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.

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.

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.

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.

On This Spaceship Earth, We Are All Crew

By Steve Schaefer

blue marble

A week ago, Tim Rumage, a planetary ethicist and naturalist and co-founder of This Spaceship Earth, spoke to an attentive online audience from Climate Reality Bay Area Chapter about Climate Change and how we are all complicit in it. He made a point of stressing that it’s not just our actions, but our thinking that has gotten us into trouble.

“We don’t think about the effects of what we do,” Rumage started with. He used an example of how during our current pandemic, the air has gotten significantly cleaner, not from the actions (or lack of actions) of any one person or country’s part, but by all of us. “The damage is cumulative–all of us,” he stated.

“We need to think in terms of how the planet functions, not just me, city, country,” he said. The name of his organization, This Spaceship Earth, comes from the fact that the Earth, as far as we know, is the only place where human life exists, and we are an island, with limited resources. We are all responsible for taking care of it, making us all “crew” and not “passengers.”

Rumage talked about how in earlier times, people thought of the Earth as a vast, unlimited place and if you ran out, you just moved on. We need to make the mental adjustments–political and psychological–from thinking of the world as unlimited to instead to envisioning it as a closed sphere.

TSE-crew-Tim

Rumage says we confuse “exchangeable” with “interchangeble.” The products we make are not equivalent to the natural versions, from our food to our fuels to everything else. We are also out of balance, using up more resources than can be replenished. Earth Overshoot Day, which falls on August 22nd this year, “marks the date when humanity’s demand for ecological resources and services in a given year exceeds what Earth can regenerate in that year,” according to the Earth Overshoot Day website.

That’s certainly not a good long-term strategy for survival.

Continuing with the theme of our thinking being the problem, Rumage said that we suffer from siloed thinking–not looking at the big picture. “We have a mental disconnect with our life support system,” he said. “We are a part of the environment and not apart from it.”

It’s well worth visiting the website to learn more about Tim Rumage and his team, and to find out how you can develop “crew consciousness” on This Spaceship Earth. And you’re welcome to join the Bay Area Climate Reality Chapter. It’s based on Al Gore’s environmental message and training–but you don’t need to be trained yet to be a member, and it doesn’t cost anything. If you want to take the first worldwide Climate Reality Leadership Online Training, it’s coming up starting on July 18th.

An old 1960’s slogan was, “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” Today, you need to be a crew member, not a passenger. 

 

 

A Gift of Clean Air: Let’s Move to EVs in the Post-COVID-19 World

HImalayas

The Himalayas are visible in India for the first time in 30 years.

I have spent the last seven weeks working from home—sheltering in place to avoid catching or spreading COVID-19.

As I’ve stayed home, the world has suffered greatly, and people have gotten sick and died. That’s very upsetting. But one thing has improved substantially–air quality. From a sparklingly clear Los Angeles to India, where the Himalayas are visible for the first time in 30 years (see above), it’s been an exciting peek at what we can do if we set our minds to it. We need to get through this crisis now, but for the future, we must reduce our CO2 levels significantly–by 50 percent in the next 10 years and be carbon neutral by 2050. EVs and sustainably-generated power are a big part of that solution.

With that in mind, 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.

On April 20th, I published my last two reviews of cars with gasoline engines in them, in Clean Fleet Report. Please go there for the details on the Lexus RX 450hL hybrid crossover and the Hyundai Ioniq plug-in hybrid sedan. Both nice–neither full electric.

As I mentioned in that story, I believe that in the post-COVID-19 world, we will need to continue to find alternatives to driving and cleaner ways to move around. Public transit will likely take a while to feel safe again, especially before a COVID-19 vaccine is found and administered. More people may discover they like working at home, and their companies may find it’s a good arrangement for them, too. Carsharing and ridesharing services will rebound when they seem safe, too. In cities, we need more bicycle-friendly roads and infrastructure. And as automakers bring out more pure EVs and the charging infrastructure is built out, we must move away from hybrids and PHEVs entirely–maybe even from cars themselves.

Although I will be testing, reviewing, and writing about only all-electric cars, there are still many hybrid and plug-in hybrid vehicles that are better for the environment than gasoline-only vehicles. If an EV won’t work for you (and they don’t yet, for everyone), please consider them over a gas-only vehicle. But if you can drive an EV–do it!

Let’s keep those skies blue.

In 2020, Every Day Is Earth Day

By Steve Schaefer

Earth-Day-lowres

Today is the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day. I’ve been hearing about it for months, and, like most people, was preparing to go out and celebrate. With our current COVID-19-induced state of social distancing and staying at home, much of the festivity has moved online, but still, I’m not that excited.

