Amanda Kovattana

Middle-aged musings in interesting times

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Hydrogen Highway

Meanwhile, as other more sane countries work to increase their renewable energy generation, we in Bushanegger Land want the Hydrogen Highway. We are going to be the first on the planet to drive the fuel cell car in large numbers. It will knock the socks off of all those foreign hybrids.

While the Sparrow was down, I started to read about hydrogen technology, so I would be prepared to shoot down this boondoggle. And shoot it down we must, at least for transportation purposes. Governor Schwarzenegger is right now asking for $54 million to implement the Hydrogen Highway. Money to build 100 hydrogen fueling stations as an incentive to automakers to build fuel cell cars. "Build it and they will come" say its supporters as if waiting for heroes from another dimension. And while automakers hide behind the "R & D" smokescreen for the 15-20 years that it will take to make a viable fuel cell car, they continue to resist building high mileage, low emission cars now.

We are being sold on hydrogen as the ultimate Green energy fuel because it can be made, not only from natural gas, but from water with electricity from renewable resources and since fuel cell cars produce no emissions at all, it is a veritable Green wet dream. Or is it?

Consider this "To replace all the gasoline sold in the U.S. today with hydrogen from electrolysis would require more electricity than is sold in the U.S. today."

And that's just to make the hydrogen. It also takes energy to keep hydrogen in pressurized tanks and to transport it. Hydrogen is not as dense as gasoline. One tanker filled with gasoline can fuel 800 cars. An equivalent size canister of hydrogen will only fuel 80 cars. Think of all the diesel trucks that will be needed to transport the stuff. I know I don't want to see so many more trucks on the road.

And if people are not swayed by the economics there's always the safety factor. Remember that e-mail many of you received/sent warning women that they were more likely to start fires in gasoline stations because they were in the habit of getting back in the car after putting the nozzle in the tank? It turns out that was a hoax because the static electricity generated by sliding across the seat is not nearly enough to ignite gasoline - but it is enough to ignite hydrogen. Ditto for cell phone use.

And this is the one that got me. Once the hydrogen is ignited, the flames are almost invisible. To find the fire you have to walk holding a piece of paper in front of you and watch to see when it burns.

And here's another interesting property of hydrogen - when it reacts with metal it makes it brittle. So brittle pipelines, brittle car parts, brittle containers. Not to mention that hydrogen is the leakiest of gases.

You can download the California Hydrogen Highway Blueprint. It mentions nothing about hydrogen safety issues, but implies that regulations will have to be softened to encourage the plan. It also assumes that hydrogen will be made from renewable energy, but admits that if it were made from our current electric grid, emissions would be more than for a gas car.

An electric car uses one-fourth the electricity that it takes to make enough hydrogen to go the same distance. So are we EVers set to sell everyone on electric cars? No, not really considering the limitations only a highly motivated EVer could love (until the lithium battery is affordable). We want electric cars yes, but America wants options. The option to drive as far as the eye can see across this great nation of ours.

The solution? The plug-in hybrid. An extra battery pack on the hybrid, which you plug in at home (but only if you want to), would give you the option of using the car in electric only, stealth mode while driving around town. This is possible if you're going 30 miles an hour or less. When you hit the freeway the computer starts the internal combustion engine automatically. With the plug-in option a gas optional vehicle, as these are being called, could easily get 100 miles per gallon since so much of our driving is around town anyway. Flexible fuel technology using cellulosic ehtanol (made from plant wastes), coupled with the battery pack brings the potential mpg to 500.

No sooner was this concept coming to light than Toyota started advertising their Prius as the electric car you don't have to plug-in. Whether to subvert Prius Plus efforts or because people still think electric means you have to plug it in, we don't know, but there is something about plugging in a car that just gets that big "deal breaker" sign flashing in people's heads. What is it about plugging in your car? Does the cord coming out of a car remind you of the string on a tampon? Is it a social taboo or just auto-advertising conditioning?

