Wednesday, December 27, 2006


My blog is moving to Alternate Fuels World


As I suggested in an earlier piece on the alternative fuels and vehicle show held recently this month in Santa Monica, most such vehicles exhibit a singular lack of attitude and panache. Alt fuel connotes austerity, sacrifice, less-is-more. Alt fuel vehicles are earnest and well meaning, but frankly not much fun, and bespeak the latent Puritanism always waiting to resurface in American culture.

I would suggest that this is a bit of a problem in marketing terms. Why would I want to buy a hairshirt of a vehicle with cramped dimensions, a stodgy appearance, and sluggish performance? Depending upon my own moral bearings and political values, I might feel that such a purchase is dutiful, even necessary, but it would scarcely be undertaken with much enthusiasm.

Recently I discovered an alternative fuel vehicle, or at least one that is alternative fuel ready, that goes distinctly against the grain in this regard and which represents remarkably fresh thinking not only as how to build an exciting and yet avowedly green ride, but how to build a market for it.

The company engaged in this venture is Neander Motors, located in Germany, and the product is a diesel powered motorcycle which yet lacks a model designation. The engine, which is of modern high pressure common rail design, appears entirely capable of utilizing biodiesel in 100% concentrations.

So what did the Neander team do right?

First of all, they designed the whole thing from the ground up to achieve certain performance as well as aesthetic objectives. Second, they positioned the bike within the appropriate motorcycle subcategory, one where low volume production bikes from startup manufacturers have succeeded in the past at elevated sticker prices. Third, they conceived the bike, first and foremost, as an enthusiast product rather than a PC statement.

By all means visit the Website at It is detailed and informative, though, God knows, the navigation could be much better designed. It is well worth enduring the slow loading and poor organization of text. Here I’ll simply summarize the most salient characteristics of a really well conceived product, and provide a bit of background.

The Neander fits generally within the class of bikes which motorcycle journals have dubbed “bruiser cruisers”, heavy, very large displacement steeds intended primarily for touring, but with exemplary straight line performance and some pretensions to handling. Examples of the breed would include most Victory motorcycles, the Kawasaki Vulcan 2000, the new Triumph Rocket III, the Yamaha Roadliner, and the Honda Rune. Most of these brutes have engines capable of powering small automobiles and dry weights exceeding 650 pounds. None save the Neander has a diesel engines.

Diesels—and this is news to most Americans—have come a very long way over the course of the last few years. They still stink—there’s no way of eliminating that liability unless one uses biodiesel—but they now compare favorably in power output per cubic centimeter to gasoline engines. The power curve is somewhat different, emphasizing low end torque over top end brio, but most drivers probably won’t notice the difference, or, if they do, they’ll appreciate it. In other words, the diesel engine is currently at a state of development where it might at least be considered for use in a two wheeler.

Still, there are problems, including intense vibration in two cylinder embodiments, somewhat heavier duty moving parts to cope with the very high compression ratios, and generally higher noise levels.

The Neander guys—dare we call them Neanderthals—looked at the problems as challenges. They utilize dual counter-rotating crankshafts to cancel vibrations—an ingenious first—and turbocharging to coax more horsepower out of the two cylinder mill. They also developed a mechanical arrangement that reduces side loading on the cylinders and permits lighter duty parts to be used. Finally, they utilize the engine as a part of the frame which reduces the overall weight of the vehicle. In sum, they have produced a highly innovative, through-engineered power plant that produces 100 horsepower from 1,400 cubic centimeters of displacement. In contrast, the Yamaha Roadliner’s very high output gasoline engine cranks out a mere 92 horsepower from 1850cc. and much less torque.

The Neander is a long wheel base bike, typical of the breed, but at less than 650lbs is the lightest of the class. Handling of pre-production prototypes is said to be exemplary.

Within the bruiser cruiser grouping styling is important, so much so that a large proportion of the bikes sold are subsequently customized. Cosmetics, of course, is a matter of taste, but most would agree that both the mass production Roadliner and the semi-custom Rune are masterpieces of industrial design, and are instant collectibles. The Neander is at least their equal in visual charisma, and, while recalling certain classics from the past such as the old Harley Powerglide, is yet entirely contemporary and strikingly well balanced in its lines and volumes.

