Green Machines

by Julian Ryall
wifm_autumn09_low-81Autos, airlines innovate to save Earth.

The transport industry has long endured harsh criticism over the pollutants it expels into the atmosphere. Studies have put carbon dioxide emissions from transport at 20% of the total in Japan— and far higher in developing countries, which have softer emission rules.

But that must be balanced against mankind’s fundamental and increasing need to travel and to transport goods. Fortunately, there are companies and organizations that realized some years ago that the world was headed for environmental implosion and which made efforts to haul us back from the brink.

“The world has become more ecofriendly and environmentally sensitive to the point that people look for products and services that tie in as a statement of their values,” said Kiyotaka Fujii, president of Better Place Japan and head of business development for the Asia Pacific region.

And while Japan’s innovative automakers have devoted plenty of effort and resources to “green” cars— and made remarkable progress—the basic technical problem of producing a battery that is sufficiently cheap and able to propel a car over a reasonable range has held back the mass adoption of electric vehicles (EV). wifm_autumn09_low-85

“We have been advocating electric vehicles being available en masse, because if it’s just city buses, post vans or government vehicles, it will not be effective in reducing emissions,” said Fujii. “There has to be mass adoption of EVs.”

That means overcoming the obstacle of price—an EV costs around ¥3 million, with the battery alone accounting for one-third the cost— and users suffer from “range anxiety,” a fear of stopping after the 100km range of the power source.

So Better Place has a revolutionary approach.

Founded in the U.S. in 2007, the company’s model meets the three key requirements of a zero-emissions vehicle by providing charging spots, battery switching stations, and the software required to automate the process.

Perhaps the king of them all is Hisao Maegaki. Charging spots keep batteries topped up with power so they constantly have the energy to travel 100kms. They can be beside your office parking spot, outside retailers, and at home. Just plug in the car.

For journeys over 100kms, batteryswitching stations will be constructed along roads. The changeover will be completely automated and drivers won’t have to leave their vehicle.

As most EVs will be recharged during the evening at home, energy from renewable sources—such as solar power or wind energy—will be used to top up. The system was operated on a testbasis in Yokohama earlier this year and Israel is the first country to fully embrace the technology.

Another transport sector looking to change how it operates to protect the environment is the airline business, which remains a net polluter but is on the cusp of exciting changes, according to Paul Sands, general manager of the Japan office for Virgin Atlantic Airways. “Airlines have not done so badly in the area of contributing to the economy—we contribute 8% of global GDP and provide 29 million jobs around the world—while in the social area we bring people together and increase cultural understanding,” he said. “But in the area of the environment, there is a gap which we are aiming to close.”

The IATA (International Air Transport Association) has set a target to cut half of emissions by 2050 and the industry is trying to alter the perception that aviation produces far more emissions than it actually does. A UK study showed that the public believes the airline industry produces as much as 80% of all emissions, but that figure is actually just 3.5-5%. Virgin is reducing its footprint even further, said Sands. One step is to become as efficient as possible, meaning everything from buying the most efficient jets for the fleet—such as the new Boeing Dreamliner, which burns 25% less fuel than its predecessor—to offloading empty bottles before take-off and reducing by a fraction the energy to transport them.

Staff and passengers are helping the airline meet its targets and Virgin only serves tea and coffee bought from fartrade schemes, while paper towels in the company’s HQ have been replaced by efficient electric hand driers. But Sands believes the biggest benefits are likely to result from research to develop biofuels in the near future.

“Virgin was the first airline in the world to fly a commercial plane partly powered by biofuel, just to prove that it could be done,” he said. “There were concerns that it would freeze at altitude, clog up engines, but we flew from London to Amsterdam with one of four engines on a biofuel derived from coconuts and babassu nuts and it went very well.”

Clearly much work needs to be done to perfect a new aviation fuel from renewable sources, he said. “Alternative fuels have to be the long-term solution and while we have not found that yet, we have certainly set the ball rolling.” Other speakers addressed issues involving environment-friendly designs and buildings. Speakers focused on developments in conventional automobile technology and emphasized that several technologies—electricity, hybrid and even hydrogen—are likely to co-exist in the future.

But it was Hiroshi Nakada, a former Yokohama mayor, who demonstrated that with sufficient will, the ambition of a more sustainable future is possible. Nakada was mayor for more than seven years from April 2002, reducing the city’s debt by ¥1 trillion. But his biggest legacy is, arguably, reducing the amount of trash Yokohama residents produce and reducing the effort and energy required to remove and process it. “I noticed right away that people place too much emphasis on convenience and we had a huge electricity bill at city hall because we had the air conditioning going all the time,” he said. “I started the ‘Cool Biz’ campaign and by wearing more appropriate clothing we could all stay more cool.”

Another key initiative, which overcame staunch opposition and skepticism from the bureaucrats, was separating trash before collection. Fifteen individual waste groups were identified—including bottles (glass and PET), cans, newspapers and cardboard—and a two-year program was begun to educate the 3.65 million residents.

Despite the misgivings, the project exceeded its target of a 30% reduction in waste in the first year. “People want to do this, but they can’t always see the end results,” he said. “When they are encouraged to take part, they become smarter shoppers; they buy shampoo refills instead of a whole new bottle, and they are encouraged to use their minds.

“Yokohama’s citizens have seen the importance of the way in which they live their lives,” he said. “This system of waste disposal has become institutionalized now. Only people can help our society and resolve our problems.” ❖