could be the big winner with one major problem: there simply ain’t enough around. Well, not yet.

Electricity could mean any mix of plug-in, hybrid and hydrogen fuel cell. Hurdles include battery life and disposal, weight to power ratios, cost of production—and the fact that no-one sells them in Enzed.

In the end, the winner will combine lowest cost of production with ease of distribution. I’m picking ethanol: sweatless to make, lots of feedstock and no great change to engine design required. It works for Brazil!

– Vincent Heeringa