Electric Scooters and 3-Wheeled Fantasies


Back in 1987, on a cold January day, I found a Harley-Davidson ElectraGlide Classic advertised in the local newspaper.I had known from a relatively young age that the one thing separating me from true and everlasting happiness was owning a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. And so, with that in mind, I embarked on the pursuit of making that bike mine. It had been repossessed and was owned by the local bank, and they only wanted to get the bad loan off their books, so they did little to properly advertise the bike. It was in a shop in an out-of-the way place and so I went over to take a look at it. It was in very good condition, only 3 years old and had the highly desirable 80 cu. inch Evolution V-twin engine which was new for the 1984 model year. It also had an accessory that was not on my ‘must have’ list, namely, a sidecar. I always felt a sidecar looked somewhat odd on a motorcycle, but I reasoned that if I could get the bike for a price that made the sidecar look virtually ‘free’, it would be a good deal because I could always sell the sidecar separately. New sidecars added about $3500 to the cost of a Harley at the time. So I put in a bid slightly below the motorcycle’s book value and in a relatively short time, the bike was in my garage.

The first thing I noticed about riding a bike with a sidecar was that it felt very strange going around corners. Previously, cornering was an exhilarating experience on a motorcycle, but with the sidecar, it became a chore because I felt like I was being thrown off the bike. When turning right, going a little too fast could actually bring the sidecar’s wheel off the ground. I decided that the sidecar, as novel as it looked, took much of the joy out of riding and I promptly removed it. For the next 8 years, the sidecar sat idle while I rode the bike without it. Finally, I sold the sidecar to someone who wanted it, content that I’d never use it again.

I eventually sold the Harley too, after 16 years of owning it, for approximately what I paid for it, around $7500. For those of you who think I’m a shrewd investor, if I used the $7500 and purchased Harley stock instead of that bike, the stock’s value over the same period would have been worth nearly $400,000, so the bike wasn’t really a great investment compared with owning a part of the Harley Davidson company. But “50-bagger” stocks are few and far between and Harley stock has now been flat for about the past 7 years. However, the same amount of money invested in the S&P index would have yielded about $40,000 over the same 16-year period, so again, the Harley would hardly qualify as an ‘investment’.

Here are the lessons I learned from it:

1. There is no one material thing that separates you from true happiness.

2. When you think there is, take the money and buy a stock market index fund instead.

3. Continue searching for the one and only thing that separates you from true happiness.

The reason I mention this experience is because I’ve been contemplating alternative modes of transportation and trying to imagine what a fuel-efficient futuristic vehicle might look like. I spend about 7 months of the year riding my BMW1150RT motorcycle, which was my mid-life crisis replacement for the Harley. I do really enjoy riding it. But for the other 5 months, I need something that can deal with cold weather and snow typical of Colorado winters. Many, if not most, of my cold weather trips are made solo, which means I could use a two-place vehicle like a motorcycle since I don’t need all the room afforded by an SUV. Ideally, it would have very little frontal area and would need to be fully enclosed. Most critically, it would need to be able to lean into turns. Oh, and I must look cool while riding/driving it. I almost forgot to mention that, but it’s probably more important than any other consideration for most people.

I thought I saw the future of transportation at Epcot nearly 20 years ago when I saw the ‘Lean Machine’ , a fully-enclosed 3-wheel vehicle that looked very much like what I just described and capable of leaning into corners. But the machine was designed by GM and they apparently opted not to pursue it, probably because the public was more interested in buying SUVs, trucks, and Hummers than single-seat quirky vehicles with excellent fuel economy.

Now that gas is heading toward $4/gallon with no end in sight, fuel economy is starting to appear on everyone’s radar screen again as a desirable attribute in a vehicle.

