Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles — A Different Path to Clean Driving

By Steve Schaefer

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When people are thinking about “clean” cars, I suspect their minds picture hybrids, like the uniquely styled and long-established Toyota Prius. Or, they may be aware of pure EVs, such as the Nissan LEAF, and certainly Tesla’s glamorous suite of offerings. But who thinks about hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs)?

The technology is not new. Toyota’s been working on it since 1992, and debuted their first concept FCEV in 2011. Mercedes-Benz has been experimenting with their “F-Cell” cars since 2002, and just introduced a new model for the German market. Honda offers a fuel-cell version of its Clarity. Hyundai recently brought out the all-new Nexo, its second fuel-cell car (after its fuel-cell version of the Tucson). It’s the only FCEV shaped like a crossover in the U.S. market, which seems like an advantage.

Most recently, I spent a week with a 2019 Toyota Mirai. See the full review in Clean Fleet Report.

The essence of a fuel-cell vehicle is that it doesn’t have a conventional engine. It processes compressed hydrogen fuel through a sophisticated device that creates electric energy by blending hydrogen fuel and oxygen to charge a battery and power one or more electric motors to move the car. Although the only byproduct is harmless water (H2O), the process of creating the fuel itself can be less “green.”

Although hydrogen fuel-cell electric vehicles are sold in other countries, in the U.S., most live in California. That’s supported by the California Fuel Cell Partnership, which has been slowly building out a network of stations. But once you cross the state line, you could be out of luck.

Bottom line? For someone who wants to have an environmental impact and is willing to put up some inconvenience, it can be a very satisfying choice.

 

Clay Collier Talks Smart Charging at VERGE 19

By Steve Schaefer

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Electricity charging industry veteran Clay Collier spoke in a panel at VERGE 2019 about electric vehicles and connecting them to the grid. Afterwards, I caught him for some insights on what’s going on and where we’re headed.

Collier has a BA in Physics from U.C. Berkeley, co-founded Akuacom – where as CEO he worked with Lawrence Berkeley Lab and electrical utilities to connect cars to buildings and the grid using Automated Demand Response (ADR).

He sold the company and started Kisensum, a company that developed a suite of software for bidirectional V2G (vehicle-to-grid) applications. Again working with Lawrence Berkeley Lab and also the Department of Defense and California Energy Commission, Kisensum found a way to use “load shaping” to optimize vehicle charging assignments and also to limit and equalize the vehicles’ state of charge.

Kisensum participated in the four-second utility market. To meet the market requirements a resource must adjust the amount of energy supplementing the grid on a four-second basis, up and down, based on a signal from the utility.

“That just doesn’t pencil out,” Collier found. The costs of the vehicles, equipment, schedule coordination, and the rest make it too expensive. “Someday, with scale, it may become profitable,” he said.

For a project at the Alameda County Parking Facility, Kisensum enabled vehicle smart charging using an optimizer engine to flatten out power peaks, which achieves demand charge savings on the utility bill. They monitored the cycle changes and moderated the level – what’s known as “smart charging.”

When ChargePoint bought Kisensum, Collier became their VP of Energy Solutions.

Smart charging uses sophisticated software to coordinate charging. It works especially well with fleets of buses and trucks.

“It turns out that 80 percent of delivery truck routes are less than 100 miles—perfect for electrification,” said Collier.

The yard trucks that never leave the site are even easier, since they can be charged while the other trucks are out working.

Smart charging provides two main benefits to balance loads on the electrical grid—Adding capacity and grid balancing.

  • Capacity – The goal is to get as much power on the grid as possible at the times it’s needed most
  • Grid Balancing – Software monitors the grid to charge vehicles during lower usage periods and stop charging during peak usage periods.

Microgrids have an application for smart charging, too. For example, in a vehicle charging system you can balance the grid load by using battery power during peak usage periods, such as 6-9 p.m., and allowing charging directly from the grid when electricity is abundant.

Flattening the Duck Curve

In utility-scale electricity generation, the peaks and valleys of electricity usage are commonly depicted on the Duck Curve.

The Duck Curve is a graph of power production over the course of a day that shows the timing imbalance between peak demand and renewable energy production. The belly of the duck is overgeneration and the neck is the peak load. The term was coined in 2012 by the California Independent System Operator (Wikipedia).