You’d expect that as a trained Climate Reality Leader who spent three inspiring days in Los Angeles with Al Gore in August of 2018, I’d be thrilled at this milestone. But it’s not that I don’t care. It’s just that in 2020, every day has to be Earth Day. And what’s really a shame is that if we had taken what we learned on April 22, 1970 and done more together to fix the problem in the 20th century, we wouldn’t be in the dilemma we are in today.

I was around for the first Earth Day. As a high school senior, I was a little aware of issues like smog in LA and rivers in Ohio that were catching fire. My teachers made sure I read Silent Spring, or at least knew who Rachel Carson was and what she was talking about.

The sixties were a decade of protest, starting with civil rights marches in the south and later in the decade, many young people protested the Vietnam war with huge marches and peaceful demonstrations.

What many people may not know today is that Earth Day was conceived as a giant “teach-in,” where on college campuses across the country, students and other interested people would learn about what was then called “ecology”—the beginning of the climate action movement. We were worried about air and water pollution, and the effects of DDT. We read about the overpopulation problem. We read about powerful oil and coal companies ruining the natural environment. We were worried about the loss of species.

I heard about Earth Day at school, and I recall someone handing out black armbands to wear. I also remember my shame when the mean tough kid made me take mine off in my conservative Scottsdale, Arizona high school. I moved back to California a month later.

What came from this “Woodstock” of climate events was a need and desire in many people—including me — to start caring for the Earth. Earth Day focused attention on our environmental predicament. Many of the climate organizations we know today come out of that time.

Last year, I read The Genius of Earth Day: How a 1970 Teach-In Unexpectedly Made the First Green Generation, by Adam Rome (on my Kindle app, of course). Read it and you’ll learn a lot about how this unprecedented event, starting with a great idea from Wisconsin Senator and environmentalist Gaylord Nelson, expanded without a central blueprint to flower in many different ways in thousands of locations.

Commemorating the start of something is worthwhile, I guess. We celebrate the birth of the United States on the Fourth of July—Independence Day. We celebrate our birthdays and our wedding anniversaries. We commemorate sad things, too, like the death of a hero or events like September 11, 2001 or Pearl Harbor.

But in the case of Earth Day, we have to think, “Has it been 50 years already?” We are so behind now that we can’t just commemorate a holiday, buy a cool t-shirt, and move on. We have to be working on climate action every single day—we don’t have time to waste. If we truly take action, then maybe on the 60th Anniversary of Earth Day, if we’ve dropped our CO2 emissions by 50%, updated our electrical grid and EV charging network, taken natural gas out of many of our homes and buildings (especially all new ones), and done lots of other things to clean up our act, then we can raise a glass and toast the event. And then the next day, get back to work!

Happy Earth Day.

Experiences of Nature: Origins of My Climate Concerns

By Steve Schaefer

Tuolumne Meadows

Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite

Where did my concern about climate change come from? As a Climate Reality Leader, I need to know and share my reasons for taking action.

I initially thought that my awareness started with the first Earth Day, on April 22, 1970, near the end of my senior year of high school. However, with more thought, I realized that I didn’t really do much on Earth Day. I wore a black armband, which someone distributed, and, to my shame, removed it when threatened by a bully.

It was really in the 1970’s that the events and resources that grew out of that first teach-in awoke my planetary conscience. I learned about recycling and witnessed smog in San Francisco firsthand. I sat in shock and wonder on a rock in the center of San Francisco and viewed and assessed the massive layer of civilization that spread across everything except the distant hills and Mount Diablo.

Corona_Heights_Park_View

View from Corona Heights in San Francisco

I heard about Silent Spring (I think I read it but can’t remember now) and The Population Bomb and saw TV reports of rivers that caught fire in Ohio. I tried natural foods and made recipes using my copy of Frances Moore Lappe’s Diet for a Small Planet. I hugged trees and took long walks in Golden Gate Park (green, but not a wilderness).

Thinking about it, though, I wondered where my emotional start really came from. I thought about my encounters with nature as a child and a teenager, where I felt how human civilization was imposed on the planet, and how we were no longer living “naturally.”

In my first six years in Kenmore, a suburb of Buffalo, New York, I went to the park and saw trees and flowers in people’s yards, but I didn’t feel much connection to them. They were nice. I remember the tall trees I walked under on the way to my first-grade class in 1959, and the little flying seeds that fluttered down. I liked my grandparents’ grassy back yard, with the trees and flowers that grew there. I was more interested in my father’s sports cars.

shiprock

Then, we moved to Shiprock, New Mexico in 1960, in the middle of the school year. We plopped down in the desert, in a small town on the Navajo reservation. My father, a dentist, had joined the Public Health Service for an adventure and took my mother, my brothers, and me along.