At this point no one can say for certain if Neander will succeed in the market. We would anticipate that at low production volumes it will reach these shores with at least a 25k price tag, more than ten thousand dollars more than most of the competition. Honda has sold out its production on the similarly expensive Rune, but then Honda put all of its resources behind the Rune and hired a crack team of American customizers to make the Rune the slickest production motorcycle on the planet. Neander will have to achieve at least equal quality control and to demonstrate superior all around performance.

At the very least, I think they’ve entered the right market. Newcomers Victory and Boss Hog have both succeeded in this class, and indeed Victory is intent on pursuing wider markets with innovative designs that in effect establish their own niches. No automotive startup could hope to achieve similar success.

If Neander succeeds it will convey a very clear message to the marketplace—you have to be better, not just cleaner. My guess is that they will succeed and that the message will be heard.

I would conclude by noting that Neander’s primary intention is not to be a motorcycle manufacturer and their bike is primarily intended to promote their engines. The engines themselves, which have extraordinarily high outputs for four stroke designs, are intended for use as outboard and inboard marine motors, in all terrain vehicles, in automobiles, and in small aircraft.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Santa Monica Alt Fuel Vehicle Show

Welcome to Charge: the future of energy

This past weekend Yvonne and I attended the Alternative Car and Transportation Expo held in a converted aircraft hangar at the Santa Monica Airport. Granted, this was not the most auspicious venue for the event, but attendance appeared to be fairly good, in spite of both the obscure location and the limited parking in the area. Indeed, the Los Angeles Times estimated that some 10,000 persons came to look at the more than 100 exhibits. The show, the first of what one may assume will be an annual event.

For more about the show, go to:

Wednesday, December 06, 2006


Welcome to Charge: the future of energy:

We welcome you to visit our new website:
We will be exploring developments in fuel technologies that we believe may change our future.
Please drop by and share your comments.


Welcome to Charge: the future of energy:

We welcome you to visit our new website:
We will be exploring developments in fuel technologies that we believe may change our future.
Please drop by and share your comments.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006


Welcome to Charge: the future of energy
BY Daniel C. Sweeney, PhD


ASPO (the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas) concluded its annual meeting in Boston a week ago and, in contradistinction to many professional societies, published all of the conference notes on their Website. Good for them. Information on issues of such importance should be made widely available in any working democracy.

Obviously, anyone presenting papers at such an event is preaching to the choir. If one didn’t think peak oil were a problem, one presumably would not be in attendance. We haven’t read every word of every paper, but we did skim the lot of them, and we don’t recall anyone bothering to advance new data on the subject. Rather the attitude seems to be that the problem is clear so now palliatives if not solutions must be advanced.

Meanwhile, we’ve been seeing a flurry of announcements from various peak oil debunkers that do purport to show new evidence. One such document, whose provenance we have unfortunately forgotten, made the astounding statement that some 11 trillion barrels of crude reside on the Arabian Peninsula, or approximately twenty times the high estimates of the past. Certainly, this figure was not part of any official ARAMCO announcement, Saudi oil reserves are a well kept state secrete, but recently an ARAMCO official claimed that Saudi reserves alone would ensure 140 more years of business as usual. Then of course there is George W. Bush’s appointment of an ex-Exxon-Mobil CEO to head a study on peak oil, an individual who is also a fervent debunker.

The predictable result of all of this is a further flood of articles in the mainstream business press dismissing peak oil in the same way that much of the business press has dismissed global climate change. What is not so predictable is the effect of a concerted infinite oil campaign.

Peak oil is much less in the news than global warming, though both problems are urgent. And, in the case of global warming, as a matter of interest, the coverage evokes little sense of urgency.

Global warming in the collective consciousness assumes the form of a disaster movie—ice shelves plunging into the sea in spectacular geysers of spume, floods in the Andaman Islands and various other godforsaken places where the plumbing doesn’t work, and droughts somewhere in the Horn of Africa wherever the hell that is. Nobody but a few tree huggers expects that anything bad will happen in the U.S. It’s kind of like globalization. It will be good for us but bad for some guy in Somalia, but what the hey?