The problem is that there is a mismatch as the highest demand for electricity is in the early evening, but solar generation is highest in the afternoon. Electricity storage is one solution to that discrepancy, and a major goal of setting up a two-way EV-to-grid connection is to use electricity stored in EV batteries to help “flatten the curve” as needed.

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What’s Coming

Collier sees mass electrification coming in two waves. The first is in commercial fleets. Electrification of fleets can save a lot on operation expenses. This will be especially relevant as cities start charging fees similar to existing “congestion charges” specifically to internal combustion engine vehicles ($50/day). Regulations are driving this change, and with competition, EVs are cheaper to operate.

The next electrification wave will be when passenger EVs take off. This will happen as people understand that with larger batteries and a built-out charging infrastructure, range anxiety isn’t really an issue. Autonomous fleets will help move people away from individual vehicles, too. The more these vehicles can be linked to the grid, the more they’ll help to balance electrical generation and flatten the Duck Curve.

Bird Flies Sustainably with Sturdy Scooters

An Interview with Melinda Hanson, Bird’s Head of Sustainability

By Steve Schaefer

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Bird, the two-year-old, Santa-Monica-based scooter sharing company, has been growing and developing its trademark electric scooters since it was founded in September 2017. One question about scooters, though, is how sustainable they are. I spoke with Bird’s Head of Sustainability, Melinda Hanson, at VERGE 19 in Oakland to find out.

Hanson has two facets to her role: One is promoting the carbon mitigation potential of electric vehicles while helping cities meet their clean energy transportation goals. The other is working to make sure Bird itself is a more sustainable company.

Hanson is focused on developing climate policy that gets people into EVs, including the small scooters that are Bird’s mainstay. She’s concerned emissions are still going up despite the rise of EVs and scooters.

As anyone who lives in a city can attest, the scooter sharing business is booming.

“The main growth in EVs in 2018 was in scooters,” said Hanson.

Hanson told me that Bird’s goal is to get people out of their cars for short trips, especially in crowded cities.

“The data shows that many car trips are less than three miles,” said Hanson. “They should be riding scooters.”

I asked if people were really replacing car trips with scooters and Hanson said that one third to one half of e-scooter trips were replacing personal car trips—and much of the rest was in place of using ridesharing services, such as Uber and Lyft—which are not environmentally positive if they’re internal combustion engines—and contribute to traffic congestion.

Bird takes its scooters seriously. They have developed and refined them over the last two years to be more robust, so they last longer.

“Our first scooters were consumer models, not rugged enough for many trips a day by multiple people,” said Hanson. Bird has built its own custom models now, which they test for ruggedness. They have learned a lot from the last two years.

“We used to have screws come loose, and shock absorbers wore out,” Hanson said. “We have increased frame density and put on better kickstands,” she said.

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The Bird 2 model—the newest one—is much improved. The company wants riding a Bird to be a great experience, so customers will come back and ride them regularly.

Bird has doubled the battery capacity of the latest scooters. This means that they can be used by more customers before needing to come in to be recharged. To facilitate local charging, Bird has a distributed charging program where gig workers can pick up the scooters and charge them at home and put them back on the street. These folks are called “chargers.”

“We want to reduce friction,” Hanson said. That means making not only the riding experience fun and easy but also signup and payment.

Bird has started collaborating with Scoot to bring out other types of two-wheel transportation, such as mopeds.

“We want to provide a bunch of vehicles for different trip modes,” said Hanson. But the starter vehicle is still likely to be the little scooter, which is easy to ride and easy to park.

Safety is a concern, and Bird has worked with cities to try to create bike lanes. They have offered to send riders free helmets (the customer pays only for shipping).

Hanson is looking for a systems impact. She thinks there’s room to start converting parking spaces to scooter parking at some point, when there are enough of them out there.

“When scooters become a major aspect of urban mobility the streets will start changing the way they look,” said Hanson.

Why will Bird succeed where others falter? Hanson thinks their emphasis on a great customer experience will lead to winning in the marketplace. And, their major investments in R&D to create better quality scooters will help too.