No sir, we do not plug in our cars. We are not homemaker sissies. We do not drive appliances. Or as one of my clients pointed out - the car doesn't stay plugged in, which means you have to manage to remember to plug it in. And that's one more blinkin' thing on your to-do list. Okay yes, I did forget to plug in my car one night because I was waiting until 6 p.m. for off peak hours to begin. And I was so mad the next morning because I couldn't drive it; didn't even have time for a fast 220 volt/2hr charge because I didn't remember until I was ready to leave.

The plug-in hybrid technology will give you the best of both worlds. It's time to fight the anti-plug-in conditioning. Repeat after me. "Yes the Prius is wonderful, but it would be even better if I had the option to plug it in." Just say no to hydrogen. Say yes to a "gas optional" incentive program and show those automakers what we want. This is what Austin, Texas (where 6% of their power is wind generated) is doing with its $1,000 rebates offered to the first 1,000 Austin buyers of plug-in vehicles.

Meanwhile I've been riding my bike a lot lately and feeling very fit.

Sparrow Down!

It was the belt drive that went. I heard the thunk and the man in the pick-up truck next to me was looking at the rear of the Sparrow and then at me. I was in the far left lane of El Camino, the main road through town.

"I'm down," I said and he slowed to half my speed so I could pass in front of him. So thoughtful. The right lane was empty and I was able to cross it and swoop into a side street on what remaining momentum I had. It was raining and my window was down a few inches for air, but rain was coming in. There was no power to the windows. No power at all. Uh oh. A broken belt was not a serious thing, but no power was more ominous.

"I need a flatbed truck," I told the dispatcher at AAA. A Sparrow cannot be towed. No bumper. A burly, tattooed, tow-truck guy showed up with a flatbed that could fit a Cadillac. He had seen a Sparrow before, but not towed one. "It looks like a banana," he said. It didn't take him long to figure it out and soon he was winching the bird onto the flatbed. It sat right in the middle like a cartoon celebrity on a parade float.

"So where do we go?" he asked, "who works on these?"

"He makes house calls," I said, as I tried to think where to go. Our driveway has a 30° incline. My tow man and I agreed that it would be hard to push 1500lbs of car up an inclined driveway from a road that was also on a hill. I decided to go to my Dad's house, (my stepmother's house now). It wasn't far and it was flat with lots of space. My stepmother wasn't home and her large Volvo was parked smack in the middle of the two-car garage. I couldn't reach her. Turns out she was in Italy on holiday. I measured the space on either side. There was just room to squeeze the Sparrow in with barely inches to spare.

Ed my Sparrow doctor had already come to my house to bleed the brakes and fix the rear brake light. He promised to come that weekend. (He has another job - not much call for Sparrow doctoring). As I suspected, it was more than just the belt. There still was no power to the motor. And it wasn't just a fuse, it was the controller, a major component. Luckily, Ed had one in stock so we wouldn't be waiting on parts. It would be expensive though and take a while as Ed worked on it at home in his spare time. I let him take the Sparrow away on his little flatbed trailer.

Without the Sparrow coming home to roost, it was as though the sun had gone behind a cloud. Both Catherine and I had come to think of the little car as a pet living in the house with us - a mascot to our eco-sensibilities. We had been local ambassadors to an alternative paradigm garnering attention everywhere we went. Without it, our lives were dull, lackluster and ordinary. We were polluters again.

This was exactly how the members of my electric vehicle association (San Francisco chapter) felt after they had leased the electric Th!nk City car from Ford only to have it pried out of their lives when the lease was up. So mad were they that this perfectly viable car was going to be crushed that they organized and started civic actions that led them all the way to Norway where the Th!nk car was made. The only car made in Norway in fact. It was something of a national treasure. Even the king drove one. Norwegians got involved; a banner was dropped from the factory by Greenpeace. Ford relented, sending the cars back to Norway rather than alienate their European customers.

