The Oil and the Glory

The Weekly Wrap — April 27, 2012

Testing out a fuel cell-driven vehicle: General Motors lent me a hydrogen fuel cell-powered Equinox for the last three days for a test drive around Washington (that is the car above, but not the time I drove it). These are cars powered by an electric motor, and fueled by four tanks of compressed hydrogen (see ...

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Testing out a fuel cell-driven vehicle: General Motors lent me a hydrogen fuel cell-powered Equinox for the last three days for a test drive around Washington (that is the car above, but not the time I drove it). These are cars powered by an electric motor, and fueled by four tanks of compressed hydrogen (see technical description at Edmunds.com). They are alternatives to battery-powered electric cars. They can technically go 200 miles or so on a single fill up, and be refueled in minutes. GM and most of the rest of the major carmakers are pushing the fuel-cell case pretty hard — in the U.S., they feel they have to if they are to meet tough 2025 car-efficiency standards. In addition, California, the ultra-important, cutting-edge global vehicle market, is insisting that 15 percent of all cars sold in the state in 2025 be either electric, plug-in hybrids or hydrogen fuel-cell. In Germany, Daimler is aggressively advancing a fuel cell-driven fleet, writes Scientific American, as is Honda in Japan. GM and Mercedes plan to roll out fuel-cell driven vehicles in three years or so, if everything goes well.

So what about the Equinox? To clear one thing out of the way, it is a 2008 model — GM says it has not yet decided which vehicle it will use for its rollout. So what you are doing is testing not the comfort of the seats, the ride or the internal gizmos, but the propulsion. The first thing that you notice about the system is the gurgle when the car is idling and shutting down — as my wife described it, like a rattling refrigerator (I at first thought it was more like a garbage disposal, but then decided she was right). After the second day, I got used to the sound, but it is not the sort of thing that you want to get used to, or think that you ought to get used to. People go bonkers at the slightest squeak in their cars, and it is back to the dealer with them. One presumes that GM will engineer that away, as Mercedes has already done with its test vehicle, according to Popular Mechanics.

The ride itself is quiet and pleasant. I am not a green fanatic, but there is something placidly cool about knowing you are not burning a teaspoon of gasoline. When the girls and I were driving Wednesday, a fellow on the East-West Highway asked us to roll down the window. "You are not burning any gasoline?" he asked. Zero, I said. He and the other guys in his car laughed. They liked the idea. "So you just plug it in?" was his second question. I did not have the heart to tell this fellow that, yes, technically you can rapidly pump in your hydrogen fuel — except that there are no hydrogen fueling stations in Washington. Not one! (There used to be, but it has shut down as of 2010. In case you are curious, here is an international list of hydrogen fuel filling stations.)

Much is made of this lack of fueling stations — that the government must get behind their construction, or carmakers won’t build a lot of vehicles. I personally think that, when profit-minded filling-station owners sense these vehicles coming on the market, they themselves will gradually, and perhaps more than gradually, install hydrogen tanks.

One item: When I picked up the car, it registered 177 miles of hydrogen remaining in the tanks. I had to leave 50 in the car so that, when it was picked up by the GM representative, it could be returned to its Virginia resting spot. I drove 89 miles, and left 54 in the tank. So I lost 34 miles, or 19 percent of the capacity, and this was almost wholly tame driving — I did not accelerate out the wazoo or hang tight corners. I drove a tiny bit fast once (okay, maybe twice). The performance improves when you figure out how to modulate the accelerator.

One can imagine that these vehicles will take off at once, presuming they are marketed to the right niche, at the right price point, and that they will do really well when they are priced competitively. And when those profit-minded filling station owners get their hydrogen tanks.

Go to the Jump for the rest of the Wrap.

