About stevegoesgreen

Climate Reality Leader, auto writer (EV specialist). bassist, and student of Dutch.

Why We Need Electric Cars Now

By Steve Schaefer

Taking delivery of my Chevrolet Bolt EV in January 2017.

This post talks about electric cars, the climate crisis, and actions we all can take to help solve it, including driving electric vehicles (EVs).

A Quick EV History

The Nissan LEAF paved the way in 2010.

The first mainstream EVs in the U.S appeared a decade ago, as the all-electric Nissan LEAF and the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid. Today, major companies, including GM, Ford, Volkswagen, Hyundai/Kia, and Mercedes-Benz, are proudly announcing their upcoming models (while continuing to sell lots of internal combustion vehicles).  

EV sales, juiced by Tesla’s success, are increasing every year, but still represent a small percentage of the market. Tesla, of course, sells only EVs. Many countries (and even some states) are passing legislation to support the phasing out of gasoline-powered cars in the next 10-15 years.

EV Benefits and Challenges

Electric cars have a lot to offer. They are smooth and quiet. Electric motors deliver all of their torque the moment they are working, so acceleration is amazing, and the low center of gravity from the battery pack helps them handle well.

Electric drivetrains contain a lot fewer parts, so there is much less to go wrong, and routine service is minimal (forget oil changes, tune-ups, radiator flushes, and even brake pad replacement thanks to regenerative braking).

EVs have no tailpipe emissions, but are not 100 percent clean, of course, because like all cars, their production uses energy from various sources. Some companies, including GM, are working to use renewable energy in their vehicle production. Some of the materials for today’s EV batteries must be mined, sometimes in dangerous and unsustainable ways. This issue must be addressed and solved.

There can be some inconveniences. EVs take longer to charge, and there are fewer places to charge them today than there are gas stations. Although the charging networks are expanding, this uncertainty can create “range anxiety,” although most people hardly ever drive more than about 40 miles a day, and modern EVs feature more than 200 miles of range. The ideal place to charge your EV is at home, but some people live in apartments. Some workplaces provide charging, as well. The charging network is being built out and should not be much of an issue at some point in the future.

Right now, there are fewer category and style choices in EVs than there are in the overall market. However, that will change over the next few years, as more companies roll out a range of attractive and powerful models. There are a number of affordable choices today, such as the Kia Niro, Chevrolet Bolt and the second-generation Nissan LEAF. On the luxury side, you can get an electric Porsche (Taycan), Jaguar (i-Pace) and Audi (eTron) now. Mercedes-Benz and BMW have exciting EV models on their way. There are many more.

The second-hand EV market is filled with bargains, if you’re willing to drive a car with a shorter range. Three-year-old vehicles can change hands at a fraction of their initial price. I picked up my pristine three-year-old Fiat 500e, with 25,000 miles on it, for less than a third of its original 2017 retail price. However, its range is only 90 miles, which means I can’t use it for long trips. These older EVs make great commuter shuttles and second cars.

My Fiat 500e has a 90-mile range, so it doesn’t go on long trips.

Some brands now sell or plan to offer plug-in hybrids, which have an electric motor and a gasoline engine too. Unlike regular hybrids, plug-in hybrids can serve as pure electric vehicles for a limited range, say 20-50 miles, depending on battery size. Plug-in hybrids are not as clean and quiet as EVs, but will be helpful transition vehicles as we move to an all-EV world someday. When the fast charging network is built out and minimum vehicle range starts at 250-300 miles, plug-in hybrids will no longer be needed.

Today, electric cars usually cost more than equivalent gasoline vehicles. This is mainly because of the high price of their batteries. However, EVs cost significantly less to operate, so there is a break-even point at which they become less expensive to run than petrol-fed models. So, you have to consider total cost of ownership when you examine the numbers. And sale/lease prices are likely to drop over the next few years as battery costs are reduced, until they reach purchase price parity with gasoline vehicles in mid-decade. At that point, with lower maintenance costs, EVs will be the better deal.

But the most important reason you should drive an electric vehicle is to help fight climate change.

Climate Change

Image courtesy of the Climate Reality Project

Our planet is heating up. There may be some disagreement or confusion in the general population about what’s causing it and what we can or should do about it—and there are some climate deniers, too. But among trained scientists, it there is virtual unanimity about the cause—us—and the urgency of acting quickly. The United Nations’ IPCC Report clearly states how we must all work to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) to avoid the worst crises. The Paris Agreement of 2015 was held to commit all countries on a path toward achieving that goal.  

Climate change is actually not news, because experts have known about it for decades and have spoken out. But we haven’t listened or done much about it. Now, scientists say that we have about 10 years to get it handled or it could spiral out of control.

How did this happen? With a population rapidly approaching 8 billion, human activities are now substantial enough to change the planet. Every day, we spew about 110 million tons of manmade global warming pollution into our atmosphere. It comes from various sources, but the major one is the burning of fossil fuels. The atmosphere is only a very thin shell around the earth. As more CO2 accumulates, the atmosphere traps more heat, causing global warming. The science is unambiguous on this.

So, what does it matter how warm the planet is? The problem with the earth heating up is that it disrupts the stable conditions we’ve lived with for the last 10,000 years or so. Global average temperatures have climbed significantly over the last 40 years. Scientists are concerned that we could eventually have some areas of the earth that are uninhabitable, and the people who have to leave there will create refugee crises.

One visible issue with global warming is the melting of glaciers, especially in the polar regions, where temperatures have risen alarmingly. The water from this melt will raise sea levels worldwide, flooding coastal cities.

Someone could ask, “so what do a couple of degrees matter?” Think of it like when a person is sick and has a fever. Even a couple of degrees of difference upsets the body’s processes, and if a fever is too high, death occurs.

Climate disruption also means that global air flows, such as the jet stream, slow down and get a little out of whack, for example, allowing cold air to move from the Arctic into places that are normally not frozen, like the middle of the U.S. Conversely, the Arctic gets 100-degree temperatures, speeding the melting of polar ice.

The oceans are absorbing a lot of the excess heat, and the warmer air above them holds more moisture. This leads to bigger, stronger storms. A lack of rain in the western U.S. causes draughts, so there are more dead trees, which along with rising temperatures, increases wildfires, as we’ve seen in the last few years. 2020 has already been disastrous, and the fire season isn’t over yet.

Disruption is insidious. What if the worms are ready before the birds arrive to eat them? What if the conditions for laying eggs are ideal before or after the turtles arrive? What if warmer temperatures send deadly virus-carrying mosquitos from equatorial areas to temperate regions where the population centers are? And because nature is an ecosystem, a disruption in one area affects many others. It’s all been predicted and is now beginning to happen. Scary.

The complex interactions of nature can’t be explained in a few paragraphs, but the experts who spend their lives studying the natural world and climate science are telling us that we must change our ways now to prevent the planet from accelerating its warming and becoming irreversible. The earth has a great capacity for regeneration, but we are overwhelming its ability to heal itself.

Green Transportation Is an Important Part of the Answer

Image courtesy of the Climate Reality Project

Transportation contributes the largest portion of CO2 to our atmosphere—38 percent in California, where I’m located. There are many other causes, including the production of fossil fuels and burning it to generate electricity. Buildings and agriculture make a significant contribution, too. We need new homes and commercial buildings to be much greener, without burning fossil fuels, and to retrofit the old ones for much greater efficiency. All of this creates many good jobs in a green economy.

