mm220: It’s all about power

December 12, 2007

MUDGE’S Musings

Yes, faithful reader, it’s another SASB day. But, unlike the eclectic content of most of our recent pastiches operating under that appellation, today we present a common theme: alternative energy, or POWER!

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First up, a driver’s review of a new Honda, the FCX Clarity (FCX = Fuel Cell eXperimental?), powered by a hydrogen fuel cell, soon to be released in tiny test quantities in — where else? — California early in 2008.

nytimes

Hydrogen Car Is Here, a Bit Ahead of Its Time

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By NORMAN MAYERSOHN | Published: December 9, 2007

SANTA MONICA, Calif.

OFTEN, it is the smallest of gestures that deliver the most powerful messages. I was reminded of this last month when I settled into the driver’s seat of the FCX Clarity, a sedan powered by fuel cells that Honda will begin leasing to a handful of private customers next summer. Fresh from a briefing that detailed the car’s NASA-grade complexity, I wondered what procedures might be required to start the reaction of hydrogen and oxygen and bring the power supply to life.

MUDGE has been intrigued by the possibilities of fuel cell powered vehicles (and fuel cells for other applications, see below) for some years.

The stumbling blocks have always seemed incapable of practical solution:

  • safe (using mass production economics) high pressure hydrogen storage in the vehicle;
  • convenient delivery of hydrogen (how long did it take for gasoline stations to arrive at the penetration of three to an intersection that we remember from pre-1974 U.S.?);
  • and, always the crucial unasked question — what’s the energy cost to bottle hydrogen, anyway, and is the total life cycle cost truly significantly lower than petroleum-based fuel? Indeed, how much petroleum based fuel is used to create the hydrogen in the first place?

But, hydrogen fuel cells are so seductive: hydrogen is abundant (and not just in politically dicey parts of the world), and the output of hydrogen fuel cell power generation is water. What’s not to love?

Until now, writing about fuel cells has been a no-risk proposition, with no reality check looming, no looking back when the cars arrived in showrooms to see whether one had been embarrassingly optimistic. Way back in the 1990s, a physicist assured me that fuel-cell cars were 20 years away — and always would be.

So Honda has surprised the automotive world by producing a vehicle far closer to practical manufacture than anyone else in the industry, and the lucky guy from NYTimes got a chance to drive it.

[Please click the link below for the complete article — but then please come on back!]

Cars – Reviews – Honda FCX Clarity – Fuel Cell – Test Drive – New York Times

Those Honda engineers — remarkable achievement! Now, when will there be even one hydrogen pump on even one corner in even one town?

Okay, we promised another fuel cell story:

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From 4,000-lb. automobiles to the several ounces of cell phone in your pocket. Business Week had the story last week:

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Bic Wants to Flick Your Cell Phone

It sees a big opportunity in making cartridges that will help replace batteries in portable devices

by Jennifer L. Schenker

Each day consumers snap up 10 million Bic razors and 5 million of the colorful plastic lighters made famous by the ad campaign “Flick My Bic.” Those volumes pale in comparison to Bic’s ubiquitous pens: The French company sold its 100 billionth in 2005. Bic, which had sales of about $2 billion in 2006, has spent 30 years honing the art of making disposable consumer goods.

Now, Bic wants to use that expertise for something far more challenging than pens or lighters. It’s designing disposable cartridges for fuel cells, a kind of power supply that could someday eliminate the need to constantly recharge mobile phones or laptop computers. Electronics makers are drawn to fuel cells because today’s rechargeable batteries can’t keep up with the demands users place on portable gadgets. If you spend any time surfing the Web from your phone and e-mailing your friends, as well as making calls, you probably have to recharge at least once a day. With a fuel cell, you’d never have to look for an outlet; You’d just pop out a spent fuel cartridge and insert a new one.

See, a fuel cell is a generic term, for any container capable of producing electricity from a chemical reaction, as opposed to batteries, as found everywhere, including in those Prius hybrids so popular (and so uneconomic in true terms!), which store electricity. So, rather than automotive, Bic’s fuel cells are pen cartridge sized, appropriate for those mobile electronic gadgets that are more and more vital to our daily existence.