Summing up, Bird’s goal is to improve the overall efficiency of vehicles, using clean energy; they want to get people out of their cars for all those short trips. And they want to do it sustainably.

From Action to Advocacy: Corporate Climate Leadership in the Next Decade

Bill Weihl Speaks on the Climate Emergency

By Steve Schaefer

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Consultant and climate activist Bill Weihl addressed an audience of about 80 people at The Foster gallery in Palo Alto on October 16, 2019. Weihl, an MIT graduate, worked for computer companies Digital and Akamai before moving to long stints at software giants Google and Facebook managing their corporate sustainability programs. The talk was part of a continuing series put on by Acterra.

Action to Advocacy

On this particular evening, Weihl addressed what large companies must do in the next decade to make a major impact in the fight to keep the climate emergency from becoming unstoppable. That means moving from actions to advocacy—with strong policies to speed the changes we need.

Weihl began by touching on the heroic, focused efforts that put Neil Armstrong on the moon in the 1960s, and then stated that what we need to do for the climate will be far more difficult. He moved on to reference Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist, who is delivering the right message for the times.

“Young people are terrified,” said Weihl. “They are angry and are taking action.”

While Weihl doesn’t believe that things are hopeless, he presented the choices we have to make now to prevent global temperatures from rising to unacceptable levels. A six-degree Celsius rise would be catastrophic versus 2 degrees C—so it’s a question of “less bad” rather than “good.” Climate change has already started.

Sadly, despite a leveling off over the last few years, energy consumption and emissions increased at a record rate in 2018.

“We have to act with urgency,” said Weihl.

He mentioned Hal Harvey, CEO of Energy Innovation, who discusses “speed and scale” in his 2018 book, Designing Climate Solutions. That means moving at a “crazy fast rate” and tackling the big pieces first. It’s a 10-year problem, with a need to cut carbon emissions by 45% by 2030, and 100% by 2050, per last year’s UN IPCC Report.

We Need Systemic Change

What do we need to do to meet this? Individual actions by people and companies are not enough.

“We need systemic change,” said Weihl. We all need to take responsibility and set good policy. Weihl proposed:

  • Market rules and a decarbonization path
  • Carbon pricing
  • Clean energy mandates

However, per Weihl there is no “silver bullet.” We need to do everything we can now to decarbonize transportation, buildings, electricity generation. and more. Technology can help this process, but it is also being used by the “bad guys.” For example, Weihl described how oil companies can use high tech to make drilling for oil easier and cheaper, negating the positive climate actions being taken with, say, increased solar and wind energy generation.

Weihl brought up business travel. Although we have ways of reducing it by scheduling more Zoom meetings and online interaction, by creating more long-distance collaboration we also introduce more interest by engineers in meeting those partners in person, which in turn increases air travel. Also, while green finance on one hand removes investments in fossil fuels, 33 banks are lending $1.9 trillion to fossil fuels in legacy investments. That’s why we need to deal with the whole system.

“It’s time for companies to make the leap from science-based targets to supporting a science-based policy agenda,” said Weihl. “Companies must be strong advocates for decarbonization based on science (the 1.5-degree scenario) everywhere they operate and everywhere they source.”

Here are key principles Weihl laid out to make action on the climate emergency effective. They must be:

  • Aligned with the latest science (which will change)
  • Rooted in climate justice (young people see the climate emergency as a human rights issue)
  • Politically possible (we have to get it done)
  • Transformational, not incremental (there isn’t time to move slowly)
  • Reasonably certain to hit the IPCC targets in 2030 (or risk losing the ability to stop it)

Why Aren’t We Acting with Urgency?

If we know what we need to do, why aren’t we doing it? Decarbonizing the whole system is hard, Weihl says. In the language of finance, as a business case, taking action now is a no brainer considering the risks and costs of inaction.

“However, climate change is a moral and human problem, so we need to get businesses to speak the language of morality and humanity”, said Weihl.

Companies need to think about youth, who are worried about human rights and are expressing empathy for others and the whole world.

“These young people are companies’ future customers, employees, and eventually, stockholders,” said Weihl. “Silence is not neutrality,” he continued. “Young people want to work for and do business with companies they believe are helping solve the climate crisis—not causing it—so it’s a good business decision to do the right thing now, supporting science-based policies.”