To generate clean electricity to power the electric fleets of the future, we need to stop burning coal now and move off of natural gas, too. We need to replace it with solar, wind, and other sustainable technologies. This is doable today, but change is very hard. An encouraging fact is that EVs gets cleaner and cleaner as the energy to power them does. Feeding your EV from solar panels on your roof is the ideal option, if possible.

Fossil Fuel Industry Resistance/Auto Industry Sloth

There are powerful forces at work that want to preserve the status quo. Wealthy oil industry executives are hanging onto their business model—it’s been very successful for more than a century. You can hardly blame them, from a business standpoint. But, if a habit is killing you, you need to stop doing it. Smoking is a killer too—and the answer is to put down the cigarettes.

Another issue with the fossil fuel industry is that the people who run it aren’t suffering from the impacts of climate change nearly as much as the poor people who live near oil wells and refineries or in neighborhoods blighted by freeway traffic. This is why moving to renewable energy and away from fossil fuels is a social justice issue, too. Read this report from the American Lung Association about the benefits of clean air.

The auto companies are beginning to get on the EV bandwagon, but other than Tesla, it is not where their profits come from, so they have been moving slowly. However, based on what they are saying, the expectation is that EVs will play a major role in their future products. The questions are “how much?” and “when?” GM, for example, talks about “putting everyone in an EV,” but isn’t specific about a timeline. I believe that if consumers demand electric cars, manufacturers will be more than happy to provide them. So, they are getting prepared now but are still making their profits from the SUVs and trucks that have been sustaining them for years. We can make them move faster by demanding EVs!

Let’s All Take Action

Everyone is part of the problem—environmentalists included. I have an electric car and solar panels to  feed it, but my house still uses natural gas for heat, hot water, and cooking. It’s very difficult –and expensive–to change our ways, which is why providing a method for preserving your lifestyle in a more responsible way is an easy sale. We can’t expect everyone to simply stop driving, can we? EVs can replace gasoline vehicles, but it’s even better if we don’t drive as much, or start riding a bicycle, or walk, or take electrified public transportation. That becomes an urban planning priority, and a lot of work is being done now in this area.  

A Recent Peek at a Cleaner Future

HImalayas
With emissions temporarily curbed this Spring, the view opened up.

This Spring, when COVID-19 shut down the world for a while, the clear blue skies of yesteryear reappeared quickly. In India, people saw the Himalayas from home for the first time in decades. You could see the difference from space! But, as we’ve resumed more of our travel, the benefits, sadly, have faded away again.

Many Actions We Can Take

There are many things we can do to keep the earth habitable for humans beyond switching to electric vehicles, but getting rid of your gas-burning car is an easy one. Changing to a more plant-based diet is hugely beneficial, too, since the meat industry causes big environmental impacts. Insulating your home and replacing your natural gas furnace with a heat pump is a great way to make an impact, too. Project Drawdown is a great resource for learning more about the many ways you can help.

It’s hard for human beings to think big picture or long range. I consider myself a climate change activist (not an expert), but there are plenty of times I’d rather go have a beer and listen to music than send emails to my congressperson about climate action or improve my house or attend a city council meeting. We all need to do what we can, and urge our local, state, and national governments to do the right thing.

We need corporate responsibility, too. A large company can have a proportionally big impact. If Google moves to renewable electricity sources for keeping their cloud servers cool, it takes a big bite out of dirty energy production. See what Climate Voice is doing on that front.

Al Gore, who’s studied climate change since he was in college and has tirelessly advocated for climate action, founded the Climate Reality Project in 2006 to train others to share the facts about climate change that he presented in his award-winning An Inconvenient Truth slideshow. You can be part of this, too. Go to The Climate Reality Project website for more information about free online trainings. I attended mine in person in Los Angeles in August 2018 and it was a revelation.

Beyond EVs

Scooters have a very small carbon footprint.

Switching to an EV helps, but maybe you don’t need a car at all! In cities, there are many options, including public transportation and shared vehicles (when there’s not a pandemic). Many people are discovering the utility of electric scooters, bicycles, and mopeds—from shared fleets or owning their own. If you’ve ever visited Amsterdam, you know that bicycles, which generate no pollution whatsoever, can be a fine way to travel, especially if cities are designed to make them safe and convenient.

In suburban and rural communities, it’s definitely more of a challenge, but with a growing range of EV offerings, you should be able to switch over easily in the next few years. Electric pickup trucks are almost here!

The Bottom Line

Climate change is heavily driven by the burning of fossil fuels. It’s a real problem and we have to move away from it quickly. There are many things we can and must do, but one action we can take today to lower our consumption of fossil fuels is to drive an EV instead of a gasoline car. Bonus points for riding a bike instead.

Volkswagen’s EV Product Assault in the U.S. Begins with the ID.4

The all-new 2021 Volkswagen ID.4 is the car VW is counting on to build its post-Diesel-scandal electric car business in the United States. Based on a first look—but sadly, not a drive—I’d say they have reason for optimism.

I got an opportunity to see and touch this brand new product a week before its official release today. Press briefings have changed in the era of COVID-19. Besides wearing a mask and getting my temperature taken, the presentation was just for me! I met with Jeffrey Lean, Product Manager, Electric Vehicles for Volkswagen of America, who showed me a presentation and then accompanied me as I carefully walked around the car and sat inside, touching things and getting a feel for the vehicle (and took these photos).

A fresh new look. Mostly white surfaces is part of the 1st Edition package.

The content was “embargoed,” meaning I wasn’t allowed to speak publicly about it until today. This morning, my story appeared on Clean Fleet Report. Please go there for the details.

VW is serious about offering a bunch of EVs in the U.S., although they are withholding the Golf-sized ID.3, which is already available in Europe. As a compact crossover, the ID.4 is exactly the kind of car Americans love, so bringing it over first makes sense. In 2022, they will begin building the ID.4 in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

I’m excited about the future electric “Microbus,” which was introduced years ago as the ID Buzz concept. It’ll be the ID.<number>, of course, when it rolls in.

At press events, you often get some kind of souvenir–a pen, keychain, or water bottle. Here’s mine from the ID.4 press event. So 2020.

Kia Niro Plug-in Hybrid–One of 3 Gas-Saving Flavors

By Steve Schaefer

Kia has been good about offering “Neopolitan” choices for a few of its models. In ice cream, Neopolitan means strawberry, vanilla, and chocolate. With a Kia Niro, it means Hybrid, Plug-in Hybrid, and pure EV. If the flavors are laid out that way, it would be the “vanilla” selection—the PHEV—that visited my driveway recently.

I have sampled the other flavors of Niro. The hybrid, like all other hybrids, is a way to drive further on less gas, thanks to an electric motor that automatically regenerates power from regenerative braking and stores it in a small battery. There’s no effort required on the driver’s part. With the all-electric model, the Niro challenges other EVs with a high level of equipment and a terrific 239-mile range in a crowd-pleasing SUV shape.

As a PHEV, the Niro offers significantly more electric range than the hybrid, but is still lugging around a gas tank, engine, radiator, etc., which you’ll need for when you want to drive more than 26 miles without a charge. However, you can drive anywhere you want to, anytime.

As they say in the software business, it depends on your “use case.” If you travel long distances a lot, a hybrid is a no-brainer. The plug-in hybrid is great if you occasionally want to drive hundreds of miles unimpeded by a charging stop, but you get nearly full-electric motoring for your short trips around town. The EV is the most environmentally friendly, and you can go over 200 miles before needing an electron fill-up, but charging still takes time.