An electric motor scooter was profiled in the ‘First Ride’ section of the latest issue of Motorcyclist magazine and it got me to thinking about whether it may be just the right time for an electric motorcycle or possibly a futuristic 3-wheel leaning vehicle to come to the market. The electric motor scooter profiled is called the Vectrix Maxi-Scooter and it has an electric 20 KW (26.8 HP) motor, along with a 200lb., 3.7 kWh battery. Simple math will tell you that this battery would hold about 11 minutes of juice if you were able to run the vehicle at full power, although that probably wouldn’t be possible to do unless you were climbing up a hill at full speed. The company states that the scooter will get between 20 to 60 miles per charge depending on how it’s driven. A charge takes 2 hours to get to 80% battery capacity. The author in the Motorcyclist article got 40 miles from a charge. So it would stand to reason that average riding consumes about 95 Wh per mile. To put that in perspective, it’s the same as using 1 oz. of gasoline per mile assuming a 30% thermal conversion efficiency in an internal combustion engine. You don’t need a calculator to realize this is the equivalent of 128 mpg. The entire battery holds about the same amount of energy as 1/3 of a gallon of gasoline, again assuming a 30% thermal conversion efficiency. Since 1/3 of a gallon of gasoline weighs about 2 lbs., the energy density ratio of the NiMH battery to gasoline is 1:100. Herein lies the biggest problem with electric vehicle energy storage and that is energy density or lack thereof. The 200 lb battery accounts for 43% of the scooter’s 462 lb weight. That’s a nearly identical battery-to-vehicle weight ratio of the GM EV1 that I wrote about previously. With an MSRP of nearly $12K, this scooter costs about twice what an equivalent gas powered scooter would cost.

I have a confession to make. I like riding scooters. I didn’t think I would, but Terri and I rented one our honeymoon and we explored most of Grand Cayman on it. I know that I don’t look cool on a motor scooter — no guy does — but I had already landed the girl, and she didn’t seem to mind, so I figured, “What the heck? I might as well enjoy it.” We rented a scooter in Tuscany and loved it too, especially on the back country roads between Florence and Sienna. We did find ourselves forc
ed to use the autostrada while on a jaunt over to Pisa and the 125cc engine strained to keep up with the flow of traffic. So when no one is watching, I’ll ride a scooter, preferably with a full-faced helmet and dark face shield, so no one will recognize me.

But I’ve tasted what it’s like to ride Ducati and when you pull up at a stop light on a bike like that, everyone just stares, mouths agape, and it’s then that you know you’ve truly arrived. Women want you, men want to be you. You can’t overestimate the psychic value of looking cool on your ride.

So how can we solve the fuel economy/cool factor/all-weather transportation needs of the future? Well, the primary issue is the coolness factor. It has to look cool, not geeky, and be quick too, because the coolness factor will wear off quickly if you’re getting passed by bicycles. Secondly, It must lean into corners, because if it doesn’t, it will either need to be wide or unstable. Third, it must be enclosed for cold weather. That means it needs either three wheels or outrigger wheels that deploy when stopping to keep you from tipping over. I’ve seen a few examples of the latter, but for some odd reason they all cost upward of $100K. It could be an all-electric vehicle, but not if it requires gobs of weight in batteries. So I think that means that it may need to be a hybrid.

I’ve seen a few promising examples of what I’ve described and I’ll show some pictures and links here:

Venture is an American licensee of the leaning technology developed by the Dutch company Carver. Make sure to visit their website and watch the videos, most of which are of the Carver.

Carver seems like it’s ahead of the game here, with vehicles available for sale, although at a hair-raising price of €50,000 (about U.S. $75,000)

And the Carver can really lean over dramatically

BMW even seems to have at least a concept version of a 3-wheel vehicle called the ‘Clever’.

The vehicle of my dreams may be available today, but it’s priced beyond what I’m willing to pay. For now I guess I’ll have to be content to ride a 45-mpg BMW sport touring bike in warm weather and suffer sticker shock each time I fill up at the pump with my 14-mpg Dodge Durango in the winter months. I do love the Durango because it will comfortably haul 7 people around in the nastiest weather Colorado can dish out and it can even swallow whole sheets of 4’x 8’ plywood. It’s hard to put a price on that. But the weather’s warming up now and I’m itching to lean into some curvy canyon roads so it feels like it’s time to pull out the BMW.

And, if at some point if you see some dude cruising by on a geeky electric scooter with a full-faced helmet and dark face shield, it just may be me. 🙂

UPDATE: 2009-01-15 After re-reading my advice to ‘buy a stock market index fund instead’ I have to confess with perfect 20/20 hindsight that no longer looks like very sound advice 🙁

LinkedIn tip – Avoiding multiple accounts


I first found out about LinkedIn from my friend Jack Krupansky a few years ago at the EntConnect conference. At the time, we didn’t know what LinkedIn would become, but both Jack and I are curious individuals and so I decided to join him on LinkedIn. For several months, Jack was my only connection. Over time, I got a few more invitations from people who I didn’t know but who had many connections already. These were people who sought to become ‘super-connected’ individuals. They had impressive credentials and I was happy to connect with them. But after a few years, I still only had a handful of connections because I had never invited anyone to join my network. From what I understand, this is fairly typical behavior of most new initiates to LinkedIn. About a year ago, I decided to be more proactive about connecting to people on LinkedIn and subsequently did much more investigation of it by taking a class from Integrated Alliances and reading the books, ‘I’m on LinkedIn, Now What?‘ by Jason Alba and ‘The Virtual Handshake‘ by Scott Allen and David Teten. After joining NoCoNet, a local career networking group, I found that I had many more opportunities to meet and connect with people. I later became the chairman of NoCoNet’s LinkedIn committee and so I’m much more proficient with using it and helping others to use it.