The next decade is crucial to keeping global temperature rise in check, so we need good policy and coordinated action now. Weihl suggested aiming higher than the minimum, as it will be hard to be successful in this great effort.

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Acterra’s mission is to bring people together to create local solutions for a healthy planet.

National Drive Electric Week – Cupertino 2019

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My Chevrolet Bolt EV

National Drive Electric Week is a nine-day celebration of the electric car. Now in its second decade, it grows annually, and spanning two weekends and the days between in the middle of September, offers EV enthusiasts a chance to meet and compare notes as well non-EV drivers a chance to look at, and sometimes even drive, the current crop of plug-ins outside of a dealership environment.

I attended the Cupertino, California event on Saturday, September 14–the first day of NDEW 2019. I brought my Chevrolet Bolt EV, which I’ve enjoyed–and showed–since I got it in January of 2017. With its three-year lease running out on 1/8/2020, it’s likely the last chance I’ll have to share it before switching to another EV next year.

The Cupertino event has a long history, and there is where you can still see some of what EVs used to be–labor-of-love science projects. I’ll talk about a few shortly.

EVs You Can Buy or Lease Now

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Hyundai Kona  Electric

With a bit smaller number of display cars than it was last time I attended, and a thin crowd, it was a little disappointing, but many of today’s pure EV options were there. I saw three Chevrolet Bolt EVs, including my own. A compelling new entry, the Hyundai Kona Electric (shown above), was there, sporting a white top over its jaunty blue-green.

The Kona, with a 258-mile range, is the next-best thing to a Tesla for range, and probably today’s best deal for range. This base model, at about $36,000, sat mere steps away from a 2019 Jaguar i-Pace, which starts about about twice that price. The Jaguar offers great style and luxury, and with 220 miles in the big battery and all-wheel-drive, has its own, different, buyer.

Nissan brought a new LEAF to show, and from its booth awarded prizes throughout the six-hour event. It was the one chance you had to ride in a car. Some NDEW events are more experience-oriented, but this one was more of a show and meet-up.

I saw a BMW i3 down at the far end, and a couple of Tesla Model 3s. Also nearby was a plug-in hybrid Ford Fusion, flanked by two Ford Focus electrics. These EVs, with just 76 miles of range, would make cheap used cars if you wanted a stealth EV.

At the other end was a Chrysler Pacifica plug-in hybrid. It’s actually a significant vehicle, since it’s the only PHEV minivan available in the U.S. Its 33 miles of electric range is plenty for local soccer practice shuttles and commuting. This one sported a little extra flair.

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EVs are not just cars, of course. I saw some electric motorcycles and bicycles there, too, but as I stayed near my car much of the time, I didn’t spend time with them. I have ridden a few, and they are a fine option for some people under particular circumstances (good weather, short trip, no baggage, etc.). I did hear one motorcycle zoom past a few times with its electric whine. I’ve considered getting my motorcycle driver license just so I can test these in the future.

Here’s Roberta Lynn Power with her folding Blix electric bike from Sweden.

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Historic EVs

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EVs have been available in major manufacturers’ showrooms since 2010, when the 2011 Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt came out. But before that, besides the conversion projects, there were few. One model that had two representatives there at the show was the Toyota RAV4. Built just around the turn of the century, it put Toyota ahead of the crowd. Too bad they didn’t keep building them, because the RAV4 is a very popular body style now. You can get a new one as a hybrid today.

A pair of cute little Corbin Sparrows sat together. Not much more than shrouded motorcycles, these little pods would make perfect little errand-runners or last-mile transit connection vehicles.

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The tiny German 1993 City-EL weighs a mere 575 pounds and can shuttle one person for about 40 miles at up to 45 miles per hour. This one is nicknamed “Lemon Wedge.”

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Pioneers, Projects and Conversions

As long as there have been cars there have been tinkerers–people (mostly, but not exclusively, men) who enjoy a tough project. While some folks like to make a classic Mustang faster and louder, others enjoy electrifying an old gasoline car. The man displaying the Jaguar i-Pace had converted a Mazda Miata before.