The beauty is, all three version look and drive about the same. The EV is missing the 1.6-liter, 139-horsepower engine, and its 64-kWh battery is much larger and heavier than the one in the PHEV. The PHEV, like my Horizon Blue tester, has a much smaller 8.9 kWh lithium-ion polymer battery for its more modest range, so it’s in the middle somewhere.

You can spec the PHEV at the LXS, EX, or EX Premium level. My tester was the EX Premium, so it came with some extras that even the regular EX didn’t get. These include a 10.25-inch dash screen instead of the standard 8-inch, a power tilt/slide sunroof, a Harman Kardon 8-speaker upgraded audio system, heated artificial leather seats (new this year), LED interior cabin and cargo lighting, deluxe scuff plates, and more.

The driving experience for the Niro is pleasant, as it cruises silently around town on electricity. The engine comes in when you run out of juice, but during my COVID-19-reduced driving regimen, I rarely heard it. What I did hear, though, was a strange artificial swishing sound below around 20 miles per hour. This is provided to alert oblivious pedestrians, who can’t hear the electric motor in parking lots.

The design of the Niro owes something to the hand and the vision of former Audi stylist Peter Schreyer. He has been at Hyundai/Kia for a while now, so the satisfying balance and distinctive look is now part of all Kia products. For 2020, the instrument panel gets an update, but without a ’19 next to it I can’t say what’s different.

Inside, the controls are typical Kia—easy to use and understand. The oversize screen in my tester featured large displays and setting up Apple CarPlay was a snap. The leather-wrapped wheel feels nice, the seats are comfortable, and it’s all carefully planned to make driving nearly effortless.

Easy to read and easy to use.

The exterior receives midcycle grille and fascia upgrades up front and some upgrades to the tail, too, but nothing too different. This is a nice-looking, if not eye-popping vehicle, so there was no reason to mess with that.

A fresh face for 2020.

Environmentally speaking, the car gets fuel economy numbers of 48 City, 44 Highway, 46 Combined mpg as a hybrid. As a plug-in, it’s rated 105 MPGe (miles per gallon equivalent) if you charge it up. A full charge from zero on Level 2 240-volt current takes about two hours and 15 minutes.

The EPA green scores are 7 for Smog and a perfect 10 for Fuel Economy/Greenhouse Gas. The Niro PHEV emits just 90 grams of CO2 per mile, which isn’t very much considering some gasoline vehicles I’ve tested spew out well over 300. The more you use the battery the lower that actual number will be, of course.

Prices, including shipping, start at $30,610 for the LXS and range up through the EX at $34,350 and EX Premium at $37,510. My tester came to $37,790 with additional cargo mats and net.

Unlike some Hyundais and Kias, which are built in the U.S., this one is assembled in Hwasung, Korea. These days that doesn’t really mean much, but now you know.

As a reasonably roomy, high-utility crossover, any Kia Niro is a perfect choice for many people. You pick the battery size for what suits you.

BMW X3 xDrive30e – Luxury SUV with Some EV Cred

By Steve Schaefer

BMW’s midsize plug-in hybrid SUV lives in the trendy part of the marketplace. In the BMW stable, the X3 is “right-sized,” with the smaller X1 as the entry point and the larger and more expensive X5 and X7 above it.

You can get the X3 xDrive30i, with a gasoline-only powertrain, but opting for the xDrive30e means your vehicle combines a 2.0-liter turbo-charged four-cylinder gasoline engine with an integrated electric motor and a 12-kWh battery. Officially, you can plug in your car and then drive about 18 miles on electricity alone, making a big impact on local trips.

Getting more specific, the X3’s 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine and electric motor together generate 288 total horsepower and 310 pounds-feet of torque, good for an under-six-second time to push the 4,586-pound SUV from zero to 60. So, although it’s taller than a 3-Series sedan, it still gives you the performance you seek from a vehicle that wears the blue-and-white BMW roundel.

My tester came in a typical BMW gray shade called “Dark Graphite Metallic.” Numerous other colors are available, including the Phytonic Blue Metallic I’d likely choose. The twin kidney grille sits prominently up front, and the styling is typical of today’s BMWs.

You can get the gasoline-only X3 with rear-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive, but plugins are all-wheel-drive only. This isn’t so much for climbing rocks as providing extra traction in inclement weather and heightened security on the dirt road to your summer cabin.

You’ll know you’re entering a BMW the moment you open the door. The traditional two-tone theme prevails, the nickel-finish metallic trim gleams softly, the Cognac Vernasca leather smells great, and the Fineline Cove Matte Finish wood trim is bumpy and fake-looking. In my tester, the black headliner helped create a cozy feeling while the fat leather wheel was great to grip. BMWs have to look and feel like BMWs or what’s the point?

There’s little downside to adding the electric powertrain, although the base price for the plug-in is $4,600 higher and you lose 1.5 cubic feet of cargo space, since the battery protrudes a little from the cargo hold where it lives. The cargo reduction shouldn’t be a deal breaker, but it’s something to be aware of.

A little cargo space is taken up by the battery.

The seventh generation of iDrive delivers a 12.3-inch high-res screen that you can interface with using voice, touch, and haptic controls. There’s all the tech you could want, with some of that complex German engineering that means you have to figure out things rather than just learning them intuitively.

As a luxury brand, BMW follows the “but wait, there’s more” approach to options. My $48,550 test vehicle topped out at $65,020 when all was said and done. Large pieces of this included the M Sport design upgrade ($5,000) and 15-item Executive Package ($4,500), and there was plenty more. Check out the website for details. An upgrade to double-spoke bi-color 20-inch wheels added another $950. I certainly enjoyed the audio upgrade to the Harman Kardon surround sound system ($875).

The whole purpose of having a plug-in hybrid is to increase efficiency, so how do the numbers stack up? The xDrive30e earns 60 MPGe combined city/highway when using gasoline and electricity. If you don’t charge up, the combined number is 24 mpg. If you opt for the all-wheel-drive version of the gas-only xDrive30i, it’s 24 City, 29 Highway, and 26 Combined. The EPA Green scores are 7 for Smog and 9 for Greenhouse Gas for the plugin and 7/5 respectively for the standard gas model. The plugin earns the EPA’s SmartWay designation, while putting out 204 grams of CO2 per mile versus 345 grams for the gas model. That’s not insignificant.

The point being, make sure to plug in the car to get maximum benefits. With the small battery, you should be able to use regular household current in your garage to fill it up overnight—you don’t need to install a more expensive (but faster) 240-volt Level 2 charger.

Cars are meant to be driven, and I hate to say it, but during a pandemic, not a lot of driving gets done. I put few miles on this car but tried to make most of them electric. The motor is responsive, smooth, and silent, as expected. The driving experience is not especially sporty, but the BMW ambiance makes it seem so. If you like BMWs and want a crossover, this is a good option. Competition is fierce in this market segment, and plug-in hybrids are likely to be popular in the 2020s until full EVs take over. This car can give you unlimited travel options with zero range anxiety, however, it is only incrementally helping to solve our climate crisis. It is a good way to learn about plugging in and visiting the gas station less.

Chevrolet Bolt EV — Still Fine in its Fourth Year

By Steve Schaefer

IMG_8707

An automotive writer normally tests a car for a week and based on that, attempts to provide an impression of what it would be like to own it. In the case of the Chevrolet Bolt EV, I can provide five days of recent experience plus three years of personal history.