About a month ago, Peter Olins, our NoCoNet president, asked me to prepare a ‘LinkedIn Tip of the Week’ for our members and so I have started doing that and will be sharing them in the blog for everyone’s benefit after I’ve presented them. I posted one earlier about using the ‘Groups and Affiliations‘.

This week’s tip is on how to avoid having multiple LinkedIn accounts. Everyone seems to have more than one email address these days, and if a LinkedIn member were to invite you to connect using an email address that LinkedIn does not know about, it’s possible to end up with an extra LinkedIn account. This may happen when someone uploads his Outlook contacts list and then uses a feature of LinkedIn that allows him to invite everyone in that list. You may find yourself getting multiple invitations, possibly from someone to whom you’re already connected. If LinkedIn thinks you’re an entirely new person based on an email address it does not recognize, it will set up a separate account and if you click on the link to respond, you may find it asking for your name and to fill in your profile again. I’ve seen this happen when people use email forwarders. For example, say you have an address that is for your college’s alumni association looks like “your.name@csu.org” or something similar that simply forwards mail to a Yahoo email account. It’s possible you’ve given out both addresses to people over the years and you may appear twice in their Outlook contacts lists. If you don’t have both your “your.name@csu.org” AND your Yahoo email address in LinkedIn’s database, you might get multiple invitations to connect to a person and if you respond to the invitation sent to the address that LinkedIn does not know about, you can end up with two separate accounts.

If you didn’t know about this little feature, you may end up with an extra LinkedIn account. The only way to delete a duplicate account is to send an email to LinkedIn’s customer support (cs@linkedin.com). Make sure to let them know which account you want deleted.

To avoid this situation, you should put all your email addresses in your profile. LinkedIn will only use the one you designate as a primary address to send you email. However, it will know that if someone sends an invitation to any of your email addresses, it will recognize it as an existing account and not try to set up a new account for you.

The way to do that is to go the upper right hand corner of a LinkedIn screen and select Account and Settings. Then, from the menu that appears, under Personal Settings select Email Addresses. Add every email address that you use. If you’re about to leave an employer, make sure to do this before you leave, because you do have to verify the address by responding to a link that LinkedIn will send to that address.

Energy and Entconnect


I am trying to recruit one of my favorite gurus to attend the EntConnect conference this year. If you’re into electronics, you’ve no doubt heard of Don Lancaster. Don is a prolific writer and has written numerous columns in most of the electronics hobbiest magazines over the years. He’s also authored numerous electronics books such as the TTL Cookbook and the CMOS Cookbook. Nowadays, his columns can be found on his website.

Don was responsible for my finding out about Midnight Engineering magazine and so he’s indirectly responsible for my involvement with the EntConnect conference. Similarly, many other conference attendees give him credit for their discovery of it as well.

My favorite articles that Don writes about are related to energy, especially his energy fundamentals article. He recently followed it up with another one entitled more energy fundamentals. I also appreciate his take on patents.

I’ve asked him to run a banner ad on his site for the conference. I’ve combined two elements that are distinctly Don, the aqua blue color of his website and the word ‘tinaja’. We’ll see if he chooses to run it as is or if I’ll be doing some editing of it. You can see the example below. And…if you’re interested in coming to EntConnect, please note the discount code available in the banner ad when you register.

Rawhide Energy Station Trip Report

The Rawhide Energy Station and Hamilton Reservoir

On March 4th, 2008, a group made up of members from the Northern Colorado Clean Energy Network and the Northern Colorado Renewable Energy Society toured the Rawhide Energy Station. It was the third of our ‘Energy Reality Tour’ series. Previous tours have included the Ponnequin Wind Farm and Front Range Energy ethanol plant.

You may wonder why organizations focused on clean and renewable energy would want to visit a fossil-fuel burning plant, but I can assure you that visiting an operating power plant gives one plenty to contemplate in terms of energy generation on a utility scale. Whenever someone proposes a solution to global warming with a renewable energy technology, it helps to get a dose of reality by seeing firsthand what it is that we would need to replace.

