Sunday, April 04, 2021

LTN: One possible solution to decarbonizing transportation

Bad Dad and I were featured in A Local Travel Network for the South Bay Story Map* riding my Ebike and an Escooter we bought for combining with transit just before the March 2020 lockdown.

Click through to see the full wide picture that also includes a BMW electric car.  I have mixed feelings about this project.  I think it is a reasonable baby step, but the South Bay Cities Council of Governments does not appear inclined to offer more than sharrows.  In fact, their South Bay Bicycling Master Plan counts roads with 50+ mph traffic and a sign on the shoulder saying it is a bike route as a bikeway.

The Story Map makes some good points about the South Bay region of Los Angeles County.  This area is home to roughly 1 Million people and 750,000 cars.

70% of South Bay trips are less than 3 miles, yet we do most of them by car. It's both a problem of habit and the built environment. We don't provide safe spaces for people out of cars, so people make trips in cars, even if they would prefer to do otherwise. Spend some time exploring pedestrian and cyclist data using UC Berkeley's Transportation Injury Mapping System

In 2009-2020, there were 100,000 collisions involving pedestrians and cyclists, including ~3100 deaths,  in Los Angeles County.

This is just the people that braved the streets outside of cars. This doesn't even represent the suppressed active tranportation trips that people took in cars or forwent out of (quite rational) fear.

I'll take allies where I find them.  I am accepting the LTN (if they actually build it) as a down payment, but not as payment in full, for the safe streets that we deserve and need as we decarbonize local transportation.

* We were told to be near the intersection of Pacific and 10th street in Manhattan Beach, CA one Saturday morning to film.  We bike through that area on our way to the beach several times a week.  It's one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the region.  The organizer wanted a quintessential South Bay setting with the ocean.  But, I would not have selected a neighborhood that aggressively protects Single Family Home Zoning to preserve the affordability of $30,000,000 ($30 Million) dollar homes.  We have to quit showing SFHs as if they are normal or representative. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Friday, April 02, 2021

Batteries don't grow on trees

This video came across my Twitter timeline and I retweeted it. Rice geophysics professor Cin-Ty Lee explains why nickel and cobalt laterites are found in the areas where biodiversity is greatest. It's pretty heartbreaking.


I knew that batteries were very toxic, and that the Cobalt used in them came from DRC*, often using slave or child labor, but I had believed the stories that alternate sources of Cobalt had been found and that would be a nonissue as soon as the alternate sources came online. 

Professor Lee's video made me realize that the most economically viable Cobalt deposits are all in the tropics: Congo, Papua New Guinea and Queensland, Australia.  You reach the deposits either by strip mining in tropical highlands, or mining the oceans.

If you are in the "green-industrial complex" and need to calculate your client's carbon footprint, you end up having to sum the carbon from battery production with the savings that the battery enables.  If battery production includes the carbon released from strip mining tropical rainforests to mine the ore, the potential carbon savings plummets.

I found an open access journal about the Life cycle assessment of cobalt extraction process that gave a picture of the tradeoffs.  Eutrophication means adding nitrogen and silt to waterways from the strip mining.


  • The life cycle assessment of the cobalt extraction route is carried out.
  • Blasting and electricity consumption in cobalt mining is damaging to the environment.
  • Eutrophication and global warming are the most affected impact categories.
  • Carbon dioxide and nitrogen dioxide emission are highest from cobalt mining.
  • Alternative energy sources for electricity generation would enhance sustainability.
One way to avoid destroying tropical rainforests to mine ore is to source your ore from the ocean floor.  I found other articles such as, Deep-ocean polymetallic nodules as a resource for critical materials, that show the potential of deep ocean mining metals used in batteries.  You may not release carbon by cutting down tropical rainforests, but you will make the fishing and tourism industries and coral reef ecologists very angry.  You'll also destroy ocean ecology.  Pesky tradeoffs!

Right now, we're in the battery build up phase.  Eventually, we'll have enough that we can keep recycling them, much as we do for lead-acid batteries.  This will end the destruction caused by mining, but cause other problems.

I did a little research to wrap my head around how much we are talking about.