But the Th!nk City drivers turned activists had to start all over again looking for cars. Two bought used Toyota all electric Rav 4s at nearly the same price as new which was already $40,000. They couldn't afford it really, but this was about more than money. This was a lifestyle, an eco-orientation. I, too, felt this way and it was a familiar feeling. It was just like being Gay and here was a whole world trying to tell you it was wrong to want this "alternative lifestyle".

The San Francisco chapter of the EVers met monthly, holding passionate meetings about the latest car sit ins and Prius modifications. I volunteered to staff an electric vehicle booth at the upcoming eco-cities fair (6/3-6/5 at Fort Mason) as part of the UN World Environment Day. San Francisco will be the first U.S. city to host this event since its inception in 1972.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Culture Shock

A spa is not a conference hotel. That much I could see as soon as I checked into the San Diego Paradise Point Resort for this year's national conference of professional organizers. A conference hotel has connective tissue - hallways, elevators, furniture, people watching spots, central gathering places. That's what gives us the sense of being a family under one roof with multiple opportunities to strike up conversations. Meeting members from all parts of the country was what being a conference animal was all about.

What we had here was a Southern California outdoor deck living, sun on the water, sailboats cruising by, chip and dip sort of experience. It was lovely once you figured out which parking lot to cross to get to the buildings for each function, but it didn't work at all when there was an unseasonable downpour the first morning.

Most of the activity took place in the massive dining room about the size of Hawaii. It was so far to the other side there was a haze on the horizon. I only saw one quadrant of it because once we had directed our friends via cell phone and much hand waving to the first meal we just kept returning to the same roosting spot for every subsequent event. Last year at 600 people it was manageable, but 805 was a bit scary especially when 300 of them were new organizers. It just wasn't possible to make all the strangers into familiar faces in four days.

We owe our growth to the extreme makeover type TV shows where 6 months of work is finished in 24 hours. (If only we all had onsite carpenters, unlimited budgets and full staff). Shows like Mission Organization have been a boon to the industry allowing the most driven of us to publish books, develop products, appear on TV and radio, hire husbands and acquire staff, all in five years.

After ten years I was still a one-woman show, but I was not interested in growth. I was interested in deepening my expertise and quality of service to my clients. This sentiment was better served at the NSGCD conference (National Study Group on Chronic Disorganization) held on Tuesday on the same spot, only there weren't more than 200 of us. It may be that fewer organizers have the patience to help clients overcome severe organizational problems compared to the extreme makeover types eager to whiz clients through transitions.

As I sat down with the nearly 800 women (the men in the room couldn't fill two tables), I felt that I had drifted far from the mainstream. (Yes, you could have told me that. One of my conference roomies, Judith Kohlberg, founder of the NSGCD, says I have a certain edge that some might call cynical. Cynical is it! I'd prefer to think of it as artful irony). At conference last year I connected with several people about politics since there was still the hope that we could vote Bush out of office. This year there seemed to be no socio-political context beyond HGTV. It was a world of business optimism flush with success that made me feel foreign and I hadn't even left California. Two of my fellow chapter members, San Franciscans, also feeling alienated, commented that San Diego was the land of the Minutemen, the Navy and more smokers than they've seen in a long time. Definitely not the Bay Area.

Then there was the sign on the bulletin board. Two actually. The first one was neon pink and announced a Christian prayer meeting. The sign right next to it in neon orange with the same type face, said

Do not post items of the following types. Any that are, will be removed.
• Advertisements for products or services.
• Announcements that could be offensive to other attendees

This last bit was the frightening part. I mean what could a population of service oriented, women post that would be offensive? I raised the alarm to my fellow queers.

"Do you think they mean us?" I asked Denslow. Every year Denslow has put up a sign on the bulletin board inviting queers to get together (though not using the word "queer"). That's how we met and came to be roommates since 1996 along with Judith and now Jo, a new organizer.