The bottom line? The 2020 Bolt EV I just tested is almost exactly the same as the 2017 model that I leased on January 8, 2017, with a few important differences. In some ways, that’s a good thing, because the Bolt was remarkably well thought out and executed at its debut.

The Bolt EV was the first affordable all-electric vehicle with decent range. In California in 2017, if you bought the car, you could take $10,000 off with federal and state credits. Back then, Teslas retailed at significantly more, and the Model 3 wasn’t even out yet. Other EV choices then included cars like the Nissan LEAF, with under 100 miles of range, and the VW e-Golf with 124. The Bolt EV boasted an impressive 238 miles of range, enough to eliminate most range anxiety.

The Big News

The big news with the 2020 Bolt is that it now has 259 miles of range, a nice boost of 21 miles. GM improved the battery chemistry to make the same size battery store more electricity (60 to 66 kWh). From a marketing standpoint, this development may also be an attempt to outdo the Hyundai Kona, which debuted after the Bolt and boasts 258 miles of range.

My test Bolt EV wore low-key Slate Gray Metallic paint—a far cry from the eye-popping Kinetic Blue Metallic of my car. But there seems to be a demand now for colors that mimic a filing cabinet. It was, however, beautifully applied, and is new for 2020. The test car featured the Dark Galvanized/Sky Cool Gray interior—my car’s had white on light gray. The newer Bolts have a handy sliding sunvisor, too, but otherwise, the interior looked identical.

2-year-horizontal-edited

I loved my Bolt’s Kinetic Blue paint.

Plenty of Room

The Bolt is a tall hatchback, not an SUV, so it’s not exactly the hot design in the marketplace. It may resemble a subcompact Honda Fit, but in fact it has midsize room inside, with tall chairs up front and plenty of rear legroom. The tall roofline helps. The car is relatively narrow, so four people will be comfortable and folks sitting three across in the back might be happier if they are children.

IMG_8709

The Bolt EV is much larger than my current car, a Fiat 500e. 

Being a hatchback, the Bolt easily drops its rear seats flat to make room for a huge load of cargo. I carried an upright bass and amplifier in mine (bass guitar and amp pictured). A hard panel at the rear can create a level load floor or drop down into the cargo area for taller items. The charging cable (for Level 1 household current) lives under there, but it’s also a nice space to hide things while the cargo space is exposed. The car comes with a dainty cloth cargo cover for when the seatbacks are up that does an adequate job.

Load gear

Generous Power

The Bolt provides a firm ride and vigorous acceleration. Its 200-horsepower motor produces up to 266 lb.-ft. of torque, which pulls the car along virtually silently from 0-60 in just 6.5 seconds. You can set the car’s one-speed automatic transmission to have very light energy regeneration (feels like a typical automatic) or click the lever into “L” for higher regeneration, which adds more energy to the battery. As with my own Bolt, I used the L setting virtually all the time, so I could do “one pedal driving.” This means you can use the accelerator to move forward when you press down and also to slow down—even to a complete stop—by lifting off your foot. It becomes a fun game to see if you can just make it to the line at the stop sign or stoplight without touching the brake pedal. The brakes themselves work fine when you need them. Strong regen feels a little like downshifting in a manual-equipped car.

Packed with Conveniences

The Bolt was a new design in 2017 and has all the modern safety and internal conveniences you could want. As in my own car, I used Apple CarPlay app to verbally send and receive texts while driving (with help from Siri.) The 10.2-inch center screen is bright and clearly laid out. Preferably when parked, you can scroll through and see how you’re doing saving energy. Redundant audio controls on the steering wheel make it easy to pick music selections and control volume, or you can touch the screen itself.

Some people have complained about the Bolt’s firm, narrow seats, but the 2020 model ones felt a little more comfortable. As a Premier model, my tester had leather chairs, which I have heard are more comfortable than the standard cloth ones in the LT, but you should spend some time in them yourself if you opt for the base model.

If anything, the Bolt EV is very much what it was designed to be and offers a solution to EV motoring for most people. It’s not the hottest product on the market, with Tesla providing the sex appeal and Hyundai a true crossover look with its models. And choices from more manufacturers are on the way. But prices have remained about the same, and surely by now GM has ironed out any issues with the platform. A new Bolt-based crossover is coming soon, if you can wait a year or so.

The Bolt EV is base-priced at $37,495 for the LT. The Premier, with extra comfort and convenience features, plus upgrades like leather seats, polished alloy wheels, a cool video rear view mirror, and roof rails, comes to $41,020. My tester had $1,840 worth of options, including $750 for the fast-charge plug (worth it if you travel longer distances, and should really be standard equipment), and totaled $43,735.

The rebates are fading away, but there are some great deals now. I saw an online offer of an $8,500 Cash Allowance or (for well qualified buyers) 0% APR for 72 Months. Lease rates on an LT start at only $199/month for three years. Check with your dealer for details and read the fine print.

Wrapping Up

If you don’t know the Bolt EV, you should sample one before signing a deal on an EV. It’s fun, spacious, seemingly well made, and if you have a European sensibility and like hatchbacks, it’s perfect. I had virtually no service needs during my three-year lease. One battery issue was fixed free on warranty (including a free loaner), and all I did was rotate the tires and change the cabin air filter. And I never went to a gas station.

VanMoof S3 e-Bike — Sleek, Smart, and Saves Your Legs on Hills

By Steve Schaefer

VanMoof-front

Bicycles are ubiquitous. I’ve had one most of my life, starting before the age of 6. I even made a living as a bike messenger many years ago at age 18. I now own a 35-year-old 10-speed and a modern 21-speed cruising bike, but I don’t ride them. Part of the problem is that I live in a hilly area, and while it’s nice to ride downhill it’s a lot more challenging to ride back up. VanMoof has an answer.

VanMoof e-bikes help you pedal, while still retaining the look and feeling of being “a bike.” The VanMoof S3 model I tested has a small electric motor and is packed with loads of technology neatly and securely hidden inside its sturdy, matte black frame.

The S3 and its smaller, but otherwise identical X3 sibling, just came out in April, replacing the previous S2 and X2 while offering more features and better quality, at a lower price! How did they do that? Answer: VanMoof increased the production volume in their Taiwan factory, as well as owning more of the production process and outsourcing fewer of the steps involved. This increased efficiency resulted in savings they could pass on to their customers.

VanMoof is a Dutch company from Amsterdam, but they have a few locations in the U.S., including San Francisco! The narrow, but deep shop sits at 886 Valencia Street in the City’s famous Mission District, across the street from a remarkable mural that’s been updated for the COVID-19 pandemic.

mural

I arrived at the shop a few minutes early and waited patiently for my appointment outside while three employees arrived, including Grace, who became my guide for exploring this exciting bike. Once they opened up at 11 a.m. I entered the shop and saw a few of the bikes set up. Grace brought out a black S3 and explained the good stuff.

This is a beautifully simple looking ride. The surfaces are all painted a deep matte black that looks like it’s an eighth of an inch thick. The handlebars are simple one-piece units with the appropriate brake levers on each side and a couple of little thumb buttons for controls. The left button is an on/off switch and the right controls some settings and lets you select extra boost when you need it while riding up hills. There are matching black fenders that, per Grace, are great for keeping rain from spraying you off the tires. There’s a small but bright LED headlamp up front and a red taillamp.

