Several years ago, the European industrial giant and energy systems supplier Siemens teamed up with a group of bikers from California to produce its first electric motorbike – the e-chopper. It was an interesting clash of cultures – the straight laced engineers from Germany and the tattooed and bearded bikers from the iconic Orange County Choppers, but it’s one that seemed to work.
The product of their collaboration – one of only two prototype e-choppers made – was on display in Australia for the first time this week. It’s not that either Siemens or the OCC bikers were on a mission to have the motorcycle community go all electric. As impressive a machine as it is, it just wouldn’t do.
For a start, while it has a top speed of 160kms, it doesn’t make the sort of noise that many bikers enjoy leaving in their wake. A football card flapping against the wheel spokes would attract more attention, a visibly dismayed OCC designer apparently complained. Shame, then, that there are no spokes. And the 100km range does not make much of a weekend outing. The film Easy Rider would have had to have been filmed in episodes. And in any case, the economics of running a motorbike doesn’t justify the transition as it might in a car.
The purpose of the machine, according to Siemens, is to demonstrate that electric transport is not just about cars. Battery systems and fuel cells can be designed to be compact and reliable, and suitable to nearly every form of transport. Siemens is currently encouraging the Australian Navy to embrace more widely the concept of hybrid power systems.
Already, Australia’s first Landing Helicopter Docks (LHDs) will feature two 12MW pods that will be augmented by diesel – but significantly reduce the cost of that fuel. Siemens is pushing for the Australian Navy to do more, given its fleet replenishment needs, arguing that green technology can reduce fuel and maintenance costs, add flexibility, and allow ships and submarines to be extensively redesigned. Frigates, it argues, may well be regarded as the Ferrari of the sea for its ability and need, to travel at high speed in certain situations. But most of the time it only needs the attributes of a Prius.
Siemens’ goal does not seem an unreasonable expectation. Ambitious renewable energy policies are usually criticised for being both costly and risky, but one of the ironies about the push to “clean and green” fuels is that is being led by the most risk averse institution in the world – the military establishment. The three branches of the US military have each created goals to wean themselves off fossil fuels within a few decades, as much as an economic issue as much as a security one.
The US Navy wants half of its overall energy consumption to be sourced from alternative fuels by 2020, the US Air Force wants to wants to source 50 per cent of its jet fuel from alternative fuels by 2016, while the US Army wants to sources 25 per cent of its energy needs from renewable sources by 2025.
The US Navy even plans to create a “great green fleet” that by 2016 will be composed uniquely of nuclear ships, surface combatants equipped with hybrid electric alternative power systems running on biofuel, and aircraft running on biofuel.
The deputy assistant secretary of energy for the US Navy, Tom Hicks, has been in Australia this week checking out Australian producers of alternative fuels and to visit a maritime fuels conference. “We’ve tested [alternative fuels] in all of our manned and unmanned aircraft and we’re going through the process and completing the testing of all of our surface vessels,” Hicks told the ABC.
And he underlined the point that the transition is much about energy security than it is about going green. “It’s about really fundamentally changing what, where, and from whom we purchase fuel in the future,” he said. “If you think about a lot of the fuel that we purchase today, it comes from places that are either politically unstable or often politically unfriendly to not only the US but the interests of our allies as well.”
David Keenan, vice president of Siemens Australia, said hybrid technologies could reduce diesel consumption by around 50 per cent. This accords with predictions from the US Navy, which recently estimated that one single hybrid electric ship will save $250 million in fuel costs over the lifetime of the ship. The US Navy estimates that every rise of $1 a barrel in the price of oil adds $30 million to its fuel bill. And it doesn’t see oil prices going down.