Lithium-metal batteries are about 10-20% cobalt chemistry, but that includes water, so it's about 1-2% Cobalt by weight.

Teslas have 1060-1200 pounds of batteries or about 55-85 kWh (kiloWatt hours)
The new eHummer has 200 kWh
My Ebike has 0.5 kWh
My Escooter has 0.3 kWh**

Electric cars have 100-500x the batteries and toxicity of Ebikes/Etrikes/Escooters. They are also very very spatially inefficient with road space and urban space (parking).  For rural areas where space is not a problem and distances are large, they make sense.  For the 90+% of Californians and Angelenos living in urban spaces, they are a last solution, not a first solution.

I Ebike about 50 miles on the charge used to move a Tesla X just 1 mile.  Do we really need to move a 4000# car with an additional 1000# of batteries to move one person plus groceries?  I can carry 5 days worth of groceries for 3 on my Ebike without a backpack.  I could probably carry 7 days worth with a backpack, but why bother?

This is why I don't support strongly support electric cars, trucks and buses alone.

We have to get out of single occupancy cars as much as possible, especially in the urbanized areas.

We need to decarbonize transportation using every tool, starting with right-sizing the vehicles for the task.  

We need to use road space more efficiently, which means remodeling our urban environments to make better use of transit and active modes (walking/cycling). 

There is no time to waste.  

We need to do it all at once.

Further reading:

* Just because you rebrand a county from Congo to the Democratic Republic of Congo, doesn't automatically make it so. I refuse to use the Newspeak name.

** A research paper showed the CO2 per passenger-mile for a bunch of different transport modes and the statistic that caught all the media editors' clickbait attention was that shared electric scooters are inefficient.  They are inefficient due to their short lifespans (people trash them) and miles driven in cars by the people who hunt them down, recharge them and restock them.  

A subsequent study showed that privately-owned Escooters are almost as efficient as Ebikes, which are almost as efficient as regular bikes-the most efficient mode of travel ever invented.

Monday, March 29, 2021


I vent sometimes on Twitter. Earlier this month, I ran a Twitter poll and learned how hard it is to write an unambiguous multiple choice question.

Is plastic petroleum?

Of the 164 votes, 

  • 72.6% chose "Yes, duh"
  • 3% chose "No"
  • 4.3% chose "Don't know"
  • 20.1% chose "Not enough info to answer"
It's a good thing that I don't have to come up with a grading rubric for this question because you can make a valid argument that any of the choices are correct. 

I started to write an explanation for the answer, but it became quite a long thread.  Since it took so much research and time, it deserves to be put up on the blog.

Until 2 years ago, I didn’t know that materials scientists consider plastic a property instead of a material. You can make plastic from all sorts of polymers that are soft when warm and rigid when cooled. Eg potato starch plastic. 2/ 

Most plastics used in the world are made from fossil hydrocarbons, typically ethane. It used to be made mainly from petroleum distillates but is now often made from fossil gas aka natural gas. 3/ 

Worldwide, plastics use is increasing alarmingly. We should question whether we really need to consume so much. But, in the US, our car dependence is a much, much bigger problem. Landfilled plastics are sequestered. Gas tank hydrocarbons get burned and add CO2 to the atmosphere 4/ 

4/ Quote Tweeted this AirQ thread about how CO2 is lower on weekends because people drive less.

I’m not a big plastic user and live in a community that supports reduce, reuse, recycling. Angelenos produce much less garbage than US avg. Many areas, including mine, haul away yard and kitchen waste for industrial composting. Our recyclables are collected, sorted and recycled 5/ 

The rest of our trash is incinerated at SERRF on Terminal Island, Long Beach. It generates electricity for SERRF and feeds the grid. The ports of LA/LB use a lot of electricity 24/7 so this is synergistic. My city diverts 74% of waste (typical for LA County) and burns the remaining 26% 6/ 

(Our regional solid waste stream is also smaller than the US avg due to state/local government policy choices. Our family also made lifestyle adjustments to reduce it even further. The main driver is that government policies support solid waste reduction.)