You can use a phone app with the bike, but I wasn’t able to test it. There used to be one set up in the shop display, but with COVID-19 concerns, it’s a more touch-free environment now. We kept our masks on the entire time, including my photo session. You can do a lot with the bike itself, but the app enables more configurations, and can even be set to unlock the bike when you approach.

A compact display is built into the top of the upper bar, and with a small flush field of little lights lets you set five levels of automatic assist, from none (0) to 4. You can also see the level of battery charge and note your speed when you’re out riding; it also displays messages from the anti-theft system. You can use the display to unlock the bike, too, tapping in a three-digit code.

This is an assisted bicycle, so you won’t be cruising along with your feet sitting on the pedals doing nothing. It just makes it a lot easier to ride. You can decide what level of assist works for you, although my brief test had the max setting.

This bike has one sophisticated anti-theft system, too. You line up a couple lines on the wheel and hub and press a small button behind the left pedal. Chunk! The wheels are locked up tight. A thief would not be able to use the bike, even if they cut the chain lock and dropped the bike in their truck. And, an alarm sounds when the locked bike is moved and gets louder if the thief continues to fool with the bike. The display shows a flashing skull to presumably further discourage the bad guy. If they do run off with your bike, within 15 minutes its hardware sends out an SOS to VanMoof, where an employee can track its whereabouts. I’m not sure how exactly they confront the perp who stole it (find a cop?) but VanMoof promises recovery or replacement if they can’t recover your bike within 2 weeks (a loaner is provided). This theft policy costs $340 for three years—well worth it, I’d say.

Once Grace showed me the tricks of the bike and adjusted the seat for me, I walked it out the door and took off for a short test ride. In San Francisco, there is no shortage of hills to climb. I learned right away that you must pedal to use the boost button. The transmission itself is an automatic—you don’t select gears, so it downshifted for me to start out and I could feel it shifting when it sensed I needed it.

When I hit the first hill, a real steep one, I pushed the boost button but the motor (or more likely, I) petered out partway up. It may be that some hills are just too steep for the boost. More likely, I am not in great shape so I needed more than it could provide.

So, I came down the hill and was able to test the hydraulic disc brakes. These really work well and are likely to stay good for a while. You can see the metal discs and the small pads sitting over them, just like in a modern car (but much smaller). Brake pads do wear, so VanMoof recommends purchasing the service package. It takes care of all your routine maintenance for $340 for three years, which just happens to be the same price as the anti-theft package. That’s also almost exactly 300 Euros, so maybe they just do a straight conversion from the Amsterdam even-numbered price. You can also get occasional service without a plan, but it’ll be just like going to the car dealer—you need at least some maintenance, it could add up, and parts are extra.

I tried the boost on a few less daunting hills near Dolores Park and the little motor gave me the help I needed to climb them. And, cruising on relatively flat streets is magic. It’s like walking on those moving sidewalks at the airport—normal effort gives you extraordinary velocity.

VanMoof-S3

The S3 has 28-inch wheels and a full-size adult bike frame.

Stats

The little motor in either the S3 or X3 provides boost torque of 59 NM (43.5 ft.lbs). It’s powered by a 504 Wh (Watt hour) battery. Note: I’m used to talking about kWh (kilowatt hours) from electric cars. This tiny motor puts out just over half of one kWh. A Chevrolet Bolt, for example, has a 60-kWh battery, making it 120 times more powerful than the bike. Of course, the Bolt’s battery weighs 900 pounds and the one in the S3 fits neatly inside the bike’s vertical tube.

Battery range varies tremendously. If you use the minimal assist (level 1) and are pedaling moderately on a flat surface, you can get some assist for more than 90 miles. If you have it set to maximum assist and are using boost a lot, it could be more like 37 miles. “Your mileage will vary.” Of course, you can pedal without assist for as long as you like.

It takes about four hours to fully charge the battery on 110 household current. The battery is not removable, so you need to bring the bike close to the outlet—a task easier in a garage than in a third-floor walkup apartment.

The S3 has 28-inch wheels and has a regular full-size adult frame. It accommodates riders from 5-8 to 6-8, which just includes me (at the lower end). The X3, with 24-inch wheels and a smaller frame, accommodates riders from 5 foot even to 6-5, so I could pick either one, I guess. Below, it’s shown in the other color, a rich light gray (the black S3 better matches my outfit).

VanMoof-X3

Nokia 2000_trimmedSo, what’s the price, you ask. It’s $1,998 for either the S3 or the X3. If that seems like a lot think of it as an Apple iPhone 11 and a regular bike as a Nokia cell phone from 2000. This is no ordinary bike. There’s a lot of sophisticated brain power in these e-bikes, and they are built like fortresses to protect the hardware—and keep it from being stolen. If you have the means and the desire to ride a bike for an extended distance for commuting or just fun, the VanMoof bikes are worth the investment.

Electric Scooter Guide – Helping You Find the Perfect Scooter

By Steve Schaefer

ESG-top image

Electric scooters are taking off as a way to get around inexpensively and environmentally responsibly. And, they can be a blast to ride. While some city riders, in non-pandemic times, might borrow a scooter from a fleet, such as Lime, many people want their own. But how can you know what’s available and what best suits your needs? That’s where the Electric Scooter Guide (ESG) comes in.

The Electric Scooter Guide provides electric scooter news, industry insights, safety information, in-depth reviews, and exhaustive data. It was founded at the beginning of 2019 by Chuck Temple and Justin Klein with the mission to “help people find the perfect scooter.” They also put out regular YouTube videos to complement the substantial and regularly updated online content.

The website’s design is clean and functional. The home page offers four quick links to essential content; I’ll elaborate on them in detail below.

  • Best Electric Scooters of 2020
  • Beginner’s Guide to Buying an Electric Scooter
  • Hand’s-On Electric Scooter Reviews
  • A teaser for their ESG LIVE scooter chat live show

Best Electric Scooters of 2020

This long section is filled with charts, tables and images, and starts with ratings by more than 750 owners.

Ratings chart

It’s arranged by price range, after which ESG presents their top 12 picks, from 12 to 1. Each scooter gets a hero shot image, a link to written and video reviews, and pros and cons. These guys give you all the data, not just an impression.

Beginners Guide to Buying an Electric Scooter

A beginner is looking for more guidance, so this section is geared to walking the reader through a step at a time. It covers price, features, components, distributors, maintenance, and shopping tools.

Categories

Scooters are broken into three categories: Budget, Commuter, and High Performance. Budget scooters are priced under $300 and are meant for “minimal or light recreational use.” Commuter scooters are intended for daily use, so are more durable than the Budget ones. They offer more features, and the best ones have suspensions and other premium features. The guide subdivides Commuter scooters into three subcategories: Budget ($300-600), Midrange ($600-900), and Premium ($600-1,200).

The Performance scooters ($1,200-1,600) offer faster speeds and longer ranges, which you would expect for a much larger cash outlay. Upgrades include tubeless tires, semi-hydraulic brakes, powerful lights, and turn signals. Extreme Performance scooters ($2,500+) are the highest performing scooters but tend to be heavy (more than 70 pounds) and with their fat tires are best for offroading.  A prime example is the Wolf Warrior 11, which can zoom up to more than 40 miles per hour—much faster than the bargain units.