The Rawhide Energy Station is located 26 miles north of Fort Collins, CO. It was built over a 4.5 year period during the early 1980s and started generating power on March 31, 1984. It has a 274-megawatt coal-fired steam turbine for the base load and 4 gas turbines capable of generating 260 megawatts for backup of the steam turbine and for supporting peak loads during the summer time when electricity demand is high. It uses approximately 4000 tons of low sulfur coal per day. Rawhide is one of the cleanest coal-fired power plants in the nation and generally ranks in the top 5 of the cleanest plants in the U.S. in terms of sulfur dioxide emissions.

The Rawhide Energy Station is owned and operated by the Platte River Power Authority, a community-owned utility that provides electric service to the cities of Fort Collins, Loveland, Longmont, and Estes Park. In addition to full ownership of the Rawhide plant, the PRPA owns an interest in a coal-fired plant in Craig, CO. It also owns 10 wind turbines near Medicine Bow, WY and purchases hydroelectric power from federally owned facilities in Colorado, Wyoming, and New Mexico. Hydroelectric power accounts for approximately 20% of the power distributed by the PRPA.

The plant is situated on a 4000 acre site that includes a 500-acre, 5 billion gallon reservoir that is used for cooling and recondensing the steam. This reservoir maintains a temperature of approximately 70F year round and is home to numerous waterfowl. Another unique feature of the site is that it has its own bison herd. The plant employs approximately 100 full time employees and is staffed around the clock, 365 days a year.

The coal is delivered to the plant by rail from the Antelope mine in the Powder River Basin region in Wyoming, which is about 200 miles to the north. PRB coal has a very low sulfur content and an energy content of 8850 BTU/lb. The ‘heat rate’ or thermal conversion efficiency on the coal in this plant is 10,200 BTU/kWh which translates to about 33% thermal efficiency. When the steam turbine is producing its nominal output of 297 MW, about 23 MW is used to run the plant and the rest (274 MW) is sent to the grid. The cost of coal per BTU is very low for PRB coal, about $.84/MBTU (using a price of $15/ton which is the historical average for PRB coal). I should also include the coal’s transportation cost, which, on average, doubles the effective price for a PRB coal customer. However, that assumes a much longer journey than the relatively short 200 mile distance to Colorado. Since the coal transportation cost by rail is just under $.02/ton-mile, transportation fees would increase the cost by about $4/ton or about 25%. To put that in perspective, the current cost of natural gas at the plant is $9.33/MBTU. The gas turbines have lower thermal efficiency, also called the ‘heat rate’, than the coal-fired steam turbine, requiring about 13,400 BTU/kWh. This means that the fuel cost for a natural gas turbine is 11 times as much per kWh as coal at this plant. That is, it requires $.011 of coal per kWh vs. $.126 of natural gas per kWh. I had to calculate this number several times to make sure it was correct, but I’m quite sure I had written down the gas turbine ‘heat rate’ correctly. This means that the fuel cost for every kWh of gas-fired power generated is nearly twice as expensive as the Fort Collins average of around $.07/kWh electricity retail rate. They were not running the gas turbines when we visited, but had the coal-steam turbine operating at full capacity. When there is such a disparity in fuel costs, it’s no wonder that the gas turbines are only brought on-line when necessary. It also illustrates just how inexpensive coal is in comparison to other fuels.

I should mention a few more details about thermal efficiency. If a process had a 100% thermal efficiency, it would require 3412 BTUs of heat to produce 1 kWh of electricity. A gas turbine typically has a similar efficiency to a steam turbine, about 10,000 BTU/kWh which translates to about 34% thermal efficiency. If you can use a combined cycle to further recover the heat from the gas turbine’s exhaust and run a steam turbine with it, you can get between 50-60% thermal efficiency from the natural gas, making it better, but still much less economical than coal, costing about 5 or 6 times as much as coal per kWh for the fuel. Also, if you plan to run a combined cycle, then it’s not practical to take advantage of one of the primary benefits of a gas turbine which is that it’s easy to bring on line and shut down when not needed. A boiler system and steam turbine require much more time to be brought on line than a gas turbine (hours vs. minutes) so when running a combined cycle, it’s better to keep everything running continuously. For comparison’s sake, the $15/ton price for PRB coal is quite inexpensive, about 30% of the average for coal mines in the central and eastern U.S. coal regions on a cost/BTU basis. Its low price combined with low sulfur content helps explain why Wyoming coal is so popular with electric utilities, accounting for 38% of all coal mined in the U.S..