Denslow has defended this right to post our announcement like a lioness protecting her cubs and she was ready to do so again. We had a new management company this year and so far they had been excellent. Denslow confronted the staff at the desk and reported back. The staff member said they themselves would much prefer to party with us than hang out with a Christian prayer group, but this request regarding the posting of offensive announcements had come in some months ago from a NAPO member and they had honored the request, not knowing what kind of culture this was. And yes this probably did mean that our announcement would be considered offensive.

"Trust me, you do not want to fight me on this," said Denslow. They didn't. Unfortunately we were not prepared this year. We had completely forgotten about picking a time for the queer gathering and it was already Friday. Denslow had way too much to do as head of the Quantum Leap committee (a pro-bono project to help welfare recipients organize their lives so they could get jobs) to track yet another event. "Plus I'm ADD," she reminded us.

Damn! We were going to loose this turf war. Not that we were not visible. Plenty of visible butch dykes what with Sandy as chapter president this year and Jo and that cute little new chapter member no one has identified properly yet, and I was wearing a tie on Thursday with my yellow-pages vest. Not to mention that most of the men in this business including the president of National are Gay. Maybe it was better not to show a presence in this bulletin board war and celebrate that we were fully integrated.

It was the new people that our gathering was for. Those poor souls looked like shipwrecked sailors when they found us at past gatherings, so grateful were they for a respite from all the hetero female energy. I would be prepared next year with a full array of rainbow flags in several sizes and pre-typed out bulletin board fliers.

For now we had matzo on the table and two different kinds of dessert because it was Passover. This was to make up for having to schedule the conference during Passover in the first place. It does give me an appreciation for what the Board is up against. Still missing was an environmental agenda.

I actually had a conversation with two organizers who felt that recycling got in the way of their work. They wanted to throw everything into garbage bags and not let the client sort for recyclables until after everything was set up. "Well I can't very well tell them not to recycle if I'm driving an electric car to their house and asking them to let me plug it in," I said which pretty much ended the conversation.

It was the electric car far more than queer politics that had taken me so far off the beaten path. Having the car gave me ownership over the politics of energy in a way that left most people on the sidelines. It was a shock to my system to be suddenly plunged into a consciousness that seemed completely oblivious of global events and environmental considerations.

"The brain does not process negative thoughts," claimed the keynote speaker, a British humorist who recommended saying the word "great" very enthusiastically for every occasion. Harmless stuff meant to jack up the energy level.

"Ninety percent of your thoughts are negative," I learned in a workshop teaching us to turn to positive self-talk. All this ungrounded positivism was depressing me. Were we really expected to just put on a happy face and find success? It would just mean that things would have to get much worse before enough noticed.

It wasn't until Saturday that I regained some equilibrium at a workshop given by a charismatic lesbian and her ex-lover, business partner. (Denslow got her story over breakfast). They were facilitating an open space forum to brainstorm certain topics that were important to organizers. It wasn't so much the topics, but the format that was exciting and every chapter Board member present agreed that I (as Program Committee Chair) should do this at a chapter meeting.

I managed to nap through most of the awards banquet, waking up long enough to find out who won the Founders award. I breathed a sigh of relief that there would be no drama over this. The recipient was not She Who Will Not Be Mentioned who had managed to get herself nominated once again. The award went to Barry, the popular and loveable President just voted in for another two more years.

The closing keynote speaker was a performance artist in the most benign sense. He managed to artfully straddle a very fine line between patriotism (pictures of flags, the Statue of Liberty, fireman) and diversity (people of color - children overseas, peace signs, even a silhouette of the Buddha). He painted mystery pictures that revealed themselves only in the final strokes. Denslow thought this was trite and manipulative, but it was restful for what last brain cell was left after this full week.

He said something about how being too comfortable took him away from the creative edge. It sounded good, but I came home feeling more like a shade plant that had spent too long in the sun. Catherine kept asking if I was okay. My brain needed a complete re-booting before I could get back on my soapbox with any authority. "Let's go to the Bioneers conference this year," I told Catherine. The Bioneers assessment of the global situation makes the Green Festival look like a rock concert.

Earthworm. Get yours at