Wolf Warrior-cropped

The mighty Wolf Warrior 11

Features are discussed at length. After walking through the levels, the guide discusses features, which further helps the reader figure out which scooter will work for them. It starts with price, referring back to the previous section. Next is another crucial number, range—how far it’ll go on a charge. Then, they discuss weight, which can be a factor in how it handles but really matters if you plan to carry the scooter. Top speed is useful to know. Most riders are OK going 15-18 mph on the street, but if you have the aforementioned Wolf Warrior 11, you’ll be flying. Max weight is the limit the scooter will carry. For most scooters, it’s 220 pounds. Motor power makes a difference in your riding experience. It starts at 200 watts and runs to 500 watts or more. The Guide recommends at least 250 watts for commuting. Suspensions, as in cars, makes riding much more comfortable, and the guide advises getting a scooter with one if you plan to commute longer distances or drive over rough terrain. Lighting is crucial if you plan to drive at night, and it varies from scooter to scooter, although there is minimally a white light up front and a red one in back. Brakes, of course, are essential. There are four types, from electric and regenerative (the weakest) to manual foot brakes, to drum brakes and at the top, disc brakes. As in cars, disc brakes stop better, but tend to be on the more expensive scooters. Tires—also essential—are either pneumatic (air-filled) or airless. The latter are solid and much less comfortable, although they require virtually no maintenance. There is something called an IP Rating (ingress protection), which rates how water-resistant the scooter is. This would be important for protecting the parts from damage. IP Ratings go from x0 (no protection) to X7+ (can be fully submerged). If you plan to ride in the rain, you need at least IPx4.

Distributors are the places you buy the electric scooters. ESG lists three types: Domestic (shops or online), direct from China, or a crowd-funded campaign. They recommend buying domestically. Shipping from China is cheaper, if unreliable, and crowd-funded campaigns are exciting but more of an investment opportunity (be prepared to lose your money and wait a year or more for a scooter).

Maintenance – It’s important to consider how you’ll fix your scooter if it breaks. You should expect any scooter to require some maintenance. Some companies don’t offer replacement parts, so you may have to learn how to fix it yourself. Preventative maintenance saves a lot of trouble, and the guide offers links to detailed maintenance information.

Hands-On Reviews

As you’ve seen already, the ESG is very detailed. The reviews are arranged by price categories, making it easy to compare products in the category you plan to shop in. There are more choices in the lower price categories, for example, 10 options in the $300-600 range, and unsurprisingly, just three in the $3,000 plus group. Each scooter, regardless of price, gets a thumbnail photo and a one-short-sentence description, with a link to the full review.

Reviews - 4

Once you click the link, you’ll get multiple photos, tech specs, highlights, and a summary, including a video and other scooters to consider. Here’s an example of the specs chart.

GoTrax specs

Following the intro section is a thorough review, including performance tests, features, warranty/post-purchase support, and conclusions. They may even include comparisons with the previous version or a close competitor.

ESG explains their exhaustive five-step review process. It starts with the initial unboxing and assembly, which identifies possible issues. The assembled scooter is ridden for a week each by two team members to sort out the details. Then, they run performance testing for acceleration, braking distance, range, and hill climbing. Then, they get together as a group and produce written and video reviews. The final piece is long-term testing, which exposes any durability issues.

This section, frankly, looks more thorough than what major automotive buff magazines do—almost more like Consumer Reports. Excellent.

The YouTube Video Show

I tuned in to one of Chuck’s shows on YouTube. Professionally recorded, they feature Chuck’s folksy charm as he talks about the topic of the day.

Scooter Database

There’s even more to this sprawling site. ESG offers a constantly updated database that contains detailed information on every available scooter, based on manufacturers’ data. You can set a filter at the top for Metric (kilos) or Imperial (pounds), beginner or advanced, and “All” or “Curated.” I’m not sure what the difference between All and Curated is, but there is LOTS of content available.

Safety and Gear

Scooters are fun, but can be dangerous if not driven carefully. Even then, it’s best to be equipped with a good helmet and other crucial accessories. Currently, this tab on the home page contains seven valuable articles about keeping safe while you’re riding.

Coupon Codes

There are deals to be had, from discounts to free accessories. All of this is listed in one tab, but is also provided in the individual scooter reviews.

Summary

The Electric Scooter Guide is a compendium of expertly written reviews and carefully maintained content that should make it easy for anyone to figure out which scooter to buy for their needs and budget. Readers will also learn how to take care of their new scooter, and how to protect themselves while riding it. And it’s a gateway for connection with fellow enthusiasts. The YouTube channel is fun for enthusiasts to enjoy this growing transportation phenomenon. And with a busy Facebook page and a Facebook Group with more than 5,000 members, the Electric Scooter Guide gives you everything you need for your electric two-wheeled commute or adventure.

PHEV or not PHEV – That Is the Question

Why I’m resuming testing cars that are not pure EVs.

By Steve Schaefer

2020 Niro PHEV

On April 25th of this year, with COVID-19 causing massive lockdowns and cars sitting parked, the skies around the world cleared up! This happy and unexpected news inspired me to declare to the world, in this blog, the following:

I have decided, after 28 years of automotive testing and writing, that I will now test and review only pure, all-electric vehicles. It completes the move away from testing gasoline-only cars that I made after my Climate Reality Leadership Training in August of 2018.

This bold, emotionally fueled statement meant I was giving up on hybrids, including the plug-in ones with chargeable batteries.

Well, since then, I have tested a single car—the delightful if range-impaired Mini Cooper SE. I’ve also had time to think about what is likely to happen in the 2020s. The fact is, regardless of how much I love EVs, barring some miracle yet to happen, they are not going to constitute 100 percent of new car sales anytime soon, except perhaps in Norway. In my home country, the United States of America, there will still be some people who choose not to drive electric, and there presumably will be some manufacturers willing to indulge them if profits can be made.

We don’t need a 100% electric fleet by 2030, as wonderful (and clean and quiet) as that sounds. We need a 50% electric fleet, with an eventual movement to 100% electric new vehicles, with the older ones eventually dwindling away as they are retired or massively disappearing if a program can be devised to do that.

Based on this line of reasoning, there is no reason why some people can’t opt for plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) now instead of BEVs if they need them. And why would they need them? Perhaps they don’t have their own roof for solar and worry about access to public charging. Perhaps they need to drive long distances periodically, which in 2020 only a gas vehicle can do without stops that last under 10 minutes.

Although PHEVs are still saddled with not only a motor but a gasoline engine, fuel tank, radiator, and all that, because they have a chargeable battery, if driven locally within their much shorter range, they can serve nicely as EVs most of the time, only sipping fuel when needed. And that is MUCH better than a gasoline burner, or even a regular hybrid, which switches from gas to battery and back again and can’t be charged. Even a regular hybrid delivers twice the fuel economy of an internal combustion engine (ICE) car, which essentially takes half a car off the road. A PHEV can remove 90%, once again, depending on use.

Do I want to promote PHEVs, then? I’d rather entice someone to buy a BEV, because they are so silent and clean and wonderful, but realistically, we can still have some PHEVs in the fleet in the ‘20s until electric/gas price parity is achieved, the charging network is built out, and the 400-mile battery is invented. Instead of “all-or-nothing” thinking, this means looking at the overall goal of cutting our CO2 emissions in half by 2030 and finding a workable strategy for eventually making the fossil fuel industry history.

Yes, I would like to have a few more test cars, too, although I don’t need one every week. Many exciting electrified vehicles are arriving in the next couple of years that are plug-in hybrids, and it would be a shame for me to miss out on testing those cars.  I need to be able to guide readers to the best transportation solution for them now, and in the future.