I spent some quality time with George Stuckert, a retired engineer who also serves as secretary of the San Jose chapter of the Electric Auto Association. This group, a major sponsor of NDEW, was founded way back in 1967. They used to host a Cupertino event that was all project cars. George is glad that you can buy a new EV at a dealership today, but his pride and joy at this event was his 1996 Volkswagen Golf, which he converted ten years ago. It looks like an old Golf, but has a clever pinstriped design with a plug along the side (that I somehow managed to forget to photograph). It’s filled with electronic tech.

George proudly displayed a large card with photos of the project, and showed me his notebooks of carefully documented steps and the book that got him started.

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It was not a smooth process, and included a few spectacular explosions, but he showed the grit and determination that’s what I admire about people willing to get their hands dirty and triumph over failure to ultimate success. The fact that you can buy a used 2015 VW e-Golf that is superior in every way to George’s car is completely missing the point.

In the front corner of the exhibit were two fascinating displays that, along with George’s Golf, gave a look at what a Cupertino Electric Auto Association event was like before the NDEW and mass market EVs. Bob Schneeveis, a local legend, showed off his two-wheeled inventions, including a prototype steam-powered bike.

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Yes–you read that right. Although it’s not quite in the “drive it around the lot” stage, it is a beautiful piece. His electric motorcycle featured a fascinating front fork that made the ride soft and smooth. As a novelty, he had a “chariot” with a horse up front with “legs” made from brushes that capably gave rides to lucky attendees.

I enjoyed an extended conversation with Jerrold Kormin, who brought two displays: his converted Honda Insight and his prototype solar panel trailer. The former, besides swapping its engine for a motor and batteries, had new fiberglass nose and radically changed tail (and just one rear wheel). These design changes, per Kormin, gave the car a 15 percent improvement in its coefficient of drag.

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The car was being charged by Kormin’s fascinating portable solar generator. The inventor’s goal is to replace dirty, noisy Diesel generators. He is renting his prototypes out now. One appeal of replacing Diesel, Kormin told me, was that companies can avoid the major inconvenience of refueling Diesel generators, which adds complexity and expense. He claims customers can save $500 a month in fuel costs with a solar generator working just a 40-hour week. The trailer folds up for easy towing and takes about 5-6 minutes to open up. Learn more at his website.

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I met Joseph, an entrepreneur who was showing his Cirkit electric bike prototype. Looking clean and simple, it reminded me a bit of early minibikes, that you would assemble from a kit and the engine from your lawnmower! Click the link above to go to his website for more information.

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Vendors and Services

EVs need to be charged, which is why you’ll always find a friendly ChargePoint booth at EV shows. ChargePoint is a leader in chargers (I have one in my garage).

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I also met Shane Sansen, the owner of DRIVEN EV. His company works directly with manufacturers to acquire their lease returns and sell or lease them directly to customers. A great idea, and one I’m considering for my next EV. You can learn more at their website.

Besides seeing the vehicles and booths, I had a chance to network with some other folks who are working on EVs and climate action. I met up with my friend Greg Bell, who told me about his exciting new job working with Home Energy Analytics. Offering the Home Intel program, Greg meets with homeowners and shows them how they can reduce their energy consumption and save money. It can be as simple as replacing incandescent bulbs with LED ones, or more. Find out more at their website.

So, having consumed 3-1/2 pints of water and all my snacks, I packed up and drove home. It was a good day.

You can attend an NDEW event in your area through Sunday, September 22. Check their website for details.

California’s Climate Leadership and the Future of Transportation

A Conversation with Annie Notthoff and Max Baumhefner

By Steve Schaefer

On May 14, 2019, two leaders from the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) spoke to Acterra members and guests at The Foster, a gallery in Palo Alto filled with the beautiful paintings of Tony Foster. The topic of Acterra’s final segment of its Spring Lecture Series was the future of transportation in California, the U.S., and the world.

ann-notthoff-300x343Annie Notthoff is the Senior Western Advocacy Director of the NRDC in San Francisco and Sacramento. She has spent her long career working on a broad range of initiatives to promote climate action, public health and environmental protection.

 

 

Max-BaumhefnerMax Baumhefner is a Senior Attorney with the Climate and Clean Energy Program at NRDC, based in San Francisco. His focus is moving our nation’s cars, trucks, and buses to zero emission vehicles and accelerating the transition to a smarter, more affordable electric grid powered by renewable resources.