 

Aubrey McClendon, in trouble: The high-flying CEO of Chesapeake Energy, with his vintage wine collection, and homes in Bermuda, Michigan, Minnesota and Oklahoma City, has been pushed back on his heels by embarrassing financial disclosures. He is being investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission, and his board says it will roll back his perks. As broken first by Reuters, the news is that McClendon has borrowed hundreds of millions of dollars in one-way bets on the very same shale gas wells being drilled by the publicly traded company he founded. If the wells hit no gas, he owes nothing. We have been writing about the self-entitled McClendon for a year or so — how Chesapeake is his personal piggy bank in a way that a Russian oligarch would understand. In 2010, the company picked up more than $100,000 a year in his personal security expenses, plus half-a-million dollars for his personal use of the corporate jet, as disclosed by footnoted.org. What is in store for McClendon? The Chesapeake board is not acting out of a sudden sense of responsibility, but self-survival. One intuits that both he and the board are at risk of expulsion by shareholders. However, one needs to keep in mind that boards and CEOs can hang on for a long time; there needs to be a pretty substantial nudge for an earthquake of that type. All we can say at this juncture is that McClendon will have to pay a few more dollars for his personal expenses.

 

More on Asteroids: There is scientific pushback on a skeptical post here yesterday on asteroid mining. To summarize, a Seattle-based venture honchoed by X-Prize founder Peter Diamandis has announced plans to mine platinum and other valuable metals from asteroids. I quoted Tom Murphy, a physics professor at the University of California at San Diego whose back-of-the-envelope calculations question the practicality of the idea. One commenter said that Murphy has his math and methods all wrong — getting to the asteroids, grabbing them and extracting their innards will be easier than he thinks. Greg Fish, a blogger at the World of Weird Things, says the answer is actually somewhere in the middle. In an email, he told me that some parts will be easy — getting to the asteroids — but others hard, such as mining them. The latter, Fish says, "is a massively money-losing effort." Fish adds, however, that nanotechnology could help (see this post): Small-scale genetic engineering could produce particles that themselves could bring out gold or platinum. Those particles would then be brought back down to Earth. I still wonder why anyone would spend so much money to find and transport such metals from space when they are present in reasonably quantities right here on Earth. Call me skeptical, but one senses a couple of things:

**A lot of space nuts with too much time on their hands;

**A lot of space nuts may be attempting to construct a profit reason for wealthy benefactors to finance their efforts to go privately to space.

Testing out a fuel cell-driven vehicle: General Motors lent me a hydrogen fuel cell-powered Equinox for the last three days for a test drive around Washington (that is the car above, but not the time I drove it). These are cars powered by an electric motor, and fueled by four tanks of compressed hydrogen (see technical description at Edmunds.com). They are alternatives to battery-powered electric cars. They can technically go 200 miles or so on a single fill up, and be refueled in minutes. GM and most of the rest of the major carmakers are pushing the fuel-cell case pretty hard — in the U.S., they feel they have to if they are to meet tough 2025 car-efficiency standards. In addition, California, the ultra-important, cutting-edge global vehicle market, is insisting that 15 percent of all cars sold in the state in 2025 be either electric, plug-in hybrids or hydrogen fuel-cell. In Germany, Daimler is aggressively advancing a fuel cell-driven fleet, writes Scientific American, as is Honda in Japan. GM and Mercedes plan to roll out fuel-cell driven vehicles in three years or so, if everything goes well.

So what about the Equinox? To clear one thing out of the way, it is a 2008 model — GM says it has not yet decided which vehicle it will use for its rollout. So what you are doing is testing not the comfort of the seats, the ride or the internal gizmos, but the propulsion. The first thing that you notice about the system is the gurgle when the car is idling and shutting down — as my wife described it, like a rattling refrigerator (I at first thought it was more like a garbage disposal, but then decided she was right). After the second day, I got used to the sound, but it is not the sort of thing that you want to get used to, or think that you ought to get used to. People go bonkers at the slightest squeak in their cars, and it is back to the dealer with them. One presumes that GM will engineer that away, as Mercedes has already done with its test vehicle, according to Popular Mechanics.