I’m still using a roll of Saran Wrap purchased 10 years ago. I used Parafilm in lab when I needed it. I have zero guilt about using plastic when I need it. Right now, my trash is full of takeout containers from local restaurants that need our support during the pandemic 7/ 

Try to reduce single-use plastics in your day to day life as much as you can. Carry that refillable water bottle daily, but keep a case of water bottles in your earthquake kit. The American Chemical Society devoted a special issue to plastics recycling 8/ 

In short, mechanical plastics recycling chops up the long-chain polymers and weakens plastic. So, the current methods of plastics recycling, where new and old plastics are mixed together, is not closed loop or sustainable. Eventually, the plastic will be too weak to do its job of holding stuff. You don't want a container that breaks unpredictably.
THE DYSFUNCTION OF PLASTICS RECYCLING Plastics recycling, as it exists today, is a mess. In 2015, the US recycled only 9.1% of the 31 million t of plastics that consumers threw out, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The vast majority ended up in either landfills or incinerators. In contrast, two-thirds of paper, a third of metals, and a quarter of glass were recycled that year. In the European Union, about 14.8% of the roughly 27 million t of plastic waste was recycled in 2016, according to the European Commission.
But, there's active research into using enzymes to break down plastic back to its pre-polymerized raw feedstock shape. About 40% of it will remain, but it can be turned into low-sulfur diesel fuel--not a bad fuel for long distance trucking or ocean-going cargo ships which operate away from urban areas. 

One of my husband’s former classmates at MIT is working on enzymatic fuel production from plastics and agricultural waste. I am optimistic about the technology, though it is still too expensive. 9/ 

Driving an ICE car is single use petroleum. Using plastic, even if it is incinerated after 1 use, gets 2 uses out of the material. If it is landfilled, it is at least sequestered vs burned and released into the atmosphere 10/

Gasoline accounts for 45% of US petroleum use while all chemical feedstocks (paint, solvents, cleaners, pharmaceuticals, plastics) account for 1.5% 11/

In summary, that smarty pants state senator is operating on old information. Plastics are made from a variety of sources & petroleum is one of the top 2. Plastics in waterways is a problem, but tire particles are the overwhelmingly major source 12/ 

[oops, I skipped 13/]

EVs, because of their weight, increases tire wear, exacerbating water and air pollution 14/ 

I wrote a detailed blog post about this 15/ Leaf blowers, street sweeping, car tires, fish and you

“Non-exhaust emissions...are currently believed to constitute the majority of primary particulate matter from road transport: 60% of PM2.5 and 73% of PM10.” 16/

Under-inflated tires are a huge contributor to tire particles. Remember the Ford Explorer rollover scandal? SUVs are top heavy. To reduce rollover risk, they use special tires that don’t burst when inflated much lower than passenger car tires 17/ 

SUVs and pickups need larger tires, often at lower pressures, so they don’t roll over. Want to know why our regional PM 2.5 just keeps increasing? The answer is almost always cars, especially SUVs. Electric SUVs are greenwash. Electric bikes/trikes in every garage instead 18/fin

I'm not the only one who sees EV-only approaches without remaking our streets to help us move out of cars as greenwash. 

Tackling the climate and air pollution crises requires curbing all motorised transport, particularly private cars, as quickly as possible. Focusing solely on electric vehicles is slowing down the race to zero emissions. 
Only getting out of cars will solve the urban particulate air pollution, road congestion and parking/land use problems. I said URBAN. Rural areas have different problems and different solutions. But, since California is the most urbanized of all US states and Los Angeles is among the most urbanized of all CA and US counties, this is what we need to do right here, right now, where I live. 

10 Million people live in Los Angeles County, 5.6x as many people as Idaho. So I don't want to hear any critiques along the lines of this will not work in Boise or on my Montana ranch. The Netherlands has a bike culture with just 511 people per square kilometer vs 905 for Los Angeles County. 

Sure, NL is flat and LA is surrounded by steep mountains. But that also means we live more densely because most of us live in the flatter broad valleys and coastal plains. Ebikes flatten the hills anyway.  It sure does rain a lot more in NL, though.

Friday, February 12, 2021

Battery Pile-up

I'm usually an EV (electric car) pessimist, but a couple of things make me hopeful.