What we’re saying is that while most people accept the existence of global warming, they’re not particularly frightened by it. Indeed, it was scarcely an issue in the midterm elections.

Peak oil is different. We’ve never seen a poll as to the number of Americans who accept the validity of the concept, and we’ve heard very few politicians discuss the implications of dwindling oil reserves in any detail. The exception is Bill Clinton since he’s been out of office, but the guy never talked about it when he was in office and in a position to do something about it. Instead you get a lot of platitudes about oil independence and kicking our oil addiction, but the back story behind that narrative is that oil dependence is a problem because Islamo fascists own the stuff, not because it may be running out altogether.

Of course, if peaking is imminent, then it is difficult to conceive of how even the privileged United States can escape economic travails. Maybe that’s why politicians avoid the topic. It’s simply a downer. There’s no audacity of hope, no upbeat movie of the week when it comes to peak oil. Or even a good disaster movie. Making do with less never makes for a very good political narrative. Remember the seventies? Small is beautiful…. No, it’s not. Supersize me, Jack, because I be living large.

But, back to the conference papers. The ASPO guys are mostly scientists and scholars and not necessarily all that Green. Nobody, for instance, was offering the hydrogen economy based on renewable energy as a solution. You’d probably be laughed off the podium if you trotted out that tired scenario today. Almost everyone thought that hydrocarbon liquid fuels would be the mainstay of the transportation energy for decades to come—in other words, for the foreseeable future—and few saw ethanol or biodiesel production playing any major role in the mitigation of the effects of peaking. So that means petroleum analogs from unconventional natural gas, from oil shale, from coal, and possibly from some concentrated forms of biomass, though few thought that biofuels could assume anything close to a dominant position in the mix.

Estimates on how much liquid fuel could be derived from unconventional fossil resources varied, with some running as high 25 million barrels a day in 20 years, but most much lower. Everyone agreed that capital investments in the trillions of dollars would be required to initiate a transition to unconventional sources, and that a crash program would extend for decades. No one discussed what business as usual involved if the confident predictions of ARAMCO and Exxon-Mobil prove misguided or just plain deceptive.

Which brings us to a final point. Do the peak oil debunkers have a hidden agenda? Is the object to discourage a transition to new energy resources so demand for oil and the price it commands will both ascend precipately? To attempt such a ploy would be audacious. To pull it off would be something approaching madness. Could one pull it off? Could one lobby unconventional energy sources out of existence, profiteer from peak oil, and then deflect the certain wrath of the public as all manner of economic catastrophes were visited upon it? And would the remainder of the business community go along with an energy policy that only enriched oil companies while creating dire problems for everyone else with the exception of bankruptcy lawyers?

We don’t know. If, as Sean Hannity had confidently predicted, the Republican Party had picked up several dozen Congressional seats in the recent election, we might have believed that any political capitulation to a well endowed industry, however inimical to the public interest, would be possible. Presented with a choice between a candidate offering a flag burning amendment and one promoting a sane energy policy, what right thinking person could possibly support the latter?

But such was not the case. Fear based appeals to the reptile brain found the reptile for the most part dormant. That’s not to say it can’t be roused again, and that the public can’t ultimately be gulled into accepting a policy of business as usual in regard to energy in the face of worsening oil shortages.

We shall see.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Who's in Charge?

Welcome to Charge: the future of energy

by Daniel C. Sweeney, Ph.D

This week Samuel Bodman’s, George Bush’s Energy Secretary, chose Lee Raymond to head a group developing national energy policy initiatives. In view of Bush’s recent statements in support of alternative fuels and curbing oil imports, this is a rather remarkable appointment.

Raymond is the former president and CEO of Exxon-Mobil who during his tenure at the oil giant funded pseudo-scientific research purporting to disprove the existence of global warming and scoffed at the notion of lessening foreign oil dependence through the promotion of alternative energy sources. Exxon-Mobil has been virtually alone among the biggest international petroleum companies in its failure to diversify into alternative energy in one form or another, and also has been unusual in its stated insistence that global climate change studies are “junk science”.