Bic has no desire to manufacture the fuel cells themselves. These devices were first commercialized more than 50 years ago and are used in various industrial settings. Bic will leave that part of the business to companies such as Samsung and LG, which are eager to sell mini fuel cells—assuming they can bring down the price and the size enough for them to fit in a handset. If the electronics makers succeed in their mission, Bic sees a big opportunity in the replaceable cartridges, which might actually resemble the ink containers in its pens. Each one would cost just a couple of dollars, and could conceivably keep a mobile phone running for weeks at a stretch. If Bic and the fuel-cell makers can get the engineering right, “they could significantly extend the run time of portable devices,” says Heather Daniell, a technology analyst at New Energy Finance, a London market research firm.

Imagine, weeks of cell phone use, then when the charge gets low, just pop in a new $2 battery.

And, read to the end of the BW story, and see a teaser about how fuel cells might provide cheap power for our troops in the field, for all of the mobile devices that are so critical to the conduct of modern warfare.

[Please click the link below for the complete article — but then please come on back!]

Bic Wants to Flick Your Cell Phone

So, we move from fuel cells to wind generation, a recent topic in this space. here for example.

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No question that interest in alternative forms of energy generation is growing. Once again, NYTimes has a tale of kite-like objects that might one day provide inexpensive power from a thousand feet above.

nytimes

Airborne Wind Turbines

By DAVID GELLES  |  Published: December 9, 2007

Traditional wind turbines can be unreliable sources of energy because, well, the wind blows where it will. Not the case 1,000 feet up. “At a thousand feet, there is steady wind anywhere in the world,” says Mac Brown, chief operating officer of Ottawa-based Magenn Power.

Illustration by Bryan Christie Design

The helium-filled Magenn Air Rotor System contains a turbine that spins around a horizontal axis and can produce 10 kilowatts of energy as it floats 1,000 feet above the earth while attached to a copper tether.

To take advantage of this constant breeze, Brown has developed a lighter-than-air wind turbine capable of powering a rural village. “Picture a spinning Goodyear blimp,” Brown says. Filled with helium, outfitted with electrical generators and tethered to the ground by a conductive copper cable, the 100-foot-wide Magenn Air Rotor System (MARS) will produce 10 kilowatts of energy anywhere on earth. As the turbine spins around a horizontal axis, the generators convert the mechanical energy of the wind into electrical energy, then send it down for immediate use or battery storage.

Can’t help but be intrigued, but also to wonder about the underlying assumption — is it really constantly windy at 1,000-feet up?

But, a patent has been issued, and investors have been found, so someone has been telling some excellent stories.

[Please click the link below for the complete article — but then please come on back!]

Airborne Wind Turbines – New York Times

So, that’s our alternative energy SASB. Have to admire the inventiveness of the globe’s researchers, engineers, and software wizards, and admire the gutsy investors and entrepreneurs who appreciate those good stories, and put their money where geeky mouths are.

It’s it for now. Thanks,

–MUDGE


mm166: Economic Miscellanea

October 10, 2007

MUDGE’S Musings

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Short attention span blogging: Item 1:

Three totally different, but intriguing takes on financial and economics news found over the past few days caught our interest.

The first from an interesting business blog long since added to our blogroll, The Cenek Report.

cenekreport

A Modern Parable

Tuesday, June 12, 2007 at 08:16PM
Robert Cenek

A Japanese company ( Toyota ) and an American company (General Motors) decided to have a canoe race on the Missouri River.  Both teams practiced long and hard to reach their peak performance before the race.  On the big day, the Japanese won by a mile.

The Americans, very discouraged and depressed, decided to investigate the reason for the crushing defeat.  A management team composed of senior management was formed to investigate and recommend appropriate action. Their conclusion:  The Japanese had 8 people rowing and 1 person steering, while the American team had 8 people steering and 1 person rowing.

The lesson is short, but telling, and I dare not quote more of it than I have, so please read it for yourself.

[Please click the link below for the complete article — but then please come on back!]

The Cenek Report – Journal

MUDGE wants to support the U.S. automobile industry. Instead, for many years, his family has supported U.S. automobile workers, as well as Japanese automobile workers, as he and his loved ones haven’t found a suitable Big 3 product for more than 20 years, yet we certainly haven’t stopped buying cars. Just Big 3 cars.

The ongoing arguments in the MUDGE family aren’t Ford vs. Chevy vs. Dodge, it’s Honda vs. Toyota, and throughout the MUDGE and MUDGElet families, a pretty even split between the two maintains.