It was very different from Buffalo. We lived in a small, one-story government-provided box, next to the new hospital where my dad looked after the Navajo people’s teeth. Our yard was dirt when we moved in and became an inappropriate lawn later; the surroundings were high desert. It was flat, and the famous landmark, the Shiprock, was visible through our front window.

Although we transplanted our suburban sensibilities there, with an air conditioner, Kool Aid, roller skates, and, eventually TV, we sometimes took trips in our car out into the desert and hiked around in our jeans, boots, and cowboy hats. We even had a horse for a while. I saw cactus, dry washes, hills, distant mountains, and desert wildlife, such as prairie dogs. And I heard silence.

Although I was just a kid, I remember the vastness, and the sense that we were a part of, but living apart from, the sand, rocks, and hardy desert vegetation. I don’t know how we would live out there without our modern conveniences, but apparently someone could.

Hogan

Hogan – from 1962 – when I was there!

We occasionally saw a traditional Hogan—a home made from wood and mud that the native people lived in before we rounded them up and put them in government housing. Some of the Navajos, including my friend Chester, lived across the street in Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) apartments that were not as nice as our very modest home. We didn’t study it in school, but I had a vague notion that people like the Navajos had once lived on the land. It wasn’t until I read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and took a Native American Anthropology class in college that I understood what had really happened.

In any case, within our hermetically-sealed house with its single window-mounted air conditioner we were protected from the heat, wind and dust—and bitter winter cold. There were also spectacular storms, with powerful lightning and thunder, and dramatic clouds and sunsets. It wasn’t much like Buffalo at all.

I grew carrots in the side yard of our house. I remember impatiently pulling them up when they were small, and they tasted great.

After two-and-a-half years in Shiprock, we were transferred back to civilization—Staten Island, New York. It was like Kenmore again, with streets, stores, buses, noise, and all the rest. I fell right back into the Midcentury American lifestyle, collecting baseball cards and picking up returnable glass bottles from the side of the road to claim deposit money at the corner store, where I bought gum.

We moved to Connecticut and lived there for two years. My main experiences of nature there were poison ivy (I went marching obliviously through the woods behind my house) and snow, in which I delivered the morning newspaper for one winter. I also enjoyed the beach in the summertime, but it was mostly the adjacent pool, tasty popcorn and candy, and amusement park rides that attracted me, not the sand or the waters of the Long Island Sound.

We were lucky to move to California in 1965, just after I turned 12. My next real experiences of nature came from joining the Boy Scouts in 1966. As a member of Troop 162, I got to camp and hike in the beautiful state and national parks. We had occasional weekend camp-outs, but the big thing was our annual summer camp. A few dads would drive us up to the woods and we would occupy a campground with members of other scout troops, doing crafts and sports, being gross, and taking day hikes. In the second year I went, I was selected to take a weeklong hiking and camping trip with a small group far away from camp and out in the open spaces.

It was a memorable adventure. We loaded up our packs with food and hiked 10 miles out. We camped that first night, and resumed our trip the next day, hiking another 10 miles and eventually arriving at a beautiful meadow. We lived there for four days, doing our own cooking and not seeing a single road, car, TV, or sign of modern life. I have photos of it somewhere.

We lived on our Bernard’s freeze-dried rations, canned meat, and pilot biscuits. We cooked over campfires and earned merit badges. The sky was black at night, and I could see why they called it the “Milky Way,” as countless stars spread across the darkness as we lay in our sleeping bags. That summer, there were abundant meteor showers, too, adding to the thrill.

Milky Way

On the last day, packs empty, we hiked the entire 20 miles back to camp, arriving tired but strong and healthy. As a suburban kid who stayed inside reading and listening to the radio, I had never done this before, and I felt powerful.

After a few days hanging around camp, we drove back to my suburban home in Concord. I stared at the linoleum and glass and plastic in my house. I felt the difference between the natural world and the artificial one that was “natural” to me. I knew something was out of whack.

Since then, I have lived in cities and in suburbs, and taken a hike or two. I have also read a lot and watched the gap between the natural world and the growing human construction grow. Now, billions of human beings and the civilization we’ve developed are changing the earth. Because most of us don’t feel a real connection to nature, we can blithely continue in our daily lives without giving it much thought. But we have to act if we want it to last.

I am taking action because I remember the desert of New Mexico and the California wilderness, and I want an inhabitable planet for my grandchildren.

Clay Collier Talks Smart Charging at VERGE 19

By Steve Schaefer

claycollierweb

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.

figure-1-caiso-screen-shot-2018-05-07-at-4-08-21-pm

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.

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

Bill Weihl Speaks on the Climate Emergency

By Steve Schaefer

Bill+Weihl+cropped+headshot+August+2018

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.