 

 

The NRDC was founded in 1970 by law students and attorneys at the forefront of the environmental movement. Today’s leadership team and board of trustees make sure the organization continues to work to ensure the rights of all people to clean air, clean water, and healthy communities. And today that also means tackling the climate crisis.

Ms. Notthoff spoke first. She began by mentioning she was a Bay Area native and talked about how California’s size means that standards set here are often adopted by other states, so the state’s impact is magnified. Other nations have adopted California standards, too.

What has made this possible in California is “a combination of political will and the courage to act,” she said. “You need to elect people who will take action on climate. Over the years, these people, being held accountable, have helped raise the percentages of voters who vote for climate issues.”

Notthoff noted California’s 40 years of energy efficiency and air quality standards.

“If the other 49 states followed California’s Star standards, the U.S. would have about 25% less carbon emissions today,” she stated.

In California, the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions comes from transportation—41%, in fact—so moving to 100% renewable energy is essential—and is planned by 2045 in the state.

Notthoff said that that even though many of us know what the problem is, we’re not doing enough fast enough. And with the U.S. government not acting on climate change in the current administration, it falls to the states and cities to make the efforts now. They, along with businesses, will work to meet the United States’ Paris Agreement terms.

Notthoff said climate progress was especially likely in “trifectas,” where the state governor and the legislature agree on climate change urgency and get laws drafted and passed. For example, in Colorado, several new laws have recently passed. And the NRDC is partnered with the Bloomberg Foundation to work with 25 selected U.S. cities on building and transportation measures.

Of course, if we elect a more climate-aware chief executive in 2020, in 2021 we can use what was developed at the “subnational” level to move quickly. If the 25 cities meet their goals, then the U.S. will almost meet its Paris commitments.

Notthoff then turned the microphone over to Max Baumhefner, a tall, slim man with a youthful bush of curly hair. He started out by saying that we know what we need to do to reduce emissions in the transportation sector, but we can’t just order consumers to do things, like you can with the electricity generating companies.

Transportation has now surpassed power generation as the highest source of carbon emissions. He says we need to power everything we can with electricity, and use clean electricity to power our vehicles.

Baumhefner described the “three legs of a stool” needed for success:

  1. Reduce the need to drive – provide other options
  2. Massively improve vehicles
  3. Develop low-carbon fuels

He travels to other states and meets with leaders there to bring what’s working in California to them. One big success in California is SB 350, which as originally written required 50% renewable energy by 2030, mandated that the electricity industry make plans and invest in accelerating the adoption of electric vehicles, and cut petroleum use by half. The oil industry stripped the last section from the bill.

There will be a $1 billion investment in changing the infrastructure, and another $1 billion has been proposed. This kind of action in California is getting attention from other states.

“There are 10 to 20 proceedings in other states now, and the regulatory commissions are glad to see you, and want to learn to do the right thing,” Baumhefner stated, striking a positive note. “But because utilities are not risk takers, sometimes they need a legislative kick in the pants.”

In Oregon, leaders are working on a bill to get utilities to use 50% renewables and to electrify transportation. After three tries, it just got done in Colorado. It’s happening in New Mexico, too.

“This is a tangible example of aspirational leadership,” he said.

Baumhefner mentioned a 1995 program in China for a coal cap, when the NRDC worked with them on reducing emissions. China is serious about electric vehicles, and EVs are now 50% of their market—the largest market in the world.

The speakers then took some questions. One audience member asked about carbon taxes. Baumhefner replied that they were not sufficient to force a market transition, but that could have a “complementary role.” Notthoff added that there wasn’t enough time to get them to work—and that they were divisive—so better to get other policies in place.

A question was asked about phasing out gasoline cars by a certain date. Notthoff said that California’s phase-out bills were stalled in the legislature. Baumhefner said he’d rather see it stated in the affirmative – a certain percentage of EVs by a particular date.

Someone asked about the gas tax and EV user fees. Baumhefner said that because the gas tax hadn’t risen for inflation, it was now too low. He stated that a user fee based on mileage might seem like a solution, but that the gas tax itself was serving as a price on carbon, so there were advantages in keeping it in place. Better, he said, to tweak it and extend it in some way to EVs. High EV fees, like those being considered, are not addressing the real problem, he added.

