Sunday, June 17, 2012

A Day with the Nissan Leaf - Electric Transportation Land

With my in-laws coming in via train for Courtney's graduation, they decided to rent a Nissan Leaf, one of the few fully electric cars on the market right now, to get themselves around town while they're down.  For various logistical reasons, I had to pick up the Leaf a day early, and had 24 hours to use it as my primary mode of transportation.

While I am not exactly "in the market" for a fully electric car (my goals are more oriented towards driving as little as possible and living in a walkable, bikable neighborhood), I recognize that they will play an essential role in an overall shift in private transit if we ever want to kick fossil and foreign oil-based fuels.  Also, I am a bit of a technocrat, and I just love new things.

There are a number of fun features on the leaf, many of them designed specifically to give you good feelings while driving it.  From the cute sounds it makes to let you know it is on (there is no engine noise while idling, and hardly any while driving) to the little trees that "grow" on your dashboard display when you drive efficiently, the car is made to make you feel good about yourself for driving it.  And it works, a little.  Until it backfires.

When I picked up the car, the dashboard display informed me that I had about 89 miles of potential charge on the battery.  It comes up with this estimate based on the car's individual driving history, which is personalized to you if you own it but for a rental car is all over the map.  As I started to drive I was intentionally being as efficient as I possibly could, and I watched as the potential miles crept up as I drove.  From the starting point at 89 miles, I got over a hundred within 6 minutes.  But then I made a terrible, unforgivable mistake.  I was brash and foolish enough to drive over a hill.  The Leaf handled the hill just fine, acceleration and responsiveness were great, but the potential miles plummeted as I ascended.  As I climbed the hill, I had a sinking, anxious feeling that I would get to the other side and not have enough charge on the battery to get back!

That panic was unwarranted, as it turned out, the car had plenty of charge to get me where I needed to go for the full 24 hours, but in about 1 quarter mile of steep incline I used up 30 miles of potential in the battery.  As I was born and raised in a town that is all hills, with only one moderately flat street, it struck me that electric vehicles would be impractical for entire cities such as Laguna Beach, San Francisco, or any other topographically challenged locale.

Also, the  eighty to one hundred miles of potential on a full charge is more than enough for the average commute plus jaunt around town (unless you live in a sprawling mega-city like Los Angeles), but it is extremely limiting once you start thinking about traveling, or work that requires a lot of driving (sales jobs, couriers, or taxis e.g.).  So in the end, the Leaf can be an excellent commuter, if you live in a moderately sized city with no hills, but it does not provide the all around one stop shopping silver bullet to all of your transportation needs that internal combustion does.

But there never is a silver bullet is there?  The Leaf is a cool car, and fun to drive, but if we are serious about kicking foreign oil and fossil fuels, we still need better public transit, design for walkable and bikable cities, more programs like flex cars, and some internal combustion run on bio-fuels, methane, or some as yet undiscovered other renewable energy.  In other words, the solution will be a patchwork, involving all of the technologies that have been presented as silver bullets.  As it has been said by many others (Grist, Wired, to name a few) silver buckshot is the solution, and the Leaf is one attractive little pellet in that mix.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Summer & All the Good Things that it Brings

Summer officially begins June 20th in the northern hemisphere this year, and I for one cannot wait.  In 10 days the solar azimuth, or the sun's path through the sky, will arc as far north and as high overhead as it gets before the days start growing shorter, and the sun slowly retreats to the south for next winter.  This will be the "longest day" of the year.  At my latitude in Eugene the sun rises at 5:30am and doesn't set until 9pm resulting in 15.5 straight hours of sunshine!  The farther north you go, the longer the daylight lasts, and above a certain latitude (in parts of Alaska, Canada and Northern Europe for example) the sun will not set at all.  Those nearer the equator will hardly notice the difference in the day's length.

The Peas Are Taking Off

The summer's approach brings many good tidings in general, and this year a few specific good tidings for me.  Not only are the long days and fair weather conducive to a more active lifestyle, and the general quality of recreation improves significantly, but the long hours of sunshine make the garden grow fast and strong.  You may recall some of my disaster stories from the last two years of gardening, well this year we are starting to figure it out.  I have been turning a compost pile since April of last year, and at the beginning of spring I tilled up the vegetable patch in our yard and turned the compost into the patch.  So far, the vegetables we have planted love it.

We also have a few little planter boxes of herbs right by the kitchen door that are doing very well, and our one survivor from previous years, the blueberry bush, has more little green fruits than ever before.  We are about to plant a few tomatoes and plan to add some lettuce and other leafy green along the fence (which doesn't get nearly as much sun).

But this year, the best thing that summer brings with it is my wife, who has completed the Master's of Architecture program at UO and has her commencement in a week.  After three long years in Design Jail, she is a free woman once again.  The last two quarters have been fantastic (she got the studio teacher she most wanted and it was everything she hoped it would be) and her final review went extremely well.  Considering the fact that final reviews are usually a bloody affair consisting of a group of cynics tearing apart your hard work and design aesthetic, I think Courtney's face at the end of her review says it all.

Courtney in Front of Her Final Presentation
So for the rest of the summer, (in addition to my usual stuff about going green) you can expect a lot of posts about gardening, barbequing, and for the first time in a while probably some posts about traveling around Oregon, which Courtney and I are very excited about.  So I leave you with a Eugene send off, what everyone here says instead of goodbye when it is not raining: "enjoy the weather!"