You can set lofty goals in the future, but stymie real and substantive changes today.  I see that at all levels of California governance.  E.g. you can put an electric car charger on the sidewalk of a downtown LA street, which precludes installing a bike lane later. I walked by the charger below and lamented the lost opportunity.

But, LA actually installed a 'parking protected' bike lane right there, and a bicyclist flipped off his bike one night when he ran into the cable in the dark.  He posted a photo of what he saw in the dark on Twitter.  It went viral.  See the staged photo below, which highlights the black cable in orange.

Notice the narrow width of the bike lane to accommodate private car storage on a downtown LA street.  I may not be a Climate Mayor, but even I know that using streets to move people rather than store private property is a better use of public space.  Don't @ me about customers arriving in cars.  People spend money.  Cars do not.  In fact, providing car parking is a huge expense for business owners and society in general.

There are lots of parking garages in DTLA and our family even uses them sometimes.  But I mainly use transit to get to and around DTLA because it's too crowded to do otherwise.

When I realized that we used our minivan mainly for getting to the light rail station and our annual road trip, we decided to replace it with a folding electric scooter (for coupling with transit) and occasional car rental.   I already had an eBike, and used it for most of my local Beach Cities and West Torrance trips.  If our area had better bike facilities, I could travel even further. Sigh.

Electric cars (what most people refer to as EVs) are very popular in the Beach Cities.  But, I think we should also accommodate smaller electric vehicles, such as my 0.3 kiloWatt-hour scooter and 0.5 kWh eBike.  In contrast, the very popular (in our area) Tesla X has 100 kWh batteries.

Batteries are so toxic, resource-intensive and sourcing their raw materials are so problematic environmentally and socially, I won't go into it here.  It just makes sense to move people around in the smallest package necessary with the least amount of batteries.

But, that's not how we're behaving.  It makes no sense to celebrate replacing 4000 pound ICE cars with 5000 pound EVs while not simultaneously working as fast as we can to get people out of cars in the cities.  

What will we do with the growing pile of spend batteries?  Until recently, they were just piling up dangerously.  Some were sent overseas to poorer countries, that stockpiled or recycled them in (sometimes unsafe ways, especially for their workers).  That is not a long-term solution. 

Available Li-ion battery recycling facilities are few and expensive.  Until recently, there were only three in all of North America.  Furthermore, it would cost ~$91,500 to recycle one MegaWatt-hour (MWh) of Li-ion batteries.  A Tesla X has 100kWh or 0.1 MWh; recycling its batteries would cost ~$9,150.  In contrast, my eBike has 1/200th the batteries and my scooter has 1/300th the batteries.  I can also travel about 40 miles by eBike on the same electricity that moves a Tesla 1 mile.

Ideally, spent batteries should be circular and recycled into new batteries.  While lead-acid batteries are circular, the Exide and Quemetco battery recycling plants in LA County were not good environmental neighbors.  There are limited ways to recycle batteries--smelting (heating to evaporate away all the non-metals), leaching (repeated acid/water washes to carry away the metals) and physical (electrochemical).  

In LA, with our limited water supply, smelting was used.  A small fraction of the lead escaped through the smokestacks.  (I never understood how that happened if strict emissions control equipment were used, but it did.) A small fraction of a large amount created an awful lot of lead pollution in some of the poorest and densest parts of Los Angeles County.

Would we repeat our lead recycling environmental mistakes with lithium batteries?  

Maybe not?

Start with some regulations that force industry to take action, even if it is expensive today: 

The new US-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) on the North American auto industry has a 2030 requirement of 75% locally produced content, and use of recycled battery materials could help North American EV manufacturers achieve that.

Add money and cities willing to host recycling plants:

The Canadian firm Li-Cycle will begin constructing a US $175 million plant in Rochester, N.Y., on the grounds of what used to be the Eastman Kodak complex. When completed, it will be the largest lithium-ion battery-recycling plant in North America.
[The articles don't say which process they are using to recycle the batteries.  But, I notice that both plants are near large quantities of water.]

We need to build a lot more of these plants throughout the world. We need to pay attention to make sure that they are built and run safely for both the workers and the surrounding areas. But, this is an encouraging sign that we are getting serious.