For a great example of the wonders of plug-in hybrids, see this story on the Kia Niro PHEV by freelance auto writer Mike Hagerty. I’ll plan to serve up a few PHEV stories myself once I let my test fleets know my change of heart. Stay tuned.

Superpedestrian Builds an Advanced New Scooter

By Steve Schaefer

Link scooter 01

Electric scooters are popular in congested urban spaces. Easier to use than a car, with no parking issues, they are also great for last-mile connections to public transit. However, scooters have some issues, including safety, reliability, and profitability for fleet operators. And, of course, there is the current concern of staying safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. But scooters have an important role to play in the future of urban mobility.

The weaknesses of scooters are well known—they’re easily damaged and maintenance is expensive and time consuming. What was needed was a better scooter, so Superpedestrian developed one.

I spoke with company founder and CEO Assaf Biderman about their scooter and the LINK application they are rolling out to access it.

Origins

BIderman moved to the United States from Israel in 2001 and co-founded the Senseable City Laboratory at MIT. Using his Physics background, he and the team focused on micro vehicles and the technology to make them safer and more cost effective. They used artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and robotics to address urban transportation problems in new ways.

Superpedestrian was spun out of MIT as a robotics company in 2013. They then spent more than four years developing their proprietary Vehicle Intelligence System (VIS) and introduced it in their first product—the Copenhagen Wheel. This product is an amazing red disc/motor that learns your biking style and adds power to support your ride. You can buy a bike with the wheel or add it to your own bike (they will custom-build it to fit).

Since 2018, Superpedestrian’s team of talented designers, developers and engineers has focused on engineering and validating a superior scooter for shared fleets.

The Urban Transportation Problem

“There will be two plus billion more people on the planet by 2050,” said Biderman. “Where can we put them? How do we share the road space? The only solution is multi-mobility.”

That means providing more one- or two-person vehicles, with autonomous capability and the ability to monitor themselves to prevent them from breaking down.

“It’s like an immune system,“ said BIderman. “Are they safe to ride before starting? What’s the chance of electronic failure before riding? There are hundreds of things.”

The ideal system avoids problems by diagnosing them in advance and fixing or preventing damage to key components before they break.

“For example, a cut wire can be identified and fixed before it leads to a bigger problem,” said Biderman.

The company had a three-part goal for their new scooter:

  1. Provide a safer ride
  2. Make them cost effective for fleets
  3. Create a scalable platform that brings sustainability to the city, integrating with public transit and plans the city makes for scooters, such as protected bike paths

What Makes the Superpedestrian Scooter Different

Although it looks similar, the Superpedestrian scooter is fundamentally different from regular scooters. It has a full-blown operating system (OS) onboard, developed over years of research and engineering by the company’s robotics engineers.

As Biderman explains, a basic scooter has motors and basic parts, but it can know what’s going on with the scooter itself and report back issues in the cloud so they can be fixed.

Superpedestrian has spent more than seven years developing their Vehicle Information System. Its more than 140 indicators monitor or provide:

  • Power from the motor, electric braking, and energy in and out of the battery
  • Vehicle encryption for cybersecurity
  • Decision-making ability in real time to prevent most safety hazards
  • Temperature/water penetration to help prevent component failure
  • Reporting ability – generate a repair ticket
  • A cloud data layer

Your basic scooter doesn’t contain any of this. Amazingly, the high-tech Superpedestrian scooter costs about the same to manufacture.

“This system enables you to scale micro vehicles to the millions,” said Biderman.

You’d expect that the system would use lots of sensors to detect vehicle behavior, as you’ll find in a car. But, per Biderman, they are expensive, need calibration, and can break.

“We found a way to do it without the sensors,” he said. “It’s a machine learning process, where we train the system to attribute functionality of components to failures upstream. It’s a very low-cost, reliable system.”

So, how does the scooter communicate when there’s a problem?

“Most data isn’t significant to the user,” said Biderman. “But if something goes wrong, the scooter will stop safely, and tell you why.”

With the data living on the scooter itself, Superpedestrian’s scooter can implement geofences in under one second.

The Superpedestrian scooter has a larger, 84-cell battery, for a greater range.  This reduces charging frequency, keeping the scooter in use more of the time.

Easier and Safer to Ride with a Lower Center of Gravity

While some scooters put the battery on the vertical part of the scooter, Superpedestrian installs it under the foot panel. A lower center of gravity makes it easier to control the scooter. Also, the engineers designed the scooter to work optimally for most people—the 50th-percentile man and woman as well as a shorter female and a 95th-percentile man. The angle of the upper section and handlebars is carefully planned as well.

The Superpedestrian scooter stops in a shorter distance than a standard scooter. One reason is that it uses a dual mechanical braking system. Each lever actuates regenerative braking, which helps charge the battery and reduce wear on the mechanical brakes. It’s a system used in electric cars.

However, in cars, when the battery is full, or the battery is hot or is below a certain temperature, regeneration is turned off. How to make it available all the time in a scooter?

“We found other ways to dissipate energy,” said Biderman. “For safe stopping, it’s important that the brakes feel the same all the time to the rider, so they don’t apply too little or too much pressure.”

Built to Last

Scooters are notorious for having short lives, taking abuse from various riders and rough handling. Per Biderman, the real problem with longevity isn’t mechanical as much as it is electronic.

“Our software ensures that the vehicle doesn’t experience any fundamental electronic issues,” he said. “Replacing batteries and controllers is where you get a total loss.”

The Superpedestrian scooter is designed to take at least 2,500 trips, far more than the average scooter. They also build the scooter to withstand much more stress than you’d expect. Their scooter can withstand one ton of vertical load, for example.

“If a big guy is riding the scooter and hits a pothole, it can create a lot of force—our scooter is able to tolerate that,” explained Biderman.

As for vandalism and theft, Superpedestrian is prepared.

“We can easily replace a plastic fender,” said Biderman. And the structure itself is sturdy enough to withstand vandalism. All of the cables and wires are hidden inside the vehicle for safety and security.

When and Where can I Ride One?

Superpedestrian has acquired the Zagster fleet management system and is offering their scooter to consumers via the LINK brand. The LINK app gives you access to the scooters, and it will be rolled later this year in cities in the U.S. and Europe.

To help solve the climate crisis and urban mobility issues, Superpedestrian is providing scooters that are safe, dependable, and scalable and profitable for fleets.

Link scooter 03

Power to the People! The People Power Solar Cooperative Opens Up Solar Ownership

By Steve Schaefer

PEOPLE POWER SOLAR COOPERATIVE’S FIRST COMMUNITY-OWNED SOLAR P

With reputable reports telling us that we need to decarbonize quickly to slow global warming that leads to climate change, we have to make sure everyone can participate. And now, with greater awareness of systematic racism in the U.S. and around the world from the murder of George Floyd and countless others before and after him, it’s time to address the connections between racial justice and climate solutions in this country. This is a critical opportunity to rethink beyond decarbonization and include everyone in the urgent work to fight climate change.

We can’t address the social justice issues without addressing the racist system that is oppressing many communities daily. The key to defending these communities is to allow them to have control of their own livelihood. Allowing them to have community control also lets us to address the climate emergency.

The People Power Solar Cooperative provides the technical, legal, and administrative backbone for communities to have control of their own energy regardless of whether they own or rent. The People Power Solar Cooperative’s mission is to create a just and inclusive transition to renewable energy by enabling everyone to own and shape their energy future.