Exxon-Mobil under Raymond’s leadership also issued statements to the effect that current conventional oil reserves total in excess of 3.1 trillion barrels, almost double the median number cited by leading oil analysts, and suggested that oil producers would increase production to over 50% above current levels. Exxon also dismissed the conventional wisdom to the effect that almost all oil producers have already passed the peak of production. Scores of countries would be boosting production in the future according to Exxon’s top management.

Obviously Exxon’s, and, by extension, Raymond’s position is consistent. If oil really is superabundant and likely to flow out of the ground in ever more copious cascades then why bother with alternative energy, especially if CO2 emissions really are no problem? Of course one could place a less charitable construction on the expression of these notions and infer that Exxon’s intention were to try to stifle renewables so that energy consumers were left with no choice but ever more expensive petroleum products, but that would be churlish even to suggest. Indeed in the Texas of Spindletop days one might be challenged to a duel or horsewhipped or otherwise ill used for contesting the statements of an industry stalwart and perhaps even today these are dangerous inferences to make.

One is reminded here of Dick Cheney’s secret energy meetings during the Bush Administration’s first term and one begins to understand the need for secrecy then and now. After all, individuals lacking in subtlety might suspect that some deep disharmony underlies George Bush’s assertions of energy independence and his appointment of a petroleum satrap heretofore committed to ever increasing growth in oil consumption. How does one square that circle?

We don’t pretend to know.

If Raymond and Exxon-Mobil are right on all counts—global warming and peak oil are both junk science and business as usual can go on indefinitely—then this is an excellent appointment, but then why not be more forthright? Why doesn’t George W. Bush simply state that lessening dependence on foreign oil is rank foolishness, and then strike all funding for alternative energy research from the D.O.E. budget? Why make any concessions at all to Greens and doomsayers and enviro whack jobs? Solidify the base, for God’s sake, and keep on message.

Still, we cannot refrain from speculating on the possibility of some fundamental discrepancy between Exxon-Mobil’s professed position and their own internal deliberations. What if they actually believe otherwise, that oil is running out and that global warming is real but let’s not say so because that’s bad for business?

That leads to further speculation. What is the plan if oil reaches $150 a barrel in ten years and the Greenland ice sheet melts and the U.S. is embroiled in two or three Middle Eastern conflicts simultaneously. How does one avoid appearing wrong oneself, and how does one deflect the anger of the citizenry elsewhere. That would require extreme adroitness at public relations jujitsu.

Homosexuals are always good scapegoats, but how does one blame them for an oil shortage? They don’t consume petroleum jelly in those quantities. Ah, we have it…. During the sixth century when homosexuality was declared a crime under the Code of Justinian the reasoning was that homosexual acts induced earthquakes! The precise causal relationship eludes us, but it seemed rather obvious to the jurists of that period. If Gays can produce such profound geophysical effects in the form of temblors, then mightn’t they disturb oil fields as well? Maybe that’s a stretch I think it represents the kind of out of the box thinking that will be required.

Anyway, President Bush is to be congratulated on a fine appointment. We’re sure that the conclusions of this new energy policy committee will soon be made available on a need-to-know basis.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006


Welcome to Charge: the future of energy
BY Daniel C. Sweeney

Last week in certain business publications such as Barron’s and Forbes one read suggestions that cheap gas was coming and would be here to stay. $1.25 per gallon for the next twenty years was one prediction. I mention this because I was in the midst of interviewing vendors for an upcoming ethanol and fuel alcohol report and one of my sources brought it up. “If it’s true we’re f_cking toast!” the source remarked.

He’s right of course. If really low prices come back and stay back, the alternative fuels industry is probably going to collapse. Some people will continue to buy biodiesel because they’re “green”, while ethanol might find a place as an octane booster, but that will be it. Otherwise it will be business as usual. And who knows, after a couple of more Republican administrations, leaded gasoline might come back.

