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.

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.