Crystal Huang, CEO of the People Power Solar Cooperative

Crystal HuangCrystal Huang is a grassroots community-builder and the leader of the People Power Solar Cooperative. She has more than ten years of experience in climate solutions and activism. As a climate activist, she served as COO of Powerhouse, a solar incubator, and founded CrossPollinators, which fosters collaboration among grassroots solutions. She was associate producer of a documentary by Oscar-winning filmmaker Charles Ferguson called Time to Choose.

According to Crystal, although the climate crisis is our biggest problem, there is a growing understanding of how the system we have in place excludes many people from working on climate issues. Climate change may actually be a symptom of a larger problem that causes the exclusion to begin with.

“In order for us to include everyone in the climate solutions, we need to open our hearts to see the injustice and oppression that are happening every day,” said Crystal. “We need to recognize our privilege and in order to create collective climate action.”

In a society where some people get killed simply for living their lives, it’s virtually impossible for some communities to participate in the urgent climate solution. The longer we don’t recognize their reality and provide resources to allow them to live their lives, the more we are delaying the exigent need to pull humanity back from the edge of climate catastrophe.

“We need to break out of the culture of separation,” said Crystal. “We need to change the state of mind from exclusionary to inclusionary and share resources with them to collectively solve the biggest issues facing humanity.”

Crystal has gone through her own growth of awareness. Born in the U.S. but raised in her family’s native Taiwan, she didn’t experience racism herself, but became aware of it when she returned to the U.S. as an adult. When she was trying to increase the adoption of climate solutions with fellow climate activists, she ran into the problem we always think about—how  do we close the gaps between the haves and the have-nots.

As a curious soul, she went straight to these communities to find out why the gap exists. To her surprise, she learned from community groups in San Francisco’s Hunter’s Point neighborhood that community gardens didn’t just provide nutritious food but also reduced neighborhood violence and offered a sense of community and belonging as well as resources to not just survive but prosper.

“Low-income communities actually have a lot of solutions we don’t know about,” she said. “They understand what needs to happen, but don’t have the resources.”

Meanwhile, many in the clean tech community live without this awareness, thinking from their own privileged viewpoint that technology alone can solve the problem.

“Climate change is not the core problem, it is a symptom of the underlying problem,” said Crystal, summing up the issue. “The main problem is an extractive economy that exploits people and the planet for others’ economic gain.”

People Power addresses root causes of this problem, not just the symptoms.

It’s easy for a middle-class person, sitting in their own home in the suburbs, to call in multiple solar bids, choose the best one, and have panels installed on their own roof. I know, because that’s what I did last year. But, according to Crystal, more than half of our population can’t own solar, including renters, low-income homeowners, and people with shared roofs. “This is a failure for climate action and for justice,” said Crystal. “We need to open it up to everyone to move as fast as we can.”

A cooperative is a way to do it.

“If we are connected with each other, we become the solution, using technology as a tool,” said Crystal at a presentation for the Climate Reality Bay Area Chapter recently. She was inviting the audience to recognize the resource disparity — that disadvantaged communities tend to have an expertise and wisdom that we don’t have. “We can solve the climate crisis if we share resources for everyone to collectively own and control resources in their own community,” she said.

Collectives Work for People

There are plenty of historical examples of how cooperative living works well. Indigenous societies are known for living this way. The kibbutz movement in Israel was very successful in settling the country in the early and middle years of the 20th century. And cooperatives were around during the Great Depression, too, although their success has been downplayed as various government programs, such as the WPA, are now celebrated.

So, how does the People Power Solar Cooperative make community energy projects possible? Their innovative Commons Model proves that we can disconnect the ownership of land from the ownership of power. The model can serve as a tool for the community to organize, building on resources that may already exist there.

The Commons Model

There are three models, or “states-of-mind” in our society. The Market state-of-mind, which is all too familiar, wants to sell the energy project to the highest bidder possible. This means if you can’t afford to pay, you don’t get to have access to energy even if you need power to live. The Charity state-of-mind is well intentioned—its goal is to give the community free or cheaper energy. However, this doesn’t enable the community to participate in the process to have self-determination. The Commons state-of-mind, however, is different. It enables people in the community to come together to gain control of their own energy while building their collective wealth. It’s easy to see that the Market state-of-mind is exploitive, the Charity state-of-mind perpetuates dependency, and the Commons state-of-mind is liberating.

People Power Solar Cooperative’s Commons Model offers many benefits:

  • Members don’t need to be property owners
  • Members can buy shares in a cooperative that funds the solar installation, from as little as $100 up to $1,000—and receive interest on their investment
  • The “offtaker” from the solar installation buys energy from the cooperative and saves on their electric bill
  • Members can participate even if they don’t have their own house
  • The cooperative provides mutual benefit and spreads the wealth in the community

The People Power Solar Cooperative provides technical, legal, and administrative resources, while the community project groups choose sites, build interest, and recruit project members. The community owns and runs the installation, and assets are returned to the community. The project is free to partner with anyone they choose to provide the actual solar installation work.

Crystal provides a great way to visualize the structure: If People Power is a galaxy, the project groups are solar systems in it, and the individual owners are each planets within it.

There are four types of owners in a solar cooperative, each with a different role to play.

  • General owners provide capital and other support
  • Anchor owners provide leadership and spearhead project development
  • Subscriber owners get electric power, benefits, or services from the cooperative
  • Worker owners provide technology, operational, and organizational support to the other owners

When communities have control of their energy, they tend to use it to address the environmental, economic, and social crises they are facing. The benefits of a collective project include:

  • The community receives wealth from sharing revenue
  • There is increased “energy literacy” in the community, encouraging smarter use of resources (if something belongs to you tend to treat it more carefully)
  • A microgrid connects households
  • Energy can be used for many shared benefits, including streetlights, refrigeration for access to fresh produce, or even shared EV charging stations controlled by the community

Electrical power is important, but it can be the start of something more—building economic and political power for communities who have been historically excluded.

Building projects in low-income communities has many challenges, and they aren’t just financial. There are issues of trust, for example, when an outsider comes in to help. Crystal described four of them:

  1. People who are working multiple low-wage jobs to make ends meet don’t have time to talk.
  2. Community residents may not trust outsiders. Unscrupulous salesmen prey on vulnerable populations, and people remember this.
  3. The way of life may be different, for example, multiple families living in one small house, so there are issues of privacy.
  4. A “home energy upgrade” may sound good, but residents worry that it might cause landlords to raise the rent, displacing them from their home.

Funding the Projects

This all sounds great, you may say, but where does the money come from for projects? There are three sources, roughly provided in thirds:

  • The community members
  • Donations and grants
  • Financial institutions

If community members are financially involved, it tends to remove financial risk, since they feel ownership, and are directly accountable. Donations from charitable donations are always welcome and allow outsiders to participate while leaving control of the project to the community itself. Financial institutions, such as foundation investments, credit unions, and CDFIs can provide financial management and creative guarantees and due diligence.

As we move to a post-COVID-19 world, Crystal wants the People Power Solar Cooperative to move forward with new projects that are designed and governed by the community.

In the end, solar cooperatives can be part of making people freer and more prosperous. “We want a future where all life on earth can thrive,” said Crystal. “We want to break out of a culture of separation and give people the resources they need to liberate themselves.”

To learn more and to help, visit the People Power Solar Cooperative’s website and click Sign Up to Get Involved.