Short attention span blogging: Item 2:

From Slate, the always approachable and most readable Daniel Gross writes about an increasingly pervasive trend:

slate

How Wal-Mart and the government are killing the incandescent light bulb.

By Daniel Gross
Posted Saturday, Oct. 6, 2007, at 6:53 AM ET

Light bulb. Click image to expand.Is the incandescent light bulb on its way out?

Compact fluorescent bulbs cost more than regular incandescent bulbs. But according to the U.S. Department of Energy, they last up to 10 times longer, use about one-fourth the energy, and produce 90 percent less heat. Over its life span of four and a half years, a CFL more than repays its higher cost in energy savings: $62.95 per light bulb. Oh, and they’re good for the planet, since they produce fewer emissions. But while they’ve grown in popularity, CFLs have yet to emerge as a household staple, in part because consumers can’t see beyond the shock of the sticker price to the long-term savings. “When you buy a compact fluorescent bulb at the cash register, you experience the higher cost vividly and all at once,” says Robert Frank, a Cornell economist and author of The Economic Naturalist. “But when your electric bill goes down as a result, the savings are not as evident.” Consumers routinely make such short-term economically irrational decisions.

As it aims to vanquish Thomas Edison’s filament bulb—and save the Earth—the CFL is running into the brick wall of human nature. But the CFL is getting a lift from two of the globe’s most powerful forces: image-conscious Western governments and Wal-Mart.

MUDGE remembers the days, now long past, and in the same classification of even earlier cultural artifacts as twice daily (and once on Sunday!) home postal deliveries (it’s true, but not since the ’50s in Chicago), when light bulbs were free, provided by your friendly electric company (“Little Bill”).

You went to some unlikely place (our local bank I think I remember) and traded a copy of that month’s electric bill for 10 bulbs. One only purchased bulbs, at the ma and pa hardware store or maybe an Ace or True Value store, when something unusual was necessary, like a 4-foot long fluorescent tube for a kitchen or garage.

So the first displacement occurred when everyday bulbs needed to be purchased, as the electric monopoly’s free bulb policy went the way of 29¢/gallon ethyl.

And now, the newest displacement, when instead of the familiar globular bulbs, the odd, curly CFLs, so much more  expensive, and still not providing quite white illumination, seem to be the purchase of choice when replacing lighting.

OF course, bleeding edge as always (ha!), we’ve been replacing incandescents with CFLs here in MUDGEland for many years.

We will never go vegan (don’t get me started!); we recycle but haven’t graduated to reusable grocery bags*; and sorry, the economics of hybrid cars just don’t compute for this family. But compact fluorescent lighting — we’re there (but never, ever to be purchased at Wal-Mart!).

[Please click the link below for the complete article — but then please come on back!]

How Wal-Mart and the government are killing the incandescent light bulb. – By Daniel Gross – Slate Magazine

And did you catch the WIWICWLT moment?

It takes more than one market force to change a light bulb.

Short attention span blogging: Item 3:

Finally this, from Paul Krugman of the NYTimes, unshackled from the newly abandoned pay per view policy, and whose blog has also recently joined the L-HC blogroll.

Here, he illuminates yet another instance of the distorting spin that the perfidious administration of George III has used when announcing economic statistics.

nytimes

Pathetic — Paul Krugman — The Conscience of a Liberal

The new White House “fact sheet” on the economy declares that job growth since August 2003 is the “longest continuous months of job growth on record.”

That’s literally true – the Bureau of Labor Statistics data from the great jobs boom of the 1990s do show a couple of scattered months of job decline, although these are probably statistical blips. But by any reasonable standard, job growth in the Bush years has fallen way short of growth in the Clinton years.

All the data are available at the BLS web site.

Over the whole of the Clinton administration, the economy added 22.7 million jobs – 237,000 per month.

Over the whole of the Bush administration to date, the economy added only 5.8 million jobs – 72,000 per month.

Pathetic – Paul Krugman – Op-Ed Columnist – New York Times Blog

One no longer is surprised, or even disappointed. Just incrementally more angry.

January 20, 2009

Bush’s last day

It’s it for now. Thanks,

–MUDGE

*Non-commercial Note!: the link to greensak.com used above is for the convenience of faithful reader and represents no commercial relationship whatsoever. Left-Handed Complement should be so fortunate as to ever collect remuneration of any kind for this endeavor. I can link, so I link. It’s technology. It’s cool. Deal with it.


mm147: The Crazy Eddie economy

September 20, 2007

MUDGE’S Musings

Always one of MUDGE‘s favorite reads, Daniel Gross enlightens us about the true nature of our economy, in this Slate story regarding a couple of recent very visible pricing actions.