Actually, these predictions are nothing new. Exxon-Mobil has been strenuously urging against the U.S. investing in alternative energy because with more than 3 trillion barrels of crude waiting to be pumped (their projection), we certainly don’t need it. In fact it would be a gross misallocation of resources and a big government boondoggle. Of course this is the same company that airily dismisses global warming as junk science, but to some minds that puts them firmly on the side of the angels.

We’ve been here before. Back in Carter era—that age of confusion that brought us stagflation, the Disco Duck, cocaine, and less is more—alternative energy advocates briefly proliferated then quickly got their comeuppance come Reagan’s “morning in America” with its cheap gas, junk bonds, and hostile takeovers. Everyone drove gas guzzlers to the Predator’s Ball, and the alt energy guy looked like a prize horse’s ass.

Buck twenty-five gas, I thought when I read the business stories, many of which suggested that such a happy state of affairs could only occur if all branches of government remained in Republican hands. What if they’re true? That would make me a prize horse’s ass as well for trying to start an alternative fuels journal.

Does that mean I should pray for high oil prices? That’s kind of like praying for jihadist victory in Iraq to support my position that the whole thing was a ghastly mistake. No one in good conscience can hope for either outcome, even though one believes that either or both might occur.

What I like to say in such circumstances is that I strive to determine what will happen, not what should happen. Bad news can be good news if you use it to avoid certain catastrophe.

So what are we to make of this? Is cheap oil really on the way?

I have avoided much discussion of peak oil in this blog simply because so much has been written on the subject and because I don’t believe I have much in the way of original insights to offer. I happen to believe that the age of cheap energy is passing, but I don’t necessarily believe that the world or the United States will hit a wall. All kinds of expedients are possible involving biomass conversion, enhanced oil recovery, extensive exploitation of unconventional fossil fuel, nuclear energy, and radically different transport systems. In other words, Homo sap needn’t merely engage in business as usual until the point where it’s no longer possible and then endure the collapse of civilization.

Having said all this, I would bring up one fact in regard to oil that almost no one disputes. The rate of oil discovery has been declining smoothly and sinusoidally since about 1970. We are already way, way down on the bell shaped curve, and all of the new seismic imaging and enhanced recovery technologies haven’t made any real difference. That means that if Hubbert is right about a 40 year lag between the peak of discovery and the peak of recovery, we can expect a decline of conventional supplies to begin about 2010 which happens to be near to the median figure for peaking among petroleum experts.

Exxon-Mobil’s figures are approximately three times higher than the low estimates for proven reserves and they’re much higher than anyone else’s. Exxon could be right or they could be disingenuous. There’s no knowing.

What can be said is that ethanol stocks have been hammered on the basis of such news and the first wave of fear is advancing through the alternative fuels contingent. The fear is particularly pronounced among the older players with a living memory of the Carter years. If the industry collapses again it is unlikely to be revived unless and until a scarcity of conventional oil reaches a crisis point and maybe not even then.

What an irony it would be if oil prices briefly declined to say $20 per barrel and stayed there for a couple of years and then shot up to $100 and did not decline thereafter. Investors, having taken one bath on renewables would not take another no matter how bad the oil crunch got, and consumer’s would have no choice but to pay as much as the market demanded with what effects upon the economy one can scarcely imagine.

Robert Samuelson, a Nobel prize winning economist, recently wrote a piece in which he maintained that ascending oil prices have been harmless because industrial productivity has been rising much faster in the U.S., thus ensuring prosperity for the future. No one else is arguing double digit productivity increases but then who’s going to argue with a Nobel laureate. Not the kid. So not to worry. We’re impervious to oil spikes. And if that’s really true, we don’t need alternative fuels no matter how bad it gets. We’ll just get more productive. Come to think of it, I must have been a horse’s ass all along. There never was a problem and there never will be.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006


by Daniel C. Sweeney, PhD
This week Honda showed two prototype vehicles, one a car with a diesel engine that meets California emissions requirements and the other their latest fuel cell car. They also announced they’d be making Flex Fuel vehicles at some unspecified time in the future.