The ride itself is quiet and pleasant. I am not a green fanatic, but there is something placidly cool about knowing you are not burning a teaspoon of gasoline. When the girls and I were driving Wednesday, a fellow on the East-West Highway asked us to roll down the window. "You are not burning any gasoline?" he asked. Zero, I said. He and the other guys in his car laughed. They liked the idea. "So you just plug it in?" was his second question. I did not have the heart to tell this fellow that, yes, technically you can rapidly pump in your hydrogen fuel — except that there are no hydrogen fueling stations in Washington. Not one! (There used to be, but it has shut down as of 2010. In case you are curious, here is an international list of hydrogen fuel filling stations.)

Much is made of this lack of fueling stations — that the government must get behind their construction, or carmakers won’t build a lot of vehicles. I personally think that, when profit-minded filling-station owners sense these vehicles coming on the market, they themselves will gradually, and perhaps more than gradually, install hydrogen tanks.

One item: When I picked up the car, it registered 177 miles of hydrogen remaining in the tanks. I had to leave 50 in the car so that, when it was picked up by the GM representative, it could be returned to its Virginia resting spot. I drove 89 miles, and left 54 in the tank. So I lost 34 miles, or 19 percent of the capacity, and this was almost wholly tame driving — I did not accelerate out the wazoo or hang tight corners. I drove a tiny bit fast once (okay, maybe twice). The performance improves when you figure out how to modulate the accelerator.

One can imagine that these vehicles will take off at once, presuming they are marketed to the right niche, at the right price point, and that they will do really well when they are priced competitively. And when those profit-minded filling station owners get their hydrogen tanks.

Go to the Jump for the rest of the Wrap.

 

Aubrey McClendon, in trouble: The high-flying CEO of Chesapeake Energy, with his vintage wine collection, and homes in Bermuda, Michigan, Minnesota and Oklahoma City, has been pushed back on his heels by embarrassing financial disclosures. He is being investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission, and his board says it will roll back his perks. As broken first by Reuters, the news is that McClendon has borrowed hundreds of millions of dollars in one-way bets on the very same shale gas wells being drilled by the publicly traded company he founded. If the wells hit no gas, he owes nothing. We have been writing about the self-entitled McClendon for a year or so — how Chesapeake is his personal piggy bank in a way that a Russian oligarch would understand. In 2010, the company picked up more than $100,000 a year in his personal security expenses, plus half-a-million dollars for his personal use of the corporate jet, as disclosed by footnoted.org. What is in store for McClendon? The Chesapeake board is not acting out of a sudden sense of responsibility, but self-survival. One intuits that both he and the board are at risk of expulsion by shareholders. However, one needs to keep in mind that boards and CEOs can hang on for a long time; there needs to be a pretty substantial nudge for an earthquake of that type. All we can say at this juncture is that McClendon will have to pay a few more dollars for his personal expenses.

 

More on Asteroids: There is scientific pushback on a skeptical post here yesterday on asteroid mining. To summarize, a Seattle-based venture honchoed by X-Prize founder Peter Diamandis has announced plans to mine platinum and other valuable metals from asteroids. I quoted Tom Murphy, a physics professor at the University of California at San Diego whose back-of-the-envelope calculations question the practicality of the idea. One commenter said that Murphy has his math and methods all wrong — getting to the asteroids, grabbing them and extracting their innards will be easier than he thinks. Greg Fish, a blogger at the World of Weird Things, says the answer is actually somewhere in the middle. In an email, he told me that some parts will be easy — getting to the asteroids — but others hard, such as mining them. The latter, Fish says, "is a massively money-losing effort." Fish adds, however, that nanotechnology could help (see this post): Small-scale genetic engineering could produce particles that themselves could bring out gold or platinum. Those particles would then be brought back down to Earth. I still wonder why anyone would spend so much money to find and transport such metals from space when they are present in reasonably quantities right here on Earth. Call me skeptical, but one senses a couple of things:

**A lot of space nuts with too much time on their hands;

**A lot of space nuts may be attempting to construct a profit reason for wealthy benefactors to finance their efforts to go privately to space.

<p> Steve LeVine is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation, and author of The Oil and the Glory. </p>

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