The coal is stored outside the plant surrounded by a series of earthen berms and is large enough to hold a 90-day supply of coal. It is sprayed with a surfactant to keep the dust from blowing off the piles of coal. Having grown up within 300 yards of an anthracite coal breaker in Pennsylvania, I can attest to how hard it is to deal with coal dust in an environment where coal is stored or moved, yet despite the wind blowing in excess of 25 mph during our visit, we saw no coal dust blowing around the facility.

Pictorial of the Rawhide Energy Station inner workings

From the storage area, the coal is delivered by conveyor to 4 mills which pulverize the coal into a powder with the consistency of talc. After milling, the coal is blown into the boiler where it is ignited and heats up the inside of the boiler to 2800F. The inside of the boiler is lined with steel pipes that are part of the closed-cycle steam system. The water inside this closed system must be purified so that it doesn’t ‘plate out’ on the inside of the pipes or otherwise damage the turbine. The water circulates through this system at the rate of 3800 gallons/min. When the steam in the boiler achieves a temperature of 1000F and a pressure of 1890 psi, it is sent to the high pressure stage of a 3-stage turbine. From the high pressure stage, it makes a trip back to the boiler to pick up some more heat before it is fed into the turbine’s intermediate pressure stage. From there it goes to the turbine’s low pressure stage. After that, the steam is re-condensed, using a heat exchanger and water from the reservoir. The reservoir water is not part of the closed system. It circulates into the heat exchanger at the rate of 196,000 gallons per minute. The water temperature of the cooling water is raised 15 degrees in the process of cooling down the steam. Although that rate of flow is impressive, it would take about 18 days for all the water in the reservoir to circulate through the heat exchanger.

All three steam turbine sections are connected to the same shaft that runs the generator. The Westinghouse generator has a rating of 24,000V and 8068A and feeds a transformer to step up its 3-phase output to 230KV for transmission to the grid.

The steam turbine and generator reside in a large room with an overhead crane and are contained in a very large structure called a ‘dog house’ to help keep down the noise. While in this room, it was hard to believe that we were standing just a few feet of a prime mover that was outputting nearly 400,000 horsepower. The room seemed much larger than it needed to be, almost like a large aircraft hangar, and our tour guide explained that this was because it was necessary to dismantle the turbine and generator every 3 years for preventative maintenance and all the floor space was needed to arrange the parts during this process. They generally try to schedule these maintenance operations for spring or fall when peak electrical demand is much lower than the summer or winter months. When the coal-fired turbine is down, the electricity can either be generated with natural gas or purchase from other providers to make up for the loss of the generating capacity.

The coal portion of this plant is enormous, requiring a 16-story building just to house the pulverizing mills and boiler along with portions of the process that are designed to clean the resulting exhaust. The exhaust from the boiler is first run through a scrubber, where the nitric and sulfur oxides are removed by combining them with calcium carbonate to form gypsum. From there the exhaust moves on the ‘bag room’. In the bag room are a series 6576 filter bags 12” in diameter and 34 feet in length that all exhaust must pass through which removes 99.7% of the particulates. These Teflon-coated fiberglass bags are continually cleaned to remove the fly ash which is collected buried on site. Some of the fly ash is also used in the cement block industry. About 5% of the coal by weight is turned into ash and there is a landfill on the site large enough to completely store all of the ash generated by the plant through its design life.

A mercury monitoring system was installed recently and the plan is to remove 80% of the mercury emissions by 2012 and 90% of it by 2018. This was done not to comply with regulations, but rather on a voluntary basis. Rawhide is only one of two plants in the state to voluntarily install mercury monitoring equipment.

Seeing power generated on a utility scale is a bit daunting. You quickly realize how much time, effort, and expertise has gone into building our nation’s electrical generating systems and how absolutely dependent we have become on them. As we begin to hear more and more about renewable energy, it’s important to recognize that the challenge is not just about matching the overall capacity, but also the reliability and availability of the fossil fuel generating systems they’d eventually replace.

I got many positive comments from the other tour attendees regarding the friendliness and professionalism of the PRPA staff. They really went out of their way to make us feel welcome and to answer the numerous questions from our group. I’d especially like to thank Jon Little, John Bleem, Brian Frisbie, and Pete Ungerman for their part in setting up and hosting our group for the tour. They all went above and beyond the call of duty to make the tour as enjoyable as it was informative.