Continuing on EVs, a question was asked about setting up a “cash for clunkers” type of program for gas-powered vehicles. There are swap and replace programs giving up to $9,000 for old cars in some places, Baumhefner said. He supports finding ways to get EVs into the hands of more Californians, “not just some ZIP codes.”

It was a valuable hour of learning about how California leads the nation, the valuable work the NRDC is doing, and what we can do to contribute.

Acterra’s mission is to bring people together to create local solutions for a healthy planet.

The Great Pivot, by Justine Burt

A book review by Steve Schaefer

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There are many books, videos, and news stories out on global warming and climate change. Some are filled with scary predictions and are good at shocking us into action. But the best kind are the ones that try to paint a picture of ways we can take action to make a difference. The Great Pivot is one of the latter category.

The current carbon-based business model is becoming unsustainable. So, dealing with the huge tasks before us means not only deciding what to do but who’s going to do it. The Green New Deal, which is the subject of the last chapter (and is throughout the book in spirit) says that people want and need meaningful work. So why not get two for one?

That’s what the 30 pivots in The Great Pivot are meant to do. Burt’s carefully developed ideas show how we can scale up efforts to build a sustainable future. This means both creating meaningful jobs for workers and generating more sustainability project opportunities for investors.

Burt begins by addressing the employment situation today. The low official percentages don’t reflect the 37 million people ages 25-64 who are out of the labor force. With outsourcing, automation, and the gig economy, it’s tough out there. Today, the middle class is disrupted by changes in the work place and rising costs, and wages have been stagnant. We can rebuild the economic safety net with new sustainability jobs.

The author proposes five categories for job creation and devotes an entire chapter to each. They all have the goal of stabilizing the climate:

  • Advanced energy communities
  • Low-carbon mobility systems
  • A circular economy
  • Reduced food waste
  • A healthy natural world

Starting with Zero Net Energy, the first few pivots involve electrifying single-family homes and then spreading to multi-unit dwellings and commercial spaces. Existing technology can make all spaces more pleasant and energy efficient.

Twenty-eight percent of our greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation, and Burt spends significant time discussing low carbon mobility. Besides moving to electric cars, we also need to develop clean mass transit, safe bicycling options, walkable communities, mobility-as-a service options, and build out the EV charging infrastructure. All of these are pivots that require people to do them.

The circular economy is a worthy goal to get us to our goal of climate stability. Instead of the current take-make-waste economy, a circular economy reuses and recycles. There are many jobs in waste prevention and building deconstruction (instead of demolition). How about a tool lending library combined with a repair café and maker space to reuse things rather than replace them?

It’s pathetic that 40 percent of food grown and raised in the U.S. is thrown out, for various reasons. Wasted food has a large impact on the climate. Jobs to prevent, recover, or recycle food waste make for excellent pivots. Many of these jobs do not require higher education—just training—so they would be available to many people who need meaningful work and steady pay.

Restoring nature is a valuable and meaningful form of employment that would help the planet recover. Ways of sequestering more carbon in the soil can improve agricultural yields while reducing carbon in the atmosphere. There is good work in restoring forests, waterways, and wildlife. How about creating furniture or other useful items from drought-stressed trees? Then we could leave healthy trees in place to do their job of pulling carbon out of the atmosphere.

Besides these actions, we can start looking at the economy differently. We need to disrupt business as usual. For example, we should decouple growth from the traditional measurement of using gross domestic product (GDP). Burt proposes four goals:

  • Shift from fossil fuels to renewables
  • Create a circular flow of materials
  • Dematerialize by shifting to digital products and services
  • Radically reduce waste

It’s fine to get people working, but investors can make a big impact too, by funding the projects we need as part of the overall process of transforming our economy. Burt discusses bootstrapping, crowdfunding, direct public offerings, private equity, and other ways to get investors involved in the right way.

The book ends by discussing meaningful work and relating it to the goals of the Green New Deal, including leaving no person behind. We have many ways to move forward, and the 30 pivots are a great place to start. We need to do it now.

 

The Great Pivot by Justine Burt

MP Publishing, 2019