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slate

The alarming lesson of the iPhone price cut.

By Daniel Gross
Posted Thursday, Sept. 20, 2007, at 4:31 PM ET

Crazy Eddie, the electronics retailer who advertised insanely low prices, went out of business nearly 20 year ago. But the company’s spirit is thriving in blue-chip American corporations. On Sept. 5, Apple sharply cut the price of the 8GB iPhone from $599 to $399. Last weekend, Hovnanian, the big home-builder, held a highly promotional “Deal of the Century” campaign, slashing prices for 72 hours on new condominiums. In some Hovnanian developments, prices were cut by up to 25 percent. Other builders are now following suit. Welcome to fire-sale nation!

High-profile price-chopping tends to occur whenever companies freak out about the vicious combination of a slowing consumer economy and the prospect of getting stuck with big inventories of unsold goods. The tactic often works in the short term. The hype over insanely low prices functions as a form of free advertising, and the lower prices tend to attract buyers. Apple announced on Sept. 10 that it had sold its 1 millionth iPhone. Hovnanian’s preliminary results show that it notched sales of 2,130 units over the weekend. (The company reported inventory of about 3,200 homes on July 31.) For the entire third quarter, Hovnanian delivered about 3,500 homes.

I’m not an iPhone user (see below) but who could miss all of the hype, which during all of 2007 has rivaled or even exceeded the last Harry Potter for consumer interest?

And, how did it make you feel, iPhone owner or not, to hear that the price was suddenly reduced by $200, and in (partial?) assuagement present owners would receive a $100 store credit?

As Mr. Gross puts it, I would probably be iPissed. (WIWICWLT!)

But, in true economist fashion, from this example, as well as the Hovnanian (not a name this observer knows — must be less active in the Midwest? Or perhaps it’s because this writer has never purchased a new-built home?) home price cuts, Gross builds a convincing case for how damaging this tactic is for the companies, and for perhaps the economy at large.

[Per L-HC’s reformed process, please click the link below for the complete article — but then please come on back!]

The Crazy Eddie economy. – By Daniel Gross – Slate Magazine

From my many exhausting and tortured years in entrepreneurial business, I know too well that there’s no such thing as too low a price, and if price is the only grounds for competition, you are doomed to bankruptcy.

Gross points out the domestic U.S. auto manufacturers as perfect examples of the walking dead, the zombie behavior caused by selling a product no one will pay full price for.

Ask a bank that writes auto leases what it thinks of Detroit-origin cars, compared to Toyotas and Hondas, which may have spot incentives to correct the occasional inventory imbalance, but usually never very high in comparison, nor very long.

Now about that phone.

This is not meant to start warfare: I simply have always been resistant to Apple’s lovely, but oh so expensive charms, be it computers, music players, and now smartphones.

When it came time for me to upgrade my personal cell (it’s a BlackBerry 8703c for work, tyvm) I found that I had En-V envy.

En-V

Yes, it’s the LG 9900, known for some reason as the En-V. Candy bar (a fat one) on the outside (nice 2MP camera opposite), and it flips open to reveal a pretty fair keyboard and nice large display. MUDGElet No. 3 likes to text — now I can text back.

It’s been two months; I like it. Call quality (it is, first and foremost, meant to be a phone, after all!) is best I’ve ever had, regardless of network (and in MUDGE‘s part of the world, Verizon’s is pretty good).

The camera produced that ad hoc shot I shared after the Boston conference.

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For a larger view, click here.

The navigator feature gave us spoken turn by turn instructions to a restaurant, complete with a changing map on the bright display as we drove. Not too shabby.

And with a 2-year contract (is there any other way these days?) and loyalty discounts, it was $50. $599 or even $399 for a phone? Not this curmudgeon. Can’t feel like a chump, no matter what happens to the price from here!

That’s the best pricing power a consumer has, really. Finding a good, maybe great product, at an everyday competitive price. I’m not bankrupting LG (the phone, popular as it is, has been out for most of a year, very mature for technology these days, so you have to figure they’re making piles on it), nor Verizon (per the 2-year contract), nor, hopefully, myself.

Win-win-win.

It’s it for now. Thanks,

–MUDGE