So what’s it all mean? With Honda and Toyota enjoying banner years while American firms lie on the verge of bankruptcy, you don’t take Honda announcements lightly if you’re sane. The American auto industry, simply put, isn’t driving change any more. The Japanese are.

Here’s our take.

The fuel cell announcement can be pretty much dismissed. Honda claims these are production vehicles, but the company also says they’re intended for pilot implementations in government fleets. That’s not production in our estimation, it’s just business as usual—fuel cells are the technology of the future and they always will be.

Flex Fuel is a bit different, and is basically a signal to the industry. What Honda is saying is we can respond to an E-85 push at a moment’s notice, we’ve already done the engineering. And that’s fairly important because surprisingly few auto manufacturers have openly embraced E-85.

The diesel announcement is really the kicker though. Japanese manufacturers have been relatively inactive in developing diesel engines for personal vehicles in the past, and that’s because their largest markets have been in the U.S. and in the Far East where diesel isn’t popular. Most of the recent exemplary work on improving diesels has been undertaken by European companies like Peugeot and Volkswagen because there primary markets are in Europe where fully half the cars use diesel today. For Honda to announce suddenly that they’ll be making a range of diesel engines and selling them in the United States is frankly pretty startling.

What to make of it?

Diesel represents hard times and permanent shortages. Diesel engines beat the hell out of gas engines in terms of efficiency and they always will. When efficiency becomes really, really important, so does diesel.

But how important will efficiency be in the future? The theme song in the mainstream press is that cheap oil is back to stay. We don’t believe it for a minute though. We think it’s the Bush Administration jawboning the oil industry, and by mid November if not sooner prices should be on the rise again. That’s assuming that the Administration does not begin a war with Iran, of course, a distinct possibility if Republican prospects at the polls remain dim. If that happens prices could and probably will take off. The Administration’s only option then would be to dump the entirety of the Federal strategic oil reserves on the market—an incredibly reckless action, but then so is a war with Iran.

Anyway, we think the days of cheap oil are past, and we think Honda knows it. And, in that light, diesel is an interesting option. Contemporary compression ignition engine designs are streets ahead of the clunkers we saw twenty years ago, and have performance characteristics and noise levels comparable with spark ignition engines along with vastly superior efficiency. Of course, Americans don’t know that. All they know is the prior art and it will take a hell of marketing effort to convince them that diesels are different today.

Honda, however, has a generous advertising budget, and they may just turn the trick. And if they combine the diesel with hybrid drive and continuously variable transmission, two of their other flagship technologies, they could make cars approaching 100 miles per gallon.

We have one real problem with diesel however. Cleaning it up to meet emerging standards requires a ton of hydro-treating and hydrogen is getting more and more expensive due to pressure on natural gas suppliers. Diesel engines can provide a big increment in efficiency but the cost of diesel is apt to rise faster than the cost of gasoline simply due to the hydrogen requirement. Nor is it all that easy for a refinery to change it product balance. Someone set up to produce a certain percentage of diesel and a certain percentage of gasoline can’t alter the balance significantly without incurring sizable expenses.

Compression ignition engines can of course run on biodiesel, but we don’t see that industry expanding sufficiently to cope with enormous demand.

The other answer could be synfuel. Quite a bit of diesel is already made from natural gas in Qatar and if stranded and/or unconventional resources elsewhere in the world can be tapped in a really major way a copious supply of diesel could be made available. And best of all you’d be getting really clean fuel that wouldn’t require a lot of hydro-treating.

The other possibility is coal based synfuel which is also extremely clean, though coal itself isn’t, but we don’t see such fuels coming on the market in the midterm in any quantities. Sasol in South Africa is the only major coal synfuel manufacturer active today, and though pilot projects are planned for China, they won’t change the equation any time soon for Honda or others pushing high performance diesels.

In the longer term, di-methyl ether from coal could constitute a very abundant, relatively low cost, ultra-low pollution fuel for compression ignition engines, but we are not at all certain that DME will figure even in fleet applications over the course of the next five years. In short, there is no obvious relief from soaring fuel prices in the offing, unless the optimists are right and cheap oil returns for good.